Can the Cardinal repeat as North champs?
Oregon and Stanford have been two of college football’s top programs in recent years, as the Ducks and Cardinal have combined to win all three of the Pac-12’s championship games.
Different year, same story in 2014. Stanford and Oregon are the favorites to win the Pac-12 North this season, and both teams are expected to factor into the national title conversation.
Oregon returns Heisman contender Marcus Mariota at quarterback, a solid offensive line and a backfield that features Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall.
Stanford suffered a few losses in the offseason, including defensive coordinator Derek Mason leaving to take over as Vanderbilt’s head coach. However, the Cardinal should be able to easily replace four starters on the line, and the defense has enough returning pieces to prevent a major drop in production.
One factor that should play a key role in determining the North champion is the schedule. Stanford has a tougher crossover slate with the South Division and has to play at Eugene in 2014.
Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
Oregon or Stanford: Who Wins the Pac-12 North in 2014?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Deciding between Stanford and Oregon for the No. 1 spot in the North has to be one of the toughest preseason debates in 2014. Both teams have areas of concern and transition on the coaching staffs, but the Cardinal and Ducks should still be among the top 10-15 teams in the nation. If I had to pick a favorite, I would pick Oregon slightly over Stanford – but not by much. The Ducks have the easier schedule and won’t have to play Arizona State or USC from the South in the regular season. Getting an improved Washington team at home is also huge for Oregon’s chances of winning the North. Another reason to like the Ducks at No. 1 in the North is quarterback Marcus Mariota returning to full strength from a knee injury. Mariota will be throwing to a revamped receiving corps, but there should be plenty of weapons to choose from, including a deep group of tight ends. If Stanford had an easier schedule, I would probably pick the Cardinal. However, with Mariota returning to 100 percent and a favorable schedule, I lean Oregon as the top team in the North in 2014.
Kyle Kensing, (@Kensing45), CFBHuddle.com and BleacherReport.com
Marcus Mariota has accomplished much in his two seasons at Oregon, but one accomplishment eluding the dynamic quarterback is a Pac-12 championship. The roadblock standing between Mariota and this milestone twice has been Stanford and its stout defense.
The Cardinal will again set the conference benchmark for defensive intensity, despite losing Ed Reynolds, Trent Murphy and noted Duck-stopper Shayne Skov. But is Stanford equipped to once again slow the Oregon offense with Derek Mason no longer directing the defense?
This should be the year Mariota finally cuts down the Trees and wins the Pac-12 North. He leads what should be the most talented Oregon offense yet—a staggering reality given the teams that have come through Eugene in recent years. But perhaps more important to the Ducks' championship aspirations is that the defense should be tougher in 2014.
New defensive coordinator Don Pellum emphasized strength training in the offseason, and building depth during the spring. Last year against Stanford, the Ducks' inability to stop Tyler Gaffney up front was the difference. This year, a bulkier and deeper front seven is better prepared to counter a power-run game, such as Stanford's.
Stanford has ruled the Pac-12 North the past two years, thanks in large part to two straight victories over Oregon. David Shaw has his Cardinal in good shape to make it three division titles in a row, but I am leaning towards Mark Helfrich's Ducks to reclaim the crown this season. Both teams are talented and should finish pretty high in the national polls, but I like Oregon's roster a little bit more than Stanford's. For the Ducks it starts with Heisman Trophy contender Marcus Mariota at quarterback, who should be the engine that drives one of the nation's most explosive offenses. The defense has some star power of its own, however, and as long as the offense does its job, it won't have to come up with too many stops. Stanford brings back seven starters on defense, but it also watched a total of five all-conference performers either get drafted or signed by an NFL team just a few days ago. The offense returns even less experience (four starters), as four pieces to one of the most dominant offensive lines in the nation and 1,000-yard rusher Tyler Gaffney have departed. Don't get me wrong, there's still plenty of talent left on The Farm, but with this year's head-to-head matchup set for Eugene on Nov. 1, I like the Ducks to protect their home turf (this time), a victory that will help propel them to the Pac-12 North title in 2014.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
I’m taking Oregon, and that’s partially because of the personnel losses at Stanford. The Cardinal will maintain a level of excellence, but replacing offensive line starters and a horde of major contributors on defense will make it tough to win a division or conference title. Meanwhile, the Ducks still have at least a year with Marcus Mariota. As long as he’s healthy, he’ll keep Oregon in contention. Throw in depth at running back and all five starters on the line, and there’s no reason Oregon won’t continue to have an explosive offense. Defensive line is the biggest question on defense, but if the Ducks aren’t going to be great there, at least it’s in a year where Stanford might not be mauling teams up front (yet).