USC may have the edge in the 2012 Pac-12 race, never mind the South Division, a product of having their regular season showdown with Oregon in the LA Coliseum, but no one else is probably going to not be approaching being a double digit underdog against the Ducks this season. And beyond that, everyone else in the Pac-12 North could land in any of several spots in the final standings without severely shocking anyone.
Oregon is the defending Rose Bowl Champion, and has won the last 3 conference titles. Despite losing LaMichael James to the NFL, and somewhat surprisingly quarterback Darron Thomas, the Ducks still have coach Chip Kelley, who didn't accept an offer from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the offseason, or get run over while out-running the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. And given what's coming adjacent to Autzen Stadium, Kelly won't want to leave, and recruits will keep coming. Even if its not quite what was originally reported.
That's the primary reason replacing Da. Thomas isn't the threat to Oregon that having to replace a multi-year starting quarterback usually is. Kelly has done it before, and whether its Bryan Bennett, who filled in adequately for Da. Thomas last year, or Marcus Mariota, who had a spectacular spring game, odds are Oregon will be just fine at the trigger position in their high octane offense.
DeAnthony Thomas is another reason. Blazing speed makes "Black Mamba" a threat as a running back, receiver, or kick returner, and if Carson York makes it back from a Rose Bowl leg injury, an offensive line that should be better than last years will be on hand to open holes for De. Thomas and Kenjon Barner, who steps up as he has at times over the last 2 years for James, and protect either Bennett and Mariota.
Breaking in a new quarterback usually tickets a team in the Pac for a middle of the pack finish, but Kelly has overcome that before. The best way to do it usually is to have a solid defense, and Oregon has that in place this season. Of the 14 starters who return, which is middle of the pack in the Pac this year, 7 are on defense, vs. 5 on offense, plus both kickers.
Linebackers Kiko Alonso, who seems to have put his sometimes bone-headed days behind him, Michael Clay, and Boseko Lokombo give the Ducks great middle of the field defense. DE Dion Jordan and DT Taylor Hart lead a defensive line group that is 2 deep with starter-grade players. Safety John Boyette leads one of the most athletic secondaries in the conference.
And thanks to Kansas St. bailing on a scheduled game with Oregon, an easy non-conference the Ducks shouldn't be blamed for won't wear them out before their trip to USC at the start of November. Where Kelly and company will be looking to return the favor from the Trojans' 38-35 upset win in Autzen last November, and claim home field for the Pac-12 Championship game. Again.
Stanford has been to back to back BCS bowls, and while Andrew Luck, the first pick in this spring's NFL draft, was the main reason, he wasn't the only reason. The Cardinal were the best offensive line in the Pac-12 last season, and despite having 2 All-Americans drafted into the NFL, they still are solid, including 3 returning starters, and that's without counting on anything from arguably the best offensive line recruiting class in the history of the conference.
The Cardinal's losses leave them with 14 returning starters as well.
Second year coach David Shaw's ability to succeed Jim Harbaugh and survive Luck moving on is built on offensive linemen and linebackers, and that'll take him a long way. If Shayne Skov is close to fully recovered from last year's season ending knee injury, along with pre-season All-American Chase Thomas, Stanford could have the best line-backing crew in the country, never mind the Pac-12.
Having second team All-Pac-12 RB Stepfan Taylor, above, who ran for 1,330 yards in a multi-back system with Luck throwing the ball all around, back as well will make sorting out Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes as the heir to Luck a lot easier too.
Stanford's biggest hurdle might be schedule maker, who has half the Cardinal's home games before any students set foot back in Palo Alto, and then sends them to Washington, Notre Dame, across the bay to California for a "Big Game" at midseason, up to Oregon, and down to UCLA at the end of the season. In fact, 5 of Stanford's last 7 games are on the road. On the flip side of the coin, Stanford's home crowd has never intimidated anyone, so the Cardinal aren't losing anything.
Washington's offense with Keith Price, above, at the helm could be the second best in the North despite losing RB Chris Polk to the NFL. There wouldn't have been any doubt had the Huskies not lost linemen Colin Porter, who had to retire in the off-season, and possibly Erik Kohler and Colin Tanigawa, who have been slowed in their recovery from injuries including a torn ACL. Problems with what wasn't the best offensive line last year won't help either Jesse Callier or Bishop Sankey in their efforts to replace Polk, or help keep Price healthy. And both are critical to the Huskies' success, given that there is NO experience behind Price.
