We are just days away from kickoff of the 2013 college football season, and to prepare Sports on Earth is spending all week publishing everything you need to know about each conference in America. Head over to The Rotation for the Mountain West preview, and check back the rest of the week for more.
Here is everything you need to know about the Pac-12:
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1. The Pac-12 is deep. That's not to say it's deep with championship contenders; only Oregon and Stanford are national threats, and they exist on a tier well above the rest of the league. But the second tier is filled with competitive teams that can challenge almost anyone on any given week: USC, Arizona State, UCLA, Oregon State and Washington, and if a quarterback can be found, maybe Arizona too.
2. Arizona is the league's wild card. Rich Rodriguez was a great hire, because a program like Arizona is hiring West Virginia's version of Rich Rod, not Michigan's. Year One in Tucson went about as well as could be expected. QB Matt Scott turned out to be a perfect fit for Rodriguez's spread option offense, and tailback Ka'Deem Carey led the nation in rushing. There were the 49-0 loss to Oregon and the 66-10 loss to UCLA, meaning the lows were pretty low, but an 8-5 season in which the Wildcats lost by three to Oregon State, took Stanford to overtime, beat Oklahoma State, beat Washington 52-17 and beat USC is a good start. Carey and the entire defense return, but Scott is gone, as is 1,300-yard receiver Austin Hill to a torn ACL. Whether the QB is senior B.J. Denker, USC transfer Jesse Scroggins or promising true freshman Anu Solomon -- who is perhaps the best long-term fit for Rodriguez's offense -- there is something to build on here, even if it will be another middle-of-the-pack year. Simply getting to back-to-back bowl games is good for a program that failed to play in the postseason from 1999 through 2007.
3. Building is rarely easy. Arizona is a middle-of-the-pack team, but talent is clearly there for Rodriguez to work with. Mike MacIntyre walks into a disaster at once-proud Colorado. The new coach of the Buffaloes comes from San Jose State, where he took over after a 2-10 season, went 1-12 in 2010, then improved to 5-7 and a previously unimaginable 10-2 with the Spartans' second bowl appearance since 1990 and a potential first-round pick at QB in 2014. But he's back to square one, of sorts, only at a program with some history of success and a membership in the Pac-12. With 12 wins in four seasons and the nation's No. 117 scoring offense and No. 120 scoring defense, patience is obviously necessary. But if anyone knows how to be patient in an impossible situation, it's MacIntyre.
4. Patience is a rare thing in big-time college football anymore, but USC athletic director Pat Haden appears to have more patience with Lane Kiffin than any of us -- if an offseason vote of confidence can be believed. After a preseason No. 1 ranking resulted in a 7-6 season, it's hard to place Lane Kiffin on anything but a hot seat. Perhaps patience is required, given that he's not even 40 years old, but in three head coaching jobs he's yet to prove much of anything, aside from his ability to burn bridges. Not that Kiffin isn't dealing with a tough situation, at least by USC standards: The Trojans are roughly at the same level of scholarships as Penn State after NCAA sanctions. But the top-line talent continues to stand out thanks to the Trojans' natural recruiting advantages. Six losses simply aren't acceptable.
5. Six losses are especially unfair to Marqise Lee. If there's a Big Three of great college football players right now, everyone agrees that Johnny Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney are two of them. The other one is Lee, who transcended USC's mediocrity to catch 118 passes for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns and average 28.5 yards per kick return. It doesn't matter who plays quarterback this year, between sophomores Max Wittek and Cody Kessler, and it does not matter that star intermediate wideout Robert Woods is gone either. Or, I should say, it may matter to the team that those situations exist -- although Nelson Agholor is poised to emerge as a star in place of Woods - but in terms of Lee's production, he'll do what he always does. He's better than every defensive player that will try to line up across from him this season, and that's more than enough.
