Here are Athlon Sports' favorite, most important and most interesting Pac-12 statistics you need to know about in 2014:
7: Top returning passers in the Pac-12
Oregon State’s Sean Mannion led the Pac-12 and was second nationally with 4,662 passing yards. Washington State’s Connor Halliday led the nation with 714 pass attempts. Both Marcus Mariota and Taylor Kelly posted in excess of 4,000 total yards of offense last year and both have returned. Potential Heisman candidate Brett Hundley and his 35 total touchdowns return to the league as well. In all, the Pac-12 returns its top seven passers from a year ago, including six who threw for at least 3,000 yards. This group doesn’t include USC’s Cody Kessler, Stanford’s Kevin Hogan or Colorado’s Sefo Liufau. It’s pretty clear which league has the best quarterback play in college football.
63-10: Marcus Mariota’s career TD-INT ratio
The Ducks' starting quarterback is the front-runner to win the Heisman Trophy in 2014. Many will tell you that’s a bad thing, as a true Las Vegas front-runner hasn’t won the award since… Ricky Williams? But the laid-back, Hawaiian dual-threat is one of the best players in the nation and has his team eyeing a return to the national championship discussion. In two full seasons as the starter, Mariota has tossed 63 touchdowns, just 10 interceptions, completed 65.8 percent of his passes for 6,342 yards and rushed 202 times for 1,467 yards and 14 more touchdowns. He also set the Pac-12 record for most consecutive pass attempts without an interception (353) last year and is 23-3 as a starter. There is a reason he’s the Heisman front-runner and could become one of the few to go wire-to-wire chasing the stiff-armed trophy.
1997-98: Last time UCLA won at least 10 games in back-to-back seasons
Jim Mora and the Bruins are trying to do something this year that hasn’t been done at UCLA since 1997-98. That was the last time UCLA won at least 10 games in back-to-back seasons. In fact, UCLA has won 10 or more games in back-to-back seasons only twice in school history with the only other occasion coming in 1987-88. UCLA has never won 10 or more games in three straight seasons, further underlining their status as underachieving little brother. USC won at least 10 games in seven straight seasons (2002-08) and even won 10 games in two heavily sanctioned years since (2011, '13). But that could all change this fall. After going 10-3 and finishing second in the Pac-12 South a year ago, Mora and returning star signal-caller Brett Hundley are poised to reclaim the division title and make a run at a playoff berth.
4.84: Washington’s average points per trip inside the 40
Finishing drives is one metric Athlon Sports uses to evaluate teams. How many points does a team score per trip inside the opposition’s 40-yard line? Washington was excellent a year ago at finishing drives, scoring an average of 4.84 points per trip inside the 40. That was good for second in the Pac-12 to only Oregon (4.98) and ranked the Huskies 18th nationally. For new coach Chris Petersen, who won 92 games in just eight years at Boise State, repeating this level of efficiency without Bishop Sankey running the ball will be a tall order. Especially, while breaking in a new quarterback. Interestingly enough, Oregon also led the league in points per trip inside the 40 on defense (3.69).
46: Stanford wins over the last four years
Only the Oregon Ducks (47) have more wins among Big 5 schools over the last four years than Stanford (46). The Cardinal have won at least 11 games in four straight seasons but are replacing star power on both the defense and the offensive line. That said, the reason Athlon Sports is picking Oregon to win the Pac-12 North has nothing to do with depth chart replacements but rather what could be the toughest schedule in college football. Stanford will play six preseason Top 25 teams, including five of the top 16. What's worse? Five of those six showdowns will come on the road. If fans are looking for a reason for Stanford to take a slight step back this fall, look no further than the schedule.
