Only a handful of teams have had similar success to Oregon over the last half-decade. They have dominated the Pac-12 over that span with a 47-9 record, making flashy appearances to four major bowl games including a trip to the BCS National Championship game in 2011. A bumpy November—another Stanford stampede and an upset in the Arizona desert—with a few costly turnovers is all that stood between Mark Helfrich ending his first season as head coach in contention for the crystal football. Instead, Oregon’s season ended with a 11-2 record and a 30-7 win over Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl. The Ducks high-powered offense continues to put up over 45 points per game, but every year they seem to lack the defensive tenacity needed to advance deep into the postseason.
Much of the anticipation comes from the return of dual-threat quarterback Marcus Mariota and the experienced line if front of him. Mariota had the best QBR in the country last year at 89.5, throwing for 31 touchdowns and only four interceptions. He comes into the year as a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy being at the helm for an elite offensive attack. Mariota will have the stats to back up his case, but it will likely boil down to his performances in the several marquee games on Oregon’s schedule. The Duck’s unit on the offensive line, with All-American center Hronniss Grasu, multiple-year starters Tyler Johnstone and Jake Fisher at the tackle positions, compiled with developing young talent, may just be one of the best lines in Oregon football history.
The faces around the signal-caller will look a bit different—losing Josh Huff and De’ Anthony Thomas to the NFL and Bralon Addison to a season-ending knee injury—but they still have an immense amount of depth at skill player positions. Oregon returns Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, who led the rushing in the backfield with 1,749 yards on the ground and 23 touchdowns—and will add a strong and elusive five-star recruit in Royce Freeman. On the outside, the Ducks will rely on veterans Dwayne Stanford and Keanon Lowe to take the reins, but redshirt freshman Devon Allen and Jalen Brown are also viable candidates to bring explosiveness to the Oregon offense.
Oregon’s stingy secondary has been one of the best groups in the NCAA in recent years, leading the nation with 25 picks and a turnover margin of 1.62 takeaways per game in 2012. However, the Ducks will again be forced to make a number of personnel changes. Don Pellum will take over as defensive coordinator for a group returning just five starters from a year ago, headlined by All-American CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and defensive tackle Arik Armstead. Incoming four-star cornerback Arrion Springs is one option available to fill in a porous secondary and play opposite of Ekpre-Olomu. Springs fits into the system well with his speed and instincts to read plays and make quick decisions.
The biggest concern for the Ducks lies within the defensive front seven and their ability to withstand power run games. Pellum was an in-house hire after coaching the linebacker core for two decades, so the schemes and terminology will be similar to seasons in the Alioti era. However, because of Oregon’s struggles to stop the run, Pellum has emphasized the need for more bulk on the defensive front side of the ball. Oregon’s run defense surrendered over 200-yards rushing four times against conference opponents in November last season, which resulted in their only two loses on the year.
Ultimately, Oregon has the tools to put together another successful season but I think they must efficiently run the ball and control more time of possession. The Ducks averaged just 25:33 out of the 60 minutes of game time, the least amount among all Pac-12 teams. The defense must be able to perform at the highest level, every second of the game, in order to secure a spot in the first ever College Football Playoff.
They have an early test hosting the Michigan State Spartans on Sept. 6, in what could be the best out-of-conference game of the year, and a road trip to UCLA. And of course, nobody can forget to mark the calendar for the matchup against Stanford. Look for Oregon to get over the hump and dethrone the Cardinal, reclaiming the Division AND Conference title.
It’s the same story every preseason: “yeah, Stanford was solid last year, but how will they ever replace [insert star player here].” First it was the departure of Heisman-finalist Toby Gerhart in ’09, then Coach Harbaugh left after ’10, then QB Andrew Luck went pro after ’11, then all-time school rushing leader Stepfan Taylor left The Farm after ’12. The steady constant, besides a key star leaving every year, has been that Stanford has silenced critics each time. They control the line of scrimmage living by the old-school mantra “run the ball, stop the run” and in the process have made 4 straight BCS bowls and defeated the favored Oregon Ducks in the division title game both times. Last preseason while most of the nation was mesmerized by the flashy Oregon offense, I was one of the few to predict that Stanford, with their elite defense and unmatched physicality, would shut down the Ducks. In one of the biggest Thursday night games ever, Stanford proved me right, out-muscling Oregon for the South Division title. What made Stanford elite was their top-notch offensive line and their united, spirited, playmaker-led defense. Instead of the usual one-star player leaving, this offseason the narrative reads a bit different. Stanford’s two strongest facets (O-line and defensive playmakers) both suffer heavy losses, making a 3rd straight South title very questionable.