Problem is, Washington rolled up plenty of yards and points a lot last year, and still got blasted by 2 (or more) touchdowns 5 times, and also managed to loose the Alamo Bowl by 11 points despite rolling up 620 yards and 56 points. As a result, half the staff, the defensive side, has been replaced, after the Huskies turned in a defensive disaster of historic proportions.
Head coach Steve Sarkisian brought in Justin Wilcox to restore order, and he in turn brought Peter Sirmon, a fellow former Duck, with him from Tennessee, and then proceeded to lure Tosh Lupoi from California, much to the Bears' dismay, and Oregon St.'s Keith Heyward.
The array of former rivals are tasked with turning around what was a terrible defense, as well as making the increasingly popular transition to primarily a 3-4 scheme, and they will have to do it without LB Cort Dennison.
It falls to Josh Shirley and Nate Feller to anchor the Washington linebacking unit, and the entire defense, but they will have help up front from Danny Shelton, and in the secondary from Desmond Trufant.
The new defensive staff has a solid track record, and Washington has been recruiting good raw talent, which has been seriously bolstered by their addition (especially Lupoi), as the 7 commits in 1 day haul that recently set off all kinds of barking up at Montlake demonstrated. With only 13 returning starters, and the need to (finally) replace kicker Eric Folk, there will be plenty of opportunities for recent recruits to get onto the field.
But in a year when Washington will play their home games downtown at Century Link Field, instead of the under renovation Husky Stadium, a tough schedule that sends the Dawgs to LSU, and then to Oregon, in a game bookended by battles with Stanford and USC, and also has the Huskies on the road for 3 of their 4 games in November, it might take another year for Washington to climb from bowl qualifier to become a challenger for the Pac-12 North championship.
Washington might well beat Stanford, and maybe upset someone else favored to beat them, but a team with a lot of youth that's still learning about the concept of defense, and has no plan "B" in case of a calamity involving Price, is likely to drop a couple of games at some point as well.
California got back to a bowl last season, after a disappointing 2010 season broke a unprecedented (for Cal) run of 7 consecutive bowl trips, staving off thoughts of impending doom, and keeping coach Jeff Tedford off the hot seat. And they did it without playing at home, as last year, it was the Bears who spent the season across the bay, playing most of their "home" games at AT&T Park, while Memorial Stadium in Strawberry Canyon/fault zone was being rebuilt.
A return home for 7 games, including rival UCLA, a mid-season potentially "Big" game against Stanford, and Oregon gives rise to hope in Berkeley, especially if the Bears can survive back to back road trips to Ohio St. and USC. Cal plays almost unbelievably better at home in recent years, and they have done better than the field at hanging with Oregon, so the schedule looks like a opportunity to finish better than 4th in the North.
Especially with a returning quarterback in Zach Maynard, who still has his half-brother Keenan Allen at wide receiver (as noted repeatedly, the Pac-12 is loaded at WR, with guys who might be lucky to make honorable mention on this all-conference team, but would be on the first team in some conferences). And the Bears have Isi Sofele, who ran for 1,322 yards last year, back as well.
But the Bears have no other proven receivers, and until someone steps up, Allen will be double teamed while he's still in the locker room. And their offense was plagued by penalties last year. 4 of the 12 returning starters are on their offensive line, but that might not be a good thing if the Bears, who were the second most penalized team in the country, hand back as many yards in penalties as they did last season.
California lost both starting ends off of their 3-4 line, as well as conference Defensive Player of the Year Mychal Kendricks and D.J. Holt, 2 of the best linebackers in the Pac-12 last year. So it will be unlikely that the Bears' defense will be quite as stout as it was last year, at least initially.
The combination of youth on defense, a lack of options at wide receiver, and unless things change drastically, a lot of long yardage situations as a result of penalties, will put enormous pressure on Maynard, above, to be highly accurate, something he's never been. It's hard to imagine a couple of games won't get away when a couple of balls get away from Maynard.
