For two days, the football coaches of the Pacific-12 Conference filled Stage 12 of the Warner Bros. Studios with talk about a league they say has never been stronger. They agree that no fewer than seven teams have legitimate championship chances in a season where every week will feature a plot twist.
The media listened, and then they bestowed favoritism on USC to win the league. Oregon received solid support, and a few votes went to Arizona State, UCLA and Stanford.
Nobody meant to disrespect Arizona or Utah in their chances, and Cal, Colorado, Washington and Washington State have good reason to believe they will be improved and competitive. And the risk will be high for any team that thinks it can take a week off against Oregon State. Even if the Beavers finish last, it won’t be without a fight to the finish.
The key in our conference is playing your best game every single week, which is hard.
Stanford coach David Shaw
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“You can play four conference opponents in a row, and now four of those guys might be ranked in the top 25, and that fourth game, you might be beat up and tired, and you’re going to have to play at Utah or at Corvallis or at Oregon or something,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “And those are tough, tough games to get your team up to play your A game again for the fourth week in a row against top competition.”
Shaw believes Stanford found its stroke again the last three games of a 2014 season in which it fell off a bit. The Cardinal won 46 games the previous four seasons, but was 5-5 last year before finishing with blowout wins over Cal and UCLA and then Maryland in the Foster Farms Bowl.
“We were playing as well as any team in the country,” Shaw said, thanks to a quarterback who somehow found a way to deal with the personal tragedy of a father who was dying.
Cancer ultimately took the life of quarterback Kevin Hogan’s father, Jerry, who died Dec. 8.
“A lot of us didn’t know how bad it was, because he is such a stoic person and he seems to be able to handle so much,” Shaw said. “I didn’t know how much that was affecting him at the time.”
Hogan somehow kept his focus in the weeks surrounding his father’s death. He completed 45 of 59 passes for 637 yards and four touchdowns with just one interception in those three impressive season-ending wins.
His experience and a dominating offensive line led by tackle Kyle Murphy has vaulted Stanford into the top tier of teams with a solid chance to win the Pac-12.
“The key in our conference is playing your best game every single week, which is hard,” Shaw said.
Across the bay, nobody who roots for Cal worries about scoring points. The Bears averaged 38 points a game behind junior quarterback Jared Goff, the third-year starter whose 3,973 passing yards and 35 touchdowns last year make him a long-shot Heisman Trophy candidate this year.
We understand that our success is going to be determined by how much we improve on defense.
Cal coach Sonny Dykes
The problem for Cal has been stopping the other guys. Last year, the Bears gave up 40 a game, and that added up to a losing season. The 5-7 record was way better than the 1-11 the year before, but third-year coach Sonny Dykes knows his team will never be part of any championship conversation until it shows a little more resistance.
“We understand that our success is going to be determined by how much we improve on defense,” Dykes said, and he’s seeing flickers of hope.
Cal’s most statistically glaring problem last year was allowing 367 passing yards per game. Dykes’ fast-paced offense skewed the numbers by returning the defense to the field just as quickly as it scored or gave up the ball. But he feels more experience, some coaching changes and a heavy recruiting emphasis on the secondary – including the addition of some junior-college defensive backs – will provide a tourniquet.
If the Bears represent a possible Pac-12 surprise team, the media’s choice to win the league and maybe advance to the College Football Playoff accepted the challenge of the higher expectation.
USC coach Steve Sarkisian has third-year starting quarterback Cody Kessler, perhaps the program’s strongest offensive line in 10 years and tons of talent all over the field, along with the added spark of no longer being shackled by NCAA sanctions.
“If the expectations were going to be too big, this wasn’t going to be the place for you,” Sarkisian said.
Expectations are high elsewhere, too.
Oregon, which needs to replace Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, has won at least 10 games every year since 2008 and has played for the national championship twice.
“What we did last year, it doesn’t matter,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. “What we do today is the only thing that matters.”
Todd Graham said he’s going to have the best team in the four years he’s been Arizona State’s coach.
“Our talent, our speed, our physicality is on a different level,” he said. “But so is everybody else’s.”
Last season, Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon threw for 3,793 yards and running back Nick Wilson gained 1,375 yards, but coach Rich Rodriguez has let his players know he’s been told they only have a 2 percent chance of winning the Pac-12.
“Two percent would be a pretty good T-shirt to make, or a hat or something,” Rodriguez said.
(Eddie Vanderdoes) lived up to the expectations we had for him when he came in as a five-star recruit. He’s a unique player, an amazing athlete.
UCLA coach Jim Mora
Jim Mora at UCLA has the league’s leading returning running back in Paul Perkins (1,575 yards), a second-team all-conference receiver in Jordan Payton (67 catches), and a returning All-Pac-12 honorable mention defensive lineman in Placer High School grad Eddie Vanderdoes.
Mora said Vanderdoes has “lived up to the expectations we had for him when he came in as a five-star recruit. He’s a unique player, an amazing athlete.”
Vanderdoes is one of 30 players from the Sacramento area on Pac-12 rosters, a group that includes freshman quarterback Jake Browning, who will challenge for Washington’s starting job.
“Jake is definitely in the mix,” coach Chris Petersen said.