Sunday, August 17, 2014

College Football Preview 2014: PAC-12

The PAC-12 has long received national venom for being the perceived weakling of the Power Five, but here's a wake up call for the nation...the PAC-12 may be the best conference in the Power Five from top to bottom, and top to bottom could go against anyone in the country in 2014, including everyone's darling SEC. Every single team in this conference, with the exception of Cal and including long time doormat Colorado, has a chance at bowl eligibility this season. Where the conference also excels is at the QB position, where no other conference in the nation can match the level of play that the conference represents. There are seven top flight QBs in the league, with two of them holding more than solid Heisman chances. The conference also boasts two national title contenders in Oregon and UCLA, but you can never count out Stanford, USC, or Arizona State when it comes to competing for the conference crown.

Projected Order of Finish

1. Oregon
2. Stanford
3. Washington
4. Oregon State
5. Washington State
6. California

2. USC
3. Arizona State
4. Arizona
5. Utah
6. Colorado

Coaches on the Hot Seat

Most Overrated Team

Most Underrated Team
Washington State

Oregon Ducks
Projected 2014 Record: 10-2
Head Coach: Mark Helfrich (11-2, 2nd season)
The Ducks are back at full strength on an offense, with the exception of the WR position, but the Ducks always reload at receiver, so it should not be a problem in 2014. Back is their all-world QB Marcus Mariota, who tossed 31 TDs to just 4 picks last fall, despite gimping around on a bum knee late in the season. Of course, that is when he became more human, and started making mistakes, none more so than in the Arizona loss late in the season. Mariota should be in the top three when it comes to the Heisman campaign, barring any setbacks regarding his knee again. Byron Marshall becomes the primary back this season, and provides a power burst with speed out of the backfield. Thomas Tyner provides a change of pace, and will get an opportunity to give the Ducks two 1000 yard rushers this fall. The O line is loaded and deep, with all five starters returning, and Evan Baylis returns at TE, as do the two TEs on the depth chart immediately following. The only WR returning to start is Keanon Lowe, but there is an overall experience issue. However, the Ducks have plenty of options and talent, and will patiently await someone to step up and star.
If there could be an issue for the Ducks in 2014, it could be on defense where there are key holes throughout. The Ducks were especially susceptible against the run last season, where they ranked just 66th. The middle of the line must be replaced, but both DEs are back to wreak havoc in DeForest Buckner and Tony Washington, but someone must plug the gaps up the middle. Rodney Hardrick and Derrick Malone are both back at LB, but the secondary could slip this season, as three new starters must be broken in around returning starting CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
Matt Wogen handled PK duties as a freshman last fall, but will also handle punting duties in 2014.
Look for Oregon to slip a bit on defense, and that may cost the Ducks a couple of losses, especially against the Michigan State Spartans, who power run all day. If the Ducks can get by MSU and UCLA on the road, then they will be in line for a final four appearance.
Opening Game
8/30 South Dakota

