2014 Pac-12 Conference Preview

By Michael Leese

This will be the Year of the Quarterback in the Pac-12 — 10 starting QB’s return to lead their teams into the 2014 season, with eight of these signal callers having a shot at moving up to the NFL!   Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Brett Hundley of UCLA are potential candidates for the Heisman Trophy.    The Conference will continue to take on a tough slate of out of conference match-ups, as at least seven of the schools will face at least one team who is a traditional powers.   Marquee match-ups include Utah at Michigan, Michigan State. at Oregon, and Notre Dame faces Arizona State, USC and Stanford, while UCLA travels to Dallas to face Texas.

 Team-by-Team 

SOUTH

ARIZONA     USC transfer Jesse Scroggins will take over at QB, as he finally will get his chance to shine.  I’d like his chances better if he had PAC 12 leading rusher KaDeem Carey back.  Head Coach Rich Rodriguez has stated that he has the horses to replace the All-American tailback, and if he does, this offense will fire on all cylinders.   The defense loses studs Jake Fisher and Marquis Flowers, but gets back several other key players.    The schedule is manageable, as they have three winnable non-conference games and get USC, Washington and Arizona State at home.

ARIZONA  STATE    Todd Graham has done an outstanding job building enthusiasm in the desert.   Last season, the Sun Devils raced to a 10-4 finish, the best in recent memory.    This year, the losses on the defensive side will be difficult to overcome, as they must replace the entire defensive front and have only two returning starters on this side of the ball.   The offense will be in good hands with Quarterback Taylor Kelly returning after throwing for 28 touchdowns with an additional 852 yards on the ground.    I will call this a rebuilding season for ASU, but I still expect the Sun Devils to receive a bowl invitation.

COLORADO   The Buffaloes enter their fourth season in the Pac-12, with a 4-23 record during the first three years.   Mike MacIntyre was brought in last season to right the ship.  He has a long way to go, but I believe he is on the right path. Eight starters return on both sides of the ball, giving Buff fans hope for the upcoming season.   The defense should also be much stronger as a bunch of young players gained experience last year.  There is also a new emphasis on keeping the top in-state talent in Colorado.

UCLA   Jim Mora has his most talented team yet, featuring 17 returning starters.   The top four rushers return as do four of five offensive linemen.    Super Sophomore Myles Jack returns at outside linebacker to anchor the defense, and remember, he also scored five touchdowns as a running back last season!    Five of the top six tacklers return providing the Bruins with one of the top stop units in all of college football.   Last year, the Bruins got to a 10-3 mark, with a 42-12 Sun Bowl win over Virginia Tech.   This year, U.C.L.A. plays a tough schedule, with Virginia and Texas in the first three weeks, followed by a  Thursday night tussle on the road in Tempe.  This year, I see them getting the best of Oregon and Stanford at home, but something tells me USC gets revenge from last years 35-14 drubbing.

USC    Steve Sarkisian makes the move from Washington to USC inheriting 14 returning starters.  The will be led by quarterback Cody Kessler.   Kessler struggled most of last season, but put together a nice run down the stretch to helping the Trojans finish 6-1, including a dominant bowl victory over Fresno State.   Past sanctions levied by the NCAA have really hurt the team depth, taking a severe toll on the defense.   Many underclassmen have had to earn their stripes, long before their time, and there are only three projected senior starters on the roster.  With all of the youth, I think the Trojans are a year away from becoming the jauggernaut of years past.

UTAH    Three years ago the Utes made the jump from the Mountain West Conference to the Pac-12.  In those three seasons, the Utes have a disappointing 9-18 record.   The Utes return 12 starters, six on each side of the ball, including Quarterback Travis Wilson.  Head coach Kyle Whittingham said they need to do better on the recruiting trail, and he has done that the past two seasons.  It will soon pay off, but it just won’t be this season.  The schedule is downright brutal as they play Oregon and Stanford from the North ,and they also travel to Ann Arbor to face Michigan.

NORTH

CALIFORNIA   If you’re looking for a team to shock the world, this is it.   The Bears are really a year away from being relevant, but I would not be surprised to see them pull a few upsets.  Second-year Head Coach Sonny Dykes is an offensive guru who will have this team scoring more than the 23 PPG from last season!    Quarterback Jared Goff was fed to the wolves last year as a freshman and he got better and better as the season went along.    Nine starters return on offense to give Goff a strong supporting cast.   Defensively the Bears were abysmal last season surrendering 45.9 PPG.    They played a ton of underclassmen last season and they have gained a lot of experience.  There is NOT a single senior projected starter on this side of the ball.  I’ll go out on a limb and call for a season opening upset win at Northwestern!

