Pac-12 Football: 5 Can't Miss Spring Games of 2014
The Pac-12 is gearing up to unveil its annual array of spring football games, each of which features a variety of storylines.
Regardless of how many positions appear to be solidified, fans always find a way to drum up excitement over a burgeoning young star or early enrollee recruit.
If you check the national pulse, you'll likely find the college football world is most excited to see Oregon, Stanford, USC and UCLA. The national landscape tends to focus on which teams have created the most headlines in recent years, and who will have a chance to be great in 2014.
But we're looking specifically at which spring games have the most intrigue to fans of Pac-12 football. What can you really learn about Oregon that you don't already know? A few things, sure, but not nearly as much as some of the other teams on this list.
Quarterback battles were big in the creation of this list as were coaching changes. For the rest of what's in store from the conference, check out five Pac-12 spring games that you can't miss.
All stats via cfbstats.com
We're kicking off our list of can't-miss games with a team that captured just one victory in 2013.
That would be the Sonny Dykes-led Cal Bears, who you'd like to think will at least notch a few more wins this season. But much of that will depend on the improvement of quarterback Jared Goff, who was solid as a true freshman this past fall.
Goff completed over 60 percent of his passes for nearly 3,500 yards and 18 touchdowns. He did toss 10 interceptions, but in an offense that chucks it around sometimes 50 or 60 times per game, that's not too bad.
What we'll be looking for from Goff is a higher completion percentage and more touchdown passes. Heck, even the yardage total should increase in Dykes' "Bear Raid" system. But consistency through the air is only one aspect of the program that needs to see improvement, and it might be the least pressing issue at the moment.
Of greater note is the state of the running game, where freshman Khalfani Muhammad rushed for 445 yards and four scores on the season. But Muhammad has blinding speed and averaged over six yards per carry, so regardless of Dykes' pass-heavy philosophy, mixing in a more consistent ground attack has to be a priority.
Finally, we turn to the defense, which allowed an astounding 45.9 points per game in 2013. It won't matter how much the offense improves if this unit can't shave at least 15 points off that mark next season.
Cal may not be an intriguing program to those around the country, but the potential is there especially with the potent offense. We'll be extremely curious to see how the run-pass balance progresses and if any names on defense can step up and help erase the horrid memories left by the porous 2013 unit.
It's only head coach Jim Mora's third season at UCLA, but it's safe to say this is put-up-or-shut-up time for the Bruins.
The program is on an upward trajectory, but 2014 could very well be quarterback Brett Hundley's final season at the helm of the offense, and everyone around him should be improved from 2013.
Hundley had an almost identical completion percentage this past season compared with his freshman year, but he had 700 fewer yards passing and five fewer touchdown throws. He did knock off a pair of interceptions from his stat line, and he more than doubled his rushing numbers.
All in all, Hundley had a solid campaign as a sophomore, and yet, the ceiling is still so much higher than where he currently sits. While the big-armed signal caller won't be featured heavily in the Bruins' spring game, it'll still be interesting to see how sharp he looks in his first action of the new year.
On defense, the team must replace linebackers Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt, two leaders who dominated games for long stretches at a time. But up front and in the secondary, this could be the strongest club in the conference.
The same could be said for the offensive line, which returns everyone except for standout guard Xavier Su'a-Filo. Question marks lie with the receiving corps and running backs, as the team's leading pass-catcher returning in 2014 is Jordan Payton, who had just 471 yards and four scores.
Will anyone step up in the spring game and help build even more buzz for the fall? These are the kinds of questions we hope will be answered when UCLA takes the field in late April.
It will be tough for Washington to make serious noise on a national level in 2014, but that doesn't mean the Huskies aren't one of the teams garnering the most intrigue at the moment.
That's because the program hired Chris Petersen away from Boise State, a man who made the Broncos a national powerhouse and who turned many low-level recruits into NFL stars (see RB Doug Martin and LT Ryan Clady).
But while a coaching change is one thing that captures attention, replacing a trio of offensive stars is an even bigger magnet. We're talking of course about quarterback Keith Price, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and running back Bishop Sankey.
Sankey was one of the top running backs in the country, while the connection between Price and Seferain-Jenkins was on full display nearly every week. Not only must the team adjust to a new coach, it must find answers on offense right away.
Adding to the challenge of that is the uncertainty about the futures of quarterback Cyler Miles and wide receiver Damore'ea Stringfellow, who were allegedly involved in an altercation following the Super Bowl in February (via The Seattle Times).
On defense, the development of Shaq Thompson will be under the microscope as well as the play of the defensive line.
All of this factors into what should be an exciting time for Husky fans. There are a number of questions to be answered, but Petersen is a proven coach and his first unveiling of his squad in April will be a can't-miss event.
One of the questions out in Pac-12 country has long been: What are the Arizona Wildcats capable of?
It's been answered on a couple occasions, such as the 2009 season when the team was one conference win away from playing in the Rose Bowl, or in 2013, when Rodriguez's offense shredded through the mighty Oregon Ducks.
The question has turned into: Will that potential ever turn into something concrete and lasting?
Losing running back Ka'Deem Carey and quarterback B.J. Denker might lead you to believe it's not going to happen in 2014, but several factors give the Wildcats a real chance to accomplish their goals.
The first is the return of wide receiver Austin Hill to an already loaded receiving corps. Whoever wins the quarterback job will have no shortage of talented targets. The second factor is a defense that improved by 10 points per game in 2013.
The final factor is a quarterback competition that is guaranteed to produce a battle-tested signal caller. Anu Solomon, Connor Brewer and Jesse Scroggins are all talented and getting a glimpse at what each of these players is capable of is worth any college football fans' attention.
Will Arizona produce a spring game full of quality quarterback play and tough-nosed defense, or will it be a slugfest lacking any discernible good qualities? Finding an answer to that very question is why we can't wait to watch the Wildcats' spring game.
There's a decent chance you're already sick of the quarterback battle between Cody Kessler and Max Browne, but the fact of the matter is the result could have a significant impact on the college football landscape.
That alone makes the spring game extremely interesting, because most people have simply heard about Browne's talent without actually seeing it on the field.
But since that topic has been (and will continue to be) covered at length, we'll move toward other reasons why the USC spring game tops the list as the Pac-12's No. 1 can't-miss contest.
Such as, well, there's that whole new head coach thing going on. We're talking about the man in the picture, former Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian.
On one hand, Sarkisian has experience with the Trojans having served under Pete Carroll, and he took over a Huskies team that won zero games in 2008 and led it to nine wins in 2013. On the other hand, Washington never really took that next step despite boasting the talent to do so, and "bigger" names were certainly available when USC's coaching search began.
His performance in Year 1 will be heavily scrutinized and that starts with the spring game.
There's a lot to like about the Trojans in 2014, from the running back stable to the defensive line and coaching staff. We won't be able to read the first chapter until the fall, but we can at least check out the preview on the back cover during the spring game.