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The 12 Most Important Things to Watch in the Pac-12 for 2015

Cody Kessler

Cody Kessler

Arizona’s Good Fortune

Arizona’s 10-win season was a landmark campaign for the Wildcats and Rich Rodriguez, but it was also bonkers. Arizona went 6–2 in one-score games — and these weren’t just close, grinding games. Many were shootouts with wild finishes. Arizona beat Cal 49–45 after a 36-point fourth-quarter and defeated Washington 27–26 on a 47-yard field goal as time expired. The most dramatic was the 31–24 victory at Oregon, a win that was emblematic of Arizona’s good fortune. Oregon was flagged with pass interference and unsportsmanlike penalties on the Wildcats’ game-winning drive, and then linebacker Scooby Wright picked up the sack and strip for the decisive fumble to secure the win.

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Does that mean Arizona was lucky? Perhaps. But the breaks certainly didn’t go Arizona’s way in its final two games, a blowout loss against Oregon in the Pac-12 title game and a 38–30 defeat vs. Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl.

But Arizona’s still a program to fear, with at least one more year of Anu Solomon and Nick Wilson in the backfield. The Wildcats’ turnover margin of plus-8 was actually less than its adjusted turnover margin of plus-10, according to Football Study Hall. In other words, Arizona was actually a little unlucky when it came to turnovers.

The 10 wins probably came ahead of schedule for Rodriguez, meaning expectations will be greater as he moves into the fourth year of his tenure. But with only 11 starters returning and road trips to Stanford, Washington, USC and Arizona State, the Wildcats may need some more good fortune just to keep the momentum going.

D.J. Foster’s Big Move

D.J. Foster is one of the top returning rushers in the Pac-12. Only he’s not. Foster rushed for 1,081 yards last season, making him one of six 1,000-yard backs returning to the league this season. In terms of career production, no one returning to the league has rushed for more than Foster’s 2,075 career yards. Yet Foster’s probably not going to show up among the league’s rushing leaders in 2015.

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Foster will move to slot receiver as a senior, a move that’s been made for a handful of reasons. First, Arizona State loses first-team All-Pac-12 receiver Jaelen Strong to the NFL Draft and Cameron Smith to season-ending knee surgery. That leaves Foster as the only returning player with more than 16 receptions and 204 receiving yards. Before moving to receiver full time, Foster was already a multifaceted offensive threat, catching 163 passes for 1,874 yards the last three seasons. This move also should improve his NFL stock, one of the reasons he returned to Arizona State for his senior season.

The Sun Devils are also optimistic about the future of sophomore Demario Richard. He was only 17 years old last season and still rushed for 478 yards and 5.7 yards per carry backing up Foster. Richard also proved that he, like Foster, could be a threat in the passing game, catching 13 passes for 156 yards and four touchdowns last season.

Cal Will Be Better, but its Record May Not Be

Cal’s lone win in 2013 was over Portland State, so last season’s 5–7 campaign in Year 2 under Sonny Dykes was an unqualified success by comparison. The 2014 season might have been a sign of things to come. Cal was good enough to play competitive games against Arizona, UCLA, USC and BYU but couldn’t eke out wins like it did in shootouts against Colorado (59–56 in double overtime) and Washington State (60–59).

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As one might gather from those final scores, defense was a season-long issue for the Bears. Cal was the only team in the Pac-12 to give up more than 500 yards per game, and the defense was only marginally improved from the team that went 1–11. The difference between 0–9 in the Pac-12 and 3–6 was turnover margin. The Bears improved from minus-15 in 2013 to minus-3 in part because of eight fewer turnovers committed by the offense last season.

Even if Cal continues to make progress, it might not show up in the final standings. The Bears face Washington, Oregon and Stanford, all on the road, and their crossover games with the South Division include UCLA and Utah on the road and Arizona State at home. Just for good measure, Cal plays Texas on the road in September. Even though the Bears have 15 returning starters, Dykes might deserve Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors if Cal can merely get to a winning record.