UCLA Bruins
Projected 2014 Record: 11-1
Head Coach: Jim Mora (19-8, 3rd season)
Jim Mora has completely changed the culture at UCLA, and the Bruins find themselves in the thick of a national title hunt for the first time since the 80s, and maybe realistically since 1959.
On offense, it starts and ends with Heisman candidate QB Brett Hundley, who may be the best overall QB to play at UCLA since Gary Beban. Hundley wasn't just the QB extreme in 2013, he was also the leading rusher, a fact that must change for UCLA to succeed in 2014. Hundley needs some support from the backfield, and that should be doable, as Jordan James returns from a season mostly lost to injury. Before getting hurt, James was on pace for a big season, but was lost early in the fourth game against Utah last season, and never really came back. The Bruins return two starters at WR in breakout candidate Jordan Payton and the super athletic Devin Fuller. The new starters have plenty of experience as well in Devin Lucien and Thomas Duarte, but Lucien went down in practice this week with a head injury. It's unknown as of this writing as to how extreme the injury is. The Bruins are in very good shape on the line, with four starters coming back in LT Simon Goines, C Jake Brendel, RG Alex Redmond, and RT Caleb Benenoch. Benenoch is particularly nasty and mean.
The defensive front is loaded with returning talent in 2014, and every player coming back on the line has plenty of experience. Kenny Clark returns in the middle at NT, as does sophomore sensation Eddie Vanderdoes. Owamagbe Odighizuwa is a former five star at DE, and will likely be in line for a big season if he stays healthy. The LB corps is as loaded as any team in the nation with the amazing talent Myles Jack and Eric Hendricks, who is a tackle machine, returning to start. Kenny Orijoke got some solid experience a year ago, and steps up to start. Ishmael Adams and Fabien Moreau are rising stars at CB, while Anthony Jefferson and the underrated Randall Goforth are anchoring the Safety position. Sophomore Tahaan Goodman will be a new starter at the third safety spot.
If there is a weak link for the Bruins, it may be at PK where Ka'imi Fairbairn has not always lived up to his billing at PK, and has missed some head scratchers at times. Sean Covington is back at Punter, and he could have a huge season.
The Bruins have enough talent to finally challenge Oregon for conference superiority, and may finally steal the mantle of Pac-12 champ. UCLA makes more sense than even Oregon for a final 4 appearance in 2014, but only if they can avoid the trip up losses that have plagued the program for years.
Opening Game
8/30 at Virginia

Stanford Cardinal
Projected 2014 Record: 8-4
Head Coach: David Shaw (34-7, 4th season)
The Cardinal have been dominant under the watch of David Shaw, but every power must take an occasional step back to reload, and this could be that season for Stanford.
Kevin Hogan has been highly dependable at QB for the Cardinal, but he has never been asked to do too much, except on the occasional athletic play where he busts out of the pocket. He makes high percentage throws in a conservative power offense, but because of a lack of experience on offense, he may be asked to do more than he ever has before. The good news is that Hogan gets his top WRs back in Ty Montgomery and Devon Cooper. The bad news is that the only other returning starter on offense is LT Andrus Peat. If you want to find an interest story, it's the emergence of Barry Sanders, Jr. as a starting RB. Most kids of super star football greats don't ever pan out like their fathers, so all eyes will be on this kid from day one as he joins Patrick Skov as new starters at RB. Freshman Austin Hooper gets a look at TE, and he could be amongst a long line of great Stanford TEs, but it's all potential until he proves it on the field.
Defense is where Stanford football makes its living, and they are in a bit better of a position this fall. Henry Anderson (DE) and David Perry (DT) are back on the line, and Blake Lueders will step up at the old DE spot. LB is a mixed bag with James Vaughters and AJ Tarpley are back, but Stanford has to find two new starters. The secondary boasts some experience, as Alex Carter (CB), Wayne Lyons (CB), and Jordan Richards (S) all return. The defense far outpaced the offense last season, but that secondary group will have to improve greatly after finishing just 96th against the pass last fall. The offense finished just 69th nationally, and ranked 92nd in passing.
That passing number will have to get better, and much will be on the shoulders of Kevin Hogan this fall, especially with lacking experience at every position. Expect Stanford to have to step back a bit and get their bearings, and UCLA and Oregon are much to good this season on paper for Stanford to claim yet another conference crown.

