The gap is shrinking.
Many around the country believe the gap in the quality of play between the once undisputed champion of college football — the Southeastern Conference — and the rest of the nation is getting smaller by the day. A lot of those same experts believe it’s the Pac-12 that is the most serious challenger to take the title as the country’s best conference.
The Pac-12’s performance in 2014 did a lot to start the ball rolling — Oregon won the conference title and represented nicely by advancing to the championship game in the first-ever College Football Playoff. Arizona, the South champions, played in a New Year’s Day bowl game. Teams in the “Conference of Champions” racked up a 6-3 record in bowl games.
Year five of the Pac-12 as a football entity gets underway Thursday, and there are several squads in the conference that could compete not only for the league championship, but a College Football Playoff crown as well.
Here’s one man’s predictions on how the 2015 campaign could shake out:
1. Arizona State Sun Devils (11-1 overall, 8-1 Pac-12) – Head coach Todd Graham enters his fourth season in Tempe telling anyone that will listen that this is his best ASU team yet. Considering everything else Graham has said in his first three years has pretty much come to fruition, we probably should listen.
ASU plays Saturday against Texas A&M in Houston, and the game is unfamiliar season-opening territory. In fact, it’s the Sun Devils’ first opener against a Power Five conference team since 2002, when they were blown out 48-10 by Nebraska in Lincoln.
Schedule: In addition to their tough first game, ASU dives head-first into conference play as well, with back-to-back contests against USC (9/26 in Tempe) and UCLA (10/3 in Pasadena). North Division powerhouse Oregon visits Tempe for the first time since 2012. The last third of ASU’s schedule lightens up a little — at Washington State, home against Washington and Arizona and at Cal.
The Burning Question: Can Mike Bercovici recapture the magic of 2014? The senior stepped in for the injured Taylor Kelly and led the Devils to wins over USC and Stanford on their way to a 10-win season. Many in these parts felt like Bercovici should have remained the starter even after Kelly returned from a foot injury. That’s in the past, and this is Bercovici’s team now. His 2014 starting numbers projected over a full 12-game season are eye-popping: 368-of-583 for 4,971 yards, 36 touchdowns and eight interceptions. It’s no wonder that ESPN has named Bercovici the number-one breakout candidate in the nation for 2015.
Notable Number: ASU has back-to-back 10-win seasons. They haven’t had three in a row since a four-year run from 1970-1973 under the legendary Frank Kush.
2. UCLA Bruins (10-2, 7-2) – The 2014 Bruins were in position to win the Pac-12 South in the final weekend of the regular season, but got blown out by Stanford in Pasadena and settled for an invitation to the Alamo Bowl.
Head coach Jim Mora has won 29 games in his first three years in Westwood, and has a team once again loaded with talent this season.
Schedule: UCLA’s non-conference schedule is pretty challenging and includes home games against Virginia (who gave the Bruins everything they could handle last season) and BYU. The start of UCLA’s conference schedule is brutal — at Arizona, home against Arizona State and at Stanford. After that, there’s a stretch of four straight very winnable games before things wrap up at Utah and at USC. The Bruins do miss Oregon and Washington this year.
The Burning Question(s): Can a true freshman lead a team to success in the Pac-12? Josh Rosen has been handed the keys to the offense after Brett Hundley took his act to the NFL. Reportedly, there have been some shaky stretches from the highly-touted recruit in fall camp, but all indications are that Rosen is coming around ahead of the Bruins’ season-opener. He’s blessed with plenty of viable offensive weapons. Running back Paul Perkins led the conference in rushing last season and receivers Jordan Payton and Devin Fuller return to lead a very deep corps. Should Rosen falter, Jerry Neuheisel, who played well in relief last season, is waiting in the wings.
The other question has to do with the status of All-Pac-12 defensive back Ishmael Adams, who was arrested earlier this week on suspicion of felony robbery — he allegedly tried to steal a cellphone from an Uber driver at 3:36 a.m. His initial bond was set at $100,000. Adams led UCLA with two interception returns for touchdowns last season.
