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Lots to love about Pac-12 this year

Especially at UO, UCLA, who figure to win division titles


Photo Credit: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Running back Thomas Tyner and the Oregon Ducks are trying to supplant talented Stanford as the Pac-12 North football champion in 2014.National pundits are in love with Pac-12 football this season.

Witness the Sports Illustrated preseason poll, which ranks six Pac-12 teams among the top 25: UCLA (fifth), Oregon (eighth), Stanford (ninth), Southern Cal (17th), Arizona State (19th) and Oregon State (23rd).

USA Today has six Pac-12 outfits, too, with Oregon fourth, UCLA seventh, Stanford 11th, Southern Cal 15th, Arizona State 18th and Washington 25th.

I think they’re on to something.

It appears to be a very competitive Pac-12 race, with four teams owning a legitimate chance to win the conference championship.

Top to bottom, it may the best Pac-12 football season ever. Utah, Washington State and Colorado should be better, and nine and possibly 10 teams seem bound for a bowl game. Only California seems headed toward another dreary season.

Here’s the way I see it shaking down in both divisions (predicted records in parentheses):

North

1. Oregon (11-1, 8-1)

Oregon is loaded for duck, er, bear on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Marcus Mariota, center Hroniss Grasu and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olumu would have been chosen in the first three rounds of last year’s draft. Nobody is set up better at running back than the Ducks, with junior Byron Marshall and sophomore Thomas Tyner. Receiver, and perhaps the offensive line, are question marks. We’ll know a little more about Mark Helfrich as a head coach this season. If the Ducks falter at all, the second-guessing begins. But they’re a legitimate candidate to make the inaugural NCAA playoffs, and I’m saying now that Mariota wins the Heisman.

2. Stanford (9-3, 7-2)

Stanford lost two great linebackers in Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy and two-time All-American guard David Yankey and returns only 11 starters from its team that lost to Michigan State in the Rose Bowl. The Cardinal lost four starting offensive linemen, and there will be no senior starters up front. But there is plenty of talent returning, including junior quarterback Kevin Hogan and fleet receiver/return specialist Ty Montgomery, one of the most exciting players in college football. The defense has seven returning starters along with 6-4, 245-pound junior linebacker Kevin Anderson, who returned an interception 40 yards for a touchdown in the Rose Bowl. The Cardinal will be a very tough out again.

3. Oregon State (8-4, 5-4)

Oregon State is a wild-card team. OSU could be strong enough for a bowl game that would leave Beaver Nation happy, or could be left out entirely. Biletnikoff Trophy recipient Brandin Cooks is irreplaceable, but the Beavers will be fine by committee at receiver, and are deep and talented at tight end. Sean Mannion has few peers in the country at quarterback, and the defense is experienced in the back seven and deep in the front seven. Offensive line is the major concern. If the Beavers can’t run more effectively than they have the past two seasons, it could be a long fall for the Men in Orange.

4. Washington (8-5, 4-5)

Washington ended up smelling like roses with the hiring of coach Chris Petersen when Steve Sarkisian flew the coop to Southern Cal. Petersen inherits 14 returning starters, including the entire offensive line and front four on defense. But the Huskies lose major offensive weapons in QB Keith Price, running back Bishop Sankey and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. They should be 4-0 heading into their Pac-12 opener at home against Stanford. If they win that one, they’ll be on their way to what could be a memorable

campaign.

5. Washington State (5-7, 2-7)

A year ago, Washington State lit it up through the air but couldn’t run or stop anybody. The Cougars will again feature an aerial parade led by prolific QB Conner Halliday, but there’s hope they’ll be able to run a little and ratchet things up with a defense that returns five of seven starters up front. With a break here and there and a healthy roster, the Cougars could go bowling for the second straight year.

6. California (1-11, 0-9)

California returns only 10 starters from coach Sonny Dykes’ first team last year, but that may be a good thing. Now the Bears are staring at the possibility of going two straight seasons without a win over an FBS opponent. Cal could beat Colorado at home, but even the Sacramento State game isn’t a gimme.

South

1. UCLA (10-2, 7-2)

Coach Jim Mora has something going in Westwood, er, at the Rose Bowl. The Bruins, who have won 19 games the past two seasons and went 10-3 last season, should go double figures again. They have 14 returning starters, including one of the nation’s premier QBs in junior Brett Hundley and two-way star Myles Jack (of all trades). This is a team good enough to make it to the Final Four.

2. USC (9-3, 6-3)

In the first year under Steve Sarkisian, the Trojans have a veteran defense (eight returning starters), the most valuable player of last year’s Las Vegas Bowl (QB Cody Kessler) and a friendly schedule other than the Pac-12-opening date at Stanford (no Oregon or Washington). The Trojans, led by All-American end Leonard Williams, could have the conference’s strongest defense under coordinator Justin Wilcox. If things bounce the right way, the Pac-12 South title could fall into the hands of Troy.

3. Arizona State (8-4, 5-4)

Defending Pac-12 South champion Arizona State returns only eight starters, but three of them are offensive stars — senior QB Taylor Kelly, dual-threat running back D.J. Foster and receiver Jaelen Strong. Only two starters are back on defense, and the schedule is hard, with games at Southern Cal, Washington, Oregon State and Arizona. Coach Todd Graham expects the Sun Devils to make the Pac-12 championship game again, but the reality is probably something different.

4. Arizona (7-5, 4-5)

Arizona loses QB B.J. Denker and Pac-12 offensive player of the year Ka ‘Deem Carey along with 10 other starters, but this still is a team to be reckoned with. Much will ride on the talent of Southern Cal transfer Jesse Scroggins at quarterback and a deep group of receivers that includes Austin Hill, who caught 81 passes for 1,364 in 2012 before sitting out last season due to knee surgery, and Trey Griffey, son of Ken Jr. The Wildcats could win or lose eight games.

5. Utah (6-6, 4-5)

After the school’s first back-to-back losing seasons since 1989 and ‘90, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham — who has won seven Pac-12 games in three years — is in get-better-now mode. The Utes need QB Travis Wilson, who suffered a serious concussion last season, to come back as one of the better signal-callers in the league. The Utes, blown out only once all last season, will be competitive again and this time get back into the bowl picture.

6. Colorado (5-7, 2-7)

Colorado went 4-8 in coach Mike MacIntyre’s first season, a step up from the miserable scene that has been Colorado football of late. The Buffaloes lose ace receiver Paul Richardson but get back 14 starters, including three-year starters Christian Powell at tailback and Josh Tupou at defensive tackle. The Buffaloes aren’t a bowl team, but they’re inching closer.

Pac-12 championship game

Oregon 41, UCLA 27: The Ducks will gain revenge for their only regular-season loss, Mariota and Tyner running wild in a win at Santa Clara, Calif., that cinches a spot in the national playoffs.

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