College Football Preview 2014-2015: Previewing the Pac-12
national championship game before Stanford ended their hopes. The Cardinal have shut down Oregon's explosive offense in both matchups, not only costing Oregon a national title but also the Pac-12 North and the conference as a whole. Arizona State was a relative surprise, going 10-2 before losses to Stanford in the conference championship game and a loss in the Holiday Bowl to Texas Tech. After a loss to FCS powerhouse Eastern Washington, Oregon State's season appeared destined to be heading towards disaster. Led by Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks, the Beavers reeled off six straight victories. They then would follow that up with five straight losses, before a victory in the Hawaii Bowl over Boise State. Meanwhile in the South Division, California struggled to competitive at all, losing 11 games and not gaining a victory over an FBS opponent.
Ranking the Pac-12: Click on Top 25 teams for complete in-depth previews.
1. Oregon Ducks (11-2 in 2013) National Rank: 3
Oregon has become such a powerhouse inside the Pac-12, last year's 11-2 posting in Mark Helfrich's was considered a disappointment. It could quite possibly be a national championship or bust season for the Ducks, who return possibly the Heisman frontrunner in junior Marcus Mariota, who briefly flirted with the NFL. Along with junior Byron Marshall, sophomore Thomas Tyner and incoming freshman Royce Freeman, Oregon will once more have one of the nation's highest-scoring offense. The offensive line is a real strength, but there isn't any proven receiver on this roster outside of senior Keanon Lowe, with a spring knee injury to Bralon Addison that could cost him the year. The defense won't get much credit but it has some real talent, including the return of All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. The Ducks have the legitimate talent to win a national title, if they can get through a brutal Pac-12 and non-conference schedule. The good news is even if they lose one game, they could sneak into the College Football Playoff.
2. Stanford Cardinal (11-3 in 2013) National Rank: 9
While the Cardinal have been a very strong program the past few years, they could take a major step back in 2014, losing a lot of players, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason is off to Vanderbilt, while Shayne Skov is gone, along with Ed Reynolds and Ben Gardner. The good news is the offense could take some real steps, with junior quarterback Kevin Hogan returning, along with senior Ty Montgomery and junior receiver Devon Cajuste. While the offensive line will miss a lot as well, and Stanford will lose workhorse back Tyler Gaffney, there are players ready to step up. The defense still has a chance to be extremely stingy, with the return of defensive backs Jordan Richards and Alex Carter and senior linebacker A.J. Tarpley. While Stanford might take a step back, they are very dangerous still, and they could still win the North Division.
3. Washington Huskies (9-4 in 2013) National Rank: Unranked
Chris Peterson finally decided to make the jump, after many successful years at Boise State, taking over a rising program at Washington. While a ton of offensive talent is gone, including Keith Price, running back Bishop Sankey and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the Huskies are still a major threat. The Huskies have really improved defensively, and there is a ton of talent back in that unit. Defensive tackle Danny Shelton, a hard-working senior, is an All-Pac-12 candidate, along with cornerback Marcus Peters and linebacker Shaq Thompson. Thompson could be the next Myles Jack, as he could possibly play running back as well for Washington this season. The QB position is up for grabs after likely starter Cyler Miles was suspended for the opener against Hawaii. Sophomore Jeff Lindquist was named the starter for the game, but after that the future is definitely not certain. Senior receiver Kasen Williams gives the Huskies a star, after missing a huge chunk of 2013 with a broken leg. The Huskies may need a transition year under Washington in 2014 (just wait until Peterson starts recruiting in Seattle) but the future is definitely bright.
4. Washington State Cougars (6-7 in 2013) National Rank: Unranked
Not only did the Cougars improve from 3-9 to 6-7, they were also just so much more competitive in 2013 than in his first season in 2012. The Cougars should continue taking major steps with the return of a number of weapons, including senior quarterback Connor Halliday, who will lead Washington State's air raid offense. Joining Halliday offensively will be senior running back Marcus Mason, senior receiver Vince Mayle and junior Gabe Marks. Defensively, the Cougars' front seven should be strong, with nearly every major contributor returning. Junior defensive end Xavier Cooper, who recorded 13.5 tackles for loss last season, has the chance to be dominant, while junior linebacker Darryl Monroe is a beast. If the secondary can replace plenty of experience and leadership, Wazzu will be dangerous in 2014. Mike Leach is building a program in Pullman, but don't expect too much improvement this next season, in the tough North.
