The college football season is only a few short days away, and Sports & Swag is top of all of the action! Today, we start out on the left coast, and take a look at the PAC-12. Always one of the more interesting conference races. This year should be no different. Obviously, the front-runners look to be Oregon and Stanford, but there’s a lot of depth to this league. Let’s take a look……….
Champion: Stanford Cardinal
1. Stanford Cardinal, welcome 14 (6 offense/8 defense) returning starters back to a team, that was about a half yard from replacing Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship game. Soph. QB Kevin Hogan, took over as starter late in the season and went 5-0 (4-0 vs. ranked teams/ 2-0 vs. UCLA). Offense struggled some last season, but I love their physicality. Defense should be rugged as usual. Stanford has a tough schedule, but most are at home including Oregon and Notre Dame. Upset alert? at Oregon St. 10/26.
2. Oregon Ducks, saw former head coach Chip Kelly leave for ‘greener’ NFL pastures. Former offensive coordinator, Mark Helfrich takes over head coach duties, so the offense should be fine. If there are any kinks in the armor, the Ducks have time to gel before facing meat of the schedule. Soph. QB Marcus Mariota and Jr. RB De’Anthony Thomas are back, and both are legit Heisman candidates. So the Ducks will score plenty of points, and the D should be stingy. Schedule wise, the Ducks don’t play USC or Arizona St. from the south, but have the aforementioned road trip to Stanford. Upset alert? at Washington 10/12.
3. Oregon St. Beavers, starting QB situation is cloudy, but both candidates Sr. Cody Vaz and Jr. Sean Mannion each had their moments in 2012. Sounds like a game by game situation, to decide the starter. Head coach, Mike Riley should be able to figure that out by the time the Beavers play host to Stanford 10/26 (Homecoming). By the way, that’s game 8. Yes, Oregon St. could very well be 7-0 heading into that possible showdown. Keep an eye on the Beavers.
4. Washington Huskies, are back in remodeled Husky Stadium, and are improving slowly but surely under head coach Steve Sarkisian, and return 18 starters (10 offense/8 defense)! I can easily see the Huskies finishing ahead of Oregon St, but the two teams meet in Corvallis, which should be advantage Beavers. The Huskies schedule is tougher than Oregon St’s also. That doesn’t mean Washington won’t step up and pull a shocker somewhere. Keep an eye on that 10/12 meeting with Oregon. Sr. QB Keith Price is back and is one of the most underrated in the country, at his position.
5. Washington St. Cougars, have 16 returning starters of their own, and for that reason I keep them slightly ahead of Cal for 5th in Pac-12 North. It’s going to be another tough season for head coach Mike Leach, and company. Leach’s, magic touch with an offense hasn’t quite set in with the Cougars, but it’s coming. Jr. Connor Halladay looks to be the starter at QB, but the running game has to improve (29 yds per game, Last FBS!). Defense has 9 returners and should be able to improve from last season (9th in Pac-12).
6. California Golden Bears, nearly pulled a couple of upsets last season, including at ‘The Shoe’ vs Ohio St. The Bears came up just short, but games like that give some hope. Jr. Brendan Bigelow should be solid at RB, but QB could be another story. RS-Fr. Zach Kline looks to be the starter there. Cal’s schedule is brutal, also. In addition to hosting Big 10 powers, Northwestern and Ohio St, the Golden Bears play all the top teams from the South, except for Arizona St. Tough deal for Mike Leach and company.
Champion: Arizona St. Sun Devils
1. Arizona St. Sun Devils, return 15 starters (7 offense / 8 defense), to a team that finished top 5 in PAC-12, offensively and defensively. You would think those number will improve. 2nd year head coach, Todd Graham will call on Jr. Taylor Kelly to be starting QB. Marion Grice gives the ASU solid play at running back, but the passing game has to come along if the Sun Devils are to reach their goals this season. Neither Arizona St., nor USC play Oregon, but the Sun Devils host the Trojans 9/28, which is why I give them the slight edge to win this division.
2. USC Trojans, has no problems talent wise. Jr. WR Marquise Lee is one of the best in the nation, and is a solid threat to win the Heisman with his versatility. He’s a threat whether catching the ball or returning a kick. Matt Barkley is gone, so head coach Lane Kiffin will count on Soph. Max Wittek. The Trojans weren’t that great in the air last season, so a huge drop off shouldn’t be expected. I do expect USC to be very competitive. They take a backseat to no one in talent level. Depth has been a huge problem, but is slowly getting better. The Trojans are capable of winning the South and knocking off a top North foe, but don’t count on either happening. The Trojans also have their annual game with Notre Dame. Kiffin is squarely on the hot seat. He needs a strong showing and good season in the worst way.
3. UCLA Bruins, have won the last two PAC-12 South titles, but this season they’re the only one of the top 3 that play both Oregon and Stanford from the North. Back to back weeks at that! The USC game is also on the road. The Bruins, with So. QB Brett Hundley are very talented and are probably more complete as a team, than ASU and USC. It’s just difficult to look past 10/19 at Oregon and 10/26 at Stanford. I just don’t see them getting one of those games. At any rate, head coach Jim Mora and the Bruins are headed in the right direction. There is excitement about UCLA football for the first time in a long time.
4. Arizona Wildcats, could really be a sleeper in the PAC-12 this season. Rich Rodriguez coached teams have never been strong defensively. Last season was no different, (39.6 ppg. 11th Pac-12, 96th nationally) but the Wildcats return 11 starters, so improvement is expected. Rodriguez coached teams have no problem scoring. That was the case last season (2nd Pac-12, 34.2 ppg) and with All-American Ka’Deem Carey at running back, Arizona should have no problem this season. The schedule works out ok for Arizona, also. They play Oregon, but miss Stanford from the North. They also get UCLA at home. 3rd place finish possible?
5. Utah Utes, are still trying to adjust to life in the PAC-12. Head coach Kyle Whittingham is in his 9th season, and I think has the Utes headed in the right direction. You’ve always been able to find good talent there, since the days of Urban Meyer. The Utes averaged only 26 points per game last season, and will rely on So. QB Travis Wilson to help improve that stat. Wilson, as a freshman started the last 7 games, and had decent numbers. Only 12 starters (6 each side) return, so Utah is pretty young. The schedule is tough, as Utah miss none of the top 3 from the North (vs. Oregon, at Stanford and Oregon St.).
6. Colorado Buffaloes, are also finding it tough adjusting to the PAC-12. The Buffaloes don’t have much of an excuse though, seeing that they came from the Big 12. Nonetheless, here they are, coming off of a 1-11 2012 campaign. Things can only go up from here, right? 1st year head coach, Mike MacIntyre certainly hopes so. He comes in from San Jose St., after doing an impressive rebuilding of that program. Expect him to turn the Buffs in the right direction. It’s just going to take a little while.
Championship Game: Stanford over Arizona St.
Player of the Year: De’Anthony Thomas – RB, Oregon
Game of the Year: Oregon at Stanford, 11/7
It should be a very exciting season of PAC-12 football. Possibly, ending with Stanford or Oregon in the BCS Title game. I hope you enjoyed our look at the PAC-12. Be on the look out for More conference previews here at Sports & Swag! As always, comments are welcome!