With national champion contenders Stanford and Oregon atop the division, the other Pac-12 North teams have their work cut out for them. For one of The Others to emerge as BCS contenders, it will have to at least split games against the pair and likely sweep its Pac-12 South opponents. That, of course, will be no easy feat.
Today we examine what successful seasons look like for the six Pac-12 North teams.
2012: 3-9, 2-7 Pac-12; No bowl game
Life for Sonny Dykes in Year 1 in Berkeley won’t exactly be easy. In addition to playing the Pac-12 North slate, the Bears draw USC and Arizona in non-divisional play. Even the non-conference slate features few guarantees. Cal opens with a home game against a game Northwestern squad and hosts Ohio State in Week 3. The Bears also play Oregon and Stanford on the road.
Add to the daunting schedule the fact that the Bears have no starting quarterback headed into summer workouts and this season could be another brutal season for the Cal faithful.
On the bright side, offensive coordinator Tony Franklin has to let RB Brendan Bigelow get enough touches to be a difference-maker, right? That, of course, provided fans the most frustration last season. Between 44 rushes and seven receptions, Bigelow averaged 10.25 yards per touch (9.8 yards per carry).
The Bears should be strong on defense with LB Khairi Fortt, a transfer from Penn State, infusing even more talent into the front seven. The question is will the defense be good enough to overcome growing pains from the new quarterback?
What constitutes a successful season? Certainly a simple trip to a bowl game would look good for Dykes this season. With arguably the toughest schedule in the nation, guaranteed wins will not be easy to find. Even simple progress should be greeted with optimism. Former coach Jeff Tedford spoiled a team accustomed to decades of predominantly losses. In a few years, the Bears have gone from flirting with BCS bowls to where they are today. A 5-7 record, considering the schedule, would be acceptable. Anything over 6-6 should be viewed as a significant step forward.
2012: 12-1, 8-1 Pac-12; Won Fiesta Bowl
Chip Kelly is gone, but don’t feel too badly for the Ducks or new coach Mark Helfrich, who received a promotion from his offensive coordinator post. Helfrich lost some weapons – most notably RB Kenjon Barner – but if any program is more capable of simply moving on at the tailback position it’s the one that didn’t miss a beat after LaMichael James left. QB Marcus Mariota has a season of experience now and has plenty of passing game weapons to which he can throw.
Oh, and do-everything talent De’Anthony Thomas is also back as perhaps the league’s greatest Heisman Trophy candidate. Thomas’ role is not clearly defined – he could be the featured back or he could continue to line up all over the field. Either way he will get his touches and be among the nation’s most dynamic playmakers.
The void at linebacker – the Ducks lose LBs Dion Jordan, Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay – serve as one of the few questions for the program.
Oregon’s schedule should be easy to navigate to a 5-0 start headed to a road game at Washington. The second half of the slate presents more challenges, highlighted by a pivotal road game at Stanford, another road game at Arizona and home games against UCLA and Oregon State.
What constitutes a successful season? The bar has been set high in Eugene and the Ducks have felt like they are on the verge of a national championship every year since 2009. Now supporters are anticipating what they view as the inevitable breakthrough. Winning conference championships and appearing in the Rose Bowl remain nice seasons, but are no longer considered the end-game for the program. For Oregon to be successful, it needs to return to the college football pinnacle – this time bringing home crystal football.
2012: 9-4, 6-3 Pac-12; Lost Alamo Bowl
Two of Oregon State’s three Pac-12 losses in 2012 came by a total of seven points. A scrappy team with a strong, opportunistic defense found ways to win despite inconsistent quarterback play.
RB Storm Woods returns after earning the primary back role as a freshman. All indications point toward Woods having a chance to announce himself as a Pac-12 superstar in 2013. Not only does the offensive line return four of five starters, the Beavers have several big-bodied tight ends capable of springing Woods for big gains and boosting the mid-range passing game.
QBs Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz went back-and-forth last season and there is no indication in either direction as to whether coach Mike Riley’s two-QB system might continue.
Oregon State lost stars in WR Markus Wheaton and CB Jordan Poyer. Though Poyer was an All-America player, depth might leave the Beavers lamenting the loss of Wheaton more. Defensively, the Beavers have the looks of a team that can continue as a top-25 group nationally.
Oregon State could realistically start out 7-0 entering a five-game stretch run that features home games against Stanford, USC and Washington and road contests at Arizona State and Oregon.
