Predicting the Pac-12 finish is a perilous proposition, and all you have to do to verify that is to compare my picks for last season with reality.
When I made my picks pre Pac-12 Media Day last year, I thought the Pac-12 North would look like this:
5. Oregon St.
6. Washington St.
Come December, it turned out to be:
3. Oregon St.
6. Washington St.
A net 6 positions out of order.
The only thing I got right was that the Cougs would Coug it again in new coach Mike Leach's first year. That wasn't so difficult, since Coach Leach doesn't run block or play defense, not unlike many other Cougs.
Oregon and Stanford actually finished tied, but the Cardinal breaking through for a win at Autzen gave them the tie-breaker, and gave a lot of people a surprise.
As all Beaver fans know, Oregon St. did better than expected early, and on the road, which also gave a lot of people several surprises, and more importantly, stayed relatively healthy.
Something Washington didn't do. And though the Huskies handled the Beavers much better than Oregon St. handled the situation at the Clink, and Stanford too, numerous injuries to their offensive line ultimately limited Washington's success to the exclusion of any other factor.
And the Bears were just doomed it seems, which doomed coach Jeff Tedford's job.
My expectations in the South, were even more off base:
6. Arizona St.
Again, only 1 team wound up where I predicted when things turned out:
3. Arizona St.
A net total of 10 positions off.
Of course, few saw the consensus preseason #1 Trojans' impending unraveling coming, but the Bruins, and new head coach Jim Mora, were surprisingly good, even to the UCLA faithful.
I didn't anticipate Utah losing their starting quarterback in the first month of the season for the second year in a row. And though there is a lot of anxiety in Block U country after the last 2 seasons, the Utes' first in the Pac-12, I still think we need to see what happens if Coach Kyle Whittingham can get even most of a season out of a starting qb before passing judgement.
But the Utes did lose Jordan Wynn early in a second consecutive campaign, and in the Pac-12, that makes things difficult.
I also didn't think new coach Todd Graham could get things together with the Sun Devils as quickly as he did, after getting a very late start in Tempe. Arizona St. was close behind Oregon St. and UCLA for the most improved program award last season.
Arizona was better, as predicted, under their new coach Rich Rodriguez, but the depth of talent and defense wasn't present in Tucson to make more of a move than the Wildcats did.
I was one of the few who thought Colorado could climb out of the South cellar, and being the one team I knew the least about, and had seen even less of, I couldn't believe the Buffs could be as bad as they were. I was proven wrong. However, I don't think they will have the turnaround the Sun Devils did after they similarly got both their head Coach and Athletic Director fired the year before, though.
And since I didn't get either of the correct teams into the Pac-12 Title game, there was no way to get that one right.
This year has to be better, right? With Pac-12 Media Day coming up tomorrow, this season's predictions are due.
This year my Pac-12 North wild guess is:
3. Oregon St.
5. Washington St.
With as many returning players as good (and fast) as Oregon has, ranging from quarterback Marcus Mariota, above, a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, RB/KR/SB/"Get me the ball in the open and I'll run away from everyone" De'Anthony Thomas, WR Josh Huff, plus one of the best defensive secondaries in the country, there would be no hesitation in picking them had it not been for the end of the "Age of Chip". But with Chip Kelly now running the Philadelphia Eagles, there are questions about whether Mark Helfrich can maintain the momentum.
He has almost the entire staff still intact with him, though, and a history of recent coaching changes in Eugene (Rich Brooks did well enough to get the field named for him, but Mike Bellotti did even better, and we all know what happened when Chip took over; 4 straight BCS bowl trips) says the Ducks will make the transition just fine.
Stanford is certainly stout, and they do get Arizona St., Washington, UCLA, and Oregon all at home. But with all of his best targets gone, it seems unlikely that Kevin Hogan, above, can maintain the pace he set last year, winning his first 5 starts, all against bowl teams, after taking over the Cardinal quarterback job in November.
David Yankee and Kevin Danser lead the best returning offensive line in the conference, and Shane Skov, Henry Anderson, and A.J. Tarpley lead a very experienced Cardinal defensive front 7, and by dominating the trenches, Stanford will win most of their games, and be in almost all of them. But somewhere along the line, an as yet unapparent element of offensive explosiveness could come in handy.
Oregon St. and Washington are seen by many as competing for the third spot in the Pac-12 North again this year, and I not only agree, I think there's a good chance that when the Beavers and Huskies meet on November 23rd., it will decide which team takes the higher finish.
The home team has won the last 4 meetings, and Washington hasn't won in Corvallis since 2003. And this year, the game is again in Reser, which could be all that separates the two.
There's a considerable body of opinion that Washington will be the better of the two, but assuming reasonable health for both teams, something Oregon St. had the better end of the deal in 2012, though not the night they encountered the artificially incensed Huskies (to the point of head-hunting to a degree that will result in player ejections this season, under new NCAA rules), the similarities out-number the differences.
Both have an All-Conference candidate at WR, in Brandin Cooks and Kasen Williams, but serious question marks beyond that at wideout, as to who will have someone step up to potential. There is a bigger question mark about the Oregon St. defense than the continuing to improve Washington unit, due to turnover in the middle of the line and at middle linebacker. But after last year, there's more question about the Huskies' pass protection and efficiency than the Beavers. These might about cancel each other out.
Both Oregon St. and Washington will have visited Arizona St., but the Beavers get Stanford at home, while the Huskies head down to the farm, and just a week before hosting Oregon, and also visit UCLA a week before coming to Corvallis, so the meat of the schedule appears to be tougher for Washington than Oregon St. It all sets up nicely for quite a showdown.
