The Pac-12 is clearly a league on the rise. SEC fans won’t like it, but the Pac-12 is the deepest, toughest conference in the country. From top to bottom, this is a deep league filled with talented teams lead by capable coaches and backed by schools committed to providing the resources for their programs to succeed.
Just look at the coaches in the Pac-12. Mike Leach took Texas Tech to a bowl every year and even had the Red Raiders at #2 one year. He’s now at Washington State. His in-state rival is now led by Chris Petersen, and all he did was take Boise State to numerous BCS bowls, nearly crash a national title game or two, and make the Broncos a legitimate national power. Had you even heard of Boise prior to Petersen?
Kyle Whittingham did much the same at Utah, taking the Utes to a BCS bowl of their own, upsetting Alabama, and finishing second in the country in 2009.
Rich Rodriguez turned West Virginia into a powerhouse, won multiple Big East titles, and had the Mountaineers on the cusp of the national title game a few years back. He’s now out in the desert at Arizona, turning the Wildcats into a force to be reckoned with.
Even the dregs of the conference have good coaches. Colorado’s Mike McIntyre took San Jose State (San Jose State!) from cellar-dweller to an 11-win, ranked team and has the Buffs going in the right direction. Sonny Dykes has had a tougher going at Cal, but he has a proven track record at Louisiana Tech, where he turned the Bulldogs into a mid-major power.
And that doesn’t even mention Oregon’s Mark Helfrich, Stanford’s David Shaw, or UCLA’s Jim Mora, Jr.
For all that depth and talent, though, the conference doesn’t have much to show for it. It’s been quite a few years since a Pac-12 team won a national title, and the downside to such a deep conference is that the teams all keep knocking each other off. Oregon’s national title dreams are seemingly dashed every year by Stanford, who in turn have a slip-up of their own (last year, it was to Utah). Will this finally be the year the Pac-12 gets over the hump?
The conference certainly has the teams to do it. Oregon is once again loaded, and while Stanford loses quite a bit, never count the Cardinal out. UCLA is also getting plenty of preseason hype, as well.
Can the Ducks finally get past their nemesis, the Stanford Cardinal? Will Stanford be able to replace all the talent it lost and win a third-straight conference title? Can Chris Petersen work his Boise magic in Washington?
In the south, can UCLA live up to the hype? Will USC return to elite status under Steve Sarkisian? What about Arizona State? Will the Sun Devils take the next step and sustain their success? Who will fall prey in the desert to Arizona this year? Will Utah finally break through?
2013 Year in Review
Things went according to plan, at least in the north, in the Pac-12. Once again, the balance of power lay with Stanford and Oregon. The Ducks ran past the opposition while the Cardinal simply ran over it. Once again, Stanford had the Ducks’ number, ruining their national title aspirations and preventing Oregon from playing for a conference title. Stanford easily handled Arizona State in the Pac-12 championship game, winning the conference for the second-straight year before falling to a dominant Michigan State team in the Rose Bowl.
Washington and Oregon State were both solid but unable to hang with Oregon and Stanford while Washington State doubled its win total and earned a bowl berth. Granted, Washington State then blew a 35-13 second quarter lead and “Couged it,” fumbling on three straight plays late in the game to allow Colorado State to rally for a stunning 48-45 victory. Still, it’s considerable progress for a program that has been awful in recent years.
Cal was a dumpster fire
The South was truly the Wild West. A number of talented but flawed teams duked it out. UCLA continued its rise to national prominence, and Arizona continued its own resurgence under Rich Rodriguez, upsetting Oregon 42-16. But it was Arizona State that made the biggest statement, riding a seven-game wining streak to the Pac-12 South title. Like Oregon, the Devils couldn’t get past Stanford, but it was a breakthrough season for a program long considered a sleeping giant.
USC was a far cry from the dominant Trojan teams that Pete Carroll fielded. A humiliating 62-41 loss to Arizona State was the final nail in the coffin for Lane Kiffin, and USC fired him that night in an airport parking lot. Ed Orgeron took over on an interim basis and engineered a stunning turnaround. The Trojans were 6-2 under Orgeron, but when he wasn’t given the job permanently, he resigned, leaving the Trojans with their third head coach of the year when offensive coordinator Clay Helton took over for the team’s bowl game.
