PAC-12 North Preview

PAC 12 NORTH PREVIEW: LUCK OUT, LEACH IN!

The two biggest stories in the Pac 12 North this year are very clear. Unfortunately, if you're the Oregon Ducks, that temporarily leaves you off the radar in the opening days of the 2012 campaign even if you are the favorites to win the division. The good news for those in neon yellow and green is that they'll likely be the biggest story of all when it matters come bowl time

Stanford's Andrew Luck is now toiling for the Indianapolis Colts in the NFL. The number one draft pick has a very bright future ahead of him. Stanford's future is much more of a question mark because it's hard to know at the moment how much of their recent success was due to Luck...and how much was due to the system installed by former coach Jim Harbaugh and followed up by current coach David Shaw. Nobody thinks there won't be any drop off. But, should the new quarterback continue to play efficiently, Stanford could still be a top 25 caliber team. If Luck and Harbaugh were doing all the heavy lifting, their absence could see the Cardinal drop all the way to the 40-50 range...or even worse in a season where several other Pac 12 schools are optimistic.

The Athlon publication we use in our Preseason write-ups currently has Stanford ranked as 21st in the nation. That's a guess...and possibly an optimistic one given the hole left by Luck's graduation.

Mike Leach is already popular with the Pac 12 press. That's no surprise. The man is a quote machine who's entertaining in press conferences and who gets his teams to play entertaining football. Washington State is the perfect place to rebuild his reputation because you can go from zero to hero very quickly in the Pac 12. You saw that with Oregon once they made the commitment to excellence. You saw it from Stanford who was a 40-point dog to USC not that many years ago. The Cougars may not be ready this year to shock the nation. You have to assume good things are coming up.

Let's run through the numbers to get a sense of how all the question marks might play out. New quarterbacks at favorites Oregon and Stanford. New enthusiasm at Washington State. Experience and optimism at Washington, Cal, and even Oregon State. The North-Pac could turn out to be quite a six-pack! (We'll run the numbers for the Pac 12 South Sunday in this two-day conference outline).

PAC 12 NORTH

OREGON
Athlon Ranking: 4th
2011 Total Offense: 4th
2011 Total Defense: 67th
Strength: Rush Offense (5th)
Weakness: Pass Defense (88th)
Returning Starters: 4 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: Chip Kelly
Notebook: Darron Thomas didn't get as much hype at quarterback as Luck, RGIII, or many of the other high draft picks. But, he was a very good fit for an Oregon team that liked to run you over with their fast break. The Ducks must choose a new signal caller this year and hope he's up to the task. The good thing about winning so many blowouts is that your backups get a lot of experience as they're learning the ropes. That should be enough to put Oregon over the top in this division. They have a great system, and recruiting becomes easier when you're on TV all the time putting up big numbers. Athlon may be overly optimistic with that top five assessment though. An extremely easy September schedule will leave them extremely untested moving into league play. The battle with USC (projected national championship contender) will be on the road, and is followed immediately by a road game at California. This may be a team that has the stats of a superpower but gets exposed the few times they have to play true class. But, if the new QB can keep his head about him under pressure, the Ducks could be a surprise entry in the BCS title tilt come January.

STANFORD
Athlon Ranking: 21st
2011 Total Offense: 8th
2011 Total Defense: 26th
Strength: Rush Defense (3rd)
Weakness: Pass Defense (95th)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: David Shaw
Notebook: This is a smart team that returns some experience. That being said, this may also be an example of a team from last year that was exposed as soft when they ran into quality. They lost badly at home to Oregon in the defacto league championship game. They were very lucky to beat USC on the road. Then, they lost to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. Take Luck out of the picture, and the team becomes mortal very quickly (particularly on defense vs. teams who know how to move the ball). The offense will be under a lot of pressure this year quickly, with USC and Washington on the September slate. In our own proprietary Power Rankings, we have Stanford a bit lower than this with an anvil...meaning we're watching closely to see if we need to drop them even further.