Notable Numbers: UCLA is ranked 15th in the preseason AP Poll and 14th in the USA Today Coaches Poll.
3. Arizona Wildcats (9-3, 6-3) – The reigning Pac-12 South champs are once again loaded with skill position talent on the offensive side of the ball. For the first time in Rich Rodriguez’s coaching stint in Tucson, he’s got a second-year starter at quarterback. Anu Solomon threw for 3,793 yards and 28 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman last season. Also returning is sophomore running back Nick Wilson, who amassed nearly 1,400 yards despite being slowed by injury in the middle of the season. In a four-game stretch against Colorado, Washington State, Utah and Arizona State, Wilson ran for 653 yards and eight touchdowns. Leading receiver Cayleb Jones is also back after a 1,000-yard season. Samajie Grant, Trey Griffey, Nate Phillips and David Richards also return to form arguably the Pac-12’s deepest receiving corps.
Schedule: As has become customary in Tucson, the non-conference schedule is very easy, although a trip to Reno in Week 2 to take on Nevada could be a surprising challenge. The Wildcats last played a Power Five foe in the non-con portion of their schedule in 2012 (Oklahoma State) and won’t face another one until 2022 when they play Mississippi State. Like ASU and UCLA, the beginning of the Pac-12 schedule is very rough. The ‘Cats host UCLA on September 26 and follow that with a trip to Stanford the next week. Arizona doesn’t play Oregon, which may be a bad thing. RichRod engineered two straight regular-season wins over the Ducks before getting thumped in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
The Burning Question: Does UA have enough around Scooby Wright on defense? – Wright is a beast. There’s other way to say it. Wright had 163 total tackles, 29 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, six forced fumbles and a partridge in a pear tree. He won the Bronko Nagurski Award, the Rotary Lombardi Award and the Chuck Bednarik Award and was named the Pat Tillman Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. He’s back, but the Wildcats lost a lot of important pieces around him. Six of the next eight leading tacklers from last year’s squad — Jared Tevis, Jourdon Grandon, Tra’Mayne Bondurant, Cody Ippolito (injury), Jonathan McKnight and Dan Pettinato — are all gone. Early in the season, the Wildcats may have to rely on Wright even more than they did last year until the other pieces get up to speed.
Notable Number: The 483 points the Wildcats scored last season were the second-most in program history. Rodriguez’s 2012 team put up 498 points during an 8-5 campaign.
4. USC Trojans (8-4, 5-4) – Nothing like starting the season by having boosters call for your ouster in only your second year on the job. That’s what head coach Steve Sarkisian is going through in Los Angeles after his decision to show up at a preseason booster event and give a speech while under the influence of booze and medication.
Sarkisian also relinquished play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Clay Helton during the week leading up to the Trojans’ season opener against Arkansas State.
The silver lining for that offense is that senior quarterback Cody Kessler is at the controls. If USC can stay in contention for the Pac-12 championship, Kessler figures to be a Heisman candidate. He threw for 39 touchdowns last season while only throwing five interceptions. In the last two years, Kessler’s TD-to-INT ratio is a staggering 59-to-12. Leading rusher Buck Allen has moved on, but that’s hardly a reason for panic at Tailback U., with Justin Davis and Tre Madden, who is returning from an injury-plagued 2014, ready to handle more of the workload. If they don’t work out, Sarkisian can give the ball to any of the other six (yes, you read that right) talented tailbacks on the depth chart. Massive tackle Zach Banner (6-foot-9, 360 pounds) anchors an offensive line that returns just two starters.
Outside linebacker Su’a Cravens and cornerback Adoree’ Jackson are the best players on a defense that returns plenty of talent.
Schedule: The season starts with gimmes against Arkansas State and Idaho, then picks up in intensity with four rough ones (vs. Stanford, at ASU, at Notre Dame and vs. Utah) in a five-week stretch in September and October. The regular season wraps up with a road game at Oregon Nov. 21 followed by the annual rivalry game against UCLA at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum a week later. The Trojans miss Washington State and Oregon State from the North — arguably two of the weakest teams in that division.
