The SEC is still college football’s No. 1 conference, but the Pac-12 isn’t far behind in 2014.
Oregon, Stanford and UCLA each could rank inside of the top 10 in preseason polls. The Ducks should be a slight favorite to win the Pac-12, but there's not a wide gap to the Cardinal or Bruins.
Oregon has a slight edge over Stanford in our early Pac-12 predictions, but there’s very little separating these two teams in the North. With quarterback Marcus Mariota returning, along with this year’s matchup taking place in Eugene, the Ducks get the nod at No. 1 – for now.
Outside of the top trio of teams, Arizona State, USC and Washington should be preseason top 25 squads, while Arizona, Oregon State and Washington State won’t be too far behind.
The conference has plenty of depth for 2014, as California, Colorado and Utah should improve from last season’s record.
Early North Division Predictions for 2014
Key Returnees: QB Marcus Mariota, RB Byron Marshall, RB Thomas Tyner, WR Bralon Addison, WR Keanon Lowe, TE Johnny Mundt, LT Tyler Johnstone, LG Hamani Stevens, C Hroniss Grasu, RG Cameron Hunt, RT Jake Fisher, DE Tony Washington, DE DeForest Buckner, DE Arik Armstead, DT Alex Balducci, LB Derrick Malone, LB Rodney Hardrick, LB Joe Walker, LB Rahim Cassell, LB Tyson Coleman, LB Torrodney Prevot, CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB Troy Hill, CB Dior Mathis, S Erick Dargan
Key Losses: RB De’Anthony Thomas, WR Josh Huff, WR Daryle Hawkins, DT Taylor Hart, DT Wade Keliikipi, DT Ricky Heimuli, LB Boseko Lokombo, CB Terrance Mitchell, FS Avery Patterson, SS Brian Jackson
As we mentioned in the introduction, it’s a close call between Oregon and Stanford for the No. 1 spot in the Pac-12 North. These two teams won’t be separated by many spots in most preseason top 25 rankings, but for now, a slight edge goes to the Ducks. Why Oregon over Stanford? Marcus Mariota is back for one more year in Eugene, and the Ducks return five starters on the line. There’s also no shortage of skill players at Mariota’s disposal. New defensive coordinator Don Pellum won’t have to make too many tweaks to a defense that led the Pac-12 in fewest yards per play (4.6).
Key Returnees: QB Kevin Hogan, RB Barry Sanders, WR Ty Montgomery, WR Devon Cajuste, WR Michael Rector, WR Kodi Whitfield, LT Andrus Peat, OT Kyle Murphy, OG Joshua Garnett, DE Henry Anderson, DE Blake Lueders, DT David Parry, LB A.J. Tarpley, LB James Vaughters, LB Joe Hemschoot, LB Kevin Anderson, CB Alex Carter, CB Wayne Lyons, S Jordan Richards
Key Losses: RB Tyler Gaffney, RB Anthony Wilkerson, LG David Yankey, C Khalil Wilkes, RG Kevin Danser, RT Cameron Fleming, DE Josh Mauro, DE Ben Gardner, LB Trent Murphy, LB Shayne Skov, LB Jarek Lancaster, DB Usua Amanam, S Ed Reynolds, S Devon Carrington
As we mentioned with Oregon's writeup, there’s not much separating Oregon and Stanford in the Pac-12 North next season. The Cardinal will have to play the Ducks in Eugene and face UCLA, Arizona State and USC in crossover play. Add in road dates at Washington and Notre Dame and it’s easy to see why Stanford might have the toughest schedule in college football next year. Quarterback Kevin Hogan should take another step in his development in 2014, but the Cardinal will have four new starters on the offensive line. The defense loses a few key pieces (Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov and Ed Reynolds), but there’s enough talent returning to keep this unit near the top of the Pac-12.
Key Returnees: QB Cyler Miles, RB Jesse Callier, RB Dwayne Washington, RB Deontae Cooper, WR Jaydon Mickens, WR Kasen Williams, WR Damore’ea Stringfellow, WR John Ross, LT Micah Hatchie, LG Dexter Charles, C Mike Criste, RG Colin Tanigawa, RT Ben Riva, DE Hau’oli Kikaha, DE Cory Littleton, DE Josh Shirley, NT Danny Shelton, DT Evan Hudson, LB Shaq Thompson, LB John Timu, LB Travis Feeney, LB Scott Lawyer, CB Marcus Peters, S Kevin King
Key Losses: QB Keith Price, RB Bishop Sankey, WR Kevin Smith, TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, LB Princeton Fuimaono, LB Thomas Tutogi, CB Gregory Ducre, S Sean Parker, S Will Shamburger, S Tre Watson
Behind new coach Chris Petersen, the Huskies will be a team to watch in 2014. Former coach Steve Sarkisian isn’t leaving the cupboard bare, and the schedule is very manageable. Replacing Bishop Sankey is the team’s top question mark on offense, as new quarterback Cyler Miles was solid in relief duty last season. Another positive for Washington is the return of all five starters on the offensive line. The secondary has a few holes to fill in the offseason, but the front seven could be one of the best in the Pac-12.
