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College football: Washington still team to beat in Pac-12 north

Washington quarterback Jake Browning (3) runs out of the pocket against Alabama during the first half of the Peach Bowl, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2016, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

ZACH HELFAND,

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:

Washington

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.

Stanford

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.

Washington State

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.

The real cause for optimism is the defense, which gave up a respectable 26.4 points per game last season and returns nine starters, including end Hercules Mata’afa, a second-team All-Pac 12 selection last season.

If Leach can finally pair his elite offense with a strong defense, it’s possible the Cougars could win the North. But that would also require a modicum of consistency, an elusive target for a program that hasn’t reached 10 wins in a season since 2003.

Oregon

Oregon is a powerhouse at a crucial juncture. The central question: Will the Ducks offense still look like the Ducks offense?

The rest of college football has caught up to Oregon’s trademark “blur” scheme. Now it’s up to new coach Willie Taggart to chart winning a future path for the program.A Jack and Jim Harbaugh disciple, Taggart initially deployed a meaty, power-ball scheme as coach at South Florida. Trouble was, that scheme was difficult to execute without really good and really big players. South Florida didn’t always sign those types.

So, during his second season, Taggart changed schemes to a version of the spread he called the Gulf Coast Offense.

The switch worked. Taggart will likely bring the Gulf Coast Offense to Oregon, and it could look very similar to the Ducks’ usual scheme. Or the episode could demonstrate that Taggart is not afraid to scrap it all.

During his introductory news conference in December, Taggart said some elements of Oregon’s offense would remain. But not all.

The Ducks return a promising nucleus, with an excellent running back, Royce Freeman, and a quarterback with some potential, sophomore Justin Herbert.

However, the defense ranked third-to-last in the nation in scoring and total yardage last season. And South Florida’s defense wasn’t much better: 92nd in scoring defense, 120th in total defense.

Oregon State

Oregon State this year looks a bit like Colorado last year. It took Mike MacIntyre four seasons to turn around Colorado, just like it once took Gary Andersen four seasons to rebuild Utah State.

Andersen is entering his third season at Oregon State, so he might be a little ahead of schedule. Last season produced the two portents of a breakout 2017: Steady improvement and close losses to good teams.

The defense wasn’t bad. It ranked eighth in the conference in scoring and yardage allowed but above average nationally when taking into account the quality of opponent. Most of the front seven returns, including linebacker Manase Hungalu.

The running game wasn’t bad, either. Ryan Nall almost reached 1,000 yards despite injuries last season, and the Beavers may have one of the deepest corps of backs in the conference. The improvement showed in games against Utah (a 19-14 loss), Stanford (26-15 loss) and wins over Arizona and Oregon to close the season. Recall that two seasons ago Colorado had close losses against Arizona, UCLA and USC - then busted out the next year

Cal

Justin Wilcox was last seen — and heard — by Pac-12 fans when, as USC’s defensive coordinator, he screamed profanities in the coaches’ booth while his defense was being trounced in the conference title game two seasons ago.

His new gig as Cal’s head coach comes after he righted himself as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator last season. The Badgers gave up an average of 15.6 points per game, fourth-best in the nation.

Cal’s defense last season was bad — 42.6 points and 518 yards per game bad. Much of the personnel from that unit returns, so it will be interesting to see if Wilcox can turn experience into stoutness.

On offense, the Bears lost their best passer, pass-catcher and runner, along with more than 100 career college starts on the offensive line. Cal also has a nonconference schedule that features North Carolina and Mississippi.

In other words, television microphones could pick up some interesting material from the Cal sideline this season