Andrew Luck Absence Should Give Oregon Ducks Edge Over Stanford in Pac 12 North Division

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Andrew Luck Absence Should Give Oregon Ducks Edge Over Stanford in Pac 12 North DivisionThe Oregon Ducks have won three straight conference championships, and with Andrew Luck now in the NFL and out of their way, it doesn't appear any team can keep them from winning the Pac 12 division.

If anyone or anything is to stop them, it's probably going to be of their own doing.

The Ducks have 5-2 odds to win the North Division, with California (4-1) and Washington (5-1) considered the closest threat. Oregon State and Stanford (both 10-1) and Washington State (12-1) are also in the mix.

In the Chip Kelly era, the Ducks have had a prolific offense that runs and scores at a blistering pace. Running backs like LeGarrette Blount and LaMichael James have carved up defenses for years, and the Ducks have been lighting up the scoreboard at an incredible rate. This year's group includes Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas, who have already proven to be quite special in their own right.

While the Ducks will be able to run the ball regardless of who is playing the position, the bigger concern is at quarterback. Oregon will have to break in a new starter, and it's a two-man race between sophomore Bryan Bennett and redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota. The Ducks' spread offense is based around making important, instinctive decisions from the quarterback position, so any malfunctions in this spot will cost the Ducks dearly. That's not to say that the Ducks won't be very good on offense — it's just that they've been BCS-good the last few seasons, and any drop-off at the position could cost them that spot.

If there's one thing Kelly's team can take solace in, it's that they could have their best defense in years. The Pac 12 isn't really known for defense, but not many of the other North Division teams will be elite on offense.

Stanford waved goodbye to Luck and will have to prove its worth as a team. That's a tough sell, as Luck seemingly elevated their power running game and hard-nosed defensive approach. With him, those elements of the team were good enough — but it's open for debate whether they will be good enough without him.

A veteran offensive line should help matters, but make no mistakes: Going from Luck to Brett Nottingham or Josh Nunes — whoever starts — will be a big decline in talent. The Cardinal will rely heavily on the running game with Stepfan Taylor and a tough defense, but that won’t be enough to win the North unless Oregon stumbles.

The second-favorite in the North is surprisingly California. It's been years since Jeff Tedford's crew has been taken seriously, but this team could return to its competitive form in 2012. The offense has plenty of experience, including All-American candidate wideout Keenan Allen, who reeled in 98 passes for 1,343 yards last season. Isi Sofele is an undersized, underrated back who has definitely proved his mettle. But the main question is the quarterback position. Zach Maynard is now a senior and has to find a level of consistency. He'll have to grow up very quickly with road tests at Ohio State and USC — back-to-back, no less. While this team is capable of winning the division, it has underperformed so much over the last few seasons that optimistic predictions will be cautiously doled out.

One intriguing team to watch will be the Washington Huskies, who will at the very least be entertaining given their stellar offense. Quarterback Keith Price will enter the season on the Heisman watch list, and he has plenty of weapons to work with, including tight end Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, who caught 41 passes as a freshman last season. As explosive as the Huskies were on offense last season, their defense was equally weak — like in Washington's 67-56 loss to Baylor in the Alamo Bowl. If the Huskies are to be taken seriously at all, they'll need to find a way to get stops.

Meanwhile, the Oregon State Beavers are just 8-16 over the last two seasons and will likely endure some more growing pains in 2012. As for Washington State, they are in rebuild mode as well, but they should be quite entertaining with Mike Leach now running the show.

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