PTBN College Football 2014: The Pac-12

PAC-12

Somewhere between Jameis Winston and the end of the SEC’s national title streak, the PAC-12 quietly had an outstanding year. There’s no debate about it, the PAC-12 is the second best conference in college football and as a whole, the PAC-12 is well within the zip code of the SEC. The conference finished with six teams inside the AP Top 25 at season’s end, one below the SEC’s seven. Gone are the days when the PAC-12(or 10) was viewed as a one trick pony. Sure, USC, Oregon and Stanford grab most of the headlines and media attention, but the meaty center of UCLA, Arizona State and Washington make this year’s Pac-12 the most stout conference top to bottom outside of the Southeast. There’s little time for the conference to rest on past accolades, the new age of college football has finally brought the four team “playoff” to life in 2014. While having six teams finish inside the AP and USA Today Top 25 polls is impressive, there’s a glaring difference between the top half of the PAC-12 and the SEC. The SEC not only had seven teams finish in the polls by January, they had four inside the top 10, including the national title runner-up. Last year, Oregon entered the season with their eyes on a national title, instead, they watched Stanford win the conference from their couches. This year, Oregon controls their own destiny in securing a playoff spot, entering the AP Top 25 at #3, thanks to the return of Heisman hopeful Marcus Mariota after last year’s disappointing ending. Mariota’s road to the national title, or Heisman, won’t go uncontested, he’s joined by the resurgent UCLA Bruins and quarterback Brett Hundley. Both Hundley and Mariota turned down NFL paychecks to return to campus this fall and have a legitimate shot at the Heisman, or more, this season. Who’s poised to represent the conference in the first year of college football’s playoff? Who’s going to play the role of spoiler, or worse, fall flat on their face? All this and more in the 2014 PAC-12 preview on Place To Be Nation!

PAC-12 North

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Marcus Mariota hopes to lead Oregon into the national title game.

1. Oregon (PAC-12 North Champion)

The discussion around the Oregon Ducks begins and ends with Marcus Mariota. The redshirt junior entered 2013 a Heisman favorite, but had to settle for the Alamo Bowl MVP trophy. Although Mariota was seen squarely outside the group of Jameis Winston, AJ McCarron and Johnny Manziel in December, Duck fans have plenty to be optimistic about this fall. Even with a lingering MCL injury that tempered his dangerous feet, Mariota surpassed 3,600 yards passing, 700 yards rushing combining for 40 touchdowns (31 TD/4INT passing, 9 rushing TDs on 7.4 YPC). Like last year, Mariota isn’t just in the Heisman discussion, he’s squarely a favorite to visit New York alongside Florida State’s Jameis Winston. It wasn’t just injury that foiled Mariota’s chances at the Heisman, it was Oregon’s disappointing season that sealed his fate. Once again, Oregon fell well short of expectations and in 2014, it might be a make or break situation for the Ducks to turn the corner.

The good news? Oregon returns nine starters from last year’s offense, one of the absolute best in the nation. The bad news? There’s a few heavy lifters from last year that left for the greener pastures of the NFL. Gone is dynamic playmaker DeAnthony Thomas. Thomas was an all-conference caliber player who could catch, carry, and return the rock as well as anyone in the nation. The Ducks also lost fellow WR Josh Huff and TE Colt Lyerla to the NFL, putting some pressure on this year’s receiving corps to step up to the plate and deliver. Things got more complicated this fall when the team lost WR Bralon Addison to injury. Addison maintains he’s determined to play in 2014, but for now, Oregon must survive without him. There’s no better time than now for senior Keanon Lowe to be the next great Oregon wideout and for a WR, it doesn’t get much better than having a Heisman hopeful sling the rock. Oregon’s electrifying offense isn’t one dimensional, the team returns runnning back Byron Marshall, who eclipsed 1,000 yards last season. Behind Marshall is fellow tailback Thomas Tyner, the sophmore was one of the nation’s most highly touted recruits, period, in 2013. It might seem unfair to an excellent rusher like Marshall that so many are salivating to see Tyner get a larger load of carries this fall, but his potential in undeniable. What’s the difference between a national title and another Alamo Bowl? As always, Oregon must show its toughness up front, on both sides of the ball. Last year, the Ducks were bullied and humiliated by Stanford with the division title on the line and their defensive line was turned into Swiss cheese by Arizona. If Oregon wants more than a conference title, they’ll need their defense to step up in a major way. They’re the odds on favorite in the PAC-12, but Stanford very well may have their number again.

