This time 2 years ago, Southern Cal was the unanimous #1 team and seemed invincible. USC became the first preseason #1 to finish unranked since 1964, plummeting to 7-6 and placing head coach Lane Kiffin on the hot seat entering 2013. The cracks in the Trojan armor started in an abysmal 10-7 loss to Washington State, but out in the desert 3 games later, Arizona State dealt the final blow to the Kiffin era in a 62-41 blowout. Kiffin was fired on the bus back from the airport and Ed Orgeron stepped in as the interim to rally the team to a 10-4 season. This offseason, USC brought back coach Steve Sarkisian from Washington, and is finally back to a full roster size from the recent NCAA sanctions and restrictions. With elite talent in abundance at every position, plus the addition of a successful staff that’s familiar with the league, I am predicting that USC will win the Pac-12 South.
Right away, critics will point to the quarterback position as a potential weakness. In the context of the PAC-12, with multiple Heisman candidates and record-setting quarterbacks returning, Cody Kessler isn’t necessarily in the spotlight. But this “weakness” quietly threw for 2968 yards with a 20-7 TD-INT ratio last season, and will surely progress further in his first offseason as the established starter. Out of high school, Kessler formed a great relationship with Sarkisian and was close to committing to UW until a last-second offer brought him to USC. Now they are reunited in LA with a vast array of offensive weapons around them. The running back duo – Tre Madden and Javorius “Buck” Allen – is easily the best in the league and possibly the nation. They split carries last season (1488 yards combined) and will likely do the same again. Usually when a team loses its career receiving leader (Marqise Lee), there will be significant steps back in the passing game; Lee was injured for most of the year allowing other stars to shine through and making his departure less fatal. Nelson Agholor is gaining All-American attention, and is even more dangerous in the return game (TWO punt return TD’s against Cal). Look for George Farmer, the former #1 WR out of High School, to bounce back from his injury and be electric. The offensive line returns 3 starters led by Rimington candidate Max Tuerk and will welcome in former blue-chip recruits at both vacancies.
Defensive Coordinator Justin Wilcox took over a UW defense that allowed 36 ppg in 2011, and in his two seasons with Sarkisian, he brought that figure down to 23. Wilcox has a far easier “rebuilding project” here at USC, and its hard to even call it that. He inherits one of the most complete defenses in the nation; all 3 position groups rate in the top 5 nationally! With All-American candidates at each level of the defense (DL Leonard Williams, LB Hayes Pullard, and SS Su’a Cravens), and 4/5-star quality recruits overflowing, this unit could (and should) be special. Coaching at Washington the past 2 seasons, Wilcox is familiar with all of the opposing Pac-12 attacks making the transition less difficult. I expect this defense to resemble the dominant units from the Pete Carroll era, and set the team up for a division title.
Every single major magazine and publication is picking UCLA to win the Pac-12 South with some writers (Beano Cook) even picking the Bruins as a darkhorse playoff team. I am the only one picking the other team from LA. The two limiting issues since Carroll’s departure were the sanction/roster restrictions and the poor coaching. Both of those are fixed entering this season. The talent level is elite and will be led by a high quality staff; Sarkisian/Wilcox’s turnaround at UW and familiarity with the league are huge bonuses. Unlike UCLA, USC avoids playing Oregon and Washington, and catches Stanford early in the season as they will still be developing their young defense and offensive-line. The city title has resided in Westwood for 2 years and I am calling for the Trojans to steal it back – en route to a Pac-12 South title.
Jim Mora Jr. has done an excellent job picking up the pieces from the Neuheisel era and returning UCLA to national relevance. After 9-5 and 10-3 seasons, UCLA looks poised to take the next step; they return 17 starters from ’13 making them the most experienced in the league. Mora has beaten cross-town rival USC both seasons, but still hasn’t been able to break through and compete with the Pac-12’s elite (Stanford and Oregon) going 0-4. With a brutal schedule and the proverbial targets on their back, will UCLA be able to run the table, or will they collapse midseason yet again?