What constitutes a successful season? If the Beavers can model themselves after Stanford – relying more on their defense and a physical run-based attack – they could be even more dangerous this time around. Building on a three-loss regular season will be difficult in the Pac-12 North, but Oregon State has enough talent to make the division a true three-team race. A 10-2 regular season teamed with a trip to a BCS bowl game would be a strong season.
2012: 12-2, 8-1 Pac-12; Won Rose Bowl
It’s amazing how much credit for Stanford’s revival has changed with each year it continues its strong run. First, former coach Jim Harbaugh deserved the bulk of the credit. Then, when QB Andrew Luck led first-year coach David Shaw to another BCS bid, Luck deserved all the credit. Shaw finally received more of the credit last year when he guided the Cardinal back to the BCS for a third consecutive season.
Now Stanford will finally enter the season as a favorite – ahead of even more highly acclaimed Oregon. Eight defensive starters return to a unit that ranked 11th nationally in points allowed last year. LB Shayne Skov is one of the country’s most outstanding defensive players.
Though the Cardinal loses RB Stepfan Taylor and All America TE Zach Ertz, it returns four of five offensive linemen. The tailback position is also dripping with talent, though it isn’t immediately known who will man the position. Seniors Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney could get the first opportunities. QB Kevin Hogan emerged as a rising superstar last season as a true freshman.
Stanford’s schedule sets up nicely. Its two toughest road games look to be at Oregon State and USC with Oregon, UCLA and Notre Dame playing in Stanford.
What constitutes a successful season? Between last year’s success, a dominant defense and an emerging quarterback, Stanford could easily find itself as a chic pick to bring home a national championship this summer. The Cardinal has now made three consecutive trips to BCS bowl games and certainly will expect to be in line for a third this season. Expectations haven’t quite reached national title or bust, which is good for Shaw. Another trip to a BCS bowl – any BCS bowl – is a successful season for Stanford.
2012: 7-6, 5-4 Pac-12; Lost Las Vegas Bowl
Last call for QB Keith Price to emerge as among the Pac-12 elite might coincide with coach Steve Sarkisian’s last chance to help Washington ascend toward the conference’s top programs.
The Huskies’ 2012 campaign proved to be one of the most frustrating. They landed one of the conference’s greatest victories by upsetting Stanford on national television but proceeded to lose three straight afterward. Blowout losses at LSU and Oregon showed how far back Washington is from the best programs in the nation.
While Price played inconsistently last season, RB Bishop Sankey provided a steady presence in the run game. Sarkisian made a name for himself as an architect of USC’s offense during the glory days of Troy. Ironically, the Huskies’ offense ranked 91st in the nation in total offense – and 10th in the Pac-12. Virtually the entire unit returns and Sarkisian has decided to run a faster pace to liven up his attack.
Washington’s defense proved formidable and returns eight starters, including LB Shaq Thompson.
Starting with a home game against Boise State means the Huskies won’t need to wait long before getting their first test. The Pac-12 North scheduled combined with cross-divisional road games at Arizona State and UCLA give Washington one of the tougher schedules in the nation.
What constitutes a successful season? It’s not as though Washington needs to go to the Rose Bowl for Sarkisian to be safe. However, the Huskies need to provide an optimistic view of the future. A season-opening win over Boise State would go a long way. Winning nine games and playing in a strong Pac-12 bowl game would be a solid improvement.
2012: 3-9, 1-8 Pac-12; No bowl game
Things didn’t go as expected for Mike Leach during his first year as Washington State head coach. There were no expectations of a Pac-12 title, but Cougars fans at least hoped to field an exciting offense. Instead, Leach’s high-octane assault found itself stuck in neutral. Washington State finished the season ranked 100th nationally in total offense and dead last with an astonishingly low 349 rushing yards (29.1 yards per game).
It’s not as though the defense was any better, ranking 101st in points against.
Only an upset overtime win over rival Washington kept the Cougars from a winless Pac-12 slate. Washington State even found a way to lose to hapless Colorado.
This year’s schedule isn’t any easier, starting with a season opener at a talented-but-underachieving Auburn team. Of course, if Leach can get his offense hitting on all cylinders, the Cougars can score enough points to stay close in several games and steal a few. That might be their only hope.
What constitutes a successful season? If Leach can lift Washington State to a bowl game, it will mark a tremendous turnaround. The Cougars aren’t likely to be favored in more than two games this season. Even a 5-7 season would show progress. A 6-6 campaign should be considered a magnificent success.