The Pac-12 is the next best thing to the SEC in college football, even if it still doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves.
With all due respect to the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12, the Pac-12 has snuck up in recent years to become the strongest contender to the SEC’s supremacy. And the Pac-12 has risen up the charts without a ton of help from USC, the school most associated with the conference through the decades.
The unrivaled powerbrokers of the league are Oregon and Stanford, North Division schools that have been to BCS bowl games in each of the last three years, four in the case of the Ducks. The Cardinal wore the league crown a season ago, remarkable since it occurred the year after Andrew Luck had graduated. Head coach David Shaw has the program here to stay, built once again this year around a stout defense and a physical O-line that helps make everyone around it more effective.
The Ducks’ quest for a fourth Pac-12 title in the last five years comes with a twist: Chip Kelly is now leading a different flock of birds, the Philadelphia Eagles. While the talent, from QB Marcus Mariota to playmaker De’Anthony Thomas, is every bit as potent as it’s been in recent seasons, Oregon will have to prove it can still roll with the same consistency now that Mark Helfrich is calling the shots. The Ducks and the Cardinal meet at Stanford Stadium on Nov. 7 in a tilt that’ll have major national reverberations.
Oregon and Stanford patrol the gates of the North Division much the way Clemson and Florida State rule the ACC Atlantic. Looking to narrow the divide on the Ducks and the Cardinal this fall are Washington and Oregon State. The Huskies are pining to get over the hump following three straight 7-6 seasons under Steve Sarkisian. They return an abundance of talent, but need Keith Price to be the quarterback he was two years ago. The Beavers want to keep the momentum going after improving by six wins in 2012. Mike Riley will use August to decide whether to anoint Cody Vaz or Sean Mannion as his quarterback. Rebuilding Cal hopes for a shot in the arm from the hiring of head coach Sonny Dykes. Wazzu is banking on a smoother 2013 after experiencing turbulence in Mike Leach’s debut.
Where does USC and head coach Lane Kiffin go from here? The Trojans were a disaster in 2012, flopping in their return to postseason eligibility. Kiffin has new coordinators on both sides of the ball, with Clancy Pendergast holding the blueprint for what Troy hopes will be a defensive revival. The offense will be breaking in a successor to Matt Barkley at quarterback. Cody Kessler outplayed Max Wittek in the spring, round one of a closely-contested battle that continues in the summer.
While USC has been saddled with NCAA sanctions and last year’s eyesore of a campaign, the balance of the South Division has gotten stronger. UCLA has drawn even with its crosstown rival, surprisingly taking nine games and the division in Jim Mora’s Westwood debut in 2012. Arizona State, too, is building a head of steam, returning the majority of starters from last season’s 8-5 squad. The Sun Devils have the cast to be this year’s Pac-12 sleeper. Arizona chose right by hiring Rich Rodriguez. Give the coach more time to recruit his players, and the Cats will be an offensive force. Three years after coming aboard, Utah and especially Colorado are still adjusting to life as members of the Pac-12.
The Pac-12 has it all this year—Heisman threats, exciting races in both divisions and even multiple candidates for a spot in the BCS National Championship Game. Take a bow, Larry Scott. You’ve overseen quite a turnaround in Pac-12 performance and perception, on and off the field, since taking over as league commissioner four years ago.
Team That'll Surprise
Arizona State – After putting down a foundation in 2012, head coach Todd Graham is poised to begin building upon it in 2013. Not only will there be greater stability and familiarity on the sidelines, but the Sun Devils roster is littered with veterans as well. In fact, a whopping 10 players who earned at least honorable mention All-Pac-12 last fall remain in Tempe. The offense is in the capable hands of QB Taylor Kelly, who’ll be joined in the backfield by the rising duo of Marion Grice and DJ Foster. The D is loaded, from playmakers Will Sutton and Carl Bradford in the front seven to Alden Darby and Osahon Irabor on the back end. While ASU is not in the same discussion as Oregon or Stanford yet, there’s no reason it can’t face the Ducks or the Cardinal on Dec. 7 as the representative of the South Division.
Team That'll Disappoint
Arizona – After rocketing out of the gate in Rich Rodriguez’s sideline debut, the Wildcats could be in for a little letdown this season. Now, that’s not to suggest that RichRod isn’t an ideal fit in Tucson. He absolutely is. But 2013 brings a new set of challenges for the program, such as losing two-thirds of the triumvirate that helped make the offense hum last fall. QB Matt Scott graduated, leaving behind a wake of uncertainty, and All-Pac-12 WR Austin Hill tore his ACL on April 13. And while an extra year of experience can only help Jeff Casteel’s maligned D, the unit still begins the new season as a liability. While opening with Northern Arizona, UNLV and UTSA improves bowl-eligibility odds, quality wins will be harder to come by for the 2013 Cats.
Game of the Year … Oregon at Stanford, Nov. 7
There have been plenty of enormous Thursday night games over the years in college football. This one between the Pac-12’s two favorites has a chance to rank among the biggest. The winner of this mega-clash likely captures the North Division, and probably goes on to represent the league in Pasadena. Of course, that could mean Pasadena on New Year’s Day or Pasadena five days later, with a national title at stake. Last year’s meeting at Autzen Stadium was a thriller won by the visitors. This fall’s game should be every bit as exciting, and might be even more impactful on the national landscape. The Ducks offense vs. the Cardinal D alone will be worth clearing the schedule to catch every play of this entertaining matchup.
