College Football: 2014 Pac-12 Predictions
The Pac-12 Conference continues to improve more and more each season. There is better coaching, solid quarterback play and teams that can contend for national championships.
Mark Helfrich’s Oregon Ducks are a heavy favorite to be one of the teams in the final four of the College Football Playoff with arguably the best quarterback in the country, Marcus Mariota. While Oregon hopes to end its two-year Pac-12 title drought, Stanford will look to ruin its chances of advancing to a national championship again.
David Shaw has only done good things at Stanford and will be looking for a third consecutive league title. Out of the South Division, it will be UCLA that wants to finally get over the hump and play in a major bowl game.
Two teams to watch for in the Pac-12 will be Washington and USC. The Huskies gain highly regarded former Boise State coach Chris Petersen, who could be the best thing the program has had in years. The Trojans were fortunate enough to get Steve Sarkisian back from Washington, after he took the job in 2009. These are two teams that could cause chaos in the league this season, but both programs could be a year or two away from winning a conference title.
In a league, which includes quarterbacks Mariota, Brett Hundley, Sean Mannion, Connor Halliday, Kevin Hogan, Taylor Kelly and Cody Kessler, there is bound to be entertaining matchups in Pac-12 play this year.
The conference should be well represented in the new College Football Playoff with at least two teams playing in the six major bowl games.
Pac-12 North: Oregon Ducks
Prediction: 12-1, 8-1 (1st in Pac-12 North)
There is a lot of hype surrounding the Ducks, as they look to clinch their first Pac-12 title in three years. Junior quarterback Marcus Mariota is a Heisman Trophy candidate and will be in charge again of running an always dynamic offense that scored 45.5 points per game last season. Oregon’s loss to division rival Stanford, as well as a blowout loss at Arizona (42-16), cost first-year head coach Mark Helfrich and Co. an opportunity to play for a national championship. Missing out on a College Football Playoff semifinal game would be a huge disappointment for an Oregon program that consists of big playmakers and has averaged 11.4 wins in the last five seasons.
Mariota, who passed for 3,665 yards and 31 touchdowns, will head into the season healthy, after dealing with a knee injury, which limited his running ability near the end of the 2013 season. He still managed to rush for 715 yards and nine touchdowns, but he will be more lethal to defenses with his dual-threat ability. While much of the focus is on Mariota, the backfield will be among the best in the country with junior Byron Marshall and sophomore Thomas Tyner.
Marshall should be one of the best running backs in the Pac-12, after totaling 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. The run game will miss speedster De’Anthony Thomas, but highly recruited true freshman Royce Freeman could make an impact in an already talented ground attack.
Losing Josh Huff, along with Thomas and Daryle Hawkins, may hurt the offense’s production through the air. Not to mention, there is no telling if Bralon Addison, who went down with a torn ACL in spring practice, will return at 100 percent.
The receiving corps will lean on hard-working senior Keanon Lowe to lead a unit that consists of 6’5" sophomore Dwayne Stanford, as well as redshirt freshmen Darren Carrington and Devon Allen. Tight ends Pharaoh Brown and Johnny Mundt will be targets again for Mariota, after combining for 404 yards and five touchdowns.
The offensive line should be among the best in the country, despite losing second-team All-Pac-12 left tackle Tyler Johnstone to a season-ending ACL injury. Second-team All-American center Hroniss Grasu decided to return for his senior season and will be joined by third-team All-Pac-12 right tackle Jake Fisher.
Longtime defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti decided to retire, leaving the job to linebacker coach Don Pellum. Pellum will have five returning starters from a defense, which held opponents to 20.5 points per game last season. Up front, the Ducks lose the talent of tackles Wade Keliikipi and Taylor Hart, meaning defensive ends Deforest Buckner (39 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Tony Washington (60 tackles, 7.5 sacks) will be in charge. Juniors Alex Balducci and Arik Armstead are projected to start at the tackle positions.
The linebacking unit, led by team-leading tackler Derrick Malone (105 tackles, two sacks), will be dangerous to opposing offenses with the depth and experience it brings back from last season. While the linebacking unit looks to be improved from last season, there are questions in the secondary. Second-team All-American senior cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu returns for his senior season, but he’ll be joined by three new starters: Senior Erick Dargan will get his shot at free safety, while redshirt freshman Tyree Robinson will look to start at the strong safety position.
One of the biggest games of the non-conference schedule this year will take place in Eugene on Sept. 6, as reigning Rose Bowl Champion Michigan State comes to town hoping to shut down the Duck offense. A win for the Ducks would put them in good position heading forward in the season. The only other difficult games following Michigan State will be at UCLA (Oct. 11) and at home against Stanford (Nov. 1). If Helfrich’s Ducks go 9-0, watch for a trap game at Utah on Nov. 8. The Utes surprised Stanford last season with a 27-21 home win.
Regardless if the Ducks lose one game during the regular season, they should finally reach the Pac-12 Championship game after a two-year absence. Oregon’s fourth league title in six years would guarantee it a major bowl game and put it in contention for one of the Top Four spots in the College Football Playoff.