Key Players: Not to beat a dead horse, but Marcus Mariota has the potential to be the best quarterback in the nation. Helping protect Mariota will be lineman Hroniss Grassu.  The senior is virtually an all-conference lock, but if Oregon is going to avoid Stanford spoiling their playoff hopes, the offensive line needs to step up in a major way.

Key Games: Michigan State travels to Autzen Stadium to take on the Ducks in week two. This game is interesting not just because the Spartans are also eyeing a conference title and playoff spot of their own, but because they present a unique challenge to Oregon’s defense. Michigan State will pound the rock and play a power football brand that gave the Ducks fits last year. The chance at a national championship could be over before it even starts in Eugene should things go south. Oregon’s first real test in the PAC-12 comes on the road against UCLA on October 11th. This game could be a Heisman showcase for both Hundley and Mariota but, more importantly, could decide who the PAC-12 puts into the four team playoff. Oregon will get the two toughest teams in their division, Washington and Stanford at home.

 

2. Stanford

After Toby Gerhart, after Jim Harbaugh, and after Andrew Luck, the Cardinal haven’t gotten the memo that they shouldn’t be perennial contenders for the PAC-12 crown. Stanford threw the Oregon Ducks around the field for the second straight season and sat atop the conference in 2013. Much of Stanford’s success was built off of a stout defense led by coordinator Derek Mason, who left Stanford to become the head coach at Vanderbilt. Stanford will have another tenacious defensive line, led by pre-season all conference lineman Henry Anderson. Anderson will be the anchor on a line that’s without standouts like Josh Mauro, who left for the NFL. Mauro is a huge loss, but the departures on the offensive line may be more worrisome for Cardinal faithful. Stanford lost two time all-conference guard David Yankey and honorable mention OL Kevin Danser, leaving pre-season all-conference lineman Andrus Peat with a tough task at hand.

Stanford doesn’t produce many electrifying backs like Oregon as they’ve built much of their recent success on a power running game that’s more at home in the Big-10 than PAC-12. Stanford lost their leading rusher from last year and will rely on junior Remound Wright, who will likely do the heavy lifting this year. This is why it was worrisome he missed the last scrimmage due to suspension. Behind Wright is a familiar, yet not so familiar name: Barry Sanders, Jr. Sanders had five carries last year as a freshman and this year there’s likely no choice but to ramp up his involvement in Stanford’s rushing attack. The new offensive line isn’t only a tool in continuing Stanford’s tough ground game, but also in continuing the development of Kevin Hogan. The QB has had an up and down, but efficient, run at Stanford. This could be Hogan’s most complete year, with a dangerous weapon in WR Ty Montgomery, who could be the best WR in the conference by season’s end, which in the PAC-12, is no small feat. If Hogan can take a step forward in his progression and Montgomery lives up to his billing, Stanford could very well be in the national title hunt come November. For now, an untested offensive line andbackfield keep Stanford slightly beneath Oregon on paper.

Key Players: QB Kevin Hogan will face the toughest test of his career with a new, developing offensive line and a brutal road schedule. Hogan isn’t going to be asked to win games by himself, but without his two leading rushers from last year, there could be times this fall he’s asked to put the game into his own hands and finish the job. Consistency has been the biggest knock on Hogan, who’s been lost in the shuffle among his peers in the PAC-12. Hogan has to be more than a game manager this year if Stanford wants to repeat as conference champions.

