Pac-12 Football: Power Ranking 5 Teams with the Best Chance to Win Conference
At the end of the Pac-12 season, only one team will be able to call itself a champion as it hoists the league trophy in the air with jubilation. Since 2009, only Oregon and Stanford have held the title, but the number of teams that could snatch it in 2014 is more than usual.
In fact, while both the Ducks and Cardinal are among the favorites yet again, no one would be surprised to see two or three other teams win the conference crown.
Finally, there are the long shots that have talent and may just sneak up on everyone if the heavyweights aren't careful.
We're power ranking the five Pac-12 teams with the best chance to win the league in 2014. Does your team make the cut?
5. Arizona State Sun Devils
Arizona State just edged out rival Arizona for the No. 5 spot in our power rankings. While the Wildcats have an incredibly deep receiving corps, they'll be starting a quarterback with zero experience as well as a brand new running back.
As for the Sun Devils, coach Todd Graham isn't entering 2014 without his own set of problems. The defense lost major talent at all three levels, and Marion Grice was one of the best unsung heroes in college football over the past couple of seasons.
However, the ever-steady Taylor Kelly returns for his fourth season in Tempe and for the third time as the starting quarterback. In 2013, he accounted for 37 touchdowns and over 4,200 yards of offense.
His experience at the position cannot be understated, and despite Grice's departure from the backfield, he'll have speedy, all-purpose threat D.J. Foster to help him carry the load behind the line of scrimmage. Foster had over 1,100 yards from scrimmage in 2013 to go along with 10 touchdowns.
The real breakout star of last fall, though, was wide receiver Jaelen Strong, who caught 75 passes for 1,122 yards and seven scores. He returns as one of college football's best pass-catchers.
As mentioned, the defense could be a bit shaky to start out the year, but the talent is there. September starts out slow with Weber State and New Mexico on the docket, followed by Colorado. Then, a four-game stretch of UCLA, at USC, Stanford and at Washington will likely make or break the season for Graham's squad.
If the defense can be competitive enough to get stops here and there by the time the schedule toughens up, Arizona State could have an outside shot to capture the South Division.
4. USC Trojans
USC was one of the more interesting teams to follow in 2013. Due to the fact that the Trojans were breaking in a new starter, Cody Kessler, expectations weren't too crazy. But it's still USC and with all of the talent on the roster, many folks probably expected a nine- or 10-win season.
Early on, any high expectations had by fans dissipated quickly as the squad got off to a 4-3 start, which included the firing of Lane Kiffin. Ed Orgeron took over, and the Trojans finished with 10 wins and a resounding victory over Fresno State in postseason play.
The biggest reason USC makes this list is the maturation of Kessler at quarterback. The junior threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns and was markedly improved at the end of the season from his September self. Nelson Agholor is the only wide receiver with a reputation for making big plays, though the talent is there around him.
The running back stable is loaded once again, and both Tre Madden and Javorius Allen will keep things interesting on the ground. Depending on the run-pass ratio employed by Steve Sarkisian, both backs could be up over the 800-yard mark after each topped 700 in 2013.
Linebacker is a question mark after Hayes Pullard, and the talented secondary is thin (though incoming freshman Adoree Jackson and John Smith look like immediate difference-makers). But the defensive line, anchored by Leonard Williams, will be nightmarish for opposing offenses.
Beating UCLA and Arizona State will be crucial for the Trojans if they hope to have a shot at capturing the South. That will depend largely on the continued development of Kessler, the growth of the offensive line and the maturation of the secondary on defense.
If Sarkisian brings it all together in year one, the Trojans could be the team traveling north for the conference title game.
3. Stanford Cardinal
It might seem odd to see your two-time defending Pac-12 champions all the way down in the No. 3 spot. But the fact of the matter is that Stanford lost a ton of key playmakers and the road in 2014 is an uphill one.
There's a lot to like about David Shaw's team, however, so we'll get the negatives out of the way early.