444.8 and 35.1: USC's yards and points per game under Coach Sark
Steve Sarkisian knows his way around Heritage Hall. He was the QB Coach from 2001-03 and from 2005-06 under Pete Carroll. He then took over as the offensive coordinator from 2007-08. During those two years — his last two at USC — his offenses averaged 444.8 yards per game and 35.1 points per game while going 23-3 overall and winning back-to-back conference championships. Last year, USC was 74th in total offense (399.1) and 60th in scoring offense (29.7). Sarkisian's offense failed to score 20 points just three times during his last two years as an assistant coach at USC. Last year, the Trojans failed to score 20 points five times, losing three of those contests.
6: Departing All-Pac-12 starters on Arizona State’s defense
Todd Graham has had one of the best defenses in the Pac-12 in each of his two seasons in Tempe. However, after losing nine total defensive starters in the offseason, including six who were either first- or second-team All-Pac-12 selections, his defense has major holes to plug in 2014. Ten of the team’s top 12 tacklers are gone as are the top five sack artists on the team. Veteran free safety Damarious Randall is the only returning upperclass starter for a team that will face one of the best offensive schedules in the nation.
246.3: Arizona yards rushing per game under RichRod
Rich Rodriguez totally transformed Arizona’s identity overnight. The year before he showed up on campus, Mike Stoops' "Air Raid" averaged 94.5 yards rushing per game. In two years since taking over, RichRod’s teams have finished 15th (227.8 ypg) and 11th nationally (264.4 ypg) in rushing. In 26 games as the Wildcats' head coach, Arizona has averaged nearly 250 yards rushing per game. The last time Arizona averaged over 200 yards rushing per game in a season was 1999 when it posted 218.8 yards per game. RichRod hasn’t posted a winning Pac-12 record yet (4-5 both years) but is a perfect 8-0 in non-conference play including two bowl wins. The ‘Cats should continue to pound the rock again in 2014 and it could make Arizona the sleeper team to watch in the Pac-12 South Division.
9: Times the Cougars rushed for less than 10 yards under Mike Leach
In 2012, Washington State rushed for negative yards four times and failed to reach 10 yards rushing five times. In 2013, Wazzu improved and was held to negative yards rushing just once (Colorado State) and failed to reach 10 yards rushing four times. So in nine of the 25 games Mike Leach has coached in Pullman, the Cougars failed to reach 10 yards rushing as a team. For the record, WSU rushed for seven yards against USC, two yards against both Oregon and Arizona State and minus-10 against the Rams. While a Leach-run offense will never be centered around the running game, some semblance of balance is needed to compete for division titles. The good news is the last-ranked rushing offense from last year (53.4 ypg) was actually markedly better than the last place showing the year before (29.1).
13-41: Combined Pac-12 record for Utah and Colorado
Stepping up in competition has been hard for all teams across the nation but has been especially difficult on the Pac-12 newcomers. As Larry Scott has his league poised to challenge the SEC for national supremacy this fall, Utah and Colorado are still trying to find their footing. The duo has combined for go 13-41 in three seasons since joining the league. Utah went 21-3 in Mountain West play the three years prior to entering the Pac-12 and has been 9-18 since. The Buffaloes are 4-23 in Pac-12 play. These are two historic programs that have won a national championship and two BCS bowls in the last 25 years, so 41 losses in three years is unacceptable.
529.6: Cal’s total yards allowed per game
Sonny Dykes is a well-respected coach but probably didn’t realize what he was getting himself into when he took the Cal job. In his first year, his defense was historically bad. Cal allowed a Pac-12-worst 529.6 yards per game, ranking 124th nationally — out of 125 teams. The Bears had the worst defense of any of the Big 5 conferences and was better than only New Mexico State’s 549.5 yards per game allowed. Cal’s 45.9 points allowed per game were also dead last in the Pac-12 and among all Big 5 teams, finishing 124th nationally (ahead of only Idaho - 46.8). New defensive coordinator Art Kauffman has orchestrated quick turnarounds at both Texas Tech and Cincinnati over the last few seasons but he has his work cut out for him in Berkeley this fall.