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Winners of the last two conference titles, Stanford reigns supreme in the Pac-12. Their recent success stems from their decision to embrace ground and pound football, a style that Jim Harbaugh brought to the program. David Shaw, who took over for Harbaugh in 2011 after serving as his offensive coordinator, also embraced it.
Still, despite Stanford’s success with throwback football, quarterback play will drive the Pac-12 this year.
Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, and UCLA’s Brett Hundley are all potential Heisman candidates. Each player will have their team in contention, especially Mariota, who leads an Oregon squad with national title aspirations.
First, though, the Ducks must contend with Stanford. The two programs have combined to win the last five Pac-12 (or Pac-10) championships. They also play in the same division, so it’s very likely the Pac-12 title will run through Oregon or Stanford.
1. Oregon Ducks (Projected: 11-1, 8-1 in conference)
Key Players: CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, OT Jake Fisher, C Hroniss Grasu, RB Byron Marshall, LB Derrick Malone, QB Marcus Mariota, RB Thomas Tyner
Schedule Breakdown: The schedule sets up well for Oregon -- who plays just four road games all season -- to run the table and earn a trip to the inaugural college football playoff. Their toughest home games come against Michigan State on September 6 and Stanford on November 1. They do play UCLA on the road, though, which could be where they falter. Analysis: Talent isn’t an issue in Eugene. The Ducks boast the conference’s best roster, led by Mariota, who enters the season as one of the Heisman frontrunners. Eight starters return from last year’s No. 2 offense. Marshall and Tyner form a potent one-two punch at running back. They’ll run behind a stout offensive line, though news that left tackle Tyler Johnstone will miss the entire season with a torn ACL is a setback. Nonetheless, if the Ducks lose a game in 2014, it’ll likely be at the expense of the defense. The front seven will look quite different, with losses along the defensive line and in the linebacker corps. The secondary will be strong, especially with Ekpre-Olomu back. Overall, anything less than a conference title and college playoff berth would come as a disappointment to the fans in Eugene. This is one of the top programs in all of college football.
Bowl Projection: Rose
2. Stanford Cardinal (9-3, 6-3)
Key Players: DE Henry Anderson, CB Alex Carter, QB Kevin Hogan, CB Wayne Lyons, WR Ty Montgomery, OT Andrus Peat, S Jordan Richards, LB A.J. Tarpley
Schedule Breakdown: The Cardinal didn’t draw the best conference schedule. They do get USC out of the way early on September 6, but they have road games against Arizona State, Oregon, and UCLA. Taking two of those three would win them the division, assuming Oregon is one of the two.
Analysis: Going through a transitional phase seems like a yearly tradition under Shaw. Three years ago, Harbaugh left the program to become head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Shaw succeeded him. The following year, Andrew Luck left early to enter the NFL draft. Last year saw two foundational pieces on offense (Stepfan Taylor and Zach Ertz) leave for the NFL. Despite all the moving pieces, Stanford never went away. They’ve established themselves as one of the top programs in the Pac-12. Maybe they won’t be as good as they were the last two seasons, but they’ll limit their drop off, and threaten to win 10 games.
Bowl Projection: San Francisco
3. Washington Huskies (9-4, 5-4)
Key Players: OG Dexter Charles, C Mike Criste, DE Hau’oli Kikaha, CB Marcus Peters, DT Danny Shelton, LB Shaq Thompson, WR Kasen Williams
Schedule Breakdown: With 13 games on the schedule, a potential 10-win season is within reach. Washington plays Arizona State, Stanford, and UCLA at home. Their toughest bout will likely be an October 18 matchup in Oregon.
Analysis: Fans of college football waited patiently to see if Chris Petersen would ever leave Boise State. This past year, in a somewhat surprising move, he decided to depart Boise for Washington. He inherits a talented roster left behind by Steve Sarkisian. Petersen intends to instill discipline into his football team both on and off the field. In addition, he’s emphasizing the camaraderie element of the sport, asking his players to band together like a brotherhood. Petersen’s style produced results at Boise State. Expectations are high in Washington.
