If there is one thing done right in collegiate sports, it would be the structure of the NCAA basketball tournament. A field of 68 teams are selected to compete through the madness of upsets, rivalries and Cinderella stories until the last teams remain in the Final Four -- arguably the most exciting postseason in sports.
Spring ball has begun around the country and we're a short four months away from the 2014 college football season. Every die hard, every seasonal fan, and even the coaches and players are wondering what the new College Football Playoff era will have in store. Take a look at last season and how crazy an Iron Bowl rematch would have been between #2 Auburn and #3 Alabama, especially after the Tigers upset the defending champs with one of craziest finishes in college football history. And on the other side, #1 Florida State and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston facing off against #4 Michigan State's "No Fly Zone?" Am I the only one who wishes this wasn't a dream?
Rising powerhouses such as Stanford, Oregon and UCLA are the front-runners of the Pac-12, which is crawling with competition and credibility. As a whole, the conference combined for a 13-8 record in the BCS era--second of any power conference during that time--and this year's playoff system only gives more opportunity to silence the beasts in the Southeast.
One of two teams--either Stanford or Oregon--have finished ranked in the top four in three of the past four years in BCS bowl selections and there's always a buzz about the unfairness of the selection committee, which will have just as tough of a decision as in years past.
From explosive offenses to challenging schedules, the Pac-12's opportunity to succeed is now and here is why:
Successful Signal Callers
Having a good quarterback is an inevitable key for a winning team, just look at Texas since Vince Young left to the NFL. Featuring no-huddle, spread, west coast, and traditional pro-style offenses, there is no other conference in the nation that offers a wider range of playmaking QB's and offensive attacks than that of the Pac-12. From Taylor Kelly and Brett Hundley in the South, to Marcus Mariota, Sean Mannion and Kevin Hogan in the North, the parity is better than ever.
Over the last few seasons, the Oregon offense has been anything less than fruitful. The Ducks have averaged over 40 points in each of the last four seasons and they return nine offensive starters for 2014, including quarterback Marcus Mariota,who finished the year with 40 touchdowns, a mere four interceptions and led the nation in offensive yards per play at 9.1.
Meanwhile, Stanford has a different formula for victory; Kevin Hogan, their proven winner, complements their tenacious defense. Hogan is by no means a dual-threat playmaker and he doesn't need to be with the rushing attack the Cardinal has given him. And he has led them to two straight Rose Bowl appearances, something Andrew Luck could never say.
In Tempe, dual-threat quarterback Taylor Kelly could put up 40 points a game on a bad day for the Sun Devils, which is a bad sign for other defenses in the conference. Kelly has excellent decision-making skills, which helped him gain over 4,000 yards of total offense with 28 scores.
What do these stars at the helm have in common? In 2013, each of these signal callers led their teams to double-digits in the win column. If they can duplicate or expand on last year’s play, their respective teams will be in the conversation for playoff contention.
Strength of Schedule
A number of highly anticipated games are set for 2014; the tests for teams in the Pac-12 are some of the toughest of any conference this season. Apart from conference matchups, Arizona State, UCLA, USC and Oregon have added marquee games to their 2014 schedules, coming just in time for this year's playoff.
Oregon made the biggest addition in adding Michigan State to their schedule. The Spartans are in the top 10 in many preseason rankings and this matchup will be especially important because it lies in week two. It will be an early test for both teams and luckily for the Ducks, the game is at home in Eugene. A trip to Los Angeles in October to play the Bruins will also be an important game for Pac-12 fans to pay attention to.
Stanford has arguably of the toughest schedules in all of football this season as they embark on their journey to back-to-back conference titles. Their six games on the road include match-ups with Washington and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks, a trip to Arizona State, the Ducks at Autzen Stadium, while finishing the season away against California and UCLA.
The Sun Devils will host Notre Dame in Tempe, which could be a very enticing game depending on how quarterback Everett Golson performs after a year of absence. Golson, of course, led the Fighting Irish to the 2013 National Championship game but fell victim to the Saban Dynasty, 42-14.
USC and UCLA have made home and away additions to their non-conference lineups. The Trojans are set to host Fresno State and visit Boston College, while UCLA will play host to Texas and travel to Virginia.
After these tests against top teams in non-conference games and a competitive slate of conference play, there will be a definitive picture of where each team stands on the national level. An undefeated PAC-12 champion will be a guaranteed lock for the 4-team playoff. But thanks to the overall conference's strength of schedule, the possibility exists that a one-loss champion could still earn a berth. Regardless, look for the PAC-12 champion to represent the conference in the College Football Playoff -- oh what a clever name.
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