I took a shot at predicting the Pac-12 North and South football races at the end of spring, with a caveat that the forecast might change a bit as fall camps developed. And it has, though only slightly.
The real challenge is trying to sort out the North, which will be outrageously competitive. Just about the time you think Team X is going to make a big move upward, you have to account for it by dropping some worthy team down. It’s not a big stretch to see all six teams in that division getting to a bowl game, though I don’t see it playing out that way.
1. Oregon. I’ve raised the devil’s-advocate question: Should we just assume that Oregon will keep breezing along, despite having lost a 5,000-yard career rusher and their starting quarterback? But then comes another question, perhaps more germane: Who can possibly beat the Ducks before November? The most logical team is Washington, and if they were playing this week in Eugene, you’d make Oregon about a 15-point favorite. Until further notice, it has to be the Ducks.
2. Washington. This requires a bit of a leap of faith. I’m assuming the defense is measurably better, the Huskies develop a run game and Keith Price gets out of Baton Rouge with his limbs intact. It also assumes a win over Stanford Sept. 27 — which I think will happen because I’m suspicious of the Cardinal — and momentum in the second half, against teams like Arizona, Oregon State, Colorado and WSU.
3. California. Seemingly, the Bears have been overlooked in fall camp, amid all the quarterback decisions in the league, and Lane Kiffin and Jim Mora sniping at each other to the south. I think Cal could be sneaky. I expect Zach Maynard to be a lot better, the Bears have good backs and receivers and the defense will be stout. They’ve got five home games in the league and they’re back in Memorial Stadium.
4. Stanford. My guess is the Cardinal coaches aren’t wowed by the way the quarterback picture has developed, with Josh Nunes named the guy last week. This team could have a boffo defense, another good offensive line and a good running game. But in this league, you’re going to have a hard time holding offenses out of the 20s or 30s, and I’m not convinced Stanford is ready to score that much on a consistent basis.
5. Oregon State. In this space last week, I named Oregon State as a surprise team, and I still think that way. The Beavers have too many good parts to repeat their 3-9 clunker of 2011. I can see them rising even higher than fifth (problem is, that means somebody above really has to nosedive). And unless they can squeeze out a win over either Wisconsin (in Corvallis) or BYU (on the road), they need to go 5-4 in the league just to get to 6-6 and have a chance to get to a bowl game.
6. Washington State. It seems like blasphemy to call for a Mike Leach team to finish last at anything, but the fact is, there are more questionmarks on this squad than anybody else in the North. The Cougars should be able to throw it all over the place — provided a thin offensive line stays healthy and comes through — but there are serious defensive concerns.
Wednesday: The South forecast.