A coaching transition has worked well for Stanford in recent years. Will that be the same theme at Oregon?
That’s the big question surrounding the Pac-12 in 2013.
New Oregon coach Mark Helfrich has been handed the keys to a team capable of winning a national title. But Helfrich has never been a head coach, and former coach Chip Kelly was one of the best in the nation. Helping Helfrich’s transition is one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Marcus Mariota, along with dynamic running back De’Anthony Thomas.
Although Stanford hosts Oregon this year, the Cardinal rank No. 2 in Athlon’s projected Pac-12 standings for 2013. The Cardinal should have the league’s best defense. But the offense has no proven playmakers at receiver or tight end, and running back Stepfan Taylor will be missed.
Whether it’s Oregon or Stanford, the winner of the Pac-12 North should be one of the top contenders for the national title.
Oregon State improved its win total by six games last year and returns 15 starters. The biggest question for the Beavers is at defensive tackle, while finding consistency from the quarterback spot.
Washington has been unable to win more than seven games in a season under Steve Sarkisian, and despite a talented roster, the schedule is a huge challenge once again.
Arizona State is Athlon’s pick to win the Pac-12 South in 2013. The Sun Devils should have one of the conference’s best front sevens on defense and will be explosive on offense with the return of quarterback Taylor Kelly and running backs Marion Grice and DJ Foster. The schedule is also in favor of Arizona State, as Todd Graham’s team misses Oregon in conference play and hosts USC and Arizona.
After beginning 2012 as one of the favorites to win the national championship, USC is flying under the radar entering 2013. The Trojans have the talent to be a top-25 team and could win the Pac-12 South. However, the battle to replace quarterback Matt Barkley did not yield a clear frontrunner in the spring and will continue into the fall.
UCLA is the back-to-back defending champions of the Pac-12 South, but the Bruins are slated at No. 3 in Athlon’s predictions for 2013. Quarterback Brett Hundley is back, and the defense has one of the top linebacking corps in the Pac-12. The biggest question mark for UCLA is an offensive line that has very little depth, and a schedule that features crossover games against Stanford and Oregon in back-to-back weeks.
Arizona is making progress under second-year coach Rich Rodriguez, but the Wildcats are probably a year away from contending in the Pac-12 South. Arizona needs to improve its defense, while finding a replacement for quarterback Matt Scott.
Colorado and Utah round out the Pac-12 South predictions. The Buffaloes should be better in coach Mike MacIntyre’s first season, while the Utes look to get back to a bowl game after just missing out on one last year (5-7).
Inside the War Room: Key Questions That Shaped Athlon's 2013 Predictions
Stanford is the defending Pac-12 champ and won at Oregon last year. Why are the Cardinal picked to finish No. 2 in the Pac-12 North?
Stanford won the league last year, but Oregon was the better team throughout the entire 2012 season. The Ducks dominated all but one Pac-12 opponent — yes, that was Stanford — winning their league games by an average of 32.5 points per game. Stanford, on the other hand, had several close calls. Five of the Cardinal’s eight league wins came by seven points or less, including two in overtime. We realize that the goal is to win the game (not necessarily win by 32.5 points), but margin of victory matters over the course of a season when you are assessing the strength of a team. Looking ahead to 2013, both teams will be outstanding. The big issue with Oregon will be the coaching transition from Chip Kelly to Mark Helfrich. Stanford’s big concern is identifying some playmakers at running back and wide receiver. The Cardinal also have the more difficult schedule; they host Oregon but have to play the three best teams, on paper, in the South (Arizona State, USC and UCLA). Oregon doesn’t play either USC or Arizona State. Advantage: Ducks.
What gives Arizona State the edge in the South?
You can make a case for any of the top four teams in the Pac-12 South. Ultimately, we picked Arizona State because the Sun Devils have the fewest issues heading into the 2013 season. They are set at quarterback with Taylor Kelly, solid at running back and on the offensive line, and the defense, led by Will Sutton, should be strong once again. And it doesn’t hurt that Arizona State hosts USC and Arizona and doesn’t play Oregon, our pick to the win the Pac-12 North.
Is this the year Washington crashes through the seven-win plateau and contends in the North?
