5 Most Likely Matchups for the 2014 Pac-12 Championship Game
The college football postseason is going to be something special in 2014, especially with the addition of a new four-team playoff. However, winning your own conference should still be the primary goal, as higher goals aren't usually attainable without the league belt.
In the Pac-12, all of your regulars are sitting at the table hoping for more than just a piece of the pie. The past two years have seen Stanford take home the prize while the three years before that, it was all Oregon. UCLA is also a strong contender, and there's a growing buzz about Washington with Chris Petersen at the helm.
The rules are pretty simple, and you're likely returning from a four-year expedition with no cell service or Internet if you're just now hearing about the Pac-12 title game. The winner of each division, the North and the South, will meet up in Santa Clara at Levi's Stadium (this part's new) for the right to be called conference champion.
So which teams will face off on that special December day? Will it be a surprising newcomer unfamiliar with competing for titles in recent years? Or will it be a matchup so obvious that we can predict it six months ahead of time?
Here are the five most likely matchups for the 2014 Pac-12 championship game.
5. Arizona State vs. Washington
Before you laugh, know that the next four games on this list will feature some very familiar faces, so we thought we'd start off with a semi-realistic choice that could not only happen but adds a little extra flavor to our championship-game-scenario gumbo.
While not as likely as the other four contests on this list, Arizona State and Washington could still take place for a variety of reasons.
Start with Arizona State, which has had its offense humming in recent seasons behind the strong play of quarterback Taylor Kelly. Jaelen Strong, a 1,000-yard receiver, is back, as is one of the top all-around backs in the conference, D.J. Foster. Where things could get dicey is on the defensive side of the ball, but Graham has talent to work with.
For Washington, there are several basic questions that will determine whether the team is ready to actually contend in the Pac-12 North. How will the running game look with Bishop Sankey's departure and a host of unproven backs running behind a less-than-stellar offensive line? Is Cyler Miles one of the league's next great quarterbacks?
Most importantly, how will the team look under first-year head coach Chris Petersen? Will we see his fingerprint immediately, or, as was the case with Sarkisian, will it take him a full year or so to find an identity?
The Sun Devils are going to score points and be involved in a lot of shootouts; that much we know. If the Huskies can find answers to the aforementioned questions, we may just see the two meeting up for an unexpected championship bout.
4. Stanford vs. USC
Now here's an interesting one: Stanford vs. USC for the third time in two seasons and once again with major postseason implications.
The first matchup came last November when David Shaw's team entered the Los Angeles Coliseum and exited into the southern California night with a loss in tow. The second matchup will take place on Sept. 6 as one of the first premier conference tilts in all of college football.
In 2013, Stanford was unable to get much going on offense and letting the Trojans hang around for most of the game eventually came back to bite it. With a defense that could be even better, will USC have similar success against the Cardinal?
And how different will the December matchup look compared with the September one? Will each team steadily increase in performance throughout the year or will dips in momentum create a brand-new game with little relation to the first contest?
It's difficult to guess how this one might play out for a couple reasons. USC has a balanced offense going that's going to rely on the connection between Cody Kessler and Nelson Agholor to get the aerial portion going, but the Cardinal have one of the best secondaries in the country. They also take up plenty of space up front, so there will be little room for Tre Madden and Javorius Allen on the ground.
But the second reason it's tough to take a guess is because we haven't seen the two square off yet in 2014. After Sept. 6, we'll not only know how a rematch might go down, but if either team looks like it has a shot to even reach the conference championship.
3. Oregon vs. USC
Who wouldn't want to see Oregon-USC for all the marbles in the Pac-12 (besides the Bruins, Cardinal, Beavers, Huskies and everyone else of course)?
The burgeoning rivalry has been put on hold over the last couple seasons due to the two programs not playing each other, though that could resume at Levi's Stadium in December. If that's the case, it would be an ideal stage for the schools to resume their series of extremely competitive games.
Go back to 2007 and you'll see a Dennis Dixon-led Oregon squad taking care of a great Trojans team led by Mark Sanchez. USC got major revenge in 2008, and then Jeremiah Masoli and company reversed the plot in 2009. The Ducks then made it a two-game winning streak by winning in 2010, but Matt Barkley marched into Autzen in 2011 and wrecked Oregon's national title hopes.
The Ducks won the most recent matchup in Los Angeles thanks to Marcus Mariota, but the two haven't played in quite some time. Steve Sarkisian will find himself very familiar with Oregon should this matchup occur because his former Huskies team never could solve the fast-paced riddle.
USC, however, has a lot more talent on defense and the offense seems to be scratching the very surface of what it could become. This would be a powerhouse contest that captures the attention of fans around the country.
2. Stanford vs. UCLA
With the Pac-12 championship game being moved to Santa Clara, you might think that this particular matchup would favor Stanford in that regard. It probably does, but only slightly, due to the fact that the Cardinal typically have difficulty filling up their own stadium and the momentum behind the UCLA program is becoming more than just a buzz.
You're likely looking at a near-capacity crowd with a relatively equal mixture of fans eager to see what plays out in the two schools' second title-game meeting in three years.
Adding to the drama would be the fact that it would be the second straight game between the two. That's right; Stanford and UCLA square off in Pasadena on Nov. 28, which means a rematch would be filled with intriguing storylines.
As for the game itself, you're going to get a relatively low-scoring affair, likely in the 20's. Both teams have terrific defenses with a slight edge to the Cardinal, and both offenses have potential but remain inconsistent.
Still, the Bruins have Brett Hundley, and if you're looking for a player who might be the most improved from 2013, he's a great place to start. Then again, aside from last year's Rose Bowl, Stanford has always been able to rise to the occasion when it mattered the most.
You may not like this if you're a Duck or a Trojan, but this would be must-see television throughout the college football landscape.
1. Oregon vs. UCLA
Stanford and Oregon are pretty much the consensus top two teams in the Pac-12 North entering the 2014 season. In the South, UCLA is the unquestioned favorite.
Therefore, our most likely matchup for the championship game pits the Bruins against the team we think has the best chance to win the North: the Ducks.
If it comes true, it would be the second matchup between the two programs during the season, as the two are set to square off in October in Pasadena. That makes this particular idea all the more interesting, as the storyline of who will win the Pac-12 title would be coupled with all of the drama from the first contest.
As for how it might play out, well, that's anyone's guess at this point. Last year, the Ducks trounced UCLA 42-14, although the game was much closer than the score indicates. In fact, the two teams were knotted at 14 well into the third quarter before the Ducks offense hit its stride and the defense capitalized on poor play from both Brett Hundley and his offensive line.
This year's Bruins are a year wiser and more talented than last year's bunch, especially up front. A 28-point win by either side would be shocking. Thankfully, this isn't a prediction article, so I won't have to look too stupid come next December.
However, without having to give a score, we can confidently say that UCLA-Oregon is the most likely matchup for the 2014 Pac-12 Championship.
All stats via cfbstats.com.