Pac-12 North: Stanford Cardinal
Prediction: 10-2, 7-2 (2nd in Pac-12 North)
The interest in Stanford football is at an all-time high. David Shaw has three consecutive BCS games and two consecutive Pac-12 titles under his belt, but how will his Cardinal fair in 2014? The offense will still have weapons, but the defense lost a few of its key playmakers. Regardless, Stanford recently has found a way to get the job done and exceed everyone's expectations.
Junior quarterback Kevin Hogan wasn’t outstanding in 2013, as many would have predicted, but has proven to be a winner. He is 16-3 as a starter and managed to pass for 2,630 yards and 20 touchdowns with only 10 interceptions last season. If there is anything for Hogan to improve on this season, it will be to up his pass efficiency.
One of the most important reasons why Hogan has been successful is because of the talent he has had around him. Powerful runner Tyler Gaffney will be missed in the backfield, but there will be a lot of depth with converted receiver Kelsey Young, Barry Sanders Jr., Remound Wright and Ricky Seale all looking to make an impact in the Cardinal run game.
The receiving game has the potential to be dangerous with senior Ty Montgomery, a second-team All-American kick returner and junior Devon Cajuste. Montgomery has battled knee problems and a right shoulder injury, but, once healthy, will be Hogan’s main guy.
There is also potential at the tight end position with redshirt freshman Austin Hooper. Stanford loses talent upfront from last season, including All-American guard David Yankey. Even though it could take a few games for the line to get in sync, expect another dominating performance from an offensive line, led by second-team All-Pac-12 left tackle Andrus Peat.
One of the elite defenses in the country, which held opponents to 19 points per game and 89.4 rushing yards per game, lost former defensive coordinator Derek Mason to the Vanderbilt head coaching position. Stanford decided to promote outside linebacker coach Lance Anderson to head the defense. The defensive line will look to run-stopping defensive end Henry Anderson, who played in only eight games due to injury last season, to take the lead role with the departure of All-Pac-12 defensive end Ben Gardner.
In Stanford’s 3-4 defensive scheme, its the linebacking unit that has been the heart and soul of the defense. The unit will take a hit with All-Americans Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov taking their talents to the NFL after solid college careers. Senior inside linebacker A.J. Tarpley (93 tackles, one sack) and senior outside linebacker James Vaughters (36 tackles, four sacks) will take the lead this season. They will also be joined by Kevin Anderson and Blake Martinez.
The secondary returns three starters from last year and should be fine, despite losing All-American strong safety Ed Reynolds. A question for the defensive backfield will be if junior cornerback Alex Carter makes a full recovery from a hip injury that affected him in spring practice.
Its first test of the season will come in Week 2, when it hosts USC. The Trojans upset the Cardinal last season 20-17, but it has won the last four of five meetings. A true challenge will come in back-to-back weeks when it travels to Washington (Sept. 27) and Notre Dame (Oct. 4).
A road test at Arizona State (Oct. 18) looks to be Stanford’s final challenge, before its showdown at Oregon on Nov. 1. The winner of the Cardinal-Ducks game has gone on to win the conference title the last four seasons. It shouldn’t be any different this year, as Stanford hopes to knock Oregon off for a third consecutive year. Look for Shaw’s squad to be in contention for one of the major bowl games come bowl season.
Pac-12 North: Washington Huskies
Prediction: 8-5, 4-5 (Tied-3rd in Pac-12 North)
Steve Sarkisian decided to head back to USC, but a Washington program that hasn’t won a conference title since 2000 could be better off with former Boise State coach Chris Petersen. Petersen, who turned Boise State into a mid-major powerhouse, went a combined 92-12 with the Broncos. He will be counted on right away to do good things with a Husky team that returns 14 starters and had its first nine-win season in 13 years.
The offense loses quarterback Keith Price, running back Bishop Sankey and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. That will be a lot of talent to replace for an offense that averaged 499.3 yards per game (13th in the country) and 37.9 points per game (18th in the country).
The quarterback position has been a mystery in fall camp after sophomore Cyler Miles sat out in the spring because of an assault on Seahawks fans after the Super Bowl. Jeff Lindquist has been named as the starter for the season opener against Hawaii, but it doesn't mean Miles or Troy Williams are out of the starting job yet.
The Husky backfield will likely lean on a group of running backs consisting of Dwayne Washington, Lavon Coleman, Deontae Cooper, Jesse Callier and even potential star linebacker Shaq Thompson. There are weapons in the receiving corps, but issues could hold back the Huskies’ production through the air.
Senior Kasen Williams missed basically half of the season with a leg injury and all of spring practice, while Damore'ea Stringfellow was suspended indefinitely because of the Super Bowl assault incident and transferred to Ole Miss. The teams’ top returning receiver Jaydon Mickens (688 yards, five TDs) will be a solid target in the passing game, along with quick sophomore John Ross.
