- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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With recruiting behind us and spring well underway, the Pac-12 blog thought it would be fun to examine each team's chances of winning its respective division.
This is not whether the team of the day can win the Pac-12. And we're not predicting any winners. Rather, this is our take on the team's chances of winning the North or South.
Buy or sell Stanford winning the North?
Buy: Sure most of you saw this coming. My feeling as we sit today is the winner of the Oregon-Stanford game on Nov. 7 will play for the national championship. Not to get your juices flowing or anything.
And, by the way, that will only be the greatest ESPN Thursday night game in the history of ESPN Thursday night games. So you probably need to start planning where and with whom you will watch the game right now. As in stop reading and fire off some emails.
OK. So back to the buy rating on Stanford.
It's pretty simple. There is little to suggest Stanford won't be a top-5 team in 2013. The Cardinal welcomes back 16 starters from a team that finished 12-2, won at Oregon, won the Pac-12 and won the Rose Bowl. Among those starters are QB Kevin Hogan, four starters from an outstanding offensive line and eight starters from the Pac-12's best defense, including All-American candidates such as OLB Trent Murphy, ILB Shayne Skov, DE Ben Gardner and FS Ed Reynolds.
Stanford has a strong, established culture. There's no reason to anticipate complacency or some sort of massive, USC-2012-like underachievement. My strong feeling is the 2013 Cardinal will be better than the 2012 version, and that might mean getting a date to Pasadena.
Buy: Just as any conversation about buying Oregon has to include Stanford, any conversation about buying Stanford has to include Oregon. The Cardinal fixed their Oregon problem in 2012. The question is, was it a one-year booster shot? Or a long-term vaccination?
Maybe Mark Helfrich has his "hello-world" moment against the Cardinal, breaking down Stanford's fortification with schematic brilliance brick-by-seemingly-unbreakable-brick. Maybe Stanford rolls to a double-digit win? Enjoying the kind of victory at home their fans thought they would have in 2011 -- before the Cardinal forgot their football fundamentals.
Everything Ted says is true. About the wealth of returners. About the epic Thursday night showdown. And did somebody say Vegas?
I'm a slight Stanford lean right now in my personal power rankings -- because of the defense, and because of the grand return of running back Tyler Gaffney, who I characterized as a potential "game-changer." And I firmly believe he will be. He's the kind of hard-nosed back Stanford needs to grind out close games in the fourth quarter.
Speaking of close games...
One Stanford stat I continue to hammer home is their record in close games last season. The Cardinal played in 10 games that were decided by a touchdown or less and went 8-2, including 2-1 in overtime games. Some people might see that as cautionary. But with so many veteran returners (potentially 19 juniors and seniors in the starting 22), that tells me this is a team that knows how to win and doesn't panic or press when things get tight.
Unlike 2011, when it seemed like their whole season was contingent on what happened against Oregon, they are measuring their year by what happens against San Jose State. And then Army. And then ASU. And so on and so on...
Five of their last six games will be against probable top 25 teams -- and the sixth is rival Cal. It's a vicious second half, for sure. The Cardinal will probably provide investors with plenty of edge-of-their-seats moments. But there's also a good chance Stanford will be the smartest Pac-12 investment you can make in 2013.