Key Games: Stanford will have to be road warriors if they want a spot in the four team playoff or another conference title. The Cardinal play at Washington on Sep. 27, at Notre Dame on Oct. 4, at Arizona State on Oct. 18 and at Oregon on Nov 1. If that stretch wasn’t bad enough, the last game of the season pits Stanford against UCLA in the Rose Bowl.

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Shaq Thompson will be a vital part of Washington’s stout defense.

3. Washington Huskies

When Washington lost Steve Sarkisian to conference foe USC, it seemed as though the Huskies might have negated all of the progress they’d made in rebuilding themselves into a solid top 25 program. Sarkisian had Washington on the cusp of becoming a true player in the PAC-12 North, one that could finally step over Stanford or Oregon into the PAC-12 title game. Washington might not lose any steam at all after the hiring of Boise State’s Chris Petersen. Petersen had been one of the most sought after coaches in the nation thanks to his incredible job in Boise, but there’s little time to rest on his laurels. Washington’s favorable schedule makes it a very real possibility that the Huskies could take advantage of a misstep by the Ducks or Cardinal and sneak their way into the conference title picture. Washington’s talent speaks for itself as the team has yet again found its way into the pre-season top 25 thanks heavily to two all-conference hopefuls returning on the defensive line. Hau’oli Kikaha  and Danny Shelton lead what could become the best defensive line in the conference and they’ve got another superstar behind them in LB Shaq Thompson.

The significant questions will arise on the other side of the ball. Who fills Bishop Sankey’s shoes? Sankey ran for over 1,800 yards last year and was one of the best tailbacks in the entire country. RB Deontae Cooper has battled injury throughout his four year career but will get every opportunity to be a star as the quarterback position remains unclear. Cyler Miles is the only QB on the roster with in-game experience, but after an off the field issue in January, Miles missed all of spring practice and is suspended for the season opener. His significant time away from the team has left the door wide open for untested backups like Troy Williams and Jeff Lindquist to get the nod at quarterback. Even if Miles does return as the starter, the Huskies don’t have an enviable problem under center. Without a battle tested quarterback, and not yet knowing how Deontae Cooper will fill the significant void left by Sankey’s departure, Washington will have an uphill battle dethroning Stanford or Oregon in the division. A top 25 finish would be a great sign of continuing progress at Washington.

Key Players: Whoever gets the job as starting quarterback. Keith Price was one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the PAC-12 last year and put together a very nice career for the Huskies. Lindquist seems to have the profile of a star QB, at 6’3 and 250+, there’s a lot of potential for a coach like Petersen to work with. As it stands, the murky situation with the game’s most important position could put the offense through some serious growing pains in a high flying, uptempo PAC-12.

4. Oregon State

Like Washington, Oregon State has struggled for national exposure thanks to Oregon and Stanford’s vice grip on the division. Quarterback Sean Mannion is one of the best in the conference, and if he was playing for another team, he’d already be in Heisman talks. Last year, Mannion put up freakish numbers, 37 TDs and well over 4,600 yards passing. This offseason, Mannion’s raised his draft stock with great performances at the Manning Passing Academy and Elite 11 Counselor Challenges, getting to fling the ball side by side with his peers, including high profile names like Bryce Petty. Mannion’s biggest target, Brandin Cooks, is gone and losing one of the nation’s best wideouts is a tough pill to swallow, no matter who’s throwing the ball. This is especially true for the Beavers, who saw a large drop off in elite talent beyond Mannion and Cooks last year, when the Beavers finished a disappointing 7-6. While it doesn’t look like Mannion has a WR to replace Cooks’s production, he’s got a great safety valve in TE Connor Hamlett. Hamlett is an all-conference caliber tight end and could go a long way in helping ease the pressure off of his quarterback. It’s not going to help the Beavers that they lost three starters from last year’s offensive line, especially against the top notch defensive lines of division rivals Washington and Stanford. The biggest issue for the team last year was an up-and-down defense that doesn’t look considerably improved in 2014. The defensive line is going to be Oregon State’s biggest question mark in 2014. OSU lost two tackles and two defensive ends, including Scott Crichton, a highly touted third round draft pick. Eight wins, or a third place finish in the division would be a stellar rebound after a so-so 2013.

