The other day, I previewed the Pac-12 South football race, with this explanation/disclaimer: I did the same thing in January, but this one takes into account spring-practice developments (noted in our spring-camps series on this blog), plus anything that might have taken place before that (we’re not necessarily singling you out, Washington).
Things change, and so does this analysis. It probably will again in August, once some of the fall-camp happenings are in. Herewith, the spring reckoning for the North:
1. Oregon. The North is again very competitive, and it could be better than in 2013, when five of the six teams went to bowl games. I struggled with the prognosis at the top, and eventually settled on Oregon over Stanford for two reasons, one or both of which might be ill-founded. First, Oregon gets nemesis Stanford in Eugene this year (I know, I know, Stanford won there in overtime in 2012). And second, as much as Stanford has stockpiled talent, it’s just difficult to see a team that lost eight players from the All-Pac-12 first and second units perking along without missing a beat. Biggest Duck questionmarks seem to be on defense, where there are replacements needed in the secondary and defensive line, and in the broader sense, surrounding a new coordinator as Don Pellum takes over for retired Nick Aliotti. Ducks also have to account for the loss of key playmakers Josh Huff and De’Anthony Thomas, and it didn’t help that receiver Bralon Addison tore up a knee in the spring. But the backs, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, look formidable, and the quarterback, Marcus Mariota, is as good as it gets.
2. Stanford. Like Oregon, the Cardinal lost their defensive coordinator, Derek Mason taking the head coaching job at Vanderbilt. And like the Ducks, Stanford replaced from within, promoting Lance Anderson. QB Kevin Hogan has been serviceable, and generally at his best in the big games, but is less than spectacular. Heavy losses on the offensive line are hard to gauge, because the replacements are some of the most highly regarded prospects around. Defensive linemen like Henry Anderson and Aziz Shittu should usher in a new wave of excellence on that side of the ball. But not only does Stanford host USC Sept. 6, it must go to Washington, Oregon and UCLA.
3. Washington. Initially, as much as anything as boredom with the general sameness of the division in recent years, I forecast Washington to make an upward move and pass Stanford this year. Now, with the uncertainty at quarterback, I’m dropping the Huskies back to No. 3. Cyler Miles had a promising spell as a backup last season, but the tumultuous off-season (the investigation into two assaults near campus, with no charges filed against him) shrouds everything, given that new coach Chris Petersen introduced a lot of the program’s foundation in the spring. It has to be a hurry-up kind of summer for the reinstated Miles, and even if he gets the job in August against Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams, will he be playing at a level necessary to beat the better teams in the league? Defensively, the Huskies look to be salty with Shaq Thompson heading a proven corp of linebackers, Marcus Peters keying the secondary, and they have the luxury of a cushy early schedule to work things out.
4. Oregon State. I debated OSU against Washington State and gave a skimpy nod to the Beavers, simply because it looks like they might be a little better defensively. Both teams have a proven quarterback, both struggle to run (at least the Beavers try), and both have some offensive-line issues, while the Cougars have a better receiving corps. But OSU returns linebacker Michael Doctor to its defense and has a proven corner in Steven Nelson. The Beavers also have their specialists back, including PK Trevor Romaine, albeit one who struggled in 2013. Somehow, OSU must find a way to run the ball again, which was a key to those nine-win seasons of the recent past. It’s mostly about the offensive line.
5. Washington State. The Cougars won four league games a year ago, so it’s not a stretch to think they could move up some from this projection in the third year of the Mike Leach regime. I think QB Connor Halliday could be due for a big senior season; he cut his interceptions dramatically in the latter part of 2013. He has a ton of good receivers. The big question is how well WSU replaces three veterans on the offensive line, a unit that will be more athletic but less seasoned. On the other side of the ball, I see the question like this: Can a better front seven make up for what could be a problem secondary? The Cougars are hoping for immediate help at corner from incoming freshmen, which is either a cause for alarm or a sign of confidence in them. Meanwhile, kicker and punter are questionmarks.
6. California. Although the Bears were beat up beyond belief last year, it didn’t make sense that things fell off the map quite as drastically as they did in a 1-11 season. After all, the Jeff Tedford regime recruited relatively well and left Sonny Dykes some talent. Now, in the second year of the Dykes regime, that talent needs to re-emerge, and the recovering health of a lot of players will be important. One of those is defensive end Brennan Scarlett, who should be a force. Given that the Bears carry long losing streaks of several varieties into the season, restoring morale is going to be a major key for Dykes and Co. So is the defense, which was a bust last year under now-reassigned coordinator Andy Buh.