The Burning Question: Will the preseason controversy make Sarkisian’s seat unbearably hot if the Trojans don’t start strong? – USC isn’t patient when it comes to football. They shouldn’t be. Hell, Lane Kiffin was fired at the airport after his team yielded 62 points in a blowout loss to Arizona State two years ago. Sarkisian, who never reached a high level of success at Washington, wasn’t the sexiest hire to begin with. The proud fan/booster base of USC won’t stand for mediocrity mixed with embarrassment heaped on the program. The Trojans need to win and win early if Sark wants to stick around.
5. Utah Utes (7-5, 4-5) – Normally, picking a team to finish fifth is a true indication that they’re just not that good. That’s not the case with Utah, which still could challenge for the South title this season.
Head coach Kyle Whittingham’s status was up in the air following a successful 2014 campaign, mainly due to some reported conflict with longtime athletic director Chris Hill.
But Whittingham is back for an 11th season in Salt Lake City, and he’s got a heck of a running back to build his offense around. Senior Devontae Booker will be the centerpiece for the Utes again this season after running for 1,512 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Booker was also the Utes’ second-leading receiver, with 43 catches. That’s not to say all the firepower is back — receivers Dres Anderson and Kaelin Clay have moved on. Quarterback Travis Wilson — who has impressed with his toughness — is back for his senior season and has 80 percent of his offensive line back.
The problem is on the defensive side, where Utah lost a lot of production from a very strong unit. Pass rusher extraordinaire Nate Orchard is now in the NFL. Also gone are corner Eric Rowe and safety Brian Blechen. Cornerback Dominique Hatfield, who was projected to start, was booted off the team for disciplinary reasons. Defensive end Hunter Dimick is back, and has a chance to put up Orchard-like numbers (18.5 sacks last year) in his role of rushing off the edge.
Schedule: Utah will have a chance to prove it’s not a “cupcake” (as suggested by Popular Mechanics, of all publications) Thursday night against Michigan at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines debut as head coach. The other two non-conference games are moderately challenging — at home against in-state foe Utah State and on the road at Fresno State. The Utes open up Pac-12 play on Sept. 26 with a trip to Eugene to face the Ducks and have back-to-back games at ASU and home against USC in October, while traveling to Tucson and hosting UCLA in November.
The Burning Question: Is the Utah passing game strong enough to survive in the pass-happy Pac-12? – Utah ran the ball 60 percent of the time last season, and ranked dead-last in the conference in passing yardage (197.7 yards per game). Wilson hasn’t been prolific during his career and the receiving corps, outside of Kenneth Scott, is unproven. Former tailback Bubba Poole is expected to start at the H-receiver position.
Notable Number: The Utes piled up 55 sacks last year — most in the nation.
6. Colorado Buffaloes (5-8, 1-8) – The slow improvement continues for CU under head coach Mike MacIntyre. Unfortunately, the Buffs play in arguably the most brutal division in all of college football, so improvement won’t lead to an increased conference win total. Although on second thought, they did go winless in Pac-12 play last year, so I guess it is improvement. Baby steps.
The Buffaloes do have 12 starters back (6 offense, 6 defense) in 2015. Among them are quarterback Sefo Liufau and receiver Nelson Spruce. Liufau threw for 3,200 yards and 28 touchdowns last season — with a good portion of that going to Spruce. The senior-to-be had 106 catches for nearly 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns when most defenses knew CU was trying to get him the ball.
Schedule: Since they start the season in Hawaii, Colorado had an opportunity to schedule a 13th game — a non-conference game against FCS foe Nicholls State on Sept. 26. The Buffs actually have a chance to run the table in non-con play as they’ll also take on UMass (3-9 last year) and in-state rival Colorado State, who is coming off a 10-win season, but is trying to replace head coach Jim McElwain and quarterback Garrett Grayson. The Pac-12 schedule is BRUTAL. It starts with consecutive games vs. Oregon, at Arizona State and vs. Arizona in October. Then there’s a rugged stretch at UCLA, vs. Stanford and vs. USC starting on Halloween night.
