By Greg Beacham
LOS ANGELES — Stanford coach David Shaw only needed a few words to epitomize why his Cardinal are the Pac-12 football favorites this fall — and also why that distinction doesn’t mean much.
“I think we have a chance to be a good team, but we’re a team in flux,” Shaw said after learning his Cardinal had won the preseason media poll.
The West Coast’s top league is wide open heading into the fall, with a half-dozen legitimate title contenders and no overwhelming favorite. Every team has major questions at key positions, but nobody seems better prepared to answer them than the ever-resourceful Cardinal.
Stanford is the defending champion of the conference and the Rose Bowl, and running back Christian McCaffrey might be the nation’s top player. It’s still not enough to make them prohibitive favorites to repeat in a conference that could end up without a playoff representative again despite several quality teams.
Parity is the enemy of excellence, and the Pac-12 is full of teams with big positives and big question marks. Two-thirds of the league began training camps with uncertainty at quarterback, and the league doesn’t appear to possess any dominant defenses.
It could be a recipe for tight division races, memorable Saturday finishes and a crackerjack conference title game.
NORTH: Stanford has McCaffrey, but less than 10 other returning starters, including no tested quarterbacks. The Cardinal also must fight through a brutal schedule while fending off challenges from Oregon and Washington, who both could contend with just a few breaks. The Huskies are the popular pick to surge in their third season under Chris Petersen, while the Ducks always have enough talent despite no clear starting quarterback.
SOUTH: Although Utah is a serious contender, the division race could come down to the annual crosstown showdown between UCLA and USC at the Rose Bowl on Nov. 19. The Bruins had too many injuries on defense to contend last season, but quarterback Josh Rosen is ready to blossom into a national star. They could be ready to knock off the talented Trojans, who must play Alabama, Stanford and Utah away from home in September.
Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey. After one of the most spectacular individual seasons in conference history, the do-everything Heisman Trophy finalist is back to doing everything again.
UCLA QB Jake Rosen. A new offensive scheme should mean bigger plays and more chances for Chosen Rosen to shine.
USC WR JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Trojans’ annual turmoil has obscured the career of the next brilliant pass-catcher in USC’s long lineage, but he has a chance to get everybody’s attention this fall.
Oregon RB Royce Freeman. After setting the Ducks’ single-season rushing record last year, he will shoulder a heavy load during a possible transition season.
Utah DL Lowell Lotulelei. The consummate space-eating lineman from a powerful football family is back to clog lanes on one of the nation’s top defensive fronts.
Washington QB Jake Browning. The Huskies’ preseason popularity hinges partly on the gifted sophomore, who appears poised to break out with an improved offense.
Washington State QB Luke Falk. The big-armed passer might be the man who can lead coach Mike Leach’s offense into title contention.
Oregon QB Dakota Prukop. The Montana State transfer is the favorite to follow Marcus Mariota and Vernon Adams, but he has two capable competitors for the job at the controls of the Ducks’ remarkable offense.
Arizona defensive coordinator Marcel Yates. Rich Rodriguez is rebuilding his defense with the former Boise State coordinator, but he could need more than one season to fix everything.
USC coach Clay Helton. He’s far from new, but the veteran assistant is in his first full season in charge of the Trojans, with a roster in flux and a sadistic schedule.
ON THE HOT SEAT
Sonny Dykes, California. No coach in the Pac-12 is in imminent trouble as the season begins, but Dykes certainly could use a strong year after Jared Goff’s departure to solidify his rebuilding program with the Golden Bears.
Mike MacIntyre, Colorado. Likewise, the Buffaloes coach’s rebuilding project probably would benefit greatly from a .500 season — or heck, even three Pac-12 victories in the same season for the first time since 2007.
League champion: Stanford.