Pac-12 North: Football Media Day and Conference Preview

August 1, 2013

Culver City, Calif. – While last Friday’s Pac-12 Media Day didn’t provide any major surprises, it did provide the press an opportunity to catch up with this new season’s coaching hires as well as get each program’s take on the new rules and policies of the conference.

The following is a brief synopsis of what’s taking place with each team in the conference and our early predictions for them. Let’s start with the Pac-12 North.


Mike Leach is starting his second season in the Pac-12 conference, and if nothing else, the Wazzu Head Coach provides a refreshing change from the often dreary exchanges between the coaches and the media where stoicism and stock answers are a constant.

When asked about his controversial assessment last year of his own team when he described them as “empty corpses" and “zombies” on the field, Leach playfully engaged the question. “It’s funny, in this day and age, people want to ask questions but they don’t always want honest answers. In the midst of that, I mean, if somebody is a zombie or a corpse, I’m the head zombie or corpse...But we had a great offseason.”

After an enlightening repartee about his writing a book on the Native American hero Geronimo, Leach discussed the quarterback situation. “If we were to play today? If we were play in a couple months, I don't know, but today, Connor Halliday would be the quarterback. He had a great spring, did a great job. What I've been impressed with is as a leader he takes the team on his shoulders and he's one of the guys who I think brings people together.”

Finally, Leach was also very critical of the new rule in the Pac 12 ordering referees to eject a player for a helmet-to-helmet hit, indicating you “usually can’t tell” whether the defensive player or the offensive player lowered his helmet first.

FORECAST: While some believe the Cougars might go bowling this year, the guess here is that they are just not ready in a very deep Pac-12 North.

(Pac-12 Media Prediction: 6th in North, 11th overall; DSH Prediction: 6th in North, 12th overall)


Steve Sarkisian was pumped about the renovated Huskies stadium. “In my opinion, the best place to play in all of college football.”

He was also positive when assessing the challenge of competing for coveted recruits from Southern California. “Just to get 'em on the plane because once they get there they realize how great of a place it is. It's a beautiful city, Seattle; great university, the facilities are fantastic. There are great people in our community. The rich history and tradition that we have, the biggest challenge is to get them on the airplane because once they get there, they love it.”

Yet when it came to articulating why his team will improve upon the 7-6 record the team has posted each of the last three seasons, Sarkisian’s answer was less than satisfying. “The reality is we are a better football team. We were a better football team last year and unfortunately the record isn't indicative of how good that football team was. Ultimately we're judged on our final outcome and record. You can look at stats and the different things. The one that matters is the wins and the losses…In our heart of hearts we were better than 7-6, but we didn’t get it done.”

Hmm…not exactly illuminating is it? How do you solve a problem without actually identifying it?

QB Keith Price also commented on last year’s disappointing season and his own improvement. “I'm ready. I have a lot to prove to myself and a lot to prove to you guys. I can't wait. I think this is when I perform best, when people are doubting me and people don't think I can do what I did. I believe I'm going to be better than I was in the 2011 season, but that's just me…I think I truly know how to lead now.”

FORECAST: Head Coach Steve Sarkisian is once again exuding confidence about his team. But how is that different from the last four years? Keith Price is unquestionably talented, but four tough conference road games (Stanford, ASU, UCLA, and OSU) and an almost guaranteed home loss to the Ducks will make it tough for the Huskies to seriously contend. One could argue that the Huskies will still finish as high as third in the Pac-12 North, but I’m not sold on the same old, same old philosophy preventing a further regression.

(Pac-12 Media Prediction: 4th in North, 7th overall; DSH Prediction: 5th in North, 9th overall)


Mike Riley’s 13th season in Corvalis begins with much greater expectations than the previous year. Last year, the Beavers shocked many by contending for the Pac-12 North deep into season after wins at UCLA and Arizona and near-misses at Washington and Stanford. Does Riley think his team can be that good again?

“We have lost some real good players from a year ago, so we're looking for the guys that have been playing to step up and do more and we're looking for new people to come in and see if we can replace those great players, Jordan Poyer, Markus Wheaton, Micah Hatfield. I can go on. But we are excited about the year and looking forward to getting started.” A typically cautious and humble response from Riley, but it’s unclear if he is lowering expectations for a good reason or just playing down his team’s chances out of modesty.

“We lost our middle linebacker, two defensive tackles, our defense played really well up front last year,” Riley points out. But the Beavers still have 15 returning starters from a 9-win team last year, 7 on the defensive side.

FORECAST: They Beavers have a very easy opening to the regular season, and should be healthy favorites in their first six games. Some see early season success against easy opponents as helpful, but this is too much of a good thing. With a brutal second half schedule, one can expect a “collapse” that will even out the schedule and bring the Ducks into the murky middle of the Pac-12 North.