The first and perhaps most important one comes from the program's bread and butter on offense: the running game. Khalil Wilkes, Cameron Fleming and David Yankey are all gone from an offensive line that simply mashed defensive fronts all season long.
In the backfield, fans will no longer be able to count on Tyler Gaffney or Anthony Wilkerson, although that's potentially a bittersweet situation given the talent waiting in the wings. Ty Montgomery is an absolute beast at wide receiver, and Devon Cajuste plays a decent Robin to Montgomery's Batman.
The key on offense will be allowing Kevin Hogan to become more of a playmaker and finding greater production out of the tight end position, which suffered greatly in 2013 after losing Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz in the previous offseason.
On defense, you can expect more of the same from the Cardinal: tough, hard-nosed play that focuses on winning the line of scrimmage and never bending or breaking. Losing Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Ed Reynolds and Ben Gardner isn't ideal, but you have to believe Shaw will find a way to make things work.
All in all, this is a very dangerous team that should remain in every game because of its defense. However, with road trips to Oregon, Arizona State, UCLA and Notre Dame, surviving the season with only one loss is a difficult task.
The name of the game here is offense, and if the Cardinal can become a little more dynamic than in previous years, they'll have an excellent chance to win a third straight Pac-12 crown.
2. UCLA Bruins
Slotting UCLA ahead of Stanford could ruffle a few feathers out there, but which team would you rather face in 2014? Not to repeat the previous slide, but it's hard to imagine Stanford running away from anyone with that predictable offense.
The Bruins, on the other hand, have Brett Hundley. They also have a solid running back tandem in Paul Perkins and Jordon James, a young but improving offensive line and more talent at wideout than they've had in years.
What makes this an interesting team for the upcoming season is the fact that they haven't really put it all together just yet. The parts are there, but they've yet to be put together in such a way that equals a championship-caliber team.
While the offense has loads of potential, it's the defense that has already realized what it can be. Myles Jack is the name everyone knows, but Eric Kendricks is another stud at linebacker, and the defensive line will be filthy behind Eddie Vanderdoes, Ellis McCarthy and Owamagbe Odighizuwa, who is coming off of an injury.
The Bruins will be the kind of team that, when they bring their A-game, will hang with and maybe beat anybody. Physically, they match up well with anyone in the SEC, and the firepower on offense cannot be ignored.
But inconsistency, like we saw in the second half at Oregon in 2013, could crop up again, which may result in an untimely loss or closer than expected win over a middling program. Expecting Jim Mora's men to bring their A-game each week is ridiculous. But if they can manage the down weeks and bring it against the Ducks, Cardinal and Trojans, we could be looking at a new champion in the Pac-12.
1. Oregon Ducks
We'll begin this slide by being as honest as possible: Quarterback Marcus Mariota is by far the biggest reason for having Oregon in the No. 1 spot.
Though we saw Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel and even AJ McCarron receiving more headlines in 2013, Mariota was as good if not better than anyone when fully healthy. But that's been written about, and despite the stud signal-caller laying a legitimate claim to the title of best player in the game, the Ducks wouldn't have the top spot with Mariota and nobody else.
What helps their case is the dynamic backfield of Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner and an offensive line featuring the veteran trio of Hroniss Grasu, Tyler Johnstone and Jake Fisher, each of whom could belong on an NFL team in a year's time.
Losing Bralon Addison was devastating to the receiving corps, but young guys like Darren Carrington and Devon Allen could make immediate impressions as redshirt freshmen.
On defense, the front is razor-thin and lacks experience, making it the biggest question mark on the team. DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead will need to have career years if the Ducks want to make an impact nationally.
On the bright side, the linebacker spot is a year older and should be a strength, and the secondary is a mixed bag with three new starters to go alongside veteran cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
The conference slate will likely come down to road games at UCLA and Oregon State and a home tilt with Stanford. If the Ducks can get through those three (which is much easier said than done), they'll have a chance at going undefeated for the second time in five years.
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