BOULDER - Is it just me, or is it brighter in here? Welcome to your new digs, Buffaloes. All is not quiet on the Western Front; a celebration is in progress. Join me in a nostalgic wave goodbye to Ames, Manhattan, Lawrence, Lincoln...Offer up an enthusiastic high-five to Seattle, Tucson, Tempe, L.A. and all stops West.
As in real estate, conference affiliation is all about location, location, location. Ties with the Midwest have been memorable and gratifying, but for the Buffs over the long haul, the West is best.
And today, the shift becomes official: The Pac-10 Conference morphs into the Pac-12, welcoming the Universities of Colorado and Utah; kudos to forward-thinking Commissioner Larry Scott (and the CU administration) for recognizing tomorrow and delivering it today.
The Utes, leaving the Mountain West Conference, were scheduled to begin competition in 2011 from the outset; the Buffs, exiting the Big 12, got (read: paid for) an early release from their former league and are eager to make fine first impressions in the Pac-12.
Circle Sept. 13 on your calendars. CU's first Pac-12 competition comes on that date when Liz Kritza's volleyball team plays Utah at the Coors Events Center. Ironically, the football Buffs close their first Pac-12 season in Salt Lake City on Nov. 25, with Utah replacing Nebraska as CU's traditional day-after-Thanksgiving opponent and (possibly) its conference rival.
At least that's the early thinking; a heated history between the neighboring states already is in place. But I'm not sure that equally intense football matchups won't develop as time in the Pac-12 passes and shots are exchanged in the South Division. (To recap: Southern California, UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and CU comprise the South; Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford and California make up the North.)
You don't leave a 15-year conference affiliation without at least a fleeting look back. Loads of memories - good ones, not-so-good ones, sometimes even harrowing ones (driving on icy roads, rough flights, tornados) - were compiled during thousands of miles of football/basketball travel through the Heartland. But all in all, the trip was good. As a staffer for the late Rocky Mountain News, I was there for the Big 12's birth and never imagined the league - although it wheezed and shuddered for a while last spring - would outlive the newspaper.
But that's a tale for another time, and today's focus is forward and directed toward the other side, the (mostly) sunny side, of the Rockies. Tracking the Buffs for almost three decades has been one of the wildest rides imaginable, but I can foresee Year 1 in the Pac-12 and the years that follow reaching an entertainment level that might be unprecedented.
Will there be growing pains, new membership pains, for the Buffs? Of course...and they'll be physical as well as fiscal - the former experienced by CU's teams as they acclimate to new travel procedures/destinations and varied styles of play in the Pac-12, the latter felt sharply until revenue from the conference's very $weet TV package arrives in 2013.
The wait will be worth it. CU received a serious overture from the Pac-10 in the mid-90s, but elected to stay with the Big 12 in its infancy. For all the reasons previously cited here and elsewhere - better fits academically and athletically, playing before more alumni, etc. - a second invitation to head West couldn't be dismissed.
With an eye to the near future, here are 20 Pac-12 storylines I'm anxious to see develop:
- How long will it take for a Buffs-Utes football rivalry to percolate? With Utah and Colorado sharing borders and a previous athletic history, the Pac-12 figured its two newest members could immediately rekindle that rivalry. It never went away in skiing, but in football it might take awhile. The Utes are prospering under seventh-year coach Kyle Whittingham (58-20), while the Buffs have some retooling to do under first-year coach Jon Embree.
- Will the conference's on-campus championship football game format work to everyone's (or almost everyone's) satisfaction? The game will be played on Dec. 2 (1:30 p.m. MST, Fox) on the home field of the qualifying team (North-South) with the best record. The early favorites? Read on...
- How long will it take for Utah to assert itself in football in the South Division? The early guess here: Not very long. In fact, the inaugural Pac-12 championship game looks to be a good fit in Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Or in Oregon's Autzen Stadium, or Stanford Stadium.)
- Can a former Utah player help the CU men's basketball team rediscover its offense? That's the hope for talented transfer Carlon Brown, who sat out the 2010-11 season. Utah has been historically strong in men's basketball, and is trying to revive that pedigree with the April hiring of Larry Krystkowiak. The Utes women's team also has a new coach: Anthony Levrets' interim title was removed in late March.
- How well do Oregon and Coach Chip Kelly encore from a 2010 season that saw them play for the BCS National Championship? The Ducks were out-uglied by Auburn, 22-19. FYI: Oregon is CU's 2011 Homecoming opponent on Oct. 22.
- How do the speedy Ducks and Kelly respond to a spring that saw cornerback Cliff Harris, ah, show more speed than intended (118 mph in a 65 zone)? Then there's the puzzling episode involving the Ducks and recruiting enabler Willie Lyles.
- Is this a be-good or be-gone season for Rick Neuheisel? UCLA football hasn't taken off in three seasons under the former CU coach, making his fourth year pivotal and perhaps underlining the Buffs' Nov. 19th trip to Pasadena. The well-traveled Neuheisel's three-year record at his alma mater: 15-22.
