2013 College Football Preview: Pac-12 North

If the beauty of college football lies in the diversity of cultures, scenery and style of play, the Pac-12 is as vibrant a conference as any in America.  Whether it’s tailgating on yachts in Lake Washington or seeing a who’s who of Hollywood celebrities in Los Angeles, unique is certainly a word to describe the schools of the Pac-12.  On the gridiron, Oregon and Stanford have been BCS mainstays while the men of Troy rebuild after NCAA sanctions.  Perhaps more important than the performances of heavyweights like the Ducks or Trojans is the continued improvement of teams like Arizona State, Arizona and Washington in rebuilding the conference’s image.  Is 2013 the year the Ducks make it back into the national championship game?  Or will Stanford play spoiler and repeat as conference champions?  Is this the year things fall in place for USC?  Who will be the next Pac-12 program placed under NCAA investigation?  We’re only a few weeks from kickoff and hopefully finding out the answer to these questions as they play out.  For now,  hang ten, take in the sunny California sun and enjoy Place to Be Nation’s 2013 Pac-12 preview!

The Pac-12 is home to some of the most majestic scenery in college football.
The Pac-12 is home to some of the most majestic scenery in college football.


Projected record: 10-2 (7-2)

DeAnthony Thomas could be the most explosive player in America.
DeAnthony Thomas could be the most explosive player in America.

Oregon’s Chip Kelly took the Ducks to four BCS bowls in each season as head coach.  Despite the disparity between the Pac-12’s traditional powers and everyone else, Kelly built Oregon into one of the most formidable football programs in America (with a little help from Nike’s Phil Knight), vying for a national title in 2010.  This fall, instead of calling plays in Eugene, he will be taking his talents to the bitter Philadelphia cold (and fans) in the NFL.  How will Oregon fare without one of college football’s most unique, exciting and talented head coaches?  In year one post-Chip, Oregon retains enough talent to continue dominating the Pac-12 including perhaps college football’s most explosive offensive player DeAnthony Thomas.  Oregon comes into 2013 fresh off a thorough beating of Bill Snyder’s impressive Kansas State Wildcats in the Fiesta Bowl, after a season that saw Oregon reach number one in the AP poll for the second time in school history and a loss from Stanford away from perhaps their second appearance in the national championship game in three years.

Key Additions and Losses: Oregon loses head coach Chip Kelly to the Philadelphia Eagles.  Chip Kelly took a good Oregon program, put on some Nike and ‘Just Did It’, turning Oregon into the most formidable football team this side of Tuscaloosa.  Many of Kelly’s recruited players remain intact, however Doak Walker award finalist and All-American Kenjon Barner left Oregon for the NFL.  Barner, despite not being the Pac-12’s leading rusher, was perhaps the most explosive and dynamic running back in all of college football in 2012.  Oregon brought in the #22 nationally ranked recruiting class in 2013, which might sound surprising, considering how Oregon has dominated the BCS rankings under Chip Kelly.  However, looking at the class in depth shows the strength of Kelly’s recruiting, that being bringing players to Eugene who are suited specifically for the Oregon system (look to Oregon QB Marcus Mariota for a good idea) in spite of their rankings on national recruiting services.  Thomas Tyner, one of America’s top running backs in the class of 2013, chose Oregon over Pac-12 rivals USC and Washington, Tyner joins the Ducks alongside the dynamic duo of Tyrell and Tyree Robinson and offensive linemen Cameron Hunt and Evan Voeller.  Despite his absence, head coach Mark Helfrich seemed to have learned his recruiting strategy as Kelly’s understudy and Oregon’s freshman class will not be lacking in speed or pure athleticism.

Key Games: Perhaps the biggest reason Oregon is favored to yet again win the Pac-12 is a favorable schedule compared to rival Stanford.  The Pac-12 North, and Pac-12 title, could very well be decided by one loss.  Out of conference, Oregon travels to Nevada and plays a rebuilding Tennessee at home.  In conference, watch out for Oregon’s matchup with Stanford in Palo Alto, which will be a must win for the Ducks if they want to claim a Pac-12 title in 2013.  Oregon also plays potentially dangerous games at Arizona and Washington.  Oregon will likely play itself into the national championship game if it sweeps all three, but should still find itself into the Pac-12 championship game if it loses two games in conference (most likely Stanford and Washington).

