The tectonic plates of the Pac-12 Conference’s North division have been shifting for several seasons, but mostly under the surface.
As Stanford and Oregon dominated the division and the rest of the conference — winning every Pac-12 football championship from 2009 until last season — Washington and Washington State were gaining force.
At Washington State, coach Mike Leach did what Mike Leach does: He built an offensive juggernaut. At Washington, Chris Petersen slowly grew a program, acquiring an elite quarterback, a powerful running back and a tough defensive identity, while the school poured $280 million into renovating its stadium.
Last season saw the first visible rupture: the Huskies’ emergence as a legitimate national power.
This season, the shift could be even more dramatic and lasting. Washington looks like the runaway favorite in the division. And Leach may have a defense. It may be enough to upend what had been the conference hierarchy for several seasons.
Stanford and Oregon look fragile. The Cardinal is depleted without Christian McCaffrey and with quarterback Keller Chryst coming off knee surgery. The speedy Ducks ran out of gas last season.
Just don’t count either out quite yet.
Stanford was down last season and still won 10 games. Oregon is still brimming with talented athletes, and now has a new coach who could put them to good use.
Here’s a look at how the division looks heading into training camps, in predicted order of finish:
The Huskies were criticized for their weak nonconference schedule last season but it didn’t keep them out of the four-team College Football Playoff.
This season: Rutgers, Montana — a football bowl subdivision team — and Fresno State. And the Huskies avoid playing USC during the regular season.
However, there is no denying Washington’s talent. The defense remains stout, with a fearsome front seven, and the offense returns running back Myles Gaskin and quarterback Jake Browning — the best run-pass duo in the conference outside USC. Washington can expect to be favored in every regular season game.The problem is, the Huskies have no margin for error and must be prepared for what could be a huge Apple Cup game against Washington State at the end of conference play.
Like USC, Stanford made a midseason 2016 quarterback change that sparked a long winning streak. Stanford before starting Chryst: 4-3. After: 6-0.
This season, its excellent defense boasts the conference’s best secondary, and the emergence of running back Bryce Love partially mitigates the loss of McCaffrey.
The key is Chryst, and whether he can return to form after sustaining a serious knee injury during the Sun Bowl.
He may not be ready for the start of training camp, though coach David Shaw expects him back before the regular season begins. The Cardinal visits USC in Week 2 The other options at quarterback are David Mills, a highly coveted freshman who also is coming off a knee injury, and Ryan Burns, a part-time starter last year who lost his job to Chryst, mulled a transfer, and decided to stay.
Quarterback Luke Falk, owner of a 4,468-yard, 38-touchdown, 70 percent-completion campaign in 2016, is back. So despite losing two top receivers, expect the Cougars to score a lot of points - just as they have since Leach took over as coach.