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