Better…or worse?: On paper, enough key pieces are left in place from Chip Kelly’s time in Eugene to predict anything but another great season for the Ducks.  In Oregon’s case, however, it’s hard to argue that their 2012 and 2011 iterations were not superior to the team that played Auburn for a national championship in 2010.  So much of college football is predicated on how others play when it comes to the BCS system that it’s tough to gauge who is better or worse when you get into top ten territory.  Given their incredible run the past four years, Oregon could very well mount another top ten finish in the BCS and have a lesser squad than in 2012.  Still, it’s hard to bet against an offense that includes Marcus Mariota and DeAnthony Thomas.  Oregon’s videogame offense should be alive and well in 2013.

Final Thoughs: Oregon is the favorite to win the Pac-12 in 2013, but the importance of losing a coach as talented as Chip Kelly cannot be understated.  Oregon will likely score a lot of points (per usual), but there are serious questions on defense, particularly in the linebacker corps.  One extremely bright star on the defense should be DB Ifo-Ekpre Olomu who is good enough to find himself not only on all-conference lists but the All-American team before it’s all said and done.  Oregon’s fielded an efficient defense that did enough to cover its offense while it went to work, the same should suffice in 2013.  One game could potentially sway the division (and conference) in Stanford’s favor (or Washington) if the Cardinal play to Oregon’s level throughout the season and take the head to head matchup in Palo Alto.  If Oregon’s new look coaching staff can stay true to the ideas that gave birth to their tear through the Pac-12 there could be no drop off for the Ducks in 2013 and with potential Heisman finalists at quarterback and running back, the sky is the limit.

2. Stanford Cardinal

Projected record: 9-3 (6-3)

Stanford will rely on solid production from QB Kevin Hogan
Stanford will rely on solid production from QB Kevin Hogan.
 Despite losing a once in a lifetime quarterback and head coach, Stanford has refused to rebuild instead of reload, winning the Pac-12 championship in 2012.  Stanford’s 2012 Rose Bowl season was one of the most impressive efforts in all of college football last year, and the Cardinal look to build on their forward momentum in pushing Oregon and USC aside to win the Pac-12 championship again in 2013.

Key Additions and Losses: Tight End Zach Ertz and RB Stepfan Taylor were drafted to the NFL last offseason after being top performers at their positions nationally.  Stanford’s run heavy, strong up front offense demands production and reliability out of the offensive line, running backs and tight ends post Andrew Luck, more similarly to SEC or Big 10 teams than their Pac-12 counterparts.  Stanford has built in issues with recruiting due to their academic standards, so talent development will be key in turning out production from the 2013 recruiting class.  Defensive Back Sean Barton is Stanford’s highest rated 2013 recruit and addresses a serious need in the defensive secondary.

Key Games: Stanford hosts a respectable San Jose State squad in out of conference and perhaps a very formidable Notre Dame later in the season.  Alongside the USC Trojans, Stanford’s matchup with USC could very well decide their fate in the division and conference standards, predicated on the national championship runner up’s strength in 2013.  The Pac-12 gods didn’t do Stanford any further favors by making the Cardinal travel to both Oregon State and USC, the Beavers coming off of one of the greatest turnarounds in recent college football history, and USC fielding a star studded team with a coach who is only two days away from retirement  playing every week with his job on the line.

Better…or worse?: I really, really like the 2013 Stanford Cardinal.  Stanford has found its groove in college football by playing a traditional, strong, smash mouth brand of football in the face of cutting edge, flashy offenses and will likely field the Pac-12 North’s best defense.  If head coach David Shaw finds himself on the outside looking in come championship season, won’t necessarily be a reflection of Stanford’s talent, or ability.  Stanford received a favorable bounce in 2012 en route to the Pac-12 crown and trips to Oregon State, USC and home matchups against Notre Dame and Oregon give very little, if any room for error given Oregon’s schedule.  Stanford could very well find themselves runner-ups in the Pac-12 North and in the hunt for a BCS bowl come January.  Better or worse?  That’s up for interpretation.  Stanford will likely be a better team in 2013, even if they don’t repeat as Rose Bowl champions.