Key Players: Sean Mannion is quite simply one of the best pure passers in the nation and by himself makes the Beavers worth watching. Junior Richard Mullaney should replace Cooks as the go-to target at WR. At 6’3″ and hovering around 200 pounds, Mullaney has the size Cooks didn’t, but he hasn’t yet shown the explosiveness and game breaking ability of the departed All-American WR. Coaches have lauded Mullaney (788 yards receiving in 2013) for his dependability, great hands, and route running ability, and with an All-American caliber QB throwing you the ball maybe that’s enough to recreate last year’s numbers through the air.

Key Games: The Beavers have early non-conference tests at Hawaii and against San Diego State at home. Last year, OSU dropped a game to Eastern Washington and gave up 49 points in the process. Ouch. This year, they can’t take the non-conference schedule for granted, every win counts, especially with trips to USC and Stanford in the first half of the season. Look for a potential upset of Arizona State on November 15th at home.

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Connor Halliday has Wazzu fans expecting another bowl appearance this season.

5. Washington State

The Cougars went from the laughing stock of college football to a bowl team seemingly overnight, their 6-7 finish last year was the best in a decade and the team’s first bowl appearance since 2003. Head Coach Mike Leach has the Cougs on the up and up in the only way he knows how, by scoring, scoring and scoring some more. Washington State has some work to do if they want to seriously challenge the powers that be in the PAC-12 but, as it stands, Leach has opposing coaches taking Washington State seriously for the first time in an eternity. It all started last fall when WSU grinded out an ugly win at the Coliseum against USC and surprised Arizona with an upset in Tucson. This year, the Huskies return star QB Connor Halliday who threw for a school record 4,597 yards last season. Halliday finished the season strong with six touchdowns in Wazzu’s loss to Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl. By now, coaches and fans alike know that the quarterback is the most important aspect of Mike Leach’s air raid offense, and the program seems to be in great shape with Halliday, who fits the Leach mold at QB. If the Cougs can put together a bowl win this season, they’re one step closer to competing with the top half of the division.

Key Players: Connor Halliday had over 700 attempts last year and still put up a 62% completion rate. Much of this was due to Washington State passing the ball on over 70% of offensive possessions, including short yardage completions which Leach substitutes for traditional running plays. Leading WR Gabe Marks had high hopes for the fall, but there’s now a very real possibility he misses the season due to injury. Luckily for WSU, there’s quality depth behind Marks in the receiving corps. In helping Halliday build off of last year’s success, the team will look for River Cracraft to step up as the team’s go-to receiver.

Key Games: The team can build some momentum with wins against Rutgers at home and at Nevada. To finish the season, the Cougars can exact revenge for their disappointing loss to the rival Huskies when they host Washington in Pullman on November 29th.

6. California

There’s really no way to spin last year’s 1-11 season as anything but disastrous for coach Sonny Dykes. It didn’t help that Cal, a program smack dab in the middle of one of college football’s most fertile recruiting grounds, limped into 2014 with a recruiting class barely inside the top 50 on most national recruiting services. When any program wins one game, and goes winless in conference, it’s an indictment on coaching and talent alike. The Golden Bears are quickly being sucked into a vacuum while their bigger brothers in LA are pumping out NFL talent yearly. Returning QB Jared Goff threw for 3,508 yards last year (a school record) and the Bears averaged 453 yards per game. On paper, this should have surely amounted to more than a single win, but yards mean little when a team plays bad football. Although Goff was was  typically consistent with his play, the team struggled scoring touchdowns in the red zone and averaged only 23 points per game. Goff gets his two leading receivers, Bryce Teggs and Chris Harper back, as well as most of his offensive line. There’s only one way to go for Cal, and that’s up…hopefully.

Key Players: DE Brennan Scarlett has battled injury issues but is ready to go this fall in Berkeley. Scarlett has limitless potential, the junior turned down offers to play for Stanford, Oregon, USC and others to suit up for Cal. The defense was just as bad as every other part of the team in 2013 and having some true star power up front could go a long way in rebuilding some pride among the Golden Bear faithful.

