LOS ANGELES — 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.