5 Big-Time Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight...
1. LB Morgan Breslin, Sr. USC
2. LB Eric Kendricks, Jr. UCLA
3. RB Marion Grice, Sr. Arizona State
4. WR Brandin Cooks, Jr. Oregon State
5. TE Colt Lyerla, Jr. Oregon
Coach on the Hot Seat
Lane Kiffin, USC – Few coaches, if any, in the FBS are staring at more pressure to turn things around in 2013 than Kiffin, the face of last season’s second-half derailment. Hailed for keeping the program on the tracks in 2011, the lightning rod coach is in danger of squandering more of his job security if the Trojans even resemble the squad that went 1-5 down the stretch last fall. USC began 2012 with the hope of exploding out of the NCAA slammer by not only competing for a Pac-12 title, but national supremacy as well. It never happened. In fact, the Trojans degenerated into one of the biggest disappointments in recent memory, plummeting from No. 1 in the preseason AP poll to 7-6 following an utterly embarrassing effort in the Sun Bowl. It’s not as if Kiffin has the undying love and support of AD Pat Haden, so it could be win-or-else time at Heritage Hall.
5 Non-Conference Games the Pac-12 better take very, very seriously
1. Tennessee at Oregon, Sept. 14
2. Utah State at USC, Sept. 21
3. San Jose State at Stanford, Sept. 7
4. Oregon State at San Diego State, Sept. 21
5. Washington vs. Illinois, Sept. 14
Bold Predictions …
- The winner of the game between Oregon and Stanford in Northern California on Nov. 7 will face the SEC champion for the final BCS National Championship on Jan. 6 in Pasadena.
- No team in America will yield fewer yards per carry this season than Stanford. The Cardinal front seven is big and physical that even Urban Meyer might be a little envious.
- For the second year in a row, a lightly-recruited offensive tackle named Fisher from the state of Michigan will soar up NFL Draft boards. Oregon linemen Jake Fisher is one of a number Ducks about to bloom in a big way in 2013.
- Oregon will be Oregon, with or without Chip Kelly. At least in the short-term, the Ducks won’t skip a beat with Mark Helfrich in charge.
- Menacing UCLA pass rusher Anthony Barr will knock out a USC quarterback for the second straight season, forcing the Trojans to once again employ the services of a backup for their bowl game. Barr is so good that he’ll encourage other coaches to sift through their offensive spare parts to mine a defensive stud.
- UCLA QB Brett Hundley will sorely miss RB Johnathan Franklin, yet still display enough development to feel comfortable leaving for the NFL Draft at the conclusion of his sophomore year.
- USC WR Nelson Agholor will bloom into a Pac-12 star playing on the opposite side as Marqise Lee. Agholor performed in the offseason much the way Lee did a year ago, taking his first steps toward stepping out of an older teammate’s shadow.
- Lane Kiffin will survive to coach another year at Troy, earning his biggest attaboys for the hiring of new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Pendergast will transform USC into an attacking crew that maximizes the physical ability of the players he inherited.
- Coordinator Justin Wilcox will accept his first head coaching position after turning last year’s youthful and inconsistent U-Dub defense into a feisty and reliable unit.
- Washington QB Keith Price will recapture his 2011 form, helping turn the Huskies into the Pac-12’s most prolific attack this side of Eugene.
- Cody Vaz and Sean Mannion are deadlocked in a tight race to become the starting quarterback at Oregon State. In the end, Mike Riley’s final decision won’t matter much, since both players will take a bunch of snaps, either because of injuries or ineffectiveness.
- Arizona State DT Will Sutton will have a better overall season than South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney, yet he won’t get nearly as much publicity or attention for national individual honors.
- Arizona State will win the Pac-12 South, while upsetting Notre Dame in Arlington, Tex. on Oct. 5. The Sun Devils have a high ceiling this year, bolstered by the return of 15 starters.
- The Arizona D will take a big step forward in 2013, especially in the areas of sacks and takeaways, yet will still get trucked repeatedly on the ground. The unit is too small to hold up against physical opponents.
- No Cal Bear will benefit more from the arrival of head coach Sonny Dykes than WR Bryce Treggs. The sophomore is about to go from unknown nationally to Biletnikoff Award contender overnight.
- NFL scouts will flock to Berkeley to see NT DeAndre Coleman in action. The senior has had a relatively quiet career, but is ready to explode now that he’s down to his final year of eligibility.
- Wazzu will continue to get too much credit because of the presence of its head coach. Mike Leach is a terrific head coach. He is not a magician. The Cougars need more time to build its depth and overall base of talent.
- The lines will be anchored by all-stars on both sides of the ball in Salt Lake City. Utes Jeremiah Poutasi and Tenny Palepoi have untapped reservoirs of potential on offense and defense, respectively, that will begin reaching the surface in 2013.
- Colorado will play like a very different team now that Mike MacIntyre has supplanted Jon Embree on the sidelines. Still, the progress won’t be detectable in the standings until at least 2014.
5 Best Pro Prospects
1. WR Marqise Lee, Jr. USC
2. LB Anthony Barr, Sr. UCLA
3. CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Jr. Oregon
4. OG David Yankey, Sr. Stanford
5. DT Will Sutton, Sr. Arizona State
5 Biggest Shoes to Fill
1. QB Cody Kessler or Max Wittek for Matt Barkley, USC
2. RB Jordon James for Johnathan Franklin, UCLA
3. DT Tenny Palepoi for Star Lotulelei, Utah
4. TE David Dudchock for Zach Ertz, Stanford
5. C Marcus Martin for Khaled Holmes, USC