Pac-12 preview: Oregon, UCLA teams to beat
2013 in review •Â 8-5, 4-5 Pac-12.
Returning starters • 14 total (7 offense, 6 defense, 1 specialist)
Top returning player •Â Don't count out receiver Austin Hill with a long-awaited return. Hill piled up 81 catches for more than 1,300 yards in 2012 before he tore his ACL and missed all of 2013. If he's the same player he was before, defenses everywhere will have to watch out.
Biggest question mark •Â Who is going to throw it and who is going to run it? The quarterback competition is slowly winding up for the Wildcats, one of two Pac-12 schools that don't return a starting QB. But there's also the question of who replaces all-star rusher Kadeem Carey. Two huge areas to replace production.
Schedule outlook • Arizona's season really gets going after some middling openers with a road trip to Oregon and USC. The season has a punishing finish with six straight games, including visits to Washington State, UCLA and Utah. 'Zona probably can get to a bowl game if it can handle Colorado and Washington at home, but getting wins beyond that could be tricky for a young team.
2013 in review •Â 10-4, 8-1 Pac-12.
Returning starters • 10 total (6 offense, 2 defense, 2 specialists)
Top returning player •Â While QB Taylor Kelly merits strong consideration, he's no Jaelen Strong. The junior wideout has the size and strength of an elite receiver, but he also gets separation like few others in the league. His breakout season last year made him one of the most feared and respected playmakers in the nation.
Biggest question mark •Â Defensive line seems to be an area of concern, especially replacing disruptive tackle Will Sutton. While Jaxon Hood and Marcus Hardison are expected to fill some of that void, it's unclear how effective they can be in stopping the run.
Schedule outlook • The Sun Devils could easily be 3-0 going into their first bye, followed by two season-defining games, hosting UCLA and visiting USC. After a revenge opportunity against Stanford, ASU has a lineup of strong Â but not elite teams leading to the end of the regular season. It will be interesting to see if the Sun Devils' youth can gain momentum on that back end; if so, eight or nine wins is possible.
2013 in review • 1-11, 0-9 Pac-12.
Returning starters • 15 total (9 offense, 6 defense)
Top returning player • As a true freshman, Khalfani Muhammad led the Bears with 446 rushing yards on just 74 carries a 6.0 average and though he was No. 2 behind Daniel Lasco on the preseason depth chart, he figures to play a key role in the kick return, receiving (187 yards last year) and rushing games. And he might have entered fall camp the starter if he wasn't busy running 10.55 in the 100 for the track team this spring.
Biggest question mark • Cal yielded nearly 46 points per game last season. How do the Bears stop the bleeding? That's the problem new defensive coordinator Art Kaufman is charged with solving, and if he doesn't, there may be a fourth defensive coordinator in four years, starting 2015. Coach Sonny Dykes was asked if he'll pay more attention to defense after last year's struggles. "I paid more attention to defense last year than I ever have before, so maybe I'll pay less attention this year," he said.
Schedule outlook • Brutal. The problem with being Cal in the Pac-12 North is that you don't get to play Cal. The Bears open as 11-point underdogs at Northwestern, and the only somewhat likely win on the schedule comes in Week 2, against Sacramento State. The season ends with a gantlet of Washington, UCLA, Oregon, at Oregon State, at USC, Stanford and BYU.
2013 in review • 4-8, 1-7 Pac-12
Returning starters • 19 total (9 offense, 8 defense, 2 specialist)
Top returning player • While quarterback Sefo Liufau will carry a lot of responsibility, Colorado's defense struggled so mightily last year, it's worth giving a nod to sophomore linebacker Addison Gilliam. The Buffaloes need to figure out how to stop opponents. With Gilliam in the middle, Colorado has a good start to cleaning that up.
Biggest question mark • Who is around Liufau? Colorado brings back its top two running backs, but the loss of receiver Paul Richardson hurts. Young guys in the receiving game will have to step up, and Colorado's retooled line will have to protect the most valuable piece of its offense.
Schedule outlook • It could have been worse for Colorado. The Buffaloes duck the Ducks, and stay away from Stanford. ASU is not an easy Pac-12 opener, but Cal and Oregon State are winnable games leading into the tougher portion of the schedule. They should beat UMass and Hawaii in nonconference play, and while their final four is very tough, they at least get UCLA and Washington at home.
