The Oregon Ducks and Stanford Cardinal rocked it up in 2010. And it appears that everyone is forecasting them to titanically clash for the Pac-12 North, which would ultimately lead to glory as the Pac-12 overall winners. On paper it makes sense. You've got both quarterbacks coming back, both running back corps coming back, and a host of talented individuals on both sides of the ball that can complement them well. The biggest challenge apparently will come from each other.
However, is the gap as wide as people are making it out to be?
Blocking. Oregon didn't have an elite offensive line in 2010, but they got the job done. Stanford got job promotions--they were so, so good at everything on the field, and made Andrew Luck's performances all the more outstanding.
Stanford loses three of their starters and the heralded fullback Owen Marecic; Oregon loses three of their starters. Based on how Oregon has down with replacing linemen, the Ducks should be able to plug and chug most of their losses with former backups. How Stanford will do with their new guys (and how Luck will adapt to greater pressure) remains a big unknown, perhaps the biggest unknown.
Receivers. Oregon doesn't rely much on recievers running traditional routes, but they do need WRs to stretch things out for their RBs; having Josh Huff back for LSU is a needed personnel boost that opens up the Oregon playbook. Oregon could be relying more on their running backs to take over receiving positions to alleviate those concerns. Expect doses of David Paulson as well until Oregon knows the options they have on the outside.
For Luck, it might be a challenge trying to get new guys to learn the system on the go, so Chris Owusu and Griff Whalen might have to handle the load. Stanford will probably have to rely on their arsenal of tight ends to keep opposing teams honest, but this isn't as deep a corps as Luck as had to work with the past two seasons, so he'll have to make adjustments.
Revamped front sevens. Oregon and Stanford are both powered by their offenses, but let's give credit to the defenses, which did pretty well themseleves. Oregon lost five of their starting front seven, Stanford lost four. Usually you can survive three losses or less. Any more and it's danger zone territory.
If the defenses end up dropping off and the offensive lines can't hold up, then the losses are inevitable in college football. It's just a matter of when and to who.
The rest of the Pac-10 was really bad. Arizona was the runner-up to these two teams. Arizona lost by four scores to the Cardinal and three scores to the Ducks. USC had the offense to keep up with both teams, but their defense was atrocious and got massacred for 90 points total against both teams. Washington was the only other team that made a bowl in the conference. Washington was outscored by 77 points by the two teams.
It's not to say that the conference will be eons better than they were last year, but the defenses on several squads have improved and a lot of top-notch players are back on various teams. Both teams still play nine in conference (and both will play USC, Washington and Arizona), one more than the SEC and the Big Ten, which lowers their odds of getting through the conference slate unscathed.
Luck (the one where you flip a coin, not the one where Brent Musburger starts drooling). Both Oregon and Stanford notched 30+ turnovers in 2010, good enough for top 15 in the country. In terms of overall margin they were both top 10. And unsurprisingly, turnover margin in the current year doesn't correlate to good turnover margin the year after (indeed, look at Stanford and Oregon in 2009, and they were far closer to the mean). In other words, both of the top two teams benefited a great deal of mistakes by the other team, and it could've helped boost their records a little higher.
That doesn't mean either can't win the conference. Their November game in Palo Alto is likely to be the deciding game for the Pac-12 North bid. And they're still both the favorites to be hitting up Pasadena New Year's Day.
Just don't expect perfection to come the way of either team.