Since the 2002 season, the Pac-12 (or the Pac-10) has not been a conference for dark horses.
Over the stretch of seven seasons from 2002 to 2008, USC won at least a share of the conference title, winning two national titles and playing in five Rose Bowls in that span.
Since the end of the USC dynasty, the power has resided in the North Division, which lays claim to the last eight conference titles. Oregon (four) and Stanford (three) had been splitting those honors between themselves until Washington stepped up and took the crown last year.
It's been hard for the little guy to step up and take it away, though Colorado certainly played the role well last season.
Will a Pac-12 team do it again this year?
I've done some research to find teams I believe fit the bill in 2017, and in the end, I've found three Pac-12 teams I believe can play the part.
Horses don't come much darker than Arizona. Thefor the Wildcats, as they were picked to finish last in the South Division.
So there are two ways you can look at Arizona's inclusion here. One is that you could just believe I'm insane and have no idea what I'm talking about. If that's the route you choose to go, trust me, I've often thought the same thing about myself. I'm going to go the "there's nowhere to go but up" route when it comes to the Wildcats.
Seriously, I am concerned about the lack of overall experience this team has (though 14 starters do return), but I'm also a fan of the fact that this Arizona team has one of the most experienced offensive lines in the Pac-12. Only Washington's front five has more career starts than Arizona's line will heading into the season. A good, veteran offensive line can go a long way toward improving a team.
Also, a lot went wrong for the Wildcats last season. That's usually the case when a team finishes 3-9 and loses eight games in a row before finally salvaging a conference win in the season finale against Arizona State. What actually killed Arizona last season were the injuries. The Wildcats seemed to have a million of them. If memory serves, I believe Rich Rodriguez had to start pulling students out of the stands to play quarterback at some point. All right, that's an exaggeration, but four players threw at least eight passes for Arizona last season, and they had to use a receiver at running back for a while.
You have to think that a regression to the mean health-wise will lead to an improved Arizona team in 2017, and let's not forget that the Wildcats won the Pac-12 North in 2014. Maybe that's not a realistic goal this year, but I think the Wildcats are going to surprise people.
Oregon is a dark horse again. You may not agree with it, but it's true. Yes, the Ducks have won the Pac-12 four times in the last decade, but their last conference title was in 2014, and that's the only one they've had in the previous five years.
There's been a downward trend recently. A trend I believe could come to an end this year.
The Ducks were picked to finish fourth in the North this season behind Washington State. I understand why some would see that happening, but I disagree.
I believe the Ducks are poised for a strong rebound.
Willie Taggart inherits a team with plenty of experience, a strong offensive line, good special teams and plenty of talent. While the product on the field wasn't as strong the last two seasons, the Ducks were still recruiting in the top tier of the Pac-12. There's a lot of skill on this roster.
Taggart has also brought Jim Leavitt with him to fix the defense. The same Jim Leavitt that helped turn around Colorado's defense and made the Buffaloes one of the best teams in the conference last year. While Oregon's offenses always received the attention during the Chip Kelly days, its defenses were also strong. That hasn't been the case of late, and Leavitt is capable of turning things around quickly.
Having to play both Stanford and Washington on the road this year hampers Oregon's ability to win the North, but don't say I didn't warn you when the Ducks are in the hunt come November.
The Bruins need to be grateful that USC exists because the Trojans suck up most of the "always failing to meet expectations" spotlight. This year, the expectations for the Bruins aren't that high, at least not outside of Westwood. The Bruins were picked to finish third in the South, receiving as many first-place votes (one) as both Colorado and Utah.
Approaching UCLA with the appropriate amount of skepticism is warranted but -- BUT! -- maybe this is the season things finally work out for the best. UCLA struggled to finish 4-8 last year, but Josh Rosen's injury hampered the offense. While it's possible Rosen never lives up to the potential he showed during his freshman season, it's also possible he will. If that happens, this suddenly becomes a Bruins team that is very dangerous.
It's a talented and experienced roster capable of making a lot of noise.
The primary concern is UCLA's schedule. With the Pac-12's nine-game conference schedule, every team draws four teams from the other division. Well, UCLA's draw couldn't have been much worse as it will have to play Stanford, Washington and Oregon this year, and only Oregon is coming to Los Angeles. The Bruins also have to play USC on the road this season, and they're 1-8 in their last nine games against USC at the Coliseum (though that one win came in 2013).
The schedule could prove to be too much for the Bruins to overcome, but even if it keeps them from winning their division, the Bruins will have a major say in who wins the Pac-12.