Injuries once again derailed Utah’s chances, and while Colorado was still a bottom-feeder, the Buffs did improve from one win to four in their first season under Mike MacIntyre.
Looking Ahead to 2014
North Division: Still the One to Beat
Fear the Tree
Oregon gets all the hype and attention, but it’s the Cardinal, not the Ducks, who rule the league. Behind a fearsome defense and powerful offense, Stanford has had the Ducks’ number of late and has won the Pac-12 two years running. The Cardinals suffered heavy losses as a bevy of playmakers such as Taylor Gaffney, Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, and Ed Reynolds are gone, as is defensive coordinator Derek Mason, who is now the head coach at Vanderbilt. However, they still have David Shaw and return an experienced quarterback in Kevin Hogan. Losing Gaffney hurts, but Stanford has recruited well and has a number of backs ready to go behind an offensive line that needs to be rebuilt but has a number of blue-chip prospects to choose from. If they can give Hogan time to throw, watch out. Stud wideout/return man Ty Montgomery is back to lead a receiving corps that is among the nation’s best and most explosive.
The major questions facing Stanford have to do with the defense. This was a dominant unit last year, but it lost a ton of talent. Luckily, there is plenty of talent waiting in the wings to step up. The replacements might not be at the level that guys like Skov, Murphy, and Reynolds were, but don’t expect much of a dropoff. The secondary is a little thin in terms of depth, but it’s good in terms of quality.
The schedule doesn’t do Stanford any favors. The Cardinal face USC in week 2 for some reason, and then every major game is on the road (Washington, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon, and UCLA). As good as Stanford is, it’ll be nearly impossible to navigate that unscathed. There’s not a team in the country that could run the table there. That may help in the long run, though, when it comes to playoff positioning.
It must be nice when 11-2 seasons are considered disappointments. Most teams would love to have a season like that, but then again, Oregon isn’t most teams. The Ducks are searching for that elusive national championship, and anything less is a disappointment. Will 2014 finally be the year the Ducks clear that last hurdle?
Oregon boasts one of the deadliest offenses in the country, and it should be as potent as ever with Heisman Trophy contender Marcus Mariota at the helm. The junior quarterback threw for 3,665 yards and 31 touchdowns against only 4 interceptions a year ago while tacking on another 856 yards and 9 touchdowns on the ground. A knee injury late in the year hampered his effectiveness, but he’s back to 100 percent and primed for another huge year. Running backs Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner combined for over 1,700 yards rushing and 23 touchdowns, and the offensive line is experienced and should be among the best in the nation. The one concern facing the offense, though, is the receiving corps. It’s young and unproven, which could prove problematic if teams can figure out a way to shut down the Ducks’ prolific ground attack.
The defense is more of a concern. The unit struggled a bit in 2013 compared to years past, and now longtime defensive coordinator Nick Allioti is retired. The secondary has some playmakers and should be solid, but the defensive line is a concern. Oregon was susceptible to the run a year ago, and the line didn’t make many plays. If that doesn’t change, it could spell trouble against run heavy teams like Stanford, Michigan State, and Arizona.
Unlike Stanford, the schedule does benefit Oregon. An early-season test against Michigan state is must-see viewing, but the only worrisome road game is UCLA in mid-October. Arizona, Washington, and Stanford all come to Eugene, and the Ducks avoid having to play Arizona State and USC. When comparing Oregon’s schedule to Stanford’s, it’s clear that the advantage goes to the Ducks.
The Petersen Era Begins
Nick Saban is widely regarded as the best coach in college football, but if there’s one guy I’d pick to give him a run for his money, it’s Chris Petersen. All he did at Boise State was go 92-13, finish in the top-11 five times, win two BCS bowl games, and beat numerous power conference schools (including Oregon twice). Combine that coaching acumen and knack for developing talent with the resources of a major program, and it’s easy to see why people are so excited about Washington.
The cupboard isn’t entirely bare, either. In fact, it’s well-stocked. The offensive line is deep and experienced. The skill positions offer an intriguing mix of experience and potential. The quarterback situation is a bit unsettled, with presumptive starter Cyler Miles facing a one-game suspension. Jeff Lindquist gets the nod in Miles’ absence.
