Pac 12 football: Conference chasing Oregon, Stanford
Anytime they are asked about the Pac-12, Utah's football players and coaches love to say how the bar keeps getting raised higher.
This year, holding that bar far above the rest of the league are Stanford and Oregon.
The two teams were tops in 2012, with Stanford beating Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, and Oregon beating Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl. The Ducks and Cardinal will play at Stanford on Nov. 7, but that highly anticipated game seems a long ways off. Both programs must negotiate a league full of talent if they want to be a contender for the national title, let alone the Pac-12 crown.
All eyes at the start of the season will be on Oregon, where Mark Helfrich takes over as head coach after serving the last three years as offensive coordinator, replacing Chip Kelly, who has moved on to the NFL.
Kelly led the Ducks to BCS games in each of his four seasons as head coach as his teams ravaged defenses with their relentless spread offense.
Not only does Helfrich have to live up to Kelly's reputation as a winner with a high-powered offense, but he must also do so under the weight of NCAA sanctions. In April, the NCAA saddled the Ducks with three years of probation and a reduction of scholarships for improper use of football scouting services.
Despite the restrictions, Helfrich vows the Ducks won't miss a beat just because the name of the head coach has changed.
"We're going to talk the same, work the same, practice the same," he said. "We're going to tweak the margins. We have guys that grow up, get better."
Leading the Ducks' offense is quarterback Marcus Mariota, a Heisman Trophy candidate whose top competition for the award could be his teammate, De'Anthony Thomas.
Helfrich said the Ducks don't have a lot of depth, but with a guy like Thomas, who rushed 92 times for 701 and 11 touchdowns and had 45 catches for 445 yards and five touchdowns, how much depth does a team really need?
The team that appears to be standing in the way of Oregon's success is Stanford.
The Cardinal have a rising quarterback star in Kevin Hogan, who went 5-0 as a starter last year. This season, he not only has a strong offensive line in front of him, but several talented running backs behind him.
Defensively, the Cardinal return most of their key personnel, including safeties Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards.
Stanford coach David Shaw acknowledged the hype surrounding his team at the Pac-12 media day. He mentioned past failures but said the Cardinal have never forgotten what it's like to be out of the hunt.
"That's how we approach it, and to say that this year is any different than any other, it's just not how we look at it."
They would like a different view at the end of the season.
Jim Mora righted the UCLA program in his first season. Now the Bruins look like a legitimate contender for the Pac-12 title and more. The Bruins return quarterback Brett Hundley, but there are question marks. Running back Johnathan Franklin was a beast for the Bruins, rushing for 1,734 yards and 13 touchdowns. Replacing him will be difficult, so the pressure is on Hundley to be the driving force of the offense this year.
Bottom line: Picked to win the South, the Bruins have earned new national respect under Mora's guidance. Can he and the Bruins prove 2012 wasn't a fluke but a sign of things to come?
2. Arizona State
The Sun Devils had a devil of a time last year maintaining the momentum with which it started the season. ASU opened 5-1, then lost four straight against some of the best teams in the conference. A win over Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl seemed almost empty, given ASU's lack of success against the teams that mattered in the league. This year the Sun Devils are looking for more and return a veteran squad led by quarterback Taylor Kelly. The team still needs to find a solid running back to help Kelly.
Bottom line: The Sun Devils are facing a lot of high expectations, but it could be tough going if ASU can't find a solid run attack.
The 2012 season was all about the hype of Lane Kiffin and his high-powered offense. But the hype turned out to be nothing but hot air as the Trojans fizzled to a 7-6 finish. Forgive us then if we are a bit skeptical about USC this year. One thing is certain, the Trojans, who return 16 starters, do have one of the nation's best players in receiver Marqise Lee. But who will get him the ball? Sophomore Cody Kessler leads the quarterback competition to replace Matt Barkley, but he hasn't been so dominating as to definitively lock down the role.
Bottom line: USC has talent, just like last year. The question vis can Kiffin put all that talent together and be a factor not only in the league race but the national picture? If he doesn't the proverbial hot seat heats up.
Consider the Wildcats the wild card in the Pac-12. Rich Rodriguez coached Arizona to a 8-5 record in his first year and some believe the Wildcats are positioned to be the surprise of the league, particularly since they return the entire defense. Running back Ka'Deem Carey rushed for 1,929 yards and 23 touchdowns last year and has a solid line in front of him. The Wildcats also return their entire defense, which sounds great until one realizes they were the league's worst total defense in 2012.