Known mostly for the ground-pound rushing attack, Stanford is actually quite balanced. They work to establish the run, which in turn opens up the play-action pass over the top. And then Stanford returns to its bread and butter and simply overpowers the defense with its straight ahead, “you know its coming and you can’t stop it” rushing attack. The key to this offense: a powerful, cohesive offensive line. Gone are 4 (FOUR) All-Pac12 lineman, including 1st Team All-American David Yancey. Keep in mind that some of the replacements are former blue-chip recruits, but still, the line takes a step back from elite status. This puts more pressure on QB Kevin Hogan, who also loses his top rusher, Tyler Gaffney (1709 yards and 21 TDs in ’13). Look for Barry Sanders Jr, (yes, THAT Barry Sanders), to finally burst onto the college football scene- if his high school highlight tape is any indication, he got his daddy’s elusiveness and shiftiness. The entire WR core returns as well, led by Ty Montgomery who is also an ace in the return game. It all hinges on the offensive line’s development, and if Stanford can simply overpower teams again or not.
As expected, the Stanford defense was one of the nation’s best in 2013 and a quick glance at the returning starters stat (7) should mean another elite defense. However, those they do lose were all absolute playmakers and were the heart and soul of the defense. The combo of Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, along with safety Ed Reynolds makes 3 All-Americans leaving. AJ Tarpley now assumes the entire responsibility of the linebacking core, and Wayne Lyons must live up to his high potential at CB. The front four will be the strongpoint, featuring a dangerous duo of Henry Anderson (DE) and David Parry (NT). Yes, there are some pieces remaining, but the stars that made the defense special have been removed from The Farm.
I may be sounding just like that broken record talking about what Stanford loses every offseason. But it is different this time; instead of replacing that one star player, it becomes plural, as several cornerstones of the team are now gone. With Oregon’s firepower intact, a brutal road schedule, and a tough out-of-division draw (all top 3 North teams), I feel that this is the year Oregon reclaims the division. Key games against USC and Washington come early, giving little time for both the new offensive line and rebuilt defense to gel. Stanford is a surefire top-15 team nationally, and the clear-cut #2 team in the Pac-12 North.
Steve Sarkisian inherited a winless team and a program that hadn’t been to a bowl game since 2002. In his first season (2009) he improved the squad from 0-12 to 5-7 with Jake Locker at the helm, upsetting #3 USC in the process. After 3 straight 7-win seasons, many felt that UW had hit its limit and was stuck as a middle-of-the-road Pac-12 team. I was one of the few to predict the breakthrough last season; UW surged to 9-4 but was unable to knock off the conference elite. This past offseason, Steve Sarkisian returned to Southern California for his 3rd stint in LA - this time as head coach of the Trojans. The vacancy in Seattle will be filled by arguably the most sought after coach in college football, Chris Petersen, who led the Boise State dynasty since 2006 with an unprecedented 92-12 record. The recent recruiting success, elevated play last season, and the addition of Petersen collectively have generated an exciting buzz around UW Football, and elevated optimism to heights unseen since the early 2000s.
A trio of special players moves on, but there is still talent scattered all over the offense. QB Keith “Smiles” Price leaves with the 2nd most career passing yards in school history; his two favorite weapons, workhorse RB Bishop Sankey and playmaking tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, will also leave behind huge voids. Cyler Miles will take over at quarterback, but will sit out the opener due to a Super Bowl altercation. If he can stay focused, potential is very high for the former 4-star dual-threat QB. The biggest question offensive position wise is at RB but a trio of runners (Dwayne Washington, Deontae Cooper, and Jesse Callier) will share the load. Kasen Williams has potential for a breakout season at WR, and will be relied on more with the departure of ASJ and Damore’ea Stringfellow who transferred to Nebraska – then Ole Miss. To aid in Miles’ development as a starter and his on-site training of Petersen’s offensive strategy, he benefits from a stout offensive line that returns fully intact. The o-line is one of the league’s best, and all 5 guys have 20+ career starts under their belts. It will be tough to reach last season’s lofty 38 points per game, but who knows what Petersen can produce here with blue-chip talent that was hard to come by out in Boise.
Former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox did an excellent job of turning around the defense here, improving a unit that was allowing 36 points a game in 2011 to a strong defense that only surrendered 22 per game last season. Petersen brings over his Boise State staff including DC Pete Kwiatowski who had great success in his 4 years leading the defense. His new team has defensive stars at each level and an especially strong front four. Hau’oli Kikaha and Danny Shelton, the end-tackle combo, are both receiving preseason all-conference hype, and deserve it. Kikaha had 13 sacks last season, and will be joined by fellow returning starters Evan Hudson and Cory Littleton. Behind them is All-America candidate Shaq Thompson; the do-it-all athlete may even take some carries on offense and pull a 2013 Myles Jack. Regardless, Thompson is a special talent and will be flying all over the field again. The secondary is very young but the upside is dangerous. Marcus Peters is the only veteran – and a solid one at that. Some new faces will need to emerge but most were highly sought-after recruits such as Brandon Beaver, Budda Baker, and Travell Dixon from JUCO by way of Alabama. The defense has an easy first 4 games to gel as a unit before getting into the PAC-12 gauntlet.