The Burning Question: How hot is MacIntyre’s seat? – MacIntyre is 6-18 in two years in Boulder, which considering what he took over from Jon Embree, isn’t horrible. Coachingtreehotseat.com has MacIntyre occupying the second-hottest seat in the conference behind Cal’s Sonny Dykes — although the Golden Bears seem to be a better bet to improve their record in 2015.
Notable Number: It’s been nine years since Colorado had a winning record — a 7-6 mark in 2005 under Gary Barnett and interim Mike Hankwitz. Since then, the Buffs are 31-79.
1. Stanford Cardinal (11-1, 8-1) – After a down year (yeah, eight wins is a down year on the farm), David Shaw’s Cardinal should be back near the top of the conference. Senior quarterback Kevin Hogan thought about becoming a graduate transfer, but returns for his fifth year at Stanford. Hogan won’t wow you with stats, but the guy wins football games. The Virginia native is 24-8 as a starter and has a career passer efficiency mark of 148.3. The trademark Stanford running game should also be back with sophomore Christian McCaffrey shouldering a much bigger workload in 2015. McCaffrey got just 42 carries in a “running back-by-committee” setup last year, but averaged 7.1 yards per tote. Remound Wright (11 rushing TDs) and Barry Sanders, Jr. also return. There are questions at receiver, but Hogan has an array of tight ends to throw to, including Austin Hooper and former four-star recruit Dalton Schultz. Four-fifths of the offensive line is back. The strength of the defense is at linebacker, where Blake Martinez, Kevin Anderson and Peter Kalambayi return. That trio combined for 26 tackles for loss last year.
Schedule: The Cardinal open their season on the road for the first time since 2009 when they play Northwestern in Evanston Saturday. The non-conference portion also includes home games against UCF and Notre Dame. Interestingly, Stanford plays back-to-back Pac-12 road games twice this season — at USC and Oregon State in September and at Washington State and Colorado in October and early November. The slate closes with three straight home games, starting with the annual showdown against Oregon on Nov. 14.
The Burning Question: Can the Cardinal improve in the red zone? – Stanford spent a lot of time inside the opponent’s 20-yard-line last season, making 57 trips to the red zone. However, they scored touchdowns on only 54 percent of those trips and their 73.7 percent scoring percentage (field goals included) was the worst in the conference in 2014. Stanford also lost the ball a staggering five times in red zone possessions, including four fumbles. Those numbers simply need to improve for the Cardinal to get back near the top of the Pac-12.
Notable Number: In the last four years, Stanford has the highest graduation rate in the country (99 percent) and has produced more NFL draft picks than any other Pac-12 school (19).
2. Oregon Ducks (9-3, 7-2) – How do you replace a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who is arguably the greatest player in program history? You plug in a record-setting graduate transfer from an FCS school who has victimized Pac-12 foes during his career. Vernon Adams, who led the Eagles to wins over Idaho in 2012 and a ranked Oregon State team, takes over for Marcus Mariota. Adams threw for 10,438 yards and 110 touchdowns while posting a 26-8 record in three years at E-Wash. Oregon’s offense might be tailor-made for him to continue to put up video games numbers this season in Eugene. Did we mention he also had 1,232 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground? The Ducks are always scary on offense — this year might be a little more frightening for opposing D-coordinators.
Schedule: The Ducks get a stiff test in Week 2 when they travel to East Lansing to battle highly-ranked Michigan State. That’s preceded by Adams facing his former team, Eastern Washington, on Saturday. The first half of their Pac-12 schedule is very manageable — vs. Utah, at Colorado, vs. Washington State and at Washington. The fun starts Oct. 29 in Tempe against Arizona in a game that should feature a Pac-12 title game feel. That’s followed by a home game against Cal, a road trip to Stanford and home dates against USC and Oregon State.
