All week, Bro Jackson breaks down the five leading conferences in college football at the twilight of the BCS era. Other previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten

At a glance

Take one look at the Associated Press Top 25 Poll and you’ll see why I believe the Pac-12 is poised for a big 2013 season. Five teams are in the Top 25–the same as the Big Ten and one fewer than the SEC–and two are in the top five as legitimate national title contenders.

Of course, most folks still think of the Pac-12 as the step-child of college football due to us being three time zones away from most other fans. But 2013 could be the year college football recognizes the Pac-12 is bigger than just one or two schools.

Let’s start with Utah, whose biggest move after going 5-7 was hiring Dennis Erickson out of retirement to be co-offensive coordinator. Erickson’s the coaching version of an espresso shot–his teams did well early but faltered the longer he stayed around. He and head coach Kyle Wittingham should have a better passing offense led by sophomore Travis Wilson while Utah’s defense, despite losing three starters up front, still is a formidable bunch.

Colorado’s got optimism with new head coach Mike Macintyre but after a 1-11 season last year, it’s all they have. Underrated sophomore tailback Christian Powell leads 17 returning starters for the Buffaloes as well as explosive wide receiver Paul Richardson Jr., who missed all of 2012 with an ACL injury. Macintyre built San Jose State one of the West Coast’s more underrated programs so he knows how to rebuild teams that struggled. If winning two-to-three games is improvement, four-to-five would be cause for a celebration so I’ll give them that based on being at full strength.

Since Mike Leach arrived at Washington State a year ago, he’s recruited plum talent out of Southern California, been great for interviews, and finished last in the Pac-12 North. That wasn’t part of his crazy plan to revitalize the program but it might just be step one. The Cougars have some playmakers in wideouts Gabe Marks and Brett Bartolone and one of the conference’s top safeties in Deone Bucannon. But starting off on the road at Auburn and USC could be a foreshadowing of trouble to come. So while it’ll be fun to see the Cougars improve along with Leach’s must-see interviews, they’ll most likely be back in the division cellar.

California’s always had exciting players to see (think Jahvid Best, Aaron Rodgers and DeSean Jackson) and new head coach Sonny Dykes should keep that going with his high-powered offense. Sophomores Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper are a great 1-2 combo at wide receiver but the big question is at quarterback as true freshman Jared Goff opens as starter. Also Cal switching from a 3-4 to 4-3 defensive scheme should be a big help as the Bears return 3 starters up front. Their Sept. 14 meeting against Ohio State should be a good test since the Bears nearly beat the Buckeyes in Columbus last year. I think Cal should win five-to-six games and put a scare in teams to beware them more in 2014.

Year 1 of Rich Rodriguez at Arizona was up and down but they did win an exciting bowl game against Nevada, upset USC and put up a school-record 6,840 yards. In Year 2, Ka’Deem Carey is back after leading the FBS in rushing and the Wildcats return every single starter on defense last year. If Rodriguez can find a capable quarterback in BJ Denker or transfer Jesse Scroggins, Arizona could have another eight-win season as the sleeper of the South division.

Washington’s my pick as the North Division because: (1) Keith Price and Bishop Sankey are the second best QB/RB tandem in the conference; (2) Austin Sefarian-Jenkins might be the most unguardable player in the conference; and (3) Sean Parker and Shaq Thompson lead a defense inspired to show they’ve atoned for giving up over 40 points three times last year. We’ll see how good the Huskies right away as they face Boise State this weekend in a rematch of their Las Vegas Bowl thriller from December.

USC is full of questions. Is this Lane Kiffin’s last year coaching? Will Max Wittek or Cody Kessler emerge as the starter after both share time in Hawaii for the season opener? Is this the least-hyped Trojans team since 2001? The first two are mysteries but the third is a resounding yes even with Heisman favorite Marqise Lee. They’re no longer among the class of the conference and for Kiffin to save his job, USC has to run the ball more and find a way to stop people on defense. I think they’re not a Top 25 team yet and we won’t know until they face Arizona State at the end of September.