Final Thoughs: I have a hard time not feeling confident saying Stanford will be one of college football’s ten best teams in 2013.  It was essentially a flip of the coin choosing between Stanford and Oregon in picking the Pac-12’s champion, but the addition of the Notre Dame game and travels to a good Oregon State and potentially great USC swayed things in the favor of Nike University.  There are a lot of things going Stanford’s way in 2013, another promising duo of young tight ends and a pair of oustanding linebackers in Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy playing in what should be a good defense by conference standards.  Stanford produced a very efficient, but not explosive, offense in 2012.  This season will continue in building sophomore QB Kevin Hogan who has had the unfortunate task of filling in Andrew Luck’s shoes as the Cardinal signal caller.  Fortunately for Stanford, they don’t need Hogan to be Luck v 2.0, David Shaw just needs his QB to be productive enough to keep a defense honest, and respect the passing attack complimenting one of the Pac-12’s best rushing offenses.

3. Washington Huskies

Projected record: 9-3 (6-3 tie break loss to Stanford)

Bishop Sankey is a proven weapon out of the Washington backfield.
Bishop Sankey is a proven weapon out of the Washington backfield.

Maybe the Huskies aren’t reliving the Don James years just yet, but 2013 is the best chance head coach Steve Sarkasian has to break the 7-5 ceiling he’s rammed his head on the past three seasons.  Sarkasian has done a respectable job quelling Tyrone Willingham’s dumpster fire but fans in Montlake are expecting more as the Huskies kick off their 2013 campaign alongside heavyweights Stanford and Oregon.  Washington returns a very solid amount of talent that puts them solidly in the upper half of the Pac-12 at large and there are enough opportunities in the Huskies schedule to prove themselves as being ready to take the next step and competing for the division title.

Key Additions and Losses: The Huskies lost star cornerback Desmond Trufant to the NFL.  Marcus Peters seems to be a lock in replacing Trufant’s spot on the Husky defense.  Washington returns a solid number of starters in 2013 and brings in a very solid recruiting class, rated higher than both Oregon and Stanford by most national recruiting services.  The 2013 freshman class includes highly recruited quarterback prospect Troy Williams and WR Darrell Daniels.  Washington’s recruiting edge could play in their favor for years to come, but the Cougars will have to rely on their returning starters to get the ball rolling in 2013 if they hope to make noise this season and make a surprising run at the division crown.

Key Games: Washington wastes no time in proving themselves by hosting Boise State in their first game of the season.  The Cougars also travel to Illinois, Arizona State, Stanford, UCLA, and Oregon State.  Perhaps it’s an exaggeration to say this schedule is a “gauntlet”, but it could very well prove to be poisonous to a team that has failed to break the seven win ceiling.  Washington has enough potential to claw its way alongside Stanford or Oregon as the second best Pac-12 North team, but if they do, it will likely be as tried and true road warriors.  Despite their returning talent, the number of Pac-12 contenders the Huskies face on the road is the most likely reason they will fall short in the division title race.

Better…or worse?: It is certainly contradictory, but the Huskies have been progressively better under Steve Sarkasian despite posting the same record the past three seasons.  Given their trajectory pre-Sarkasian, the level of play and talent Washington has brought into and around the program only bodes well to the future.  It’s just as feasible to see Washington finish 7-6 as it is 9-3, but at the preseason mark, the talent and potential behind QB Keith Price and star RB Bishop Sankey Jr.  is the best it has ever been, if Washington is taking the step forward, this is their year.  Keith Price will have the benefit of throwing to the Pac-12 and perhaps the nation’s best tight end, Austin-Seferian Jenkins as a safety valve.  Washington has an impressive amount of talent on offense.

Final Thoughs:  Washington has waded in and out of ‘sexy pick’ territory for a handful of years now, mostly behind the promise of Jake Locker that perhaps was never fully realized.  The good thing about the 2013 Washington Huskies is by in large, they’re not expected to perform at Oregon or Stanford’s level.  Given their number of returning starters, this could bode well for the purple and gold faithful.   Washington will have to prove itself on the road, but there are plenty of opportunities for the Huskies to crack the polls and stay comfortably in the top 25 through year’s end.  It’s unlikely that Washington competes for the Pac-12 title, but I fully expect Washington to throw off my predictions at some point and upset a Pac-12 powerhouse this fall and put at least an earnest effort in vying for the Pac-12 North title.

