The Pac-12 didn’t win any awards for creative division-naming (that’s probably a good thing) but it will be interesting to see how the long-term balance of power plays out between the North and South divisions.
For years, the Pac-10 had no championship game. The team with the best record was the conference champion. Fairly straightforward, but with little room for error. Now, teams only have to win their division to stay in the hunt for a coveted Rose Bowl berth, awarded to the Pac-12′s top team.
In the Pac-12′s first year, it was USC, Oregon, Stanford, and everyone else. Because the Trojans were ineligible, the South had to send the 6-6 UCLA Bruins to represent the division — not quite the illustrious start Commissioner Larry Scott had in mind.
2012 was projected to be more of the same, and while UCLA did made it back to the title game, it was because they played their way in. Stanford and Oregon were still the top teams overall, but Oregon State kept it interesting with a 6-0 start to the season, and the South teams stepped it up. Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA all showed marked improvement, although Colorado’s struggles were enough to bring down the entire division.
Which side will prevail in 2013?
Bold prediction: The North takes the title for the third straight season but shouldn’t get too comfortable holding the trophy, because the South teams will be hot on their heels and ready to win it back in 2014.
Stanford is the early favorite; the Cardinal is stocked with talent and David Shaw has emerged as one of the top coaches in the country. The team was in some tight spots last season, but with the experience and coaching they have, it’s risky to count them out.
Even after losing head coach Chip Kelly to the NFL, Oregon will still be one of the top teams in the conference. New coach Mark Helfrich has been with the program for four seasons; he’ll want to make his mark (no pun intended) as head coach, but the smartest way to do that is to let Marcus Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas do their thing and keep the Ducks’ faster-than-a-speeding-bullet offense rolling.
The Oregon State Beavers were back in business in 2012 after a rough year, but Mike Riley had his team in contention for the division through most of the season. They lose leading receiver Markus Wheaton, but that loss could be cancelled out if one of the quarterbacks steps up and plays consistently, which was an issue last season.
Washington State and Cal might struggle, but they’ll also show improvement. Washington is really the biggest wild card in the North; it could be very good or a huge disappointment. The Huskies need better coaching from Steve Sarkisian, better quarterback play from Keith Price, and greater effort from all the receivers to stay relevant.
In the South, UCLA will again be the team to beat. Jim Mora advanced the program immensely in just one season, and quarterback Brett Hundley is freakishly good. The Bruins won the crosstown rivalry game against USC last year for the first time since ’06, but don’t overlook the Trojans. They were overhyped last year, which means expectations are lower and will be easier to exceed.
Arizona might not be as good this year without Matt Scott, but an extra season for Taylor Kelly should keep ASU moving up the ranks. The Utes have struggled mightily since moving to the Pac-12. If Kyle Whittingham is the coach we thought he was, Utah will again be just outside the conference title game; if they’re not, Whittingham’s seat will start getting hot.
And then there’s Colorado. There’s really nowhere for them to go but up.