Now that we’ve decoded the treacherous Pac-12 South football race (in a Monday post), on to the North:
1. Stanford. During those decades that Stanford had a reputation for free-wheeling, throw-it-all-over-and-to-hell-with defense teams, who could have envisioned a team like the 2013 Cardinal? I think it’s going to be ferocious defensively, good enough to win a second straight Pac-12 title. Players like Ben Gardner, Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov lead a big-time front seven, the safeties are very good, and coach David Shaw thinks he has a growing element of team speed. The big questions are: Can Stanford adequately replace career rusher Stepfan Taylor, and is it ready to effectively revamp an offense that revolved so much around the tight ends the past few years? Quarterback Kevin Hogan, who has already won a Rose Bowl, will help in that transition.
2. Oregon. Have to admit, this is sort of a default pick. The Ducks would probably rate the top spot, but until we see how first-year head coach Mark Helfrich operates, we’re going to have to be convinced the lemon-and-green machine is still rolling without a hitch. Think of it: How many guys (in their 30s) get their first head-coaching job at a program ranked top-five in the country? No doubt, the Ducks will still be fun to watch, gulping down yardage in chunks with Marcus Mariota at quarterback, and coordinator Nick Aliotti has played so many guys on defense in recent years, there is experience back, even without key starters lost in studs like Dion Jordan, Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso. The game of the year may well be Oregon at Stanford Nov. 7.
3. Washington. My sleeper team in the South is Utah (at least to overachieve, not win the division). The Huskies are that team in the North. If Steve Sarkisian’s optimism is any indication, Washington is ready for a rebirth in its new digs at Husky Stadium. Here’s the concern: On a per-run basis, the Huskies were 10th in the league last year at 4.4, and what do the two heavyweights in the division do best? Run the ball, of course. So the rushing defense needs to improve. But the offense has a chance to be explosive, with multiple playmakers in a new hurry-up mode. I tried to find a way to justify the Huskies jostling past either Stanford or Oregon, but just couldn’t do it.
4. Oregon State. Last season’s redemptive season put behind the ugly 3-9 year in 2011, and was a lot more representative of what Mike Riley has done in Corvallis. Now he has settled on Sean Mannion as starting quarterback, and Mannion will operate behind a good offensive line and with a couple of productive backs. But stopping the run could be a concern as OSU is thin up the middle on defense. I wrote recently that some statistical measures at which OSU excelled a year ago will be hard to duplicate, and that’s why I’ve got the Beavers behind the Huskies. They allowed a miserly 29.3 percent on third-down conversions, they scored on 53 of 58 red-zone trips, and had a plus-eight turnover margin. Tough act to follow.
5. California. The Bears assembled a lot of big-time talent under Jeff Tedford, and they underperformed famously last year, going 3-9. But all you have to do is recall how guys like Brendan Bigelow shredded Ohio State’s defense to know that there are some serious contributors. The two overriding questions are: Does Cal adapt quickly to the new system of Sonny Dykes, much as Arizona last year took to the teachings of Rich Rodriguez? And how quickly does freshman quarterback Jared Goff pick it all up? It’s possible the Bears could be undone by a first-month schedule that includes Northwestern, Ohio State and Oregon.
6. Washington State. I have no doubt WSU will be improved on 2012. The question is how much. Perhaps this plight is oversimplification, but of the two least-capable (at least by appearances) teams in the league, the Cougars play neither — Colorado isn’t on the schedule, and the Cougars are the other one. But all is not bleak. I think they’re getting closer, and I gave serious consideration to leaping them past Cal, but I think the Bears are still more talented overall. There just aren’t a lot of gimmes — none, in fact — on the WSU conference schedule.