4.  Oregon State Beavers

Projected record: 7-5 (5-4)

Brandin Cooks is one of many elite WRs coming out of the Pac-12 this season.
Brandin Cooks is one of many elite WRs coming out of the Pac-12 this season.
Oregon State performed one of the most downright impressive turnarounds in recent college football history last season.  Oregon State finished the season with 9 wins, ranked in both the AP and coaches polls after winning only 3 games in 2011.  Not three conference games, but three games total.  Oregon State played the role of Cinderella (if that exists outside of college basketball) in 2012, but the Beavers might realize that the battles on Saturdays will only prove to be tougher once respect has been earned.  Oregon State finds itself treading the line between hunter and the hunted in 2012, hoping to play spoiler while avoiding the target on their back from Pac-12 teams looking for revenge.

Key Additions and Losses: The Beavers lost WR Markus Wheaton and CB Jordan Poyer to the NFL draft.  However, Oregon State brings in a respective top 40 recruiting class in 2013, having to compete recruit for recruit against heavy hitters such as Oregon, USC, Cal, UCLA and Arizona State.  Highlighting Oregon State’s class is DB Dashon Hunt who turned down offers from programs like Nebraska and Washington to play for the Beavers.

Key Games: Oregon State faces a possible upset special early at the San Diego State Aztecs, but rebounds with winnable road trips against both Washington State and Cal shortly after.  Where Oregon State can continue to maintain forward momentum in 2013 is stealing a game while hosting Stanford, USC and Washington this season.  Oregon State has the talent to win at least one of these games and it’d surely be a missed opportunity if Oregon State couldn’t take advantage of the favorable scheduling getting all three teams at home.

Better…or worse?:  Like Washington, this is almost a trick question.  Oregon State will trot out a similar level of talent as last year, the same year they bounced around the top 25 and challenged for the Pac-12 crown until the final weeks of the season.  That being said, the Beavers will likely find out that playing the underdog is significantly easier than being a formidable foe on everyone’s schedule.  WR Brandin Cooks is a special player and a proven commodity from last season.

Final Thoughts: There’s not a single team in America that will overlook Oregon State, much less in the Pac-12.  Given the talent that the rest of the Pac-12 North retains, it’s unlikely Oregon State reaches the peaks they climbed towards in 2012.  Let’s not forget that at one point, Oregon State was well inside the top 10 before somewhat being exposed as the competition improved.  Oregon State fans have a lot to be proud of last year, and it’s likely that Oregon State will field another good team in 2013, but respect will be harder to earn as the opposition gives the Beavers their full focus and effort week in and week out.

5. California Golden Bears

Projected record: 3-9 (2-7)

Sonny Dykes led one of the nation's most exciting offenses at Louisiana Tech in 2012.
Sonny Dykes led one of the nation’s most exciting offenses at Louisiana Tech in 2012.
Cal reached respectable highs under ousted coach Jeff Tedford but seemed to be heading nowhere fast.  Out goes Tedford, in comes hot prospect Sonny Dykes to helm the Golden Bears in what could be one of the offseason’s best new hires.  Cal currently does highlight a problem the Pac-12 faces in national reputation, the disparity between the bottom of the conference and the handful of teams at the top is perhaps a wider gap than in any other BCS conference in America.  Still, Cal is not a perennial doormat, produces a fairly high level of NFL talent and has very solid support from the university and donors.  The pieces are certainly there for Dykes to turn the program around much quicker than other rebuilding jobs in the conference.

Key Additions and Losses: For better or for worse, the Jeff Tedford era is over.  Tedford kept Cal a respectable program for most of his tenure and recruited a good group of NFL talent through the program, but it had become increasingly apparent he had worn out his welcome, bottoming out with a 3-9 record in 2012.  Despite their record, Cal lost a respectable amount of talent to the NFL Draft including WR Keenan Allen, C Brian Schwenke, and CB Steve Williams.  QB Zach Maynard is also gone, leaving an open competition for the starting quarterback job.  Year one of the Sonny Dyke era sees a middling recruiting class in the mid 30s on most national recruiting databases, but like division brother Stanford, Cal does inherit some built in recruiting disadvantages due to academics.  RB Khalfani Muhammad highlights the 2013 class, turning down an offer to Notre Dame (among others) to suit up for the Bears.