I'm with the Washington faithful in being worried about Keith Price, above, but while the Huskies are hoping he can return to 2011 form, I'm more worried, and have little doubt, that he will. Especially with a more experienced Bishop Sankey and a healthy again Jesse Callier behind him.
And the Washington defensive behind the line, led by Shaq Thompson, is going to be tough to deal with. But while health and experience will make the Huskies better on both lines, I still think there will be inconsistencies with both units.
I also see a return to what we saw from the Oregon St. offense before both Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz got hurt. And even with questions beyond Cooks at WR, the 1-2 punch of Storm Woods, above, and Terron Ward behind a healthy offensive line that's more experienced than any coach Mike Riley has had at his disposal in several years will see the Beavers be as balanced as they have been since the early days of the Rodgers brothers.
I struggled with putting Washington St. ahead of California, especially since the Cougars have to visit the Bears. Its hard to see an offense that gave up the most sacks in the country and had one of the worst rushing games in college football overcoming those obstacles no matter how well the "Air Raid" settles in in Leach's second season.
But the Bears are starting over as far a system goes under new head coach Sonny Dykes on both sides of the ball, and doing it with zero experience at the qb position, only 2 returning offensive linemen, and what should be a less talented defense than Cal has had in recent years. Plus, "Dykes" and "defense" aren't words usually used together.
And the Cougs finally fixed their schedule, avoiding the absence for over a month from Martin Stadium that the game in Seattle has caused in recent years, which could result in a better chance of sneaking out a win down the stretch. It just seems like the Air Raid will be a better bet than the Bear Raid the first time they meet.
I see the Pac-12 South this way:
3. Arizona St.
And I think Oregon will claim the Pac-12 Championship.
This doesn't necessarily mean this is the order of which team is relatively the better team. The Bruins I believe are the best squad in the South. But their schedule is brutal. In 2012, UCLA capitalized on missing Oregon and Washington as part of their rise to the top of the Pac-12 South.
This fall, the Bruins have arguably the toughest road schedule in the country. It starts with Nebraska in Lincoln, and while that won't directly affect the league finish, its the beginning of a gauntlet that includes Utah (at elevation, and before the season wears down the Utes' depth), Stanford and Oregon on consecutive weeks, Arizona, and USC. UCLA is bound to trip up a couple of times against that array.
And even though Brett Hundley is highly mobile, as well as one of the best quarterbacks in the conference, the Bruins allowed 52 sacks last season! That's going to backfire at some point.
USC, on the other hand, despite last year's melt down, will likely be favored in every game until at the earliest, their November trip to Corvallis. The Trojans get Stanford in the Coliseum, and don't get either Washington or Oregon.
Head head coach Lane Kiffen has overhauled his staff in order to get USC back on track, and if the Trojans can settle on a quarterback to replace Matt Barkley and get the ball to All-Everything WR Marquise Lee and Nelson Agholor, a defense led by Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey should be improved, and will be running a scheme better suited to the college game under new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast than the Tampa-Two departed Monte Kiffen could never communicate to his troops.
Arizona St. is a popular pick to contend for the Pac-12 South, but despite the emergence of Taylor Kelly, above, as one of the premier quarterbacks in the conference, there are several reasons I see them staying about 3rd in the south, not the least of which are the question marks about the Sun Devils' receiving corp.
Going against 3 time Big-10 champion Wisconsin and making a trip to Stanford is going to leave Sparky beat up for the visit from the Trojans, and the Sun Devils also have to visit Washington, who is notoriously tougher in Seattle than elsewhere, and UCLA.
I also think that despite the game being in Tempe, the Beavers, who handled the Sun Devils rather handily last year, are a tough matchup for Arizona St. Oregon St. has won 3 in a row, and 4 of their last 5 meetings.
The league will also have had a year to adjust to Todd Graham.
Similarly, defensive coordinators have also had a year to prepare for Rich Rodriguez's system down the road in Tucson, and the 'Cats also have to break in an inexperienced quarterback for the first time in several years.
And whether its senior B.J. Denker who finally gets his turn, USC transfer Jesse Scroggins, or incoming freshman Anu Solomon sooner instead of later, who ultimately claims the job, that person won't have Austin Hill to throw too, after the 'Cats' best receiver suffered a season ending knee injury in spring ball.
Arizona is on the rise, though, and they have Ka'Ceem Carey, who just happened to lead the nation in rushing last year. Oregon St. fans will recall Carey running for 115 of his nation leading 1,929 yards, and 2 touchdowns, last year.
I still think the 'Cats, with Carey, and much of their defense returning, despite recent developments in the secondary, are better positioned than Utah.
The Utes get their first taste of Stanford this year, and though they play 7 games in Rice-Eccles, a run of 4 road games in 5 contests late in the season, including a trip to Autzen, which comes just when Utah will need to be making a run, is going to be tough for a team that's only been able to win 3 of their first 9 Pac-12 road games.
Sophomore quarterback Travis Wilson, above, will have to have mastered whatever new twist new offensive co-coordinator Dennis Erickson has brought by then or its going to be a long late fall for the Utes.
The lone home game in that run from mid-October to mid-November is a visit from Arizona St., which was a disastrous matchup for the Utes last year, ending in a 37-7 loss. Utah hasn't made up that much ground against speed, though at least they will get a taste of what's in store the next week at Oregon.
Colorado is simply in over their head at this point. Though they will get an All-Conference grade receiver back in Paul Richardson, who missed all of last year with a knee injury, and it appears that Connor Wood will claim the quarterback position, by default if nothing else, the Buffs' defense has a lot of work to do to improve to mediocre.
First year head coach Mike MacIntyre has Colorado starting over for the second time in 3 seasons, and its going to take time to build the depth of talent to win more than occasionally in the Pac-12.
(Photos by Andy Wooldridge)