CULVER CITY, Calif. — 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 received 11 first-place votes and 134 points.
Oregon’s selection highlighted a busy day for the conference, which also announced new practice policies limiting its teams to two full-contact workouts per week during the regular season and spring ball.
The Pac-12’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.
Oregon isn’t expected to slip without Kelly, whose departure for the Philadelphia Eagles led to the promotion of 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.”
Oregon won the Fiesta Bowl last season in the Ducks’ fourth consecutive appearance in a BCS bowl. The Ducks lost Kelly and eight starters from last season’s team, but they’ve still got Marcus Mariota, the sophomore hailed by both Helfrich and Stanford coach David Shaw on Friday as the best quarterback in the nation.
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 end this fall.
“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.