Key Games: Cal opens the season against feel good Big 10 story Northwestern, a game that is a coin toss away from a win or loss.  Two weeks later, Cal faces national title dark horse Ohio State.  Both of these matchups are at home, but coming off a three win season, Cal should be thrilled if they split, taking the game against Northwestern and showing up respectably against the Buckeyes.  The season doesn’t get any easier, having to travel to Oregon, UCLA, Washington and Stanford.  Cal gets Oregon State, Arizona and USC at home.  Watch out for the Arizona game as a possible upset.

Better…or worse?: After winning three games in 2012, the verdict will be out on Sonny Dykes until 2014.  Winning four, or five games in the Pac-12 is not necessarily an iron clad guarantee that your program is heading in the right direction.  A marquee win against someone like USC would be huge in building momentum into next season, but beating on fellow basement dwellers will mean little until Dykes gets his own players into the Cal program.  Given how long the program stood behind Tedford, Dykes has a little bit of time to build his product.

Final Thoughts: Cal will be rebuilding in 2013, but it will be interesting to see if the high powered offense Dykes ran at Louisiana Tech will succeed in the Pac-12.  Given the dynamic nature of the Pac-12’s best offenses, there’s reason to be optimistic, but like anywhere else, your offense will be only as good as the players that run it.  There’s often a little bit of mismatching and square pegs fitting into round hole when a new coach tries to run his offense with another coach’s players and for this reason alone it’s hard to be too optimistic about Cal taking a huge stride forward in 2013.  The offensive line and quarterback positions are probably not at a level it needs to be yet, but Cal has a solid weapon in RB Brendan Bigelow to at least give fans a taste of the possibilities of the new look Bears offense heading into the future.

6. Washington State Cougars

Projected record: 3-9 (1-8)

Mike Leach will depend on Gabe Marks to to take a big step forward in the air raid offense.
Mike Leach will depend on Gabe Marks to to take a big step forward in the air raid offense.
 Head coach Mike Leach looks to get the air raid sirens blaring again in Pullman, WA as he enters year two as the head coach of the Wazzu Cougars.  Mike Leach is considered one of the finest offensive minds in all of college football and while year one at the helm yielded negligible results, there are reasons for optimism among the Washington State hopeful.

Key Additions and Losses: Washington State lost WR Marquess Wilson to the NFL Draft in 2013 along with 19 other lettermen.  That’s a significant loss, but in year two of a new coach, most bets are hedged on the players the new staff will bring in the next consecutive recruiting classes.  QB Tyler Bruggman will be the helm of Mike Leach’s offense once the current crop of starters leave.  Mike Leach proved at Texas Tech that he’s capable of bringing in talent perfectly suited for his pass heavy offense but it will be interesting to see whether being out of the fertile Texas recruiting ground poses too steep a disadvantage to properly run up the scoreboard at Wazzu.

Key Games: It is crucial for Washington State to win the games they are expected to win.  As it stands right now, that consists of Southern Utah and Idaho.  I’m optimistic that Leach has enough going for him to topple Utah, but if there’s such a thing as a statement game for Wazzu this season it’s the opener against Auburn.  Auburn is breaking in a new coach off of a disastrous season and a win at Auburn would be absolutely huge for the Cougars.

Better…or worse?: Long story short, should be better but not by much.  Leach inherited quite the mess at Washington State and the Cougar’s have been futile for nearly a decade.  It will take considerable time to turn the ship around.  The talent on both offense and defense is not yet where it needs to be to catch up with the rest of the Pac-12 at large.  A breakout effort from WR Gabe Marks could go a long way in proving the explosiveness of Leach’s offense, but there’s not enough size on defense to consistently calm the other potent offenses the Cougs will face for most of the season.

Final Thoughts: Wazzu fans should remain patient and cautiously optimistic on their Cougars.  The bottom of the Pac-12 is so tremendously bad that it will take a considerable effort from donors, fans and the actual coaching staffs to turn many of these programs around.  It’s important for Washington State to show some explosiveness throughout the season on offense, and the Cougars should try to take advantage of their speed and athleticism on defense to make up for a lack of size up front.  Turnovers can go a long way in masking an undersized defense.

Join us Friday when Todd continues his Pac-12 preview by looking at the South division.