2013 NCAA Football Preview: Pac-12 Conference

August 28, 2013
By K. Becks

So Johnny Manziel got suspended for the first half of Texas A&M’s game against Rice this Saturday. Didn’t anyone tell the major media outlets? Fans are done riding the Manziel rollercoaster. That circus was just to keep us held over until the real football started.

Just over 24 hours until the first game, folks.

Here is the second to last conference preview on the slate, a look at the Pac-12 Conference.

Overview

Most people have probably heard of the term “top heavy” when describing a conference that appears to be very good at the top but really drops off near the bottom of the league. But what about the term “side heavy”? Is that a term, or will Around The Corn be able to take credit for this? The term, which I’m using to describe a conference that appears to be much stronger in one of the two divisions, applies to the Pac-12 this season.

In the North Division, you’ve got Oregon and Stanford, two national title contenders right out of the gate. You’ve also got Oregon State and Washington, who have shown marked improvement and could figure to be dark horse contenders to steal the division. Then there’s the South Division, led by the two California schools in Southern California and UCLA and followed closely by Arizona State. None of the three teams mentioned begin the year ranked inside the top 15 of the AP Poll, and it doesn’t seem likely that any of those teams will knock off the Ducks or Cardinal, as only USC plays one of the two at home.

Put simply, there is a definite good and bad side to the conference this season. Well, not necessarily bad in the case of the South Division, but there won’t be any confusion as to which division is “heavier”. Unless one of the two California schools in the South can overcome particularly strong schedules, the national media will be focusing on one half of the conference this season. Then again, that might not be that bad for the Pac-12. The road to the national title may not look as treacherous for the best team thanks to the imbalance in conference strength.

Team(s) With the Best Shot at a National Championship Bid

Stanford

The Cardinal have never truly been a hot pick to reach the national title game in recent years despite having one of the better defenses in the nation and punishing opponents with their smashmouth offensive style. But the reason being is that the hot pick to reach the national title game before the season has to be exciting. The Cardinal haven’t been exciting the past three years, even with Andrew Luck, and they won’t be exciting this season, either. But they will be good.

Despite losing tailback Stepfan Taylor, Stanford may be more difficult to stop on offense thanks to returning sophomore quarterback Kevin Hogan. Hogan, who has a perfect 5-0 record for the Cardinal, is a dual threat quarterback who managed to finish the year as Stanford’s second-leading rusher behind Taylor. With the experience of those five games under his belt, all which were against ranked squads, Hogan should be even better this season. His experience should allow for a consistent running back to emerge in time for the heart of the Pac-12 schedule.

With four returning offensive linemen and eight starters returning to a defense that ranked first in the conference in every major category except pass defense, the Cardinal are stacked on both sides of the ball. The schedule is favorable for the most part as well, with games against Oregon and Notre Dame being played in Palo Alto. The most difficult test for the Cardinal may be on the road against Southern Cal, who will try to take advantage of Stanford’s suspect pass defense. If David Shaw’s team can get past that game, then this could be a very special season for the Cardinal.

Oregon

Even without former head coach Chip Kelly directing the offense, the Ducks will be one of the teams to beat in the Pac-12. Back are consistent offensive performers in speedy tailback De’Anthony Thomas and quarterback Marcus Mariota, who is a dark horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy. No one in the nation can touch Oregon’s speed, so the only way to bring down the Ducks will be to be extremely physical with them.

If a good offense isn’t enough to convince you that the Ducks will be fine without Kelly, perhaps knowing that the Ducks return the bulk of their defensive line and the entire defensive secondary will. Oregon will be tough to score on, especially through the air, which is where a lot of Pac-12 teams will unsuccessfully try to beat them. The only kinds of teams that will stand a chance of knocking off the Ducks are those that can run the ball successfully, thus taking precious field time away from the Oregon offense.

There is no Southern Cal on the schedule this season, and a couple of the toughest games against UCLA and Oregon State are at home. So like last season, Oregon’s chances of making it back to the national title game will hinge on what has become somewhat of a rivalry against Stanford. The Ducks must go on the road and figure out a way to beat the Cardinal, which may be better than last year’s team thanks to the maturation of the quarterback Hogan. If the Ducks are victorious against Stanford, I’d expect to see them in Pasadena playing for the crystal football in January.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Southern California

For a team that returns as many pieces as USC does on both sides of the ball, I’m surprised that the Trojans aren’t getting more love from the media. Head coach Lane Kiffin is definitely on the hot seat after a very disappointing season in 2012, and I’m sure that he is ready to pull out all the stops to try to get his team into the Pac-12 title game this season. Despite his tendency to throw some balls that are a bit dangerous, I’m still a big fan of quarterback Max Wittek and hope that the sophomore will land the starting job in 2013. If he does, I believe that he could have a lot of success throwing to wideout Marqise Lee.

