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Stanford, Oregon lead 2013 Pac-12 conference preview

Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Ater taking over the starting job in November, QB Kevin Hogan (8) led Stanford to five consecutive wins.

Can Oregon keep things rolling under new head coach Mark Helfrich? Can Stanford make a run at its fourth consecutive BCS berth? Which team will emerge from a competitive Pac-12 South? Stewart Mandel answers these questions and more in his Pac-12 preview. For more coverage, check out SI.com's 2013 college football preview content archive.

Note: The projected standings reflect the author's opinion, not SI.com's.

Pac-12 Conference Report
 
How They'll Finish
 
NORTH Conference Overall
Stanford 8-1 11-1
Oregon 7-2 10-2
Oregon State 6-3 9-3
Washington 5-4 8-4
Cal 3-6 4-8
Washington State 2-7 4-8
 
SOUTH Conference Overall
Arizona State 7-2 9-3
USC 5-4 8-5
UCLA 5-4 7-5
Utah 3-6 5-7
Arizona 2-7 5-7
Colorado 1-8 2-10
Conference championship: Stanford def. Arizona State
 
Offensive MVP
 
QB
Marcus Mariota
2012 stats: 2,677 pass yards, 32 TD, 6 INT; 106 carries, 752 rush yards
2013 projection: 3,239 pass yards, 36 TD, 8 INT; 90 carries, 630 rush yards
The gifted athlete can burn opponents with his feet, but he's even more dangerous with his uncanny precision passing. While Oregon still figures to run the ball frequently behind backs De'Anthony Thomas and Byron Marshall, neither is likely a LaMichael James or Kenjon Barner-type workhorse. Redshirt sophomore Mariota will get more opportunities to win games for the Ducks with his arm.
BAUMGAERTNER: Oregon ranks No. 5 in SI's preseason Top 25
 
Defensive MVP
 
LB
Anthony Barr
2012 stats: 83 tackles, 13.5 sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss
2013 projection: 99 tackles, 12 sacks, 17 tackles for loss
While Stanford has a bevy of candidates (linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, safeties Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards) who seem poised for big seasons, Barr and Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton are the league's premier individual defenders. Barr gets the nod because the running back turned linebacker should only continue to improve in his second year on the defensive side of the ball.
Staff: Anthony Barr on SI.com's 2013 Preseason All-America Team
 
Breakout Star
 
RB
Brendan Bigelow
2012 stats: 44 carries, 431 yards, 3 TD
2013 projection: 164 carries, 972 yards, 9 TD
Ohio State fans surely remember Bigelow, who burst for touchdown runs of 81 and 59 yards, respectively, during last year's game in Columbus. But the then-sophomore back never gained a prominent role in Jeff Tedford's pro-style attack. Sonny Dykes' spread offense is a better fit, and the speedy Bigelow is too explosive to languish on the bench. He'll emerge as an all-purpose weapon in the 2013 campaign.
BAUMGAERTNER: Brendan Bigelow ready to get back to full speed
 
Impact Freshman
 
S
Su'a Cravens
2012 stats (high school): 98 tackles, 11 sacks, 3 INT, 4 forced fumbles
2013 projection: 73 tackles, 3 INT, 7 pass deflections
A standout performer early in spring practice before going down with a knee injury, Cravens -- last year's USA Today Defensive Player of the Year and Rivals.com's top-ranked safety in the class of 2013 -- may wind up starting opposite veteran Dion Bailey for the Trojans. "I didn't come here just to sit on the bench," Cravens told the Los Angeles Times. "I came to SC to try and get on the field as fast as I can."
BAUMGAERTNER: Freshman 15: Impact newcomers in 2013
 
Coach On The Hot Seat
 
Lane Kiffin
Last season: 7-6 (4-5 Pac-12)
Career at USC: 25-13 (17-10 Pac-12)
Despite AD Pat Haden's continued public support, no coach in the country is on shakier ground than Kiffin, due in large part to the Trojans' tumble from preseason No. 1 to Sun Bowl loser in 2012. The impact of NCAA scholarship reductions will be felt most profoundly this season, when Kiffin will be under pressure to return to the 10-win realm despite an untested quarterback and a suspect secondary.
RICKMAN: Hot Seat Watch: Which coaches have the most at stake in 2013?
 
