Season preview: Pac-12 is deep, talented conference

LOS ANGELES — Oregon and Stanford have given no indication they’re ready to give up their thrones atop the Pacific-12 Conference this season.

That won’t stop the other 10 schools from doing their best each week to unseat the best in the West.

The Pac-12 is a deep, talented conference heading into the 2013 season, featuring rosters studded with veteran returnees and emerging talent. But after USC’s much-documented tumble from preseason hype to late-season embarrassment last year, there’s no doubt who’s expected to reign again.

“Stanford and Oregon have absolutely earned the right to be up there on top of the list, and everybody else has to go after that challenge,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said.

Oregon and Stanford both return fresh off BCS bowl victories, with the Ducks taking the Fiesta Bowl and the Cardinal winning the Rose Bowl. While the Ducks are under new coach Mark Helfrich, not much has really changed in Eugene, apart from their new Taj Mahal of a training center.

The Cardinal play host to Oregon at Stanford Stadium on Nov. 7. Stanford beat Oregon 17-14 last season in overtime, but the West Coast powers realize their meeting is just one step in a season-long test to see if either team is capable of challenging the SEC for a national title.

“We all have a gauntlet we’ve got to run,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “That’s what makes the season such a challenge, and so much fun. Every week it’s a test to see if you can survive.”

The Pac-12 features its usual bumper crop of exceptional offensive talent. USC receiver Marqise Lee is back for his junior season with the Biletnikoff Award already on his shelf, while do-everything star De’Anthony Thomas should cause another year of misery for any defense facing Oregon — even if a new coach is orchestrating the plan.

When Chip Kelly departed for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles just ahead of NCAA sanctions that turned out to be a slap on the beak, Helfrich took charge — but no Oregon coach is ever alone in his quest to build a winner. The Ducks always have help from Nike’s Phil Knight, who wrote most of the checks for their training center — a $68 million palace with Italian tile showers, Ferrari leather chairs and six stories of recruit-enticing opulence.

Mora’s Bruins are the favorites in the South division, but Arizona State and USC should create a tight race for the opportunity to take on either power from the north.

While Oregon and Stanford are the strong favorites in their division, perennially underestimated Oregon State returns another strong roster just waiting for the Goliaths to stumble, and Washington finally might have the talent and experience to break into the upper echelons in coach Steve Sarkisian’s fifth season.

And who knows what Washington State coach Mike Leach might concoct when he’s not co-writing a book on Geronimo?

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