USC Trojans
Projected 2014 Record: 7-5
Head Coach: Steve Sarkisian (1st season)
Trojan AD Pat Haden decided to go back to the Pete Carroll coaching tree because, well, that worked so well the last time. Truthfully, Sarkisian got this job because nobody else really wanted it after Lane Kiffin's mess, and the resulting issues coming off of the Pete Carroll led probationary years. Enter Sarkisian, who never won more than 8 games as head coach at Washington.
Cody Kessler returns as the QB, but he'll have a hugue job to get the offense rolling, as his only returning starter at WR is the super talented Nelson Agholar. Darreus Rogers has some serious talent, but is largely unproven over a full season. Look for the highly anticipated Adoree Jackson to get a long look at WR as well as on defense at CB. There will also be new starters at RB and FB, so there will be an adjustment as Javorius Allen will get a whole season to ply his trade after having a huge second half of 2013. The left side of the line comes back, but the right side is being rebuilt.
On defense, the Trojans are loaded with talent and experience. Leonard Williams is due for a big season at DT, and joins JR Tavai as returning starters on the line. All three LBs return in Jabari Ruffin, Hayes Pullard, and Lamar Dawson. The secondary is also loaded with Kevon Seymour and Josh Shaw back at CB, and the beast that is Su'a Cravens back at SS.
Andre Heideri is back at PK after hitting 15 of 17 FGs last fall, and gives the Trojans a solid angle in the kicking game. Kris Albarado is back at Punter, but was borderline terrible at times in 2013.
The Trojans are largely thought to be UCLA's main competition in the South, but there too many questions on offense for my taste, and I'm not sure that USC's talent on offense is as good as so many others thinks it can be. I'm not sold, especially with a passing game that finished a lowly 70th and wants to go up tempo this fall. USC won't live up to the top of the league, and may get passed by with Arizona State's high flying offense.
Opening Game
8/30 Fresno State

Washington Huskies
Projected 2014 Record: 8-5
Head Coach: Chris Petersen (1st season)
The Huskies may have lost Steve Sarkisian as head coach, but they upgraded by losing him in hiring Boise State head coach Chris Petersen, something that every school with an opening has tried to do for years. Petersen may not turn the Huskies into title contenders right away, but, if he lives up to his billing, he will likely do so very soon.
Cyler Miles steps up at QB this fall, and returns from suspension in time to get going for the fall. He has to mature and show some leadership abilities, but showed some promise on the field in games when Keith Price was injured last fall. Jaydon Mickens returns to start at the SB spot, and Kasen Williams gives Miles a solid target in the passing game. Finding a new RB will be paramount and it looks as if Dwayne Washington has first crack at the job. The good news is that four starters return on an offensive line that should give this young offense some developmental time.
On defense, every member of the front seven return in 2014. Hau'oli Kikaha (DE), Evan Hudson (DT) and Danny Shelton are all back on the line, while LBs Cory Littleton, Shaq Thompson, John Timu, and Travis Feeney are all back. The secondary is not displaying such good news, as only CB Marcus Peters returns to start.
Two new starters must be found at PK and P, and this could be a problem area early.
The Huskies made a bigger splash than anyone in the country when they hired Chris Petersen, but he has to upgrade the overall talent on a football team that largely underperformed under the departed Sarkisian. If anyone can make that happen, Petersen can, but it may take a year or two to catch Oregon in the north.
Opening Game
8/30 at Hawaii

Arizona State Sun Devils
Projected 2014 Record: 9-3
Head Coach: Todd Graham (18-9, 3rd season)
Todd Graham has the ship heading in the right direction at ASU, but the Devils must step back a bit from winning the South last season, as they must replace nine starters on defense, which will make it tough to allow the high flying offense to soar and take control of games.
Taylor Kelly is the most underrated QB in the entire conference, and had huge games when he needed to last fall. DJ Foster is getting used to a new role in camp, as he moves from SB to RB this fall, but he has the physical talent to convert seamlessly. Jaelen Strong is back at WR, but must show the consistency that goes along with his hype. The major issue is that he is the only returning starter, and depth is an issue. Three starters return on the line, but there is plenty of talent here.
Only two starters return on defense in LB Salamo Fiso and FS Demarious Randall. The entire defense is basically under construction, so there are too many questions to address equally here.
Zane Gonzalez is a beast at PK, and hit 25 of 30 FGs last fall. He is a weapon. Matt Haack was a bit of a mess at Punter, and he has to improve to give this completely rebuilt defense a shot.
ASU gets a break with a soft schedule for the most part, and has enough fire left on offense to score a ton of points, which will be needed to give the Devils a shot. There is enough here to finish second in the South, but not to win it. They could also slip to third behind USC.
Opening Game
8/28 Weber State