Steve Sarkisian made an immediate splash at Washington, energizing the fan base by winning five games (including a win over USC) in his first season. Most expected UW to emerge as a perennial Pac-12 contender under Sark’s watch. Hasn’t happened. The Huskies haven’t been bad, but Washington fans aren’t impressed with 7–6 seasons — which have become the norm in Seattle. So is this the year Washington takes the next step? Our guess is no. We like the marked improvement on defense last year, and there is solid talent at the skill positions. But the offensive line is a concern, and quarterback Keith Price regressed in 2012. Even if UW improves overall, a brutal schedule could make it difficult for this team to hit the magical eight-win mark.
Can Mike Leach make Washington State relevant in Year 2?
We made the assumption at this time last year that Washington State would make a drastic improvement under Mike Leach in his first season. We were wrong. The Cougars were among the worst BCS conference teams in the nation in 2012, stumbling to a 3–9 overall record and a 1–8 mark in the Pac-12. Things will be better in Pullman in Year 2, but Wazzu is still at least a year away from being consistently competitive in the improving Pac-12. There was some talk about picking the Cougars fifth in the North, ahead of California, but this team has too many concerns — on both sides of the ball — to finish anywhere but last.
Who makes a bigger impact in Year 1 — Sonny Dykes at Cal or Mike MacIntyre at Colorado?
Both were outstanding hires, and we believe both coaches will do well in time. In the short term, MacIntyre has the more difficult job. Colorado’s talent level has sunk to pre-Bill McCartney levels, and it will take several years before the Buffs can be consistently competitive in the Pac-12. Cal has some issues, but Dykes is inheriting a more talented roster. We aren’t forecasting a big turnaround in Berkeley, but the Bears are far more likely to exceed expectations in 2013.
2013 Pac-12 Team Previews
Unimaginative best describes the Pac-12 non-conference football schedule, which is greatly watered down, whether by design or chance. Marquee matchups made for national TV are few this season, even with Notre Dame playing three league members (USC, Stanford, Arizona State).
Of the 33 outside teams taking on the Pac-12, 16 come off losing records in 2012. Nine had two victories or fewer. Six were last-place teams. Just nine hail from the so-called power conferences. Their combined record last season was 201–204.
Consider Oregon’s unimposing slate — Nicholls State (1–10), Virginia (4–8) and Tennessee (5–7). Washington State faces the following: Auburn (3–9), Southern Utah (5–6) and Idaho (1–11). Washington opens with challenging Boise State (11–2), but then plays Illinois (2–10) and Idaho State (1–10). Only rebuilding California will show real backbone early, taking on Big Ten contenders Northwestern (10–3) and Ohio State (12–0) sandwiched around Portland State (3–8).
Directing the Ducks
Oregon doesn’t require thick résumés or nationwide searches when it needs a new football coach — it promotes its offensive coordinator. For 20 years this system has worked well, with the job changing hands from Rich Brooks to Mike Bellotti to Chip Kelly and now Mark Helfrich. Yet the question now surrounding Helfrich is this: Can he and his retooled staff continue to recruit like crazy, run up points at even crazier levels and keep winning at unprecedented program levels?
Helfrich might be the least dynamic personality when compared to his predecessors. Also, he once deemed himself unworthy to play for Oregon, rejecting an offer to come to Eugene as a walk-on quarterback and flourishing at lower-level Southern Oregon instead.
“Luckily for Duck fans, I was never allowed to play in Autzen Stadium,” Helfrich said in a light manner at his hiring. “Coach Brooks and Coach Bellotti at that time made a very good evaluation.”
Most-watched job battle
The Oregon State quarterback competition between junior Sean Mannion and senior Cody Vaz promises to be intense and lengthy. It might not be settled until shortly before the Beavers’ Aug. 31 opener against Eastern Washington.
Last season, Mannion started eight games and Vaz five games for the 9–4 Beavers. Mannion threw for 2,446 yards and 15 touchdowns, Vaz for 1,480 and 11. Mannion was the first-teamer to open the season, Vaz to close it. Each was alternately good and bad.
“It’s a matter of who comes out of it with the most consistency, the best play, and that might take some time,” OSU coach Mike Riley says.