WASHINGTON
Athlon Ranking: 25th
2011 Total Offense: 38th
2011 Total Defense: 106th
Strength: Pass Offense (35th)
Weakness: Pass Defense (116th)
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: Steve Sarkisian
Notebook: The Huskies have a brutal first half schedule that may have them on TV quite a bit, but may have them losing vs. tough opponents. They will see both LSU and Stanford in September, then will start off October with Oregon and USC. That could turn out to be three top five caliber teams and four very highly regarded teams. We like what we saw on offense last year with quarterback Keith Price. He's the first returning QB in our discussions. Steve Sarkisian knows what he's doing, and is looking to have a statement win this season that will help him move up to a bigger and better program (he's about to lose the battle of state media to Leach and WSU!). We have our eye on this team as a potential value dog in at least one or two of those early battles. Then, we'll be watching November closely to see if the team has bounce-back potential or "towel-tosser" syndrome.

CALIFORNIA
Athlon Ranking: 38th
2011 Total Offense: 44th
2011 Total Defense: 25th
Strength: Rush Defense (34th)
Weakness: Rush Offense (62nd)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 5 on defense
Head Coach: Jeff Tedford
Notebook: You longtime readers of the NOTEBOOK know that we think Jeff Tedford has generally been overrated as a college coach. He's supposedly a quarterback guru who's had trouble developing real quality at the position in his most recent seasons. His defenses are actually better than reported. Zach Maynard is back at quarterback. But, his stats weren't all that great last year when you adjust for context. Cal was 46th in pass offense in a fast break conference that had several bad defenses. Cal only scored 15 and 9 in blowout losses to Oregon and USC, and only 10 in their bowl loss to Texas. This year they have to go on the road to play Ohio State and USC in successive September weekends! We'll see how Maynard progresses. This can be a defensive dog we'll consider vs. some teams. And, they may match up well against Pac 12 non-contenders once we get deep into the season.

WASHINGTON STATE
Athlon Ranking: 51st
2011 Total Offense: 33rd
2011 Total Defense: 83nd
Strength: Pass Offense (9th)
Weakness: Rush Offense (111th)
Returning Starters: 4 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Mike Leach
Notebook: Does what happened before even matter? Leach will put his stamp on this team immediately. That means a wide open attack that will put up big numbers when things click, but could result in turnover disasters vs. top teams. It will be awhile before the system will really take hold. And, it's not like he'll be recruiting Texas style athletes even when he re-establishes himself. That being said...Leach's approach was kind of a Pac 12 style anyway. That's why he could never win the Big 12 with it! We will definitely be looking to pick our spots with this program in 2012. And, if oddsmakers give the team too much credit too soon, we'll be looking for spots to fade them hard.

OREGON STATE
Athlon Ranking: 61st
2011 Total Offense: 73rd
2011 Total Defense: 84th
Strength: Pass Offense (19th)
Weakness: Rush Offense (118th)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 8 on defense
Head Coach: Mike Riley
Notebook: Maybe the lack of coverage and expectations will help Oregon State come from off the radar. They do return their quarterback, and have eight guys back on defense. They can definitely catch complacent opponents napping. And, there are all sorts of reasons for lookaheads and letdowns on the crowded Pac 12 calendar. They could definitely be a darkhorse dog for us, particularly if they can build some confidence in an early home game against Wisconsin.

Even though we won't talk about USC and their national title hopes until tomorrow, you can see that most of the interesting things happening in the whole Pac 12 will be up here in the North. Be sure you spend a lot of time studying this group in their toughest September challenges.

College football is now just a couple of weeks away. You've been having fun with the NFL Preseason. And, you're ready to make a commitment for the full college and pro smorgasbord. You can purchase seasonal packages online with your credit card right here at the website. Or, call us in the office at 1-800-323-4453. Don't forget to ask about combination packages with our hot baseball when you call.

Back with you tomorrow to preview USC and the Pac 12 South. Will the Trojans be able to take BCS bragging rights away from the SEC? Will they get any competition in their own division from the likes of Utah or UCLA? The man with the answers is JIM HURLEY!

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