Arizona Wildcats
Projected 2014 Record: 6-6
Head Coach: Rich Rodriguez (16-10, 3rd season)
The Wildcats have begun a new era with upgraded facilities, a front line coach in Rich Rod, and a new and improved focus on recruiting. Of course, we are at the ground floor of the change of culture for Wildcat football, so the best may still be yet to come in the coming seasons.
The 2014 version of the swarm in Tucson will be a bit deficient at the skill positions on offense, where the only returning starter is WR Nate Phillips. The good news is that Austin Hill will be returning from a knee injury that cost him the 2013 season, but we still need to see how he has recovered. That being said, Hill should be fine and ready to go. Gone at QB is BJ Denker, and there are as many as four QBs battling for the job, with three of them being transfers from other programs, including former USC recruit Jesse Scroggins, but he is far from a lock. Ka'Deem Carey has taken his services to the next level, so replacing his rushing totals will be a paramount task in camp. The good news on offense is that four starters return on the line, and that always helps when trying to rebuild a unit.
The desert swarm days are gone, but the Cats would love to get it back. That will be a tall order, as only two of the front six return this fall. Reggie Gilbert is back at DE, while the talented Scooby Wright returns at LB after a big play laden 2013. Jordan Allen is immediately eligible after transferring from LSU, and will start at DE opposite Gilbert. Jeff Worthy, a JC transfer, adds some muscle inside at NG. Antonio Smothers, another JC transfer, should step up and immediately contribute at LB, but a sophomore may win the other open LB job in DeAndre' Miller. The secondary is loaded with returning talent, but this unit gave up 233.2 yards passing per game last season. Jonathon McKnight is back at CB, and is joined by SPUR Tra'Mayne Bondurant, BAN Jared Tevis, and FS Jourdon Grandon.
On special teams, only Punter Dan Riggleman returns after averaging 40.1 yards per punt last fall. THe staff would like more in the way of consistency out of him. The PK game has been a mess of late, and a new starter will be in that spot, with Casey Skowron getting the latest shot at turning the issues around.
The Cats do not have the talent in place yet to move to the next level in competition in a deeply talented PAC-12, but they are building a foundation slowly at being one of the better programs around. Rich Rod has always been a winner (Michigan debacle aside), so the expectations are that Arizona will be very good in very short order, but this season is just a piece in a larger puzzle, and bumps in the road will be felt.
Opening Game
8/29 UNLV

Oregon State Beavers
Projected 2014 Record: 6-6
Head Coach: Mike Riley (88-73, 14th total season)
The Beavers completely wrecked and collapsed at the end of last season, losing five consecutive games to close out the regular season before rebounding to win the Hawaii Bowl over Boise State. Mike Riley is beloved in the Pacific Northwest, but he has struggle to keep this program barely above average in recent seasons, and last season was a huge disappointment despite the antics of Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks on offense. Those two players basically carried the Beavers to seven wins, and now Cooks is gone.
Mannion, however does return, and would be first team in any other conference in the country, but hardy registers in a conference full of amazing QB play here. He passed for over 4600 yards and 37 scores last season, and is working even harder this off season to correct some small issues in his delivery. He is a guaranteed first round pick in the next NFL draft. The biggest issue on offense is replacing the work of Cooks, who departed for the NFL. First up is Richard Mullaney, but after him, it's all question marks. Sophomores Victor Bolden and Malik Gilmore must step up, as should TE Connor Hamlett. The line is full of holes as well, with only two starters returning in LG Sean Harlow and C Isaac Seumalo.
On defense, the front could be in trouble. There is only one starter returning on the line in DE Dylan Wynn with the departure of Scott Crichton. There is much being spoken of Miami transfer and five star recruit Jalen Grimble at DT, but he has yet to see the field. LB is a bit better off with the return of DJ Alexander and Jabral Johnson, But the front gave up 190.3 yards rushing per game last fall, ranking just 88th nationally. The secondary returns some depth this fall in CB Steven Nelson, SS Tyrequek Zimmerman and FS Ryan Murphy, but this unit largely failed as well, ranking just 84th nationally against the pass. The defense as a whole ranked a lowly 100th in total defense, a huge cause for their absolute mid to late season collapse.
Trevor Romaine returns at PK, but after hitting just 14 of 20 FGs last season, can he be relied upon to improve? Punter Keith Kostol could also use some improvement.
The Beavers have more questions than answers, more potential than reality, and more mediocrity in store in 2014. Expectations are never too high in Corvallis, but could Riley be getting stale in the job?
Opening Game
8/30 Portland State