OREGON  Can the Ducks replace DeAnthony Thomas and Josh Huff?    The answer is “YES!”   Solid recruiting at the skill positions and the return of my Heisman Trophy pick, Marcus Mariota have me convinced.    Mariota had an outstanding season last year, passing for 3,655 yards and 31 touchdowns with just four interceptions!   He also added 860 yards and 9 scores on the ground.   Throw in a big year from Byron Marshall who ran for 1,067 yards, and a receiving core led by Kenon Lowe and Pharaoh Brown and you have the making of one of the best offenses in the country.   The defense did lose six starters, but returns its top two tacklers and Tony Washington who led the team with 7.5 sacks.  Two questions come to mind about this season.   1)   Can head coach Mark Helfrich keep this group motivated?  2)  Can the Ducks beat Stanford?    I believe in coach Helfrich and I think they end a two year losing skid to the Cardinal.   Problem is, they have to travel to the Rose Bowl to play UCLA.

OREGON STATE   Mike Riley is the senior coach in the Pac-12 with 14 years, partly because he gets more out of the talent he has than almost anyone in the country.  Sean Mannion returns under center coming off a season when he threw for a solid 37 scores!    Replacing wide receiver Brandin Cooks who caught 128 balls for 1,730 yards will be a major task.    The defense will feature seven returning starters, with the top six tacklers back.      The Beavers could really surprise this year if they can avoid an early upset by a FCS school (Two of the last three years the Beavers have opened the season with losses to FCS opponents, including Sacramento State and Eastern Washington)  Avoid the trap and the Beavers could be 5-1 heading into a game at Stanford October 25, that game could well define their season.

STANFORD  The Cardinal have had four 10-win seasons in a row, with the last three coming under head coach David Shaw.   On offense, Kevin Hogan returns under center after throwing for 20 touchdowns a year ago.    He will have Barry Sanders Jr. to hand the ball off too, as the son of the former NFL great.   But heavy losses on the offensive line have me concerned about duplicating last season’s 32.3 ppg.   The defense returns seven starters but losses several key performers.   The schedule is tough, featuring Notre Dame in South Bend with key games at UCLA and Oregon, making another 10-win season a challenge.

WASHINGTON   This is by far the toughest team to gauge going into the season.  Usually a new head coach and new starting quarterback spell trouble!   Plus the off field problems surrounding quarterback Cyler Miles cast a cloud over spring practices.   Myles is a big kid with a strong arm and can move in the pocket.   He’ll benefit from having one of the better offensive lines in the conference as all five starters return.  Losing Bishop Sankey will hurt as he was the second leading rusher in the conference!    Defensively the Huskies return their entire defensive line.  They also get back seven of the top nine tacklers from a year ago.   Chris Petersen comes to Seattle with the reputation of being a premier motivator and great recruiter after spending eight years at Boise State.  With a weak non-conference schedule, the Huskies could start fast, and that could drive them to an outstanding season.

WASHINGTON STATE  This will be Mike Leach’s third year on the Palouse, and if the stars align, this will be his best!  He has Quarterback Connor Halliday back for his senior season.   Last year the gunslinger threw for 4,597 yards and 34 scores.   Also back on offense are the top two rushers and the top eight receivers from a year ago.   The offensive line could be a weak link as only two starters return.   The defense should also improve over the 32.5 ppg allowed last season, with seven of the top nine tacklers returning.    An area of concern might be the kicking game as a freshman is slated to win the kicking job.    The non-conference schedule could be tough as the Cougars open with Rutgers and face Nevada in week two.  

How they’ll finish 

SOUTH

  1. UCLA   11-1   8-1
  2.  USC    9-3   7-2
  3. Arizona 9-3   6-3
  4. Arizona State 6-6   3-6
  5. Utah 4-8   2-7
  6. Colorado 3-9   0-9

NORTH

  1. Oregon 11-1   8-1
  2. Stanford 7-5   5-4
  3. Washington 9-4   5-4
  4. Oregon State 8-4   5-4
  5. Washington State 7-5   4-5
  6. California 3-9   1-8

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