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Oregon is Pac-12 favorite after Mariota's return

(AP Photo)

LOS ANGELES (AP) Although Marcus Mariota knew he would be under a spotlight when he stepped onto the famed Paramount Studios lot Wednesday, the Oregon quarterback is getting quite comfortable in his starring role.

"I've had to get used to it and come out of my shell a little bit, but I'm trying to enjoy it," Mariota said at the Pac-12's media day. "I take it as an honor and a privilege, and hopefully an opportunity to provide a good influence."

Coach Mark Helfrich and Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott both used the league's first session of its two-day Hollywood kickoff event to praise Mariota for staying in school. The rest of the Pac-12 isn't quite as excited about the Heisman Trophy candidate's return after two dynamite seasons for the Ducks, but he's just one reason why they're favored to win their highly competitive league again.

Mariota and Oregon were picked to claim the Pac-12 title in the preseason media poll, topping that chart for the fourth time in five years. The verdict was an unsurprising vote of confidence in the mobile passer and the perennially powerful Ducks, who highlight an impressive list of contenders in the West Coast's power conference.

Mariota is the biggest reason for excitement around the Ducks, and the quarterback is working to raise his leadership skills to the level of his play after turning down untold NFL millions for another shot at a national title.

"A lot of guys talk a good game, but everything that guy does is gospel," Helfrich said. "If I'm the backup guard and I see that guy forgo what he could have made - it's not some lip-service dream, this is a reality of a ton of money. Like, `That guy turned down how much? OK, I'll watch him.' That's huge. I think it speaks to the type of guy he is, and hopefully to the type of program that we have."

Mariota said he returned to enjoy university life in Eugene. Since he's only taking golf and yoga this fall to finish up his degree, he'll have plenty of time.

"First and foremost, I wanted to get my degree," Mariota said. "My family has always valued education, and that was basically the major factor that brought me back. Secondly, it was to come back and enjoy college. You experience so many new things, and I wasn't ready to leave all that just yet."

Mariota even has one more year of eligibility. Although he insists he still hasn't decided whether he'll head to the NFL next year, his family also took out an insurance policy for this season.

Otherwise, Mariota and the Ducks aren't thinking past what's certain to be another tough year in a rising conference built on impressive quarterback talent and depth.

"The Pac-12 is better than it's ever been," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. "Everybody is improving. There's a bunch of good players and coaches in this league, so how do you make that leap over everyone else? We talk about it as a staff. We've got to crank it up to another level, because the other teams aren't going backward."

UCLA is favored to win the South Division over second-place Southern California, but Oregon got 24 of the 39 votes to win the league title game in the Bay Area on Dec. 5. Stanford, last season's league champion, finished second behind Oregon in the North Division balloting.

USC coach Steve Sarkisian received nearly as much attention as Mariota in Hollywood. Sarkisian left Washington in the offseason to return to the Trojans, and he thinks his sanctions-depleted roster will be an immediate contender.

"We're going to focus on what we do have, not what we don't," said Sarkisian, who will have a full complement of scholarships next year. "We have a really talented roster of about 65 scholarship players. That is not ideal. That's OK. We're still really good. ... We've still got plenty of work to do, but if we can manage it the right way, we've got a chance."

Updated July 23, 2014

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