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Five Heisman Candidates
1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
2. Marqise Lee, WR, USC
3. De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon
4. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
5. Kevin Hogan, QB, Stanford
Five Breakout Players
1. Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington
2. Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State
3. Luke Kaumatule, TE, Stanford
4. Byron Marshall, RB, Oregon
5. Su'a Cravens, S, USC
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6. Unfortunately, we will not get to see Lee line up across from the Pac-12's best cornerback, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Ekpre-Olomu, who broke up 16 passes and intercepted four, has the ability to be a lockdown corner despite his 5-foot-10 frame. And he's not the only asset Oregon has defensively. Understandably, everyone focuses 99 percent of their attention on Oregon's offense, ignoring the fact that Nick Aliotti -- who will probably get a head coaching job -- leads a good defense that returns seven starters after ranking 26th in yards allowed per play (4.94).
7. In the Pac-12 North, Oregon's underappreciated defense will have to deal with two of the greatest offensive minds in college football. Unfortunately, new California coach Sonny Dykes and second-year Washington State coach Mike Leach will be battling to stay out of last place in the bottom tier of the division (Oregon and Stanford, then Oregon State and Washington, then Cal and Wazzu). Dykes surprisingly named true freshman Jared Goff, who participated in spring practice, as his starting quarterback over redshirt Zach Kline, giving the Golden Bears a totally fresh start after Zach Maynard finished 2012 with 12 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Regardless of what happens at quarterback, let's just hope that Dykes finds a larger role for explosive running back Brendan Bigelow. In Pullman, Leach doesn't have a playmaker quite that good. In his first year back in coaching, Washington State looked little like a Leach-coached team, scoring a miserable 20.4 points per game (although the Cougars did have the ninth-ranked passing offense … partly due to their frequent large deficits too, of course). Connor Halliday shared the starting job last year and should hold it full-time now, and if nothing else the Cougars can't get worse in the second year of one of the best offensive systems in college football.
8. Washington State did at least get better in the last moments of the season, coming back from a 28-10 deficit to beat Washington in overtime in the Apple Cup. Steve Sarkisian rescued the Huskies from 0-12 in 2008 to 5-7 in his first season, but since then Washington has been stuck in neutral. After three straight 7-6 seasons, it's reasonable for Huskies fans to get restless as they move back into the renovated Husky Stadium with a roster loaded with experience, including a solid collection of talent at the skill positions: QB Keith Price, RB Bishop Sankey, WR Kasen Williams and TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Of course, all isn't perfect. Price regressed last year after the departure of coordinator Doug Nussmeier to Alabama; Seferian-Jenkins, the best tight end in the nation, is uncertain for the opener against Boise State with a fractured finger; and once a projected starter, wideout James Johnson retired because of ongoing problems with his wrist, which forced him to redshirt last season. Still, now is the time for Washington to take a step forward, even with a tough schedule that includes Boise State and Oregon at home and trips to Stanford, Arizona State, UCLA and Oregon State. Sarkisian did a nice job pulling the Huskies out of a seven-year bowl drought, but with so much experience returning this is the year for Washington to at least break the string of seven-win seasons.
9. While it has recognizable names on offense, Washington also has a breakout candidate in one of two Pac-12 stars named Shaq. Sophomore outside linebacker/Swiss Army Knife Shaq Thompson, a five-star recruit, finished with 74 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and three interceptions last year, and he's poised to become a star with his ridiculous versatility and athleticism that allows him to play defensive back, return kicks and even contribute on offense. He'll easily make everyone forget his baseball career. At UCLA, senior Shaquelle Evans returns as the Bruins' most experienced receiver, by far. After transferring from Notre Dame in 2010, Evans emerged as Brett Hundley's No. 1 receiver last year, catching 60 passes for 877 yards and three touchdowns as the Bruins finally found stability in the passing game in year one of the Jim Mora era after a run of bad luck and ineffectiveness under Rick Neuheisel.