It all starts at quarterback with the dual-threat, highly-touted Brett Hundley, who in addition to passing for 3000+ yards led the team in rushing with 748 and 11 TD’s. Hundley is at the top of most Heisman rankings entering 2014, but loses his go-to receiver Shaq Evans. Solid contributors return including Devin Lucien, Jordan Payton, and the elusive former QB Devin Fuller. Look out for young TE/WR Thomas Duarte as a potential breakout player. It will be a “running back by committee” setup in the backfield, with Mora favoring whoever has the hot hand. Jordan James and Paul Perkins each had over 100 carries last season; Steven Manfro will contribute a bit and we may see the return of LB Myles Jack to the RB spot for some carries. The offensive line was dealt a major loss with the early departure of All-American candidate Xavier Su’a Filo to the NFL, but with 4 other starters back, it should be a strong, cohesive unit. It is hard to imagine the offense not at least matching last season’s high level, and it will likely exceed it. More importantly though, is the performance against elite defenses. Hundley needs to play his best ball in the national spotlight games if UCLA wants to take that next step.
Surely you’ve heard of Myles Jack, the knowledgeable true freshman who excelled on both sides of the ball and earned the Offensive AND Defensive Freshman of the Year awards in the Pac-12. With such a solid linebacking core, coach Jeff Ulbrich can get creative in how they use Jack on defense. For now, Jack will focus primarily on defense but may be called on for some carries. Up front, the Bruins benefit from the return of much-heralded DE Owamagbe Odighizuwa who had a medical redshirt last season. He is joined by productive nose tackle Kenny Clark and the super-recruit Eddie Vanderdoes at the other end spot. Eric Kendricks is receiving all-conference hype at MLB, while the entire secondary returns intact. Returning starters will be pushed by elite recruits such as Priest Willis and Tahaan Goodman. The defense is loaded but needs some consistency against the the high-octane attacks such as Oregon (42 points) and Arizona State (38) – two games that cost them the division title.
Every major magazine and publication has UCLA winning the Pac-12 South; I do not. It is not necessarily any negative that I have found in UCLA, for the Bruins look like a complete team. My pick here is more about the higher potential I see with USC with the improved coaching staff and elite talent level. The teams look very similar and can go guy-for-guy except at QB. Schedule-wise, UCLA has to play the 3 best North teams (Oregon, Stanford, and Washington), while USC only gets Stanford – and early in the year as the young Cardinal will still be finding its way. That said, UCLA is a surefire top 10 team, and it appears that Mora has found sustained success here in Westwood.
Arizona State began 2013 with the very lofty dream of winning the Pac-12 and heading to the program’s first Rose Bowl since the 1996 season. At the end, the team finished one game short of the Rose Bowl and showed that they are the real deal. Arizona State ended up with a very good season with a record of 10-4, where they hosted the Pac-12 Championship and earned a berth in the National University Holiday Bowl. But, notice how neither of those said “won.” ASU did win some big games last season (Wisconsin, UCLA, Arizona), but lost many games when it counted (Stanford, twice, Notre Dame, and the Holiday Bowl to Texas Tech). As the calendar turns to the 2014 season, ASU is in a good place and third-year head coach Todd Graham has the program headed in the right direction, possibly even to the program’s first Rose Bowl since the 1996 season.
High Octane. Those two words have surrounded the ASU offense since the day that Todd Graham stepped foot in Tempe. Coaches and journalists alike repeat it, week after week. And there is good reason for that. ASU had the 10th best scoring offense in the nation last season (39.7 ppg) and used an average of 30:21 to score those points. Deputy head coach Mike Norvell’s offense returns three 2nd-team All Pac-12 players (QB Taylor Kelly, WR Jaelen Strong, and OT Jamil Douglas) along with key contributors RB D.J. Foster and TE De’Marieya Nelson. ASU also sees RB Deandre Lewis, OG Vi Teofilo, and OT Tyler Sulka return. ASU looks set offensively. Kelly threw for 3,635 yards and 28 TDs last season, while Foster looked great in relief for Marion Grice. The wide receiver corps, led by Strong (preseason 1st-team All-Pac-12 and 3rd-team All-American) and JUCO transfer Eric Lauderdale, will be fantastic once again. ASU will have to break in a new center, but has three preseason All-Pac-12 performers on the offensive line. All should work out for the high octane Sun Devils, as the recruiting class saw some standout offensive players come to Tempe, and they should have one of the best offenses in the Pac-12, if not the country.
