Pac-12 Preview: Rough Road for the Favorites
It's too bad that Stanford and Oregon are both in the Pac-12 North division; because, lately, they can easily claim the top two spots in the entire conference.
The Cardinal and the Ducks were 12-2 and 12-1, respectively, last year. Stanford pulled off the upset against Oregon late in the season and not only went on to win the league title, but the Rose Bowl, as well. Oregon's hopes and dreams to play for the BCS championship were crushed due to that loss, leaving them to 'settle' for the Fiesta Bowl, where they handled Kansas State 35-17.
Stanford returns quarterback Devin Hogan, who hopes to have a healthy Ty Montgomery as a target after he missed considerable time last year due to injuries. The Cardinal defense is expected to improve, especially with all three starting linebackers returning.
As everyone knows, Oregon lost their high octane head coach, Chip Kelly, to the NFL. Looking on the bright side, though, returning for 2014 are quarterback Marcus Mariota, running back De'Anthony Thomas, and tight end Colt Lyerla. These key offensive players should help new coach Mark Helfrich transition seamlessly from his offensive coordinator's role and help the Quack Attack find its way back to college football’s center stage.
The Ducks have 7 November circled on the schedule, which is when they travel to Stanford with revenge on their minds. No doubt the Cardinals relish the opportunity to again display their atypical -- for the West Coast, anyway -- smash-mouth brand of football against the Pac-12 'glamor' program, so the Ducks might not be the only ones with that date circled!
UCLA and USC are the top teams in the South Division, with the Bruins a slight favorite to defend their title going in.
UCLA defeated USC 38-28 last year and has its star quarterback, Brett Hundley, returning for his junior year. Hundley expects to get UCLA back to the league championship game for a third consecutive year, but USC may not be their main challenger this time around.
The Trojans must replace quarterback Matt Barkley, who was seemingly there forever. Coach Lane Kiffin believes the effort Max Wittek has put forth has been good enough to win the starting position, so that's who will be taking the snaps come 29 August when their schedule kicks off against Hawaii. Marquise Lee is back at wide receiver, and he makes any quarterbacks' job that much easier.
Washington and Oregon State can beat anyone any given Saturday. The Huskies have been inconsistent under coach Steve Sarkisian, but with the return of senior quarterback Keith Price behind a finally-healthy offensive line and a top corps of fleet receivers, the odds favor them finishing better than their past two records going into 2013. Coming off of a 7-6 season, Washington's defense has had a full cycle with hotshot defensive coordinator Josh Wilcox and feels they can sufficiently stop anyone, including Stanford and Oregon. Considering they did stop Stanford last year, they may have a point.
Oregon State was 6-0 last season before losing to Washington 20-17, resulting in their only winning three of their last seven games. The Beavers have an experienced offense but will have to find a way to improve on defense to move up in the standings. However, Mike Riley has a reputation of getting more out of his players than anyone expects, and he's confident he has the talent to make this a special season.
Arizona and Arizona State look to be explosive whenever they have the ball, but both teams will have to find a way to strengthen their defense. While the Wildcats strike quickly from the air, the Sun Devils' ground game has been nothing short of impressive. Rich Rodriguez and Todd Graham are entering their second seasons as high-profile head coaches who quickly made an impact at their new schools, with both earning bowl victories to end their seasons.
The last four teams in the league are in need of improvement and might have some trouble moving up the standings.
California was 3-9 last year and has a new coach in Sonny Dykes. The Bears are thin at quarterback, as is Washington State, who actually has a rail-think quarterback in Connor Halliday. Coach Mike Leach has 17 returning freshman to work with, and beating the Huskies, 31-28, in the Apple Cup last year should help motivate them to progress from a rough 3-9 campaign in 2012.
Utah won only five games last year, and although Travis Wilson returns at quarterback, the defense just looks too inexperienced. The blunt assessment is the Utes will need at least one more year before they have stockpiled enough Pac-12 caliber talent to compete.
Colorado rounds out the Pac-12, being buried at the bottom of the standings. The Buffaloes won only one game last year and hired Mike MacIntyre as their new coach, hoping he can help the Buffs climb out of the cellar. He has many holes to fill, but Colorado has only one way to go: up.
This conference was the first to schedule a nine-game gauntlet for its members. With its relative competitive balance, these teams are more susceptible to knocking each other off, which doesn't bode well for its champion to advance to the BCS title game. However, the consistent match-ups have been a ratings and revenues success, a point that wasn't lost on the Big Ten, who will now move to a nine-game conference slate themselves.
With the new four-team playoff system coming in 2014 and lip service being paid to tough schedules as a key criterium, it may well be that the Pac-12 as a collective, as opposed to any given team, will have already made the greatest impact on the college football scene again in 2013.