Bottom line: If the Wildcats can dictate the pace of play with Carey and improve the defense, they could be the upstart team in the league.
Utah's offense still hasn't found the consistency it needs to win, whether it is due to quarterback injuries, coordinator changes or revolving offensive philosophies. The Utes hope they have found a winning combination this year with Dennis Erickson in charge of the offense and quarterback Travis Wilson returning to lead the team. More questionable, though, is Utah's defense. The Utes have talent but it's young and they lack depth in the secondary. Those deficiencies could make for a rough year for the Utes.
Bottom line: Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said Utah's transition to the Pac-12 would take several years. Getting back to a bowl game would be a good step in the right direction.
The Buffs were the doormats of the Pac-12 last year, limping to a 1-11 record with an upset of Washington State the only victory. The Buffs hired Mike MacIntyre from San Jose State to revive the program. However, Colorado is probably still several seasons away from being a player, especially considering quarterback Jordan Webb is lost for the year. Junior Connor Wood is expected to take over the role but he had just limited appearances last year. With all the newness, expect Colorado to emphasize a run game behind Christian Powell, who rushed for 691 yards and seven touchdowns on 158 carries a year ago.
Bottom line: Expectations have been low for the Buffs for several seasons now, and while they might be headed in the right direction, little is expected of them this year.
The Ducks have a returning quarterback, a good group of receivers and a dynamic player in De'Anthony Thomas, who can run as well as catch. The defense is deep too with corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu leading a secondary that is as full of talent as it is depth. The only thing really new to the Ducks is the head coach, but even there it's more of a role change than anything else as former offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich replaces Chip Kelly.
Bottom line: It seems the only thing that might get the better of the Ducks in 2013, at least before the November game against Stanford, could be too much confidence. With that being said, watch out for the Tennessee game as one that could trip up Oregon.
With one of the best offensive lines in the country, expect the Cardinal to continue to buck the trend of relying on the pass and continue to run the ball down opponents' throats with Anthony Wilkerson, Tyler Gaffney and Barry Sanders. Defensively, the Cardinal are a seasoned group, especially on the line. The one area the Cardinal are inexperienced is at receiver, but the way Stanford leans on its run game, that group will have time to adjust and grow.
Bottom line: The Cardinal have a difficult schedule, particularly at the end of the year. But if there is a team that has the depth to handle it, it is Stanford.
3. Oregon State
The Beavers have long lived in the shadow of that other Pac-12 program in the state, but last year's 9-4 mark and several solid recruiting classes have helped the Beavers earn more and more national attention. This year, Oregon State returns a solid group led by receiver Brindin Cooks and running back Storm Woods. Woods rushed for 940 yards and 13 touchdowns last year and look for him to have another big season.
Bottom line: With hopes of making waves in the Pac-12, the Beavers are going to want to have another solid start like they did in 2012 when they opened 6-0. The game at Utah is going to be a good indicator of how the season will go for them.
So will this be the season the Huskies do something? Every year it seems Washington is billed as the team to watch in the league. Every year it seems the Huskies can't quite break through the ceiling. Last year was no different as Washington finished 7-6. But the Huskies seem like loaded and a legitimate team to watch now, with quarterback Keith Price and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins returning. The defense is thought to be solid, but it's the offense everyone will be watching to judge just how good this team can be.
Bottom line: The Huskies open the season against Boise State, and that game will be a good indicator of where coach Steve Sarkisian's program is at.
The Bears have a new coach in Sonny Dykes. They also have a new quarterback, a very new one, in true freshman Jared Goff who only recently was named the starting quarterback. While such a move might cause eyebrows to raise, the Bears have little to lose since expectations aren't high. After going 3-9 in Jeff Tedford's last year as coach, just getting close to .500 would indicate the Bears are heading down the right path.
Bottom line: Cal is all about rebuilding but it won't be a quick turnaround. This is a team that is two or three years removed from being even a mid-league contender.
6. Washington State
Mike Leach often keeps media members laughing during his press conferences with his sharp tongue and quick wit. Unfortunately, his program is the laughingstock of the Pac-12, with one losing season winding into another. The Cougars went 3-9 last year in Leach's first year and not much is expected to change in 2013. Teams love to say you have to run the ball to be successful, and Washington State might be the best example of that related success. WSU averaged just 1.38 yards per carry last year, a number that must improve if the Cougs are to improve as a program.
Bottom line: Keep watching Leach for entertainment value, but is this a program that can threaten in the Pac-12? Not yet. Not by a long stretch.