Colorado’s Defensive Overhaul

The problems at Colorado are numerous. The defense, though, is where third-year coach Mike MacIntyre made some of the most dramatic changes during the offseason. It’s hard to say they weren’t necessary. Colorado gave up 7.1 yards per play in conference games last season. The next-worst team in that category, Washington State, gave up 6.6. This wasn’t a 2014 problem or a MacIntyre problem. The Buffaloes have ranked outside of the top 100 nationally in total defense for four consecutive years.

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MacIntyre fired two assistants whom he had brought with him from San Jose State and replaced them with Jim Leavitt and Joe Tumpkin. Leavitt, the new defensive coordinator, most recently served as the linebackers coach for the San Francisco 49ers, but he is best known as the first coach at South Florida — a coach who saw his tenure end over concerns about player mistreatment. Leavitt built solid defenses at USF and comes from the Bill Snyder coaching tree. Tumpkin, the new safeties coach, will be just as critical. Tumpkin was the coordinator at Central Michigan last season when the Chippewas led the MAC in total defense (355.5 ypg) and finished second in yards per play (5.4). Both Leavitt and Tumpkin will be tasked with improving a defense that didn’t make nearly enough big plays. The Buffs intercepted only three passes last season and none after a Sept. 27 loss to Cal. Only Buffalo (two) had fewer picks nationally last season. On paper, Colorado has nowhere to go but up. The Buffaloes return nine starters and also hope to get safety Jered Bell back from a torn ACL. In 2013, Bell alone had as many interceptions as Colorado did all last season. The Buffs were competent on offense last season, so improvement on the other side of the ball will be the key to getting out of the cellar.

Oregon’s Safety Net on Offense

All eyes will be on Vernon Adams — with good reason. The prolific quarterback from Eastern Washington is only stepping into the shoes of the best quarterback and the only Heisman winner in Oregon history. Adams quarterbacked an 11–3 team that finished third in the FCS in total offense, but there will be plenty of questions about a Big Sky quarterback taking over for Marcus Mariota.

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Adams, however, is walking into a ridiculously good situation as far as skill players are concerned. Sophomore Royce Freeman and junior Thomas Tyner combined for 1,938 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns. Byron Marshall is still a “flex” player after topping 1,000 receiving yards and rushing for nearly 400 yards last season. The receiver position was the walking wounded for all of last year, and in the playoff in particular. Bralon Addison, the No. 2 receiver in 2013, missed the entire year, and Devon Allen, Oregon’s home-run threat, missed essentially the entire playoff after getting hurt on the opening kickoff of the Rose Bowl against Florida State. Throw in Dwayne Stanford (639 yards) and Charles Nelson (327), and Adams may end up with a better supporting cast than Mariota had for stretches last season.

Notice that linemen haven’t come up yet in this conversation. Oregon’s lack of offensive line depth is a major reason the Ducks lost to Arizona and nearly lost to Washington State early last season. Losing All-Pac-12 left tackle Jake Fisher and center Hroniss Grasu plus mainstay Hamani Stevens at guard are huge blows. Adams’ running ability — he gained 1,081 yards in three seasons at Eastern Washington — will be critical.

Oregon State’s Offensive Philosophy

Oregon State built its program under Mike Riley on a foundation of great running backs. The Beavers used to churn out 1,000-yard rushers like clockwork, from Ken Simonton to Steven Jackson to Yvenson Bernard to Jacquizz Rodgers. Yet Oregon State shifted in recent years from a balanced approach to essentially an Air Raid offense. Oregon State has been one of the bottom three rushing teams in the Pac-12 for the last five seasons. If not for an actual Air Raid team at Washington State, the Beavers would have ranked last in the Pac-12 in rushing in each of the last two seasons.

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Now here comes Gary Andersen, the former coach at Wisconsin. Of course, a coach at Wisconsin who happened to have Melvin Gordon on his roster would run the ball with regularity; but Andersen also had stout running games before arriving in Madison. Between Utah State and Wisconsin, Anderson has coached three teams in the last four years that ranked in the top eight nationally in rushing. The exception was 2012 Utah State, which still rushed for more than 200 yards per game and ranked 26th.