If there is a strength for the offense, it will be an offensive line that returns all five starters from last season. Senior left guard Dexter Charles and senior left tackle Micah Hatchie are potential All-Conference candidates.
The Husky defense begins up front, where all four starters return. The most dangerous of those four starters is senior defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha. After dealing with knee injuries, Kikaha finished second-team All-Pac-12 and recorded an impressive 13 sacks (tied-third in the country). Joining him will be senior nose tackle Danny Shelton, junior defensive end Cory Littleton and senior defensive tackle Evan Hudson.
Shelton has the chance to be an All-Conference type player this season. Thompson, who returns as the team’s leading tackler, will headline a linebacking unit consisting of three-year starter John Timu and junior Travis Feeney. Timu missed two weeks in the spring because of a suspension.
A secondary, which allowed 227.2 passing yards per game, will be the weakest unit heading into the season. Cornerback Marcus Peters is the only returning starter, after recording five interceptions and finishing second-team All-Pac-12 last season. Highly recruited safety Budda Baker could make an impact in Year 1 for the Huskies as well.
Washington will open its season in Hawaii, which will be followed by Eastern Washington, Illinois and Georgia State. Its first real test of the season will be at home against Stanford (Sept. 27), which it has had close games with the last two seasons. In October, the Huskies travel to Oregon (Oct. 18) and host Arizona State (Oct. 25). Both are potential losses, as they were defeated by the Ducks and Sun Devils by a combined 50 points last season.
Washington will have an opportunity to win four of its final five games in November, though, with matchups against Colorado, Arizona, Oregon State and Washington State. UCLA will be its toughest opponent on Nov. 8, but it will be at home. The other game in November to focus on will be at Arizona, where the Huskies have lost the last three times and outscored by a combined 144-45.
Petersen will have success in his first season by hitting at least eight wins.
Pac-12 North: Oregon State Beavers
Oregon State Beavers
Prediction: 7-5, 4-5 (Tied-3rd in Pac-12 North)
Mike Riley returns for his 14th year with Oregon State and will hope to have his team back in the Pac-12 North Division discussion, after an up-and-down 2013 season.
The Beavers started the season off with an embarrassing opening week loss to FCS opponent Eastern Washington before going on to win their next six games. The problem came when the tougher opponents appeared on the schedule and they failed to win their final five regular-season games. This year should be better, especially with the offense getting star quarterback Sean Mannion back for his senior year. Not to mention, John Garrett, brother of Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, will take over offensive coordinator duties.
Mannion is one of the elite quarterbacks in the country, after finishing second in the country with 4,662 yards and 37 touchdowns. The school’s current second-career passing leader is without last year’s Biletnikoff Award winner Brandin Cooks, meaning he will rely on wide receiver Richard Mullaney (788 yards, three TDs) and tight end Connor Hamlett (364 yards, five TDs) as his main targets. Malik Gilmore and Victor Bolden will also see the ball a lot more this year.
While the passing game ranked third in the country (372.6 yards), the run game took a backseat by averaging an awful 94.4 yards per game, which was 115th in the country.
Senior Terron Ward and junior Storm Woods combined for 998 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in 2013. The two played a role in the passing game, but will need to be more productive in the backfield this season. The line loses both starting tackles and returns second-team All-Pac-12 center Isaac Seumalo, as well as sophomore guard Sean Harlow. This part of the offense will likely be the biggest weakness that Garrett will need to deal with.
Oregon State played hard defensively, but things didn’t go well. In the first seven games, the defense surrendered a mediocre 28.4 points per game, but in the final five games things became harder when the offense wasn’t scoring its usual amount of points. In the final five games, the defense gave up 37.2 points per game. The worst performance was when Washington racked up an astounding 69 points, which is the most points ever allowed in a single game by Oregon State.
The Beavers have hope that this season will be better with six returning starters. It starts with a linebacking corps that returns all three starters and has depth. Seniors D.J. Alexander (63 tackles), Jabral Johnson (94 tackles) and Michael Doctor (13 tackles) should make a big impact this season, along with sophomore Rommel Mageo. Doctor played in just two games a year ago due to an ankle injury.
Up front, senior Dylan Wynn is the only returning starter, but look for junior defensive end Jaswha James to be a solid replacement for defensive end Scott Crichton who left school early. Senior strong safety Tyrequek Zimmerman, who led the Beavers with 104 tackles, will head an Oregon State secondary, which returns senior free safety Ryan Murphy (74 tackles, three INTs) and senior cornerback Steven Nelson (62 tackles, six INTs).
Riley’s Beavers should be a solid 3-0, before their Pac-12 opener at USC. An upset win at the Coliseum, which the program hasn’t accomplished since 1960, would potentially help Oregon State achieve a 6-0 record prior to traveling to Stanford on Oct. 25. The final three games in November against Arizona State, Washington and Oregon will define the Beavers season.
Pac-12 North: Washington State Cougars
Washington State Cougars
Prediction: 6-6, 3-6 (5th in Pac-12 North)
Things appear to be getting better for Mike Leach in Pullman after the Cougars played in their first bowl game since 2003. They blew a 45-30 lead to Colorado State with three minutes remaining in the New Mexico Bowl and lost 48-45.
