The 2013 season was a banner one for the Pac-12 Conference.
Most national experts believe the “Conference of Champions” elevated itself to the second-most powerful football conference in America, behind only the mighty SEC.
Nine Pac-12 teams qualified for bowl games (the most ever) where the schools went 6-3 and won their games by an average margin of 21.8 points.
Twelve different players landed on All-American squads and six schools finished the 2013 season ranked in the final AP Top 25 poll.
There is a lot to grow on in 2014.
Here’s a look at how I see the Pac-12 shaping up this season.
1. UCLA Bruins (10-2, 8-1) – The Bruins return 17 starters from a 10-3 team, including quarterback Brett Hundley and two-way threat Myles Jack. And they’ve got a favorable conference schedule that features home games against Oregon, USC and Stanford.
2. USC Trojans (9-3, 6-3) – Steve Sarkisian inherits a 10-win team loaded with running backs (what else is new?). Javorius Allen, Tre Madden and Justin Davis all return in 2014. The trio combined for 1,849 yards and 23 rushing touchdowns last year. And seven starters return from the Pac-12’s best defense in 2013.
3. Arizona State Sun Devils (7-5, 5-4) – Offense good. Defense…nobody knows. Todd Graham must replace nine starters on that side of the ball, but with Taylor Kelly, D.J. Foster, Jaelen Strong and the makings of a solid offensive line, the Devils should be fine.
4. Arizona Wildcats (6-6, 3-6) – The good news is the Wildcats have one of the best receiver groups in the country, including senior Austin Hill, who is back after missing last year with a knee injury. But who’s going to throw them the ball? None of the four candidates for the starting job has thrown a pass in an NCAA game.
5. Utah Utes (5-7, 3-6) – Versatile quarterback Travis Wilson has been medically cleared to play in 2014 after having to walk away from the game last year. The Utes are just 9-18 against conference foes since joining the Pac-12 in 2011…that struggle should continue this season.
6. Colorado Buffaloes (3-9, 0-9) – There is some belief that the Buffs are slowly getting better, but their eight Pac-12 losses last year came by an average of 29 points.
1. Oregon Ducks (11-1, 8-1) – Only four First Team All-Pac-12 offensive and defensive players are back this year. The Ducks have three of them (QB Marcus Mariota, C Hroniss Grasu and CB Ifo Ekpre-Olumu.) Oregon is an amazing 41-5 vs. Pac-12 opponents the last five seasons. Three of those losses have come against Stanford.
2. Stanford Cardinal (10-2, 7-2) – A lot of talent left “The Farm” after last season’s run to another Pac-12 championship. David Shaw must replace five First Team All-Pac-12 selections, but do-everything dynamo Ty Montgomery and steady signal caller Kevin Hogan are back.
3. Washington State Cougars (7-5, 5-4) – The Cougs haven’t had a winning season since 2003 under then first-year head coach Bill Doba. Last season, they were one epic collapse in the New Mexico Bowl from breaking that string. This is the year it happens.
4. Washington Huskies (6-6, 4-5) – New head coach Chris Petersen inherits 14 starters from last season’s 9-4 team. But gone are quarterback Keith Price, record-setting running back Bishop Sankey and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, a second-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
5. Oregon State Beavers (7-5, 4-5) – Quarterback Sean Mannion will become OSU’s all-time leading passer in terms of yardage this season, but he needs to improve against better teams. His passer efficiency rating was 25 points lower against conference opponents in 2013.
6. California Golden Bears (2-10, 1-9) – Second-year head coach Sonny Dykes has 15 starters back, but from a team that went 1-11 in 2013. Their only win came against FCS opponent Portland State. QB Jared Goff had three 400-yard passing games as a true freshman.
Pac-12 Championship Game
Oregon Ducks over UCLA Bruins
Rose (National Semifinal)- Pasadena, CA: Oregon Ducks
Alamo – San Antonio, TX: UCLA Bruins vs. Big 12 opponent
Holiday – San Diego, CA: Stanford Cardinal vs. Big Ten opponent
San Francisco – Santa Clara, CA: USC Trojans vs. Big Ten opponent
Sun – El Paso, TX: Arizona State Sun Devils vs. ACC opponent
Las Vegas – Las Vegas, NV: Washington State vs. Mountain West opponent
Cactus – Tempe, AZ: Oregon State vs. Big 12 opponent
Also Bowl Eligible: Arizona and Washington
Offensive Player of the Year: It’s been actually two seasons since a QB won this award, but with Mariota, Hundley, Kelly and Mannion all returning in 2014, the smart money is on that mini-streak ending this season. And since he pulls the trigger on the conference’s best offense, the choice has to be OREGON QB MARCUS MARIOTA. The junior has thrown for 6,342 yards and 63 touchdowns (against just 10 picks) in two seasons. Oh, and he’s also run for 1,467 yards and 14 more touchdowns.
Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year: I was tempted to go with USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams here, but I’ll instead give this hardware to OREGON CB IFO EKPRE-OLOMU, who like Mariota, eschewed the NFL Draft to come back to Oregon for another year. Ekpre-Olomu, who is one of only two returning players from last season’s All-Pac-12 First Team Defense, had three interceptions and 84 total tackles in 2014.
Coach of the Year: It hasn’t taken long for JIM MORA JR. to return the UCLA Bruins to prominence. In his first two years on the job, he’s 19-8 and should earn his second straight 10-win season in 2014.
• Toughest non-conference schedule: UCLA Bruins – Let’s face it, 2014 isn’t exactly a banner year in non-conference matchups for the Pac-12. By virtue of playing two Power Five conference opponents (at Virginia and a neutral-site tilt with Texas), the Bruins get the prize.
• Easiest non-conference schedule: Colorado Buffaloes – The Buffs get a neutral-site game against Colorado State, a trip to UMASS (1-11 last year) and a home game against Hawaii (1-11). There’s a good chance that CU will be 3-0 in non-conference games for the second straight year. Hey, pile up the wins while you can, right?
• Easiest non-conference schedule, Pt. II: Don’t think you’re getting off the hook, Arizona. The Wildcats have the Silver State two-step this year — home dates against UNLV and Nevada and a road trip to San Antonio to take on UTSA. The ‘Cats are in year two of a nine-year stretch without facing a Power Five conference opponent in their non-con schedule. The next? A home game against Mississippi State in 2022. Freshmen who will play in that game are currently getting ready to start fifth grade.
• Toughest conference schedule: Utah Utes – Not only do the Utes miss a near-gimme by not playing Cal this year, but they’ve got a brutal six-game stretch in October and November that sees them play at UCLA, at Oregon State, home against USC, at Arizona State, home against Oregon and at Stanford. In fact, Utah is the only team that has to play the Ducks and Cardinal in consecutive weeks this season.
• Easiest conference schedule: UCLA Bruins – Alright, it’s not easy…but the Bruins get Oregon, USC and Stanford all at home. Their toughest road game will be at Arizona State Sept. 25.
• Best non-conference game: Oregon vs. Michigan State – Sept. 6 at Autzen Stadium – It’ll be a classic battle of offense vs. defense when the Ducks host the defending Rose Bowl champs.
• Best conference game: Oregon vs. Stanford – Nov. 1 at Autzen Stadium – Can the Ducks finally solve the puzzle to beat the Cardinal? Stanford has won the last two meetings by a total of nine points — and they’ve won the North each of the last two seasons as well.
• Scheduling oddity: For the second time in three years, UCLA and Stanford end the regular season by facing one another — this year the game is Friday, Nov. 28 at The Rose Bowl. That means there’s a chance that for the second time in three years, the Bruins and Cardinal could meet the very next week in the Pac-12 Championship Game. There is an even number of teams in both Pac-12 divisions, so every team should end their regular season schedule against a division opponent, thus eliminating the possibility of the regular season finale being a championship game preview.
• Best Uniforms: Washington Huskies – With new coach Chris Petersen taking over, the Dawgs will have new unis this year as well. The look includes three different colored jerseys, four different colored pants and three different helmets. It was a nice bounce back from the prank Petersen played on his team in the spring.
• Worst Uniforms: UCLA Bruins “LA Steel” alternates – What in the hell are these? UCLA has introduced a dark onyx gray alternate with blue and gold trim, capped off by a matching gray helmet. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of most adidas football uniforms, but these are especially bad.
• Best Helmet: By my count, there are least 34 helmets used by Pac-12 teams, so we had a lot to choose from. But I’m going with the Oregon green helmets with silver wings and yellow ‘O’ on the back. Honorable mention: Arizona State’s matte black and Oregon State’s white.