PAC-12 PROJECTIONS

With five teams in the Associated Press preseason poll, the Pac-12 looks to be one of the top conferences in the country.

Whether that perception becomes reality depends on the strength of the middle tier: The group of five or six teams in hot pursuit of Oregon and Stanford.

If UCLA, USC, Arizona State, Oregon State and Washington play to their projections, the Pac-12 just might join the SEC at the top of the conference hierarchy.

The projections:

North

  • 1. Stanford: Expect more of the same from the Cardinal: More rugged defense, more power running, more crafty play from quarterback Kevin Hogan — and more tight finishes. Stanford's moxie allowed it to win close game after close game last year. That's a perilous way to make a living, but it's also the formula for success in '13 unless a consistent downfield passing game emerges.

  • 2. Oregon: The Ducks are well stocked at every unit and possess a dastardly one-two playmaking punch in quarterback Marcus Mariota and all-purpose star De'Anthony Thomas. The decision to pick Stanford in the North was based less on any difference in talent than on coaching: Even an incremental step back in the post-Chip Kelly era could be the difference between the division title and second place.


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  • 3. Washington: Admittedly, this selection was made with some trepidation. The Huskies are full of potential and have 10 returning starters on offense. But the Steve Sarkisian era, now in its fifth season, has been defined by UW's failure to join the league's top tier. If the offensive line remains healthy — it was riddled with injuries last season — then quarterback Keith Price just might push the Huskies into upper echelon.

  • 4. Oregon State: The Beavers named Sean Mannion their starting quarterback Monday after a lengthy competition with Cody Vaz. If Mannion slings it around like he did early last season -- the Pleasanton product was one of the league's best players -- then OSU will make a run at Stanford and Oregon. Otherwise, the Beavers will duel with Washington for third place.

  • 5. Washington State: Mike Leach's system is firmly established and the Cougars are free of any quarterback controversy (Connor Halliday is the starter). But that doesn't mean WSU is ready for a breakthrough. The roster overhaul is hardly complete, and the schedule is unforgiving: WSU opens with a trip to Auburn, heads to USC in Week 2 and doesn't face either of the North powerhouses at home: It plays Oregon in Eugene and Stanford in Seattle.

  • 6. Cal: New coach, new playbook and new quarterback (true freshman Jared Goff) is a formula for sixth place in what could be a highly-competitive division. Add the brutal schedule -- the Bears face three of the top-five teams in the AP preseason poll — and new coach Sonny Dykes faces a daunting rookie season. The opener against Northwestern is crucial: If the Bears lose, they can forget about sneaking into the postseason.

    South

  • 1. UCLA: The Bruins take aim at their third consecutive appearance in the Pac-12 title game — and first victory — with arguably the top quarterback in a conference of quarterbacks. Sophomore Brett Hundley, a threat to run or pass, has a veteran line and playmakers out wide. But the Bruins need a running back and must rebuild their secondary. Consider them the favorite in a division that could break any number of ways.

  • 2. USC: All the attention on coach Lane Kiffin and the quarterbacks has overshadowed a talented roster. The Trojans possess the nation's top receiver (Marqise Lee), a solid offensive line and playmakers on every level of the defense, including Morgan Breslin, their whirling dervish of an end. They don't play Oregon and get Stanford and UCLA at home.

  • 3. Arizona State: The Sun Devils have more than enough talent and experience to win the South but are slotted here for three reasons: Their 8-5 record last year was misleading (they feasted on cupcakes); the program never does well when expectations are high; and the non-conference schedule (Wisconsin, Notre Dame) will leave them bruised and battered for league play.

  • 4. Utah: A candidate to provide an upside surprise after two forgettable seasons in the Pac-12. The key for the Utes isn't a player; it's a coach: Co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson, who was hired last winter to improve the lackluster offense. If the 66-year-old Erickson brings passion and creativity, Utah just might be a factor in the division.

  • 5. Arizona: After a better-than-expected showing in Rich Rodriguez's first season (eight wins), the Wildcats look poised to take a step in the other direction. They're breaking in a new quarterback, B.J. Denker, and will be without their top receiver, Austin Hill, for the season. The defense is a turnstile until proven otherwise, and the creampuff non-conference schedule won't get them prepared for the rigors of league play.

  • 6. Colorado: The man who turned around San Jose State faces comparable challenges in Boulder: Coach Mike MacIntyre is staring at a multi-year rebuilding job. Even if quarterback Connor Wood exceeds expectations -- it's not a high bar to clear -- the Buffs will be home for the postseason once again. The roster has too many holes.

    Follow Jon Wilner on Twitter at twitter.com/wilnerhotline and catch his College Hotline blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/collegesports/