The start of the football season means two-a-days, early wake-up calls and - at least in Tucson - tangles with searing heat and monsoon rains.

Arizona Wildcats coach Mike Stoops thinks it's the most wonderful time of the year.

"It's like a kid opening a Christmas present when you start," Stoops said. "This will be a different team than even the one we left in the spring. I'm anxious to see what we've got when we get back."

So are we. As Stoops and senior quarterback Nick Foles head to Los Angeles for the first-ever Pac-12 Conference media day, here are four things to be excited about:

• The 12. The conference formerly known as the Pac-10 will have a new look this year. Colorado and Utah are in, joining the "conference of champions" after stints in the Big 12 and Mountain West, respectively. The league's round-robin schedule has been mothballed in favor of divisions and the first-ever Pac-12 Championship Game.

Cal, Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington and Washington State make up the North Division, while the UA, ASU, USC, UCLA and the two newcomers comprise the South.

Linebacker Paul Vassallo said the new dynamic will require an adjustment.

"It was kind of nice to know in the Pac-10 where you stood. You played everybody, and you knew that if you beat them, you were the top dog," he said. "It's a different dynamic this year, but I think it brings a lot of excitement. You understand you can be 7-4 or 8-3 and go to the championship and still have a shot to go to the Rose Bowl."

• Top passers. The Pac-12 will retain the old conference's legacy of producing star quarterbacks.

Stanford's Andrew Luck turned down a No. 1 overall selection in the NFL draft to return to school, and he will be a favorite to win a Heisman Trophy. USC's Matt Barkley and Foles, the UA's returning captain, figure to be among the Pac-12 leaders in passing yardage, and Oregon's Darron Thomas will continue to run the Ducks' famed "blur" offense.

Even the conference's bottom feeders can throw the ball: Washington State's Jeff Tuel passed for 2,780 yards in 2010 - just 11 fewer yards than Barkley - and Oregon State's Ryan Katz may have been the league's most pleasant surprise.

• A (temporary) end to the drama. As the 2011 season dawns, the conference's powerhouses remain mired in off-the-field issues. Oregon is being investigated by the NCAA for its connection to a Texas recruiting service provider, and USC - which cannot compete in the postseason for the second consecutive year - recently suspended running back Marc Tyler for suggesting to TMZ that the Trojans players are getting paid.

The issues aren't limited to the big boys: Arizona receiver Juron Criner missed a scheduled trip to ESPN's headquarters in June, citing personal and family issues, and Arizona State has dealt with defections and criticisms of coach Dennis Erickson. UCLA, meanwhile, will pay Norm Chow $500,000 this year - to call plays for Utah.

Maybe the news will die down when the teams actually, you know, start playing games.

• The rhythm. Face it, there's something exciting about the rhythms of a college football season - the first practice, the opening kickoff of the first game of the season, the compelling nonconference matchups and the start of conference play.

The Wildcats will open their season Sept. 3 against Northern Arizona; for Stoops, it'll be even better than Christmas.

"Summer's fun for a while, but it's nice to get back on a schedule," Stoops said. "Even though (the season) is intense and long and pressurized, it's what you want to do. We all get to the point where we want to go back and do what we do."

Ryan Finley's Pac-12 preseason poll

North Division

1. Oregon

2. Stanford

3. Washington

4. Oregon State

5. Cal

6. Washington State

South Division

1. USC

2. Arizona State

3. Arizona


5. Utah

6. Colorado

NOTE: USC is facing NCAA sanctions and is ineligible for the postseason.

Pac-12 Championship Game

Oregon over Arizona State

Up next

• Aug. 4: First day of camp

• Sept. 3: NAU at Arizona