Signs might point to installing such an offense at Oregon State, provided everyone can stay healthy. The Beavers must replace quarterback Sean Mannion, but they return three starting offensive linemen and get standout center Isaac Seumalo back from multiple foot surgeries. Running back Storm Woods missed two games due to injury last season but rushed for 125 yards on 11 carries against Arizona State and 128 yards on 22 carries against Oregon. If Woods and Seumalo are healthy, can we expect a typical Andersen — and throwback Oregon State — offense?

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Kevin Hogan’s Swan Song

Stanford’s run of 11- and 12-win seasons and Pac-12 contention came to a halt in 2014. The Cardinal had lost five total games in 2012 and 2013. They lost five games by Nov. 15 last season.

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It was difficult not to make quarterback Kevin Hogan — who led Stanford to a BCS bowl game in his first two seasons as a starter — a bit of a scapegoat for the disappointing season.

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Stanford’s defense was outstanding as usual, ranking third nationally by allowing only 282.4 yards per game. But offensively, the run game didn’t have a rock like Tyler Gaffney, and Hogan wasn’t quite up to the task of shouldering the load in tough spots. Hogan threw only two total touchdown passes in Stanford’s five losses (compared to 17 in eight wins), and he averaged only 6.2 yards per attempt in losses (compared to 9.4 in wins). Only three of his 19 touchdown passes came on the road.

Hogan played part of last season with a heavy heart, so it may be easy to understand his struggles on the field. His father, Jerry, died after a battle with cancer three weeks before the bowl game. Hogan had one of his best games of the season in the 45–21 bowl win over Maryland, completing 14-of-20 passes for 189 yards with two touchdowns.

Teammates have also said that he’s become a more assertive leader entering his final season, which will be key for a Stanford team primed for a bounce-back season. Eight starters return on offense, including Hogan and four linemen. If Hogan can rally the offense, Stanford will challenge for the Pac-12 again.

UCLA Tries to Keep the Momentum with a New QB

UCLA returns 10 starters on offense, but that single vacancy is a big one. The Bruins returned to national prominence with 29 wins and nearly 10,000 passing yards from Brett Hundley during the last three seasons. Now, coach Jim Mora has an interesting decision to make in replacing Hundley.

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Freshman Josh Rosen from St. John Bosco in Bellflower, Calif., was the top quarterback prospect in the 2015 class. He’s considered a can’t-miss pro-style signal-caller in an era when such prospects are tough to find. He’s a hotshot QB — and he knows it.

Adding a freshman to UCLA’s already successful offense will be worth watching early. Keep in mind, Mora also has quarterback Jerry Neuheisel returning. Neuheisel backed up Hundley for the last two seasons and led the Bruins to a win over Texas after Hundley went down with an elbow injury.

In other words, Mora has a coach’s kid who knows the offense and led UCLA to a major win in a pressure situation on one hand, and a freshman full of potential on the other.

Cody Kessler in the Spotlight

USC’s Cody Kessler was one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the country last season even if he was overshadowed in his own conference by Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley. In a breakout season, Kessler completed 69.7 percent of his passes and had 39 touchdowns to five interceptions.

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So why did a USC quarterback with numbers like that fly under the radar? Under closer examination, Kessler did most of his heavy lifting against some of the weaker teams on the schedule. Kessler padded his numbers with 22 touchdowns and one interception against losing teams. Against key Pac-12 South foes Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA, Kessler had two touchdowns and two interceptions while averaging 6.2 yards per attempt. Against the rest of the schedule, Kessler averaged 9.2 yards per attempt.

If Kessler is going to have standout performances in key spots, he’ll also need help from emerging receivers. The Trojans lose 1,300-yard receiver Nelson Agholor, the latest in a run of elite pass catchers that includes Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. JuJu Smith (54 receptions, 724 yards, five touchdowns) is poised to take over as the No. 1 wideout, but the Trojans also have added two junior college transfers — Isaac Whitney and De’Quan Hampton — who will be expected to make immediate contributions.

