Breaking down the Pac-12 North appears easier than breaking down the Pac-12 South, as Oregon and Stanford are the two overwhelming favorites. Beyond the national powerhouses, Oregon State and Washington are flying under the radar. Meanwhile, California and Washington State will attempt to rebuild.
The following are the strengths and weaknesses of the Pac-12 North schools listed in alphabetical order.
Strengths: Wide Receiver and linebacker
Despite the departure of star wideout Keenan Allen, Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper can easily hold down the fort. Regardless of who the quarterback ends up being, the transition should be smoother because of Treggs and Harper. The two collectively posted 62 receptions and three touchdowns. Those statistics don't appear impressive, but the opportunities for both were limited because of Allen. On the defensive side of the ball, the linebackers can be counted on heavily. California's youth at linebacker should be noted, maintaining no seniors at the position. The switch to the 4-3 defense will give Nick Forbes and company a better chance at clogging the running attacks of Stanford and Oregon.
Quote: "He (Treggs) had a great freshman year last year," Coach Sonny Dykes at Pac-12 Media Day. "He is a kid who is a hard worker, he's got a lot of talent."
Weaknesses: Offensive line and quarterback
Good quarterbacks can overcome deficient offensive lines, yet Cal unfortunately may be in a worse position. Avinash Kunnath of Pacific Takes described the big men up front by saying: "Their task is clear - improve one of the nation's worst lines." The tackle slots and center will need to be addressed, and the guard situation isn't set in stone either. The offensive line could be protecting quarterback Zach Kiine, who remains the likely candidate to start. Kline doesn't have any wiggle room, as freshman Jared Goff and junior Austin Hindler look to leap atop the depth chart. None of the three options have played college football.
Quote: "All the quarterbacks have done a tremendous job throughout the second semester in spring football and throughout the summer through our voluntary workouts," Treggs said. "I'm comfortable with whoever the coaches decide the guy is."
Strengths: Quarterback, running back, secondary and the jerseys/facilities
In spite of Chip Kelly's departure to the NFL, not much will change at Oregon. The Ducks biggest strength is their uncanny speed. Quarterback Marcus Mariota should be amongst the finalists for the Heisman Trophy, pending the results on Saturday's. The second year dual threat signal caller can run as fast as some running backs and beat opponents through the air. During Mariota's freshman season, he accumulated 3,429 total yards, 37 touchdowns and only six interceptions. According to ESPN draft expert Todd McShay, the 6'4, 211-pound Hawaii native is the sixth best NFL quarterback prospect for 2014. Behind him at running back will be De'Anthony Thomas and Byron Marshall. Thomas may be the best and most unique offensive weapon in college football. In two seasons, Thomas sports an unbelievable 4,001 total yards (including kick/punt returns and 2,355 without both) and 36 total touchdowns. In case someone actually does slow down Oregon, the secondary can keep them alive. The combination of returners Avery Patterson, Brian Jackson, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Terrence Mitchell helped Oregon snatch the most interceptions in the nation. Lastly, the jerseys and facilities are impossible to top, thanks to Oregon alumni and Nike owner Phil Knight.
Quote: "We want to score. We don't care about the method," Coach Mike Helfrich said at Pac-12 Media Day. "If Ifo has a pick-six, I'm all for that. De'Anthony likes the role of wide-out, motion guy, movement guy and we like to keep him versatile."
Weaknesses: Kicking and linebackers
Ridiculing the third ranked team causes me to split hairs and dig for weaknesses. However, nobody can be perfect, and Oregon isn't an exception. Neither Rob Beard nor Alejandro Maldonado could get the job done in the kicking game. Thankfully for the Ducks allegiance, the team rarely needs to kick field goals because they are usually scoring touchdowns. The problem could get exposed in late game situations, when the clock inches inside two minutes and they need a 40-yard field goal to tie or win the game. Incoming freshman Matt Wogan comes in with high expectations and may get thrown into the limelight immediately. In addition, linebackers need to step up. There's a plethora of talent at linebacker, but lack proven dominion players.
Quote: "Personally, I think we just looked at it day-by-by and took our role with this program," Iko Ekpre-Olomu said at Pac-12 Media Day. "We just continue to get better every day."
