The easy thing to say about the Pac-12 entering the 2013 season is that it's a two-team league. To an extent, it's true. Stanford and Oregon have created space between themselves and the rest of the conference, and if another team were to end up winning the league, it would be reasonable to call it a shock. The Ducks and Cardinal are both capable of winning the national championship this year. They've been knocking on the door long enough -- it's time for someone to kick it down.
The Pac-12 isn't just a two-team conference though. The level just beneath the two heavyweights includes a healthy crowd of programs that will be extremely competitive and fun to watch this year. USC, UCLA, Oregon State, Washington, Arizona, and Arizona State are all capable of jumping up and biting one of the big boys on any given day, and the competition between those teams to climb the conference ladder will be brutal. And we get to watch it all.
Seven games to watch
USC at Arizona State, Sept. 28
The Pac-12 South is wide open, and this game could put the winner in a great position to get to the Pac-12 title game. The Trojans have won 12 of the past 13 games against the Sun Devils, but a lot of sensible people are tipping ASU to finish ahead of USC in the division.
Oregon at Washington, Oct. 12
Washington hasn't beaten Oregon since 2003. Steve Sarkisian could buy himself some serious good will with the administration and fans if he can knock off the Ducks this year, even if they do settle in for another seven-win season. Oregon has to come up to the newly renovated Husky Stadium, so the setting would be perfect. Whether they can do it? Well, we'll see.
Oregon State at Stanford, Oct. 26
A thought exercise: Oregon is out of the Pac-12 North title hunt. Chances are this is the game that decides who wins the division. Even if that scenario doesn't come to pass, the Beavers have the ability to derail a Stanford national title run and make some noise for themselves.
Oregon at Stanford, Nov. 7
This game looks like it could be a de facto Pac-12 championship, as the winner will likely win the Pac-12 North and be a significant favorite over the Pac-12 South champ. The Ducks will surely have revenge on their mind after they lost 17-14 in overtime to the Cardinal last year, which took Oregon out of contention for the BCS title game.
Oregon State at Oregon, Nov. 29
The Civil War is always a tense affair, but if the Beavers can follow up on their bounce-back 2012, this game could have massive consequences, both in the conference and nationally. The Ducks have won five straight games over their in-state rivals, so one would expect motivation is high for OSU to pull the upset and not let another senior class leave without a win over Oregon.
Arizona at Arizona State, Nov. 30
Similar to the USC-ASU tilt, this game could have real implications on the Pac-12 South title race. Both Arizona schools are entering year two of their respective coaches' tenures, and while the general consensus is that ASU is better positioned for 2013, Arizona surprised enough last year to make writing them off a dicey proposition.
Also, this game is one of the nation's most truly hateful rivalries, and has featured a slew of improbable finishes in recent years. You should probably watch it anyway, but there's a decent chance there are real stakes here besides bragging rights.
UCLA at USC, Nov. 30
Same story as Arizona-Arizona State, just a couple hours to the west. The loser of this game probably won't be playing for the Pac-12 title. The Trojans are playing this game one week after their showdown with Arizona State, so this could be a prime spot for a let-down if they lose to the Sun Devils.
Six Twitter accounts to follow
Also, follow De'Anthony Thomas' account, but odds are good he'll have changed its handle again by the time you read this.
Five spots to visit
With the assistance of SB Nation's many excellent Pac-12 sites. Help us complete this list in the comments.
- Mi Nidito in Tucson
- Mountain Sun in Boulder
- Papa's Soul Food Kitchen in Eugene
- Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles in Los Angeles
- Top Dog in Berkeley
Four players to love
De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon running back
It really goes without saying that Thomas is the most exciting player in the conference, but he must be included. DAT is absolutely deadly in space, and his ability to accelerate, change direction, and make people miss is absolutely obscene.
Shayne Skov, Stanford linebacker
Skov is the heart of Stanford's swarming and physical defense, and he can do it all. He registered 80 tackles in 2012, while also bringing in eight tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks. If Skov played the other football, he would be referred to as a talisman. He's fast, physical, and relentless, and a big part of what makes this team so fun to watch.
Marqise Lee, USC wide receiver
Simply put, Marqise Lee is the best wide receiver in the country. His numbers are staggering: 118 receptions for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns, while also averaging over eight yards per carry rushing and over 28.5 yards per return on kickoffs and taking one return to the house. Teams gameplan around him and still can't stop him.
