It’s pure guesswork, certainly, but this was historic.
Stanford was picked Thursday to win the Pacific-12 Conference football championship this season by the media. It’s the first time the Cardinal has landed this distinction in the 56-year history of the preseason poll.
Stanford, for decades a bottom-feeding program, seeks its fourth conference title in five campaigns. USC was the preseason media pick in 2015 and won the South Division title. But in the conference championship game at Levi’s Stadium, Stanford defeated the Trojans 41-22.
Still, no one projects an easy race to the top, be it the Pac-12 North or South. Stanford garnered 24 first-place votes and 186 points as the projected North Division winner. Washington is second in the poll with eight first-place votes and 163 points.
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The Pac-12 South projections have UCLA (19 first-place votes, 180 points) finishing first and USC (12, 173) second.
Cal, with the fewest returning starters of any team in the Pac-12, is predicted to finish fifth out of six teams in the North. All 12 head coaches attending the first day of this two-day media event at Hollywood and Highland, a ritzy shopping mall and entertainment complex, typically expected the races to go down to the final weekend. Friday’s session will feature Stanford coach David Shaw and Washington coach Chris Petersen, a one-time UC Davis quarterback and assistant coach.
“I don’t think there’s anybody, any coach, that won’t tell you that the Pac-12 is more talented now than it’s ever been in its history,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said.
Said Cal coach Sonny Dykes: “I’ve been around, been in the SEC, been in the Big 12. From top to bottom, I believe (the Pac-12) is the best league. The parity is so different than anywhere else. It’s something the Pac-12 should be very proud of.”
Conference Commissioner Larry Scott opened the media festivities by mentioning that the Pac-12 has won 488 national championships in all sports, both genders. No other conference has more than 277. But the Pac-12 has not produced a football national champion since USC repeated in 2003 and 2004. Since then, the Southeastern Conference has dominated, taking nine of the last 10 titles – four by Alabama.
Scott also announced that the Pac-12 Networks reached an agreement with social media giant Twitter. At least 150 games in various sports will be streamed live to fans this academic year.
Stanford returns Heisman Trophy candidate Christian McCaffrey, a running back who accumulated an NCAA-record 3,864 all-purpose yards last fall as the Cardinal went 12-2 and belted Iowa 45-16 in the Rose Bowl.
Since replacing Jim Harbaugh, Shaw has gone 54-14 in five seasons. The question is who will hand the ball to McCaffrey now that quarterback Kevin Hogan has completed his eligibility?
Washington is settled at quarterback with returning sophomore starter Jake Browning, the former record breaker out of Folsom High School.
Cal will start a new quarterback for the first time in three years after record setter Jared Goff was drafted No. 1 overall by the Los Angeles Rams.
“As everyone in the room is aware,” Dykes said, “we lost a pretty decent quarterback.”
Projected starter Davis Webb and a host of new wideouts spark optimism in Berkeley. Cal has improved from one win to five to eight in Dykes’ three seasons.
“The good thing is, we will be able to run the football,” said Dykes, who will count on right tackle Steven Moore, a fourth-year starter from Elk Grove High, to help pave the way.
Local players who will enter fall camp at UCLA as projected starters are offensive tackle Kolton Miller from Roseville High and wide receiver Alex Van Dyke and cornerback Marcus Rios from Cosumnes Oaks. Defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes from Placer is recovering from a season-ending knee injury suffered in the Bruins’ first game of 2015.
USC expects the return of a healthy Cam Smith from Granite Bay High. The linebacker excelled last season before missing the later part of the season with a knee injury. Smith had been on pace to become the first true freshman to lead the Trojans in tackles since such records were first kept in 1954.
2016 Pac-12 football preseason media poll
1. Stanford (24) 186
2. Washington (8) 163
3. Oregon (1) 132
4. Washington State 112
5. Cal 67
6. Oregon State 33
1. UCLA (19) 180
2. USC (12) 173
3. Utah (2) 127
4. Arizona 87
5. Arizona State 85
6. Colorado 63
Championship game winner: Stanford (20), USC (5), Washington (4), UCLA (3), Utah (1).