The 2013 Pac-12 football campaign brought plenty of cause for celebration when reflecting back this holiday season. More teams than ever are in bowl games, and the conference's future outlook is overwhelmingly favorable.
Santa Scott—better known as commissioner Larry Scott—is doling out record-setting shares of television revenue, which should go a long way in sustaining the Pac-12's success.
Of course, a more personal gift waiting under the tree—that's Christmas tree, not Stanford Tree—always trumps cold, hard cash. Every fanbase in the Pac-12 has its wish list for next season, but there's one gift each program could use most.
For Arizona: No Controversy at Quarterback
Sometimes the gift one wants is always what he or she needs. And, as much as some would like to see hometown product and Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year Ka'Deem Carey back for one more season, his NFL draft stock may never be higher. Another season carrying the ball 300-plus times could negatively impact his status.
In other words, Carey is the Red Rider BB gun.
The more realistic gift is a clear resolution to the impending quarterback controversy. Head coach Rich Rodriguez replaced Matt Scott with B.J. Denker prior to the 2013 season, and Denker overcame a tough start to finish the year strong.
Rodriguez's spread offense is most efficient with a confident quarterback behind center. Texas transfer Connor Brewer, Javelle Allen and 4-star 2013 prospect Anu Solomon are the most likely candidates to take the reins, and Arizona needs the winner to establish himself quickly.
For Arizona State: Leadership and Maturity for Underclassmen
The most beloved big man in Tempe, Ariz., doesn't wear a bright red suit. No, tackle and two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton is known more for his long dreadlocks than a bushy, white beard. But Sutton does share a few traits with Santa Claus.
Both are known for sacks, and both are remarkably jovial. Just watch Sutton's celebration after the Wisconsin win for proof:
Sutton takes the field with the Sun Devils for the final time Dec. 30 in the Holiday Bowl, then it's off to the NFL. With him goes the soul of a senior class that fueled Arizona State's run to the Pac-12 Championship Game.
"One of the things that really helped is we have a senior-led team," head coach Todd Graham said on his Dec. 3 teleconference call.
The kind of on-field extension of the coaching staff this year's senior class provided is just what Arizona State needs from a new leader next season, as the Sun Devils begin defense of their Pac-12 South crown.
For Cal: Some First-Quarter Cheer
First-year Golden Bears head coach Sonny Dykes suffered through a rough re-introduction to the Pac-12, going 1-11 overall and 0-9 in conference. Perhaps more vexing than any of Cal's many woes was its first-quarter performance.
Opponents outscored the Golden Bears 181-51 in first quarters, which put them in a double-digit-point hole immediately in every game, on average.
Stronger starts will spare Cal the grief of constantly playing catch-up.
For Colorado: Surprises on Defense
Colorado got one lump of coal in its stocking last week when wide receiver Paul Richardson declared for May's NFL draft. Replacing his 1,343 yards and 11 touchdowns of production will be challenging, but Mike MacIntyre returns quarterback Sefo Liufau, running back Christian Powell and wide receivers D.D. Goodson and Nelson Spruce for 2014.
The Buffaloes offense has a solid foundation on which to build, but the defense needs to make huge leaps in the offseason. Among Pac-12 teams, only Cal gave up more than Colorado's 38.3 points per game.
Freshman linebacker Addison Gillam was an immediate standout for an otherwise lackluster defense. If the Buffs can get similar unexpected production from newcomers or other underclassmen, Colorado could be a threat to play spoiler.
For Oregon: Good November Tidings
The tag on an ideal Oregon football gift won't read "Do Not Open 'til Christmas," but rather, "Do Not Open 'til November." Oregon's record from August through October the last three seasons is 23-1. Its November mark is 8-4.
The Ducks start 2014 with a stiff challenge from this year's Big Ten champion, Michigan State. A win over the Spartans should make Oregon an early title contender. Late-season losses kept the Ducks out of the national championship picture all three years. They must avoid a similar letdown in order to reach the inaugural College Football Playoff.
A strong finish not only puts Oregon into the championship race, but it should garner quarterback Marcus Mariota the Heisman Trophy consideration he was denied this season.
For Oregon State: Offensive Balance
Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks were statistically the most potent quarterback-wide receiver combination in college football before a late-season stumble. Should Cooks bypass the NFL draft for one more year with the Beavers, the passing game is in good hands.
Oregon State's passing attack could use a more effective run game supporting it in order to keep opposing defenses honest. The Beavers lost Storm Woods early on after a frightening injury at Utah, and their 2012 rushing leader never quite found his rhythm.