The Sun Devils may need that offense to perform at peak efficiency, as the defense led by co-defensive coordinators Keith Patterson and Chris Ball, only returns two starters on defense. ASU lost a ton to graduation and the NFL draft. Only one member of the front seven returns and that is the same for the secondary. ASU lost All-American DT Will Sutton, DBs Robert Nelson, Osahon Irabor, Alden Darby, LBs Chris Young and Carl Bradford, and DE Gannon Conway to graduation and/or the NFL Draft. All in all, that is 19 out 21 interceptions and 35 out of 40 sacks gone from last year’s defense, which ranked 4th in the Pac-12. That does not mean, however, that ASU returns very little playing time. DE Marcus Hardison, NT Jaxon Hood, SPUR LB Viliami Moeakiola and CB Lloyd Carrington are all projected starters that saw plenty of playing time, with Hood and Moeakiola with starting experience. ASU will need their two returning starters, LB Salamo Fiso and S Demarious Randall to step up and lead this defense as it will still be very green. LB DJ Calhoun is a name to be on the lookout for. Calhoun is a four-star recruit, according to 247Sports, out of El Cerrito HS in California who enrolled at ASU in the spring and showed a lot of promise during spring practices. Fans should also look out for safety Marcus Ball, who likely would have started last season if not for an injury suffered at Camp Tonotzona that caused him to redshirt.
Ciancia’s Outlook Last Preseason, while almost every major magazine and preseason publication was mesmerized by the two Los Angeles teams, I was one of the few to peg Arizona State as the South Division champs – giving me a perfect South prediction from top to bottom, the best in the nation. Gone are the several key playmakers on defense that took ASU from 3rd to division champion. While Graham attempts to patch up the defense with an influx of JUCO talent, I see a step back for the Sun Devils this fall, finishing below the more complete USC and UCLA squads.
In their search of their first Rose Bowl berth in program history, the Arizona Wildcats began the 2013 season with energy and excitement behind second-year head coach Rich Rodriguez, the 2012 NCAA leading rusher, Ka’Deem Carey, and a “Hard Edge” video campaign. After starting the season 3-0 against Northern Arizona, UNLV and UTSA, Arizona began Pac-12 play with two losses to Washington and USC before righting the ship against Pac-12 cellar dwellers Utah, Colorado, and Cal. The Cats would then lose UCLA and Washington State before upsetting No. 5 Oregon at Arizona Stadium. Arizona would wrap up their second consecutive 8-5 season with a 58-21 drubbing at the hands of Arizona State and an Advocare V100 Bowl win over Boston College.
Arizona’s new mantra is ”Arizona Fast” and nothing may signify that more than the wide receivers. Arizona boasts one of the top-five wide receiver corps in the country. 2012 All-Pac-12 Austin Hill returns from an ACL injury, and is flanked by Nate Phillips (696 yards, 7 touchdowns last year), Trey Griffey (170 yards, 2 TDs), Notre Dame-transfer DaVonte Neal, and Garic Wharton (291 yards, 2 TDs) among others. The question remains as to who will throw them the ball, however. The Wildcats have eight quarterbacks on the roster. Now why do the Cats have eight quarterbacks? Well, RichRod gave this answer to the Tucson Citizen’s Anthony Gimino in December 2013: “Everybody says why would you have seven instead of four? Well, you got to find at least two that can play. Your odds are better at seven then they are at four. We may have to take another one.” RichRod added QB Brandon Dawkins from Oxnard, CA in his recruiting class as the 8th QB and he will have his 3rd starting QB in three years. USC-transfer Jesse Scroggins looks to have the inside track to the starting job, but redshirt freshman Anu Solomon, LSU-transfer Jerrard Randall and Texas-transfer Connor Brewer will all challenge him in fall camp. With two-time All-American, two-time All-Pac-12 first team and 2013 Pac-12 offensive player of the year Carey gone to the NFL, the Cats will look to a running-back-by-committee approach this year. Look for redshirt freshmen Pierre Cormier and Zach Green and true freshman Jonathan Haden to get most of the carries this fall. Arizona is set on the offensive line with 4 starters, including two three-year starting tackles (Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele) returning.