That shouldn’t be anything to focus on heading into 2014, though, as Washington State made strides by going on the road and upsetting USC and Arizona. Not to mention, the offense gets another season with potentially one of the best quarterbacks in school history, Connor Halliday.
Halliday, who finished third in the country with 4,597 yards and 34 touchdowns, will be one of the best gunslingers in college football this season. A few areas he must improve on are interceptions and completion percentage. Although Halliday threw the ball a whopping 714 times last season, he managed to have the most interceptions in the country (22). Him turning the ball over and not improving his completion percentage of 62.9, could be the difference between the Cougars winning or losing games this season.
A reason why Halliday could really thrive in his senior year is because of the players who make up the receiving corps. Third-team All-Pac-12 junior Gabe Marks (807 yards, seven TDs), who struggled with off-the-field issues in the offseason, will headline a group of receivers who gave the Cougar offense a more than impressive average of 368 yards per game last season. Besides Marks, Halliday will rely on spreading the ball out to Dom Williams (647 yards, seven TDs), River Cracraft (614 yards, three TDs) and Vince Mayle (539 yards, seven TDs).
While the Air Raid offense was a proven success in Year 2, the running game was almost dismal. Washington State finished dead last in the country with only 694 yards on the season. Seniors Theron West and Marcus Mason—who led the team with 429 rushing yards and two touchdowns last season—will look to improve the Cougar run game. Mason also caught 52 passes for 390 yards and two touchdowns in 2013. The offensive line lost a lot of experience from last season as juniors Joe Dahl and Gunnar Eklund, both of whom start on the left side, are the only returning starters.
Washington State will look to its three returning starters up front for success this season. Senior defensive tackle Xavier Cooper, a potential All-Conference player who recorded 13.5 tackles for loss in 2013, will be joined by senior defensive tackle Kalafitoni Pole and junior defensive end Destiny Vaeao. The group will need to focus on putting more pressure on opposing teams’ backfields, after only 21 sacks last season.
Junior Darryl Monroe (94 tackles) returns as the team's leading tackler in a linebacking corps that consists of Cyrus Coen, Tana Pritchard and Kache Palacio. The biggest challenge on the defensive side is trying to replace All-American safety Deone Bucannon, who recorded 114 tackles and six interceptions last season, along with two other starters.
A pass defense that already gave up 270.8 yards per game will lean on returning junior free safety Taylor Taliulu and sophomore Daquawn Brown, who dealt with legal issues for an arrest in the offseason.
Washington State opens their 2014 campaign with Rutgers at Centurylink Stadium in Seattle. That game is followed by a road trip to Nevada (Sept. 5) and a home game against Portland State (Sept. 13). While the chances of starting the season 3-0 are realistic, the fourth game could get out of hand for an eighth consecutive season when it hosts Pac-12 title contender Oregon (Sept. 20).
The Cougars get Utah and Cal in back-to-back weeks, which could result in two wins, prior to a difficult road game at Stanford (Oct. 10). From Oct. 25 to Nov. 25, their final four of five games against Arizona, USC, Oregon State and in-state rival Washington could go either way. The only game where Washington State may find itself in trouble is at Arizona State, who it was blown out by 55-21 last year.
Another six-win regular season looks to be a solid bet, but Leach’s squad could always pull off another upset to hit seven wins for the first time since 2003.
Pac-12 North: California Golden Bears
California Golden Bears
Prediction: 2-10, 1-8 (6th in Pac-12 North)
If there was a first-year coach in 2013 who didn’t realize what he was in for, it was definitely Sonny Dykes. The program had its worst season since 2001 and is currently on a 16-game losing streak to FBS opponents. For Cal to get over the hump and improve on last season’s disaster, sophomore Jared Goff needs better protection up front and the defense needs to improve and stay healthy.
Goff proved he could be counted on to lead the Bears offense after he threw for a single-season, school-record 3,508 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. The Pac-12 Honorable Mention quarterback underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason, but will look to improve an offense with a talented group of receivers. Juniors Chris Harper (852 yards, five TDs) and Bryce Treggs (751 yards, one TD) will lead a receiving unit that averaged 331.4 yards per game (10th in the country) last season. They’ll be joined by sophomore Kenny Lawler (347 yards, five TDs).
The Cal running game will look to balance out the offense, after averaging only 122.2 yards per game in 2013. It will be time for Khalfani Muhammad, who led the Bears with 445 yards and four touchdowns, and Daniel Lasco to step it up in the backfield. A plus for an offensive line that gave up 35 sacks last season, is that eight players with starting experience return, including junior center Jordan Rigsbee.
Cal brings in new defensive coordinator Art Kaufman to fix a defense that suffered through injures and had a program-worst 45.9 points per game and 529.6 total yards per game last season. The linebacker unit had its fair share of injures and will hope to be more productive with junior outside linebacker Jalen Jefferson and sophomore weakside linebacker Michael Barton back.