The defensive line is deep, talented, and able to get after the passer, but the secondary is a weakness. Marcus Peters returns at cornerback, but the rest of this unit is full of young guys with high upside but little experience. What they have working in their favor is that the North division isn’t quite as pass-happy. Stanford doesn’t exactly air it out, and while Mariota is one of the best quarterbacks in the country, Oregon’s receiver corps is untested. Oregon State and Washington State throw the ball a lot, but those two games are at the end of the year. That’s plenty of time for Washington’s young defensive backs to gel and get acclimated.
Like Oregon, Washington has a favorable schedule. The Huskies get Stanford, Arizona State, and UCLA at home, and Husky Stadium is a tough environment for opposing teams. Consider Washington your dark horse Pac-12 North contender.
A Model of Consistency
Oregon State is a solid second-tier team, and that’s mean as a compliment. Corvallis isn’t an easy place in which to succeed, yet Mike Riley seemingly has the Beavers churn out good, solid teams year after year. Oregon State isn’t good enough to take down Oregon or Stanford on a regular basis, but the Beavers are a quality team nonetheless that is capable of pulling off some upsets.
Star quarterback Sean Mannion returns for his senior season after throwing for 4,662 yards, 37 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions in 2013. Losing receiver Brandin Cooks, the Biletnikoff Award winner, is a huge blow, but it is lessened by the fact that pretty much every other receiver returns. The running backs are solid if unspectacular, but the offensive line in inexperienced.
The defense needs to rebuild upfront, too, which is problematic since Oregon State struggled stopping the run last year and now must improve in that area with a largely unproven cast of characters. The return of linebacker Michael Doctor from injury should help immensely. The secondary is experienced, as well.
Oregon State’s schedule is back-loaded; the Beavers close with Arizona State at home, a road tilt with Washington, and then the bitter rivalry game in Corvallis against Oregon. USC and Stanford are also on the road, but looking at the schedule, it’s easy to see another 7-9 win schedule for Oregon State.
Well that didn’t take long. Mike Leach took Texas Tech to a bowl game every year of his tenure, and it only took him two years to do the same with the Cougars. Not only did Washington State win six games and earn a bowl bid, the Cougars also beat USC and nearly took down Auburn (granted, it was before Auburn put it together and started running through everyone).
There are only a few things in life that are certainties: death, taxes, and a Mike Leach offense chuckin’ the ball all over the field. Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday attempted a mind-boggling 714 passes last year, completing 62.9 percent of them for 4,597 yards and 34 touchdowns, albeit with 22 interceptions. He’s fearless, but he’ll need to take better care of the ball this year and cut down on those mistakes. The top eight receivers return, so Halliday better have some ice ready this year; his shoulder is going to need it.
Wazzu’s defense was inconsistent, to say the least. The unit improved immensely overall, but it was prone to extremes. It was dominant in one phase one game then abysmal in another. The front seven returns a wealth of experience, but the secondary has some holes to fill. Deone Bucannon is in the NFL now, and cornerback Damante Horton (5 interceptions) is gone as well.
As far as the schedule goes, Washington State better race out of the gate and get off to a strong start because the second-half is going to be tough: at Stanford, Arizona, USC, at Oregon State, at Arizona State, and Washington. In the first half, only Oregon is a non-winnable game, so the Cougars need to take advantage of that if they want to return to a bowl game for the second-straight year.
The Sonny Dykes era in Berkeley got off to a rough start. Cal went 1-11 last year, with the only victory coming against Portland State. True freshman Austin Goff started at quarterback, and as predicted, there were some growing pains. He showed flashes of brilliance but also some down moments as well. Cal’s defense was banged-up and eventually gave out over the course of the season.
Cal should be a lot better this year as plenty of returning players gained experience and are now more comfortable with Dykes’ systems. Goff now has a year under his belt, and most of the skill position players saw significant playing time a season ago.
Art Kaufman was brought in to fix the defense, and that task should be made easier simply by a return to health and the wealth of experience gained last year. The defensive line is unproven since major contributors from last year are gone, but linebacker and the secondary are well-stocked.
Cal will improve this year, but it might not show up in the win-loss column. Sacramento State should be a win (although just ask Colorado how iffy a proposition that is), but the other two non-conference games are at Northwestern and home against BYU, no easy task. The Golden Bears do get Colorado at home, but the rest of their easiest conference games are all on the road.
