Oregon, Stanford attempt to dominate Pac-12 again

Oregon and Stanford have given no indication they’re ready to
give up their thrones atop the Pac-12 this fall.

That won’t stop the other 10 schools from working each week to
unseat the best in the West.

The Pac-12 is a deep, talented conference heading into the 2013
season, featuring rosters studded with veteran returnees and
emerging talent. But after Southern California’s much-documented
tumble from preseason hype to late-season embarrassment last year,
there’s no doubt who’s expected to reign again.

”Stanford and Oregon have absolutely earned the right to be up
there on top of the list, and everybody else has to go after that
challenge,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said.

Oregon and Stanford both return fresh off BCS bowl victories
last season, with the Ducks taking the Fiesta Bowl and the Cardinal
winning the Rose Bowl. While the Ducks are under new coach Mark
Helfrich, not much has really changed in Eugene, apart from their
new Taj Mahal of a training center.

The Cardinal host Oregon at Stanford Stadium on Nov. 7. Stanford
beat Oregon 17-14 last season in overtime, but the West Coast
powers realize their meeting is just one step in a season-long test
to see if either team is capable of challenging the SEC for a
national title.

”We all have a gauntlet we’ve got to run,” Stanford coach
David Shaw said. ”That’s what makes the season such a challenge,
and so much fun. Every week it’s a test to see if you can
survive.”

The Pac-12 features its usual bumper crop of exceptional
offensive talent. USC receiver Marqise Lee is back for his junior
season with the Biletnikoff Award already on his shelf, while
do-everything star De’Anthony Thomas should cause another year of
misery for any defense facing Oregon – even if a new coach is
orchestrating the plan.

When Chip Kelly departed for the Philadelphia Eagles just ahead
of NCAA sanctions that turned out to be a slap on the beak,
Helfrich took charge – but no Oregon coach is ever alone in his
quest to build a winner. The Ducks always have help from Nike’s
Phil Knight, who wrote most of the checks for their training center
– a $68 million palace with Italian tile showers, Ferrari leather
chairs and six stories of recruit-enticing opulence.

Mora’s Bruins are the favorites in the South division, but
Arizona State and USC should create a tight race for the
opportunity to take on either twin tower from the north.

While Oregon and Stanford are the strong favorites in their
division, perennially underestimated Oregon State returns another
strong roster just waiting for the Goliaths to stumble. Washington
finally might have the talent and experience to break through into
the upper echelons in coach Steve Sarkisian’s fifth season.

And who knows what Washington State coach Mike Leach might
concoct when he’s not co-writing a book on Geronimo?

Five things to watch in the Pac-12:

1. MARIOTA IS THE MAN: Helfrich and Shaw agree on one thing:
Marcus Mariota, the Ducks’ sophomore quarterback, is the best
quarterback in the country – even better than Texas A&M’s
Johnny Manziel, the onetime Oregon commit who won the Heisman last
season. The Ducks’ rangy passer is a strong Heisman candidate after
passing for 2,677 yards and 32 TDs as a freshman. Mariota seems
well-equipped to handle the challenges of additional scrutiny as
the Pac-12’s pre-eminent passer after the recent departures of
Andrew Luck and Matt Barkley. ”I think we still are a league of
great quarterbacks,” Mariota said.

2. THE BIG SHIFT: A conference dominated by 4-3 defensive fronts
a half-decade ago is now populated mostly by 3-4 defensive schemes,
creating great opportunities for pass-rushing defensive ends and
versatile linebackers to become stars. Keep an eye out for the
best: Arizona State DT Will Sutton added offseason muscle and
weighed in at more than 300 pounds in his quest to become the
conference’s first repeat Defensive Player of the Year in more than
two decades, while USC’s destructive Leonard Williams is poised for
a dominant season after moving to defensive end in new coordinator
Clancy Pendergast’s scheme.

3. STARTING OVER: While Oregon shouldn’t miss a beat under
Helfrich, two other Pac-12 schools have new coaches hoping to
restore the luster to once-proud programs. California hired
quick-strike offensive guru Sonny Dykes away from Louisiana Tech to
replace Jeff Tedford, while Colorado hopes to get back to
respectability with former San Jose State coach Mike MacIntyre. Not
much is expected from the Bears or the Buffs this fall, but both
new coaches are used to winning early and often – and Dykes has
plenty of talent in place from Tedford’s recruiting efforts.

4. KA’DEEM THE DREAM: The nation’s leading rusher is back for
another season in Tucson after emerging (mostly) unscathed from a
rough offseason. Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey rushed for 1,929 yards and
a school-record 23 TDs, but got into minor scrapes with authority
during his down time. He was arrested on a domestic violence charge
that was later dismissed, and he got kicked out of a Wildcats
basketball game for verbally tussling with campus police. Carey
could still face discipline from coach Rich Rodriguez, but he’s
eager to put the summer behind him. With the offseason departures
of Oregon’s Kenjon Barner, UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin and Stanford’s
Stepfan Taylor, Carey is the Pac-12 ball carrier with the biggest
name.

5. SECONDARY STARS: Everybody knows about the Pac-12’s prolific
passing offenses, but it’s a fairly well-kept secret that they’ll
be defended by some of the best defensive secondaries in the BCS
this fall. Stanford has a dynamic safety duo in Ed Reynolds and
Jordan Richards, while Oregon’s peerless cornerbacks are led by Ifo
Ekpre-Olomu and Terrance Mitchell. At USC, freshman safety Su’a
Cravens is already being touted for a place in the Trojans’ lineage
of excellence at the position from Ronnie Lott to Troy
Polamalu.

Predicted order of finish:

NORTH

1. Oregon

2. Stanford

3. Washington

4. Oregon State

5. Washington State

6. California

SOUTH

1. UCLA

2. Arizona State

3. Southern California

4. Arizona

5. Utah

6. Colorado

Title game winner: Oregon.

Online:

AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org