Runners reverse field
Stanford and UCLA each unexpectedly welcomed back a senior running back who left for a season and reconsidered. The Cardinal reclaimed Tyler Gaffney, who rushed for 449 yards and seven touchdowns as a junior in 2011. He is back at Stanford after spending the 2012 season in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization, where he hit .297 as an outfielder for the Class A State College (Pa.) Spikes.
“I have come to realize how much I missed my football family and how much I missed the game,” Gaffney said.
The Bruins added Malcolm Jones, former prep Gatorade National Player of the Year. He quit after carrying the ball just three times in the 2012 opener against Rice, but asked coach Jim Mora if he could come back. He has returned as a walk-on without a scholarship.
Said Mora of Jones, “He came in and said, ‘I think I made a mistake and was hasty in my judgment and I’d like to return to the team.’ … I have not made him any promises.”
That Dennis Erickson would resurface as Utah co-offensive coordinator really shouldn’t be a surprise. He’s now worked for one-fourth of the conference members, previously serving as head coach for Washington State (1987-88), Oregon State (1999-2002) and Arizona State (2007-11). Erickson, 66, also has worked in two other Pac-12 cities as an NFL head coach with Seattle (1995-98) and San Francisco (2003-04).
Washington, after playing a season of home games elsewhere (at Seahawks’ Qwest Field) for the first time in 92 years, returns to a renovated Husky Stadium on Aug. 31 against Boise State. Two-thirds of the lakeside facility was torn down and rebuilt for roughly $261 million. Luxury suites and seating closer to the field are the biggest additions.
Old: Ron West; New: Chris Ball
West left Arizona State to coach linebackers and serve as the co-defensive coordinator at North Carolina. Ball was promoted to co-defensive coordinator with Paul Randolph after serving as the Sun Devils’ safeties coach and defensive passing game coordinator.
Old: Jim Michalczik; New: Tony Franklin
Michalczik, who had been a part of Jeff Tedford’s staff for nine of the past 11 years, landed a job in the Pac-12 as the offensive line coach at Arizona. Tony Franklin made the move from Louisiana Tech with new Cal coach Sonny Dykes.
Old: Clancy Pendergast; New: Andy Buh
Pendergast was not retained by the new staff but was hired as the defensive coordinator at USC. He has also been a DC with two NFL teams. Buh was the linebackers coach at Wisconsin last year. He was the defensive coordinator at Nevada from 2010-11 and the co-DC at Stanford from 2008-09.
Old: Eric Bieniemy; New: Brian Lindgren
Bieniemy, the former star at Colorado, was not retained by the new staff. He is now the running backs coach with the Kansas City Chiefs. Lindgren was on new Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre’s staff last season at San Jose State in the same capacity. The Spartans set 27 offensive records in his only season at San Jose State.
Old: Greg Brown; New: Kent Baer
Brown was hired by Alabama to coach the secondary. Baer was the defensive coordinator at San Jose State the past three seasons. He also has experience as a DC at Washington (2005-07), Notre Dame (2002-04), Stanford (1995-2001), Arizona State (1992-94), California (1987-91), Idaho (1986) and Utah State (1983-85).
Old: Mark Helfrich; New: Scott Frost
Helfrich is now the head coach at Oregon but is expected to call plays for the Ducks. Frost was promoted from his job as the Ducks’ wide receivers coach from 2009-12.
Old: Pep Hamilton; New: Mike Bloomgren
Hamilton is now the offensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts, where he will work with former Stanford QB Andrew Luck. Bloomgren was the run game coordinator and offensive line coach at Stanford for the previous two seasons.
Old: Kennedy Polamalu; New: Clay Helton
Polamalu was dismissed two days after National Signing Day and has not landed a new job. Helton had been on the USC staff as the quarterbacks coach from 2010-12 and also served as the passing game coordinator in 2012.
Old: Monte Kiffin; New: Clancy Pendergast
Kiffin “resigned” after four seasons working for his son, one at Tennessee and three at USC. He is now the defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys. Pendergast was the DC at Pac-12 rival California last year.
Old: Brian Johnson; New: Brian Johnson, Dennis Erickson
Erickson was out of coaching last year after getting fired following the 2011 season at Arizona State. He previously was the head coach on the collegiate level at Idaho (twice), Oregon State, Miami, Washington State and Wyoming.
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