10. Just a sophomore, Brett Hundley might be the most underrated quarterback in college football. If Johnny Manziel's incredible freshman season overshadowed Marcus Mariota's, then perhaps Mariota's overshadowed Hundley's. He's already coveted in some NFL circles, with a 6-foot-3, 222-pound frame, a strong arm and excellent mobility. UCLA just needs to protect him, and he needs to handle pressure better, after he took an awful 3.71 sacks per game. UCLA's success depends on Hundley's health, because if the Bruins are going to win the Pac-12 South again they have to navigate a brutal cross-division schedule that forces them to go on back-to-back trips to Stanford and Oregon before finishing the season trying to take a second game in a row from USC, this time at the Coliseum, where they lost 50-0 in 2011.
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The 20 Best Players in the Pac-12
1. Marqise Lee, WR, USC
2. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
3. Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
4. Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State
5. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
6. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
7. David Yankey, G, Stanford
8. Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona
9. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
10. De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon
11 Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford
12. Ed Reynolds, S, Stanford
13. Morgan Breslin, DE, USC
14. Xavier Su'a-Filo, G, UCLA
15. Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
16. Trent Murphy, LB, Stanford
17. Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
18. Hayes Pullard, LB, USC
19. Hroniss Grasu, OL, Oregon
20. Ben Gardner, DE, Stanford
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11. But after scoring a whopping zero points against USC in 2011, UCLA scored 38 in a win over its crosstown rival last season. The Trojans' defense wasn't awful, but it wasn't the defense we had grown accustomed to during their decade or so of dominance. So Lane Kiffin got rid of his father, Monte Kiffin, and brought in longtime NFL and college assistant Clancy Pendergast, last seen running Cal's defense for three years, to right the ship with his hybrid 5-2 scheme. Again, scholarship restrictions have hurt depth, but the top of the depth chart is loaded, from linebacker Hayes Pullard (107 tackles) to former safety/linebacker Dion Bailey (four interceptions) to pass rushers Morgan Breslin (13 sacks) and Leonard Williams (eight sacks) to true freshman safety Su'a Cravens, who at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds looks like USC's next Taylor Mays. Pendergast's Cal defense tanked last year after a couple good seasons, but he certainly didn't have this kind of talent to work with.
12. USC's defense was steamrolled against the run in the second half of last season, but it's one of several Pac-12 units with great pass-rushing ability. Stanford (1), Arizona State (2), USC (4) and UCLA (6) were all among the national leaders in sacks per game last year, and you can expect to see them back again this season. Five Pac-12 players had double-digit sacks, and they all return: UCLA's Anthony Barr, Arizona State's Will Sutton and Carl Bradford, USC's Breslin and Stanford's Trent Murphy. And there's depth here too. For all the talent at quarterback in the conference, there are a lot of playmakers coming after them.
13. This is where things are difficult for a team like Utah still trying to transition to a tougher league with better players everywhere. It finished a respectable 8-5 in its first Pac-12 season, but the Utes slipped to 5-7 last year and face a similar fate in 2013. As a freshman, QB Travis Wilson struggled with Pac-12 defenses, and ultimately they finished 111th nationally in yards per play, resulting in an interesting hire of longtime college and NFL head coach Dennis Erickson as co-offensive coordinator at age 66, alongside 26-year-old former Utes quarterback Brian Johnson. In the long run, Utah will be fine, and it will be competitive this year. It's just that there don't appear to be a lot of wins on the schedule just yet.
14. One bad season doesn't mean the future is hopeless, though. Look at Oregon State. After going 3-9 in 2011, Mike Riley engineered a massive turnaround, as the Beavers went 9-4 thanks in part to the transformation of their defensive front. It's easy to expect some regression after such a big leap forward, but the Beavers have two capable quarterbacks in Cody Vaz and Sean Mannion, a solid supporting cast led by wideout Brandin Cooks and one of the league's best defenders in end Scott Crichton. Plus, they get their easiest seven games first, meaning they could end up undefeated, albeit a bit overrated, heading into an Oct. 26 date with Stanford. The bet here, however, is that they stumble in one of their early games.
