As long as Chip Kelly is the head coach in Eugene the Ducks will likely remain at the top of their division. Since Kelly took the reigns in 2009 Oregon has lost only two conference games. They return as the favorite to win the Pac-12 North. They’ll have to replace the school’s all-time leading rusher in LaMichael James. The Ducks also lose the quarterback that led them to two Rose Bowls and a National Championship appearance with Darren Thomas foregoing his senior season.
Oregon is loaded with play makers in almost every position across the board. Bryan Bennett will likely replace Thomas as the starting QB and many think he actually has potential to be even better than his predecessor. Speedsters Kenjon Barner and DeAnthony Thomas will keep Oregon from losing a step from last season. In fact, they’ll probably take a couple of steps forward. With a very favorable schedule, outside of a trip to the Coliseum to face USC, the Ducks could find themselves back in the Pac-12 championship game.
Keith Price could be the best quarterback in the Pac-12. Just don’t tell Matt Barkley. Last year Price outplayed Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III in a shootout at the Alamo Bowl and he returns this year with an accomplished receiving corps led by star tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Washington will have to replace 1,500 yard rusher Chris Polk but should be able to break in Bishop Sankey and Jesse Callier behind an experienced offensive line.
The Huskies made some coaching changes in the off-season by hiring away Tennessee’s defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox who will hope to rejuvenate a defense that was very subpar last season, particularly against the pass. They also poached ace recruiter Tosh Lupoi from Cal. Washington faces an uphill battle from the very start of the season as they open with a tricky San Diego State team and then must travel to face the bayou powerhouse LSU in week 2.
The Cardinal didn’t miss a beat after losing Jim Harbaugh as coach in 2011, but they were able to rely on the greatest Stanford quarterback since John Elway. This year there’s no Harbaugh or Andrew Luck and Stanford will be facing a very real potential drop-off from college football’s elite. They’ll be replacing a number of starters on offense but a crew of blue-chip offensive line recruits should help them hit the ground running. The quarterback race is still unsettled and the receiving corps is youthful.
Most of the defense returns and will continue to be one of the best groups in the Pac-12 but the secondary could use improvement. The impressive linebacking corps led by Jarek Lancaster will carry the defense. Pep Hamilton will have a chance to show that he can win without a proven quarterback and must continue to try to build on the foundation that he helped Harbaugh and Luck build.
Jeff Tedford has been the face of Cal football for most of the past decade but if the Golden Bears can’t get back to competing for the conference championship his well-worn seat might warm up. They’re coming off a 7-6 season with a losing conference record but it didn’t hurt recruiting this off-season. The defense is full of young and talented players so inconsistency is to be expected.
The offense will return a number of experienced starters at the skill positions. Quarterback Zach Maynard and exciting receiver Keenan Allen will have to continue the excellent on-field relationship they had last year to be successful as the Golden Bears have a very rough schedule. A renovated Memorial Stadium will make home games a comfort but unfortunately early tests against USC and Ohio State will both be on the road.
Finally some excitement has been brought to Pullman by way of the scheming pirate Mike Leach. Installment of the air raid offense will be the biggest story this season for the Cougars. Heading into camp Jeff Tuel looked to be the most capable triggerman for Leach’s system. Wazzu will also be able to rely heavily on stud receiver Marquess Wilson who will likely compete for All-American honors.
The defense will most likely be absolutely dismal even though they return a large number of starters. Travis Long is the lone bright spot on a defensive unit that is barren of talent. If the Cougars can be simply acceptable on defense then they have the potential to upset some big names in conference play this year. Mike Leach flying the jolly roger at Wazzu has successfully gotten the brand out to the masses but it will all be for naught if it isn’t accompanied by winning.
Oregon State has had essentially the same coaching staff for the past decade but ever since 2006, (10-4 record), the number in the wins column has decreased more and more. Hopefully for Mike Riley and company last year’s 3-9 was rock bottom. Sean Mannion returns at quarterback and will again have to carry an offense that was dismal in the running game.
Safety Anthony Watkins returns to lead a lousy defense that ranked 84th overall last season. The most talented player for the Beavers defense will be cover-corner Jordan Poyer. With four interceptions last year Poyer has a chance to be one of the best DB’s in the nation this season. The Beavers must win to avoid a house cleaning this winter. Mike Riley won’t survive another three-win season.