Saturday, May 9, 2015

2015 Post Spring Report: PAC-12

The PAC-12 had a relatively strong 2014 season, and finished 6-3 during the bowl season. @015 looks to repeat an upward swing for the conference, especially in the South, where as many as three schools could win the divisional title (UCLA, USC, Arizona). The North may be stagnating a bit, as Oregon may very well slide back a half step while they seek a replacement for Marcus Mariota, amongst others, and Stanford may remain in neutral for another season. Here's how I see the conference heading into the 2015 season as things stand now:

PAC-12 North Predicted Order
1. Oregon
2. Stanford
3. California
4. Washington
5. Washington State
6. Oregon State

PAC-12 South Predicted Order
1. USC
3. Arizona
4. Arizona State
5. Utah
6. Colorado

Breakout Team

Arizona State

Offensive MVP
Jared Goff (QB), California

Defensive MVP
Myles Jack (LB), UCLA

Biggest Shoes to Fill
QB, Oregon (Marcus Mariota)
QB, Oregon State (Sean Mannion)
LB, Washington (Shaq Thompson)
LB, UCLA (Eric Kendricks)
QB, Arizona State (Taylor Kelly)

South Notes
The strength of the conference still lays in the South, but the conference hasn't been able to parlay that strength into a conference title, which is somewhat maddening. As many as three schools could win this division outright in USC, UCLA, and Arizona, and that order is completely interchangeable. Arizona is set with freshman Anu Solomon at QB, who had an explosive season as a freshman in 2014, and could be even better in 2015. Nick Wilson was just a freshman at RB, and ran for over 1300 yards. Targets will be plentiful, as Solomon has six of his top seven receivers returning.
For USC, they may have the most pro ready QB in the league coming back in Cody Kessler, who was a bright rising star in 2014 for the Trojans. USC is back in order to compete for the title, and Kessler will be driving the bus. He will be breaking in a new RB this fall, but the Trojans always have a strong line to run behind, and should be able to fill that role in short order. The bigger question will be who will fill the shoes of Nelson Agholar at WR, but JuJu Smith seems to have a beat on the lead job next fall, and maybe, just maybe, George Farmer may very well finally be the guy he has always supposed to have been.The Bruins are actually four deep at QB now, have a deep receiving corps, and Paul Perkins gives them a run game that they haven't had in years. On defense, the Bruins are deep everywhere, and Myles Jack moves to the MLB spot, where his talents will be better served. Eric Kendricks, however, will be missed.
UCLA is beginning a new era post Brett Hundley at QB, and they may actually be better off without him in 2015 than they were with him. With Hundley under center, it was normal for other players to hang around and wait for him to make a play. With him off the field in the Texas win, other players were forced to make plays, and they became more diverse on offense. The Bruins are exceptionally deep at QB now, and freshman Josh Rosen may very well win the job over Jerry Neuheisel in the fall.
Arizona State slides to fourth in the South, as they must replace Taylor Kelly at QB. Mike Bercovici will likely step into the starting role, which he held when Kelly was hurt last fall, but will he be able to carry the load over 12 games in 2015? Remember, he won't have Jaelon Strong to throw the ball to as well.
Utah is falling like a rock, and Kyle Whittingham nearly bailed on the program after last season. He finally agreed to stay, but he may not live through another disappointing season, and the Utes must get Travis Wilson right at QB to get above that point. He had decent numbers last fall, but he was mostly inconsistent, especially in big games. Overall, the Utes have lacked the talent they need to compete on the next level, and they have to recruit up to get there. Whether or not Whittingham can get it done is up in the air, but I think he is a solid coach.
Colorado is a team I feel bad for at this point.It's obvious that Mike MacIntyre is making strides in Boulder, but they just cannot seem to get over the hump, as the South is so strong that they get easily overshadowed. Sefo Liufau is a solid young QB, and will likely hit his apex as a junior this season, but the talent around him may just not be good enough to overcome the immense strength  of the division. There is progress being made, however it's hard to see it on paper right now. If the Buffs were in the North, it may be more visible just how much they have progressed as a team.

North Notes
PAC-12 fans may not like this, but the conference may not have a final four option this fall, as Oregon is likely to slide a bit in 2015. It's the reality of the situation, and that's it. The Ducks have holes all over the place coming into the season, and none more than at QB where it is looking like Jeff Lockie will be leading in replacing Mariota at QB. He threw all of 28 attempts last season, so he is really in the hole as a junior with experience. Because of this, the Ducks may be a more run oriented football team this fall, as the backfield is the core of the offensive strength and experience for this edition. Richard Marshall, Thomas Tyner, and leading rusher Royce Freeman all return. The Ducks have three holes to fill in the secondary on defense, and that could be an area of growing pains as well. One thing to remember is that the Ducks do get Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams in August, and he will be directly competing for the starting QB job into the opening week of the season.
Stanford was not nearly as impressive in 2014 as they were in years past. I expected that. What I see now is that the Cardinal will hold onto second place, but they aren't necessarily better than they were a year ago. Kevin Hogan returns at QB, but was mostly streaky all season, and he loses Ty Montgomery. The Cardinal did not have a robust run game either, and they need more production there. I won't even line item the losses on defense heading into 2015, as they are numerous.
California is a team to watch in the conference, as they are rising quickly under third year coach Sonny Dykes. Jared Goff is coming into his junior season, and he may be the most productive QB in the league. He should have a breakthrough season, and help drive the Bears to their first bowl appearance under Dykes.
Washington should be in a decent spot, but losing Shaq Thompson will be felt on both sides of the football, and Cyler Myles cannot get out of his own way off the field for the Huskies when they are depending on him to win the starting QB job. The Huskies may have to take a step back before the take a surge forward beyond 2015.
Washington State is bound to get better under Mike Leach, but they haven't found the combo to unlocking that ability just yet. Leach enters his third season, but is behind Cal when it comes to building talent around both sides of the football. WSU could press for a bowl bid this season, but questions must be answered at QB, as well as at several other positions.
Look for Oregon State to fall to the bottom as they transition to Gary Anderson's system of doing things. Gone is QB Sean Mannion, who meant so much to the Beaver's success the last few seasons. Anderson is going to have to build from the bottom up in Corvallis, as Mike Riley left the cupboard pretty bare on his way out the door to the Nebraska job. Anderson is an excellent coach and recruiter, so look for the Beavers to not languish for very long before they are pushing the upper half of the league overall.

Opening 2015 Games

Grambling State at California (9/5)
Arizona State vs. Texas A&M (at Houston) (9/5)
UTSA at Arizona (9/3)
Colorado at Hawaii (9/3)
Eastern Washington at Oregon (9/5)
Weber State at Oregon State (9/4)
Stanford at Northwestern (9/5)
Virginia at UCLA (9/5)
Arkansas State at USC (9/5)
Michigan at Utah (9/3)
Washington at Boise State (9/4)
Portland State at Washington State (9/5)

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