PAC-12 South

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Brett Hundley and the Bruins are eyeing the PAC-12 and the four team playoff.

 

1. UCLA

The Bruins are one of the dark horse picks for a spot in this year’s first ever playoff, but first they’ve got some work to do in the very tough PAC-12 this fall. Led by Heisman hopeful Brett Hundley, the Bruins aren’t just favorites in the PAC-12 South, but they could take the conference and much more before it’s all said and done. Last year, UCLA won 10 games, but had every right to feel disappointed with missing the PAC-12 title game and settling for a Sun Bowl. Losses to Oregon and Stanford as well as an upset loss to Arizona State could have cast doubt among voters that UCLA was a serious contender for the conference title and the four team playoff. Despite the disappointing finish, the program’s stock remains high as they’re a consensus top 10 team and most importantly they’ll get to face both Stanford and Oregon at home. Brett Hundley should prove himself yet again to be one of the best dual threat quarterbacks in the nation; last season on top of his 3,000 passing yards and 24 TDs, he led the team in rushing with 748 yards. Most of last year’s offensive line is returning, but the loss of leading WR Shaq Evans and fellow wideout Darius Bell could be concerning.

On defense, UCLA will once again field one of the best linebacking corps on the nation, even with the loss of Anthony Barr. LB Myles Jack leads the new generation of UCLA linebackers and fans have every right to be excited. Jack is a physical specimen and has the ability to break a game open much like Barr did patrolling up the middle. The Bruins do not have the recent pedigree of Oregon or Stanford, but they certainly have the talent, particularly on defense, to be in serious contention for a playoff spot and make a run at a national title. Anything short of a berth in the conference title game and a top ten finish would be a serious disappointment for UCLA. If Hundley is truly a Heisman level quarterback, he’ll make do with the pieces around him and push the team well into January.

Key Players: WR Jordan Payton and Devin Lucien return to help Hundley’s Heisman effort and in the process, could turn into very good players themselves. Payton leads all returning receivers with 642 yards in 2013. While the Bruins QB is lethal with his feet, a good year from RB Jordon James could be the difference in pushing the Bruins over the mountaintop in the PAC-12. While the QB has shown signs of greatness, the same can’t yet be said of his supporting cast. An elite quarterback gets the most out of his teammates, but given the immense talent at positions like tailback and wide receiver (and the crop of outstanding QBs in conference) in the PAC-12, one player might not be enough to dethrone the big boys up north.

Key Games: Arizona State spoiled UCLA’s party last year and kept them out of the PAC-12 title game. This year, the two will get a chance to settle the score early on Sep. 25. UCLA gets Oregon, Stanford and USC at home this year, setting the table nicely for a conference title run.

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Leonard Williams could earn All-American honors for the second straight season.

2. USC

It was an interesting year for USC, when they fired the enigmatic Lane Kiffin after humiliating losses to Washington State and ASU, things seemed bleak. Then Ed Orgeron stepped up to the plate and the men of Troy ended up winning ten games. In a move that’s totally a USC thing to do, they dumped Orgeron and looked inside the conference, bringing in former assistant Steve Sarkisian to hopefully be the man to put the Trojans back into the national title hunt. They’re not quite there yet as USC is still facing sanctions from the NCAA for one of their infinite violations (at this point, it’s hard to remember what scholarship restriction is from what violation) and, as usual, USC has a formidable schedule. In year one of Sarkisian’s new no huddle offense, he’ll rely on all-conference WR Nelson Agholor who leads USC stacked receiving corps to pick up the slack from questionable quarterback play. On defense, USC is led by All-American Leonard Williams, one of the premier defensive ends in the nation and a likely top five draft pick. Sarkisian may be the man to put USC on the right track, but there will be some growing pains this year that could put them at odds with Arizona State for the runner-up in the South. As always, there’s enough talent on both sides of the ball to make USC a very real contender for the division title and a spot in the conference title game, should the moon and stars align.