Utah Moves on after Staff Turmoil

Utah had its best season since joining the Pac-12 last year, going 9–4 overall after back-to-back losing seasons. The Utes also finished the season ranked for the first time since 2010. This should be a program building on its momentum. Instead, it’s a program that’s facing questions.

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In December, defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake and defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki left to join Gary Andersen’s new staff at Oregon State. Both had worked with Andersen before on the Utah defensive staff or when Andersen was the head coach at Utah State. The loss of Sitake in particular stings. Sitake had been on the staff since 2005 and had served as the defensive coordinator of the 2008 undefeated team. His defense led the nation in sacks in 2014, and he was also Utah’s top recruiter. Losing a coach to a lateral move within the same conference is a troubling development for any program.

The rumor mill hinted at a divide between athletic director Chris Hill and coach Kyle Whittingham — enough so that Hill felt it necessary to send out a release to “reassure” fans that Whittingham “is our head coach and any rumors to the contrary have no validity.”

There’s also been some drama on the other side of the ball. Offensive coordinator Brian Johnson — the quarterback of the undefeated 2008 team — left to be the quarterbacks coach at Mississippi State before the 2014 season. That’s quite a bit of institutional knowledge that walked out the door in a two-year span.

Petersen Enters Year 2 of QB Uncertainty

Chris Petersen had three starting quarterbacks in his first six seasons at Boise State. He matched that in his first season at Washington and probably will exceed that mark early in 2015. Cyler Miles started all but two games as a sophomore last season, but he’s taking a voluntary leave of absence unrelated to any disciplinary issues. He’s not expected to return to the team. Miles also missed last season’s opener and spring practice in 2014 due to a suspension.

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That leaves Jeff Lindquist, who started last year’s season opener in place of Miles, and newcomers K.J. Carta-Samuels and Jake Browning vying for the starting job. Carta-Samuels, a top-250 quarterback prospect from Saratoga, Calif., redshirted last season and ran the scout team. Browning was a top-100 recruit who signed in 2015 and participated in spring football. Petersen has acknowledged “similarities” between Browning and Kellen Moore, who went 50–3 for him at Boise State.

The quarterback quandary is only one reason the start of Petersen’s tenure at Washington has been a challenge. His defense will be hurt with the departures of Danny Shelton, Shaq Thompson and Hau’oli Kikaha to the NFL. For a coach who started his tenure at Boise State with two undefeated seasons in his first four, this kind of uncertainty is uncharted territory.

Washington State’s Ongoing Defensive Struggles

Washington State had its best offensive season in three years under Mike Leach, but the Cougars regressed from a bowl team in 2013 back to 3–9 in 2014. Here’s why: The Cougars have ranked either ninth or 10th in the Pac-12 in total defense and defensive yards per play in each of Leach’s three seasons in Pullman. Five times last season Washington State scored at least 31 points in a game and lost.

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A Leach-coached team is going to post crooked passing numbers and put its defense on the field more than most teams. This is not a new development. But Leach saw enough to make a change on the defensive staff. He fired Mike Breske and replaced him with 36-year-old Alex Grinch, who previously was the safeties coach at Missouri. That move is not a big splash by any means, but Grinch received high marks from Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly. Grinch was cornerbacks coach at New Hampshire while Kelly was the offensive coordinator. Leach also hired outside linebackers coach Roy Manning, who coached cornerbacks at Michigan last season.

The first task will be to sort out personnel issues. Wazzu was young on defense last season, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a glut of returning veterans. Cornerback Daquawn Brown was dismissed, linebacker Darryl Monroe transferred and linebacker Cyrus Coen exhausted his eligibility. Those are some pretty big pieces gone. The new defensive staff doesn’t have to work miracles at Washington State, but it does need to give the Cougars’ offense a fighting chance.