The Burning Question: Can Mark Helfrich put the Ducks over the top? – Helfrich is a ridiculous 24-4 in two years on the Oregon sideline and two of those losses came to Arizona, whom they don’t play this year. The Ducks participated in the first-ever College Football Playoff last January, losing to Ohio State in the title game. They’ve played in two championship games, but have yet to win the big one despite finishing in the top ten in the nation in the year-end AP Poll in six of the last seven seasons (they’ve got an 80-13 record in that span.) Under Helfrich, the Ducks haven’t fallen from the nation’s elite, but some believe they’re still too finesse-reliant to beat more physical teams with established coaches, like Ohio State, for instance. The Buckeyes ran for nearly 300 yards and kept the ball for over 37 minutes in that contest.
Notable Number: Adams has had three career games with six or more touchdown passes, including a 7-touchdown performance against Washington in September of 2014.
3. California Golden Bears (5-7, 3-6) – The Bears are getting better, but that improvement will hit a wall if there are not substantial strides made on the defensive side of the ball. Again, Cal was dead last in the conference in total defense (511.8 yards per game) and scoring defense (39.8 points per game). That puts a ton of pressure on a very good offense led by junior quarterback Jared Goff. But the defense should be better for head coach Sonny Dykes, based on the return of six of the top seven tacklers from a season ago.
Schedule: Cal’s non-conference schedule features home games against FCS opponent Grambling State and San Diego State and ends with a trip to Austin to take on Texas Sept. 19. The Bears have five conference road games, which is not good news — they’re 4-14 in Pac-12 road games in the last four years. The last three road games are bears (pardon the pun) — at UCLA Oct. 22, at Oregon Nov. 7 and at Stanford Nov. 21. This year, Cal misses Arizona and Colorado.
The Burning Question: Is Goff the real deal? – The junior is coming off a fantastic season in which he threw for 3,973 yards and 35 touchdowns against only seven interceptions. In May, ESPN’s Todd McShay had Goff as the fourth quarterback taken in a very early 2016 mock draft, ninth overall. He’s blessed with plenty of talent around him in the form of running back Daniel Lasco and receivers Kenny Lawler, Bryce Treggs, Stephen Anderson, Trevor Davis and Maurice Harris.
Notable Number: The Bears haven’t gone to a bowl game since 2011, they’re longest postseason drought since a six-year absence from 1997 to 2002.
4. Washington State Cougars (4-8, 2-7) – It’s year number four for head coach Mike Leach in Pullman, and like Colorado, the Cougs are getting better perhaps too slowly. Of course, there’s an argument against that since Wazzu regressed from a six-win season and a bowl appearance in 2013 to just three wins a year ago. If it’s worth anything, WSU’s losses are getting better. They dropped a heartbreaker in their season opener against Rutgers, played Oregon tough in a 7-point loss and lost a wild 60-59 decision to Cal in which they amassed over 800 yards of offense.
Schedule: This season, Washington State has three winnable non-conference games — vs. Portland State, at Rutgers and vs. Wyoming. They do have five Pac-12 road games at Cal, Oregon, Arizona, UCLA and Washington. And the Cougs have one of the most unforgiving four-week stretches in the conference starting Oct. 24 in Tucson. That’s followed by home games against Stanford and Arizona State and then a trip to Pasadena to face UCLA on Nov. 14.
The Burning Question: Is Mike Leach nearing the end of his rope in Pullman? – Washington State AD Bill Moos knocked the ball out of the yard with is hiring of Leach following the 2011 season. The brash coach had been on the shelf for a few years after a highly-successful and controversial stint at Texas Tech. But “the Pirate” is just 12-25 in three seasons with the Cougars. Maybe part two of the “Burning Question” should be “can Washington State do any better than Leach if they choose to move on?” The answer, at least for me, is a resounding ‘no.’ They tried former WSU player Paul Wulff and he turned in nine wins in four years, a stint during which the Cougars were one of the worst teams in the country.
Notable Number: Quarterback Luke Falk averaged 443 yards per game after Connor Halliday went down with a knee injury. That production should continue in ’15 as Falk has a bunch of talented receivers to work with including Dom Williams, River Cracraft and Gabe Marks.
