Topping the 2012 Pac-12 football season might be impossible.
Three successful new coaches (Rich Rodriguez, Jim L. Mora, Todd Graham) and one evil dictator (Mike Leach) came into the league and generated interest. Oregon amassed more yards than uniform combinations. Stanford won more games than it did the year before with Andrew Luck. Oregon State had a historic turnaround with a quarterback controversy. The Trojans had a faster fall from grace in 2012 than they did in the Trojan War 3,200 years ago.
We may not have a season quite like last year (did I mention Mike Leach is still coaching?), but 2013 certainly is not lacking for narrative.
Here are the five biggest storylines for this year’s Pac-12 season:
5. Which teams will break through?
Oregon State and Arizona went from bottom-dwellers to contenders in just one year. We’ve seen Stanford and Oregon rise to the top in recent years. It always happens.
Cross out Colorado, Washington State, Cal and Utah. I’d be shocked if any finished better than .500.
That leaves two teams that do have the pieces in place to make the leap in 2013: Washington and Arizona State.
The Huskies have gone 7-6 the last three years. Maybe head coach Steve Sarkisian is to blame. But the Dawgs proved they can win big games (beat Stanford and OSU last year when both were ranked in the top-10).
Washington has 20 returning starters, and this could be the year quarterback Keith Price finally lives up to his potential. Don’t count out UW’s underrated defense and the fact that tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins might catch 25 touchdowns this year.
ASU has quarterback Taylor Kelly and defensive tackle Will Sutton. Both lead their respective side of the ball. Only Oregon had a better differential between points scored and allowed (plus-183). A four-game stretch of losses to Oregon, UCLA, Oregon State and USC derailed the Sun Devils’ 5-1 start last year.
They have a brutal early schedule (Wisconsin, at Stanford, USC, Notre Dame). But after that, it could be smooth sailing the rest of the way.
4. Polar opposite, but equally intriguing quarterback battles
Matt Barkley threw for 5,000 yards, won the Heisman and led USC to a national title, right? Bane Kiffin didn’t exactly get his reckoning last year like expected.
Now USC’s coach is faced with a difficult decision to make, and one that could decide if the Trojans have another mediocre season or get back to BCS bowl contention.
Everyone assumes Max Wittek will be under center for USC, but Cody Kessler is right in the mix. Kessler was the Spring Game hero, but Wittek has the experience. Kiffin hasn’t decided yet.
If true freshman Max Browne avoids a redshirt, don’t be surprised if Kiffin takes a gamble in the middle of the season if USC isn’t dominating. Browne was the No. 1 quarterback recruit in his class and could be the next great quarterback for the Trojans.
I don’t need to delve too much into the situation in Corvallis. From the Washington game on — the first time there was a decision on who starts — the Beavers went 2-4 against FBS teams. When there was only one choice at starter, they were 6-0.
Lucky for OSU, the early schedule is so easy that it actually seems likely that the Beavers will be 7-0 when Stanford comes to Reser in late October.
3. Most star power in conference history?
There are five legitimate Heisman contenders: Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey, USC receiver Marqise Lee, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, Oregon running back De’Anthony Thomas and Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov (who could be this year’s Manti Te’o, minus the fake girlfriend).
And the list of guys who could be on that list is deep: Taylor Kelly, Will Sutton, Brandin Cooks, USC running back Silas Redd, UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan, Keith Price, Sean Mannion, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and dare I say, Oregon freshman running back Thomas Tyner.
The individuals in the conference are reason enough for Beaver fans to keep the TV on for 12 straight hours on Saturdays.
2. Can Stanford win a national championship?
The SEC has a monopoly on titles in college football. But Stanford is an SEC team disguised in a pass-happy, offensive-oriented conference.
The Cardinal defense ranked in the top 20 in sacks (1), scoring defense (11), third down defense (14) and yards allowed (20) last year. And four of their games came against top-25 offenses.
It seems to be the consensus that the Nov. 7 game between Oregon and Stanford — ranked No. 3 and 4, respectively, in the preseason coaches’ poll — will determine the winner of the conference. And that game is in the Bay Area this year.
The Cardinal proved they have a blueprint to beat the Ducks last year. If they do it again, there could be a slugfest between Stanford and (insert SEC team here) in the national championship.
1. Johnny Manziel
1. The University of Nike and the Mark Helfrich era
Trivia time: Which feature is not a part of Oregon’s brand-new $68 million Football Performance Center?
A. Chairs upholstered with Ferrari material
B. A scale model of Autzen Stadium made of gold from Australia
C. A barbershop with utensils from Milan
D. A logo outside the locker room of the Duck mascot wearing a top hat with a dollar sign on it
E. Walls covered in Nike football leather
The answer is B. The point, I hope, is taken.
Oregon has become a circus. Sure, this palace will attract plenty of recruits, but isn’t this laughable?
The Valley Center at OSU features film rooms, a large cafeteria, coaches’ offices, locker rooms and an elevator. How prehistoric for a football program to need those things instead of a duck pond.
Lost in the Sports Illustrated and New York Times feature on the monstrosity is that Chip Kelly is gone and Mark Helfrich is taking over.
Kelly’s system and coaching staff is such a machine at this point that it’s hard to see this team not cruising to a BCS bowl.
But with so many distractions and a new coach in his first year, things could pile up and focus could start to go elsewhere.
Do I think that will happen? No.
But if there’s ever been a year in recent times when Phil Knight and the board of trustees could become so overwhelming that the football team — the reason this facility was even built — could suffer.
Warner Strausbaugh, managing editor
On Twitter: @WStrausbaugh