College football returns and the Pac-12 has a bit of a new look this season — trust us DirecTV subscribers, it does.
After four new coaches joined the fray in 2012, three newcomers take over programs at vastly different success levels in 2013.
Mark Helfrich takes over for Chip Kelly at Oregon, and is expected to compete for a BCS title in year one. On the other end of the spectrum, Mike MacIntyre has the task of trying to rebuild a once-proud Colorado program that has won just four games since joining the conference in 2011. Sonny Dykes brings his high-powered offense to Cal to try and return the Golden Bears to prominence after a disastrous 2012 season that ended in three wins and the firing of longtime coach Jeff Tedford.
Here’s what I see unfolding in the Pac-12 over the next three months. Enjoy.
1. UCLA Bruins (9-3, 7-2) – UCLA’s schedule is a bear — at Nebraska, at Stanford, at Oregon, but the Bruins have the inside track on winning the South for the third straight season thanks to the development of QB Brett Hundley.
2. Arizona State Sun Devils (9-3, 7-2) – The Sun Devils have a wealth of talent coming back, including QB Taylor Kelly, RBs Marion Grice and D.J. Foster and playmakers on the defensive side in DT Will Sutton and LBs Carl Bradford and Chris Young. Their game in Pasadena in November should determine the division, but the Devils traditionally don’t play well in Southern California.
3. USC Trojans (8-5, 5-4) – Lane Kiffin is made of Teflon. Seriously. The guy guided the most underachieving team in the nation last year and is back for more. We should all have bosses like Pat Haden. Marqise Lee is back, but who will throw him the ball? Kiffin hasn’t chosen between sophomores Max Wittek and Cody Kessler just yet.
4. Arizona Wildcats (6-6, 3-6) – Another team with a bona fide star on offense in RB Ka’Deem Carey, but questions at quarterback. Everybody’s back from last year’s defense, but is that a good thing? The Wildcats’ D ranked 118th out of 120 FBS teams a year ago.
5. Utah Utes (3-9, 2-7) – Kyle Whittingham’s Utes could be looking at a 1-9 start to the season. Outside of a Week 2 matchup with Weber State, U of U doesn’t have any games that jump off the page as wins until possibly their road game at Washington State in November.
6. Colorado Buffaloes (3-9, 1-8) – Mike MacIntyre was widely hailed as a great hire, but he and his staff have a lot of work to do. The Buffs could be looking at a 2-0 start as they’ve got Colorado State and Central Arkansas in the first two weeks, but wins will be scarce after that.
1. Stanford Cardinal (12-0, 9-0) – A lot of experts are picking the Cardinal to make it to the BCS National Championship Game — and I happen to agree with them. Head coach David Shaw has done a masterful job and has the best defensive unit west of the Mississippi.
2. Oregon Ducks (11-1, 8-1) – Mark Helfrich gets his first crack at being an FBS head coach, and should do fine considering he’s got an almost embarrassing wealth of talent, including QB Marcus Mariota and RB De’Anthony Thomas. But, the Ducks do have to play Stanford in Palo Alto, and that will be the determining factor in the North.
3. Oregon State Beavers (9-3, 7-2) – Mike Riley has picked a starter at quarterback — at least for now, it’s Sean Mannion. But even with the revolving QB system with Mannion and Cody Vaz that was employed a year ago, the Beavs went 9-4. OSU should start 7-0 before the schedule toughens up with the last five against Stanford, USC, Arizona State, Washington and Oregon.
4. Washington Huskies (7-5, 4-5) – If the Huskies can get by Boise State in the opener, they’re looking at a 4-0 start — that’s the good news. The bad news is then they play at Stanford, home against Oregon and at Arizona State in the next three contests.
5. Washington State Cougars (3-9, 1-8) – The Cougs are sloooooooowwwwwly getting better under Mike Leach. But that means they’ll still fall short in their quest for their first bowl bid since 2003.
6. California Golden Bears (2-10, 1-8) – It’s hard to know what to expect from the Bears, with new head coach Sonny Dykes taking over and true freshman quarterback Jared Goff at the controls. Whatever happens, don’t expect too many wins on a schedule that includes non-conference games against Northwestern and Ohio State.
Pac-12 Championship Game: Stanford over UCLA (again)
Offensive Player of the Year: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
Defensive Player of the Year: Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA
Coach of the Year: Mark Helfrich, Oregon
Best Uniforms: California – The Golden Bears’ new look is modern, yet understated. Is that possible? Yes, and they’ve done it.
Best Helmet: Arizona State’s black matte alternate – It just looks bad ass.
Toughest non-conference schedule: (Tie) Cal takes on Northwestern and Ohio State, although both games are in Berkeley, while Arizona State hosts Wisconsin and takes on Notre Dame on a neutral field.
Easiest non-conference schedule: Arizona – the Wildcats will be 3-0 heading into their Pac-12 opener in Seattle after whooping up on Northern Arizona, UNLV and UTSA.
Coach on the hottest seat: Lane Kiffin, USC – Many, including me, were surprised he survived last year. It may take a Pac-12 South crown to save Kiffin’s job this year.
Pac-12 Preseason Rankings