Pac-12 Football: Predicting How Every Conference Team Will Finish in 2013
Only two conferences sent two of their teams to BCS bowls last season: the Pac-12 and the SEC. Oregon beat Kansas State 35-17 in the Fiesta Bowl and Stanford beat Wisconsin 20-14 in the Rose Bowl game.
Can the Pac-12 repeat that perfection?
It is very likely. Four teams will be vastly improved from last year with three of those teams coming from the South division. The competition in this league will rival the SEC and the Big 12.
For the fourth consecutive season, two Pac-12 teams will receive BCS bowl berths. The Conference of Champions may even send a team to the BCS Championship. Who will it be?
There will be no shortage of upsets. There will be plenty of Heisman contenders. Prepare for drama-filled Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Get ready for another great Pac-12 football season.
Oregon finished its 2012 regular season with an 11-1 record—its 17-14 overtime loss to Stanford prevented a perfect season. This year, the Ducks are without head coach Chip Kelly, who is the new head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Mark Helfrich was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach. His lack of head coaching experience is a concern, especially because Kelly had been the Ducks' play-caller.
The talent is there for another BCS championship season. Quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back De'Anthony Thomas will ignite this offense. The defense is consistently underrated and the secondary, led by cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and free safety Avery Patterson, is very experienced.
Oregon's nonconference schedule is more difficult than last year's slate of Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech. Jeff Sagarin had rated the Ducks' 2012 overall strength of schedule at 38, which means 37 teams had more difficult schedules.
Oregon plays Nicholls State, Tennessee and at Virginia. All three contests should be wins for Oregon. The Ducks avoid USC from the South but get UCLA in its place. Overall, the schedule looks fairly benign.
Big tests: At Washington on October 12, UCLA on October 26 and at Stanford November 7
Losses: at Stanford
Prediction: 11-1 regular-season record. The Ducks will be invited to a BCS bowl for the fifth straight year.
The reigning Pac-12 champions are ranked No. 4 in the USA Today Coaches preseason poll, one spot lower than Oregon.
This year, Stanford's offense is without running back Stepfan Taylor and center Sam Schwartzstein. Running back Tyler Gaffney returns after taking a year off to play baseball. There is also excitement over redshirt freshman running back Barry Sanders Jr., son of the legendary Oklahoma State and Detroit Lions running back.
Defensively, Stanford looks solid. Linebacker Chase Thomas, cornerback Terrence Brown and lineman Ben Gardner are gone, but everyone else is back. The defense should be the strength of the team.
Stanford's schedule is one of the 10 most difficult in the country. San Jose State, Notre Dame and at Army fill out the nonconference slate. Last year, Notre Dame beat Stanford 20-13 in overtime.
Big tests: Arizona State on September 21, Washington on October 5, Oregon on November 7, at USC on November 16 and Notre Dame on November 30
Arizona State, Oregon and USC are Stanford's biggest threats. Getting Arizona State and Oregon at home should tip the scales in favor of Stanford. Remember, last year Stanford beat Oregon on the road.
Notre Dame should be a revenge game for the Cardinal. Last year's game ended in controversy when Taylor appeared to have possession of the football as it broke the end zone's plane—the officials ruled otherwise.
USC is the key to Stanford winning the North. The Cardinals beat the Trojans 21-14 last year, but USC was without its starting center, Khaled Holmes. USC will end its four-year futility streak against Stanford at home if everyone is healthy.
Prediction: 11-1 regular season record. Stanford and Oregon will have identical records, but because Stanford will have beaten Oregon, Stanford will represent the North in the Pac-12 Championship.
The Trojans enter the 2013 season with a chip on their shoulders and two key areas of concern. Who will be the starting quarterback and will the defense improve?
Quarterbacks Cody Kessler and Max Wittek are fighting for the top spot on the depth chart. Head football coach Lane Kiffin told reporters at Pac-12 Media Day on July 26 that he has not ruled out using a two-quarterback system, according to Inside USC's Scott Wolf.
During USC's spring game in April, huge separation between the defensive backs and receivers was noticeable. The receivers were also getting off the line without being challenged. The corners have made tremendous progress over the summer and showed much better coverage in USC's first fall practice on August 3.
