The Pac was better in 2012 that most predicted, despite the crater job by Lane Kiffin and USC, who went from a preseason number 1 ranking, to a 7-5 season, opening the door for UCLA to take over the South. Oregon again looked like the team to beat in the north, and was, until a missed field in overtime did them in against Stanford, and allowed the Cardinal to capture the north and eventually the Pac 12 title over UCLA. So, what are we looking at next season? With the assumption that every draft eligible non-senior returns, here are our way to early conference and division predictions for 2013.
Will Chip Kelley still be here? If so, the Ducks will again be regarded as the top team in the conference heading into 2013. Kenjon Barner is gone, but they'll reload at running back with De'Anthony Thomas and Byron Marshall. QB Marcus Mariotta will only be a sophomore, and will be an early Heisman Trophy candidate. Even if Kelley doesn't come back, Oregon will be a top 10 preseason team and the Pac 12 favorite...again.
14 starters are gone from the Pac 12 champs, including their 3 interior offensive linemen and all-world running back Stepfan Taylor. Top two tight ends and both wide receivers are gone as well, meaning the Cardinal will have to find new playmakers on offense. Kevin Hogan will be a bit more advanced, and will need to make strides as a passer, but without reliable playmakers, Stanford may struggle offensively early in the year. Defensively, the top 3 linebackers are all gone from a group that was easily the best linebacking group in the country this year. Stanford exceeded expectations in 2012, but they have to ready to experience a drop-off at some point, right?.
Washington's season would have been labeled a success had they not been shocked to finish the season against Wazzu. That means they'll likely be under the radar heading into 2013 despite returning Keith Price, Kasen Williams, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and Bishop Sankey on offense. There might not be a Pac 12 team with a better QB-RB-WR-TE combo. Throw in Shaq Thompson on defense, and the Huskies have the pieces in place to make a run at a 10 win season if everything goes right.
4. Oregon State
The Beavers may have the best QB situation in the conference with both Cozy Vaz and Sean Mannion coming back. Now, they just need to settle on one as the starter. Mike Riley did a great job this past season in getting the surprising Beavers to 9 wins a year after they posted only 3. The loss of all conference receiver Markus Wheaton will tough to overcome, but Brandin Cooks returns along with running back Storm Woods. To expect another 9 win regular season might be a bit much, but the Beavers will be bowling again.
The Sonny Dykes era is underway. Gone are Zach Maynard, Isi Sofele, and Keenan Allen, meaning the Bears may struggle offensively to start the year. That said, they have some pretty good QBs in the program that they'll be able to choose some. The defense should be improved with a lot of young guys on the line. A bowl next year might be a stretch, but things should be better with a new guy heading up the program.
6. Washington State
The Pirate needs to get things on track in 2013 or he'll be on the hot seat going in 2014. After a tough year this season, Wazzu was able to close out the year with a shocker over their rivals in Washington. The Cougars lose only 4 starters and Jeff Tuel could get a sixth year to drop that number to 3. That's a lot of returning players, and Mike Leach continues to bring in solid recruiting classes.
Expect the Bruins to be one of those trendy dark-horse national title contender picks by some. The reality though, is their probably still one more year away from realistically being able to compete at that level. That said, Jim Mora has things looking up in Westwood after posting a very surprising 9-4 season with a Pac 12 South title. QB Brett Hundley returns, along four starters on the offensive line. Replacing Johnathan Franklin won't be easy, but there are a slew of backs ready to step in. Anthony Barr will most people's top defender nationally to kick off the year, but the Bruins will be replacing three starters in the secondary. This team may start the season in the top 10.
USC looks like the boom or bust team in the conference. They could win as many as 10 games, and also could find themselves home for the holidays next year without a bowl game. Max Wittek will replace Matt Barkley, but Robert Woods and Marquise Lee will be back to again form the best receiving duo in the country. The Trojans bring in another big time recruiting class that has quite a few players ready to step in and contribute immediately. Lan Kiffin probably needs at least 8 wins to save his job.
3. Arizona State
Some, myself included, thought that the Sun Devils could end up at the bottom of the South in 2012. That turned out not to be the case as Taylor Kelly and company reeled off a 7 win season. They will lose quite a few seniors, but if Will Sutton decides to come back, he'll be a huge boost. Todd Graham is building something in the desert and next season should be another step forward.
The Wildcats return all 11 starters on defense, including 8 that were underclassmen this season. They ranked towards the bottom of conference in most defensive categories, but with the youth gaining another year of experience, should be improved. Offensively is where they have the most question marks. Gone is Matt Scott, and there doesn't look to be a reliable option to replace arguably the top QB in the Pac 12 in 2012. Top receiver Austin Hill will return, but their other top receivers are gone. Fortunately, Ka'Deem Carey, who was arguably the top back in college football this season returns along with 3 starters on the line. Rich-Rod will have his work cut out for him because of the loss of Scott, but anything less than another bowl appearance will be a disappointment.
Will the Utes be better? That's not certain, as one of the best defensive players in program history, and arguably the best running back in program history are both gone. Travis Wilson will have another year under his belt, and the offensive line will be retooled, but better. If Utah can't get solid production out of their line, while finding a few linebackers that can stay healthy and produce, they're going to have trouble making a bowl game. Throw in the Utes' need to replace their top four corners, and a bowl game appearance is far from a certainty.
Colorado will certainly be better. They have to be, don't they? The Buffs have hired Mike McEntyre as their new head coach, and will return 17 starters, and get all conference receiver candidate Paul Richardson back after missing the year with an injury. Can they crawl out of the conference cellar? Probably not, as the South may have four teams that start the year ranked, but they'll be better and will catch at least one team off-guard in 2013.
WAY Too Early 2013 Pac 12 Look Ahead
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