By Michael Leese
STANFORD Many pundits thought the Cardinal would tumble in the standings after the departure of head coach Jim Harbaugh, and then the graduation of star QB Andrew Luck a year later. That simply hasn’t happened as David Shaw, entering his third season as head coach, has led the Cardinal to consecutive top-10 finishes. Last year, the Cardinal were Pac-12 Champions and won the Rose Bowl, but face doubts after the departure of star running back Stephon Taylor and five top receivers. However, with Sophomore QB Kevin Hogan back at the helm, four starting linemen returning, and several gifted running backs and receivers ready to step up, i fail to see much of a drop off offensively. The defense is big and physical and managed 57 sacks last year! Eight starters return to a unit that allowed an outstanding 17.2 PPG last year. Stanford has a very favorable schedule as they get Arizona State, Notre Dame and Oregon at home. I see the Cardinal jumping out to a 9-0 mark with a huge home win over Oregon on a Thursday night which I believe will get the Cardinal into the PAC 12 Championship Game. Look for the Cardinal to crash the BCS party!
- KEY GAME . . . THURSDAY NOVEMBER 11, HOSTING OREGON
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH. . . . RB Anthony Wilkerson, TE Luke Kaumatule, OLB James Vaughters
- MY PREDICTION – 11-1 OVERALL, 8-1 CONFERENCE
OREGON What’s up with the Ducks? After four seasons as head coach, with four consecutive BCS bowl appearances, Chip Kelly left for the NFL. Mark Helfrich steps into the top job after serving as the Ducks offensive coordinator for the past four years. Even with Helfrich moving up, I foresee little drop-off from an offense that scored 49.6 PPG last year! Sophomore QB Marcus Mariota, should only get better in his second season under center. Scary, considering all he did last year was run for 898 yards and throw for another 2,677 with a combined 37 touchdowns. Six of the top seven receivers return, including Colt Lyerla, who I expect to have a big season. Byron Marshall steps in for Kenjon Barner and will be joined by “Black Mamba” De’ Anthony Thomas in the backfield. Also returning of note is defensive whiz Nick Aliotti, who has served as the defensive coordinator for the Ducks for 13 years. But the defense is what concerns me, as the Ducks lose the two top tacklers from last years squad, plus first round NFL draft pick Dion Jordan. They gave up 21.6 PPG last year and I see that going up significantly. The Ducks have a favorable schedule as they miss both USC and Arizona State, and they should be 8-0 when they face Stanford. I believe that the Cardinal will win that game at home on a slower grass field, with the bigger more physical defense.
- KEY GAME . . . THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 11, AT STANFORD
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH . . . . RB Byron Marshall, DE Arik Armstead, K Matt Wogan
- MY PREDICTION – 11-1 OVERALL, 8-1 CONFERENCE
WASHINGTON On paper, the Huskies are loaded with 18 starters back, the most in the Pac-12. One offense, the Huskies should blow past the 24 PPG from last year. Keith Price enters his senior season, following a disappointing junior campaign. Last year, he threw for 2,726 yards and 19 TDs last year, a drop from 3.063 and 33. Running back Bishop Sankey returns after gaining 1,491 yards, along with the top six receivers and four offensive linemen. The defense also returns tons of experience and should be the best in recent history. Eight out of the top nine tacklers return from last year, along with a few top-notch recruits. The Dawgs allowed 24.2 PPG last year and should see that improve! The schedule is tough as they must play Stanford, Arizona State, UCLA and Oregon State on the road, plus Oregon at home. This is a big season for the Huskies as they open their newly remodeled stadium with a huge game against Boise State. Will we see the Huskies back in the Las Vegas Bowl?
- KEY GAME . . . AUGUST 31 HOSTING BOISE STATE THE HUSKIES MUST WIN THIS ONE!
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH . . . .RB Jesse Callier, CB Travell Dicon, WR Damore’ea Stringfellow
- MY PREDICTION – 7-5 OVERALL, 4-5 CONFERENCE
OREGON STATE – The Beavers also get back a ton of experienced players, including QBs Cody Vaz and Sean Mannion, who both played significant roles under center last season. Also returning is RB Storm Woods who ran for 965 yards and 13 touchdowns. Four starting linemen will be back to the Beaver front dam, which should improve on the 33 sacks allowed last year. The big question on offense will be who will step in to replace the dynamic receiver Marcus Wheaton who had 1,244 yards and 11 scores? Overall I see the Beaver offense matching last years 32.5 PPG. Defensively the Beavers return seven starters, including the top five tacklers from a team that allowed 20.6 PPG. The defensive line does lose two big-time performers, but Mike Riley has added two highly touted junior college transfers. I do think with a tougher schedule, the defense will be hard pressed to match last years overall numbers. Looking at the Beavers schedule I see a tale of two seasons. I expect the Beavers to open the season 5-1, and then struggle down the stretch, as they’ll face five of the top teams in the conference to close the season.
- KEY GAME . . . . OCTOBER 26, HOSTING STANFORD
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH, DT Siale Hautau, DT Edwin Delva, LB Joel skotte
- MY PREDICTION – 6-6 OVERALL, 3-6 CONFERENCE
CALIFORNIA The Bears new head coach Sonny Dykes takes over for Jeff Tedford who saw his 10 year run at Cal come to an end. Dykes brings with him a fresh approach to an offense that hasn’t lived up to expectations over the last few years. Only five starters return on offense, so it could take some time for Cal to gel on that side of the ball, so the Bears will have to rely on the defense. The front seven is solid and will be the backbone of the defense! The Bears allowed 33.1 PPG last year and I expect big improvement. The Sonny Dykes era begins with games against Northwestern, Ohio State and Oregon in September. I really think there is high upside with the Bears this year, as I think Dykes will really rejuvenate this program. If they can get an upset or two they could get a bowl bid.
- KEY GAME . . . AUGUST 31, HOSTING NORTHWESTERN
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH . . . RB Brendan Bigelow, DT Mustafa Jalil, WR Darius Powe
- MY PREDICTION 5-7 OVERALL, 4-5 CONFERENCE
WASHINGTON STATE Many thought Mike Leach would immediately turn the Cougars into winners and get to a bowl game last year. That didn’t happen as the QB play was marginal at best, and there was no running game with the Cougars averaging a whopping 1.4 yards-per-carry last year. With seven starters returning, things have to get better. On the positive side, the Cougars do look to have several top-notch receivers in the mix, and the offensive line returns four starters. On defense, the Cougars have a lot of experience to build on as nine starters return from a squad that allowed 33.7 PPG last year. The Cougars get a favorable home schedule, hosting Southern Utah, Idaho, Oregon State and Utah.
- KEY GAME . . . AUGUST 31, AT AUBURN
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH . . . QB Connor Halliday, WR Vince Mayle, RB Teondray Caldwell
- MY PREDICTION 3-9 OVERALL, 1-8 CONFERENCE