4. Oregon State
Key Returnees: QB Sean Mannion, RB Terron Ward, RB Storm Woods, WR Richard Mullaney, TE Connor Hamlett, TE Caleb Smith, C Isaac Seumalo, RT Sean Harlow, DE Dylan Wynn, DT Edwin Delva, LB Jabral Johnson, LB D.J. Alexander, LB Rommel Mageo, LB Caleb Saulo, LB Joel Skotte, CB Steven Nelson, S Tyrequek Zimmerman, S Ryan Murphy
Key Losses: WR Brandin Cooks, WR Kevin Cummings, LT Michael Philipp, LG Josh Andrews, RG Grant Enger, DE Scott Crichton, DT Mana Rosa, CB Rashaad Reynolds, CB Sean Martin
The Beavers started 6-1 last season but finished 1-5 in their final six games. 2013 was an up-and-down campaign for Mike Riley’s team, as it lost the opener to Eastern Washington and fell by only eight points to Stanford and by one to Oregon. The NFL Draft early entry deadline wasn’t kind to Oregon State. Receiver Brandin Cooks and end Scott Crichton left early for the next level, but quarterback Sean Mannion decided to return for his senior year. Mannion’s return is a huge plus for the offense, and the Beavers still have good talent at the skill positions. The offensive line is the biggest concern on offense next year. The defense will miss Crichton and cornerback Rashaad Reynolds. But most of the starting core returns in 2014, including safety Ryan Murphy and cornerback Steven Nelson.
5. Washington State
Key Returnees: QB Connor Halliday, RB Marcus Mason, RB Teondray Caldwell, WR Gabe Marks, WR Kristoff Williams, WR Dom Williams, WR River Cracraft, WR Rickey Galvin, LT Gunnar Eklund, LG Joe Dahl, DE Xavier Cooper, DT Kalafitoni Pole, DE/LB Kache Palacio, DE/LB Destiny Vaeao, LB Darryl Monroe, LB Cyrus Coen, LB Tana Pritchard, CB Daquawn Brown, FS Taylor Taliulu
Key Losses: WR Vince Mayle, C Elliot Bosch, RG Matt Goetz, RT John Fullington, NT Ioane Gauta, LB Justin Sagote, LB Jared Byers, CB Damante Horton, CB Nolan Washington, SS Deone Bucannon, S Casey Locker
After making a three-game improvement in the win column from 2012 to 2013, can the Cougars make a similar leap in 2014? Make no mistake, Washington State should be a better overall team next season. But improving to eight or nine wins might be a challenge. Quarterback Connor Halliday will have a better grasp of Mike Leach’s system, and the Cougars return one of the top receiving corps in the Pac-12. The offensive line and getting just a bit more production from the ground game are the two spring priorities for Leach and his staff. The defense regressed slightly in the stat column last season. All-American safety Deone Bucannon will be tough to replace, and the secondary will also miss cornerbacks Damante Horton and Nolan Washington.
Key Returnees: QB Jared Goff, RB Khalfani Muhammad, WR Bryce Treggs, WR Chris Harper, WR Kenny Lawler, WR Darius Powe, LT Christian Okafor, C Jordan Rigsbee, RG Alejandro Crosthwaite, RT Steven Moore, DE/LB Kyle Kragen, DE/LB Puka Lopa, LB Hardy Nickerson, LB Jalen Jefferson, LB Michael Barton, LB Lucas King, CB Stefan McClure, CB Joel Willis, CB Cedric Dozier, SS Cameron Walker, FS Michael Lowe, FS Damariay Drew, S Avery Sebastian
Key Losses: TE Richard Rodgers, DE Dan Camporeale, NT Deandre Coleman, DT Viliami Moala, LB Khairi Fortt, CB Kameron Jackson
Injuries and youth played a huge role in California’s struggles last season. The Golden Bears were able to allow some of their young players to play a lot of snaps due to the injuries, but losing Richard Rodgers, Viliami Moala, Khairi Fortt and Kameron Johnson early for the NFL is a blow to the depth. While Sonny Dykes’ debut was a disappointment, it’s hard for the Golden Bears to sink much lower in 2014. Improvement should be noticeable on both sides of the ball next year. Quarterback Jared Goff will have another offseason to work under Dykes and coordinator Tony Franklin. And Dykes smartly cleaned house on defense and will hire a new coordinator for 2014. California should be more competitive next season, but a winning record is a year (or two) away.
