My post-spring take on the Pac-12 North, keeping in mind the picture could be different in three months, with developments in fall camp, injuries and the like:
1. Stanford. David Shaw, the Cardinal coach, has almost unfailingly made the right moves in two years in his first head position, winning Pac-12 coach-of-the-year honors twice. Now we’ll see whether he has the goods to take Stanford to another division title, something he’ll have to do in a different way. The Cardinal tight ends who were so basic to the offense the past couple of years have all gone to the pros, and though Stanford loves the heir to that tradition, Luke Kaumatule, now the focus shifts more to the wide receivers. Meanwhile, the Stanford career rushing leader, Stepfan Taylor, has graduated, leaving the job to lesser backs. But as I see it, there are at least four good arguments for projecting Stanford as a division winner: One, the offensive line should again be nasty, perhaps even better than a year ago, as young talent like Andrus Peat, Kyle Murphy and Josh Garnett matures. Two, much the same could be said about the defense, because even as it loses first-team all-league linebacker Chase Thomas, it gains a healthy Shayne Skov, an All-American-caliber player who was coming off a knee injury last year. Third, Stanford gets both Washington and Oregon at home in 2013, and those are the two obvious threats to a title. Finally, but not least, after a BCS-bowl season in which Stanford went much of the way with an average quarterback, now it has gifted Kevin Hogan running things. Combine it all, and Stanford merits the favorite’s role.
2. Washington. I debated going whole hog and picking the Huskies to take the North, and I think a case can be made. Ultimately, I tilted toward Stanford on the basis of more experience in high-level games, and the fact the Cardinal has the host role in their game, along with a revenge motive. So why jump on the bandwagon of a team that is 7-6 the past three years and slot them this high? To me, it looks like the fruition of Steve Sarkisian’s rebuilding effort, and the fact Washington gets back a lot of key players who were injured in 2012. Several of those are offensive linemen, who should help quarterback Keith Price be a closer approximation of the player he was in 2011, not ’12. Huskies have a quality back in Bishop Sankey, a couple of rushers who return from knee injuries, and a capable group of receivers, including hard-to-guard tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. The biggest questionmark might be the interior defense, as the Huskies’ 4.4 yards per carry yielded was a worse mark than all but two Pac-12 teams in ’12. Bottom line: This pick is predicated on Washington finally beating Oregon on a football field. If it doesn’t, that makes 10 straight for the Ducks.
3. Oregon. Blasphemy, say the lemon-and-green faithful. Third, for a team that’s gone to four straight BCS bowl games? Yes, third. What we’re about to find out is whether the Oregon machine is so irrepressible that it can withstand a head-coaching change and the possibility the NCAA could hand down sanctions in the Willie Lyles case before the fall. It’s a bit of a leap to make the assumption that the penalty will be of a performance-affecting threshold, and that it could impact 2013, but I don’t think either possibility is out of the realm. As for Mark Helfrich, the successor to Chip Kelly is an unknown commodity, and while he has apparently changed little with the Ducks, it can’t be assumed that things will simply perk as smoothly as they did under Kelly. Oregon still has players, lots of them, and some dynamic ones like quarterback Marcus Mariota, receiver/runner/kick returner De’Anthony Thomas and TE Colt Lyerla. But the Ducks are apt to miss defensive studs like Dion Jordan, Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay.
4. Oregon State. Fourth almost seems like a slap in the face to the Beavers, a nine-victory club that returns 15 starters and has the only quarterback competition in the Pac-12 featuring two players, Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz, who have proved they can win games. But recognition has always been a challenge for Mike Riley’s program (and it doesn’t help when it gets blown out by Oregon, as it did last November). There’s a lot to like here, including a deeper and better offensive line and the nucleus of a defense that was salty in 2012. The big question is how OSU replaces two guys who were pivotal to its success last year, receiver Markus Wheaton and cornerback/returner Jordan Poyer. I don’t sense that there’s anything like a major chasm between the Beavers and the three programs I’ve slotted above them.
5. Washington State. Here’s where the gap begins from the upper echelon of the division, down to teams (WSU, Cal) that finished 3-9 a year ago. I’m taking the Cougars to make some strides this year, based mostly on two factors: Surprisingly, they had some stretches of defensively stiff play in 2012; they were sixth against the run in the league, and that was better than teams like UCLA, USC, Arizona State and Cal. Problem was, their pass defense was 10th, and that must be shored up. Second, I’m figuring they advance in the area simply of knowing Mike Leach’s expectations, something that created obvious problems a year ago. They should be improved on the offensive line, if for no other reason than they have some competition now. But there’s one big caveat: Connor Halliday has to be effective at quarterback, willing to accept the dump-off to the running back and the chance of a five-yard gain, rather than chucking it downfield for the big play. If he can’t do it, then the Cougars essentially start over at QB with Austin Apodaca.
6. California. I don’t think there’s much doubt that across the board, Cal is better athletically than Washington State. But to a degree, the Bears are in the same position the Cougars were a year ago – starting over with a new coach who’s implementing a new, uptempo offensive style and changing the defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3. So I see a lot of growing pains for Sonny Dykes and the Bears, who were 10th in the Pac-12 last year in both pass efficiency and total defense. Two other issues: Cal is at square one at quarterback, where Zach Kline, Austin Hinder and Jared Goff are battling (look for Kline to emerge with the job), and the schedule the first half of the season could knock the wind from the Bears’ sails. Out of league, they have to deal with both Northwestern and Ohio State in September (albeit in Berkeley), and of the first four league games, three are on the road against Oregon, UCLA and Washington. The fourth, a homecoming game against WSU Oct. 5 in Berkeley, will say a lot about how the lower part of the division shakes out.