The opening kick
LOS ANGELES — The unofficial start of college football on the West Coast is Thursday as the Pac-12 coaches and select players gather together in Hollywood for the conference’s annual media day event.
Commissioner Larry Scott will open the proceedings with his state-of-the-conference press conference.
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, running back Royce Freeman and linebacker Johnny Ragin are scheduled to meet the media at 11 a.m. Oregon State will be one of the six teams on the stage Friday, starting at 10 a.m.
Here are some of the story lines entering the 2016 season:
College Football Playoff or cannibalization?
Stanford closed the 2015 regular season with a memorable victory over Notre Dame and then won the Pac-12 championship in convincing fashion over USC.
But the two-loss Cardinal — a 16-6 loss at Northwestern to open the campaign and a costly 38-36 home loss to Oregon — was not selected for the College Football Playoff, settling for a thrashing of Iowa in the Rose Bowl and a final ranking in the polls at No. 3.
Oregon overcame an early home loss to Arizona in 2014 and made it to the playoff with a 12-1 record.
With stiffer competition expected in the North Division and parity throughout the conference, it will be difficult for Stanford, Oregon or any of the other contenders in the Pac-12 to finish undefeated and or even with only one loss.
Scott will brag about his conference being the most difficult in the country to win, given the improved depth and nine-game conference slate, but the Pac-12 could once again produce the odd Power 5 champion out of a four-team playoff.
Strike the pose
Stanford will likely be the favorite to win the North, although Washington is a trendy pick, when the media poll is released Thursday.
That’s mostly because coach David Shaw has an impressive track record and the team returns star running back Christian McCaffrey, who broke Barry Sanders’ record for all-purpose yards in a season and finished second in the 2015 Heisman Trophy balloting.
McCaffrey will remain the Heisman front-runner if he can lead the Cardinal through a difficult schedule that includes road games at UCLA, Washington, Notre Dame and Oregon.
The Bruins (Josh Rosen) and Huskies (Jake Browning) are led by talented sophomore quarterbacks who will become household names if their teams contend. UCLA is seeking its first conference title since 1998; Washington hasn’t finished higher than third over the past 15 seasons.
Royce Freeman will emerge as a serious Heisman contender if the junior running back leads a bounce-back season for the Ducks.
Uncertainty at QB
Only one team, Colorado, is bringing a quarterback to media days. And the Buffaloes tried to add Texas Tech graduate transfer Davis Webb to its roster in case starter Sefo Liufau is unable to recover from serious injuries and/or stay healthy.
The Bruins and Huskies have a chance to win their respective divisions because of the promise of Rosen and Browning, coupled with strong surrounding casts.
The only other returning starters at quarterback are Washington State’s Luke Falk and Arizona’s Anu Solomon.
Cal lured Webb away from Colorado to help replace No. 1 NFL draft pick Jared Goff. Oregon brought in another Big Sky transfer (Dakota Prukop) to replace Vernon Adams Jr.
Stanford (Kevin Hogan), USC (Cody Kessler), Utah (Travis Wilson) and Arizona State (Mike Bercovici) all lost seniors to graduation.
The new men of Oregon
If Prukop or redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen proves to be a worthy successor to Adams, the Ducks will be a dangerous team loaded with the Pac-12’s best collection of skill players.
It will be interesting to see if Helfrich’s offseason coaching moves pay immediate dividends.
Matt Lubick was promoted to offensive coordinator after Scott Frost left to become the coach at Central Florida. David Yost, a successful former offensive coordinator at Missouri, was added to the staff to develop quarterbacks.
Helfrich made a bold move to fix Oregon’s anemic defense, hiring former Michigan coach Brady Hoke as coordinator and reassigning Don Pellum to linebackers coach.
If the Ducks can show dramatic improvement on defense, the program will be back in the hunt for another Pac-12 title. Remember, Stanford and Washington both play at Autzen Stadium this fall.
Will the Beavers win a Pac-12 game?
Oregon State, coming off a 2-10 season (0-9 Pac-12), is expected to be more competitive in Gary Andersen’s second season, as it was during the Civil War last November at Autzen Stadium.
But the Beavers are the easy pick for last in the North Division and could receive even fewer votes in the media poll than perennial basement tenant Colorado.
There is some hope in Corvallis.
Utah State transfer Darrell Garetson looked good at quarterback during the spring, and both running back Ryan Nall and wide receiver Victor Bolden are back. The defense struggled last year, allowing 37 points per game, and lost coordinator Kalani Sitake (now coach at BYU).
Oregon State opens the season at Minnesota and also plays host to Boise State in nonconference play. Andersen’s best opportunities to notch his first Pac-12 win come early in the schedule — Oct. 1 at Colorado and Oct. 8 vs. California.