The defense improved greatly from 2011 to 2012, and although there probably isn’t nearly as much room for improvement this season, the Trojans aren’t going to roll over for opponents on the defensive end. The defensive line could be potentially dominant in the conference, which is bad news for a team like Stanford, whom the Trojans play in Los Angeles. I’d be surprised if the USC isn’t in the South Division title race by the end of the year, and if they aren’t, I’d be even more surprised if Kiffin isn’t on his way out as head coach.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player To Watch)

Ka’Deem Carey (Jr.), Arizona running back

Carey became one of my favorite college football players last December, right around the time that the Wildcats were preparing to play Nevada in the New Mexico Bowl. Little do most people know that Carey lead the nation in rushing yards (1,929) and rushing yards per game (148.4) in 2012 because of Arizona’s mediocrity. While Arizona may not be a whole lot better as a team this season, chances are that Carey will finally get his chance in the spotlight.

Without Matt Scott at quarterback to sling the ball around, the Wildcats will likely lean on Carey more than ever in 2013. Three starting offensive linemen return to the team, so Carey probably won’t have to worry about getting stuffed on every play, even if the defense has a pretty good idea what’s coming. Plus, the junior is a very capable receiver out of the backfield and may be able to help quarterback B.J. Denker gain a little bit of confidence as a passer during the early part of the year. If the Heisman Trophy was truly given to the best player in the nation instead of the best player on one of the best teams in the nation, Ka’Deem Carey would be on every pundits shortlist heading into the season.

Out-Of-Conference Game To Watch

Notre Dame vs. Stanford (November 30th)

Last season, Pac-12 opponent USC was the only thing separating Notre Dame from a trip to Miami for the national title game. This year, the Fighting Irish could be on the other side of the equation. This is the final regular season game of the year for the Cardinal, and if they manage to beat Oregon at home three weeks prior to this matchup, they could enter the Pac-12 title game just one win shy of a trip to the 2013 national title game.

Notre Dame returns a lot of pieces to a defense that was one of the best in the nation before being run over by Alabama’s offense in the national title game. Although Stanford is known for a bruising run game, the Cardinal probably can’t count on doing quite what the Crimson Tide were able to do to the Fighting Irish last season. Expect this game to be very low scoring and just as close as the 2012 version.

In-Conference Game To Watch

Oregon vs. Stanford (November 7th)

These two teams will not be able square off against each other in the Pac-12 Championship Game, but for what it’s worth, this could essentially be a de facto title game if Oregon and Stanford prove to be the strongest teams in the conference. Oregon will be looking to avenge an overtime loss to the Cardinal last season that effectively terminated the Ducks’ title chances. Both of these teams could come in to this game unbeaten, which would just raise the stakes in a game that is bound to be a good one regardless of each team’s overall record.

Each team must deal with a potential weakness that will either prove to be a real problem or just a preseason talking point as the season progresses. For Oregon, it’s losing head coach Chip Kelly, one of the sharpest minds that college football had but who lost to Stanford twice during his four-year tenure as head coach of the Ducks. For Stanford, it’s whether or not the run game and stifling defense, which were the main reasons the Cardinal beat Oregon in 2012, are good enough to slow down and keep the Ducks’ offense off the field this year. The squad with the less apparent weakness (or absence of it completely) will end up winning this game.

Conference Predictions

North Division

1. Stanford (12-0, [9-0])

2. Oregon (10-2, [7-2])

3. Oregon State (8-4, [6-3])

4. Washington (7-5, [5-4])

5. California (2-10, [1-8])

6. Washington State (2-10, [0-9])

South Division

1. Southern California (10-3, [7-2])

2. UCLA (8-4, [6-3])

3. Arizona State (7-5, [6-3])

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

5. Utah (3-9, [2-7])

6. Colorado (3-9, [1-8])

Championship Game (Stanford vs. Southern California)

Winner: Stanford

Questions from the Readers

This is a section dedicated to the readers, where I will answer the questions you have sent me through Facebook, Twitter (@KBecks_ATC) or email (kbecks@aroundthecorn.com). Unfortunately, there were no questions sent regarding the Pac-12 or its teams. Feel free to ask multiple questions, as I will answer any appropriate question that is submitted in time. Thanks guys.

- K. Becks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*