CULVER CITY, Calif. (AP) Even with new coach Mark Helfrich taking over for Chip Kelly at Oregon, the expectations around the high-flying Ducks haven’t changed a bit.
The media is picking Oregon to win the Pac-12 football title, edging Stanford and UCLA in the preseason media poll announced Friday at the conference’s media day.
Oregon received 14 of the 25 first-place votes for the Pac-12 North division in the poll, earning 139 points. The defending Rose Bowl champion Cardinal, who might be even deeper than last season’s team, received 11 first-place votes and 134 points.
“It’s an honor, but it really doesn’t affect what we’re trying to do every day,” Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota said.
Oregon’s selection highlighted a busy day for the conference as its players and coaches roamed the soundstages and green spaces on the Sony Studios lot just south of Hollywood.
The Pac-12 also announced new practice policies limiting its teams to two full-contact workouts per week during the regular season and spring ball. The rules also limit contact during two-a-day workouts in preseason camp.
The league’s coaches helped to write the new practice rules, which are designed to keep players healthier and away from serious head injuries. Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said almost every coach in the country already believes in the principles set out in the Pac-12’s new policy.
“I think they’re good rules,” Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. “We’re the first conference to do it, but I think most coaches agree on it. All the way down to the youth level, if they can use us as examples for how to keep players safe, I think it’s really positive.”
While Stanford and Oregon jockey for position on top of the Pac-12, teams from Seattle to Tempe are hoping for breakthrough seasons this fall – and the two hometown teams were wondering whether the pecking order has shifted in Los Angeles.
Oregon isn’t expected to slip without Kelly, whose departure for the Philadelphia Eagles led to the promotion of the 39-year-old Helfrich, Kelly’s offensive coordinator. The new coach is keeping much of the Ducks’ hallmark offense and innovative mentality, since Helfrich believes there’s little reason to tinker with the formula perfected during Kelly’s four wildly successful seasons.
“If the guy that followed John Wooden quoted him every once in a while, would that have been a bad thing?” Helfrich asked. “We’re going to talk the same, work the same, practice the same. We’re going to tweak the margins. … Those changes are going to happen, and we’ll adjust accordingly, but we have a bunch of great guys that believe in what we do, and that’s the most important part.”
Helfrich is one of three new coaches in the Pac-12 this season, along with California’s Sonny Dykes and Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre, who both took over rebuilding programs.
Oregon, which won the Fiesta Bowl last season in the Ducks’ fourth consecutive appearance in a BCS bowl, lost Kelly and eight starters from last season’s team. But they’ve still got Mariota, the sophomore hailed by both Helfrich and Stanford coach David Shaw on Friday as the best quarterback in the nation, and talented De’Anthony Thomas.
Helfrich hasn’t decided whether to again use Thomas as a do-it-all performer instead of making him a more permanent tailback in the lineage of LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner.
“To be determined,” Helfrich said. “De’Anthony … likes to be a moving target that doesn’t line up in one position all the time, and certainly we like that, too. (But) we have had that anchor (at tailback) for a long time. You go back to LaMichael and other guys, and we need to find more numbers than just that one guy. That’s a position where we don’t have a ton of depth, but De’Anthony likes the role of wideout, motion guy, movement guy, and we like that, too.”
Although the Pac-12 media poll has predicted the conference winner in 11 of the past 13 seasons, Shaw isn’t discounting his Cardinal’s chances to break past Oregon this fall, particularly with their Nov. 7 showdown being played at Stanford Stadium.
Stanford lost 10 starters from last season’s team, which went 12-2 and beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. But the Cardinal see no reason for their remarkable football renaissance to wane this fall, even after the departure of powerful tailback Stepfan Taylor for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.
“This year we have gotten notoriety about a national championship chase,” Shaw said. “But I like to say three years ago we were one game away, and (in 2011) two games away, and this last year 10 points away. This year we anticipate being in the hunt, and for the foreseeable future. That’s how we approach it, and to say that this year is any different than any other, it’s just not how we look at it.”
Although UCLA faces a difficult schedule under second-year coach Jim Mora, the two-time division champion Bruins got 12 first-place votes and 130 points in the South polling, edging Arizona State’s nine first-place votes and 124 points. Southern California, last year’s preseason No. 1, got four first-place votes and 113 points in third place.
“We made some progress last year, but we’re nowhere close to where we want to be,” said Mora, who cites a depleted defensive secondary as the Bruins’ biggest area of concern heading into practice next week. “We’ve got a vision of where we want to be.”
Oregon State was third in the North balloting, followed by Washington, California and Washington State.
Arizona was picked fourth in the South, followed by Utah and Colorado.