5. Oregon State Beavers (7-6 in 2013) National Rank: Unranked
While senior Sean Mannion and his 4,662 yards and 37 touchdowns return, the Beavers lost a lot of talent and experience from an average team a year ago. Included is Biletnikoff winner Brandin Cooks, who is now off making plays with New Orleans. His loss leaves Mannion without a proven No. 1 target other than maybe senior tight end Connor Hamlett. A team that threw the ball all over the place in '13, the Beavers will definitely be more balanced this season, with the return of running backs Storm Woods and Terron Ward. Oregon State's defense was absolutely brutal last season (it was an embarrassment in the team's 2013 loss to FCS Eastern Washington) and some real playmakers are gone. It does have some real talent back, including senior cornerback Steven Nelson and a deep linebacker corps. Special teams is a real question mark, as the Beavers will lose both their kicker and punter. Even if Mannion has another monster season, Oregon State lost so much, their ceiling could be around 6-7 wins once more.
The Bears and second year head coach Sonny Dykes are hoping to forget about 2013, which was a disaster in nearly every single way. There is some real talent back, including big-armed sophomore Jared Goff and a number of dangerous receivers. That will pave the way for a dangerous passing offense, while a number of offensive line returnees are back. The defense allowed nearly 530 yards last season, 122nd in the entire nation last season. Five starters are back, including junior cornerback Stefan McClure, who is back from a severe knee injury. He may help the Cal defense, but it still obviously has a long way to go. There may be some improvement on the field for the Bears, but outside of Sacramento State, there aren't any wins on this schedule.
1. UCLA Bruins (10-3 in 2013) National Rank: 8
When Brett Hundley announced he would return for his junior season, the Bruins went from a mediocre Pac-12 team to a real national title threat. Hundley, a redshirt junior, has all the tools to have a huge year. He has a big arm and has really improved his mechanics, he also is so dangerous with his legs. Along back offensively will be senior Jordon James at running back and two improved receivers, Devin Lucien and Devin Fuller. The offensive line will lose experienced guard Xavier Su'a-Filo, but senior transfer Malcolm Bunche is a monster. The defense has a real talent in sophomore Myles Jack, a real Heisman dark horse. He might play two ways once more this season, after winning Freshman Offensive Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2013. Add to the defense the return of tackling machine Erik Kendricks and incoming freshman Zach Whitley, the Bruins defense could lead them if Hundley has some issues. This is the best Bruins team in a long, long time, if Hundley can continue his development and this team can stay healthy.
2. USC Trojans (10-4 in 2013) National Rank: 16
Steve Sarkisian returns to Los Angeles (he was USC's offensive coordinator under Pete Carroll), hoping to lead the Trojans back to their old national title ways. He has a talented roster, one that includes a quarterback who could really improve, in junior Cody Kessler. Kessler had a wild 2013 but really improved down the stretch and will be comfortable in this offense. The backfield is stacked with experience and talent, and Nelson Agholor is among the nation's most explosive weapons. Defensive linemen Leonard Williams is a monster and should lead a pretty strong defense, one that also includes sophomore safety Su'a Cravens, who played impressive in his true freshman season. A ton of experience and leadership is back at linebacker, meaning USC will be very stout against the run. This USC team is extremely dangerous; if Kessler improves and they stay healthy, they are the conference's major sleeper.
3. Arizona Wildcats (8-5 in 2013) National Rank: Unranked
RichRod's second team in Tucson was improved, but still went 8-5, good but not great. They lose one of the best players the Wildcats have ever seen in running back Ka'Deem Carey, who left for the NFL a year early. While his loss stings, the offense should once more be explosive, because in the end, it is Rich Rodriguez. The receiver corps is fantastic, led by sophomore speedster Nate Phillips, Notre Dame transfer DaVonte' Neal, 2012 Biletnikoff finalist Austin Hill (missed all of 2013 after spring knee injury) and Cayleb Jones, this team will be very scary still. While QB is up for grabs, USC transfer Jesse Scroggins may be the frontrunner, beating out others like Anu Solomon and Texas transfer Connor Brewer. On defense, sophomore Scooby Wright is going to be great at linebacker, while the secondary is strong. Many might be surprised, this Arizona team is turning into a real team to reckon with.