Oregon State surprised many last year rising to 3rd in the North and now they enter this year ranked. I like tailback Storm Woods (940 yards, 13 TD’s) and their secondary returns three members, including Rashaad Reynolds who also returns kicks. It’s good seeing the Beavers back as a respectable team but the only thing keeping them from repeating last year’s success is the toughsecond half of their schedule (Stanford, USC, Washington, Arizona State, and Oregon).

Arizona State should have been ranked in the AP Preseason poll and I was surprised they weren’t. They were last seen destroying Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. They have maybe the fiercest front seven in the Pac-12 led by nose tackle Will Sutton and linebacker Carl Bradford (a combined 43.5 tackles for loss). Taylor Kelly might be the most underrated passer in the conference. Maybe folks will realize their mistake when the Sun Devils face Notre Dame on October 5 and I’m calling it as one of the season’s biggest early upsets.

As for UCLA, it’s been 12 years since they were ranked ahead of rival USC in the AP poll. That’s what happens when expectations are high after going 9-5 and remaking your identity. Thanks to Jim Mora, the Bruins are a hard-nosed defensive team, led by Anthony Barr, and have one of the nation’s rising dual-threat quarterbacks in Brett Hundley. The only rub is a tougher schedule that includes Washington and Oregon, and replacing their entire secondary and all-time leading rusher in Johnathan Franklin. So while there’s joy in Westwood, the Bruins will have to prove they’re no one-year wonder and I think they will.

Oregon’s success has proved that no matter who gets plugged in thei offense, results happen. So with Chip Kelly moving to the NFL, it’s no stretch that new head coach Mark Helfrich–formerly the offensive coordinator–will keep the engine churning with quarterback Marcus Mariota and the versatile De’Anthony Thomas. I’ve always felt the Ducks’ defense hasn’t gotten their fair share of credit because it’s not like the Ducks just outscore everyone out of necessity. Remember this name: Safety Iko Ekpre-Olomu. Not much else to say except expect 10-11 wins because there’s only one team I think can stop them.

Stanford proved they belonged with the big boys last year by finally winning a BCS Bowl game. So what does head coach David Shaw do in a year where the Cardinal should solidify that respect? Not change a dang thing. Keep pounding the ball with tailbacks Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson and punishing you up front on defense with linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov. Oh and occasionally mix it up with some passing since quarterback Kevin Hogan went 5-0 to end last season. It’s boring, predictable, and effective so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Good as advertised, folks.


Five All-Conference Studs

Marqise Lee, USC All-American? Check. The Biletnikoff Award as the best WR in the country? Check. Next stop, the USC receiving record book and maybe the Heisman Trophy?

De’Anthony Thomas, OregonThe speedy return man/slot receiver should benefit from getting more touches as a tailback. Along with Lee, a must-see every time he makes a play.

Anthony Barr, UCLA –21.5 tackles for loss and a fierce hit that ended Matt Barkley’s college career. Imagine what Barr will do for an encore.

Will Sutton, Arizona State – Sutton’s one of the best run stoppers in the country and had 13 sacks in 2012.

Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, Washington – From the same conference that brought you Rob Gronkowski, here’s your next super freak All-American tight end at 6-6, 266 lbs.

Circle Your Calendar

Boise State at Washington, August 31 – As stated above, these two teams met in a thriller in December. This could be the first reminder that the Pac-12 is a deeper conference than in year’s past.

USC at Arizona State, September 28A foreshadowing of who could be the number two team in the Pac-12 South. If USC hasn’t figured out their quarterback problems by this point, Arizona State could be hungry to dish out revenge for a 38-21 loss last year.

Oregon at Stanford, November 7The Pac-12 North will most likely be decided this night as well as somebody’s BCS fate. Stanford won last year and Oregon won the last two meetings.

And the Winner is . . .

Whoever wins on November 7 will win the conference easily. I think UCLA will win the Pac-12 South barely above Arizona State and advance to their third straight Pac-12 title game. But this is about the North and I’m going with Stanford due to their bulk up front and ability to control tempo even better than Oregon. It’s not a huge surprise but as much as I like watching the Ducks, Stanford controls the line of scrimmage as good as any team in the country. That’s why they’ve been effective and I’m rolling with the Cardinal to come out of a deep Pac-12.