Key Players: With a routinely stellar corps of receivers, many fans have been frustrated at the lack of development in Cody Kessler’s play as the Trojan signal caller. With the new no huddle, hurry-up offense, Kessler will have to be sharper than ever. With an outstanding group of receivers to choose from, another lukewarm year for the program’s passing game and all signs will point squarely to poor quarterback play. The program has struggled to find the next great Trojan QB and Kessler is quickly running out of time.

Key Games: Fresno State will be no slouch on opening day, especially if USC is focused on their road trip to Stanford the following week. The Trojans go to UCLA on Nov. 22 for a game that could decide the PAC-12 South before their annual meeting with Notre Dame, which will be played at the Coliseum this year.

3. Arizona State

Arizona State was one of the best stories in the PAC-12 last year, making it to the conference championship game and finishing inside the top 15. Their season ended with a bit of a thud, handily losing to Stanford in the conference title game and having another disappointing loss to an inferior Texas Tech squad in the Holiday Bowl. Senior QB Taylor Kelly is back and it’s not likely the Sun Devils fall off a cliff, but it’s going to be an uphill battle for ASU to find their way back to the top of the PAC-12 South, with UCLA gunning for the national title game and what looks to be an improved USC coming off of a ten win season. Kelly’s favorite target again this year will be WR Jaelen Strong, who earned second team all-conference honors last year with a breakout 1,122 yard season. Head coach Todd Graham is hoping JUCO transfer Eric Lauderdale adds some depth to what is already one of the conference’s deepest receiving corps. Like last year, the biggest questions will be the offensive line and the various deficiencies on defense. No team’s defense lost more to eligibility or the NFL than Arizona State. Nose tackle Jaxon Hood is the team’s most seasoned veteran and should be a leader on defense. Unfortunately for the Sun Devils, Hood has missed nearly a month of fall practice due to undisclosed personal matters. Success on the defensive side of the ball will require young players and first time starters to prove themselves in a major way. As it stands, Arizona State will have to prove the doubters wrong once again if they are to finish above USC, or UCLA in the PAC-12 South.

Key Players: Offensive tackle Jamil Douglas was one of the few bright spots on what was an otherwise disappointing offensive line. Douglas, and most of last year’s group are back in 2014 and Todd Graham is certainly hoping another year in the gym and on the practice field will yield better results. RB DJ Foster will be the likely starter at tailback after the departure of Marion Grice to the NFL. The excellent one-two punch of Kelly and Jaelen Strong could present Foster with a great opportunity to exploit opposing defenses.

Key Games: ASU gets a chance to declare themselves a PAC-12 South contender early against UCLA, in Tempe on September 25th. The game is on a Thursday, likely alone on national TV and will likely bring a raucous crowd and maybe just enough to repeat last year’s upset of the Bruins. The Sun Devils get USC, Washington and rival Arizona all on the road.

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The return of Austin Hill should help bolster the Arizona passing attack.

4. Arizona

Another eight win season in Tucson was nothing to scoff at, as the Wildcats held steady in a rapidly improving PAC-12. The Cats’ upset of Oregon was soured by the beatdown at the hands of rivals Arizona State, but ‘Zona took another step in the right direction in 2013. If Arizona wants to push past that eight win mark, they’ll have to do it without the electrifying Ka’Deem Carey, the two time All-American RB is now lacing up his cleats in the NFL. To many, Arizona was Ka’Deem Carey, and for good reason, he rushed for 4,239 yards in three seasons, only two of which he started. Carey was a once in a lifetime talent, especially for a program like Arizona, but the show must go on. Junior RB Jared Baker will step into Carey’s role this year as the only player on the roster who had a carry last season. Working in Baker’s favor is most of Arizona’s solid offensive line returning. Working against Baker, and the Arizona offense, are serious questions at quarterback, namely, choosing a starter. Whoever gets the nod at QB will have plenty of weapons to throw to, namely WR Austin Hill, who’s returning from injury and hasn’t played since 2012. Before missing all of last season, Hill was one of the best WRs in the country, putting up 1,364 yards and 11 TDs in 2012. Arizona is also fast on defense, but with that speed, they give up strength and size to some of their more formidable division rivals like USC and UCLA. While Arizona has a solid secondary, their lack of push up front could be a problem if the offense takes time to gel.