Will Sutton, Arizona State defensive tackle
Rare is the defensive tackle that can really capably rush the passer from the inside while also providing an anchor for a team's run defense. Will Sutton is that guy for Arizona State, and he is big, fast, and extremely disruptive. Oh, and the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year is going to see some time at fullback this year. Now let's watch him destroy something beautiful.
Three coaches to know ...
Steve Sarkisian, Washington
Sark came to Seattle to rebuild the Huskies basically from the foundation up. He's brought them back to respectability, but after three straight 7-6 seasons, the grumbling is starting to get loud. If it's not already put up or shut up time, it's getting real close. Washington faces a tough opening weekend test against Boise State, but if they can pick up the win at the re-christening of Husky Stadium, the prospects for a breakthrough season get a lot higher.
Todd Graham, Arizona State
Graham may not be the most endearing figure in the college football world, but it looks like he's got a good thing going in Tempe. The Sun Devils showed real signs of progress in his first season, and he has the team positioned for a run at the division title. If he really is staying at Arizona State for the long haul, he could return the program to heights it hasn't achieved in nearly two decades.
David Shaw, Stanford
When Shaw took over for Jim Harbaugh, there was well reasoned concern that the program would regress without the man who built it up into a smash-mouth power. Two years and a 23-4 record later, those concerns have been put to bed. As odd as this is to say about the Stanford football program, it is absolutely rolling. With Chip Kelly leaving Oregon for the NFL, this could be Shaw and the Cardinal's chance to fully establish themselves as the premier team in the conference, and one of the real national powers in college football.
... and the newcomers
After a bumper crop of new coaches took over in the Pac-12 prior to the 2012 season, the 2013 class of three looks relatively small in comparison.
Mark Helfrich has assumed command of the Death Star at Oregon, and while the decision to hire from within looks like a good one, we're just waiting to see if this results in a dip in form for the Ducks.
Sonny Dykes is the new man in charge at Cal, taking over for the long-tenured Jeff Tedford. It may take a while for the BEAR RAID to fully take root, but they should at the very least be entertaining.
The biggest rebuilding job in the conference, and maybe the country, goes to Mike MacIntyre at Colorado. The Buffs have bottomed out as a program following Dan Hawkins and Jon Embree's tenures, and if MacIntyre's work at San Jose State is any indication, they hired the right guy to get the program back on its feet.
Two things to treasure
The Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band
One thing to remember (about each team)
From Bill Connelly's massive, 125-team preview series, which began in February...
If UA can take care of business against the Colorados of the world, then the Wildcats could pretty easily put together another six to eight wins this year. Eventually, Arizona fans got impatient with seven-win seasons when Mike Stoops was in charge (from 2006-10, UA went 6-6, 5-7, 8-5, 8-5, and 7-6), but considering the gains Rodriguez made last year, and considering the iffy offseason the offense had, another 7-5 season would surely suffice for now.
In a four-week span early in the year, Arizona State will play both of last year's Rose Bowl participants, host USC, then head to Texas to face defending BCS runner-up Notre Dame on a neutral field. That's ridiculous. ASU could be a legitimate top-25 or top-30 team and start the season either 1-4 or 2-3.
Survive that stretch, and there are wins aplenty available: Colorado, the Washington schools (the better one at home), Utah, Arizona at home, Oregon State at home ... wins aplenty. Start 2-3, and we could eventually see ASU's first nine-win or better season since 2007. And with the bloodbath that could be the South division race, a 6-3 conference record could be enough to win the South for ASU this time around.
California unveiled a pretty, new version of its Memorial Stadium last year; now would be a good time for that stadium to develop one hell of a home field advantage. Cal hosts Northwestern, Portland State, Ohio State, Washington State, Oregon State, Arizona, and USC. Go 5-2 at home, and you just have to win at Colorado to become bowl eligible and generate momentum again. But that will most likely require an upset or two, and going just 4-3 at home will require a road upset, too.
Dykes inherits a football program with a high ceiling, thanks in part to Tedford's 11 years in charge. And thanks to his recruiting, Dykes has a chance to make some decent noise early in his tenure. How much noise will depend on the typical learning curve of transition, the ability of the defense to bounce back after a poor year, and the amount of noise Memorial Stadium can generate.
Colorado is proof of what can happen when you make a coaching hire based on short-term buzz and pleasantries. Embree had no coaching experience higher than tight ends coach, and he had never worked with a lot of his assistants, but he was a former Buffalo, as were a lot of the coaches he hired. As I put it in 2011, "The band is getting back together, and that always feels good for a little while." But the reunion tour usually falls apart at some point.
