The competition for the Pac-12 Conference's Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year awards for 2015 is a tale of two races, and it is eerily similar to how the 2016 presidential race is shaping up.
On the offensive side, you have a completely wide-open field with plenty of viable candidates but no defined favorites, much like the battle to land the Republican nomination. That would make the defensive competition the Democratic race, where there's a clear leader whom everyone else is chasing.
Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota was the 2014 Pac-12 Offensive POY, which was part of a laundry list of awards he won, including the Heisman Trophy. He has since moved on to the NFL, but there's no shortage of potential 2015 winners waiting to fill that void, including a few from his former team.
The defensive competition is far less uncertain, as Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright returns for his junior year as the reigning Pac-12 Defensive POY as well as the current holder of the Bednarik, Lombardi and Nagurski awards. Wright—who led the FBS in tackles (163), tackles for loss (29) and forced fumbles (six) in 2014—is looking to be just the third repeat winner of the league's Defensive POY and the second straight after Arizona State defensive end Will Sutton claimed the honor in 2012-13.
Before making any predictions, let's first identify the most likely contenders for each award:
|Top 2015 Pac-12 Offensive POY Candidates|
|Mike Bercovici||Arizona State||QB||Sr.|
|D.J. Foster||Arizona State||RB/WR||Sr.|
|Bleacher Report research|
We probably could have gone far deeper with this candidate list, but anything more than 12 contenders makes for too difficult a field to handicap. This group includes four returning all-conference first- or second-teamers, five honorable mention selections, two longtime starting quarterbacks and the league's most intriguing newcomer.
Each player is worthy of consideration at this point, but in order for one to separate himself from the pack, certain things have to go his way—not just in terms of individual and team performance, but also in the way he's used.
Paul Perkins led the Pac-12 in rushing in 2014 with 1,575 yards but went mostly unnoticed, even within the league. He was only an honorable mention selection, playing second fiddle to UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley last season, but now that Hundley has moved on—and the Bruins are likely to start a true freshman, Josh Rosen, at QB—it's very likely that Perkins will take on a much greater role.
"Whatever my role has to be in this offense to win a national championship, I'll do that," Perkins told Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer.
But Perkins might not even be the Pac-12's leading rusher this season, not with how Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is talking about his expected use of Devontae Booker. Booker ran for 1,512 yards in 2014 but didn't become a major part of the Utes' offense until league play began, then he averaged more than 26 carries and 133 yards per game over the final 10 contests.
"Whittingham said he expects Booker to take about 30 carries a game next season," wrote ESPN.com's Chantel Jennings, noting that Booker led the conference with 805 yards after contact a year ago.
Other running backs like Arizona's Nick Wilson and Oregon's Royce Freeman, each of whom had a monster freshmen year, could be in line for the POY nod but have to beat out campaigns from their quarterbacks. Anu Solomon's redshirt freshman season was nearly the best in school history for the Wildcats, and he has one of the deepest receiving corps in the country at his disposal. Meanwhile, at Oregon, the impact that Freeman has this season depends heavily on which direction the Ducks go at quarterback.
Vernon Adams is a graduate transfer from FCS school Eastern Washington who isn't scheduled to join Oregon until June. He's yet to formally practice with the Ducks, but because of his past success both overall and against FBS opponents—last year he threw for 475 yards and seven touchdowns against a Washington defense that featured three future first-round NFL draft picks—he's getting hyped as the closest thing to a Mariota successor as there is in the country. But Adams still has to win the starting job, and Jeff Lockie (who was Mariota's backup last season) isn't going to go down without a fight.
Arizona State also has a pair of decent contenders for the award in quarterback Mike Bercovici and running-back-turned-receiver D.J. Foster. Bercovici shined as an injury replacement for Taylor Kelly in 2014 and heads into his first year as a full-time starter with plenty of confidence, while Foster's great pass-catching ability made it an easy decision for Sun Devils coach Todd Graham to shift his 1,000-yard rusher into the slot to better balance his offensive weapons.
The rest of the field consists of a pair of veteran quarterbacks (Stanford's Kevin Hogan and USC's Cody Kessler) who are heading into their third years as starters and could garner strong consideration that includes a "lifetime achievement" boost, as well as a pair of standouts from long-struggling Pac-12 programs who would merit being honored if they can get their teams over the hump.