15. The opposite is true for Arizona State, which has one of the nation's most brutal early schedules. After a bye week and a game against Sacramento State, Arizona State enters a four-week gauntlet in which it hosts Wisconsin, visits Stanford, hosts USC and plays Notre Dame in Arlington, Texas. In terms of national perception and BCS ambitions, all four are important. In terms of winning the Pac-12 South, which is a realistic goal, circle the USC game. Get through that game and the Sun Devils should be the favorites to take the division crown, with quarterback Taylor Kelly developing into a star after an under-the-radar 3,000-yard season in 2012.
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1. Oregon (12-0, 9-0)
2. Stanford (11-1, 8-1)
3. Washington (8-4, 5-4)
4. Oregon State (7-5, 4-5)
5. California (4-8, 3-6)
6. Washington State (3-9, 1-8)
1. Arizona State (9-3, 7-2)
2. USC (10-3, 6-3)
3. UCLA (8-4, 6-3)
4. Arizona (6-6, 3-6)
5. Utah (5-7, 2-7)
6. Colorado (2-10, 0-9)
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16. Of course, we shouldn't rule out an Arizona State win at Stanford either. Stanford is the better team, but the game is in September, meaning that the Cardinal still might be trying to find answers at its key offensive positions: running back and tight end. Three tight ends have been lost to the NFL in two years, and workhorse 1,500-yard rusher Stepfan Taylor is gone too. Not that Stanford doesn't have options for quarterback Kevin Hogan, who will be counted on to be more of a playmaker this year. He was efficient after being named starter midseason, although Stanford rarely threw downfield. The goal is to change that, hopefully with junior Ty Montgomery, while 6-foot-7 Luke Kaumatule moves into the vacated starting tight end role and a combination of Anthony Wilkerson, Tyler Gaffney and Barry Sanders Jr. tries to replace Taylor.
17. No matter what happens with Stanford's skill positions, you can count on the Cardinal to have the most physical lines in the Pac-12. The offensive line will be reshuffled a bit, with All-American David Yankey moving back to left guard after a season at left tackle and former five-star recruit Andrus Peat sliding into the starting lineup on Hogan's blind side. But four starters return to what will continue to be one of the best units in college football. Stanford doesn't need to score 40 points per game if it controls the line of scrimmage as well as it has the last few years.
18. The foundation that Jim Harbaugh built remains strong under David Shaw, who has firmly established himself as one of the best coaches in America with a 12-2 season despite the loss of Andrew Luck. Perhaps the pull of the NFL will also grow too strong for Shaw to ignore at same point, but for now Stanford, however improbably, has developed into one of the most stable programs in college football.
19. Which brings us to what is undoubtedly the most pressing question in the Pac-12, one that I've been asked several times: Will there be a drop-off from Chip Kelly to Mark Helfrich? It's an impossible question answer. We know Helfrich succeeded as an offensive coordinator, but he did that within the confines of a Kelly-led staff, and Kelly's larger system. Long-term, it's hard to say, but for now what we do know is Oregon's infrastructure remains in place, the system won't change much and Oregon has national title caliber talent. Helfrich has bided his time, and in 2013 everything is set up for him to keep the ball rolling forward and thrive.
20. Oregon will win the 2013 Pac-12 championship. Yes, the Ducks must travel to Stanford, to whom they lost last year. But it's Stanford that draws the tougher cross-division slate -- vs. Arizona State, at USC and vs. UCLA, of which Oregon plays only UCLA, at home -- and Oregon is a sure bet to out-score everyone else it plays. Any preseason Heisman discussion needs to include sophomore QB Marcus Mariota, a complete player who didn't look anything like a freshman in 2012, and despite the loss of Kenjon Barner he still has an unlimited supply of weapons headlined by all-purpose back De'Anthony Thomas and tight end Colt Lyerla. Oregon will play in Pasadena in the New Year. Whether it's the actual Rose Bowl or the BCS title game is the bigger question.
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