The 2012 Pac-12 football championship race seemed predestined to be a rematch between Oregon and USC. The Trojans were preseason number one with Heisman-favorite Matt Barkley under center, and the Ducks were sitting close behind at number five.
As the season unfolded, however, USC began crippling under heavy expectations and many previously discounted teams vaulted into the discussion.
UCLA rallied from two early conference losses to win five in a row, Oregon State strung six wins together to start the year and Stanford quickly proved that it deserved respect even after the departure of Andrew Luck.
With the 2013 season drawing near, it is time to learn from the past and throw out expectations that this fall will be a two-horse race between Stanford and Oregon for the Pac-12 crown. There are a few dark horses in the crowd who are poised to challenge for the Rose Bowl.
A year ago, Oregon State was right in the thick of the Pac-12 North race, and a late season date with Oregon was looking like a play-in game for the Pac-12 Championship Game. After a late field goal by Washington and a two-score comeback by Stanford, the Civil War was rendered inconsequential in the divisional race.
Despite their success, the Beavers are once again relegated to the role of the dark horse because of their close wins and emphasis on defense last season. But make no mistake, 2013 sets up very well for Oregon State to make another run.
In addition to returning a litany of talent like quarterbacks Cody Vaz and Sean Mannion and terrifically-named running back Storm Woods, Oregon State's schedule sets up perfectly.
Every team they would want to play at home, they do. Stanford, USC and Washington all must play in Corvallis. They will have to play at Oregon at season's end. But with how nicely the rest of the schedule shapes up, do not be surprised if they head to Eugene with the North Division championship on the line.
The other team to watch in the North Division is the Washington Huskies. Despite finding themselves stuck on seven wins for three years now, the Huskies have all the tools to make some noise in 2013.
During the course of its roller-coaster season in 2012, Washington proved it has what it takes to compete at the highest level. In the Huskies' first three conference home games, they hosted Stanford, USC and Oregon State. Stanford and Oregon State were sent home with losses, while USC captured a ten-point victory, showing that Washington does have what it takes to compete with the best of the Pac-12.
But it is going to take maturity for the Huskies to put it together for the entire season.
Last year, this young Washington team fell apart in many of its games away from Seattle. At LSU, Oregon and Arizona they were utterly dismantled. And in the season's last week, they failed to secure what should have been a sure win at Washington State.
They must grow from these experiences starting September 14th when they travel to Illinois. This will be a perfect road tune-up allowing them to get their feet wet before a season that includes trips to Stanford and UCLA. If they can develop into the same team on the road that they are at home, there is no reason why the Huskies cannot contend for the North Division crown in 2013 .
Arizona's path to the Rose Bowl may very well be the simplest of all the Pac-12 dark horses. They must play defense.
And it does not even have to be great defense.
Last season, running back Ka'Deem Carey ran wild, racking up 100-yard games against 10 of their 12 FBS opponents. As a team, the Wildcats averaged 38.2 points per game, good enough for 15th in the entire country. Yet 38 points per game was only good enough for a 4-5 conference mark.
As Carey was slicing through defenses, Arizona's defense was conceding 40 points or more to Oregon, UCLA, Stanford and Arizona State.
The Wildcats return much of that very young defense that stumbled through the 2012 season. Their ability to make a run in the South Division hinges on whether they have learned from last year's mistakes and can better supplement their potent offense in 2013.
The Sun Devils' 2013 season will be all about getting over the hump. Unlike Washington, Arizona State found no trouble last season taking care of the Pac-12's bottom-feeders. Instead, they are still searching for a breakthrough, signature win.
Last year, they took care of Colorado, Utah and Washington State with relative ease. But in games against USC, Oregon State and Oregon they were just a step behind. Although never blown out, the Sun Devils were badly hurt in those games by turnovers from quarterback Taylor Kelly, who was otherwise very efficient throughout the season.
Kelly is still a young quarterback and will only get better. If he can limit his mistakes in Arizona State's biggest games this fall, the Sun Devils will have a chance to break through the glass ceiling that haunted their 2012 campaign.