Key Players: The starting quarterback position is still up for grabs, with USC transfer Jesse Scroggins being the favorite, for now. He’s not the only big program transfer on the roster. Competing for the starting spot alongside Scroggins are Texas transfer Connor Brewer and Jarrard Randall, who played at LSU before heading to junior college. While all three were on the radar of big time programs at one time, none of taken a snap yet for Arizona.

Key Games: Arizona’s already circled the home match-up against ASU, their last game of the season on Nov. 28. Last year, the Cats put the nail in Oregon’s coffin, and will have some opportunities to play spoiler again this fall. The home games against USC on Oct. 11 and Washington on Nov. 15 are ones to watch.

5. Utah

Times have been tough for the Utes, who are still struggling to find their identity in a power five conference. Utah finished 5-7 in 2013, continuing their stagnation after an 8-5 season their first year in the PAC-12 (2011). Their conference win-loss is more telling: the Utes only won two games in the PAC-12 last year. Utah is struggling with many of the recruiting issues that should have been expected with the move to a “big boy” conference. Utah climbing to the top of the PAC-12 South will take time and serious investment in their resources and facilities. A #67 ranked recruiting class in 2014 puts them more in line with their old Mountain West friends than schools like USC, Oregon or even Arizona State. Utah’s key defensive lineman, Trevor Reilly, is gone and the line only returns one starter from last season, when Utah was #36 in total defense. On offense, returning quarterback Travis Wilson reclaimed his spot after a position battle with Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson. Wilson’s spot isn’t secure, however, as his 16 touchdowns last year were matched by 16 INTs. Wilson will need to take a step forward this season and focus on limiting turnovers if he wants to keep the starting job and see the Utes reach a bowl game. Another five win season, or worse, could mean head coach Kyle Whittingham’s job.

Key Players: RB Devontae Booker transferred to Utah from Washington State and could add depth and athleticism at running back. Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson could find himself under center fast if things go south early for the Utes. Thompson graduated from Oklahoma, so he is eligible to play immediately.

6. Colorado

Colorado wasn’t struggling to find itself once it entered the PAC-12, it had been soul searching in the Big-12 for quite some time as well. Once a national powerhouse, Colorado has plummeted to the depths of the college football cellar. Still, last year’s four win season was an improvement over their historically bad campaign in 2012. Colorado got a rivalry win over Colorado State, who ended up winning a bowl game. They also won a game in conference. The bad news, is like Utah, Colorado didn’t seem to get the memo that recruiting classes outside the top 50 aren’t likely to push you into a bowl game or have you competing for conference titles. Colorado may not win more than a lone conference game, likely against Cal (like last year), but they can still show considerable improvement on the field. Quarterback Sefo Liufau could be the next great quarterback in the quarterback heavy PAC-12. As a true freshman, Liufau threw for 12 TDs in one of college football’s best conferences, on one of its worst teams. Sefo’s first season was more than enough to let coaches and fans know he’s got what it takes to succeed at this level especially as he continues to mature and develop as a passer. What will be more important are the tools he has around him, particularly at WR, now that WR Paul Richardson has left for the NFL. For the Buffaloes, it’s still all about baby steps.

Key Players: Nelson Spruce will be Liufau’s go-to wideout this fall, he leads all returning wideouts in receptions and yards (55 catches for 650 yards). On defense, Addison Gillam was another true freshman standout for the Buffs, like Liufau, coaches are hoping his stellar contributions as a true freshman mean big things with another full year of strength and conditioning.

 

Author: Todd Gessling

Todd Gessling is a sports contributor for Place To Be Nation, an Atlanta native and proud graduate of the University of Missouri. Besides rooting for the Tigers, Todd is a fan of the Atlanta Braves, Hawks, Falcons and Nashville Predators and an avid follower of college athletics.Send Todd an email