Strengths: Running back and cornerback
The Beavers rushed for an embarrassing 124.4 yards per game, ranking 101st in the nation, but that area is surprisingly a strength. Storm Woods stormed out of the woods from nowhere, posting 940 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. The Sophomore running back should see increased responsibilities in year two and that'll drastically change the unit. Woods' 192 attempts are a respectable amount, but that number could rise in 2013. Behind him at backup running back is the minuscule 5'7" 200 pound Terron Ward. The junior running back saw limited action and made the most of the opportunities, providing an unmatchable 7.9 yard per carry. For defensive coordinator Mark Banker, he can bank on the cornerbacks showing up. Shutdown cover man Jordan Poyer departed to the professional ranks but the Beavers still have the battle-tested Rashaad Reynolds remaining. The 5'11, 189-pound red shirt senior makes all the fundamental plays, seen via 75 tackles, and goes blow-for-blow with the game's best wide receivers. Coach Mike Riley also loves the Beavers experience.
Quote: "We have a lot of guys that have played in the games that are back," Mike Riley said at Pac-12 Media Day. "That's always a good thing."
Weaknesses: WR spot opposite Brandin Cooks and quarterback
Brandin Cooks will now be the go to target at wide receiver and he's plenty capable of taking on the added pressure. On the contrary, the lack of help on the other side could cause Cooks to see double coverage. Moving on past the Marcus Wheaton tenure will be bumpy, as the current Pittsburgh Steeler was one of the best outside threats in the history of the program. Making the matters more precarious is the fact that the quarterback position doesn't look clear. Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz are capable, but both have major flaws to overcome. Mannion looks the part at 6'5 and 214 pounds, showing off a cannon arm. On the downside, Mannion takes too many risks, resulting in 13 interceptions compared to 15 touchdowns. Vaz, slightly behind in the battle, doesn't blow scouts away with any particular assets and doesn't cost his team win chances.
Quote: "I feel that the void that Marcus left, one of those guys (Richard Mullaney and Malik Gilmore) will step up and be playmakers and take that pressure off." Brandin Cooks said at Pac-12 Media Day.
Strengths: Offensive line, linebacker and wide receiver
The Stanford football team may be the closest resemblance to an NFL or elite SEC roster because of their punishing offensive line. As I walked by Preseason All-American guard David Yankey at the Pac-12 Media Day, I quickly realized he could squish me like an ant. The 6'5, 311-pound Junior pulls on outside run plays in the blink of an eye and clobbers opponents with brute force that Arnold Schwarzenegger marvels at. Joining Yankey on the line are some fellow behemoths who are slightly overshadowed by Yankey's brilliance. At linebacker, Shayne Skov leads the group and deservedly so. Skov, the 6'3, 244-pound redshirt senior, is another Preseason All-American. I believe coach David Shaw may have the next Brian Urlacher in Skov. Regarding the skill positions, the wide receivers are due for a big season. Ty Montgomery is their most explosive option, but the statistics don't back it up. At 6'2" and 215 pounds, Montogmery runs crisp routs and is fleet of foot. Sophomore Devon Cajuste provides the biggest margin for throwing errors at 6'4, 232-pounds. He excels at routes of the heart of the defense and is willing to suffer the repercussions without fear. Also, newcomer Francis Owusu has the veterans worried about their job security.
Quote: "I think more than anything we pride ourselves on being physical and aggressive," Shayne Skov said at Pac-12 Media Day. "We work on that all year round and being fundamental."
Weaknesses: Quarterback and running back
The weaknesses of quarterback and running back are masked to perfection behind the offensive line I just addressed. According to the preseason coaches poll, the Cardinal are the fourth best team in the country, therefore finding their soft spots is challenging. Kevin Hogan, the Stanford quarterback since the middle of last season, won't get compared to some of the conference's best. The pro-style ground and pound offense allows Stanford to still win games despite a game managing type of quarterback. In close game situations, asking Hogan to deliver game-wining drives could cause the Trees to get chopped down prematurely. Staying on the offense, numerous running backs will attempt to replace Stepfan Taylor's consistent production. Taylor was a workhorse, carrying the rock 322 times for 1,530 yards and 13 touchdowns. Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney carry the majority of the burden in 2013. Neither back owns much experience, as Wilkerson saw rare playing time and Gaffney is more known for his blocking.
Quote: "The big thing for Kevin is we talked about taking the next step," head coach David Shaw said at Pac-12 Media Day. "We will see how much he can handle."
