There’s been a clear contrast in Pac-12 hype and Pac-12 results over the last two college football season. The run-up to the seasons in 2012 and 2013, and much of the hype for a couple months always surrounded the Oregon Ducks and their national title hopes. Then the Stanford Cardinal, quietly, with sound fundamentals and physical play, smacked the Ducks in the mouth in November and walked off with the conference championship.
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ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD
The first part of this dichotomy continues this year, as Oregon comes in a solid betting favorite to win the Pac-12 football title and be in the mix for a national championship. Will the story end differently this time?
There’s reason for Duck fans to believe this year can be different. The most potent offense in the conference in 2013 has junior quarterback Marcus Mariota back, and the entire offensive line returns. The defensive front seven is a veteran group and there is experience at the skill positions. There’s some re-tooling to do in the secondary, but there’s nothing to suggest Oregon won’t have another big year.
In the meantime, Stanford has much more significant holes to fill—while Oregon’s entire O-Line comes back, Cardinal head coach David Shaw has to find four new starters and new running backs. Stanford isn’t going anywhere—the defense, in spite of some losses to the NFL draft, still has a lot of talent back and junior quarterback Kevin Hogan now enters his third year as a starter. But I get why oddsmakers feel this is Oregon’s year, at least in the Pac-12 North.
The one thing Stanford has going for them—aside from recent history, which says they’ll lurk under the radar at every media outlet other than TheSportsNotebook (I picked them to win the Pac-12 last August and I love David Shaw’s entire program)–is that they don’t play Oregon head-to-head until November 1, so there’s time to bring a new team together. But that still presumes that this is the only game that will matter in the Pac-12 North (a risky, if understandable proposition) and the game will be in Eugene.
WILL THE SOUTH RISE?
Maybe a better place to look for this year’s challenge to Oregon is the contenders in the South Division. Oddsmakers rate UCLA a narrow favorite over both Arizona State (who won the division last year) and USC. Here’s a look at the three leaders of the Pac-12 South…
UCLA: Jim Mora Jr. has won 19 games over two years in Los Angeles and transformed this program from a stereotypical soft SoCal team into a tough, physical unit. He’s got an experienced offensive line, a stable of running backs that is well-balanced, and a third-year starter at quarterback in Brett Hundley. The secondary brings back three starters and only modest retooling on the front seven is necessary, even after losing explosive outside linebacker Anthony Barr.
USC: Steve Sarkisian is the new head coach, after spending the last five years at Washington, where he first rebuilt the program from the ashes, then found himself unable to take the proverbial next step. The Trojans went 7-2 after Lane Kiffin was fired last year, including a close loss at Notre Dame. The secondary is the strength, the defensive line is young and no other spot really stands out.
Arizona State: Head coach Todd Graham has shown he can win and produce points. With quarterback Taylor Kelly keying an experienced offense, a lot more of the same will be ahead in 2014. But a massive rebuild of the entire defense awaits, including the need to replace nose tackle Will Sutton, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
If it turns out that these three teams separate themselves from the rest of the Pac-12 South (and sitting here in July, there’s no reason to think they won’t, the first key game will come on September 25 when UCLA visits Arizona State for a nationally televised Friday night game.
Then on October 4 when Arizona State goes to USC. This was the matchup that got Kiffin fired last year, after the Sun Devils dropped 62 on the Trojans.
November 22 will be the traditional USC-UCLA rivalry game, a nominal home date for the Bruins in Pasadena.
DARK HORSES & BOWL HOPEFULS
Four teams have legitimate expectations of going to a bowl game, with the hope that maybe things will break right and they can either move up the bowl ladder or perhaps even pull off a magical ride to a division title.
Washington: If anyone other than the five teams already discussed plays their way into the Pac-12 Championship Game, it would be the Huskies. Chris Petersen has come over Boise State and he represents an upgrade on Sarkisian at head coach (that’s more a compliment to Petersen than a knock on Sarkisian). Petersen is loaded on both lines, but needs to find his quarterback and the secondary is manned by underclassmen.
Arizona: Rich Rodriguez has re-established his coaching reputation in Tucson with consecutive eight-win seasons. Moving to the next level is going to be tough. Rich-Rod’s defense—never his strong suit—is soft up front, and a lot of new starters have to be found at the skill positions. If receiver Austin Hill makes a successful return from a knee injury that cost him the entire 2013 season it will make things a lot easier on whomever the new quarterback ends up being.
Washington State: Mike Leach quickly put WSU back in a bowl game, going 6-6 last year and throwing the ball all over the place with returning quarterback Connor Halliday. Between his returning quarterback and some veterans on the defensive line, Leach has enough to stay bowl-eligible and maybe jump to seven or eight wins but the defense needs to get a lot better before challenging Oregon and Stanford in the Pac-12 North is an option.
Oregon State: Another team that went 6-6 last season in the Pac-12 North and could do a bit better this time around. Sean Mannion is back for his senior year at quarterback, the offense is going to be good, and the defensive back seven looks pretty decent. The issue is going to be stopping the run.
And while I like Mike Riley as a head coach—the man’s been a winner for 13 years in Corvallis, which speaks for itself—some of his game management decisions have struck me as questionable when I’ve watched this team in significant games. That won’t keep the Beavers from being a nice bowl team, but it will prevent them from winning a division title.
All of these three teams have odds of 33-1 or higher just to win their division
Utah: They may be a longshot to win the Pac-12 South, but a bowl bid is within their grasp. The Utes have played mostly competitive football since joining this conference and they won five games in 2013. They’ll run the ball with Bubba Poole behind an offensive line that has three starters back, and have experience back at quarterback and linebacker. Pencil the Utes in for anywhere in the 5-7 win category.
Colorado: Mike MacIntyre made a lot of progress in his first year in Boulder, and I have every confidence the man who made San Jose State a bowl-quality program will get it done here. But after jumping from the dregs to four wins last year, further progress is going to be more difficult. Colorado was still blown out in most of their losses, so the next jump to bowl eligibility might have to wait until 2015.
Cal: Another program in its second year after a coaching change. The program had regressed in the final years of a mostly successful run by Jeff Tedford, and they really bottomed out in the first year under Sonny Dykes. The Golden Bears only beat Portland State last season. Reports from Pac-12 observers are that the program atrophied under Tedford because of a lack of facilities and the continued regression last season fit that storyline.
I’ll concur with the oddsmakers on the division winners, with UCLA and Oregon but I’m parting company when it comes to the conference champion. I think it’s UCLA’s time and what’s more, I’m just not sold on the Ducks as a nationally elite team. The same oddsmakers have them third nationally, behind only Florida State and Alabama.
I just don’t see that—I see a pretty good team that might win a conference title, could make the College Football Playoff, but is far from a favorite to do either one. Combine that with their recent history of getting smacked in the mouth in the season’s biggest games and I see UCLA taking the next step and becoming this year’s team to ram it down Oregon’s throat and take the Pac-12.