Pac-12 North: Packed with Contenders in 2014
The upper Left Coast looks loaded in 2014.
Conventional wisdom is to expect another race between Oregon and Stanford for the Pac-12 North title, but Washington and Oregon State are poised to mount a serious challenge for a shot at a trip to the Rose Bowl or beyond.
Stanford took the honors last season by virtue of a 26-20 victory over the Ducks and went on to win the Pac12 title with a 38-14 win over Arizona State. It was a reprise of 2012, when the Cardinal ruined the Ducks' season, beating them 17-14 in overtime and then defeating UCLA for the championship.
Kevin Hogan returns at quarterback for Stanford, and the Cardinal will need his experience and good health. The North schedule is a true gauntlet this season, and to keep the pressure off Hogan, Barry Sanders Jr had best play like a chip off the old block.
Oregon returns quarterback Marcus Mariota, but De'Anthony Thomas has moved on and will be hard to replace. The Ducks have been close to returning to the National Championship game for the past two seasons and have added more bulk to complement their speed. Many feel the Quack Attack wasn't physical enough to get the job done in the past. It's time to find out.
Oregon State returns quarterback Sean Mannion as the Beavers hope to improve on their 7-6 2013 season. The crew from Corvallis got off to a 6-1 start before the season caved in, but the Beavers did rebound to defeat Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl. This is Mike Riley's sort of year, as the coach's reputation for doing more with less makes the Beavers a dangerous under-the-rader squad in 2014.
The shadow of Don James had proven to be too much for those who came to Washington after him, including career Husky Jim Lambright, Rick Neuheisel, Ty Willingham, and Steve Sarkisian. Now, Husky Nation believes it finally has a James clone in Chris Peterson. Not only did he take the job, he truly endeared himself to the faithful by spurning USC in the process. Ironically, the much-maligned Sarkisian left a well-stocked roster for Petersen. Washington fans believe his attention to detail will get more from it than Sark could ever hope to do.
Mike Leach is hoping that Washington State can continue improving. The Cougars went from 3-9 to 6-7, which included a tough 48-45 New Mexico Bowl loss to Colorado State that showed the initiated what it means to Coug It:
Connor Halliday returns at quarterback and with many receivers returning, the Cougars have a chance to score points in waves this season. Wazzu needs him healthier than he's been in the past, as the two QBs behind him on the depth chart have transferred. Only walk-on Lucas Falk remains.
And then there's California. The Golden Bears got their stadium renovation package under Jeff Tedford's reign, but he became expendable afterward, as he lost his touch on the field and the university couldn't afford to lose disgruntled boosters. 2013 was a painful transition, as the CalBears plummeted to 1-11 in Sonny Dykes' inaugural season. The program has nowhere to go but up and is looking -- OK, praying -- for quarteback Jared Goff to get them near the break-even mark.
With its nine-game conference schedule and only a projected cupcake-and-a-half -- Cal and Colorado -- among its ranks, the Pac-12 figures to test the integrity of college football's new playoff system criteria. No one believes it's realistic for a Pac-12 team to go undefeated, given its all-around strength. In fact, a champion with two losses is more probable, and the Northern survivor might be quite pleased with that.