Strengths: Quarterback, tight end and running back
By glancing at the Washington strengths above, it's an understatement to call coach Steve Sarkisian's offense dynamic. Quarterback Keith Price starts the engine because of his dual threat abilities. In 2011, Price was regards as one of the top five quarterbacks in college football. Flash forward to last season, and Price slide off the map because of a disappointing 2,728 yards, 19 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Ironically, Price's down year was still ahead of most quarterback's maximum effort. Coach Sarkisian and I expect Price to resemble the 2011 form, and that will make Washington a scary team to face. To assist Price's resurrection process, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins needs to keep it up and he will. Seferian-Jenkins is the undisputed best tight end in the college game. A living, breathing mismatch, Seferian-Jenkins stands in at 6'6" tall and 276 pounds, which lead to 69 receptions, 852 receiving yards and seven touchdowns last season. If opposing foes solely game plan around the Huskies hefty passing attack, running back Bishop Sankey will be a nightmare. Sankey earned 1,439 yards on the ground and turned those touches into 16 trips to pay dirt. Due to Pac-12's star power though, Sankey might be the most under the radar playmaker of the conference. The national market didn't overlook Sankey, putting him on the Walter Camp (most outstanding player) preseason watch list.
Quote: I have a lot to prove to myself and a lot to prove to you guys," Quarterback Keith Price said. "I believe I'm going to be better than I was 2011 season, but that's just me."
Weaknesses: Offensive line, defensive line and cornerback
Winning the battle of the trenches is crucial. Therefore, Washington's weakness at offensive line and defensive line puts themselves in an unfavorable disadvantage. The Huskies gave up 38 sacks last season, equating to approximately three detrimental plays per game. Price won't able to get back to his old form if he's sitting on the ground. Flip the script to the defensive line, and the sack production is low. Washington sacked the quarterback 27 times, barely more than ASU's Carl Bradford and Will Sutton combined. The emergence of a pass rusher would do wonders and help alleviate another weakness at the cornerback position. Desmond Trufant Jr.'s departure is going to sting and surely expose the pass rush. However, Shaq Thompson and Sean Parker are two of the better secondary members in the conference. The question is, will Thompson and Parker have any quality sidekicks?
Quote: According to a Seattle Times article by Adam Jude: "My concerns are solidifying the secondary with who are going to be the other two guys to replace Desmond Trufant and Justin Glenn." Coach Sarkisian said.
Strengths: Cornerback and punter/kicker
I'm gonna be frank here: it's nearly impossible to dish compliments to the Cougars. The cornerback position will be their sole strength on defense or offense. Deone Bucannon, the Cougars premier player and cover man, should be preparing to play on Sunday's. The 6'1, 198-pound senior showcases plus speed and rattles wide receivers with rare strength for a cornerback. Bucannon was selected to the Preseason Jim Thorpe Award watch list, for the nation's most outstanding defensive back. Last season, Bucannon garnered Second-Team All-Pac-12 honors by notching 106 tackles and four interceptions, while taking on the assignment of the top wide receiver targets. Nobody on Washington State had surpassed the 100 tackle barrier since 2006. Beyond Bucannon, there may not be much special about being on the Cougars, excluding their special teams. Michael Bowlin, the Leach's punter, got selected onto the Preseason Ray Guy Award watch list. In addition, kicker Andrew Furney was placed on the Preseason Lou Groza award watch list, for the countries best kicker. And with how anemic this offense should be, both gentlemen will have their fair share of playing time.
Quote: "I'm going to be more award on the field and make proper adjustments like I should." Deone Buccannon on the new targeting rule.
Weaknesses: Defense, offensive line, running back...to be continued
Even if Bucannon turned into Darrelle Revis, the defense would still struggle mightily. Washington State allowed 33.7 points per game, coming in at 107th worth in the FBS rankings. It can only get better from here. In eight out of their 12 games played, opposing offenses score 30 plus points. The Cougars were strange in 2012, almost beating Stanford yet losing by 39 points to far less talented ASU team. In order for the team to make the necessary improvements, young players must rise to the occasion and help shave the 33.7 points per game number to around 28. Another omen of Leach's struggles was the offensive line. Elliott Bosch represented the team at the Pac-12 Media-Day, yet he wasn't even locked into a starting spot prior to camp. I'm not trying to diminish Bosch, who gained the respect of his peers when he earned Pac-12 Honorable-Mention, but the Cougars best offensive lineman probably wouldn't start for about half of the other Pac-12 schools. Making matters worse, the running backs aren't talented enough to overcome to poor blocking. No Cougars running back posted over 300 yards all season, meaning the position outlook appears bleak.
Quote: "If somebody is a zombie or corpse, I'm the head zombie or corpse." Coach Mike Leach on players buying into his system.