Division Powers: Pac-12 North

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There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Pac-12 is one of the best conferences in the country. The conference has changed vastly since its conception, but one thing has always stayed the same: winning. With the addition of Utah and Colorado three years ago (how time flies), the Pac-12 was split into two divisions: North and South. Though the North division has produced the Pac-12 Conference champions both years, the South division has steadily gained power. The 2014-2015 football season will have top-ranked teams in both divisions, but the two divisions will always have teams in the cellar who need a little bit of help getting up.

Let’s take a look at how the North division rankings shake out in the pre-season:

6. Cal Bears

Cal QB Jared Goff trying to throw the ball during the rain storm against Oregon.

Cal QB Jared Goff tries to throw the ball during the rain storm against Oregon.

1-11 – that was the Bears’ record at the end of the 2013 football season. First-year head coach Sonny Dykes inherited a team with some talent, but a lot needed to change. Though he has now had a year to institute the changes he wanted, the team is still young. Quarterback Jared Goff shows potential, but he still needs time and coaching to fully reach that potential. The rest of the team has little experience and there is truly no single player that stands out. Those in the fan base hoping for a quick climb up the division rankings will be disappointed.

Not helping the Bears at all for the second year in the row is their schedule which is one of the hardest around. Cal is certainly capable of winning more than one game this season, but hoping for much more than three would be wandering into fantasy land.

[Out of conference foes: @Northwestern, Sac State, BYU (in November)]

5. Washington State Cougars

QB Connor Halliday being knocked down by a Duck player

QB Connor Halliday is knocked down by a Duck player.

The 2013 football season brought big improvements for the Washington State Cougars. The team went 6-7 overall and 4-5 in Pac-12 play which was a vast improvement from the previous year. This year the Cougs return a three-year starter in QB Connor Halliday along with offensive and defensive lines that, while not perfect, have some experience and are starting to believe in themselves.

Coach Mike Leach worked wonders in Pullman in his first two seasons there, pulling the team from the bottom of the conference and getting them to the middle of the pack. Leach is known for his fast offensive attacks, but a couple victories last season were largely thanks to the defense. If the team can figure out how to play together and not lose hope even after falling behind early, Wazzu will be a threat to most teams on their schedule.

[ooc schedule: Rutgers (in Seattle), @Nevada, Portland State]

4. Oregon State Beavers

Oregon battling Oregon State in the Civil War

Oregon battling Oregon State in the Civil War.

Last season did not start off the way the Beavers had hoped, with a loss to FCS Eastern Washington. The Beavers bounced back, however, and went on to win their next six games before losing the next five games, followed by a win in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl to close out the season. Looking at the Beavers’ last two games (against Oregon in the Civil War and Hawaii in the bowl game), you have to wonder how good the Beavers could have been if they’d figured out how to run ball earlier in the season. Oregon State’s offense last year seemed to focus mostly on the Sean Mannion-to-Brandin Cooks formula, which worked — until it didn’t.

Now Cooks is gone and Mannion, who was one of the best quarterbacks around last year, will be playing without his first-choice weapon on the field. The Beavers’ defense was young last year and didn’t have much experience. With a year’s worth of learning and in some cases, 12 games under their belts, you have to wonder how good the Beavers can be. With a coach as good as Mike Riley, I don’t anticipate another year of barely batting .500.

[ooc: Portland St., @Hawaii, San Diego St.]

3. Washington Huskies

This past season brought the best record the Huskies had seen in the past 12 years. The last time the Huskies did better than 9-4 overall (5-4 in the Pac-12) was in 2000 when they went 11-1 with Rick Neuheisel as head coach. When, at the end of the season, head coach Steve Sarkisian left to become the head coach at USC, most fans and critics alike were surprised. Those same fans and critics rejoiced, though, when Washington went out and hired Chris Petersen away from Boise State, a feat other big-time college programs had been trying to accomplish for years.

Huskies in the house at Autzen Stadium in 2012.