Washington State Cougars
Projected 2014 Record: 8-4
Head Coach: Mike Leach (9-16, 3rd season)
The Cougs saw a miracle happen in year two under Mike Leach by just getting to a bowl game, and if a late game collapse hadn't happened, they'd be celebrating their first bowl win under the Pirate as well. They did fall late to Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl, but it has only taken two seasons for Leach to put his stamp on this program, and the dark times may be well behind them.
I am looking for huge improvements to the play of QB Connor Halliday this fall, and he may be the most underrated QB in this conference, and maybe in the nation. Halliday has a big arm, and has shown some real flashes, and should really blow up this season. Marcus Mason will be back to start at RB, but will find a challenge by both Theron West and Jamal Morrow, who is a freshman. The Cougars are fairly set at WR, with three returning starters back in River Cracraft, Gabe Marks, and Rickey Galvin. The line is a huge question, as only LT Joe Dahl and LG Gunner Eklund return.
The defense is an area of concern this fall, as the unit ranked just 102nd nationally in total defense in 2013, and returns only one starter in the secondary in S Taylor Taliulu. The front should improve against the run, every member of the front seven returns except for one LB. Destiny Vaeao is back at DE, while Xavier Cooper (DT) and Kalafitoni Pole (NG) also return. Kache Palacio, Cyrus Coen, and Darryl Monroe all return at LB.
Andrew Furney is gone at PK, and may be replaced by a walk on in Eric Powell this fall. We Concepcion is back at Punter, but isn't special. There are no other options here.
The good news is that the schedule is much easier than a season ago, especially early, so the Cougars could get off to a fast start, giving them more room for error later. The Cougars have holes, but the talent pool is better than before, so there is that to lean on. All in all, look for the Cougars to be a surprise team in a loaded conference race.
Opening Game
8/28 Rutgers at Seattle

Utah Utes
Projected 2014 Record: 5-7
Head Coach: Kyle Whittingham (76-39, 10th season)
The Utes are having a tough go of it in the Power Five, as they have struggled to show anything near their results of their Mountain West days. Whittingham is at a crossroads now as the Ute program has to find a way to improve from status of little brother in a loaded power league.
There is some good news on offense with the return of QB Tyler Wilson from injury. If Wilson isn't able to go full strength, Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson could be the guy as the year begins. WR Dres Anderson will be his usual top flight self either way, and Kenneth Scott makes a nice second option. Bubba Poole is back as the primary RB, but more will be needed from him, as the run game ranked just 71st nationally last fall. The line is set with four starters returning.
There are some major issues up front on defense, with holes everywhere. Nate Orchard is the lone returning starter on the line at DE, while junior LBs Jason Whittingham and Jared Norris also return. The secondary is beefed by the return of CB Davion Orphey, FS Eric Rowe, and SS Brian Blechen, but this group has got to grow this season after ranking just 109th against the pass last fall. The run defense was exceptionally strong, but with all of the losses, it will be hard to hold onto their ranking of 20th against the run.
Andy Phillips really had a solid campaign during his freshman season last fall, and returns at PK. Tom Hackett was the best Punter in the conference, and also returns.
The Utes have not had it easy in transitioning to big time college football. The talent gap is sincere, and there is much work to be done to prove that Utah is no longer in a weaker sister league. With so many questions on both sides of the ball, that necessary move won't be made this season. One note...the Utes can open with FCS member Idaho State, but can't find a way to play BYU or Utah State yearly? Give me a break.
Opening Game8/28 Idaho State