Washington added elite coaching to the program to complement the deep and talent-rich roster. If they were in the other Pac-12 division, I could make a case for them as a division title candidate. Unfortunately, they are in a division with not just one, but TWO elite, top 10 teams in Oregon and Stanford. For now, UW is a small notch below the upper-echelon, but that gap is closing quickly with Petersen in town. UW will open 4-0 before hosting Stanford in Week 5, a game that will teach us a lot about both teams. I see a solid 9-win season as Petersen transitions to the Pac-12, but do not rule out the possibility of a breakthrough to the conference elite.
CB Steven Nelson
2013 Deion Sanders Award Runner-Up
Last season was a frustrating one for the Oregon State Beavers and head coach Mike Riley. They were bad, then they were good, and then the roller coaster continued on. After a nail-biting loss to FCS foe Eastern Washington to open up the season, OSU rolled on to six straight wins, experienced their worst losing streak since 1997 dropping five games in a row, before concluding with a Hawaii Bowl victory against Boise State. On the bright side, the losing streak was mixed in with competitive match-ups against three top-25 opponents—Oregon, Stanford and Arizona State—all of which they played extremely tough. Under Riley and senior quarterback Sean Mannion, Oregon State has enough talent and leadership to be a threatening dark horse in an increasingly competitive conference. However, there is still one weakness hindering the Beavers from becoming a threat to the elites of the Pac-12: inconsistent play in the trenches.
The Mannion-led attack has been the most effective weapon for the OSU offense in recent years and he will undoubtedly be one of the top signal callers in the nation when the 2014 season comes to an end. He returns for his senior season with the most career passing yards and highest career completion percentage of quarterbacks with more than 1,000 attempts in the country. Mannion is also just 1,839 yards behind Matt Barkley for the most passing yards in Pac-12 conference history. There are holes on the outside now that Mannion’s favorite target Brandin Cooks is gone. Junior Richard Mullaney will likely lead the slim receiving core, while a young and extremely athletic Victor Bolden steps in to fill Cooks’ position in the flanker.
But, as good as Mannion is, I think the Beaver’s success will be determined by the production they receive from experienced running backs Terron Ward and Storm Woods behind a young offensive line. Oregon State surpassed the 100-yard mark on the ground just six times in 2014 and finished the season second to last in the Pac-12 with 94 yards per game. Having a dual-threat running game to complement an already established passing game would balance the attack in ways similar to what big brother Oregon has done over the years with their superb running back tandems.
Now for the biggest question mark, the defensive front. Defensive end Dylan Wynn is the only returning player on a line that surrendered nearly 60 more yards per game on the ground than they did in 2012. Wynn’s 67 tackles led all defensive lineman last season, but the Beavers do not have an answer for the hole left by edge rusher Scott Crichton, who led the team in sacks and tackles for loss in 2013. This puts the spotlight on senior Edwin Delva and junior Jashwa James to be the much-needed disruptive presence in the trenches for a unit that lacks size and experience. One thing Oregon State does have is a well-oiled linebacking core and secondary. The Beavers have returners in six of the back seven positions, including senior linebacker Michael Doctor and cornerback Stephen Nelson, who has proven to be a force in coverage recording a team high six interceptions last year. Nelson’s game-winning Pick Six against San Diego State earned him our weekly Deion Sanders Award, and he finished as our season runner-up.
Coach Riley has led OSU to eight winning seasons since returning to Corvallis in 2003. And even with a disappointing season last year, the team finished over .500 with a near upset over Oregon in the Civil War, and then ended with a 38-23 defeat over Boise State. The schedule they face this year isn’t anything overpowering—with Arizona State and USC from the South Division and the normal draw in the north—as many of them are spread out throughout the course of the season. Thier toughest bouts in the beginning will be a home game against San Diego State in September before a road trip to USC the following week, and then to Stanford in late October. If they can find their identity early and pick up momentum before a tough three-game final stretch with Arizona State, Washington and rival Oregon, the Beavers could find themselves in a position to control their own destiny. That being said, it’s certainly an uphill climb residing in the same division as perennial powers Stanford and Oregon, and the two surging Washington teams.