Huskies in the house at Autzen Stadium in 2012.

With Petersen at the helm, expect the Huskies to avoid taking any steps back and instead to move forward. Washington will be a very real contender in the Pac-12 North race and will likely appear in the Top-25 list at some point in the season. Quarterback Cyler Miles is young but showed promise last year and is now back from a suspension. The team needs to work on its secondary, but that is something that should improve over the summer and during fall camp. The defense was solid last year. It doesn’t lose a lot of players and should be as strong as it was in 2013.

The Huskies start off the season with a fairly easy preseason schedule — playing first at Hawaii and then home against FCS Eastern Washington, Illinois and FCS Georgia State — but their first game in conference play will be against Stanford. They play California after their bye week, then Oregon and Arizona State back-to-back, followed by Colorado and then UCLA. If the Huskies can get through this stretch of their schedule unscathed, they will be riding on top.

2. Stanford Cardinal

Wade Keliikipi pushing Stanford.

Wade Keliikipi pushing Stanford.

Stanford is one of the three teams in the Pac-12 likely to be ranked in the Top-10 at the beginning of the season. The Cardinal had one of the strongest defensive front sevens in the conference. The defensive line was instrumental in helping retain Stanford’s Pac-12 Championship for the second year and end the season with a 11-3 (7-2 Pac-12) record. Though the defense lost some great talent to the NFL, there are still some lesser-known players who will step in to fill the holes and make Stanford’s defense one to be feared once again.

On the offensive side, Quarterback Kevin Hogan threw 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions and has a 16-3 record since he took over as the starter in the middle of the 2012 season. He was a strong playmaker last year and is likely to improve with more time and experience under his belt. Ty Montgomery, one of Hogan’s favorite targets, returns this year. Stanford will add Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector to Hogan’s target list, as well.

One of Stanford’s biggest hurdles this season will be its schedule. After the Cardinal open with UC Davis, they play USC in the second game of the season, plays Army the next week, and then, after a bye, come games @Washington and @Notre Dame in back-to-back weeks. At the end of October Stanford plays Arizona State and Oregon State, and then plays Oregon at the beginning of November. The game against Oregon is already marked on calenders everywhere and if both Oregon and Stanford make it to November 1st undefeated, it will be one of the biggest and best games of the year.

1. Oregon Ducks

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Oregon will be ranked in the Top-25 (and likely the Top-10) at the beginning of the season. The Ducks return almost all their starters and have one of the best quarterbacks in the nation leading the charge. Last season didn’t end the way the Ducks hoped when QB Marcus Mariota injured his knee late in the season. Without one of their best weapons at 100%, the Ducks lost two games and their national titles hopes faded.

The Oregon offense running away with the ball.

The Oregon offense running away with the ball.

This year the Ducks are back and ready to go for a spot in the first-ever College Football Playoff. On the offensive side, Oregon not only returns Mariota but has a lot of experience returning in most positions. Oregon lost its top three receivers to the draft and its most experienced WR Bralon Addison is out for the season with an injury, but there is more than one young and eager player ready to battle for his position. The entire offensive line is talented and has a nice mixture of young and veteran players who will all work to keep defensive coordinators on their toes.

Under new defensive coordinator Don Pellum, the Ducks’ defense will look to prove, once again, how good it really is. With the surprising return of CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, the defense will look to find ways to make the opposing quarterback, receivers and running backs’ lives miserable. DeForest Buckner, Alex Balducci and Arik Armstead, all projected defensive line starters, average 6’6 and 295 lbs. All three spent the off-season in the weight room getting stronger. All the backup spots on the defensive line are filled by either veterans or players with game experience.

Barring any unforeseen injuries, Oregon may very well earn one of the four spots in the College Football Playoff.

[ooc: South Dakota, Michigan St., Wyoming]

The Pac-12 is the deepest conference in the country. The North division by itself holds three potential Top-25 teams, and we haven’t even discussed the South yet.

Top photo by Craig Strobeck

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