Colorado Buffaloes
Projected 2014 Record: 5-7
Head Coach: Mike MacIntyre (4-8, 2nd season)
The Buffs showed signs of life in 2013, and that improvement, albeit in small increments, should continue on in year two of the MacIntyre era.
Sefo Liufau will return at QB, and was a nice find as a freshman last fall. He had some up and down moments, but there was certainly enough flash from him to see how good he can be moving forward. He loses Paul Richardson at WR, but Nelson Spruce and DD Goodson return, leaving only one spot open entering the fall. Look for RS freshman Bryce Bobo to have some impact. More will be needed from an anemic run game, and that responsibility falls on junior RB Christian Powell to give the Buffs some kind of spark of life in the backfield. The line should be stronger this fall with the return of three starters in LG Kalwi Crabb, RG Daniel Munyer, and RT Stephane Nembot.
The defense was  a complete mess last fall, and if the win total is to increase, more will be needed from this barely alive unit. Three starters return on the line in DE Samson Kafovalu, and DTs Josh Tupou and Juda Parker. Addison Gillam and Woodson Greer will also return at LB and will hopefully have shown some off-season development. The secondary should be improved as well with the return of CBs Greg Henderson, Kennth Crawley, and FS Jared Bell.
Will Oliver (PK) and Darragh O'Neill (P) both got all conference looks last fall, and shold bolster the kicking game in 2014.
Overall, MacIntyre is a master builder with a refreshing philosophy of using the best athletes and finding positions for them. It worked masterfully at San Jose State, and it seems to be working at Colorado as well. Improvement is coming, and Colorado is no longer the ultimate doormat. No bowl this season, but 2015 could be interesting.
Opening Game
8/29 Colorado State at Denver

California Golden Bears
Projected 2014 Record: 2-10
Head Coach: Sonny Dykes (1-11, 2nd season)
Sonny Dykes showed up at Berkeley last fall, and found a huge mess left over from Jeff Tedford, who really let this program get away from him during the last few years of his reign. He's putting the pieces together, but the roster and overall team is a bit of a disaster right now, and it's going to take some time to get it all back together.
There is a truly nice piece on offense in sophomore QB Jared Goff, who looked very strong despite taking freshman year bumps and bruises last fall. He is one of the better QBs in the league, and anyone would be happy to have him. He returns all three starting WRs in Chris Harper, Bryce Treggs, and Kenny Lawler. That's great news for a team that relies on heavy passing. The Bears did finish 10th nationally in passing last fall. Daniel Lasco has to overcome his minor injury history and prove himself at RB, but he is really the only option outside of freshman Tre Watson, but Watson could be special. Four starters return on the line, so the Bears do have a solid foundation on offense.
The defense could be a mess once again, as they ranked 122nd in total defense a year ago. Many of those pieces from last season are gone, as only DE Kyle Kragon returns on the line. Michael Barton and Jalen Jefferson return at LB, and the run defense was the highlight of the defense last season, so their presence could be key to getting better. The secondary has issues as well, with only CB Cameron Walker and S Michael Lowe returning.
Vincenzo D'Amato is gone at PK, so Noah Beito, a sophomore, will likely get first crack at being the replacement. Cole Leininger is back at Punter, but punt coverage was a disaster last fall, giving up 5 TD returns.
Dykes has a job to do, and it won't be easy, especially with Stanford looming over their shoulder and taking all of their key recruits with ease. Dykes has to find a balance to increase the Cal footprint in this conference, and do it the right way, as academics in this program have flailed in recent seasons according to APR reports. Every piece to this program has failed, and a culture change is absolutely necessary. It's going to take a long while to build this Rome.
Opening Game
8/30 at Northwestern

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