CAL GOLDEN BEARS
1. Let Zach Kline Develop
Cal’s quarterback woes may have contributed to Jeff Tedford’s ouster more than anything else. Since Aaron Rodgers’ 2004 departure, each successor has been asked to reverse the Golden Bears’ fortunes — all unsuccessfully. Whether it was Nate Longshore, Kevin Riley or Zach Maynard, Cal has simply been unable to find an answer to run the offense.
Sonny Dykes is known for developing quarterbacks, but the keyword is develop. Zach Kline came to Cal with lofty exceptions as a four-star recruit and Rivals.com’s second ranked Pro Set quarterback in the 2012 signing class.
Tedford may have been able to placate some of his detractors by lifting Kline’s redshirt, akin to Rick Neuheisel with Brett Hundley at UCLA. Not doing so gave Kline an extra year to mature, and as a result, he’ll be fundamental in Dykes’ project. His growth is ongoing, and he cannot be benched at the first sign of struggle. Kline’s play is a long-term investment.
2. Stay Out Of Holes
The 2012 Golden Bears were outscored in every quarter, but first quarters were particularly unforgiving. Cal mustered just 34 points in the first 15 minutes of games — that’s less than a field goal an outing, on average. Conversely, opponents deluged the Golden Bears with 107 first quarter points.
That translates to Cal trailing every game by a touchdown. In five games, the Golden Bears failed to score at all in the opening stanza. Two of those games — vs. Nevada and Washington — Cal lost by one score. That opening period sets a tone, and for Cal, that tone was decidedly negative.
3. Trust The Process
Dykes proved he can build something special in short order at Louisiana Tech. He won 17 games his final two years there, but needed to suffer through a trying initial campaign while getting his players acclimated to the new system. Cal has pieces, but the Golden Bears face a demanding schedule — both Ohio State and Northwestern are on the non-conference slate, in addition to the challenging Pac-12 — so a bowl game might be an unattainable goal in Year One.
Progress this season is going to be measured in inches. More noticeable results will come in Year Two.
1. Beat Stanford
Pretty simple, right? Well, not necessarily. Stanford had an answer for the quick-strike Oregon offense no opponent has since Auburn in the BCS championship game. Even in the Ducks’ 2011 opener loss to LSU, the Ducks managed 27 points.
Oregon’s version of the spread offense is designed to bewilder the opponent. The Ducks must find a way to have that advantage once more against a savvy Stanford defense. The tables were completely turned in 2012.
2. What’s Good For The Goose Is Good For The Gander…Or Duck
Oregon was without a Heisman Trophy candidate last season, despite running back Kenjon Barner and quarterback Marcus Mariota putting up worthy statistics. On another team, they are not sharing the spotlight and possibly going to New York come December. Similarly, the Duck receivers have passes spread pretty evenly among them — not because any are lacking in talent. Quite the opposite. They are all so talented,
Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas could both be Heisman caliber, but letting individual accolades take a backseat to the team cause has been this program’s model.
3. Remind Little Brother Who Big Brother Is
Twice in as many years, late season losses have been the Ducks’ BCS championship undoing. Oregon faces a tough slate in its Halloween-to-Thanksgiving stretch, starting with UCLA before the marquee showdown with Stanford. UO must also travel to Arizona, where another Duck team’s title dreams were snuffed in 2007.
The Civil War ends it as always, and Oregon has dominated the series in recent years. However, a talented Beaver bunch could be in the hunt for the Pac-12 North title come the regular season finale. Late November games — particularly late November home games — have been vexing. The potential for heartbreak when OSU visits is high, unless the Ducks do what they’ve done so effectively every year since 2008: dominate their in-state rivals.
OREGON STATE BEAVERS
1. Find A Quarterback & Stick With Him
Cody Vaz and Sean Mannion swapped quarterbacking duties down the stretch. It’s no wonder then that all four of the Beavers’ losses came on or after Oct. 27. Granted, those final weeks featured the meat of the Beavers’ schedule, but that’s all the more reason to have stability at the position.
Mannion and Vaz have their positive and negative qualities. Mannion is more of a risk taker, prone to mistakes Vaz might not make, but also more likely to strike it rich with the big play. Head coach Mike Riley cannot afford another season of musical chairs if the Beavers are to develop the right chemistry.
2. Become Road Warriors
Washington and Stanford both come to Reser Stadium in 2013. Both beat Oregon State in 2012, by three and four points. Logic dictates that home field advantage swings the pendulum in the Beavers’ favor. Oregon State also gets USC in Reser, where the Trojans have suffered some noteworthy defeats in recent years. Those are three huge wins for Oregon State’s conference championship resume.
But to have a fighting shot at the program’s first trip to Pasadena in five decades, Oregon State cannot slip up away from home. Washington State, Cal and Utah all have upset potential. A late season trek down to Arizona State is a biggie.
3. Take Home The Platypus
It’s been six years since Oregon State won the Civil War. Just once since the Platypus Trophy was found and restored has it resided in Corvallis.
Riley has accomplished much as OSU’s head coach, but Oregon remains something of a white whale for his program. Harpooning it could be the step the Beavers need to regain some bragging rights in their home state, and punch tickets to the Rose Bowl Game.