The secondary will get junior Avery Sebastian and Stefan McClure back from injury. Sebastian, who suffered an Achilles injury in the first game last season, is back at strong safety, while McClure will make the shift from cornerback to free safety, after injuring his knee in the fifth game last season.
While improvement should take place in a secondary that allowed 341 passing yards per game in 2013, the talent of the defensive line is up in the air. Both defensive end Brennan Scarlett and nose guard Mustafa Jalil will hope to make an impact, after missing all of the 2013 season with injuries.
The non-conference schedule does not benefit the Bears one bit again this season. They open on the road at Northwestern (Aug. 30) and play their last game of the regular season at home against BYU (Nov. 29). At least they'll earn a win in Week 2 again with FCS Sacramento State coming to town. Cal’s first conference win since October 13, 2012, will be at home against Colorado (Sept. 27) or at Washington State (Oct. 4). Any win after would be a surprise and a boost for the program heading into Year 3 under Dykes.
Pac-12 South: UCLA Bruins
Prediction: 10-3, 7-2 (1st in Pac-12)
It’s likely UCLA’s final opportunity to win a Pac-12 title with star junior quarterback Brett Hundley leading the offense. The Bruins played for the Pac-12 title in two of the last three seasons and lost. Jim Mora has done great things with the program in two seasons by winning a combined 19 games, but it's time to end a 16-year title drought in Westwood.
Hundley had an impressive 2013 campaign as he racked up numbers through the air and on the ground. He had a completion percentage of 66.8 by throwing for 3,071 yards and 24 touchdowns. Hundley’s ability to run has also been critical for the offense’s success, as he led the team in rushing last season with 748 yards and 11 touchdowns.
While much of the focus is on Hundley to be a big playmaker in every game, don’t forget about the talent that’s in the run and receiving game. Senior Jordon James (534 yards, five TDs) and sophomore Paul Perkins (573 yards, six TDs) return in the backfield and look to take some of the focus off of Hundley in the run game.
Juniors Devin Fuller and Jordan Payton will look to be bigger targets in the passing game with the loss of team-leading wide receiver Shaquelle Evans to the NFL. Both combined for 911 yards and five touchdowns last season. The offensive line loses second-team All-American guard Xavier Su’a-Filo, but that’s it. The line should be improved with four starters returning and benefit from the addition of Miami (FL) gradate transfer Malcolm Bunche.
Jeff Ulbrich was promoted to defensive coordinator and will have eight returning starters back on a defense that allowed 23.2 points per game last season. The defensive line will consist of Freshman All-American defensive end Eddie Vanderdoes, along with sophomore nose tackle Kenny Clark and senior defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa.
Losing linebackers Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt hurts, but the Bruins still have talent and one of the best linebacking units in the country. Second-team All-Pac-12 senior Eric Kendricks, who led the team with 106 tackles last season, will be joined by Pac-12 Offensive and Defensive Freshman Player of the Year Myles Jack, as well as sophomore Isaako Savaiinaea. The UCLA secondary will also be among the best in the country with Anthony Jefferson and Ishmael Adams. Five defensive backs will be used this season in a new 4-2-5 scheme.
The Bruins start the season with a road trip to Virginia and follow that with a home game against Memphis and a matchup in Arlington against Texas. The first few games of UCLA’s Pac-12 schedule will be difficult with a road game at Arizona State (Sept. 25) and a home game against conference favorite Oregon (Oct. 11), who it has lost to in the last five meetings. The rest of October’s games should be wins, but once November hits the Bruins will need to step up their game. They will travel to Washington (Nov. 8) and host both cross-town rival USC (Nov. 22) and Stanford (Nov. 28).
Mora's team should be a lock for the first Pac-12 Championship game held at the new Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, CA.
Pac-12 South: USC Trojans
Prediction: 9-3, 6-3 (Tied-2nd in Pac-12 South)
Between the firing of Lane Kiffin just five games into the season, interim head coach Ed Orgeron’s magical 6-2 record and interim head coach Clay Helton’s win over Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl, the Trojans managed a respectable 10-4 record. Steve Sarkisian will take the helm at USC after he decided to leave Washington five seasons in. Sarkisian will have the challenge of meeting high expectations for a program that hasn’t won a conference title since 2008.
Junior quarterback Cody Kessler will be the starter under center again this season, after throwing for 2,968 yards and 20 touchdowns in an offense that struggled to be consistent in 2013. Kessler, who finished the season with an MVP performance in the Las Vegas Bowl, will be in charge of running Sarkisian’s up-tempo, no-huddle offense.
Joining Kessler in the backfield will be one of the best running back tandems in the country with junior tailbacks Javorius "Buck" Allen and Tre Madden. Allen rushed for 785 yards and 14 touchdowns, while Madden, who battled hamstring and ankle injuries, rushed for 703 yards and three touchdowns. Madden is currently battling a turf toe injury that has him sidelined. While both Allen and Madden are getting a lot of the attention, it could be sophomore Justin Davis who has a breakout season.