- Pay attention to these other CU-UCLA subplots: In addition to Neuheisel and his Buffs background, there are the Embree/Eric Bieniemy ties to UCLA (both are former Bruins assistants). And Embree's son, Taylor, is entering his final season of eligibility as a receiver for the Bruins. Then there are the pair of Buffs transfers - center Kai Maiava, receiver Josh Smith - who enter their final seasons for the Bruins.
- Can Arizona football keep improving under Mike Stoops? The Wildcats have gone 15-11 the past two seasons under Stoops, who lost two assistants (Greg Brown, Mike Tuiasosopo) to CU's football program in the off season. Stoops then added former Buffs safety Ryan Walters to his staff to replace Brown as secondary coach.
- In what direction are USC football and Lane Kiffin headed? The Trojans went 8-5 in 2010 in Kiffin's return to Troy but are still doing janitorial work in the aftermath of the Pete Carroll regime and the NCAA's visit. USC visits Folsom Field on Friday night, Nov. 4 (7 p.m.).
- Can CU atone for last season's 52-7 football loss in Berkeley when Cal makes a non-conference (that's correct) visit to Folsom Field on Sept. 10? Were the better overall barometers Cal's pair of postseason basketball trips to Boulder? In March, the CU men's and women's basketball teams also got glimpses of their Cal counterparts, with both Buffs teams winning (women, 81-65; men, 89-72) in NIT games.
- Cal's 2011 football coaching staff will include a pair of former Buffs coaches - Eric Kiesau and Ashley Ambrose - while the new CU staff includes former Bears assistant Steve Marshall. Cal's trip to Boulder will not count in the Pac-12 standings because it would give both schools an irregular number of conference games.
- Will Stanford QB Andrew Luck win the Heisman Trophy? He's arguably the best in the nation at his position and the early frontrunner. CU sees him on Oct. 8 in Palo Alto, and by then the Buffs' rebuilt secondary has best be up to speed.
- Can the Cardinal succeed without Coach Jim Harbaugh, whose rebuilding job at Stanford produced a 12-1 record (29-21 overall) and No. 4 national ranking in 2010? Rather large shoes for Harbaugh's former offensive coordinator, David Shaw, to step into. Harbaugh split for the NFL but stayed in the neighborhood (San Francisco).
- Buffs fans should take this for what it's worth: By comparison with its former Pac-10 members, Oregon State's athletic history doesn't shine as brightly. The Beavers shared the Pac-10 football title in 1964 and 2000, but never won the conference outright. They've made three Rose Bowl appearances, the most recent in 1965. In men's basketball, OSU last shared a conference title in 1989-90 with Arizona, and has never won a conference championship in women's hoops. The CU men split games with OSU over the past two seasons. Just a thought: The Buffs should circle the dates of all upcoming events against the Beavers.
- Washington State has won five football games in three seasons under Paul Wulff (5-32 overall, 2-25 Pac-10). Wazoo visits Boulder on Oct. 1, marking CU's first official Pac-12 football contest. Big, big game for a number of very obvious reasons. Start with this one: Do the Buffs slip into their new conference in the upper, middle or lower regions? Beating the Cougars is pretty much mandatory.
- Who will challenge Arizona, which lost 65-63 in the West Regional championship game to eventual NCAA champ Connecticut, in men's hoops? Best bets are UCLA and Washington. But the Wildcats, 30-9 last season, will be loaded - again. The Wildcats won 12 Pac-10 regular-season titles and four Pac-10 tournaments.
- Who will challenge Stanford in women's hoops? The Cardinal lost 63-62 to eventual NCAA champ Texas A&M in the Final Four. UCLA's women's team has made the NCAA Tournament in each of the past two seasons. CU has a history with Stanford, plus Linda Lappe's second Buffs team figures to be more competitive and a more comfortable fit in the new league.
- Pretty much on all fronts, Stanford will be a tough draw for CU. In football, the Cardinal has Luck (Andrew) and a stellar supporting cast on its side. Tara VanDerveer's Stanford women's hoops team won the Pac-10 hoops title last season and has been perennial contenders in their conference as well as nationally (two NCAA titles). CU should hold its own against the Stanford men, who finished eighth in the league last season. Of Stanford's 101 NCAA team championships, 43 have been won in cross country, track/field, women's tennis, men's golf and women's volleyball - all sports in which CU fields teams.
- How will CU hold up in non-revenue (Olympic) sports in a conference that's arguably the strongest nationally in those areas? Consider: Of the Pac-10's unprecedented 400 national team championships, 142 of them have been won in the 11 non-revenue sports in which the Buffs field teams. Example: Pac-10 teams have won 19 national team titles in men's/women's cross country and 51 in men's/women's outdoor track and field. Then there are the 28 national team championships in men's/women's golf, the 19 in women's tennis, the 13 in women's volleyball. A final FYI: The Pac-10 won 48 national titles in men's/women's water polo - a club sport in Boulder.
With the Pac-12 finally an entity and CU's membership now official, there's a good news/better news scenario in Boulder. The good news: The bar just got higher for the Buffs in virtually everything athletically and academically. The better news: Don't count on it being lowered anytime soon.
Go West, Buffs. It's time. Finally.