1. Dominate With Defense
Stanford boasted the nation’s No. 17 scoring defense last season — no easy feat in a conference predicated on explosive offense. This season’s group might actually be better; perhaps good enough to power Stanford into the final BCS championship game.
The Cardinal won an astounding eight games by single digits last year. A few plays break differently, and the program’s first Rose Bowl win since 1971 could end very differently. To avoid walking a similar razor’s edge, this particularly deep and talented defense must impose its will on opposing offenses. Create separation in the first half with turnovers, punts forced deep in the opponents’ own territory, and put the offense in positions to succeed.
2. Ball Control, Ball Control, Ball Control
Stanford is a defensive-oriented team. As such, it’s imperative the Cardinal offense dominate time of possession. One would seem to correlate directly with the other, and indeed, Stanford had a 31:43 average time of possession a season ago. In its two losses to Washington and Notre Dame, the Cardinal had a near even split with UW and lost the possession battle to the Irish.
With star tailback Stepfan Taylor gone, the Cardinal must find a new one to dominate the ground game. Tyler Gaffney’s return from a professional baseball sabbatical certainly helps, but either quarterback Kevin Hogan or senior running back Anthony Wilkerson must emerge as a reliable rushing option.
3. Find Kevin Hogan Targets
Stanford loses an overwhelming majority of its receiving corps from last season, whether it be wideout Drew Terrell or tight ends Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz. Gaffney’s shown an ability to operate in the passing game, so his return gives Hogan one viable option.
However, the Cardinal need production from other sources that haven’t yet stepped into the spotlight during this three-year run of success. Michael Rector is one possibility; Ty Montgomery is another. Each was solid during spring season, but off-season workout prowess does not always translate to fall Saturdays.
1. The Price Is Right
Keith Price can be an outstanding quarterback. He demonstrated as much in 2011 when, among Pac-12 Conference quarterbacks, only Heisman finalist and should-have-been Heisman finalist Matt Barkley were better. Was last season’s regression the anomaly? Or was his stellar sophomore campaign the aberration?
The Huskies open with a very good defensive team in Boise State. The Broncos boasted the nation’s No. 5 pass defense in 2012, and return seven starters on that side of the ball. So long as he’s adequate, the critics should hold judgment on Price until after Week 1.
2. Hold Home Field
The old Husky Stadium was one of the most feared venues in the West, particularly for night games. Its spooky lighting and raucous crowd gave UW teams a psychological edge. Seattle remains one of the best home field advantages in the conference, evident in the Huskies’ home wins over Stanford and Oregon State. Such victories were critical
Washington plays a brutal road slate: at UCLA. At Arizona State. At Stanford. At Oregon State. Getting over that seven-win hump is contingent on the Huskies holding serve at Husky Stadium. The lower rung foes like Cal, Colorado and Washington State are of less concern than season opening opponent Boise State, Arizona or Oregon. UW must take care of the lesser foes at home, and go no worse than 2-1 against the latter three to put itself in position for that long-awaited, breakout season.
3. Win Eight
Three straight bowl appearances is nice after Washington floundered for much of the 2000s, but the seven-win barrier is becoming a millstone. Steve Sarkisian came to UW to restore its past glory, not be a merely decent team not quite on par with the Pac’s elite.
Washington faces a difficult schedule, so contending for the conference championship this season may not be a realistic goal. However, eight wins make for a tangible benchmark of progress as Sarkisian continues his rebuild. Eight wins are especially meaningful against a schedule as strong as the Huskies’.
WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS
1. Halliday’s Your Huckleberry
Mike Leach switched between Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday last season. With Tuel now gone, it’s Halliday’s show to operate. He’s a talented passer with the ability to be Washington State’s offensive cornerstone. With a bevy of proven wide receivers returning, the possibility for the Cougars to put up big points is there.
2. Steal One In Martin
The Cougars are unlikely to be favorites too often in 2013; particularly not in Pac-12 play. Still, they play in one of the most unique environments in the conference. Travel to the Palouse is no walk in the park, and cold temperatures can be unforgiving. The combination makes for upset potential.
Look no further than Washington State’s 2011 win over Arizona State. Stealing a similar victory this season is important to the program’s progress. Maybe ASU again? The Sun Devils come in on Halloween night, when Martin Stadium promises to be rocking, and the temperatures promise to be decidedly un-Tempe-like.
Wazzu also hosts Utah on Thanksgiving weekend.
3. Build On The Apple Cup Momentum
Wazzu’s start to 2012 is not particularly accommodating. The Cougars travel to Auburn in Week 1. And while the Tigers are themselves rebuilding, lower tier Pac-12 teams never fare well in the South. Then in Week 2, Washington State travels to USC. The Cougars have not beaten the Trojans since WSU’s 2002 Rose Bowl campaign.
A win over a good Washington team to cap Leach’s debut season gives the Cougars a tangible result to look to for inspiration in Year 2. Auburn and USC are favorites, and WSU may not win those games. However, giving each a competitive game with two likely Ws against Southern Utah and Idaho awaiting should extend the Cougars’ momentum into a stretch that includes Stanford, Cal, and the Oregons.