USC is without explosive wider receiver Marqise Lee, who racked up a school-record 3,655 receiving yards in his career. But it still has junior Nelson Agholor who finished third-team All-American as a punt returner last season and led the team with 918 receiving yards and six touchdowns. While Agholor appears to be Kessler’s main target, he will look for help from sophomore Darreus Rogers and senior tight end Randall Telfer. The offensive line, led by third-team All-Pac-12 center Max Tuerk, will be the weakness heading into the season, as it needs to play more consistently and replace both the right guard and right tackle positions.
The Trojans will be led by none other than All-American junior defensive tackle Leonard Williams (74 tackles, six sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss). USC held opponents to only 21.2 points per game (16th in the country) and 335.2 yards per game (335.2 yards per game), but will get a face lift with new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who will run a 3-4 base defense now. A defensive line consisting of Williams, junior nose tackle Antwaun Woods and either Texas Tech transfer Delvon Simmons or Claude Pelon at defensive end, will be among the best in the country.
While the line should be a force to be reckoned with, the linebacking unit should be solid with team-leading tackler Hayes Pullard back. Pullard, who recorded 94 tackles last season, will be at an inside linebacker position with returning starter Anthony Sarao. The Trojan secondary will have weapons with third-team All-Pac-12 senior cornerback Josh Shaw and junior cornerback Kevon Seymour, but upcoming sophomore safeties Su’a Cravens and Leon McQuay are up-and-coming stars. Cravens finished the 2013 season with Freshman All-American honors.
USC will have a tricky first game against Fresno State, which it defeated in last season’s Las Vegas Bowl 45-20. The schedule already gets difficult in Week 2, with Sarkisian getting the opportunity to make an early statement at Stanford with his Trojans. They snapped a four-game losing streak to the Cardinal last season, but haven’t won in Palo Alto since 2008.
October sets up with two critical games against Arizona State and Arizona. A home-win over the Sun Devils on Oct. 4 would likely give USC an upper-hand in the South Division race, while a road game at Arizona on Oct. 11 will be a trap game as usual. The Trojans have struggled in the last six years against the Wildcats with a 4-2 record and outcomes that were decided by seven points or fewer.
If they can get through both Arizona teams with no losses, the schedule will be favorable until the final two games of the season against hated rivals UCLA and Notre Dame. Wins over two teams USC has not defeated since 2011 would give Sarkisian a popularity boost in Year 1.
USC will come close to winning the South Division title, but will lose a heartbreaker to UCLA.
Pac-12 South: Arizona State Sun Devils
Arizona State Sun Devils
Prediction: 8-4, 6-3 (Tied-2nd in Pac-12 South)
It took Todd Graham just two seasons to get his Sun Devils a South Division title and contending for a major bowl game. The offense, led by gunslinger senior quarterback Taylor Kelly, has the talent to put points up on opponents this season and make a run at a Pac-12 title. But the defense will need to step up with just two returning starters back.
Kelly, who threw for 3,635 yards and 28 touchdowns, will head an offense that averaged an impressive 39.7 points per game last season. Not only will he be relied on to make big plays through the air while trying to avoid opposing defenders, but Kelly needs to be a threat in the run game, too. He is the top returning rusher for the Sun Devils, after recording 608 yards and nine touchdowns.
Joining Kelly in the backfield will be Pac-12 Honorable Mention junior running back D.J. Foster (501 yards, six TDs). The No. 2 running back spot will be filled by either senior Kyle Middlebrooks, senior Deantre Lewis (301 yards, one TD) or freshman Kalen Ballage.
While Foster looks to have a big role as the main ball carrier, he will still be a target in the passing game, which returns All-Pac-12 junior wide receiver Jaelen Strong.
Strong, a deep threat who accounted for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns last season, will headline an inexperienced receiving corps. Junior college transfer Eric Lauderdale should be of help to Strong in the pass game, though. Up front, the Sun Devils return three starters and will look for second-team All-Pac-12 left tackle Jamil Douglas, as well as Auburn transfer left tackle Christian Westerman, as a force to be reckoned with.
Graham must replace All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton, second-team All-Pac-12 linebacker Carl Bradford, team-leading tackler linebacker Chris Young, and defensive backs Alden Darby and Robert Nelson. With a lot of talent lost, it will be up to junior-college transfers to make an impact right away.
The defensive line will look to senior defensive end Marcus Hardison and nose tackle Jaxon Hood to lead a line with no returning starters. Junior college transfer defensive end Edmond Boateng could have an opportunity to get in the mix as well. In the linebacking unit, much of the responsibility could lie with true freshman D.J. Calhoun, who enrolled early at Arizona State and had a solid spring showing at the weakside position. Joining Calhoun will be returning strongside linebacker Salamo Fiso.
Like Fiso, free safety Damarious Randall (71 tackles, three INTs) is the only starter back in the secondary. Randall will hope to get help from junior cornerback Lloyd Carrington and All-American junior college cornerback Kweishi Brown in a defensive backfield that lost both starting corners.
