Next up in our Pivot Points series -- If X happens, then Y results -- is the Pac-12. You better believe Oregon and USC are topics of discussion, as is a surprise team from the South Division and one likable coach who could be moving toward the hot seat.
Let's take a look at five potential events that could shape the conference this season:
1. If USC stays relatively healthy, the Trojans could play in a BCS game.
Insider contributor Phil Steele has the Trojans as one of his national title sleepers. When I told friends he had USC in the top 10, a couple of them responded, "South Carolina?"
After a visit to South L.A. last week, I can see where Steele’s optimism is rooted. As one coach told me, and others have since agreed with, the Trojans' 67 is stronger than most teams' 85.
But here's the rub: If that 67 number keeps dropping, it's going to be problematic. Injuries are obviously unpredictable -- we simply know they'll happen. Volume matters, but even for volume-challenged USC, "who" can be most important.
When center Khaled Holmes went down early last season, it derailed a lot of things. The passing game changed; the running game was altered. Just one center's ankle did that. An elite-level team cannot be so fragile, but that's what happens when you’re razor-thin at certain positions.
Receiver is a perfect microcosm of USC's situation. They went into camp with five scholarship players at the spot. That includes Heisman contender Marqise Lee (a sure-fire first-round pick in 2014), sophomore breakout candidate Nelson Agholor and freshman All-America possibility Darreus Rogers. That’s a heck of a nucleus, but beyond that it gets thin in a hurry.
So with optimal health, the Trojans could be very dangerous. But camp has not set a positive tone, even if the injuries -- including dings to the receiving trio mentioned, plus linebacker Dion Bailey and freaky-talented freshman safety Su'a Cravens -- are not considered a threat to actual game time.
Football is a violent sport. It's difficult to bank on remaining healthy. But if you have to try, these are the players you want.
2. If the status quo rules at Oregon, the Ducks could be Alabama’s biggest threat in 2013.
Mark Helfrich is taking over an Oregon team with the potential to reach the BCS title game.
In this age of bidding wars and escalating contracts for coaches, what school can lay claim to the uniqueness that Oregon can? Mike Bellotti was promoted from within. So was Chip Kelly. So was Mark Helfrich, now in his first season.
The track record of those previous coaches, picking up right where the predecessor left off, is why most believe Helfrich will do just what Kelly did: win.
"It's a brand there," one coach said, referring to both Nike's influence and a signature fashion and football style that manifests itself in a number of ways. "It’s bigger than a coach."
The coaches deserve credit for that, no question. But until Helfrich proves the theory again true, it remains something of a mystery entering the year. When I met him in July, he seemed very understated compared to Kelly.
What's that mean for the program? It's difficult to say for certain, but note that there will be some change in style when it comes to leadership. In fact, having done "The Experts" on ESPNU with Bellotti, I’d say their personalities are more in line.
Ultimately, with that "brand" and excellent players on both sides of the ball, it is difficult to see there being any drop-off this season (or in seasons to come). If I still had an AP vote, I’d have a few teams above Ohio State to begin the year, and Oregon is one of them. To me, for reasons such as speed and style of play, the Ducks are Alabama’s biggest threat if they can get through the Pac-12 this time.
3. If Arizona State weathers the first five weeks, then the Sun Devils will play for the Pac-12 title.
It’s a brutal start for ASU, without question. Throw out the Sacramento State opener, and then it plays Wisconsin, at Stanford, USC and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks.
From what I gather, there is a lot to like about the Sun Devils' personnel on both sides of the ball, but we'll know in a month's time whether they're a legitimate surprise team in 2013. If they go 2-2 in that stretch, splitting the conference and nonconference games, then there's a real shot to make a run in the South.
If running back Marion Grice and receiver Jaelen Strong -- junior college imports each of the past two years -- are as good as coach Todd Graham senses they can be, there's no reason why the Devils couldn't put a scare into Oregon or Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game.
Graham had such hope for some of the newcomers and redshirted players that he said some 2012 starters could be all the way back to the third team.
"These guys believe they can win," Graham told me last month. "Last year, I don’t know if they did."
4. If Washington does not win more than seven games, then Steve Sarkisian is in some trouble.
Sark is one of my favorite coaches in the country with which to talk. He's laid-back, knows the game and seems to appreciate the fact that it is actually a game. Independent of that, it's a results-driven business and the Huskies have won seven games each of the past three seasons. I'm sure he is aware of the reality of things -- especially with the grand reopening of Husky Stadium and the residual pressures that will create.
From what I have seen and know, Washington has the personnel to be competitive in the Pac-12, even in the difficult North. That said, the foreseeable loss of tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (broken pinkie), a future pro, is a rough entrance to the year.
With the new digs and a fairly fertile recruiting ground, Washington feels like one of those jobs and programs that could be a sleeping giant. After all, this was a national title winner and contender in the 1990s.
"I’m a little surprised they haven’t done more," one Pac-12 coach told me, referring to Sark’s 26-25 overall record in four seasons. "He’s a bright guy and that's a place where you can win."
5. If UCLA is again in the Pac-12 title game, then Brett Hundley could be a real Heisman threat.
Every time I have talked with them this year, the Bruins' head coach and offensive coordinator have effusively praised their redshirt sophomore QB. Jim Mora and Noel Mazzone say Hundley has asserted himself and taken more of a leadership position, in addition to honing and refining an already strong skill set. He's practicing confidently, and that leads the coaches to believe he will play accordingly.
My chief concern as far as his Heisman candidacy is whether UCLA will be good enough and visible enough for him. I understand that his play -- much like Robert Griffin III at Baylor -- can transcend location, but Texas A&M had a very big platform for Johnny Manziel last year and you wonder if Hundley can elevate to that level in relative obscurity. (A nationally televised game at Nebraska on Sept. 14 won't hurt.)
But if UCLA can get back into the conference title game, that means it will have won enough games, and quality games, to catch some buzz. The play of the offensive line and defensive backs could be the difference-makers. The O-line gave up an absurd 52 sacks last year, and some of that blame falls on Hundley, too, because Mora says he didn’t throw the ball away enough.