If you were to place a bet today that a team from the Pac-12 would reach the inaugural College Football Playoff, you'd probably get pretty decent odds given the squads that schools like Stanford and Oregon have produced in recent years.
Winning the conference in 2014 will be no easy task, and the likelihood that someone will reach December unscathed is slim. However, the gauntlet each team faces should be formidable enough that whoever is holding the trophy after the conference title game will have earned a spot in the final four.
To the surprise of no one, the Pac-12 media poll listed Oregon as the league favorite entering the season, with the Ducks garnering 37 of the 39 first-place votes in the North Division and 24 of the 39 votes for who will win the title game.
UCLA, a team trending up at the moment, also received 37 first-place votes in the South Division. The only other programs to receive a first-place vote for the Pac-12 championship game were USC and Stanford, with one each.
While the preseason pecking order has been made clear, rarely does the plot move forward without any twists or turns. With the ultimate goal being a spot in the College Football Playoff, let's take a look at every Pac-12 team's odds to wind up in the top four and earn a trip to the semifinals.
|Team||Odds||Preseason Poll Rank||2013-14 Record|
The Favorite: Oregon Ducks
Some folks despise preseason pieces that go the expected route in terms of highlighting the best teams and the best players, but you have to find some pretty wild reasons not to see Oregon as the favorite in the conference right now.
Among those doubts could be skepticism about Mark Helfrich, the glaring lack of depth in the front seven or perhaps the spring injury to Bralon Addison that left the receiving corps as inexperienced as ever.
But quarterback Marcus Mariota makes up for all of that and then some. No, he won't ever line up at nose tackle and wreak havoc in the backfield, but the star dual-threat signal-caller has thrown for 63 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions the past two seasons. He's also rushed for nearly 1,500 yards and 14 scores in that same time frame.
He returns as one of the preseason Heisman Trophy favorites, and he'll be guarded by perhaps the best offensive line in the conference, led by the anchor in the middle, Hroniss Grasu. The Ducks are deep at tight endm and though Keanon Lowe is the only returning wideout with over 200 career receiving yards, young talents like Devon Allen and Darren Carrington are waiting in the wings.
The defense has a few question marks at every level, but Ifo Ekpre-Olomu at cornerback isn't one of them. He's one of the nation's best in the secondary, and the linebackers should be much better than the 2013 group with the maturation of Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick.
One reason the Ducks feel like the favorite to reach the College Football Playoff out of the Pac-12 teams is that the schedule sets up nicely. They'll get a September visit from a highly touted Michigan State squad, and a win would make one of the early statements of the year.
Stanford, Washington and Arizona all travel to Autzen, while the Ducks miss both USC and Arizona State on the schedule. Trips to UCLA and Oregon State figure to be challenging, but Helfrich's squad would probably still land in the Pac-12 title game with one loss, and then you have to figure the conference champion will have a place in the final four.
The Best Value: USC Trojans
Before you scoff at the notion of a team like USC being a great value bet to make the College Football Playoff, understand that the Trojans are roaring back whether you like it or not. They toppled Stanford last year en route to 10 wins, though you'd hardly know the win total with all of the attention on Oregon and UCLA.
As for talent, well, no team in the league can match USC. Depth, however, is another matter. Still dealing with the aftermath of crippling sanctions, new coach Steve Sarkisian's team will be thin across the board, and a rash of injuries could turn "best value" into "Las Vegas nightmare."
But quarterback Cody Kessler figures to be much improved after a solid first season, and the running back stable looks stronger than ever with the trio of Javorius Allen, Tre Madden and Justin Davis. Nelson Agholor leads a talented receiving corps, and if the offense can jell under Sark, there's no reason to think it can't score 35-40 points per game.
On defense, Leonard Williams is the big name to watch up front, but safeties Leon McQuay III and Su'a Cravens could be the scariest duo of the past decade by the end of the season, and that's saying something given the Trojans' history at the position.
The schedule isn't terribly difficult, though trips to UCLA and Stanford won't be easy. Then there's Notre Dame in nonconference play, but the Irish travel to Los Angeles. With the showdown against the Cardinal coming in Week 2, we'll have a good idea of what this team is capable of right away.
The main reason USC is the best value bet: If the talent comes together, the Trojans have the players to make a championship run. That's a monstrous "if" to be sure, but no one's eyes would pop out if it happened.
Which Pac-12 team has the best chance to reach the College Football Playoff?
The Sleeper: Stanford
How can the reigning two-time champions of the conference be the sleeper to make the playoff? Start with the fact that Oregon and UCLA finished 1-2 in the preseason media poll. David Shaw could probably care less what the media thinks, but the questions about Stanford seem to be growing in number throughout the offseason.
It started with your basic doubts about how the team will replace its veteran leaders like Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy. Then, as the Ducks and Bruins began garnering buzz, the Cardinal's quarterback situation started to look shaky, the running back depth turned into a major concern, and the defense got younger and more inexperienced.
There's no reason to view this Stanford team any differently than you did back after it lost the Rose Bowl to Michigan State, but the fact is that running back Tyler Gaffney is gone, Kevin Hogan does lack the dynamic abilities of Brett Hundley and Mariota (or he hasn't shown it yet at least), and both Skov and Murphy were hugely important over the past couple seasons.
All of that said, this team knows how to win and has a system that allows it to do so. While the players on offense may be young and green, they aren't lacking talent. Wide receiver Ty Montgomery is one of the best all-around pass-catchers in the country, and according to Bryan Fischer of NFL.com, David Shaw recently compared Andrus Peat to Jonathan Ogden, probably the best offensive tackle of all time.
So while Oregon and UCLA are the sexier picks to reach the College Football Playoff, don't be surprised to see Stanford sneak up yet again and earn a trip to the final four.
The Best Long Shot: Oregon State
Any time you're evaluating a team that can score points, you can throw the rule book out the window. It doesn't matter that the Beavers didn't beat anyone of note in 2013, and the fact that receiver Brandin Cooks is gone won't hurt as much with quarterback Sean Mannion back and ready to roll.
The defense is full of questions, especially up front, but the secondary led by cornerback Steven Nelson looks quite strong. None of it amounts to what you would call a dangerous team or even a program worthy of being on the national radar.
But the Beavers simply know how to score and score often. And with Mannion boasting an NFL-caliber arm, no defense is safe. When things come together on offense for Mike Riley and company, Oregon State is going to put up some scary numbers. You can take it to the bank that it'll knock off a ranked team or two in 2014.
If things come together and manage to stay together, that's when we could see some special things happen. You aren't going to bet on Oregon State to make the playoff, but crazier things have happened. Actually, they happen every year. Will we see some of the magic appear in Corvallis?
All stats via cfbstats.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.