5. Oregon State Beavers (3-9, 1-8) – At the tail end of a disappointing 5-7 season, there was plenty of talk about whether or not longtime head coach Mike Riley should be fired. The popular Riley didn’t wait around to find out and took the Nebraska job while OSU plucked Gary Andersen away from Wisconsin. That’s right. A Big Ten powerhouse lost their head coach to a remotely-located Pac-12 school that has averaged less than six wins a season for the last five years. Andersen will have his work cut out for him, at least at quarterback. Four-year starter Sean Mannion is gone and the head coach will employ a two-QB system, shared by freshman Seth Collins and redshirt freshman Marcus McMaryion. Running back Storm Barrs-Woods is back to lead the running attack, and there’s plenty of returning talent on the offensive line, including three-time letter winner Josh Mitchell at center. The defense lost a lot, but returns three-time lettermen Larry Scott, Jashwa James, Ali’i Robins and Lavonte Barnett, who led the team in sacks last season.
Schedule: The Beavs face Portland State, Hawaii and San Diego State in the first three weeks of the season, then starts out conference play with back-to-back road games at USC and Colorado. Oregon State also plays four of its last five games at home against Washington State (Nov. 8), Arizona State (Nov. 15) and Oregon (Nov. 29).
The Burning Question: How will a run-heavy scheme coached by Andersen play in the Pac-12? – Andersen employed a run-heavy attack in two years at Wisconsin. Will it work in Corvallis? Maybe not immediately, considering OSU totaled only 1,417 yards on the ground as a team last season. Three players — Paul Perkins of UCLA, Devontae Booker of Utah and USC’s Buck Allen — had more than that on their own. Yeah, this may take a while.
Notable Number: Mannion, now with the St. Louis Rams, left Corvallis as the owner of the Pac-12 career record for passing yards with 13,600 — good for ninth on the all-time NCAA list. Those are big shoes for two freshman to try and fill.
6. Washington Huskies (3-9, 1-8) – Year two of the Chris Petersen era gets underway Friday night at Boise State — the very school Petersen left to try and resurrect a once-proud Washington program. On paper, this year looks like it might be rough. Petersen lost four defensive studs who were picked in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft. An anemic offense lost its quarterback, Cyler Miles, to a chronic hip injury and its most exciting player in two-way dynamo John Ross to a knee injury.
Schedule: After the opener in Boise, the Huskies have three straight winnable home games against Sacramento State, Utah State and Cal. That is immediately followed by a six-game gauntlet that features road games at USC, Stanford and Arizona State and home games versus Oregon, Arizona and Utah. There’s not a lot of wins to be had in that stretch.
The Burning Question: Who’s going to play quarterback? – The answer is, “who knows?” Miles retired in the offseason. Junior Jeff Lindquist is the only signal-caller on the roster who has thrown a pass in a regular season game. Also in the mix are redshirt freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels and true freshman Jake Browning, who may be the best of the bunch. The Parade All-American threw 91 touchdowns as a senior at Folsom High School in California last season.
Notable Number: Petersen lost 19 games in eight years at Boise State. If the above projection holds true, he’ll have 15 after just two seasons at U-Dub.
Pac-12 Championship Game
Stanford over Arizona State – Kevin Hogan’s leadership and the Cardinal’s power style proved to be too much for the Sun Devils in the 2013 conference title game — and will again this year.
Offensive Player of the Year: Vernon Adams, QB, Oregon – He’s only got one season in the Pac-12, but the Eastern Washington transfer will make the most of it. The Ducks’ high-powered offense won’t miss a beat with Adams at the controls in 2015.
Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year: Hunter Dimick, DE, Utah – I know, I know. How do I not pick Scooby Wright to repeat? First, that’s kind of boring. Secondly, as stated above, there is concern about the pieces around Wright (or lack thereof) that allowed him to flourish in 2014. Dimick had 10 sacks last season for “Sack Lake City” and should pick up right where he left off.
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