Washington State had 3 straight 10-win seasons from 2001 to 2003, but since then has resided in the conference cellar, a punching bag for the stronger, faster, more flashy Pac-12 teams to run the score up on. WSU’s only claim to fame since then is the infamous flag, “Ol Crimson”, that has appeared at every single College Gameday set since 2004! Entering his 3rd season in Pullman, Mike Leach wants the program to be known for more than the Gameday flag (and popcorn guy) by adding a winning season to the WSU résumé.
Mike Leach is attempting to assemble his trademark, spread-the-ball, offense that saw unprecedented success and even revolutionized the entire Big 12. With an improving quarterback and deep receiving core he may just have the pieces to pull it off. Leach even brought in some former Texas Tech guys – most notably Graham Harrell – to help install and develop the offense. It starts at quarterback with Connor Halliday, who has been a key contributor in each of Leach’s 3 seasons here, highlighted by a 4597 yard 34 TD output last fall. Halliday has literally every offensive weapon back from last year (except for the short-yardage back) which is saying something considering just how many players get touches and major involvement in Leach’s offensive system. They spread the ball around like no one else in America. 11 players had 10 or more receptions – 10 of those 11 return! The offensive line returns just two starters and looks like one of the league’s weaker units. However, Leach’s system of quick reads and passes takes the pressure of off the offensive line and if Halliday continues to improve it will alleviate most line issues. I expect the unit to improve on its 31 points per game in ’13, especially if Halliday starts to resemble the Texas Tech quarterbacks of old who are now mentoring him.
55, 52, 62, 65 – the points allowed to Stanford, Oregon State, Oregon, and Arizona State. These defensive collapses need to go away for Washington State to earn that elusive winning season and climb the conference ladder. Simply put, the talent level just isn’t there yet to slow down the league’s elite offensive attacks. Yet in their other 8 regular season games, the defense was respectable and even held USC and Arizona to 7 and 17 points, respectively. 6 starters return, but will the young secondary be torched again by the amazing lineup of quarterbacks in this league?
On opening night, Thursday August 28th, we will see just how much Mike Leach has improved the WSU football program, as they host Rutgers in the late game of a TV triple-header. The following Friday, the Cougars travel to Nevada in a tricky matchup. WSU avoids playing South Division contender UCLA, but also misses South doormat Colorado. With the key swing games both away AT Utah and AT Oregon State, it will be very difficult to top last year’s 6 wins. The key here will be the development of the defense; I have solid faith that the offense will be high-scoring. But in the back of everyone’s minds…is this the year that Leach’s pirates break through and evolve into a fully developed Texas Tech North?
After recording just one victory a year ago, expectations aren’t very high for the California Bears football team this upcoming season. However, the room for improvement is infinite for second year Head Coach Sonny Dykes and his team as they look to bounce back from a dreadful 2013, a year filled with inexperience and injuries. Quarterback Jared Goff comes back after becoming the first true freshman to start the home opener for California and with a year of experience under his belt, there is no question the Bears offense will be playing at a higher level. The schedule they draw is by no means favorable—drawing the ninth toughest in the country—but it will certainly be possible for Cal to expand on last year’s efforts with nine returning starters on offense and six on the defensive side.
As stated earlier, an upside for the Bears is that they will have Goff under center after boasting a 123.2 QBR as a freshman. He will have the pleasure of playing with eight returning starters from last year’s squad, including the team’s top running back and top two receivers. Goff’s targets on the outside are junior wideouts Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs, who combined for 1,603 yards receiving in 2013. Sophomore back Khalfani Muhammad recorded a mere 467 yards on the ground last season, but it came off just 74 carries, for about a six yard average. Although Goff is arguably their best option for success, he is still young and there are no real superstars on the roster to help him out in tough situations. I think the Bears will need to balance the attack and be more avid in the run game to be an effective threat in the powerful Pac-12.
The key for Cal on the defensive side of the ball is to stay healthy. By November last season, seven of the Bear’s projected starters at the beginning of the year were out with injuries. The result: as a unit they allowed an astonishing 530 yards per game and 45.9 points per game. With the addition of new defensive coordinator Art Kaufman, who’s group at Cincinnati last season ranked in the top 10 nationally in total defense, Cal’s defense seems destined to improve if they can fit together schemes with experience and refrain from injuries.
Despite the tough schedule, I think Cal has the ability to win three to four games this year. They open the season against Northwestern once again to begin a stretch of very winnable games with Sacramento State, Arizona, Colorado and Washington State. After that, the going gets tough, but fortunately they play some of the conference’s top competition—Washington, UCLA and Stanford—at home in Berkeley. It’s also worth mentioning that California went just 1-10 in 2001 before Jeff Tedford took over the following year. And in two short seasons, the Bears found themselves within inches of playing in the National Championship game. So no matter how bad things were, they can change quickly in the world of college football.