It's still a forgone conclusion that the SEC is the best conference in college football, but the Pac-12 is definitely gaining ground. I certainly wouldn’t want to play Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Arizona State or Washington this season.
I expect a fun and exciting season for the Pac-12 in 2014, along with a few surprises along the way. With this being said, let’s take a look at the early North Division rankings and how they compare to the South:
1. Oregon Ducks
This is an extremely close call, but I have to put the Ducks at No. 1 right now over Stanford. Oregon gets Stanford at home this year and Heisman candidate quarterback Marcus Mariota will be back in Eugene. The Ducks also return all five starters on the offensive line and we know how many skill players are at Oregon. So where’s the weakness? It’s certainly not on defense, as the Ducks led the Pac-12 in fewest yards per play (4.6). This is a national championship or bust kind of season for Oregon.
2. Stanford Cardinal
You couldn’t watch a Stanford game for the past couple years and not hear the name Shayne Skov or Trent Murphy by the play-by-play man. But the Cardinal will be strapping up the pads without the two this season. Quarterback Kevin Hogan is back, but he’ll be operating behind four new starters on the offensive line. Add in a road trip to South Bend to play Notre Dame, and Stanford could be facing one of the most challenging schedules in the country. But don’t count this team out, there’s enough talent to keep Stanford rolling.
3. Washington Huskies
I like this team in 2014, especially with new head coach Chris Petersen calling the shots. Petersen is arguably one of the brightest minds in college football and I can’t wait to see him go against the top-tier teams in the Pac-12. Remember all of the Boise State upsets in BCS games? Imagine him with the type of talent he has now at Washington. New quarterback Cyler Miles (pending his return from suspension) will have the perfect man in his corner in Petersen this season.
4. Washington State Cougars
Mike Leach’s system is beginning to stick up at Washington State, and quarterback Connor Halliday should have a great year for the Cougars this season. He’ll have plenty of firepower with receivers like Gabe Marks and Dom Williams. Washington State didn’t lose any early entrees to the NFL draft, so Leach and company are ready to go. With linebacker Darryl Monroe leading the defense, watch out, I wouldn’t sleep on the Cougars in 2014.
5. Oregon State Beavers
Going 1-5 it their final six games, the Beavers will be hungry to make a statement this year. Despite the struggles, Mike Riley certainly had his team competing last year—losing by eight to Stanford and one to Oregon. The team did lose its two best players on both sides of the ball in receiver Brandin Cooks and defensive end Scott Crichton, but returns starting quarterback Sean Mannion. The Beavers could hang with anyone in the conference this year, but I’m not confident that the team is there yet.
6. California Golden Bears
The Bears lost five early enrollees to the draft and didn’t win one game against an FBS opponent in 2013. So is there anything to be optimistic about in 2014? Probably not, but the Bears do return quarterback Jared Goff. Head coach Sonny Dykes should expect to see some improvement this season, but not too much. The defense needs to start from scratch and become a strength before this program gets back to winning.