One Improvement Every Pac-12 Team Must Make to Win Conference Title in 2014
Every team in the Pac-12 must improve if it wants to win the conference next season. Every single one.
That includes reigning champion Stanford, which loses all-league-caliber players in Tyler Gaffney, David Yankey, Shayne Skov, A.J. Tarpley, Trent Murphy, Ben Gardner, Ed Reynolds, Josh Mauro and Henry Anderson.
That includes annual preseason favorite Oregon, which returns a lot of talent on both sides of the ball but lacked its usual, magic touch in its first season after losing Chip Kelly to the NFL.
That includes other contenders like UCLA, Arizona State and USC. Every team can get better from last season to next, and most of them have at least one glaring hole that needs fixing.
Even the dregs of the conference have some hope. Did anyone see how bad Auburn was in 2012? Did you recognize the team that nearly won the BCS National Championship in 2013?
Are you listening California?!
By fixing its most urgent issues, any team can rightfully compete for a conference championship. It just takes hard work, proper recognition and smart, nuanced coaching.
Every single team, after all, is technically 0-0.
Anything can happen next year.
Note: Unless otherwise cited, all stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.
Must Improve: Quarterback Production
B.J. Denker had his moments for the Wildcats last season, but for the most part they were few and far between. He finished with the third-worst quarterback rating (among qualified passers) in the Pac-12 on an offense that came up last in the conference with less than 195 passing yards per game.
That futility wasted another All-American season from running back Ka'Deem Carey. Something of that ilk cannot afford to happen again in 2014. Even without Carey, Rich Rodriguez's rushing offense will find a way to get going. The quarterback needs to provide, at the very least, a reasonable supporting option.
Now that Denker is gone, the job could go in seemingly infinite directions. With enough starters returning from a (very) underrated defense, though, the winner of this battle might become an integral part of the Pac-12 narrative next season.
If he can play like even a poor man's version of Matt Scott, especially with receiver Austin Hill coming back from a torn ACL, the Wildcats are legitimate sleepers in the South division.
Must Improve: Surrendering Medium-to-Long Gains
Arizona State's defense should have been better than it actually was last season, finishing with a high success rate—that is, doing its job on a good percentage of downs—but giving up yards in sizable chunks whenever it failed.
The Sun Devils didn't give up many huge gains, only surrendering 13 plays of 40-plus yards, but they allowed an FBS-worst 61 plays of between 20 and 39 yards.
Keith Patterson has been brought in to right the ship defensively, but his West Virginia defense struggled with similar problems last season, giving up 50 plays of 20-39 yards. Especially with guys like Will Sutton, Carl Bradford and Alan Darby out of the picture, Patterson has his work cut out for him in his first season with the program.
However, if he can turn some of those 20- or 39-yard gains into 10- or 19-yard gains, the impact it would have on this defense might be tremendous. Explosiveness is a key tenet of the new-age college football offense, so stopping it must therefore be a cornerstone of the new-age college football defense.
Must Improve: Everything
Cal went 1-11 last season, and that record was no fluke. It was every bit as bad as a one-win team should be.
The Bears finished No. 103 in the Football Outsiders F/+ ratings, behind every power-conference team besides Purdue. They were last in the Pac-12 in scoring offense, total defense, turnover margin and third-down conversions, and second to last in the country in scoring defense, barely edging out Idaho.
That all needs to change. Every single part of it.
This piece isn't titled "improvements each team must make to get slightly better." It's improvements each team must make to win the conference.
Cal won't even sniff the top of the Pac-12 unless it fixes any and all of those problems. A team that finishes last or even close to last in so many facets cannot contend in the second-best league in America.
If it makes Sonny Dykes and company feel any better, though, Auburn was about just as futile in the SEC two seasons ago. And we all know what happened in 2013.
Must Improve: Converting in the Red Zone
Colorado didn't do a bad job scoring points in the red zone last season, converting with at least a field goal on 26 of 32 attempts—good for a decent rate of 81 percent.