A New Power Rises
UCLA is being pegged as a dark horse national title contender, and it’s easy to see why. Brett Hundley is a star and one of the most talented quarterbacks in the country. In 2013, he passed for just over 3,000 yards with 24 interceptions and 9 interceptions while rushing for 950 yards and another 11 touchdowns. He’ll have plenty of weapons to work with, too, since the top two running backs (not including two-way sensation Myles Jack) and five-of-the-top-six receivers return along with an experienced offensive line.
The Bruins’ defense is cause for optimism and concern at the same time. One the one hand, it lost a lot of star power in guys like Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt. However, there is a lot of high-caliber talent returning, and the Bruins have recruited well. The loss of a stud like Barr is easier to bear when you have a guy like Myles Jack to pick up the slack (7 tackles for loss, 7 rushing touchdowns). The secondary is steady, with three returning starters combining for eight interceptions.
The schedule does the Bruins some favors, too. Early road games against Texas and Arizona State are tough, but UCLA gets all of its biggest tests at home as Oregon, Stanford, and USC all come to the Rose Bowl. With ASU rebuilding, UCLA is the clear favorite in the South.
Has the Sleeping Giant Finally Awoken?
Arizona State’s 2013 was one of the program’s best in decades. The Sun Devils went 10-4–just their third 10-win season since 1986–and won the Pac-12 South. It was a breakthrough season, but the Sun Devils lose a ton of production on defense. Can ASU sustain this success, or was 2013 just a flash-in-the-pan?
The offense will be formidable, that’s for sure. Senior quarterback Taylor Kelly completed 62.4 percent of his passes last season for 3,635 yards and 28 touchdowns against 12 interceptions while running for another 784 yards and 9 scores. Tailback Marion Grice is gone, but do-everything runner/receiver D.J. Foster returns (1,151 combined rushing and receiving yards). Number one receiver Jaelen Strong is also back after a breakout 2013 season that saw him catch 75 passes for 1,122 yards.
Those three will have to come up big for the Sun Devils as ASU will probably have to win its fair share of shootouts this year. Only two starters return on defense. Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton is gone, as are ace pass rusher Carl Bradford, safety Alden Darby, and corner Osahon Irabor. This is a young, inexperienced unit, and that spells trouble in the loaded Pac-12.
This is definitely a rebuilding year for Arizona State. Taylor and the offense will give ASU a chance in every game, but the defense is just too much of an unknown. Seven or possibly eight wins seems right, but watch out for the Devils in the years to come.
Can the Trojans Rebound?
Despite all the turmoil that USC had to deal with last year, the Trojans still managed to finish 10-4. New coach Steve Sarkisian inherits a team bristling with talent but thin on depth due to NCAA sanctions.
Quarterback Cody Kessler really turned a corner down the stretch and was outstanding in the bowl game against Fresno State. If he can continue that level of play, the offense could really take off. Top receiver Nelson Agholor returns after notching nearly 1,000 yards receiving last year, and both Tre Madden and Javorious Allen are back in the backfield.
The Trojan defense has plenty of potential in the back end, although the Josh Shaw fiasco will have a negative impact. Plenty of guys saw significant action last year, so the secondary and linebacker corps are deep and talented. The defensive line is good but thin; depth is a big concern.
USC has the talent to match up with anybody in the country, but whether Sarkisian can turn it into production remains to be seen. We’ll find out pretty quick; the Trojans open with a tough Fresno State team then have to play Stanford in week 2. Arizona State followed the next week by a trip to Tucson to face Arizona is a tricky stretch, but USC does avoid Oregon. Nine or ten wins are a good bet for USC.
Danger Lurks in the Desert
Things are certainly looking up out in Tucson after an 8-5 season that saw the Wildcats blowout mighty Oregon. The loss of star running back Ka’Deem Carey and underrated quarterback B.J. Denker is no small matter, but Rich Rodriguez has amassed plenty of offensive talent. Anu Solomon gets first crack at replacing Denker, and a committee approach will be used in the running game. Having a strong offensive line will help the new guys get acclimated, and Solomon will benefit from the return of receiver Austin Hill, and two high-upside transfers are now eligible.
There is a lot to like about the defense, too. This unit is fast, and the secondary is really good. Senior Tray’Mayne Bondurant posted seven tackles for loss and four interceptions last year. The front six (Arizona uses a 3-3-5 scheme) is a huge question mark since four starters must be replaced.