(Pac-12 Media Prediction: 3rd in North, 5th overall; DSH Prediction: 4th in North, 7th overall)


Head Coach Sonny Dykes understands that last year’s pathetic 3-win season has created low expectations for the Bears in the minds of the press. “I can't say I blame the media for knowing that we are a young team, and if you're on the outside of our program and you're looking at Cal football, it doesn't look very good. From the inside we think it looks very good. We're around our players all the time. We know the talent that exists in our program. We know the dedication and the buy-in that these guys have had.”

Dykes was surprisingly outspoken when asked about a statement made by Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban suggesting that spread offenses are leading to more concussions and player safety issues.

“When you spread the field out more there is more space and less of an inclination for somebody to fall on somebody else and I think you could make the argument that traditional old-style, smash-mouth football is much more of a health detriment to student-athletes than playing spread or up-tempo football, and I think we all need to make sure we get our facts straight before we start making any assumptions.”

He also identified what he thought were the strengths of the team: “We have a great receiver corps, guys that can do a lot of things, have a lot of different body types and skill sets, so I'm excited to see how all those pieces come together because I think it can be a pretty special group. And I think it's certainly one of the strengths of our team. At linebacker, I think, is our other strength.”

FORECAST: A tough nonconference schedule, home games against both Northwestern and Ohio State in the first few weeks, will be great tests for the new-look Golden Bears in 2013, and the guess here is that it will serve them well for the remainder of the season. Just when everyone feels comfortable writing off this rebuilding program, expect a surprise. With radically improved QB and O-line play under the leadership of Head Coach/offensive guru Sonny Dykes, drastic improvement from last year’s 3-win performance will take place. The Bears have never actually lacked for talent and while the doubters have valid concerns about the team’s inexperience, a change in philosophy often works best with a young team.

(Pac-12 preseason media prediction: 5th in North, 10th overall; DSH Prediction: 3rd in North, 6th overall)


Things may have changed at the top in Eugene, but the Ducks will still be a great team. Sure, Chip Kelly is gone, but his Oregon spirit remains on in new Head Coach Mark Helfrich. “It's an honor to follow in Chip's footsteps. Oregon has been unique, looking back to [Rich] Brooks, [Mike] Bellotti, Chip Kelly following him and me following Chip…If the guy that followed John Wooden quoted him once in a while would that have been a bad thing?” Helfrich poignantly asks.

It doesn’t hurt to have a Heisman contender in Sophomore Marcus Mariota at quarterback either. “As far as ratio and numbers, this guy is the best quarterback in the country. But he doesn't care how many passing yards he has. He cares what it says before and after the hyphen in the team record, and that's how we operate.”

According to Helfrich, Pac-12 fans can also expect more of the same from electrifying running back De'Anthony Thomas. “De'Anthony likes the role of wide-out, motion guy, movement guy and we like that, too, to keep him versatile against nickel defenses or whatever defense we happen to be playing against.”

FORECAST: It’s tough to pick against the Ducks, but that’s what we’re about to do. Despite the great track record of transitioning new head coaches, the loss of Chip Kelly will make some difference. Kelly’s swagger and swashbuckling personality came to define the program and while Helfrich may have the ability to keep it going, a tough road game in Palo Alto should be too great an obstacle this year.

(Pac-12 Media Prediction: 1st in North, 1st overall; DSH Prediction: 2nd in North, 2nd overall)


Isn’t it time everybody gives Stanford the proper credit for building a Pac-12 powerhouse? Sure, but it’s not as if unassuming and straight-talking Head Coach David Shaw cares one way or the other.

“For us, we don't worry about what other people say. I think the foundation of our team is the team. It's never been about one coach, it's never been about one player; it's about how well we play together and we've proven that. This year we have gotten notoriety about a national championship chase, but I like to say three years ago we were one game away and last year two games away and this last year 10 points away. This year we anticipate being in the hunt for the foreseeable future. That's how we approach it and to say that this year is any different than any other, it's just not how we look at it."

When asked about the possibility of rules changes in the future allowing for the paying of a small stipend to student athletes, both Stanford players, OG David Yankey and LB Shayne Skov certainly seemed receptive to the idea. Coach Shaw however, quickly reminded everyone that Stanford scholarship players receive “a $58,000-per-year education and unbelievable contacts and summer jobs.” One could surmise that the plight of unpaid student athletes is not exactly something he loses much sleep over.

Indeed, why would Stanford want anything to change right now? They have built a team that no longer rebuilds, but merely reloads.

FORECAST: Stanford has built a smash-mouth juggernaut in the Pac-12 that is not going away anytime soon. Coach Shaw will have his team ready when Oregon visits in the Pac-12 Game of the Year. Can't pick against the Cardinal this year.

(Pac-12 Media Prediction: 2nd in North, 2nd overall; DSH Prediction: 1st in North, 1st overall)

by Manish Pandya
Staff Editor for

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