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Who has the best football roster in the Pac-12 heading into 2014?
Love or hate football recruiting, it matters. Coaching, support staffs, financial situations and even a little bit of luck goes into winning football games, but having great players always helps too.
So recruiting rankings are just one facet of a deliberate and in-depth equation that helps Athlon Sports project the college football season every year.
When the staff sits down to hash out the Athlon Sports preseason Top 25 each year, recruiting rankings are as much a part of the discussion as returning starters, scheduling differences, coaching changes and historic trends. It all gets incorporated into what eventually becomes the best-selling college football preview magazine on newsstands.
Things are getting serious out West.
The level of competition in the Pac-12 has increased substantially over the last few seasons. Increased spending and dedication from administrations, a lucrative new TV contract and excellent new leadership, both at the league level (Larry Scott) and throughout the coaching ranks have led the Pac-12 charging into the Playoff Era.
All of these new facilities and spending, of course, is to lure better players to the West Coast. And it has worked to perfection as the Pac-12 has become the top challenger to the SEC when it comes to conference supremacy.
In fact, in 2014, there is a chance that the Pac-12 might be the best league in the country. That is not by accident.
Here is how the Pac-12 rosters rank entering the 2014 season. Below is each roster in the Pac-12 based on average national recruiting ranking over the last five classes (according to 247Sports), each team's win-loss record over the last four seasons and some analysis of what it all means heading into the '14 season.
What did we learn?
There’s a reason Lane Kiffin is in Alabama
USC’s roster is clearly the most talented in the conference. And while sanctions have kept USC from playing in the Pac-12 title game or postseason, the real reason Steve Sarkisian is now in Los Angeles is because this powerhouse program underachieved. The Trojans' roster is the sixth-best in the nation but the Men of Troy have performed significantly behind the Pac-12’s current power duo from the North. The good news is that Coach Sark has plenty of talent to work with, especially after winning National Signing Day in impressive fashion. The rest of the league be warned because it shouldn’t take too long for the most talented roster in the Pac-12 to return to title contention.
Balance of power shifting?
USC and UCLA have the No. 1- and No. 3-most talented rosters in the league and USC won a share of seven straight conference titles from 2002-08. However, the last five conference champions have come from either Eugene or Palo Alto. It hasn’t been just great coaching either, in fact, both teams lost an elite head coach to the NFL in the last few seasons. Mark Helfrich and David Shaw have maintained a level of success on the recruiting trail that both Chip Kelly and Jim Harbaugh established years ago at Oregon and Stanford respectively. The Ducks (No. 14) and Cardinal (No. 20) are in the top third in terms of talent in the Pac-12 and both rank in the top 20 nationally. And no team in the nation, not even Alabama, has won as many games as Oregon’s 47 over the last four years. Stanford is tied with Bama for No. 2 among power schools with 46 wins. The point is if fans expect a shift away from the North's two powerhouses in the Pac-12 anytime soon, it won’t be because of lack of talent.
According to Jim
Recruiting wasn’t Slick Rick’s problem at UCLA. It’s why Jim Mora has been able to compete in the Pac-12 right out of the gate, winning the division in his first season and posting 10 wins in his second. He has continued UCLA’s overall success on the trail as well, bringing in two top-20 hauls in his first two cycles. This is something he will have to continue to do in order to compete with Stanford and Oregon. UCLA lost 16 games the two years prior to Mora’s arrival and he has posted back-to-back nine-win seasons to start his Bruins tenure. With the third-best roster in the league entering 2014 (and Brett Hundley under center), Mora should have another great shot at UCLA’s first Pac-12 title since 1998.
It took just two seasons for Todd Graham to post the best record in the Pac-12 and earn a berth in the conference championship game. The Sun Devils aren’t without talent, but ASU will boast just the seventh-best roster in the league and the 38th-best roster overall in the nation entering 2014. It makes his 18-9 record and 10-win season that much more impressive over the last two years. With UCLA and USC entering ’14 with significantly better rosters, can Arizona State repeat as South Division champs?
Sonny side up
Cal has always had a strong recruiting presence on the West Coast. However, the Bears' recruiting trend might be concerning as the national recruiting ranking for Cal has dropped four years in row from 15th in 2011 to 48th in '14. Despite all of that talent, nine total wins in the league from 2010-12 is why Sonny Dykes is now in charge in Berkeley. This is still the sixth-best roster in the league, however, and it means that Dykes shouldn’t have to work miracles to get his Bears back on the winning track. But if Cal wants to compete with the likes of Oregon and Stanford, he will have to start by rebuilding his program’s image on the recruiting trail as well as on the field.
Long uphill climb
Kyle Whittingham elevated Utah from the Mountain West to the prestigious ranks of the Pac-12. Mike Leach and Mike MacIntrye were both hired in the last two seasons to lead once excellent programs back to relevance. And while all three coaches are very well respected and all three teams seemed improved in 2013, all three will be entering the ’14 season with three of the four worst rosters in the conference. Utah ranks significantly higher than both the Buffs and Cougs in terms of talent, sitting at 48th nationally. The climb will be tougher in Boulder and Pullman. Colorado ranks ahead of only Syracuse, Duke and Wake Forest nationally among Big 5 schools while Washington State ranks 62nd nationally in terms of talent.