Over the past four seasons, Stanford and Oregon have developed a rivalry that has become the Pac-12 North's de facto divisional championship. This matchup's winner has claimed each of the last four conference titles, and a fifth Pac-12 crown could be at stake when they meet in 2014.
It's only fitting, then, that this week's mailbag is heavy on Cardinal-Ducks talk.
The bar for best question this offseason has been raised to an exceptionally high level. This is a question that transcends regular mailbag status, bordering more on an existential life question.
After much thought, Stanford's 26-20 defeat of Oregon last November is the Pac-12's version of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin vs. The Rock from WrestleMania 17.
Oregon came in as the favorite, ranked No. 2 and on a march to a glory. With its offensive arsenal, Oregon was the most electrifying team in Pac-12 football.
Like The Rock against Austin, though, Oregon needed to prove itself against a hard-hitting opponent in Stanford, which had bested the Ducks last time they competed. The Rock lost his previous WrestleMania against Austin two years prior, and Oregon lost its late-season matchup against Stanford the prior November.
Preferring a down-and-dirty style over explosive offense, Stanford took the fight to Oregon early and forced the Ducks out of their comfort zone. The Cardinal's smash-mouth defense and ground-and-pound offense functioned like Austin's brawling style.
It also set up this analogy, which is quite possibly the first in which one of the nation's finest academic institutions was compared to a beer-drinking, trucker hat-wearing wrestling persona, though I digress.
The Ducks battled back late, throwing a barrage of big-play drives at the Cardinal and nearly bridging the gap, but Stanford again prevailed. The torrid finish does make for a more intriguing rematch, however.
Plenty can happen in the nearly 10 months until these teams face again, but it's hardly unreasonable to predict Las Vegas will tab Oregon as the favorite.
Sticking with the wrestling theme from the previous question, Oregon is the underdog when applying Ric Flair logic: To be the man, you've got to beat the man.
Oregon lost two in a row to Stanford, including one game at Autzen Stadium, and has been unable to solve the Cardinal defense. Coach Derek Mason's departure seemingly helps the Ducks' cause.
Mason crafted a game plan that neutralized Oregon's ability to make big gains in space. Not only is he gone, but so too are the athletes who made his strategy a reality, most notably Shayne Skov. Skov played arguably the two best games of his standout career in Stanford's wins over the Ducks.
Conversely, Oregon returns a solid core of its primary playmakers, all of whom will have two years' worth of revenge in mind. Add a rocking Autzen Stadium and circumstances will favor the Ducks.
Who had Stanford winning the last two seasons, though?
The Ducks need to prove it. They need to beat the man to fulfill some of that championship potential. Even at that, beating Stanford doesn't ensure Oregon a conference championship. The South is improving, and Oregon's road goes through perhaps the most treacherous destination along the way.
I tend to be leery of trendy offseason picks, but there's a lot to love about UCLA's chances of winning the Pac-12 next season. Obviously retaining quarterback Brett Hundley is a boon for head coach Jim Mora, but he's just one piece—albeit a very important piece. He's not the sole reason UCLA could win the Pac-12.
UCLA was without a stable running back corps most of the season. If Jordon James can return to the level at which he played before suffering from an injury midway through 2013, he will give the Bruins a much-needed No. 1 option in the ground game.
The trio of freshmen who stepped up on the offensive line—Alex Redmond, Caleb Benenoch and Scott Quessenberry—will be a year more experienced. Simon Goines should return from a late-season leg injury. The Bruins also added Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche, who is immediately eligible, according to CBSSports.com.
Defense is where UCLA is most intriguing, however. Anthony Barr is a huge loss, and Jordan Zumwalt and Cassius Marsh were both key components of the Bruins' success in 2013.
Mora has recruited exceptionally well, though, and standout youngsters Myles Jack, Ishmael Adams and Eddie Vanderdoes are only going to get better.
UCLA is a pretty clear favorite in the South for me. The rest of the division's contenders simply have too many questions. How does Arizona State compensate for losing so many defensive stars, including Will Sutton, Carl Bradford, Alden Darby, Osahon Irabor, Robert Nelson, Davon Coleman? Where does Arizona's offense turn without Ka'Deem Carey?
USC is the most interesting. The Trojans finished 2013 so strong amid turmoil, and they will return a considerable number of primary contributors to a 10-win campaign. Still, there's enough unknown at USC to consider it a divisional underdog.
New head coach Steve Sarkisian has a few crucial spots to fill, thanks in part to five early departures for the NFL. In implementing a new scheme and crafting the program into his vision, Sarkisian also faces choices with the returning Trojans.
This may be the most asked question of USC's offseason, and until spring practice concludes, any answer is purely speculative.
Max Browne is undeniably talented, and Sarkisian obviously agrees: While at Washington, he recruited the local 5-star prospect.
Cody Kessler, however, did just about everything to prove himself worthy of keeping the starting job he battled so long to win. By season's end, Kessler was among the Pac-12's best quarterbacks—not statistically, though, because offensive coordinator Clay Helton's scheme didn't require him to put up gaudy numbers. Kessler, however, did his job as effectively as any quarterback in the conference.
The quarterback who can effectively make calls at the line without huddling is going to win the job. Sarkisian has to be steadfast in his selection, though, as allowing the competition between Kessler and Max Wittek to spill into the season contributed to some of the offensive dysfunction that plagued USC in the first month.
Sarkisian has proven he'll commit to a quarterback. At Washington, he stuck with Keith Price despite a trying period midway through the 2012 season. Price rebounded to have an excellent senior season.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. Tweet your Pac-12 mailbag questions to him @kensing45 or email email@example.com.
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