Last year, outside of the Oregon game, Arizona’s defense looked very inconsistent. In wins last year, the Wildcats’ secondary grabbed 15 interceptions but in losses, it only grabbed 3. The defense followed perhaps its best game (Oregon, 16 points given up, 2 INTs) by its worst (ASU, 58 points given up, 478 yards given up). For Arizona to improve on that, Jeff Casteel’s 3-3-5 defense will have to show up every game. The secondary may be the most important unit in the pass-happy Pac-12 and Arizona is set deep. Four out of five starters return from last season’s secondary, which gave up 233.2 pass ypg, including potential All-Pac12 S Jared Tevis. Having preseason All Pac-12 3rd-Teamer Tra’Mayne Bondurant back at SPUR (hybrid safety-linebacker) is also big for the Cats. Boundurant was a PICK SIX legend last fall, taking TWO to the house. When it comes to the front seven, there may be some issues. Only three starters return from last year’s front seven, which gave up 167.8 rush ypg. Preseason All-Pac-12 2nd-Teamer Scooby Wright is the name to look out for as he will lead the Cats from middle linebacker.
With the departure of its star QB and RB, and the defensive questions up front, Arizona will struggle to break through to the upper half of the South Division. They look to remain a notch below the upper trio of USC-UCLA-ASU, but if RichRod finds his answer at quarterback and can patch up the defense, the Wildcats could make some noise.
Boise State often gets the credit as the non-AQ team that burst onto the BCS scene; heck, they even renamed their mascot “Buster,” as in, BCS Buster. But actually it was Utah, back in 2004, who originally broke down the barrier. Urban Meyer led the undefeated Utes to the Fiesta Bowl and destroyed Pitt 35-7, then 4 years later Kyle Whittingham led the Utes to the Sugar Bowl and humbled Saban’s Alabama team 31-17. It was that 2008 Utes team that really escalated the pressure on the BCS and its exclusion of lower-tier teams. 3 years later, with the Pac-10’s expansion to 12 teams, the Utes found themselves upgrading to the big leagues, and haven’t been able to reach the same level of success that they had in the Mountain West. Utah has been stuck towards the bottom of the South Division in each of their first 3 seasons, but they are progressing each season. However, will Utah’s development and progress be able to keep pace with the rest of the league, a surging conference that looks stronger than ever?
You already know the bigger profile names in the league – Mariota, Hundley, Agholor, Mannion – but Utah has its own talented trio of skill players with a solid line laying the foundation. The tallest quarterback the league has seen since Brock Osweiler (Arizona State), 6’7” Travis Wilson is back from injury and looks to cut down on his mistakes and inconsistencies. At his best, the dual-threat is a human highlight reel, but it seemed that every great play was reciprocated with a mistake or turnover. Utah almost upset UCLA in spite of 6 Wilson interceptions; however he was the reason it was even a game in the first place. Devontae Booker, the JUCO prospect, will join Bubba Poole in the backfield; factor in Wilson’s ground game and this rushing attack is quite dynamic. Dres Anderson, a 1000-yard receiver in ’13, is receiving all-conference hype. Meanwhile, the offensive line returns 3 of 5 starters, giving the offense experience in all areas.
Since joining the Pac-12, the defense’s performance has slowly worsened, allowing more points per game each season. Last season, they were dealing with the graduation of All-American DT Star Lotulelei, and saw yet another step back. With a strong linebacking core led by 3 returning starters and a pair of talented corners (Eric Rowe and Davion Orphey), the defense can turn things around and halt the regression. More consistency is crucial; Utah held USC to 19, Arizona State to 20, and even upset #5 Stanford 27-21. But there were equally as many breakdowns which will continue to keep Utah out of the upper-tier of the league.