There is a lot to like with this Arizona team, and with a few breaks, they could contend for the South crown. Regardless, they are a team to be reckoned with and will make some noise. Just ask Oregon. The Wildcats have to go to Oregon (that should be interesting) and UCLA, but they get USC, Arizona State, and Washington at home. It’s too much to ask them to survive all that, but rest assured, they will ruin someone’s season.
Is this Finally Utah’s Year?
It’s been a rough transition to the Pac-12 for the Utah Utes. Many people felt they could come in and compete immediately given their track record, but that hasn’t been the case. Poor quarterback play really held the Utes back, and it happened again last season when Travis Wilson went down.
There were some bright spots for the Utes, though, as they upset Stanford and nearly beat Arizona State and UCLA as well.
Wilson is back, but he must improve his consistency and decision-making (16 touchdowns, 16 interceptions). If he can play smarter, Utah’s offense should make significant strides. Leading rusher Bubba Poole is back, as is top receiver Dres Anderson.
Utah’s defense was solid last year and should be so again this year. Led by senior Jacoby Hale (10 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks), the linebacking corps is full of playmakers. In the secondary, safety Eric Rowe broke up seven passes, and Brian Blechen returns after missing all of last season due to injury.
Despite the signs of progress last year and reason to believe Utah will be better this year, it’s going to be tough for the Utes to make a bowl game. Wilson needs to stay healthy, but with his history, who knows if that will ever happen.
The schedule is brutal, too. Non-conference opponents include Fresno State and Michigan (in Ann Arbor), and the Utes draw both Stanford and Oregon from the North (in back-to-back weeks, no less). They also have to go to UCLA and Arizona State. In all, Utah plays ten teams who went to a bowl game last year, and that’s a tall order for any team.
On the Right Track
Don’t look now, but Mike MacIntyre’s doing it again. After making San Jose State relevant, he took his talents to Boulder to rebuild the moribund Buffs. He inherited a 1-11 team that very well might have been the worst in the FBS, and all he did was quadruple its win total in just one year. Make no mistake, the Buffs are still bad, but MacIntyre has things pointed in the right direction.
Freshman Sefo Liufau was thrown into the fire four games into the season, and he responded rather well. Folks in Boulder are really high on him–no pun intended–especially now that he has a year in the system. The offensive line is solid and experienced, and while star wideout Paul Richardson left for the NFL, the other receivers from a year ago all return. There are also plenty of experienced running backs on the roster, but none have shown much in the way of star potential.
On defense, sophomore Addison Gillam is a future star, and cornerback Greg Henderson leads a solid secondary that could be among the conference’s best. However, the pass rush, or lack thereof, is a concern, and the Buffs will have to replace starting safety Jered Bell, who is out for the season with a torn ACL.
Colorado actually has a realistic shot at reaching a bowl game this year, a remarkable achievement considering how low the program had sunk in recent years. The non-conference slate is easy; the toughest game is the season opener against an exciting but flawed Colorado State squad followed by UMass and Hawai’i. The Buffs won’t beat Arizona State, but taking down Cal on the road is certainly doable. Colorado could very well be 4-1 heading into the meat of its schedule, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility for the Buffs to snag another two wins down the stretch. There is no margin for error, though. Still, Buffs fans should be quite pleased with the direction the program it heading.
North Division Champion
Once again, it’ll come down to Stanford and Oregon. Washington is close, but the Huskies aren’t there yet. Chris Petersen will need some more time before Washington is on the same level as the Ducks and Cardinal. Oregon State has the potential to beat one of them, but not both.
Stanford has had the Ducks’ number lately, but this is the year that Oregon finally puts it together. Mariota is one of the best players in the country, and Stanford’s defense has to replace some key guys. Those two factors, combined with the game being in Eugene, give the edge to the Ducks.
South Division Champion
The Bruins are the most talented and complete team in the division. Arizona State has the offense to match up with UCLA, but its defense is too inexperienced and lost too much talent. Arizona is dangerous, too, but they defensive question marks as well and have to face UCLA in Los Angeles. USC has the athletes and talent to match up with UCLA, but there is an air of uncertainty surrounding the Trojans. Plus, they have to go to UCLA. The Bruins are the pick.
UCLA is good, but the Bruins aren’t quite at the same level as Oregon. The Ducks are battle-tested and just have too much firepower for the Bruins to handle.