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2013 Pac-12 preview

Can Stanford reach the BCS national championship game? Dave Miller

Print This August 31, 2013, 12:00 PM EST

With the opening weekend of the 2013 college football season here, let’s take a look at the last of the National Football Post’s conference previews.

Here are the major storylines playing out in Larry Scott's Pac-12 Conference:

The Ducks will keep quacking

Mark Helfrich inherited as head coach a very stocked cupboard in Eugene, and the Ducks will try to make it five straight trips to a BCS bowl game. Losing Chip Kelly is never a good thing, but Helfrich was ready to become a head coach. And he’ll have preseason Heisman Trophy candidates in quarterback Marcus Mariota, who has better receivers around him now, and do-everything playmaker De’Anthony Thomas, who will line up all over the field. It will be interesting to see if Helfrich uses Thomas differently, though, because he’s best in space. If Byron Marshall and/or Thomas Tyner don’t acclimate themselves to getting the bulk of the time in the backfield, will we see Thomas get more traditional carries and maybe wear down? No matter what, I believe the Ducks will be every bit as potent as they were last season when they finished second in the country in scoring at 49.5 points per game.

The next step for the Cardinal

Kevin Hogan entered the starting lineup late in the year in 2012, going 5-0 with four wins against ranked opponents. Five of the last six opponents this year are against opponents that are currently ranked in the preseason poll, so it will be difficult to go to a fourth consecutive BCS bowl game. But the defense is loaded — arguably the best in the nation. Combined with the continued development of Hogan, I think Stanford could be primed to go to the BCS national championship game. David Shaw has done a wonderful job since taking over for Jim Harbaugh, bringing in premiere athletes and elevating assistants when necessary.

Where does USC fit in?

Cody KesslerUS PRESSWIREWill Cody Kessler be able to hold off Max Wittek at QB?

The Trojans are coming off of a disastrous 2012 campaign in which they started as preseason No. 1. Lane Kiffin’s squad committed 34 turnovers, their most since 2000, and went 0-4 against ranked teams. Who replaces Matt Barkley? Cody Kessler and Max Wittek are still essentially battling for the starting nod. Wittek started the team's final two games last season when Matt Barkley was injured, completing 36-of-69 passes for 388 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions. Fellow redshirt sophomore Kessler has only two career passing attempts. However, Kessler gives the team more athleticism at the position, with the ability to make plays with his legs when necessary. Whoever is under center has a dynamite receiver in Marqise Lee and an emerging one in Nelson Agholor. Defensively, the new scheme being implemented by Clancy Pendergast could net better results, although the secondary is young. And depth is always an issue with scholarship limitations. The Trojans have just 67 scholarship players (as opposed to 85) on the roster.

The “other” LA team is not the “other” anymore

Brett Hundley solved the Bruins’ longtime quarterback dilemma last year, and he should get even better. He did get sacked a lot, and part of the problem was the offensive line. But a full year of starting experience will pay off for Hundley, especially when knowing when to throw the ball away and not try to do too much. He unquestionably will have better control of the offense this fall. The ground game could be a concern, however, with Johnathan Franklin gone. A committee could occur, but this team really needs Jordon James to emerge as a No. 1 option. The schedule is very difficult, and the Bruins will not be able to go under the radar anymore. No starting defensive backs return, but that’s not such an awful thing considering they were porous against the pass last year. It will be difficult to return to the Pac-12 title game even in the wide-open South division, but Mora has this program going in the right direction.

Second only to the SEC?

This West Coast conference was solid last year, with Stanford and Oregon earning BCS berths and being national household names for the most part. The Ducks and the Cardinal will build off of their strong 2012 seasons as they enter this campaign as national title contenders. However, one can make an argument that about seven league teams are worthy of cracking the Top 25, with Arizona State, UCLA, Oregon State, Washington and Arizona very much in the mix. The Pac-12 is home to a lot of returning quarterbacks, and the play on both sides of the line seems to be improving each year. Specifically, there is a lot of returning defensive talent this fall, so keep an eye on this conference while we continue to discuss which league is No. 2 behind the SEC. There is quality depth in the Pac-12 that we haven’t seen in awhile.

Other notes

Arizona returns most of its starters to a defense that must improve. But the quarterback position must get stabilized whether B.J. Denker, Jesse Scroggins or Anu Solomon wins the job. Running back Ka’Deem Carey still may be going under the radar despite leading the FBS in rushing yards in 2012.

Arizona State, meanwhile, has one of the best defensive lines in the country, led by tackle Will Sutton, a strong run game with Marion Grice and a dynamic quarterback in Taylor Kelly. The Sun Devils could give Notre Dame all it can handle in Arlington, TX, on October 5.

Oregon State continually gets overlooked, but don’t sleep on Mike Riley’s squad, especially if Sean Mannion limits his turnovers at quarterback.

If Colorado wants to even be competitive once again, it needs better support from its administration. New head coach Mike MacIntyre did a wonderful job at San Jose State, and he inherits an elite receiver in Paul Richardson, who is healthy after missing the 2012 season. Defensively, the Buffaloes were wretched last year. Taking baby steps this fall will be a start, as MacIntyre will need a few years to increase the talent level up to BCS conference standards.

Utah brought in longtime veteran head coach Dennis Erickson to be co-offensive coordinator, and he should help young quarterback Travis Wilson be more efficient. But will he be protected by a suspect offensive line? Stanford and Oregon are both on the schedule for the first time since the Utes joined the league.

Keep an eye on Cal this season. Sonny Dykes won't be able to perform a quick fix, but the offense will be fun to watch. The secondary could be an issue, but there is some talent up front. I think the Golden Bears are trending in the right direction and could spring an upset in Year 1 under Dykes.

Washington returns to a renovated Husky Stadium, and there are high expectations in Seattle with a lot of starters returning. Steve Sarkisian has his best chance to take that next step and compete for a Pac-12 crown. Quarterback Keith Price needs to revert back to his 2011 form, but will he get better play from the offensive line? Coordinator Justin Wilcox is a head-coach-in-waiting if the Huskies continue to play well on that side of the ball.

Mike Leach had never missed the postseason in any of his years as head coach before Washington State was unable to go bowling in 2012. The Cougars should be improved in Leach's second season in Pullman, but the offensive line remains a major concern.

Pac-12 preseason power rankings
2013-14 Preseason Bowl Projections

Dave Miller, the college football editor and writer for the National Football Post, is on Twitter @Miller_Dave.

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