While hiring at your lowest point can often lead to shaky results, CU hit a home run, on paper, with MacIntyre. There are no guarantees, but the Buffs appear to be taking the proper steps toward righting previous wrongs. Now they just have to sit and wait a while.
No matter how well you plan, no matter what kind of succession plan you have in place, and no matter how seamless that plan seems on paper (and this one appears awfully seamless), you never, ever know what's going to happen when your transcendently successful coach hands the reins to somebody else. You could get Jim Harbaugh handing to David Shaw. You could get Tom Osborne handing to Frank Solich. You could get Rich Brooks handing to Joker Phillips. Coaching changes are a complete roll of the dice. By all accounts, new head coach (and former Kelly offensive coordinator) Mark Helfrich seems like he could be the Shaw to Kelly's Harbaugh, a person who understands the culture that made his school successful and can further it in almost seamless fashion. But you just never know for sure until he proves it.
Oregon State was both lucky and good last year, riding almost four points of turnovers luck per game into a few close wins but still ranking high on a play-for-play basis as well. The question for the Beavers moving forward is simply this: Was last year a course correction, or does that come in 2013?
Typically, sudden surges like OSU's 2012 jump are followed by some level of regression toward the mean, and the turnovers luck could certainly factor into that. But Oregon State performed a lot closer to its recent historical levels in 2012 than it had in 2011. Which one was the outlier?
The defense should be Stanford's best ever, the backfield is loaded, and the quarterback position appears quite stable after instability clouded most of the first half of 2012. And the schedule cooperates, too: Two of the three best teams on Stanford's schedule come to Palo Alto (Oregon and Notre Dame), as do five of the best seven. Only two road opponents are projected in the top 50.
Despite the question marks in the receiving corps and the lack of defensive line depth, this team was built to make a serious run at the national title this coming season. Let's see if the Cardinal can pull it off.
In Brett Hundley, Anthony Barr, end Cassius Marsh, Xavier Su'a-Filo, Shaq Evans, and others, UCLA quite possibly has more star power than USC this year. But the tendency to regress after a surge, the rebuilt and terrifying secondary, potential issues at running back, and the loaded road slate could hold them back.
Jim Mora, Jr., engineered a hell of a turnaround, and he is putting the pieces in place for a long stay in the Top 25, but matching last year's nine wins might be as good as one can expect from the Bruins in Mora's second year. Still, after UCLA's recent history, that's pretty impressive.
Even if you, like most, don't really care for Lane Kiffin, USC should be a fun team to watch in 2013. Marqise Lee is amazing, the personnel should translate well to an attacking 3-4 (perhaps the most fun defense to watch, even when it's breaking down), and even if things go wrong, it's sometimes fun watching a blue-blood fall apart, yes? For one reason or another, you won't want to miss many USC games this fall. And will it really surprise you if the Trojans finish in the top 10 despite the naysaying?
A year ago, I was talking myself into a potential 10-2 season for Utah; now I have to spin to get to 6-6 or 7-5. The last year did not go as planned for Whittingham and his Utes, but better health and new identities for both the offense and defense will give them a shot at a rebound.
With so many Pac-12 teams improving, it will be hard for Utah to catch up after losing so much ground last year; but it won't be impossible if some of the key, highly-touted youngsters and newcomers -- Travis Wilson, Andre Lewis, Jeremiah Poutasi, L.T. Filiaga, Reshawn Hooker, Justin Thomas, Davion Orphey -- come through.
The season opener versus Boise State is enormous. Lose that game (as they will be projected to do), and they're perhaps looking at yet another seven-win season or so. That's certainly not bad, especially with how experienced the Huskies will be in 2014, but if the natives aren't restless now, they definitely would be then. Beat Boise, however (and it bears mentioning that they almost did just that in the Las Vegas Bowl), and you can begin to see how a nine- or 10-win season could come together quickly.
This is a good team that will get better next season. How good the Huskies will be in 2013, however, depends on Keith Price, quick maturation, and August 31.
The Pac-12 is loaded with potentially decent-to-good teams in 2013; after stagnation in Year Zero, can Leach and the Cougars not only make up ground, but make up that much ground?
It's really fun having Mike Leach back in the college football universe. And with exciting players like Connor Halliday, Dominique Williams, Deone Bucannon, linebacker Cyrus Coen, tackle Xavier Cooper, etc., it's safe to say that Washington State games will probably be more fun in 2013 than they were last year. But will they be more successful for the Cougars? We might have to wait one more year on that one.