A positive aspect for the Sun Devils will be that their first three games come against inferior opponents Weber State, New Mexico and Colorado. These matchups will give the new starters experience prior to facing more quality teams in late September and October.
The schedule gets difficult with a home game against UCLA on Sept. 25 and a road game at USC on Oct. 4. These two games could be a deciding factor on whether Arizona State wins the Pac-12 South Division or not.
The Sun Devils have a bye week following USC and host Stanford on Oct. 18, who they lost to in both meetings last season. The final six games, which include Washington, Utah, non-conference opponent Notre Dame, Oregon State, Washington State and in-state rival Arizona, are all winnable.
The Pac-12 schedule will be difficult for an Arizona State team that must replace most of its starters from 2013, but Graham should have his team in contention to win a second consecutive division title.
Pac-12 South- Utah Utes
Prediction: 6-6, 4-5 (4th in Pac-12 South)
A Utah program that was highly successful in the Mountain West and earned two BCS bids has clearly gone through growing pains of playing in a more competitive Pac-12 Conference. The quarterback injury situation the past few seasons and close losses have been the difference in not achieving a sixth win to become bowl eligible. We’ll find out right away, though, if Kyle Whittingham has his team ready to go.
The success of the offense will depend on the health of junior starting quarterback Travis Wilson, who battled a hand injury and was diagnosed with a pre-existing head trauma condition. One of the questions coming in is how productive he can be in new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen’s up-tempo spread offense.
Wilson threw for 1,827 yards and 16 touchdowns, but must avoid 16 interceptions again, otherwise Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson could hear his name called. The Ute backfield will look to team-leading returning rusher Bubba Poole (607 yards, two TDs). Poole will be joined by junior Devontae Booker, who just returned after missing all of the 2013 season because of academics.
The receiving corps is headlined by potential All-Pac-12 candidate Dres Anderson, who led the team with 1,002 yards and eight total touchdowns. Poole will also try to make an impact in the pass game, along with junior Kenneth Scott. Up front, it will be up to left tackle Jeremiah Poutasi and left guard Junior Salt to lead a line that was asked to lose weight because of the switch to a fast-paced offensive scheme.
Utah surrendered 28 points per game and had difficulty covering the pass as opponents racked up 267.3 yards per game. It also finished the season tied for last with only three interceptions. At least the Utes did one positive thing by recording 39 sacks.
The defense loses a versatile player in Trevor Reilly, who led the team with 100 tackles and 8.5 sacks last season. It’s now up to senior end Nate Orchard (50 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss) and junior middle linebacker Jason Whittingham (81 tackles, one sack) to step up and be the main focus in Utah’s 4-3 defense.
Orchard has the ability to shift around in the scheme and cause opposing teams problems, while Whittingham and Jared Norris will lead a linebacking corps that was bit by the injury bug in the spring. The unit is thin with Jacoby Hale tearing his ACL and Miami transfer Gionni Paul breaking his foot.
Senior strong safety Brian Blechen is back to help a struggling Utah secondary after sitting out last season with tendinitis in his knee. Blechen will get help from returning starter Eric Rowe, who will shift from free safety to cornerback.
Utah will be tested early with a home matchup against Fresno State (Sept. 6) and a tough road game at Michigan (Sept. 20). The schedule doesn’t get any easier, as it must go through the gauntlet of the Pac-12 from October to mid-November.
Whittingham’s Utes will travel to UCLA on Oct. 4, then get a bye week before facing Oregon State, USC, Arizona State, Oregon and Stanford. With such a difficult conference schedule, Utah needs to defeat Arizona at home on Nov. 22 and win at Colorado on Nov. 29 to advance to its first bowl game since 2011.
Pac-12 South: Arizona Wildcats
Prediction: 6-6, 3-6 (5th in Pac-12 South)
The Wildcats come off their second consecutive eight-win season, but what will be in store for Rich Rodriguez’s team without an experienced quarterback and the loss of two-time All-American running back Ka'Deem Carey? Between trying to match last season’s rushing attack and improving defensively, it could be Rich Rod’s toughest test yet.
Replacing B.J. Denker has been harder than anticipated with unproven quarterbacks on the roster this season. USC transfer Jesse Scroggins, who originally backed up Matt Barkley, is hoping to get the starting job in his senior season. But redshirt freshman Anu Solomon and Texas transfer Connor Brewer could have their names called when the starting job is announced. Solomon, a winner of four state titles at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, has been Scroggins' main challenger. Former LSU transfer Jerrard Randall is looking for a backup role.
While the quarterback situation remains somewhat of a mystery, a run game that averaged 264.9 yards per game last season, will have a group of running backs who have never carried the football in their college career. Look for Terris Jones-Grigsby, redshirt freshman Zach Green and true freshman Nick Wilson to all take part in the Wildcat backfield.