USC's nonconference schedule includes a trap game on September 21. Utah State is a dangerous team. This game also precedes USC's first conference game on the road.
Big Tests: Utah State on September 21, at Arizona State on September 28, at Notre Dame on October 19, at Oregon State on November 1, Stanford on November 16 and UCLA on November 30
USC will avenge its 2012 losses to Notre Dame, Stanford and UCLA.
Losses: Playing in Tempe, Ariz., in September will be too much for the Trojans' offense—the Sun Devils' defense will cause some critical turnovers. The curse of Corvallis is alive and well, so Oregon State will hand USC its second loss.
Prediction: USC finishes 10-2 and in second place in the South. While it won't play in the Pac-12 Championship, this is a major improvement from 2012's season and should end the debate over Kiffin's job security.
Defense wins championships, and Arizona State has one of the most formidable front seven in the country. Anchored by defensive tackle Will Sutton, the pass rush should see quarterbacks running for their lives on a consistent basis.
The offense is fairly intact. Quarterback Taylor Kelly has a live arm, and Marion Grice's running game should open up the Sun Devils' passing game. With all of this talent, Arizona State is primed to make a run at the Rose Bowl game.
Its schedule is daunting. One four-game stretch includes Wisconsin, at Stanford, USC and Notre Dame (in Arlington, Texas). It also has Washington sandwiched between Colorado and Washington State. Arizona State should beat Wisconsin. Its contest with USC should decide the league's South champion—winner goes on to play Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship.
Big tests: at Stanford on September 21, USC on September 28, Notre Dame on October 5, Washington on October 19, at UCLA on November 23, Arizona on November 30
Losses: Arizona State has not played Stanford or Washington since 2010—both of these programs have improved since they last played. Playing Notre Dame at Cowboys Stadium sounds like fun, but the Fighting Irish fans will make it seem like a home game for their team.
Prediction: The Sun Devils' two conference losses to Stanford and Washington and nonconference loss to Notre Dame give them an overall 9-3 regular-season record. Arizona State will have beaten USC in head-to-head competition, so it gets the nod to represent the South in the Pac-12 Championship game.
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After posting three consecutive 7-6 seasons, Washington head football coach Steve Sarkisian knows the fans in Seattle are getting restless. Everything is in place for a special season. Renovated stadium? Check. Fantastic recruiting classes? Check. Eighteen returning starters? Check. A Rose Bowl berth? Hmm.
On paper, the Huskies look like the team to beat. Last year, the Huskies' woes were largely attributed to inconsistent play by quarterback Keith Price. He was hampered by an offensive line that had six different starting lineups in 13 games, according to Phil Steele's preseason magazine. If the offensive line can stay healthy, the team should have a good shot at challenging Stanford or Oregon.
Price has the best tight end in the country to throw to: Austin Seferian-Jenkins. If running back Bishop Sankey can keep the defense honest, the Huskies could be legitimate challengers for the Pac-12 crown.
In the past five years, Washington has played Oklahoma once, Notre Dame twice, LSU twice, BYU twice and Nebraska twice. This year, the Huskies play Boise State, Illinois (in Chicago) and Idaho State. Washington lost to Boise State 28-26 in the Las Vegas Bowl in December.
Big tests: Boise State on August 31, at Stanford on October 5, Oregon on October 12, at Arizona State on October 19, at UCLA on November 15 and at Oregon State on November 23
Losses: Stanford, Oregon and UCLA
Oregon State is a toss-up.
Prediction: Washington should finish the regular season at 9-3 (if it beats Oregon State) or 8-4.
Head football coach Mike Riley is one of the more underrated coaches in the country. There is no reason to believe the Beavers will not repeat last season's success. With eight starters on the offense and seven on the defense returning, 2013 is more of a reloading, not rebuilding, season. But the talent lost is noteworthy.
Markus Wheaton set the school's single-season reception record last year with 227 catches and 1,244 yards, and tight end Colby Prince started all 13 games last year. Their contributions will be missed. Defensively, the interior line could be a concern, as both tackles have little experience. Once Riley settles on a quarterback (Sean Mannion or Cody Vaz), Oregon State should make the North division a tough place in which to play.