Here's the problem. Twelve of those 26 conversions were field goals instead of touchdowns, meaning only 14 were touchdowns instead of field goals—good for a pitiful rate of 44 percent.
Only three FBS teams scored a touchdown less frequently when they got inside the red zone. A team like Colorado, which gets to the red zone so infrequently, can ill-afford to squander such opportunities. The Buffaloes need to punch in every time they get close.
Wake Forest and Purdue were the only power-conference schools with less than their 32 red zone trips last season.
Must Improve: Third-Down Defense
Oregon finished 10th in the conference in third-down defense last season, allowing opponents to convert 40 percent of their third-down plays. That was more than any Pac-12 team that went bowling.
In its two losses against Stanford and Arizona, that number swelled up to 68 percent, which is a ridiculous figure. Oregon forced the Cardinal and Wildcats into 37 third-down situations and was only able to get off the field 12 times.
The sample is obviously slightly skewed (since they only lost twice), but no team in the country allowed a better third-down conversion rate in losses than the Ducks last year.
If Mark Helfrich wants to bring this team back to the Pac-12's throne, it can't be finishing last in the country in anything—especially something as integral as getting off the field and putting his offense back in a position to succeed.
Must Improve: Defending the Run
Oregon State has some work to do on offense next season, no doubt. Storm Woods must return to the form of his breakout freshman year, and the receiving corps must find a way to replace Biletnikoff winner Brandin Cooks.
But with Sean Mannion returning at quarterback, it will not be the offense that holds this team back from competing to win the Pac-12.
As was the case in 2013, it will be defending against the run.
Oregon State allowed a Pac-12-worst 5.01 yards per carry on the ground last season, roughly a yard worse than any other team that went bowling from the conference. Nationally, that average per attempt checked in at No. 107.
The Beavers also allowed 79 rushes of 10-plus yards—worst in the Pac-12, once again. It's next to impossible to win this conference with so many holes in the run defense.
Must Improve: Consistent Receiving Depth
Ty Montgomery is back, which is very good news.
So is Devin Cajuste, which is wonderful, as well.
And so are the Nos. 3-5 receivers from 2013, which is...something?
Combined, Stanford's third- through fifth-leading receivers caught 42 passes last season. Jordan Rector made his 14 catches count, going for an average of 30-plus yards, and Kodi Whitfield made the best play of the season, but in many games, the entire trio, which also included Jordan Pratt, was invisible altogether.
This year, Stanford cannot afford to only have two viable receivers. The defense lost a number of important pieces, so a bigger overall onus will be put on the offense; the offense lost workhorse running back Tyler Gaffney, so more offensive onus will be put on the passing game.
Against blue-chip cornerbacks like Ifo Ekpre-Olomu at Oregon, there's a chance Montgomery might be blanketed and taken out of the game, as he was against Darqueze Dennard in the Rose Bowl.
If and when that happens, Stanford's passing attack, which finished 11th in the Pac-12 in yards per game, cannot simply roll over and die.
There needs to be another option.
Must Improve: Avoiding Sacks
UCLA's offense was above-average and balanced last year, finishing inside the top 45 nationally in total offense, rushing offense and passing offense.
Once place it wasn't above-average, however, was in the field of negative plays. The Bruins allowed 2.77 sacks per game, second to last in the Pac-12 and No. 108 in the country. One season before that, they allowed 3.71 sacks per game, which was third-worst in the country.
The common denominator is quarterback Brett Hundley, who took over the offense as a redshirt freshman in 2012. He needs to learn to get rid of the ball quicker. Even though he is athletic and able to extend plays with his legs, sometimes it's best just to rocket the ball 10 rows deep into the stands.
The pass protection must get better too, and even though Xavier Su'a-Filo is gone, UCLA still returns 93 starts across the offensive line, per Phil Steele of ESPN.com (Insider required).
If Hundley and his tenured blockers can build a rapport and (finally) learn how to get the ball out in a timely manner, this offense could go from above-average to very good.