The best unit heading into the 2014 season will be the receiving corps. Senior Austin Hill, who missed the entire 2013 year with a knee injury, is back and ready to go, along with Notre Dame transfer Davonte' Neal and five other receivers who recorded 12 receptions or more last season.
Football Writers All-American sophomore Nate Phillips (696 yards, seven TDs) and sophomore Trey Griffey, who had two touchdown receptions in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl, will also be solid targets in the pass game. Up front, it will be up to four veteran linemen to keep opposing defenses out of an inexperienced backfield.
Arizona returns six starters to a defense that surrendered 24.2 points per game and 401.1 yards per game last season. The defensive line, led by senior Reggie Gilbert and LSU transfer Jordan Allen, needs to cause more chaos in opponents' backfields after getting to the quarterback just 24 times.
Second-team Freshman All-American inside linebacker Scooby Wright (83 tackles, nine tackles for loss) will head a linebacking unit that will be without its top-two team-leading tacklers Jake Fischer and Marquis Flowers. The secondary returns four of its five starters from 2013, including safeties Tra’Mayne Bondurant (72 tackles, four INTs) and Jared Tevis (83 tackles, one INT). Bondurant originally decided to leave the program early in August, but decided to stay a day later and pay his dues.
The Wildcats get time to adjust with their new starting quarterback, as they’ll have four manageable games right out of the gate. The challenge begins when Arizona travels to Oregon (Oct. 2), who it upset for the first time since 2007 last season. It also plays at home against USC (Oct. 11). The month of the November, though, will show the country what this team is capable of. Rich Rod’s team must face UCLA, Washington, Utah and in-state rival Arizona State. It’s .500 against those four teams in the last five seasons.
The Wildcats have many questions heading into Week 1 concerning their backfield. If the offense can execute Rodriguez’s spread option offense as an entirety heading into Pac-12 play, an eight-win regular season is a possibility.
Pac-12 South- Colorado Buffaloes
Prediction: 4-8, 1-8 (6th in Pac-12 South)
Second-year head coach Mike Macintyre won as many games in his first season with Colorado, as Colorado did in 2011 and 2012 combined. A majority of last season’s starters are back, meaning there is an opportunity to improve in the win column.
Sophomore quarterback Sefo Liufau is the starter, after taking over midway through last season and passing for 1,779 yards and 12 touchdowns. Liufau will have his work cut out for him in an offense that only scored 25.4 points per game and was blown out by quality opponents.
Not to mention, if he doesn’t perform, the Buffs will be left to backups who have never taken a snap at the FBS level. In the backfield, it will be up to Christian Powell (562 yards, three TDs) and Michael Adkins (535 yards, six TDs) to improve a Colorado run that game, which ranked 108th in the country in rushing yards per game (120.8).
With the loss of All-Pac-12 wide receiver Paul Richardson to the NFL, it will be up to a group of receivers to make up for the loss. Junior Nelson Spruce and senior D.D. Goodson will need to be solid targets for Liufau if there is going to be any chance of success in the pass game. Both players combined for 956 yards and six touchdowns last season.
The offensive line, led by senior right guard Daniel Munyer, needs to improve in the run blocking department and stay healthy due to lack of depth.
The Buffs surrendered an awful 38.3 points per game in their third season as a member of the Pac-12 and could show signs of improvement this season. Sophomore Addison Gillam, a freshman All-American middle linebacker, recorded a team-high 107 tackles. Joining Gillam in a solid linebacking corps will be Woodson Greer and Kenneth Olugbode. The secondary unit has depth with cornerback Greg Henderson (58 tackles, 10 pass breakups) and two other returning starters. Up front, the responsibility will go to two-year starting junior tackle Josh Tupou.
Non-conference matchups against Colorado State, UMass and Hawai'i should all be wins giving Colorado three wins in its first four games. The loss would come at home to Arizona State on Sept. 13. The Buffs' best chance to reach a bowl game for the first time in seven years would be to defeat California (Sept. 27), Arizona (Nov. 8) and Utah (Nov. 29) at home. Unfortunately, six wins for the Colorado program is about a year or two away, and it will suffer another difficult four-win season.
Pac-12 Championship: Oregon over UCLA
Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, C.A., will be the first neutral site to host a Pac-12 Championship game. Oregon and UCLA will face off in their second matchup of the season with one team seeking revenge after a loss on Oct. 11 at the Rose Bowl.
The Ducks will be in their first conference title game since 2011, where they defeated the Bruins 49-31. UCLA, on the other hand, will be in their third conference title game since 2011. Unfortunately, it has lost both Pac-12 title games.
Junior quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley will be the main focus in this matchup, as both have the luxury of being dual-threat weapons in offenses that are capable of putting points on the scoreboard. Not to mention, both teams have playmakers in the backfield.
While the offenses will play a critical role in this matchup, it will be Oregon’s defense that comes up big when it needs to. Creating a few three-and-outs for the Bruins offense in the third quarter will be the difference-maker in the high flying Ducks taking down UCLA for a seventh consecutive time.
Oregon will be on their way to a College Football Playoff semifinal game.