Jared Goff has thrown for more than 7,400 yards with 53 touchdowns in two seasons and had California in contention for a bowl game entering the final week of 2014. Nelson Spruce, who will become Colorado's all-time leading receiver before 2015 is finished, had three games with at least 13 receptions last year and would likely be a huge part of any resurgence the Buffaloes put together this fall.
|Top 2015 Pac-12 Defensive POY Candidates|
|Bleacher Report research|
If the Offensive POY race is a marathon, the defensive competition certainly could resemble a sprint in that it's going to take a huge burst out of the gate to be able to overtake reigning winner Wright. Each of the candidates listed above is in a great position to do so, but it will take a monster campaign to unseat the incumbent.
The biggest hurdle for Wright to repeat as Defensive POY might be one of perception and raised expectations. It's a common predicament for a returning winner to be expected to at least match, if not improve upon, his numbers from the year before, and falling short of those marks can be interpreted as a sign of a down performance.
However, two-time winner Sutton of ASU saw his numbers dip dramatically from 2012 to 2013, going from 12 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss to four and 13.5, respectively. The fact ASU won the Pac-12 South during Sutton's final season helped aid his cause, while if Arizona isn't able to repeat as champs in the ultra-deep South this year, it could negatively impact Wright's repeat chances.
The players with the best chances to unseat Wright all reside in the Los Angeles area. UCLA linebacker Myles Jack has been the darling of the league for the past two years, setting a precedent early on by becoming the Pac-12's Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2013 when he saw significant time as a running back, and while he's likely to be almost exclusively a defender this year, he's also in position to get himself far more involved in each play.
Jack will be playing inside linebacker this season, which coach Jim Mora said "gets him to the middle of the field where we can utilize his speed," per Jack Wang of InsideSoCal.com.
That will put Jack in position to compete, statistically, with Wright while also helping UCLA replace the production lost by Eric Kendricks (145 tackles).
LA's other team, USC, features a pair of hybrid players whose versatility could get them past Wright. Su'a Cravens was a stellar safety as a freshman, then last year, he was shifted into a spot in the Trojans defense that combined his safety duties with those of an outside linebacker, and he'll be in that same role this year.
Adoree' Jackson is penciled in as one of USC's starting cornerbacks, yet he'll gain even more attention for his involvement in the offense as a receiver and for his work on kickoff returns. He might be too spread out between all those tasks to win the Defensive POY award, but after being named the league's Defensive Freshman of the Year, there's at least precedent for him to be in the running.
The other top candidates, Oregon's DeForest Buckner and Utah's Hunter Dimick, were both among the Pac-12 leaders in tackles for loss last season but now will take on more responsibility up front after each team lost key defensive linemen. Oregon's Arik Armstead turned pro after his junior year, while Utah's Nate Orchard had 18.5 sacks as a senior in 2014.
Offensive POY: Devontae Booker, Utah
The recent trend in the Pac-12 has been individual skill-position players who blow away the competition from a statistical standpoint regardless of how well their teams have fared. This enabled USC receiver Marqise Lee to win in 2012 despite the Trojans going from No. 1 in the preseason Associated Press poll to a 7-6 record, since Lee's 118 receptions and 1,721 yards both led the nation.
The same was the case in 2013 for Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey, whose 1,885 rushing yards were third-best in the FBS but only enabled the Wildcats to finish fourth in the Pac-12 South.
Mariota was the exception to this rule last season, dominating statistically and being on the league's best team, but he was also the presumptive front-runner before 2014 began.
With these factors in mind, Utah's Booker has the best shot to win it all, since he's the Utes' main weapon and one whom they seem intent on riding with all season long. And if Utah can build off last year's 9-4 record and solid effort in the South while possibly even contending for the division title, that will no doubt be because of Booker's work.
Defensive POY: Scooby Wright, Arizona
Wright is going to be hard-pressed to match or surpass his 2014 numbers, both because opponents will be game-planning to limit his impact and because Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez would much prefer his defense be more than a one-man show.
But even if his numbers take a dive, as long as Wright shows the same effort and continues to be the one making the big plays in key situations, it's his award to lose.
Jack and Cravens will be Wright's main competition, and how each of that trio fares against each other's team could go a long way toward determining if the Defensive POY race is close at the end or another runaway.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.