Recent Pac-12 football history has seen transitions of power. The USC Trojans reigned from 2002 to 2008, winning at least a share of the conference championship every year and two national titles. Oregon’s Duck dynasty began in 2009 and extended through 2011.
Did 2012 launch a new kingdom in the Pac-12? David Shaw and Jim Harbaugh’s stunning turnaround of a Stanford program that finished last place in the conference the season before their arrival reached its pinnacle last season. The Cardinal’s conference championship and Rose Bowl appearance were the first for the program since 1999, and the 20-14 win over Wisconsin was Stanford’s first in the Granddaddy of ‘Em All since 1971.
Stanford is loaded for another run to Pasadena — maybe for the Rose Bowl Game, and maybe for the BCS championship.
The Pac-12 has only been represented in the BCS championship game once since USC and Texas tangled in one of college football’s all-time epic encounters. Oregon came the closest any BCS title game participant has to ending the SEC’s reign of dominance — inches, really. That was all that separated Michael Dyer’s knee from touching the turf on his long run that set up Auburn’s game-winning field goal in the 2011 BCS championship.
The conference’s other recent opportunities at the crystal ball have come figurative and literal inches short. Oregon lost to Stanford last season in overtime, effectively denying the Ducks an invitation to Miami. Likewise, Stanford came inches shy in overtime of defeating Notre Dame — a win that would have pushed the Cardinal ahead of the Fighting Irish in BCS standings and presumably sent it to face Alabama.
In 2011, Oregon had too few seconds remaining to score a touchdown against USC, and the field goal attempt that would have forced overtime was also just off.
Again and again, it’s been near-misses for the Pac-12. Early indicators suggest the national media are not anticipating this to be the year the conference returns to the pinnacle, particularly since no clear heir to the throne stands out.
Reigning champion Stanford’s aggressive defensive style stood out in the otherwise offensively prolific, and the Cardinal should continue its #PartyInTheBackfield with Shayne Skov, A.J. Tarpley, Trent Murphy, Ben Gardner and Henry Anderson all back on the front seven. Ed Reynolds and Usua Amanam returning in the secondary translates to a defense that could improve on its already impressive 17 point per game yield last season.
But is the offense championship-ready without Stepfan Taylor? Can Kevin Hogan meet his potential? Who fills the big gaps the departing tight ends leave?
Winter is coming to Oregon, where possible NCAA sanctions loom over the Ducks. Oregon also ushers in a new era with former offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich assuming head coaching duties from guru Chip Kelly.
Oregon State broke out of a two-year slump to win nine games, but was 0-3 against the top tier teams from the Pac-12 North. The Beavers are back to their previous competitive level, but Oregon State has always been not quite ready for prime time. And the long-awaited return of the Washington Huskies has been stuck in a perpetual 7-6 rut.
Then there’s the South. Oh, the South.
Winning at three-card Monty is more likely than accurately predicting how the South race unfolds. The reigning champion UCLA Bruins return quarterback Brett Hundley and linebacker Anthony Barr, two of the best individual talents in the conference. But holes elsewhere leave the Bruins vulnerable — as do out-of-division trips to Stanford and Oregon in consecutive weeks.
Arizona State is an intriguing pick to emerge from the division, but the Sun Devils face a murderer’s row schedule. In-state rival Arizona has a much more manageable slate, avoiding Stanford and Oregon State, while also returning the most experienced starting lineup in the conference. But the defense has huge strides to make to be competitive, and the quarterback issue is as clear as a Tucson roadway during a haboob.
USC struggled through a historically disappointing campaign in 2012. There’s great talent on the Trojan roster back for 2013: Silas Redd, Morgan Breslin and Heisman Trophy candidate wide receiver Marqise Lee. But the depth issues NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions brought on leave USC again woefully thin.
Utah is a complete unknown, suffering through its first sub-.500 season since 2002 and only such campaign under Kyle Whittingham. Dennis Erickson was hired as co-offensive coordinator this off-season, providing a veteran eye to go with the youthful exuberance of Brian Johnson. But how will quarterback Travis Wilson operate in a revamped offense that loses prolific running back John White?
The prognosis for the South is less predictable than a North division that is chaotic in its own right. The picture may not clear for the conference race, and Stanford’s bid to continue the Pac-12’s run of dynasties, until late November. But a Pac-12 team’s national championship viability should be evident much earlier. The 2013 SaturdayBlitz.com Pac-12 Football Preview examines each of the conference’s contenders and also-rans in the coming days. Stay tuned for more.