Oregon St. simply has to get their offensive line together. The Beavers couldn't run the ball at all last season, finishing 118th in the country (out of 120 FBS teams). And though then red-shirt freshman quarterback Sean Mannion threw 305 completions for 3,328 yards, the most completions and 3rd most yards every by a Beaver quarterback, they couldn't protect him either. Mannion is not mobile, and as a result was sacked 27 times, and threw 18 interceptions, 1 shy of most in the country.
Not being able to put an offensive line together during spring practice wasn't encouraging to anyone except opposing defenses either. But if Michael Philipp, a 2 year starter who missed all of last season, Grant Enger, and Colin Kelley, who are also rehabbing injuries can get and stay healthy, Oregon St. could suddenly become a dangerous offense. If Mannion has time to find wideouts Marcus Wheaton, yet another in the long line of legitimate contenders for All-Pac-12 honors, and sophomore Brandin Cooks, the Beavers, who were still 19th in the country in passing last season, could climb even higher.
That would take the pressure off a young but agile defense that is led by CB Jordan Poyer, a second team All-Pac-12 selection last year who is on every watch list for national honors for DBs or defensive players that exists. Poyer is also the Beavers' best kick returner.
Oregon St. started 10 true freshmen last year, and used 7 more redshirt freshmen regularly, and as a result have the third most returning starters in the conference. A pair of them, DEs Scott Crichton and Dylan Wynn, give the Beavers the edge rush speed to harass opposing quarterbacks.
But despite that experience gained, Oregon St. will still be one of the youngest and still least experienced teams in the conference. A difficult early schedule that includes 2 time Big 10 Champion Wisconsin, and a pair of road games in September (and coach Mike Riley has only ever won 1 college road game before October) will start a challenging schedule that includes 9 bowl teams, and 3 BCS bowl teams. And that's without having USC on the schedule again this year!
Its going to take a lot of growing up if the young Beavers are going to avoid a third consecutive non-bowl season against that schedule, despite 7 games at Reser, an outcome that will be hard for coach Mike Riley to survive.
Washington St. welcomes "The Pirate" to the Palouse, as Mike Leach brings his "Air Raid" passing attack that produced a long string of winning teams at Texas Tech to the Pac-12. And he has a pair of quarterbacks in veteran Jeff Tuel, and Connor Halliday, should Tuel, above, go down (which he has done multiple times the last couple of years) that are capable of running it.
Wide Receiver Marquess Wilson, a second team All-Pac-12 selection last year, provides as good a target as exists in the conference, and the Cougars are deep at the position, which is perfect for the Leach offense.
The problem is the Washington St. offensive line gave up 40 sacks last year, which landed both Tuel and Halliday in the hospital at various times.
Another problem is a defense that despite making progress in the last couple of years under Paul Wulff, is still under sized, and slower, than the Pac-12 average, which had a lot to do with Wulff losing his job. It got worse when Leach had to kick a couple of their more athletic linebackers, C.J. Mizell and Sekope Kaufusi, off the team.
Washington St. is yet another team switching to the 3-4 defense in response to the proliferation of spread offenses run by speedy teams across the conference, so a shortage of experienced linebackers is a problem.
The Cougars do have most of their secondary back, but they were 11th in the conference in in pass efficiency defense last season. Washington St. gave up 24 touchdown passes and grabbed only 8 interceptions.
So despite a non-conference schedule that is favorable despite having 2 of the 3 games on the road, no USC, and the Apple Cup in Pullman, and on the Friday after Thanksgiving, which will curb the affects of the Washington crowd, it will be tough for the Air Raid to strike often enough to outscore opponents often enough to get to a bowl game.
That bowl berth, and whether the Cougars can climb over Oregon St. in the Pac-12 North, could be decided when Washington St. plays the Beavers, who buried them 44-21 last year in Seattle, and this year, the game will be in Corvallis. It will be part of a grueling stretch mid-season where the Cougars only play in Pullman once in 48 days.
Leach was successful in Lubbock, and there's every reason to expect he will be in Pullman, a similarly remote, hard to recruit to location. But it will take some time to recruit and then coach up enough players to do that in the rugged Pac-12 North, which, overall, again should be significantly tougher than the South, as it was last year.
Therefore, my pre-season media ballot for the Pac-12 North looks like this:
5. Oregon St.
6. Washington St.
(Photos by Andy Wooldridge)