College Football: Color the Pac-12 Cardinal

I spent the day at Pac-12 Media Day in Los Angeles to get a view how the conference football teams will shape up this year.
As expected, Oregon was picked to win the Pac-12 North Division and the league’s first championship game. I like Stanford, which returns all the key parts of last season’s Orange Bowl champion, except coach Jim Harbaugh. But his replacement, former NFL assistant David Shaw might be just as good.
In the coming days, I will post here a look at each team individually leading up to the team’s fall camps, which are expected to begin in the next week or so.
Until then, here’s my column from Pac-12 Media Day:

By Steve Ramirez
LOS ANGELES –
Stanford has everything to compete for the Bowl Championship Series championship.
The Cardinal have the best quarterback in the country in Heisman Trophy favorite Andrew Luck, a running backs corps that ranks among the best in the country and they play defense with a chip on their shoulder.
The big question mark – if you believe the national media – is at the top, where coach David Shaw has replaced Jim Harbaugh, who after building the Cardinal into a national power has taken his show to the San Francisco 49ers and the NFL.
The switch won’t matter.
Stanford is the best team in the league and will reign supreme in 2011, winning the North Division, the conference’s first football championship game, and earning a trip, not to Pasadena and the Rose Bowl, but to the BCS title game, which this year is slated for New Orleans.
I have no doubt that if Harbaugh had decided to stay, most would rank the Cardinal among the favorites to win it all. Shaw just needs to keep the ball rolling, and there’s no reason he won’t.
“Coach Harbaugh came in (four years ago) and fought a lot of battles that I don’t have to fight,” Shaw said during Tuesday’s Pac-12 media day at Fox Studios. “My job is to maintain a competitive spirit. Like I said before, that is one of the things that (Harbaugh) and I had in common. We were going to compete. We’re going to fight.
“There is a standard of play that we’ll play up to, and it’s my job that we’ll do that.”

We hear you, coach.
Yes, there’s that Green Machine from the Pacific Northwest, but I’m just not getting the same positive vibe from the Ducks, who could face the consequences of too many graduation losses, which includes three offensive linemen and receiver Jeff Maehl, and a recent recruiting scandal, which could be enough to derail Oregon come Nov. 12 when the Pac-12′s best meet at Stanford Stadium, the site of the Ducks’ last conference loss.
I expect Luck and Co. to be too much for Oregon that day. And after that, there does not appear to be any other obstacles for Stanford, which has the talent and schedule for a trip to New Orleans.
As for the rest of the conference, here are my predictions for the division races:

NORTH
1. Stanford:
Luck, running back Stepfan Taylor and defensive backs Delano Howell and Michael Thomas give the Cardinal one of the better units in the country. The potential roadblocks are Oct. 29 at USC, Nov. 12 at home against Oregon and Nov. 26 at home against Notre Dame. But expect each opponent to see Red.
2. Oregon: The Ducks, with running backs LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner and quarterback Darron Thomas, are also a national title contender. Their only slip-up will come against Stanford, which might drop Gang Green to Pasadena and the Rose Bowl. Not a bad consolation prize.
No. 3 Washington: Jake Locker is gone. But the Huskies’ new superman is running back Chris Polk, who coach Steve Sarkisian will rely on heavily.
No. 4 Oregon State: The Beavers, led by former Muir High School standout Lance Mitchell, fell off a bit last year. But coach Mike Riley rarely has two consecutive bad seasons.
No. 5 California: The Bears missed a bowl game last season for the first time in coach Jeff Tedford’s tenure. It might not be an anomaly, with inexperience at quarterback and running back.
No. 6: Washington State: The Cougars have been the conference’s worst team the past three seasons. Nothing will change in what might by coach Paul Wulff’s final season.

SOUTH
No. 1 Utah:
The former BCS-buster misses both Oregon and Stanford, which could be the difference in the division as the Utes step up to the big time. The key will be quarterback Jordan Wynn.
No. 2 Arizona State: The Sun Devils, with quarterback Brock Osweiler, have been the media darling in preseason publications. But last time I checked they were 6-6 last season.
No. 3 Arizona: Quarterback Nick Foles gives the Wildcats a shot at competing for the division title and another bowl bid. But it won’t be in Pasadena.
No. 4. UCLA: The Bruins should be better on offense and defense. But will it be enough to save Rick Neuheisel’s job? The consensus is no.
No. 5 Colorado: A change in conferences won’t help the Buffaloes, who have moved over from the Big 12.
USC: The Trojans are ineligible to advance to the championship game, so I’ve placed them here. But USC, with quarterback Matt Barkley and receivers Robert Woods and freshman George Farmer, might be the conference’s third-best unit behind Stanford and Oregon. A 10-victory season, which had become the norm for much of the past decade, is likely.
CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: Stanford over Utah.

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