Monday, July 29, 2013

Long and Suite Preview: The Pac 12

Will Stanford's stingy defense again coral Oregon's explosive offense in 2013?

By Joe Parello  @HerewegoJoe

So many significant things in history have gone east to west (America, the sun, Jackie Chan) so I wanted to buck that trend with my college football preview.

In the first installment of what promises to be a far-too in depth look at the upcoming 2013 season, I tackle the Pac 12, with a little help from conference insider David Lombardi. As I mentioned in my early college football gambling preview, I like a pair of Pac 12 schools as national title bets. I still feel that way about Oregon and Stanford, but the Pac 12 is largely unknown beyond those two.

Still, USC, UCLA, Oregon State, Arizona, ASU and Washington all have talent, and Cal has an exciting new coach. The Pac 12 could end up being one of college football's best conferences in 2013. Or it could be two great teams and a load of garbage. "The field" in the conference has a lot of proving to do on the national stage.

Stanford Wins in the Trenches

In an era of spread and hurry-up offenses, Stanford looks more like a 1970s Big Ten squad that pummels its opponents up front on both sides of the ball. That's not to say anything the Cardinal does is simplistic, as Stanford utilizes a number of exotic formations to create numbers in the blocking game on offense, and a complex 3-4 defense that would make some NFL schemes look pedestrian.

Stanford's offensive line has the potential to be the nation's best, returning four starters from a stellar 2012 group, and guard David Yankey just might be the best interior lineman in America. Questions loom large at the skill positions, as three-time 1,000 yard rusher Stepfan Taylor is gone after a seemingly 27-year college career, Zach Ertz leaves a huge hole at tight end and only junior Ty Montgomery returns with legitimate experience at receiver.

Sophomore Kevin Hogan inspired confidence last season, going 5-0 as a starter with four wins against ranked opponents. His strength and athleticism make him a threat on the ground, but coach David Shaw will hope he can continue to progress as a passer, and that one of several talented tight ends can serve as a safety blanket for the young quarterback. On the defensive side of the ball, Shane Skov will lead one of college football's best linebacking corps, and safeties Jordan Richards and Ed Reynolds form one of the best duos in America.

Oregon Begins Post-Chip Kelly Era

Innovator Chip Kelly is out as the head man in Eugene, but former offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich inherits an embarrassment of riches for his first season as Oregon's head coach. Quarterback Marcus Mariota returns after a freshman season that gave Heisman winner Johhny Manziel a run for his money, and all-purpose offensive weapon De'Anthony Thomas might be the most explosive player in the country.

The return of veteran receivers Keanon Lowe and Josh Huff should make Mariota feel at ease, but his real sense of comfort should come from being protected by the conference's best pass blocking offensive line. Tackles Jake Fisher and Tyler Johnstone are both tall and athletic pass protectors, and center Hroniss Grasu makes all the right calls when opposing teams try to get aggressive against Oregon's up-tempo attack.

But hey, we know the Ducks can score, what makes them a true national title contender this year is the defense. While the departure of first round pick Dion Jordan is a hit in terms of talent, the athletic pass rusher wasn't terribly productive during his days in Eugene. Tony Washington filled in well for Jordan at OLB during the star's shoulder injury last season, and the defensive line returns six contributors from a season ago.

Some questions will need to be answered at inside linebacker, but the secondary is loaded with talent and experience. Oregon led the nation will 26 interceptions a year ago, and corner Corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is an All American caliber cover guy. The Ducks' secondary returns all four starters from last year, along with four experienced backups. So, beware if you're trying to keep up with Oregon by throwing it.

Lane Kiffin Needs to Deliver at USC

Few men in history have failed upward as spectacularly as Lane Kiffin, who stunk as head coach of the Oakland Raiders (While pissing off Al Davis), stunk as head coach of Tennessee (While pissing off the entire SEC), yet somehow landed one of the best coaching jobs in college or pro football, where he currently stinks.

Another losing season and he may be hired to manage the Yankees, or be elected President in 2016. AmIright??? I'll be here all week.

Anyways, Kiffin heads into year four at USC with a ton to prove. His Trojans entered 2012 as a preseason No. 1, but limped to a 7-5 regular season record, before being embarrassed by Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl. Any optimism inspired by a 10-2 season while facing sanctions in 2011 was quickly erased by last year's debacle.

But Kiffin could be poised for his biggest year in LA yet. The Trojans bring back college football's best receiver in junior Marqise Lee, and tight end Xavier Grimble should help USC's offense go, no matter who the quarterback is.

Speaking of quarterbacks, that appears to be the biggest question for USC this year, and the choice that could end or prolong Kiffin's stay in Southern California. Sophomore Max Wittek was less than impressive last year as a freshman, but has the tools to be a solid starter. Classmate Cody Kessler is the more polished of the two, but lacks the arm strength and size that Kiffin likes in a QB.