Pac-12 Video Preview
Staples' three keys: Pac-12
Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples breaks down the three things to watch for in the Pac-12 and says why Stanford may give Oregon a run for the top spot.
 
Three Key Nonconference Games
 
Boise State at Washington
Saturday, Aug. 31
10 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1
Entering coach Steve Sarkisian's pivotal fifth season, and in U-Dub's first game back in renovated Husky Stadium, Washington has a chance to avenge last year's Las Vegas Bowl heartbreaker. But more importantly, it can make a statement that it's ready to get over the seven-win hump. Senior quarterback Keith Price will look to prove last year's mysterious slide was an aberration.
 
Arizona State vs. Notre Dame (in Arlington)
Saturday, Oct. 5
7:30 p.m. ET, NBC
Todd Graham's program has a chance to compete for a Pac-12 title, but it gets a rare opportunity for national exposure with its trip to Cowboys Stadium to participate in Notre Dame's "Shamrock Series." Sun Devils quarterback Taylor Kelly quietly emerged as one of the nation's most efficient passers last season and should be even more comfortable in his second year in Graham's offense.
 
Notre Dame at Stanford
Saturday, Nov. 30
TBD
BCS prospects will likely be on the line for one, if not both, participants, whether for the national title game or a possible at-large berth. Stanford's overtime loss last year in South Bend -- in which running back Stepfan Taylor may or may not have crossed the goal line -- still irks the Cardinal. This game could well pit the nation's best offensive (Stanford) and defensive (Notre Dame) lines.
 
Three Key Conference Games
 
Arizona State at Stanford
Saturday, Sept. 21
TBD
The Pac-12 schedule is mostly back-loaded, but this early-season matchup between division and conference title hopefuls could help shape the race. Stanford is stocked with defensive standouts, but its offense will be dependent on the emergence of several young receivers. Quarterback Kevin Hogan and company will be tested by Arizona State's Sutton-led defense.
 
Oregon at Stanford
Thursday, Nov. 7
9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Traffic will be at a standstill on the 101 both in and out of Palo Alto, while the college football world will stand at attention for the conference's likely game of the year. Stanford knocked Oregon out of the BCS title game with last season's 17-14 upset in Eugene. Mark Helfrich's Ducks will look to return to 2010 and 2011-type results, when they posted 50-plus points on the Cardinal.
 
UCLA at USC
Saturday, Nov. 30
TBD
The crosstown rivalry heated up last year when Bruins coach Jim L. Mora downed USC in his first meeting with the Trojans. This one could once again be for the Pac-12 South, though Arizona State may have something to say about that. This could also be judgment day for Kiffin, who could get back in USC fans' good graces by humbling Mora and winning the division.
 
Five Key Questions
 
Will Oregon keep quacking without Chip Kelly? Oregon couldn't ask for more continuity, as Helfrich retained nearly Kelly's entire staff and inherited stars like Mariota and Thomas. But Kelly was one of the most innovative head coaches in recent memory. There's no guarantee the magic will continue.
Can Stanford go vertical? The one element the Cardinal lacked last season was an explosive passing game. Their 35 passing plays of 20 yards or more ranked 82nd nationally. Coach David Shaw is counting on speedy receivers like Ty Montgomery, Kodi Whitfield and Michael Rector to help change that.
MANDEL: Revenge of the Nerds: How the 'smart schools' got good at football
Who will fill Johnathan Franklin's shoes at UCLA? Quarterback Brett Hundley emerged as a national star in coordinator Noel Mazzone's explosive hurry-up offense last year, but he'll be without departed All-America tailback Franklin, who rushed for 1,734 yards. Junior Jordon James (215 rushing yards in 2012) will get the first crack at replacing him.
Rising Stars: UCLA's Brett Hundley looking to reach new heights in 2013
Can Oregon State stick with one quarterback? Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz both won big games for Oregon State last year. Both also turned in nightmarish performances. It's hard to say whether coach Mike Riley has a luxury or a quandary, but some clarity at quarterback is certainly needed for the Beavers.
How quickly can coach Sonny Dykes turn things around at Cal? Dykes led the nation's most prolific offense at Louisiana Tech last season, and now he's attempting to install a similar Bear Raid attack in Berkeley. While Cal slipped to 3-9 in coach Jeff Tedford's final season, there seems to be enough talent on the roster to win if things come together.
 

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