2013 in review • 11-2, 7-2 Pac-12,
Returning starters • 14 total (9 offense, 5 defense)
Top returning player • All eyes are on Marcus Mariota and the offense, and rightly so. Mariota is one of the favorites to be the No. 1 overall pick in next year's draft, and if he returns to the pre-knee injury form that had the Ducks averaging 58 points per game last season, he'll have earned it. Oregon's defense was no slouch either, and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu has seven interceptions and seven forced fumbles over the past two seasons. A strong senior season will dispel any doubts caused by his stature (5-foot-10) and make him another first-day (in the draft) Duck.
Biggest question mark • Can they shed the "soft" label? With Oregon, somehow, every loss seems to come against a bigger team that wins the battle in the trenches. The Ducks still have just one player Hamani Stevens above three bills on the offensive line. Whether or not that "soft" storyline is somewhat manufactured, that's what they're going to hear if their perfect season unravels against Stanford or a burlier SEC team in the playoffs.
Schedule outlook • Oregon gets an early test, with No. 8 Michigan State visiting Eugene. Then the Ducks get a month to rev up (and avenge last year's embarrassing loss to Arizona) before a four-week stretch that includes No. 7 UCLA, No. 25 Washington, and No. 11 Stanford. The good news for the Ducks: Of their four games against ranked teams, all but UCLA will be played in Autzen.
2013 in review • 7-6, 4-5 Pac-12
Returning starters • 14 total (8 offense, 6 defense)
Top returning player • It was a tale of two halves for Sean Mannion last season. He made a huge leap forward from freshman and sophomore seasons in which he passed for as many touchdowns (31) as interceptions, and through the first seven games he had 2,992 yards, 29 touchdowns and three interceptions. In his final six: 1,670, 8 touchdowns, 12 interceptions. The Beavers faced a back-loaded schedule, but if the big-armed senior wants more than gaudy stats, he'll have to step his game up against elite defenses.
Biggest question mark • The Beavers were 94th in total defense last season, allowing 428 yards per game, and gone are both defensive tackles and one end. On the bright side, touted junior college transfer tackle Kyle Peko has been granted temporary eligibility by the NCAA while Oregon State awaits his paperwork.
Schedule outlook • The Beavers dodge UCLA. Portland State, Hawaii and San Diego State isn't exactly an out-of-conference murderer's row. They're on the road against No. 15 USC, No. 11 Stanford and No. 25 Washington, however, and they host No. 19 Arizona State and (of course) No. 3 Oregon. Five of their final nine games come against ranked teams, and they end with three straight.
2013 in review • 11-3, 7-2 Pac-12.
Returning starters • 12 total (5 offense, 7 defense)
Top returning player • Ty Montgomery is a first-team All-America kick returner, a second-team All-Pac-12 wide receiver, and he rushed for 159 yards on just 13 carries. There's no doubting what he can do when healthy. He had right shoulder surgery during the offseason, however, and he's still awaiting his status for the opener against UC Davis.
Biggest question mark • The one guy coming back on the offensive line, Andrus Peat, is a 6-foot-7 monster who might be in consideration for a top-10 draft pick if he chooses to come out after his junior season. But the other four guys are all going to be new faces for a team that prides itself on trench warfare. "This is potentially our most talented offensive line we've ever had," Shaw said.
Schedule outlook • The Cardinal open Pac-12 play with No. 15 USC and conclude with No. 7 UCLA. In-between, they have No. 25 Washington, No. 17 Notre Dame, No. 19 Arizona State and No. 3 Oregon. Of their six ranked opponents, they play five Â their final five Â on the road.
2013 in review •Â 10-3, 6-3 Pac-12.
Returning starters •Â 13 total (7 offense, 5 defense, 1 specialist)
Top returning player • No point dancing around it: Brett Hundley is the leader of the offense, a dynamic player who makes things happen with his arm but is also hard to bring down in the backfield or when he cuts to run. A Heisman candidate, Hundley shoulders the Bruins' hopes of making the College Football Playoff this year.