Must Improve: Getting the Ball to Offensive Playmakers
It really isn't rocket science.
When you have some of the best playmakers in America on the outside and in the backfield, you get them the ball as much as possible.
USC struggled with that in 2013, though Marqise Lee's injury woes didn't help. Still, poor pass-blocking, an unimaginative playbook and the back-loaded learning curve of Cody Kessler all contributed to the problem, leading to an offense where Lee and Nelson Agholor didn't get nearly enough touches.
One year after Lee caught 118 passes himself, that supposed "dynamic duo" combined for just 113 last season.
Now things must be different. Kessler is another year older and wiser, and he's in a system that did well to get the ball to Kasen Williams and Austin Seferian-Jenkins at Washington.
Even with Lee and Xavier Grimble gone to the NFL, a group of skill players led by Agholor, Darreus Rogers, Javorious Allen, Tre Madden and Ty Isaac, and maybe even contributions from George Farmer and Steven Mitchell, should be among the best in the conference.
They need to touch the ball in space as often as possible, with as many opportunities to break the game open as the coaches can conceive.
If Steve Sarkisian and company can manage that, things might be looking up in Southern California.
Must Improve: Forcing Turnovers
Utah was a hard team to figure last season. Impressive wins over Utah State, BYU and (of course) Stanford were offset by a five-game losing streak during conference play, which kept the Utes out of a bowl.
Kyle Whittingham's team was volatile for much of the year, capable of playing exceptional one week and awful the next. But one of the only true constants was an inability to force turnovers—especially in the passing game.
Utah's 16 takeaways were No. 108 in the country. It's paltry three interceptions were tied with Illinois for last among FBS teams, which is inexcusable for a unit that wants to contend in a league like the Pac-12. What's more, all three interceptions came from seniors, so Utah will return zero players who picked off a pass in 2013.
Quarterback Travis Wilson is a budding superstar and might be one of the best signal-callers in the conference, especially now that Dave Christensen is on board as the new offensive coordinator.
The defense, on a down-to-down basis, should also be good enough to hold quality opponents in check.
With a few big plays here and there—a few momentum-killers and drive-stoppers—Utah is worth at least keeping an eye on.
Must Improve: Rushing Against Ranked Opponents
Moving the ball on the ground was supposedly a strong point for the Huskies last season, as Bishop Sankey motored his way to 1,870 yards, 20 touchdowns and a spot on the AP All-America Second Team.
However, there was a curious (and perhaps indicting) dichotomy in how Washington's rushing offense acquitted itself.
Against unranked opponents, it went for 297 yards per game and 5.73 yards per attempt—both of which ranked inside the top-12 nationally.
Against ranked opponents, it went for 107 yards per game and 3.01 yards per attempt—neither of which ranked inside America's top 65.
Not-so-coincidentally, Washington went 0-4 against ranked opponents and 9-0 against unranked opponents in 2013. With Sankey gone, the new regime under Chris Petersen needs to find a new starting tailback and put him in a position to succeed against the Pac-12's top teams.
"There is no depth chart (at RB right now)," said new running backs coach Keith Bhonapa, per Adam Jude of the Seattle Times.
In other words: The Huskies have some work to do this spring.
Must Improve: Holding Onto the Football
Washington State went 6-6 in the regular season and made a bowl game last year, and even took Auburn down to the wire on the Plains in Week 1. It was a landmark season for Mike Leach and the Cougars.
And it should have been even better.
Why? Washington State turned the ball over 35 times last season, tops in the Pac-12 and more than every power-conference team in the country. In fact, the only FBS team in any conference with more turnovers was Southern Miss, which started the year 0-11.
The good news is that turnovers often regress to the mean. It's not likely for a team that struggled so much holding onto the football one season to struggle at the same degree the following season.
The bad news is that Connor Halliday is back in Pullman and that Leach's system requires putting a lot of faith in the quarterback.
Halliday was responsible for a great deal of those turnovers last season, so much of this improvement will be on his shoulders.