LOS ANGELES — Stanford coach David Shaw only needed a few words to epitomize why his Cardinal are the Pac-12 football favorites this fall — and also why that distinction doesn't mean much.
"I think we have a chance to be a good team, but we're a team in flux," Shaw said after learning his Cardinal had won the preseason media poll.
The West Coast's top league is wide open heading into the fall, with a half-dozen legitimate title contenders and no overwhelming favorite. Every team has major questions at key positions, but nobody seems better prepared to answer them than the ever-resourceful Cardinal.
Stanford is the defending champion of the conference and the Rose Bowl, and running back Christian McCaffrey might be the nation's top player. It's still not enough to make them prohibitive favorites to repeat in a conference that could end up without a playoff representative again despite several quality teams.
Parity is the enemy of excellence, and the Pac-12 is full of teams with big positives and big question marks. Two-thirds of the league began training camps with uncertainty at quarterback, and the league doesn't appear to possess any dominant defenses.
It could be a recipe for tight division races, memorable Saturday finishes and a crackerjack conference title game.
NORTH: Stanford has McCaffrey, but less than 10 other returning starters, including no tested quarterbacks. The Cardinal also must fight through a brutal schedule while fending off challenges from Oregon and Washington, who both could contend with just a few breaks. The Huskies are the popular pick to surge in their third season under Chris Petersen, while the Ducks always have enough talent despite no clear starting quarterback.
SOUTH: Although Utah is a serious contender, the division race could come down to the annual crosstown showdown between UCLA and USC at the Rose Bowl on Nov. 19. The Bruins had too many injuries on defense to contend last season, but quarterback Josh Rosen is ready to blossom into a national star. They could be ready to knock off the talented Trojans, who must play Alabama, Stanford and Utah away from home in September.
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ON THE HOT SEAT: Click here
PICKS: North: Stanford. South: UCLA. League champion: Stanford.