4. Arizona State Sun Devils (10-4 in 2013) National Rank: Unranked
We know ASU is going to score a lot, like they did in 2013, averaging nearly 40 points per game. Senior quarterback Taylor Kelly returns to lead the way, along with junior playmaker D.J. Foster and an underrated junior receiver in Jaelen Strong, a proven big play threat. While those three will make some highlight plays, the offensive line loses a lot and there isn't much depth on offense. The most paramount concern is defense, where the Sun Devils lose dominant nose tackle Will Sutton and a lot else, returning only two starters to a defense that really struggled to defend the pass in 2013. Senior safety Damarious Randall is a leader and can make plays, but he can't carry the load. JUCO transfer Dalvon Stuckey, once an Auburn commit, has proven he can play at a high level and could be counted on to replace the production of Sutton, a tall order. While the schedule isn't terrible (there aren't any meetings with Wisconsin this year) a weak offensive line and an inexperienced defense could spell major troubles from a pleasant surprise in 2013.
5. Utah Utes (5-7 in 2013) National Rank: Unranked
Kyle Whittingham, who has done great things in Salt Lake City, appears to be on the hot seat in Utah, after some really average seasons since making the step up to the Pac-12. The Utes will once more have a new offensive coordinator, this one being former Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen. He will hope to finally get the offense moving again, and will hope to develop junior Travis Wilson, the expected starter at QB over Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson. Senior receiver Dres Anderson gives him a playmaker to work with, something Utah hasn't really found since joining the conference. Senior defensive end Nate Orchard is a stud, and he leads a defensive line that was great in '13, piling up 39 sacks. Unfortunately a lot is gone from the D-Line, and depth is a major concern in the unit. The linebacker corps could be solid, with experienced Jason Whittingham and Jared Norris, a pair of juniors returning. Christensen could breath some life into a struggling offense, but it has a long way to go. While the Utes are still fair game for an upset or two (they stunned Stanford last season) they have a ton of holes, and another 5-7 season could be coming, especially with a pretty tricky non-conference slate.
6. Colorado Buffaloes (4-8 in 2013) National Rank: Unranked
Give Mike MacIntrye a lot of credit. In his first year since turning around San Jose State, he led the Buffaloes to a 4-8 mark, which was a pretty big accomplishment for the program. The team should once more take some steps, especially with 17 starters back. Sophomore Sefo Liufau gives MacIntrye a dual threat at quarterback who has the chance to really be a star by the time he is done in Boulder, while the receivers are experienced, with junior Nelson Spruce and senior D.D. Goodson back, although losing Paul Richardson definitely hurts. The defense could make major strides this year after a pretty brutal 2013. Sophomore linebacker Addison Gillam is a rangy talent who could be in store for a big season, while senior Juda Parker has the chance to be a beast at defensive end. Senior cornerback Greg Henderson leads a deep secondary that should improve after the Buffaloes ranked 102nd in the nation against the pass in 2013. Expect some improvement from Colorado once more, but improving on last year's four victories might be pretty tough for the Buffs.
Offensive Player of the Year: Marcus Mariota, Oregon
Defensive Player of the Year: Myles Jack, UCLA
Newcomer of the Year: Zach Whitley, UCLA
Coach of the Year: Jim Mora, UCLA
Coach on the Hottest Seat: Kyle Whittingham, Utah
Breakout Player of the Year: Barry Sanders Jr., Stanford
QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon
RB Byron Marshall, Oregon
RB D.J. Foster, Arizona State
WR Jaelen Strong, Arizona State
WR Austin Hill, Arizona
TE Connor Hamlett, Oregon State
OL Andrus Peat, Stanford
OL Hroniss Grasu, Oregon
OL Joshua Garnett, Stanford
OL Isaac Seumalo, Oregon State
OL Jamil Douglas, Arizona State
DE Henry Anderson, Stanford
DT Leonard Williams, USC
DT Danny Shelton, Washington
DE Tony Washington, Oregon
LB Myles Jack, UCLA
LB A.J. Tarpley, Stanford
LB Shaq Thompson, Washington
CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon
CB Marcus Peters, Washington
S Jordan Richards, Stanford
S Su'a Cravens, USC
K Andy Phillips, Utah
P Sean Covington, UCLA
Returner Ty Montgomery, Stanford
Pac-12 Championship: Oregon over UCLA