The wild card is true freshman Max Browne, the top ranked incoming QB recruit in the country. The question is, will Kiffin be able to utilize his fantastic skill players with a pair of limited sophomores and a true freshman competing at quarterback?

Potential Sleeper: Oregon St.

The Beavers came out of nowhere to win nine games in 2012, and people seem to think it was a bit of a fluke. I, on the other hand, see an Oregon St. squad that returns seven starters from the Pac 12's second rated scoring defense, and four starters from an improving offensive line. The continued development of sophomore running back Storm Woods will be key for the Beavers, who may be looking for senior Cody Vaz to replace two-year starter Sean Mannion at quarterback.

While there is experience returning from a successful team on both sides of the ball, the Beavers will mostly benefit from a favorable schedule. In its first seven games, Oregon St. will face only one team that boasted a winning record in 2012 (San Diego St.), and they're next two challenging games against Stanford and USC are both at home. The final three games are a bit tougher, with a home game against Washington sandwiched between road trips to Arizona State and Oregon. But, if the Beavers can improve minimally, they could win nine or 10 games.

Players to Watch

Brett Hundley (So.), QB, UCLA. Trent Murphy (Sr.), LB, Stanford. Ka'Deem Carey (Jr.), RB, Arizona

Hundley threw for over 3,700 yards and 27 TDs as a freshman last season, and suddenly UCLA is fun to watch again. Look for Hundley to do even more this year as a runner with the departure of star running back Johnathan Franklin.

If you were building a pass rusher in a lab, you might use Murphy as a prototype. At 6-foot-6 and just over 260 lbs, the physical tools are clearly there, but Murphy isn't one of those "potential guys." No, the monstrous senior produced double-digit sacks a year ago, and provides a perfect complement to tackling-machine inside linebacker Shane Skov.

If you want excitement, look no further than the nation's returning leading rusher from Arizona. Carey thrived in Rich Rodriguez's spread option offense in 2012, and has his sights set on 2,000 yards this season.

Projections for 2013
Here's how I see the Pac 12 shaking out this season.

Insider Opinion: David Lombardi    @DavidMLombardi

Our buddy David is a football and recruiting insider for The Bootleg, Stanford's affiliate. He has also lent his insights to 95.7 The Game in San Francisco, done play-by-play for ESPN radio in the Bay Area and served as a sideline reporter for Comcast SportsNet.

Basically, the dude knows the West Coast.-JP

When it comes to the Pac-12's recent power structure, one can make a comparison between the conference and the NFC of the 1990s. Take the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers and replace them with the Oregon Ducks and the Stanford Cardinal. These two teams have dominated the Pac-12 for the past three years, and that's only the beginning of the parallel. Stanford's 2012 edition, much like the 1994 49ers, exorcised demons two years in the making by finally vanquishing their primary rival. That put the Cardinal on the path to earn last season's conference crown.

Entering 2013, Oregon and Stanford again boast championship-caliber firepower, so both should again be considered early favorites in the race to the Rose Bowl. The Ducks visit Palo Alto on November 7 for a contest that promises to be riveting and has the potential to be decisive. Still, firepower resides elsewhere in the West, and many analysts are saying that 2013 can be the season in which another group of programs enter the BCS fray.

UCLA, which returns sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley, came just short of a Rose Bowl berth in 2012, while Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton anchors a scary defense that is aiming to unseat Stanford as the best in the Pac-12. Oregon State's schedule lines up favorably: a 7-0 start is entirely possible before Stanford comes to Corvallis.

Though last year turned into a nightmare for Lane Kiffin's club, USC should never be left out of the contender conversation based on talent alone. Meanwhile, Steve Sarkisian's Washington program cannot be overlooked after posting significant upsets last season. Arizona, Colorado, Cal, Utah, and Washington State all still seem to be on the outside looking in from a talent and depth perspective, but fresh coaching situations (Two years or newer) in four of those five programs make them all intriguing wild cards entering 2013.


The Cardinal return almost all of a star-studded defense that led the nation in sacks (56) and tackles for loss (120) last season. That's certainly enough to inspire national title hopes on The Farm in 2013. Since quarterback Kevin Hogan is now a sophomore, the Cardinal -- barring injury -- will no longer have to deal with a first-year starter under center, and that's of paramount importance given the fact that most of Stanford's 2012 receiving production (Zach Ertz, Levine Toilolo) has moved on to the NFL.

Running back Stepfan Taylor is also gone, but the Cardinal's excellent recent recruiting has David Shaw confident that his offense can fill in the gaps with talented young playmakers who will operate alongside the more experienced Hogan and behind a veteran offensive line that is among the best in the country.

Stanford's desired destination is still Pasadena. This time, though, the desired date is January 6.

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