The Pac-12 North breaks down pretty neatly into three clear segments. Stanford and Oregon have emerged as the clear powers of this division, with the race essentially boiling down to their head-to-head meeting.
Washington and Oregon State are solid bowl teams, maybe capable of throwing a scare into one of the Big Two, maybe even beating them…but not likely to actually win the division. Then there’s Cal and Washington State that have to hope better days are around the corner. TheSportsNotebook’s college football coverage hones in on the Pac-12 North…
THE BIG TWO
I’m not sure how enduring football powers got built in Palo Alto and Eugene, but that’s exactly what happened. Mike Bellotti turned Oregon into a national contender, turned the reins over to Chip Kelly, who promptly took the program up another level.
Jim Harbaugh put Stanford on the map. He left for the NFL, David Shaw took over and led the team to the Fiesta Bowl. Lest anyone think that it was really about Andrew Luck, Shaw’s Cardinals won the Pac-12 and the Rose Bowl in 2012.
We have to see if the beat goes on at Oregon, with Kelly now in the NFL himself, and if Stanford can meet the burden of high expectations, but there’s no reason to think they won’t.
Stanford: The Cardinal is loaded for a run at the national championship. There are no weaknesses on the defense, with playmaking ends Ben Gardner and Henry Ariden, and the secondary is aggressive and smart, led by corner Alex Carter.
Kevin Hogan was given the keys to the offense midway through last year as a freshman, and had he started from the outset, Stanford might not have lost two early games, including a controversial overtime defeat at Notre Dame. Hogan led the team to all of its big-game wins—at Oregon, twice over UCLA and then over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
Shaw has to replace the physical Stephan Taylor in the backfield, but whomever gets the ball is going to run behind an experienced offensive line led by All-American guard David Yankey. The Cardinal has turned into one of the most genuinely physical teams in the country and they match up with anybody in the trenches.
Oregon: The new man in charge is Mark Helfrich, who worked as Kelly’s offensive coordinator. So not only is the coordinator of the Ducks’ high-powered offense back, but so are the key pieces.
Marcus Mariota was electrifying as a freshman quarterback. He threw 32 touchdowns against six interceptions, completed 69 percent of his passes and did all this while his real strength was running the football. Mariota’s key targets are all back, and while running back Kejon Barner has to be replaced, there is a good offensive line blocking for him.
The Ducks’ defensive strength starts in the secondary, where everybody is back. This is an area that has to improve, because too often, Oregon’s offense had to bail out some questionable defense—notably in a 62-51 win over USC. Defensive end Taylor Hart is a good pass rusher, while some re-tooling has to be done at linebacker.
THE BOWL TEAMS
Oregon State: If anyone is going to challenge the big boys, it’s going to be the Beavers. Oregon State won nine games a year ago and appeared to have Texas beaten in the Alamo Bowl, before allowing the Longhorns to come back. Mike Riley is a seasoned head coach, he has two experienced quarterbacks to choose from Cody Vaz and Sean Mannion, and they can throw to arguably the North division’s best receiver in Brandin Cooks. And the offensive line is back and heavy on senior leadership.
The defense is keyed by end Scott Crichton, who had nine sacks in 2012, the linebackers are back, as are both safeties. Rashaad Reynolds is a quick and talented corner, and while this isn’t a great defense, it’s going to be a pretty good one.
Oregon State is going to be this year what Mississippi State was in 2012. The Bulldogs started the season 7-0, but no one knew what to think of them because all the tough games were backloaded. So it is with the Beavers in 2013. They should be 7-0 on October 26 when a stretch of games that has Stanford, USC, Arizona, Washington and the season-ender with Oregon begins.
For the sake of the Beavers, I hope that’s as far as the Mississippi State analogy stretches, because the Bulldogs collapsed. Oregon State should be able to at least get a couple wins out of that stretch.
Washington: No one expects head coach Steve Sarkisian to win this division, given the quality of the competition, but the Huskies have to get off this stretch of just barely sneaking into bowls. Last year’s 7-5 and respectable loss to Boise State was typical. Washington is good enough that you remember how bad the situation was when Sarkisian took over, but you also find yourself wanting more.
Keith Price is a good quarterback and a fifth-year senior. He’s protected a pretty good offensive line, and supported by 1,400-yard rusher Bishop Sankey. The defense has returning players throughout the lineup and should be better. Washington should aspire to at least an eight-win regular season and to be the kind of team that we think of as one that could win the Pac-12 South, but is just stuck underneath Stanford and Oregon. Those are reasonable goals.
THE REBUILDING PROJECTS
Cal: Jeff Tedford’s run in Berkeley came to an end with a three-win season and Sonny Dykes has taken over. There are six underclassmen starting on offense, inexperience in the secondary, no reliable quarterback and on top of all that, Dykes is shifting to a 4-3 defensive scheme that will require his two bright spots—former outside linebackers Brennan Scarlet and Chris McCain to become ends in a down position. And McCain only goes 215 pounds. But Dykes is smart to bite the bullet hard this year.
Washington State: Mike Leach only won three games in 2012, but there’s potential for some modest improvement. Junior quarterback Connor Halliday showed some flashes last year and he can grow with an offense that six sophomores projected to start. The defensive secondary is a strength, which can help if Leach’s high-voltage attack can create some shootouts, but the Cougars are still badly outmanned in the trenches.
I’m taking Stanford to win this division. They look a little bit ahead of Oregon in any case, and when you factor in the coaching change in Eugene, plus the head-to-head game being in Palo Alto, and it becomes clear the Cardinal is the favorite. I like Oregon State for third and would give them a puncher’s chance at an upset of either heavyweight. The great run for sports in northern California—of which Stanford has already been a part—keeps rolling on.