Pac 12 Football: Way-Too-Early 2014 Power Rankings for North Division
The North division has taken up the Pac-12's banner in each of the three seasons since the conference expanded to 12 members.
In that time, all three Pac-12 champions have come from the North, as have the conference's five total BCS bowl bids.
The 2013 season brought unprecedented success, with five of the North's six teams reaching bowl games, and three finishing ranked in the final Associated Press Top 25.
The division promises to be as strong from top to bottom again in 2014 and perhaps even more competitive in the race for the conference championship.
Two-time defending divisional and conference champion Stanford faces heavy turnover, Oregon is flush with experienced talent but must prove it can withstand an entire 12-game slate with a target on its back, and dark-horse challengers Washington and Oregon State are trying to break through.
6. Cal Golden Bears
Final 2013 Record: 1-11 (0-9 Pac-12)
Head coach Sonny Dykes' welcome to the West Coast was harsh.
Cal was winless against Football Bowl Subdivision competition, including a 0-9 finish in Pac-12 play, and ranked No. 124 of 125 teams in points allowed at a staggering 45.9 points per game.
The Golden Bears' defensive woes prompted Dykes to reassign coordinator Andy Buh last week, but his replacement might face an even more challenging road in 2014 with the early departures of linebacker Khairi Fortt, cornerback Kameron Jackson and defensive tackle Viliami Moala to the NFL draft.
Dykes' bear-raid offense showed flashes of brilliance, but Cal needs more consistency from quarterback Jared Goff in his second year running the system. As the still-to-be-named defensive coordinator is bringing along a group that was historically bad, Goff may be forced to throw Cal into competitiveness.
5. Washington State Cougars
Final 2013 Record: 6-7 (4-5 Pac-12)
Washington State's 2013 was bittersweet. Sweet, because the Cougars reached the postseason for the first time in a decade; bitter because the epic collapse they suffered against Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl doomed them to a 10th consecutive season without a winning record.
Likewise, head coach Mike Leach faces some bittersweet realities in the offseason.
Sweet: Redshirt junior quarterback Connor Halliday seemed to settle in by the season's final month, and the deep, talented wide receiving corps is fully stocked: Gabe Marks, Dom Williams and River Cracraft were all underclassmen.
The bitter is a Jekyll and Hyde defense, which was spectacular in wins over USC and Arizona but porous in losses, including the bowl game. The defense must replace All-American defensive back Deone Bucannon. Gone also is fellow turnover-creating defensive back Damante Horton.
4. Oregon State Beavers
Final 2013 Record: 7-6 (4-5 Pac-12)
Oregon State pulled out of its late-season tailspin in its last two outings, taking rival Oregon to the final possession of November's Civil War, then dismantling Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl.
The return of quarterback Sean Mannion for his senior season continued some of the positive built at 2013's conclusion, but his success will depend largely on the reemergence of running back Storm Woods. Woods played his two best games of 2013 against Oregon and Boise State, bouncing back from a scary injury suffered in September at Utah.
When we needed the run, we weren't good enough or persistent enough with our blocking, and I went with the pass more than I really wanted to. In the last two games, we were more determined to get things done with the run game, and the guys just did a better job all the way around. It gave us a more complete picture of what we'd like to be like in terms of overall offense.
A more mature, in-sync offensive line is critical to Oregon State contending in the North. The same is true on the defensive front, where the Beavers must replace three-year stalwart defensive end Scott Crichton.
3. Washington Huskies
Final 2013 Record: 9-4 (5-4 Pac-12)
First-year Huskies head coach Chris Petersen steps into an ideal situation. Predecessor Steve Sarkisian recruited well, leaving Washington replete with talent on both sides of the ball.
Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl Defensive MVP Hau'oli Kikaha and fellow defensive end Josh Shirley will be senior anchors for a defense that ranked No. 4 nationally in sacks last season with 41. The offense also features a battle-tested front, returning All-Conference honorable mention selections Dexter Charles, Mike Criste and Micah Hatchie.
Washington also plays one of the more favorable conference schedules, drawing Arizona State, Oregon State, Stanford and UCLA all at Husky Stadium.
If there was a team to challenge Oregon and Stanford for North dominance, Washington's 2014 squad is it.
But the Huskies are not without glaring issues.
Replacing running back Bishop Sankey is critical, and Petersen must do so while also acclimating a new full-time quarterback to the role Keith Price handled for the better part of three years. Washington has also struggled against the top tier of Pac-12 competition, last season finishing 0-4 against conference counterparts that finished the season ranked.
2. Stanford Cardinal
Final 2013 Record: 11-3 (7-2 Pac-12)
The two-time defending Pac-12 champions face the most uncertainty the program has seen since...well, 2012. Or maybe 2011.
OK, so taking change head-on and thriving is nothing new for Stanford. The Cardinal responded to the departure of head coach Jim Harbaugh after their Orange Bowl-winning 2010 campaign by matching their 12-win total in successor David Shaw's first season.
Andrew Luck left the following offseason, and again Stanford was faced with uncertainty. The Cardinal responded by winning the program's first conference title since 1999.
Stanford has a track record for exceeding expectations under Shaw, but 2014 will truly put the Cardinal's mettle to the test. They face one of the most treacherous schedules in college football, hitting the road to take on quality opponents Arizona State, Notre Dame, Oregon, UCLA and Washington—all of which they beat at home in 2013.
Stanford embarks on that most difficult of slates without running back Tyler Gaffney, the workhorse of the offense in 2013. Offensive guard David Yankey declared for the NFL draft, as reported by Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News, which leaves a sizable hole on the interior of the line.
And then there is the mass departure on defense, with numerous upperclassmen having exhausted their eligibility. The threat of losing coordinator Derek Mason also lingers; Jeremy Fowler of CBS Sports reports that Vanderbilt is interested in interviewing Mason for its head-coaching position.
Quarterback Kevin Hogan must take the next step in his progression—a realistic proposition, given he'll be throwing to one of the conference's better receiving corps with Ty Montgomery, Devon Cajuste, Michael Rector and Kodi Whitfield.
1. Oregon Ducks
Final 2013 Record: 11-2 (7-2 Pac-12)
Will 2014 be a case of "third time's a charm" for the Marcus Mariota-led Ducks, or are they headed for another season of unrealized potential?
Oregon has opened each of the last two seasons the highest-ranked Pac-12 North team, only to lose both the division and conference to rival Stanford. Early indicators suggest the Ducks will again lead initial polls both in the North and the Pac-12 overall, and with good reason.
Head coach Mark Helfrich scored big with quarterback Mariota, center Hroniss Grasu and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu all forgoing the 2014 NFL draft. Their returns make Oregon one of the most experienced teams in the conference on both sides of the ball.
Couple the Ducks' experience with a favorable schedule, which includes likely contenders Stanford and Washington visiting Autzen Stadium, and they are the division's favorites.
Oregon's 2014 team may be its best since 2010, when the Ducks played for the BCS Championship. The pressure will be on the Ducks to live up to their billing.