Bowl Projection: Sun
4. Washington State Cougars (7-5, 4-5)
Key Players: DE Xavier Cooper, QB Connor Halliday, WR Gabe Marks, LB Darryl Monroe
Schedule Breakdown: A favorable early-season schedule places Washington State in good position to earn their second consecutive trip to a bowl game. The Cougars should start the year 3-0, before hosting Oregon on September 20. Their next two opponents are California and Utah, both of whom are beatable.
Analysis: Last year, Washington State doubled their win total from the previous season. This year, progress comes with winning a bowl game. The Cougars are certainly trending upward, but it’s going to take a few more recruiting classes from Mike Leach to truly elevate the program.
Bowl Projection: Las Vegas
5. Oregon State Beavers (6-6, 4-5)
Key Players: TE Connor Hamlett, QB Sean Mannion, WR Richard Mullaney, CB Steven Nelson, C Isaac Seumalo
Schedule Breakdown: The final three games on the schedule will determine whether Oregon State returns to a bowl game this season. Oregon State hosts Arizona State on November 15. A week later, they travel to Washington before closing the season against Oregon on November 29. All three opponents defeated the Beavers in 2013.
Analysis: Talent could be an issue for Oregon State, as they lost Brandin Cooks and Scott Crichton to the NFL. Both players brought explosiveness to their positions, with Crichton bringing it in the form of a pass rush, and Cooks bring it in the form of big plays. Still, despite the shaky roster, Mannion is good enough to carry this team to bowl eligibility.
Bowl Projection: New Mexico
6. California Golden Bears (2-10, 1-8)
Key Players: QB Jared Goff, LB Jalen Jefferson, WR Chris Harper, WR Bryce Teggs
Schedule Breakdown: Not only will California have to contend with the Pac-12, but their schedule is also bookend with respectable non-conference foes in BYU and Northwestern. A six-win season is the longest of long shots.
Analysis: The Golden Bears will improve this year, but their progress won‘t show up in the win column. Injuries, especially to the offensive side of the ball, prevented Sonny Dykes from implementing his vision last year. Just staying healthy will keep them competitive in some games.
Bowl Projection: None
1. UCLA Bruins (10-2, 7-2)
Key Players: OT Malcolm Bunche, TE Thomas Duarte, WR Devin Fuller, LB/RB Myles Jack, QB Brett Hundley, RB Jordon James, LB Eric Kendricks, OG Alex Redmond
Schedule Breakdown: The first test on the Bruins' schedule is a September 13 matchup with Texas in Arlington. A win gives UCLA momentum heading into their matchup against Arizona State twelve days later. Their last games will prove crucial as well. The Bruins play Washington on November 8, USC on November 22, and Stanford on November 28. The game against USC is especially important, as it could decide who wins the south division.
Analysis: While the north is a two-team race, the south features three teams capable of capturing the division. UCLA is certainly among them. Their well coached by Jim Mora, and they feature a veteran quarterback (Hundley) capable of contending for the Heisman trophy. With talent on both sides of the ball, not only are the Bruins capable of winning the Pac-12 South, but also they’re capable of usurping Oregon and Stanford from their throne en route earning a berth in the college football playoff.
Bowl Projection: Alamo
2. USC Trojans (10-2, 7-2)
Key Players: WR Nelson Agholor, RB Javorius Allen, S/LB Su’a Cravens, QB Cody Kessler, LB Hayes Pullard, CB Josh Shaw, C Matt Tuerk, DE Leonard Williams
Schedule Breakdown: The schedule lines up well for USC. They open the season in a bowl rematch against Fresno State, who they overwhelmed a season ago. The next week sees them play at Stanford, who beat them by just three points last year. The two most important games on the schedule, though, are against Arizona State on October 4 and UCLA on November 22. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where USC wins both those contests and doesn’t play in the Pac-12 championship.
Analysis: Is it possible for USC to fly under the radar? Winners of six of their last seven games, the Trojans finished the ‘13 season with much-needed momentum. They hired the right man for the job, in my assessment. Sarkisian knows USC football well, as he coached under Pete Carroll for seven seasons. He inherited a pretty good roster that returns its starting quarterback (Kessler) and yet another NFL-caliber receiver (Agholor). The defense returns seven starters, including Shaw, from a unit that played well a year ago. Overall, the Trojans feature enough talent to win 10 regular-season games. If they hit that number, they’re going to be difficult to keep out of a major bowl game.
