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Extra December work chance for Stanford, Washington to close gap on Oregon

David Shaw, left and Chris Petersen must make strides offensively to keep pace with Oregon. USA TODAY Sports

Outside of Eugene, the Pac-12 North suffered through a 2014 campaign riddled with disappointment. Stanford and Washington, the Ducks' two biggest challengers in the division, turned out to not really be challengers at all; they finished three and four games off Oregon's pace, respectively, and both were blasted out of Autzen Stadium.

Though the Huskies haven't beaten the Ducks in more than a decade, Stanford had enjoyed plenty of recent success against Oregon, so 2014 represented a landmark shift in the Pac-12 North landscape. Mark Helfrich's program is now clearly alone in the driver's seat, and though bowl season is a chance for the Ducks to again chase a coveted national championship, the runners-up are using this month for an entirely different purpose.

If the Pac-12 North is to become interesting again, Stanford and Washington must leverage their extra string of bowl practices into something that enables them to close the wide gap between Oregon and the rest of this division. Interestingly, both programs face similar challenges: Their glaring deficiencies reside on offense, but defense -- a strength for both programs this season -- is also a looming question mark, as player departures will soon significantly affect that side of the ball in Palo Alto and Seattle.

David Shaw (Stanford) and Chris Petersen (Washington) have a chance to lay the groundwork of positive change this December, while Sonny Dykes (California), Mike Leach (Washington State), and newcomer Gary Andersen (Oregon State) don't have the same opportunity. Stanford faces Maryland in its bowl game on December 30, and Washington squares off with Oklahoma State on January 2. Cal, Oregon State, and Washington State -- who failed to reach bowl eligibility -- will be tasked with clawing their way out of losing seasons without the benefit of any supplementary training.

For Stanford, priority No. 1 in this stretch involves -- at the very least -- developing a coherent offensive vision for what happens beyond this 2014 season. The Cardinal finished this past campaign ranked dead last in the Pac-12, averaging only 25.7 points per game, and the entire season seemed centered on befuddled vacillation between the power running identity of the past and an inadequately defined pass-centric offense of the future. Stanford never seemed to develop a clear offensive identity against a legitimate defense until its final game of the season, a 31-10 romp over UCLA.

Kevin Hogan finally looked comfortable in that game, and his future on the Farm (he still has one more year of eligibility remaining) is likely the central question confronting Shaw moving forward: Will Stanford gamble on getting a season's worth of UCLA-like performances from Hogan in 2015 (he finished a spectacular 16-for-19 in that game after struggling for much of 2014), or will they turn the page to one of their touted young prospects -- most likely Keller Chryst -- moving forward?

The decision there might not come now, but one can be sure that this December is giving Shaw the opportunity to conduct a critically important, thorough evaluation of his offense on all levels after a season of struggle.

On that note, Washington is in a similar boat. The Huskies averaged only 5.4. yards per play in 2014, third-worst in the Pac-12. Petersen is entering his second year in Seattle, so his hand-picked talent obviously hasn't had a chance to emerge, but the Dawgs must scramble now to get more productivity from their offense in 2014. Quarterback Cyler Miles did a good job avoiding interceptions while posting improving explosiveness numbers, but Washington will certainly need him to generate more fireworks to contend in 2015. The quest to improve that begins now, especially since the road will only get more difficult for the Huskies after the bowl game (they will be losing a handful of starting offensive linemen).

Speaking of departures, both Stanford and Washington will absorb plenty on the defensive end. The likes of David Parry, Henry Anderson, and Jordan Richards -- just to name a few -- will leave the Cardinal's conference-best unit after the season. And national sack leader Hau'oli Kikaha, Danny Shelton, John Timu, and likely Shaq Thompson will depart the Washington program. Both Shaw and Petersen will soon be staring at massive defensive voids. That means one thing: The chance for younger players to emerge begins now.

So, while Oregon loads its canons for the high-stakes spectacle at the Rose Bowl on January 1, Stanford and Washington will already be feverishly working toward laying the groundwork necessary to challenge the Ducks in 2015. There is seemingly no respite in this furious college football cycle. The Cardinal and Huskies are readying for bowl matchups that have nowhere near the prestige of the Ducks' clash with Florida State, but the work leading up to them is every bit as important in relation to the next Pac-12 North race, which has already silently begun.