The Beavers' schedule is backloaded—they should start out 7-0. They drew Utah and Colorado from the South and play both teams before September play concludes. Their final five games are brutal: Stanford, USC, at Arizona State, Washington and at Oregon.
Big tests: at San Diego State on September 21 and every game thereafter starting on October 26
Losses: Arizona State, Stanford and Oregon
Two games are toss-ups: San Diego State and Washington. Oregon State is 1-2 against San Diego State and lost to Washington 20-17 last year.
Prediction: The Beavers' signature win against USC will be an upset. Their schedule makes it tough to finish in the top 20 simply because there are so many probable losses late in the season after a 7-0 start. An 8-4 or 9-3 (if Oregon State beats Washington) season looks likely.
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The UCLA Bruins are rebuilding their football program under head coach Jim Mora. The so-called experts are not buying into their recent success. Stanford's rebuilding of its program took more than six years. Bruin fans are going to have to be just as patient.
UCLA has won back-to-back South division titles. This year, the bar has been raised—it needs to beat the heavyweights from the North to gain more respect. What was once its weak links—quarterback and offensive line—are now strengths.
Quarterback Brett Hundley had a breakout season last year and is a Heisman contender. The offensive line returns almost everyone, including left guard Xavier Su'a-Filo. One of the Bruins' biggest weapons, running back Johnathan Franklin, is now playing on Sundays. Finding his replacement will be difficult, and Mora may take the running back-by-committee approach. The biggest question mark is the secondary—all four starters are gone, including safety Tevin McDonald.
UCLA's schedule is a roller-coaster ride. Playing at Nebraska is daunting. So is playing back-to-back games at Stanford and at Oregon and playing its final two games against Arizona State and at USC.
Big tests: at Nebraska on September 14, at Stanford on October 19, at Oregon on October 26, Arizona State on November 23 and at USC on November 30
Losses: Stanford, Oregon, Arizona State and USC
Prediction: UCLA should finish at 8-4. That record is not indicative of the quality of UCLA football but rather a reflection of an unfortunate schedule.
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Arizona had a surprisingly good 8-5 season under first-year head coach Rich Rodriguez. The defense was porous, but after a full season of invaluable experience, its 11 returning starters should see better numbers this year. The offense is a different matter.
Gone is quarterback Matt Scott, the league's most productive passer and one of FBS' top-ranked passers. Running back Ka'Deem Carey does return—he was the top-ranked rusher last year. If Rodriguez can fill some holes on the offensive line, then Carey should continue to gallop his way to another 1,000-plus yards season.
The Wildcats' schedule is very forgiving. They drew Washington, Cal, Washington State and Oregon from the North. The nonconference schedule is very soft: Northern Arizona, at UNLV and UTSA. Arizona will play UNLV, Washington, USC, Colorado, Cal and Arizona State on the road.
Big tests: at Washington on September 28, at USC on October 10, Oregon on November 23 and at Arizona State on November 30
Losses: Washington, USC, UCLA, Oregon and Arizona State
The Wildcats play three lower-tiered teams and take a bye before opening conference play on the road at Washington. This is not an ideal situation for the Wildcats, but if they can keep the score close with the Huskies, an upset of USC may be in the making two weeks later.
Utah is coming off of its first losing season since 2002 under then-head coach Ron McBride. After two years in the Pac-12, Utah is experiencing the difference between playing in the Mountain West and in a BCS conference. This year looks like another losing season.
Utah returns 12 starters, but the loss of defensive talent is concerning. The Utes' front seven is usually one of the better units in the conference. This year, they are without the services of linemen Joe Kruger, Dave Kruger and Star Lotulelei. Linebacker Trevor Reilly slides into a defensive end spot—he started four games at end last year. Nate Orchard is the other end with 11 starts. Eric Rowe returns at free safety.
The offense should be fine. But if the defense cannot keep the opposing teams' offenses off of the field, the Utes may have to resort to the pass to play catch-up. Utah's schedule does them no favors.
Big tests: Every team except Weber State.