Early South Division Predictions for 2014
Key Returnees: QB Brett Hundley, RB Paul Perkins, RB Jordon James, WR Devin Fuller, WR Jordan Payton, WR Devin Lucien, TE Thomas Duarte, OT Simon Goines, OL Scott Quessenberry, C Jake Brendel, OG Alex Redmond, RT Caleb Benenoch, DL Eddie Vanderdoes, DT Kenny Clark, DT Ellis McCarthy, DL Owamagbe Odighizuwa, LB Eric Kendricks, LB/RB Myles Jack, LB Isaako Savaiinaea, CB Ishmael Adams, CB Fabian Moreau, CB Priest Willis, S Tahaan Goodman, S Anthony Jefferson
Key Losses: WR Shaquelle Evans, LG Xavier Su’a-Filo, DE Cassius Marsh, DE Keenan Graham, DT Seali’l Epenesa, LB Jordan Zumwalt, LB Anthony Barr, S Brandon Sermons
Could 2014 be a special season for UCLA? Quarterback Brett Hundley turned down a shot at the NFL for one more year with the Bruins, and a challenging schedule will allow Jim Mora’s team to make a compelling case for one of the four playoff spots. Hundley’s return is a huge plus for UCLA, and the junior should have more help from an offensive line that shuffled a handful of players into the lineup due to injuries. Replacing linebacker Anthony Barr and end Cassius Marsh will be the biggest obstacles to overcome on defense. However, Mora has recruited well, and Myles Jack and Eddie Vanderdoes are two players poised for a bigger role in 2014. As for the schedule, UCLA has crossover games against Stanford, Oregon and Washington, along with a non-conference test against Texas. But two of those games (Oregon and Stanford) are in the Rose Bowl, and the Bruins host Arizona and USC in key Pac-12 matchups.
Key Returnees: QB Cody Kessler, RB Tre Madden, RB Javorius Allen, RB Justin Davis, WR Nelson Agholor, WR Darreus Rogers, TE Randall Telfer, LT Chad Wheeler, LG Max Tuerk, DE Leonard Williams, DL J.R. Tavai, NT Antwaun Woods, LB Hayes Pullard, LB Anthony Sarao, LB Lamar Dawson, LB Jabari Ruffin, CB Josh Shaw, CB Kevon Seymour, S Su’a Cravens, S Leon McQuay III
Key Losses: RB Silas Redd, WR Marqise Lee, TE Xavier Grimble, C Marcus Martin, RG John Martinez, RT Kevin Graf, DE George Uko, LB Morgan Breslin, LB Devon Kennard, CB Torin Harris, S Dion Bailey, S Demetrius Wright
It’s a coin flip for the No. 2 spot in the South Division between USC and Arizona State. Before spring practice gets underway, there’s very little separating these two teams. For now, a slight edge goes to the Trojans. New coach Steve Sarkisian is still dealing with scholarship limitations and depth issues at USC. However, the Trojans’ roster isn’t totally depleted. Quarterback Cody Kessler threw only one interception over his last five games and will have a deep group of running backs at his disposal. The receiving corps isn’t overflowing with options, but Nelson Agholor, Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell is a solid trio to build around. The biggest concern on offense is the line, as there’s not a lot of depth, and three starters left after 2013. Assuming the defense avoids any major injuries next year, the Trojans have enough pieces returning to finish near the top of the Pac-12 in total defense again.
3. Arizona State
Key Returnees: QB Taylor Kelly, RB D.J. Foster, WR Jaelen Strong, WR Richard Smith, LG Jamil Douglas, RG Vi Teofilo, RT Tyler Sulka, DL Jaxon Hood, DL Marcus Hardison, LB Salamo Fiso, LB Carlos Mendoza, CB Lloyd Carrington, S Damarious Randall, LB/S Viliami Moeakiola
Key Losses: RB Marion Grice, WR Kevin Ozier, TE Chris Coyle, LT Evan Finkenberg, RG Kody Koebensky, DE Davon Coleman, DT Will Sutton, DT Gannon Conway, LB Carl Bradford, LB Anthony Jones, LB Steffon Martin, LB Grandville Taylor, LB Chris Young, CB Robert Nelson, CB Osahon Irabor, S Alden Darby
Todd Graham has his work cut out for him this spring. The Sun Devils are the defending Pac-12 champions, but there are a handful of standout players leaving. Offensively, there are concerns. But there’s enough returning for Arizona State to remain near the top of the Pac-12 in scoring. Quarterback Taylor Kelly is back after throwing for 3,635 yards and 28 scores last season. Running back Marion Grice will be missed, but D.J. Foster is a capable replacement. The Sun Devils may have to win a lot of shootouts next season, especially with a defense that was decimated by departures. Tackle Will Sutton, linebacker Carl Bradford, safety Alden Darby, cornerback Robert Nelson and linebacker Chris Young were all selected to the Pac-12 all-conference team in 2013. Needless to say, that’s a ton of talent to replace in one year. Arizona State does catch a break in scheduling, as UCLA and Stanford visit Tempe in 2014.
