Oregon won the Pac-10 the last two years, including a trip to the national championship game last year. Stanford thundered to an Orange Bowl win over Virginia Tech, and both the Ducks and Cardinals finished in the Top 5. With the conference having expanded by two teams and instituted a league title game, it's Oregon and Stanford who are seen as the solid favorites again. But I'm skeptical and see this as a wild league where you can literally make a case for almost anyone to end up with the Rose Bowl bid.
Chip Kelly's offense at Oregon still brings back Darron Thomas at quarterback and Heisman hopeful LaMichael James in the backfield, but Kelly has a very young defense that's soft up front. Stanford has its own Heisman candidate in quarterback Andrew Luck, and underrated runner in Stephan Taylor and a veteran secondary. But the leader, head coach Jim Harbaugh is now in the NFL rebuilding San Francisco and there are holes on both lines. If neither Oregon or Stanford is set to run away with it, where are the other contenders?
The two preseason favorites are both in the North Division, where Washington, Cal and Oregon State have dark-horse possibilities. Washington and Cal are the opposite of Oregon and Stanford. The Huskies and Golden Bears have holes at quarterback and running back, but look pretty good everywhere else. Oregon State has the line play on both sides, along with quarterback Ryan Katz and exciting receiver James Rodgers. And even though the Beavers won only five games last year, it was 2009 they took to Oregon to the wire in a battle for the Rose Bowl. All three of these programs are on good footing, but I really like the direction Washington has shown under coach Steve Sarkisian. They've stepped up and won big games, beating USC twice and knocking off Nebraska in last year's Holiday Bowl. I'm looking for the Huskies to win the Pac-12 North.
In the South the teams are not as strong but the race is no less balanced. USC could have a bounceback year under Lane Kiffin, with respectable play in the trenches and a strong year from quarterback Matt Barkley. Crosstown rival UCLA should have the kind of year that keeps Rick Neuheisel employed, with a defense that improves drastically. Whether the Bruin offensive line gels and blocks for running back Jonathan Franklin will go a long way toward deciding how good the team will be. Arizona State has no such problems up front. Dennis Erickson is loaded with talent on the offensive front, but getting the weaponry to take advantage of that is a concern, as is the defense in general. Utah and Colorado join the conference this season and while both could get bowl bids neither is likely to win a championship. Utah's secondary is too young and Colorado's defense overall leaves much to be desired. For the South I see a new-era conference race coming down to an old-fashioned rivalry with USC-UCLA settling it in the season finale.
I'll give USC the nod to meet Washington in the only conference championship game to be played at the site of the team with the better record. But Sarkisian has shown he can beat the program where he worked as offensive coordinator during the gravy days, and he does it again here. I picked Washington last year and jumped the gun. I'll give them another chance to show them their championship material and pick them to punch their ticket to Pasadena.
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