LOS ANGELES — Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is honored to be considered a strong candidate for the Heisman Trophy, and he would love to lead the Ducks to a national championship this fall.
As a Pac-12 quarterback, Mariota realizes his immediate goals must be a bit smaller.
“We’re just trying to win the North first,” Mariota said, referring to the Ducks’ division in the powerful conference.
Indeed, the Pac-12 is packed yet again with elite quarterback talent, up-and-coming coaches and inventive offensive schemes. The West Coast’s power conference was ranked as the nation’s best top-to-bottom league last year, and it’s even more stacked this fall.
“The Pac-12 is better than it’s ever been,” said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez. “And it’s not going backwards. It’s forcing all of us to keep making sure that we’re pressing the envelope to keep our program up.”
Whether it’s perennial power Oregon, two-time champion Stanford — a team that will host UC Davis on Aug. 30 — up-and-coming power UCLA or a surprising contender, the Pac-12 is primed to crown a powerful champion. Mariota and UCLA’s Brett Hundley lead a group of returning veteran quarterbacks that might be the most impressive in this conference’s stellar history at the position.
The Pac-12 might even have a chance to break the South’s grip on the national title in the new playoff system, but that’s all a postscript to what’s certain to be a compelling run to the league title game at Levi’s Stadium in December.
Here are 10 things to watch while the Pac-12 prepares for another season:
QB CENTRAL: The Pac-12 has a whopping 10 returning quarterbacks, and at least seven are among the nation’s best at the position, all short-listed for awards and targeted for NFL shots: Washington State’s Connor Halliday, Stanford’s Kevin Hogan, Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly, USC’s Cody Kessler and Oregon State’s Sean Mannion along with Hundley and Mariota, who both delayed their NFL dreams to lead their schools’ pursuit of a national title.
PETERSEN ARRIVES: When Steve Sarkisian returned home to Southern California, Washington pried coach Chris Petersen — a former UCD quarterback — out of his comfortable job at powerhouse Boise State. The Huskies are eager to see whether Petersen’s system will succeed at the sport’s highest level.
STALWART STANFORD: Coach David Shaw isn’t insulted by the preseason projections showing his Cardinal behind Oregon in the Pac-12 North race. After four straight BCS bowl games and two straight league titles, Shaw is confident Stanford’s system will produce another power — particularly with Hogan back for another year behind center.
COMEBACK KIDS: California and Colorado finished at the bottom of their respective divisions last season, and they’re picked to finish last again in the preseason media poll. The two former powerhouses still have a reserve of optimism heading into the second seasons for coaches Sonny Dykes and Mike MacIntyre, but it’s tough to rebuild quickly in the Pac-12.
BIG GAMES: A few dates for the calendar: USC visits Stanford on Sept. 6; Oregon travels to UCLA on Oct. 11; Utah faces Oregon State on Oct. 16 in a rematch of their 2013 thriller; Stanford visits Oregon on Nov. 1; and Stanford plays at UCLA on Nov. 28, one day before USC hosts Notre Dame in a huge Thanksgiving weekend in Los Angeles.
LEVI’S FIT: The Pac-12 will play its title game at the San Francisco 49ers’ new stadium after holding it on the higher-seeded team’s campus in previous years. Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott calls it a move for the fans, even if last-minute travel to the Bay Area doesn’t sound terribly fan-friendly.
BRUISING BRUINS: During coach Jim Mora’s first two seasons, UCLA seized Los Angeles supremacy from USC. While the Trojans rebuild, the Bruins are loaded for a run at the league title as the Pac-12 South’s preseason favorites. Hundley’s steady veteran leadership is the biggest reason, but Mora has a wealth of young talent led by Myles Jack, who starred as a linebacker and a tailback as a freshman.
DUCK SPOTLIGHT: After nearly three decades in Eugene, Don Pellum has the unenviable task of succeeding retired Nick Aliotti as Oregon’s defensive coordinator. The Ducks’ former linebackers coach isn’t overhauling Aliotti’s schemes, but his biggest task might be slowing down Stanford after two straight losses to the powerful Cardinal.
LEACH’S BREAKTHROUGH?: In the past year, Mike Leach co-authored a book on Apache leader Geronimo, caught a 350-pound sturgeon in the Snake River and got Washington State into its first bowl game in a decade. The veteran coach is showing progress in Pullman, but he knows the next step is tougher as the Cougars attempt to join the Pac-12’s elite.
NETWORK WOES: The Pac-12 Networks are in their third year, and they still don’t have a distribution deal with DirecTV, Verizon FiOS, Charter Communications or Cablevision, leaving millions of fans unable to watch every game. Scott again preaches patience, claiming the network is steadily moving toward success.