Key Returnees: RB Jared Baker, WR Samajie Grant, WR Nate Phillips, WR Garic Wharton, WR David Richards, LT Mickey Baucus, LG Cayman Bundage, C Steven Gurrola, RT Fabbians Ebbele, DE Reggie Gilbert, LB Scooby Wright, CB Jonathan McKnight, S Jared Tevis, S Tra’Mayne Bondurant, S Jourdon Grandon, S William Parks
Key Losses: QB B.J. Denker, RB Ka’Deem Carey, WR Terrence Miller, RG Chris Putton, DE Sione Tuihalamaka, NT Tevin Hood, LB Marquis Flowers, LB Jake Fischer, CB Shaquille Richardson
Rich Rodriguez has Arizona trending in the right direction (back-to-back 8-5 seasons). But the Wildcats may take a small step back in 2014, especially with quarterback B.J. Denker expiring his eligibility, and running back Ka’Deem Carey leaving for the NFL. The quarterback battle will be the biggest storyline in the spring, and redshirt freshman Anu Solomon could be the frontrunner to replace Denker. The Wildcats have options to replace Carey, but there’s no clear-cut favorite. After finishing last in the Pac-12 in total defense in 2012, Arizona made small progress in 2013. The Wildcats finished eighth last season, and on a positive note, return most of last year's starting group for 2014. A favorable schedule should allow Arizona to open 4-0 next year. But the next four games on the slate are brutal: at Oregon, USC, at Washington State and at UCLA.
Key Returnees: QB Adam Schulz, RB Bubba Poole, WR Dres Anderson, WR Geoff Norwood, LT Jeremiah Poutasi, RG Junior Salt, RT Siaosi Aiono, DE Nate Orchard, DE Hunter Dimick, LB Jason Whittingham, LB Jared Norris, LB Jacoby Hale, LB V.J. Fehoko, LB/S Brian Blechen, CB Davion Orphey, CB Justin Thomas, S Eric Rowe, K Andy Phillips
Key Losses: RB Kelvin York, WR Sean Fitzgerald, WR Anthony Denham, LG Jeremiah Tofaeono, C Vyncent Jones, DE Trevor Reilly, DT Tenny Palepoi, DT LT Tuipulotu, CB Keith McGill, S Michael Walker, DB Mike Honeycutt, TE Jake Murphy
After an 8-5 debut in the Pac-12 in 2011, the Utes are just 10-14 over their last two years. Defense certainly hasn’t been the problem in Salt Lake City. Utah has ranked seventh or higher in the Pac-12 in total defense in each of the last three seasons. Rebuilding the line will be a priority for Kyle Whittingham and coordinator Kilani Sitake, as Trevor Reilly and tackles Tenny Palepoi and LT Tuipulotu have expired their eligibility. If the Utes want to end a two-year bowl drought, the offense has to improve. And Whittingham made a solid addition to his staff by bringing aboard former Wyoming coach Dave Christensen to call the plays. Although Christensen should make a difference, the quarterback situation is unsettled. Can Travis Wilson return to the team? Or will Adam Schulz get the nod under center? Will redshirt freshman Conner Manning factor into the position? Utah won’t have much room for error to get to a bowl in 2014, as the schedule features crossover games against Oregon and Stanford, along with a non-conference matchup against Michigan.
Key Returnees: QB Sefo Liufau, RB Christian Powell, RB Michael Adkins II, WR Nelson Spruce, WR D.D. Goodson, WR Tyler McCulloch, LG Kaiwi Crabb, RG Daniel Munyer, RT Stephane Nembot, DE Juda Parker, DE Samson Kafovalu, DT Justin Solis, DT Josh Tupou, LB Addison Gillam, LB Woodson Greer III, CB Greg Henderson, CB Kenneth Crawley, S Jered Bell, S Tedric Thompson
Key Losses: WR Paul Richardson, LT Jack Harris, C Gus Handler, DE Chidera Uzo-Diribe, LB Derrick Webb, S Parker Orms
The Buffaloes improved their win total by three games in Mike MacIntyre’s first season, and all signs point to this program getting back on track under this coaching staff. There should be more improvement in 2014, especially as Sefo Liufau gets a full offseason of practice under his belt. As a freshman, he threw for 1,779 yards and 12 scores last season. The biggest loss on offense is receiver Paul Richardson, while the offensive line has to replace two starters. Colorado’s defense has ranked 10th or worse in the Pac-12 in yards allowed in each of the last three years. Most of last year’s core returns in 2014, including standout linebacker Addison Gillam. But can this unit make significant progress next season? The Buffaloes have to get tougher against the run and need to generate a better pass rush (only 17 sacks in 2013).