Biggest question mark • Can the Bruins stop the run? Replacing four of your front seven is never an easy task, especially when one of those players is Anthony Barr. While it helps UCLA to have Myles Jack playing linebacker full time now, the issue remains a pressing one. Even with Barr, the Bruins were No. 71 in run defense last year not exactly a flattering stat.
Schedule outlook •Â This one starts out with winnable games against Virginia and Memphis that aren't cakewalks. Things really get interesting in Week 3, with a date at Texas, followed immediately by a grudge match with Arizona State. One huge plus for UCLA is its biggest games are all in Pasadena: Oregon, USC and Stanford all have to play in the Rose Bowl this year.
2013 in review •Â 10-4, 6-3 Pac-12.
Returning starters •Â 15 total (7 offense, 7 defense, 1 specialist)
Top returning player • In a league of quarterbacks, the man who keeps those passers up at night is Leonard Williams. The frizzy-haired, big-bodied defensive tackle can rip up offensive lines, and he was plenty effective last year even with a torn labrum. He could be a first-round NFL Draft pick in May, but unfortunately for the Pac-12, he's got at least one more year to stick around.
Biggest question mark • Can the Trojans stay healthy? No one doubts that USC has some of the best talent in the country, but they also have about 20 fewer scholarship players than anyone else. Steve Sarkisian will have to implement a whole lot of new systems this fall, but the biggest battle he might face is in the training room. If the team starts getting banged up, that's an awfully slippery slope.
Schedule outlook •Â To football fans' delight, USC bucks the trend of playing early season weak sisters by taking on Fresno State and traveling to Stanford and Boston College all in the first three weeks. After a home-friendly stretch and some games against middling teams, they wind up for a UCLA and Notre Dame finish. Heavy on the front and back ends, the Trojans will show early whether they are legit. Winning the South isn't unreasonable.
2013 in review • 9-4, 5-4 Pac-12.
Returning starters • 12 total (7 offense, 5 defense)
Top returning player • UCLA's Myles Jack made it popular, and now junior Shaq Thompson is likely to see time both hammering the ballcarrier and BEING the ballcarrier. One of the Pac-12's best linebackers, Thompson rushed for 1,135 yards and 15 touchdowns on 120 carries as a high school senior (he was also quarterback and punter), and during spring and fall camp he has spent time on both sidelines.
Biggest question mark • They have a bunch of them at quarterback. Fall camp saw a three-way battle between Jeff Lindquist, Troy Williams and Cyler Miles, with Lindquist winning the job. Miles is suspended for the opener due to assault charges, but he could ultimately be the guy. All three are untested, regardless of who plays.
Schedule outlook • As Pac-12 schedules go, this isn't so bad. Home for toughies against No. 11 Stanford, No. 19 Arizona State and No. 7 UCLA. Lone roadblock is No. 3 Oregon, and the rest of the road schedule Â Hawaii, Cal, Colorado, Arizona and Washington State is eminently winnable. Other out-of-conference games should be cakewalks: Eastern Washington, Illinois and Georgia State.
2013 in review • 6-7, 4-5 Pac-12.
Returning starters • 14 total (8 offense, 6 defense)
Top returning player • Junior wideout Gabe Marks is the best in a talented bunch of targets for quarterback Connor Halliday. Marks caught 74 passes for 807 yards and seven touchdowns last year, including a 13-catch, 143-yard effort against Oregon. He disappeared down the stretch, however, totaling just 86 yards in his final four games.
Biggest question mark • As well as Washington State throws the ball, the Cougars allow their opponents to complete too many passes. Washington State finished 112th in passing yards allowed per game last season. And that was with first-team All-Pac-12 safety Deone Bucannon. There's no clear reason to think it will get better.
Schedule outlook • If clusters of tough games are what you don't want, things shape up decently. The catch is that the Cougars at least once their ho-hum nonconference slate of Rutgers, Nevada and Portland State has ended Â never get much rest before facing another vaunted opponent: vs. No. 3 Oregon (Sept. 20), at No. 11 Stanford (Oct. 10), vs. No. 15 USC (Nov. 1), at No. 19 Arizona State (Nov. 22) and vs. No. 25 Washington (Nov. 29). Tribune forecast
3. Arizona State
4. Oregon State
5. Washington State