Picking the Pac-12 North

FIFTY-SIX DAYS. That's what separates WSU from their ESPN opening night showdown in Provo against BYU. The 2012 crimson vintage features a new, nationally renowned head coach. Spring ball and the summer's progress in Pullman has been impressive -- but just how much improvement can we expect from the Cougs in 2012? Here's the pre-fall camp CF.C prediction for the Pac-12 North this season.

Fall camp injuries, attrition and other potential future factors could still shake things up but here in early July, the Pac-12 North picks:

First Place- Oregon
2011 season: 12-2, 2012 regular season prediction: 11-1

From the flash to the media publicity, Oregon looks to be as good as advertised and will continue their dominance next season. Many are assuming that USC in the South will run away with the Pac-12 title, but let's think about this for one second. Sure, the Ducks lost quarterback Darron Thomas and running back LaMichael James to the NFL, but UO should reload at quarterback and be pretty good in the backfield with Kenjon Barner, too. Sophomore QB Bryan Bennett is likely to lead Chip Kelly's offense and he's a better passer than Thomas. His stats in relief weren't mind-boggling in ‘11, but he had a 54.3 completion percentage and a QB rating of 164.8.

And then there's burner De'Anthony Thomas. He exploded his freshman season, totaling 597 yards and seven touchdowns. Barner and Thomas might not be ultra-durable but if Oregon scores early and often, they won't need to be and will get plenty of rest in the second half. Another thing that favors the Ducks is their schedule. Oregon has their first four games at home and barring a letdown, should breeze through their first eight weeks. That sets up a Week 9 showdown with USC. Even if the Ducks lose, it's likely to be the only game they're not favored, and then they will seek revenge on the Trojans in the Pac-12 title game.

OTHER VOICES: The Ducks are the consensus pick to finish in the top spot in the Pac-12 North - Lindy's (1), Phil Steele (1), Athlon (1), USA Today (1) and ESPN Blue Ribbon (1).

Second-Place- Stanford
2011 season: 11-2, 2012 regular season prediction: 8-4

Stanford had the biggest talent loss, and they can't replace a QB like Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall pick by Indianapolis in the NFL Draft. But the Cardinal will still be among the best teams in the conference because of their running attack, led by Stepfan Taylor. Quite simply, they will wear teams down.

Their schedule does work against them with road games at USC, Notre Dame and Washington and a 1-2 or even 0-3 record is possible against the trio. But while Stanford will be brought back to earth in 2012, the drop won't be as dramatic as some are predicting. The Cardinal offense will rely on either QB Brett Nottingham or Josh Nunes, and the secondary will have mostly new faces, but an elite running attack can cover a multitude of sins.

OTHER VOICES: Stanford is the consensus pick to finish second in the Pac-12 North - Lindy's (2), Phil Steele (2), Athlon (2), USA Today (2) and ESPN Blue Ribbon (2).

Third-Place- Washington
2011 Record: 7-6, 2012 regular season prediction: 7-5

The main thing holding the Huskies from taking the next step is their atrocious defense. But Steve Sarkisian fired Nick Holt and brought in rising DC Justin Wilcox from Tennessee. Wilcox is emphasizing a 3-4 system with a stand-up defensive end, and how quickly UW's young defensive talent adjusts to the change will tell the tale. As for the offense, QB Keith Price is one of the more underrated QBs around – when healthy.

Price is dangerous both through the air and on the ground and can make the Huskies a very difficult team to beat. But he's not the sturdiest guy out there, and looked like a completely different QB when less than 100 percent last season. But in the end, it all depends on how much improvement will be made on defense for the UW, specifically the secondary. If they make the advances they should make, they will go bowling once again and finish in third.

OTHER VOICES: The Huskies are the consensus pick to finish third in the Pac-12 North - Lindy's (3), Phil Steele (5), Athlon (3), USA Today (3) and ESPN Blue Ribbon (3).

Fourth–Place- Washington State
2011 Record: 4-8, 2012 regular season prediction: 7-5

I know what you're thinking. A new staff, new systems on offense and defense and WSU is going to nearly double their win total? Yes, they will. Although WSU went 2-8 over the last 10 games in 2011, had QB Jeff Tuel stayed healthy the Cougs would have made it to a bowl game -- and with room to spare.

Tuel looked even better this spring in the Air Raid than he did the spring prior and although Leach said he doesn't have a starter yet, there's no doubt Tuel is the clear No. 1. He needs to stay healthy and not make poor decisions, (like tight roping the sidelines waiting to get blasted) but Connor Halliday is also more than capable of leading the team to wins if called upon.

The defense and the depth on the offensive line are major concerns. Losing four key contributors at any position is tough but when it's the offensive line, it can be catastrophic. The line struggled at times in the spring and offensive line coach Clay McGuire will have his hands full when fall camp kicks off in less than a month.

The Cougars should pick up six wins headed into the Apple Cup by upsetting a team or two and being upset themselves, (our projected wins are BYU, EWU, UNLV, Colorado, California and UCLA). The newly renovated Martin Stadium will be electric for the Apple Cup and the Cougs will come out on top over the Huskies, finishing 7-5. But the UW will have one more conference win, placing the Cougs fourth in the Pac-12 standings.

OTHER VOICES: The Cougs are the consensus pick to finish fifth in the Pac-12 North - Lindy's (5), Phil Steele (6), Athlon (5), USA Today (5) and ESPN Blue Ribbon (5).

Fifth-Place- California
2011 season: 7-6, 2012 regular season prediction: 6-6

Several college football analysts have the Golden Bears finishing third in the Pac-12 North, but there are pressure points aplenty for one of the conference's most schizophrenic teams in recent years. Cal has a solid defense and the offense can potentially be dangerous, but QB Zach Maynard is far from consistent and that will hurt Cal as the year goes along.

Keep in mind Cal lost several contributors on defense, so the offense is going to have to put more points on the board and with Maynard leading the ship. In 2011, the lefty threw for 2,990 yards and 17 TDs with 12 interceptions – and was sacked 27 times. His numbers aren't horrible, but they don't suggest a QB ready to lead his team over the top.

OTHER VOICES: Cal is the consensus pick to finish fourth in the Pac-12 North - Lindy's (4), Phil Steele (3), Athlon (4), USA Today (4) and ESPN Blue Ribbon (4).

Last-Place- Oregon State
2011 season: 3-9, 2012 regular season prediction: 3-9

The Beavers are coming off a terrible season in 2011 and unfortunately for OSU fans, the offseason hasn't suggested a turnaround in 2012. The running backs were mediocre enough that no one came out of the spring with the top job for the second straight year. The o-line was so banged up in spring ball there were only eight serviceable bigs, and three of them were walk ons. The secondary is a bright spot but the linebackers and d-line have question marks.

The one thing OSU fans can hang their hat on is that quarterback Sean Mannion is ready to take a big step forward. He threw for over 3,300 yards as a freshman and a flat WSU team made him look like a Heisman Trophy contender in 201. But his decision making was flawed and he was wildly inconsistent in other weeks – he had 18 interceptions against 16 TDs on the season. Mannion should improve his decision making as a sophomore, but it won't be enough to make a significant difference.

OTHER VOICES: Oregon State is the consensus pick to finish sixthin the Pac-12 North - Lindy's (6), Phil Steele (4), Athlon (6), USA Today (6) and ESPN Blue Ribbon (6).

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