Whittingham is making strides in the new conference, but progress may get overshadowed by the gauntlet of a schedule. Two of the three out-of-conference games will be difficult: Fresno State and a trip to the Big House. Further, they must face the top 2 North teams (Oregon and Stanford) in back-to-back games. 3 of their potential winnable games are on the road, making bowl season look questionable at best. Despite improvements, I see yet another 5-7 season for the Utes.
After an absolutely dismal 1-11 campaign in 2012 that ended in head coach Jon Embree being replaced by Mike MacIntyre from San Jose State, things could go nowhere but up for the Colorado Buffaloes in 2013. Things did get better, although not by much. The 2013 season opened with CU defeating their in-state rival Colorado State, followed by a win over FCS-foe Central Arkansas. Then Pac-12 play began and CU’s season went downhill. In three consecutive weeks, the Buffs lost to Oregon State, Oregon and Arizona State, were outscored by 109 points, and saw starting QB Connor Wood get replaced by freshman Sefo Liufau. CU got a win against Charleston Southern before the beat downs resumed. CU lost to Arizona, put up their best performance of the season against UCLA, where the Buffs were only down by eight at halftime before the Bruins pulled away in the third quarter, and then lost by 52 to Washington. CU then got its 4th Pac-12 win in program history against Cal before ending the season with back-to-back losses to USC and Utah. Strides were made in Coach MacIntyre’s first season in Boulder, and now the Buffs will look to win more than one Pac-12 game in a season for the first time in 2014.
Leading the way for the Buffaloes is sophomore quarterback Sefo Liufau. Liufau took over for Connor Wood in the first quarter of the Arizona State game last season and ended up throwing for 1,779 yards, 12 touchdowns and 9 interceptions in CU’s final eight games. Having experience under center will be extremely valuable for the Buffaloes as will having all three of their top RB’s back as Christian Powell, Jr. (the likely starter), Michael Adkins III and Tony Jones are all back in black and gold. Colorado does lose WR Paul Richardson and his 1,343 yards and 10 TDs to the NFL, but they will have preseason All Pac-12 4th-teamer Nelson Spruce, D.D. Goodson and Tyler McCulloch, their next top three receivers back. Incoming freshman WR Shay Fields, a three-star recruit once committed to USC, is a name to look out for in 2014. The offensive line will have three starters back, including preseason 3rd-Team All Pac-12 guard Daniel Munyer.
What really plagued Colorado in 2013 was Kent Baer’s 4-3 defense. CU’s 107th ranked defense allowed opponents to outgain their offense by 1,172 yards and outscore their offense by 154 points last season. That was mostly due to CU’s rush defense, which was ranked 101st in the nation and allowed opponents to run for an average of 208.5 yards per game. As they look to improve on those numbers in 2014, the defensive line will be without stud DE Chidera Uzo-Diribe, who went undrafted and signed with the New Orleans Saints. The other three starters, Samson Kafovalu, Juda Parker and Josh Tupou, all return. The CU defense returns seven of their top 10 tacklers from last year, including leading tackler, and preseason All Pac-12 2nd teamer LB Addison Gillam, who had 119 tackles in 2013. Gillam will lead the Buffs from the middle linebacker position and will be flanked by Woodson Greer III on the strong side and most likely sophomore Kenneth Olugbode on the weak side. The Buffs’ secondary, much like the rest of the defense, has room to improve. In 2013, the pass defense ranked 101st in the nation, giving up 259.5 yards per game through the air. CU has both starting corners back, including preseason All Pac-12 4th teamer Greg Henderson. Jered Bell is back at free safety and Terrel Smith should take the strong safety job after missing 2013 with a shoulder injury.
As MacIntyre continues to rebuild the once-proud football program, it looks like another year in the division cellar. Eclipsing last year’s 4-win mark will be difficult in the increasingly talented and deep Pac-12.