Bowl Projection: Fiesta
3. Arizona State Sun Devils (9-3, 6-3)
Key Players: OT Jamil Douglas, RB D.J. Foster, QB Taylor Kelly, TE De’Marieya Nelson, WR Jaelen Strong
Schedule Breakdown: The middle of Arizona State’s schedule is the most important stretch. They should start 3-0 before they host UCLA on September 25. Following that crucial matchup, their next three games are against Stanford, USC, and Washington. A 2-2 record through that stretch puts them in good shape. A 3-1 record puts them in excellent shape.
Analysis: The passing combination of Kelly to Strong could be one of the best in college football. Kelly is an established passer, who passed for 3,635 yards and 28 touchdowns last season. Strong, meanwhile, is an NFL caliber receiver who compares favorably to Terrell Owens. The duo needs to be on top of their game, as they may find themselves in several high-scoring affairs, for the defense is in transition after losing nine starters from last year’s squad.
Bowl Projection: Holiday
4. Arizona Wildcats (7-5, 4-5)
Key Players: OT Mickey Baucus, OT Fabbians Ebbele, WR Austin Hill, QB Anu Solomon, S Jared Tevis, LB Scobby Wright
Schedule Breakdown: October is the meat of Arizona’s schedule. The Wildcats play Oregon and USC on back-to-back weeks. They also travel to Washington State, who beat them in Arizona a year ago. Home games against Arizona State and Washington in November will play a pivotal role in the Wildcats final standing.
Analysis: The Wildcats lost a ton of talent from last year’s team. Gone are running back Ka’Deem Carey and quarterback B.J. Denker. The duo helped lead the offense to 500-plus yards per game, so replacing them won’t be easy. Still, after winning bowl games in back-to-back seasons, you get the feeling Arizona is on the cusp of making serious noise in the Pac-12. Maybe it doesn’t come this year, but watch out next season.
Bowl Projection: Cactus
5. Utah Utes (3-9, 2-7)
Key Players: WR Dres Anderson, RB Devontae Booker, RB Bubba Poole, OT Jeremiah Poutasi, CB Eric Rowe
Schedule Breakdown: Road games against Arizona State, Michigan, Stanford, and UCLA are major hurdles the Utes will need to overcome. Plus, they have home games against Oregon and USC. Beating any of those opponents would be a major upset.
Analysis: Utah needs to find ways to revive their fluttering offense. The team failed to eclipse 30 points in each of their final six games last season. Developing a quarterback would be a good first step. Defensively, replacing Trevor Reilly is the key. His ability to rush as a defensive end and linebacker gave Utah a piece to move around the defense. Simply put, they don’t have anyone like that on the current roster.
Bowl Projection: None
6. Colorado Buffaloes (3-9, 0-9)
Key Players: CB Greg Henderson, QB Sefo Liufau, OG Daniel Munyer, RB Christian Powell, WR Nelson Spruce
Schedule Breakdown: It takes six wins to reach bowl eligibility and it’s hard to find six wins on Colorado’s schedule. It isn’t hard imagining four, maybe five wins if the Buffaloes have a good year. Getting to six, though, would require a victory against Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA, USC, and Washington. Good luck with that.
Analysis: The Buffaloes won’t go anywhere until they compete with their conference brethren. Last year, they allowed seven of their conference opponents to score at least 40 points against them. They need to increase the athleticism, defensively, to slow down the high-octane offenses in the Pac-12. Mike MacIntyre is a capable coach, evident by his tenure at San Jose State, but it’s going to take more than two years to right this ship.
Bowl Projection: None
Oregon over UCLA -- The run of Stanford and Oregon will continue, with the Ducks taking the conference title in 2014. Given the strength of the Pac-12, whoever wins the conference will have a strong case for selection into the college football playoff.
Update: Due to the injury to Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, certain bowl projections have changed. The current update reflects these changes.