Losses: Oregon State, UCLA, Stanford, at Arizona, at USC, Arizona State, and at Oregon
Prediction: With three projected wins against Weber State, BYU and Washington State and two toss-ups against Utah State and Colorado, a 5-7 record is a challenging goal. Winning six games with this schedule would be very impressive and a testament to Kyle Whittingham's extraordinary head coaching abilities.
The Washington State Cougars are in year two of Mike Leach's air raid offense. Last year's 3-9 season was not unexpected, but there were some unexpected outcomes. The Cougars lost to Colorado but beat Washington. They also kept Stanford fans on the edge of their seats, eventually losing 24-17. Close games with UCLA and Oregon State indicate this team is capable of upsets.
Quarterback Connor Halliday is the projected starter. His numbers will get better if the Cougars can establish some semblance of a running game. Last year, Washington State averaged 29.08 rushing yards a game—that lowly number put them at the bottom of all FBS-ranked rushing offenses. With a veteran offensive line returning, running back Teondray Caldwell should take some pressure off of Halliday.
Leach is not known for producing stout defenses, but the Cougars weren't the worst in the league—they were ranked ninth. With a senior-laden secondary, the defense should improve with nine returning starters.
The Cougars open the season at Auburn on August 31. Auburn will be favored, but the Tigers are also coming off of a 3-9 season. An upset is unlikely, but Leach may have some surprises for first-year head coach Gus Malzahn. The Cougars travel to USC on September 7—they have not played each other in two years. Two games with Southern Utah and Idaho follow. If Washington State has a 2-2 or better record after four weeks, this season's future looks bright.
Big tests: at Auburn, at Cal, at Arizona and Utah
Winning these four games and the two other nonconference games makes Washington State bowl eligible.
Losses: at USC, Stanford, Oregon State, at Oregon, Arizona State, at Washington
Toss-ups: Utah and Auburn
Prediction: 6-6 is a reach, but don't sleep on Washington State.
The California Bears are in rebuilding mode. Sonny Dykes is in his first year as head coach after Jeff Tedford was dismissed at the end of the 2012 season. Dykes came from Louisiana Tech and has installed his uptempo air raid offense, nicknamed the Bear Raid.
The offense should improve on its 391.3 yards-per-game average in 2012. The Bears return five starters on offense, including receivers Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper—they have a combined 13 starts between them. The starting quarterback and running back are question marks.
The defense is young. None of the projected starting defensive backs have more than eight starts. The front seven is the strength of the team. This year will be full of growing pains, but the Bears' schedule makes it that much more painful.
Cal plays Northwestern, Portland State and Ohio State in its nonconference schedule. Portland State looks like the only win. Besides playing the usual North heavyweights, Cal drew USC, UCLA, Arizona and Colorado from the South. The last time Cal played Colorado was in 2011. Cal won 36-33 in overtime.
Big tests: every game but Portland State
Losses: every game except Portland State
Prediction: Cal is loaded with talented youngsters, but their lack of experience coupled with playing in a new system under a new head coach usually indicates a losing season. Playing one of the toughest three schedules in the country makes 2013 that much more challenging. A 1-11 season with a three-win ceiling is likely.
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When new head coach Mike MacIntyre spoke at Pac-12 Media Day on July 26, he won the day. Colorado fans should be excited because MacIntyre will improve this team. While that improvement may not be reflected in the win column, it will be apparent on the field. The Buffaloes will be more competitive.
Colorado returns 16 starters, so there is plenty of experience on a team that was very youthful last year. The Buffaloes lose tackle David Bakhtiari, who was selected in the 2013 NFL draft. The defense should show the most promise with nine returning starters, including their top sack leaders, ends Chidera Uzo-Diribe and Kirk Posten.
The Buffaloes' schedule is tough. They drew Oregon, Oregon State, Washington and Cal from the North. If they had drawn Stanford instead of Cal, they would have had the toughest schedule in the country.
Big tests: Let's face it, after a 1-11 season, any game is a test. Last year, Colorado lost to Sacramento State. Beating Colorado State, Central Arkansas and Fresno State in September would be a huge accomplishment. If Colorado beats Cal and Utah, this will mark the beginning of the return of Buffalo pride.
Prediction: Colorado should match last year's 3-9 season, but do not be shocked at a 4-8 or 5-7 season. This team is capable of some upsets.