Woods is back next year, and he's heading into the offseason with some momentum. His 73 yards against Oregon last month was his season high, and he reached the end zone for the first time in seven games.
Woods and Terron Ward will be back next season, but perhaps more importantly, the offensive line should be improved. Head coach Mike Riley often lamented his team's play in the trenches this season, particularly on offense. Improved play there translates to a more balanced look in the run game, which alleviates pressure on Mannion.
For Stanford: An Offense as Good as Its Defense
Stanford fell 11 points shy of a BCS championship opportunity in 2012. This year, the Cardinal were nine points away from playing for the crystal football. All David Shaw needs for Christmas is two more touchdowns, and to that end, a more consistent passing offense goes a long way.
Quarterback Kevin Hogan had arguably his best collegiate performance in the Pac-12 Championship Game, setting the tone for his junior campaign.
With a receiving corps consisting of Devon Cajuste, Ty Montgomery, Kodi Whitfield and Michael Rector, and Hogan's continued improvement, Stanford should have the effective passing game it oftentimes lacked the last two seasons.
For UCLA: One More Year from Brett Hundley
Christmas came early for UCLA when head coach Jim Mora passed on the opportunity to coach Washington, and he's since denied interest in the opening at Texas.
Should Brett Hundley make a similar decision and forego the NFL for another season, the Bruins should be the likely Pac-12 South favorite. Mora played 18 different freshman in 2013 and still won nine games. All that cumulative experience points to a much more savvy and, thus, more dangerous team in 2014.
Hundley is central to leading a veteran group with his two years of starting experience.
For USC: College Comeback
New USC head coach Steve Sarkisian inherits a difficult situation, with NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions continuing to impact the program. Talented starters stemmed some of the effects of the Trojans' low roster numbers this season, and many of this season's key contributors could return for Sarkisian's first season.
Emphasis, however, is on the word "could." Defensive back Dion Bailey announced his decision to enter the NFL draft Monday, and more Trojans could follow.
The choices cornerback Josh Shaw, defensive lineman George Uko, offensive offensive lineman Marcus Martin, linebacker Hayes Pullard and wide receiver Marqise Lee make in the coming weeks will shape USC's 2014 outlook.
Should the majority choose to return, USC is a Pac-12 South favorite.
For Utah: Quarterback Health
Sophomore Travis Wilson exhibited flashes of brilliance this season, but a finger injury after the Stanford upset slowed his progression. A concussion against Arizona State revealed a preexisting condition that threatens Wilson's career.
His lifelong health takes obvious precedent. If the injury to his intracranial artery does indeed force Wilson into retirement, he would be the second Utah quarterback in as many years to have his playing career prematurely cut short; Jordan Wynn retired after a shoulder injury.
It's no coincidence Utah is spending a second straight holiday season at home. That's an unfamiliar feeling for a program that bowled the previous seven years under head coach Kyle Whittingham.
A return to the postseason is the ideal Utes gift, but to make that happen, Utah needs quarterback consistency. Whether that's a returning Wilson or another signal-caller, new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen can mold a potent offense around the quarterback, as he did at Wyoming with Brett Smith and at Missouri with Chase Daniel.
For Washington: Home Away from Home
There's no place like home, and that's certainly the case for Washington. Husky Stadium has a reputation as one of the most hostile environments in the Pac-12. The road, however, is just as inhospitable to Washington as Husky Stadium is to visitors.
The Huskies suffered three of their four losses away from home, and all were to teams ranked in the final polls of the regular season.
For Washington to realize its potential and contend for its first conference championship since 2000, it must channel some of the same energy it has at home while on the road—and nowhere more than at rival Oregon, which the Huskies have not beaten in a decade.
For Washington State: Ball Control
Reaching the program's first bowl game since 2003 is a major milestone for head coach Mike Leach's rebuilding project at Washington State. However, the Cougars' gut-wrenching loss to Colorado State Saturday puts them in an all-too-familiar position with a sub-.500 record.
The next benchmark for Washington State to reach is seven wins, a mark that guarantees it the program's first winning campaign since 2003.
When Washington State was winning, it was protecting the football. The New Mexico Bowl is a prime example of turnovers costing the Cougars, as two fumbles in the waning minutes set up the Rams rally. However, Washington State found itself on the short end of the turnover battle in five of its seven losses.
In the two defeats the Cougars didn't have more giveaways than takeaways, against Arizona State and Washington, they still coughed up two turnovers in each.
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