Stanford's 20-14 victory over Wisconsin in the 2013 Rose Bowl game wasn't an earth-shattering upset by any means—the Cardinal were favored by a little less than a touchdown. Yet there was so much about that game that points to a change in the Pac-12 in terms of which teams are on the rise and which are trending down or remaining at status quo.
USC had been the heavyweight of the Pac-12, but its disappointing 7-6 season sent shock waves everywhere. With the NCAA-imposed scholarship restrictions on the Trojans not fully realized, three highly-coveted prospects decommitting from USC and head coach Lane Kiffin sitting on the coaches hot seat for the 2013 season, what team can the Pac-12 turn to and slap that North heavyweight label on?
The Ducks had a disappointing season as well. Oregon reached its pinnacle in Week 12 when it was sitting on top of the AP rankings, but it promptly ceded that No. 1 ranking to Notre Dame the following week after it lost to Stanford 17-14 on November 17.
The Ducks are an exciting team and well-coached by Chip Kelly, but how long will Kelly stick around? Rumors are swirling about his possible departure to the NFL once the Fiesta Bowl is finished. If Kelly leaves, the cupboard will be full for the next Duck coach, but the genius mind of Kelly would be missed. Moreover, while Oregon has turned heads since Kelly took over the program four years ago after then-head coach Mike Bellotti became the school's athletic director, Oregon hasn't exactly performed well in the postseason.
Oregon lost to Ohio State in the 2010 Rose Bowl and lost to Auburn in the 2011 BCS Championship game the following year—the Ducks turned things around when Kelly won his first BCS bowl game (the 2012 Rose Bowl) by beating Wisconsin 45-38. Oregon has a 2-2 overall record in BCS bowls with its first win coming in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl against Colorado.
Which Pac-12 team looks like the favorite to win the North in 2013?
Oregon will certainly be a power in the Pac-12's North, but Stanford has now given Oregon notice. Despite the changing of the guard when then-head coach Jim Harbaugh left for the San Francisco 49ers after the 2010 season and quarterback Andrew Luck—and other outstanding talent—left for the NFL the following season, head coach David Shaw hasn't missed a beat.
According to Scout.com's 2012 team rankings, Shaw hauled in a No. 7 recruiting class which included two 4-star offensive linemen, two 5-star offensive linemen and 4-star running back Barry Sanders, the son of NFL Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders. That's a statement.
While Shaw lost his first BCS Bowl (2012 Fiesta Bowl) to No. 3 Oklahoma State, the Cardinal did take the favored Cowboys into overtime before finally losing 41-38. Lesson learned, Stanford is now playing better defense.
The Cardinal's second-half defensive dominance over the Badgers in the 2013 Rose Bowl was masterful, despite the Cardinal being favored over the five-loss Badgers. The point is that Shaw won that game due to outstanding defense, something the SEC is known for and has won with in its six straight BCS Championships.
Oregon's defense hasn't received nearly the same respect as Stanford's although its defense is probably better than most pundits think. But if Kelly leaves, and it appears like that's looking more and more like a reality, then Oregon's biggest advantage leaves as well—its offensive brilliance.
Right now, it's Oregon and Stanford in the Pac-12 North, but with all of the distractions of Kelly's future swirling around, the Ducks may end their 2012 season with a thud as opposed to Stanford's exclamation point. Remember, Oregon is playing Kansas State, a team that is eerily similar to Stanford—Kansas State has both a balanced offense and a stingy defense.
Stanford is done with its 2012 season, finishing 12-2—some fans still think Stanford scored a touchdown against Notre Dame that could have sparked a 13-1 record if the game had gone into overtime. But the fact remains that Stanford did beat USC, did beat Oregon and played a schedule much more difficult than Oregon's.
Stanford is in perfect position to continue its pursuit of a BCS Championship game berth with most of its offense returning (tight end Zach Ertz hasn't made a decision on whether or not he will return for another year) and its defense returning largely intact despite losing two linebackers (Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas).
With Cal going 3-9 and losing its coach, Jeff Tedford, Washington losing its final two games including a loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl, Oregon State losing to Texas in the Alamo Bowl, Washington State being...well, Washington State and Oregon possibly losing head coach Chip Kelly, Stanford is now the most stable team in the North and in the driver's seat.