USC and Oregon lead the way in the early Pac-12 picks.
College football’s 2014 season has ended, and the focus shifts from the national championship picture to signing day, spring practice and early preseason rankings for 2015. While last year and Ohio State’s national title victory over Oregon is still fresh in our minds, it’s never too early to think about next season.
The Pac-12 has moved up the ladder in college football’s conference hierarchy in recent years. With Oregon replacing quarterback Marcus Mariota and a loaded group of teams battling for the top spot in the South Division, the conference has even more intrigue in 2015. Can the Ducks win the conference once again? Or will Stanford or a team from the South win in the championship game for the first time?
Early North Division Rankings
2014 Record: 13-2 (8-1)
The biggest challenge of coach Mark Helfrich’s tenure at Oregon starts in 2015. Helfrich must find a replacement for quarterback (and Heisman Trophy winner) Marcus Mariota this spring, and there’s not a proven option ready to take control of the Ducks’ high-powered attack. Could a transfer come into play as Mariota’s replacement? Regardless of which quarterback starts in 2015, the skill talent is among the best in the nation. Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman anchor a talented backfield, while the receiving corps returns Byron Marshall, Devon Allen, Charles Nelson, Dwayne Stanford and Darren Carrington. After finding a replacement for Mariota, the biggest area of concern for Helfrich has to be the offensive line, which loses tackle Jake Fisher, guard Hamani Stevens and center Hroniss Grasu. The defense played better in the second half of the year under new coordinator Don Pellum. However, this unit must replace end Arik Armstead, linebacker Tony Washington and loses defensive backs Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (CB), Troy Hill (CB) and Erick Dargan (S).
2014 Record: 8-5 (5-4)
The bar has been raised in Palo Alto. Stanford won 46 games from 2010-13 and recorded four straight years of finishes of 11th or better in the last Associated Press poll. Despite the recent success, the Cardinal slipped to 8-5 in 2014. The defense continued to perform at a high level without coordinator Derek Mason, limiting opponents to 4.2 yards per play. Second-year coordinator Lance Anderson has work to do this spring, as Stanford must replace a handful of key standouts, including end Henry Anderson, tackle David Parry, linebackers A.J. Tarpley and James Vaughters, safety Jordan Richards and cornerback Alex Carter. The offense had its share of ups and downs last season and averaged only 23.8 points per game in Pac-12 contests. Even though left tackle Andrus Peat and receiver Ty Montgomery must be replaced, Stanford should be optimistic about improvement. Running back Christian McCaffrey showed promise in limited snaps, and quarterback Kevin Hogan ended the year on a high note (14 of 20 for 189 yards and 2 TDs against Maryland).
2014 Record: 8-6 (4-5)
Chris Petersen’s first year wasn’t necessarily a disappointment, but the bar was set high in Seattle after he recorded a 92-12 mark at Boise State from 2006-13. Petersen will continue reshaping the program into the offseason, and the Huskies have a chance to play spoiler in the North with Oregon visiting Seattle in mid-October. Quarterback play has to improve for Petersen to elevate the program into division title contention. Cyler Miles threw for 17 touchdowns and completed 66.6 percent of his throws in his first year as the starter. But the Huskies need more from this position, especially after the offense generated only 36 passing plays (11th in the Pac-12) of 20 yards or more. Developing the talent at receiver is another offseason priority for Petersen, and the line loses four starters from a group that limited Pac-12 defenses to just 21 sacks. Revamping the trenches on defense is also a necessity after standouts Danny Shelton (NT) and Hau’oli Kikaha (DE/LB) expired their eligibility, and linebacker Shaq Thompson left early for the NFL. The secondary gave up 55 plays of 20 yards or more in 2014 but should take a step forward in 2015 with Budda Baker, John Ross and Sidney Jones returning.
2014 Record: 5-7 (3-6)
The Golden Bears were one of the most-improved teams in the Pac-12 this season. After a 1-11 mark in coach Sonny Dykes’ debut, California jumped to 5-7 in 2014 and lost four games by eight points or less. The next step for Dykes is to get the Golden Bears back into a bowl. And there’s a good shot of this team reaching that mark in 2015, as quarterback Jared Goff is one of the best in the Pac-12, and the receiving corps returns standouts in Bryce Treggs and Kenny Lawler. Running back Daniel Lasco (1,115 yards in 2014) might be the Pac-12’s most underrated player. Dykes needs his offense to score 35-40 points a week until the defense turns a corner under coordinator Art Kaufman. The Golden Bears allowed 44.1 points in Pac-12 contests last season and did not place a player on the All-Pac-12 team. The challenge of getting to a bowl in 2015 won’t be easy with a schedule that features crossover games against USC, UCLA, Arizona State and Utah. Also, California plays at Oregon and Stanford next year.
5. Oregon State
2014 Record: 5-7 (2-7)
Change is inevitable at every college program. For the first time since 2002 (Dennis Erickson), someone other than Mike Riley will roam the sidelines as Oregon State’s head coach. Gary Andersen was one of the top hires this offseason and comes to Corvallis after a 19-7 mark at Wisconsin from 2013-14. Andersen has four consecutive winning seasons as a head coach, but that streak will be in jeopardy in 2015. Oregon State loses quarterback Sean Mannion, and defensive standouts in linebacker D.J. Alexander, cornerback Steven Nelson, end Dylan Wynn, and safeties Ty Zimmerman and Ryan Murphy. Running back Storm Woods and receivers Victor Bolden and Jordan Villamin are a good place to start on offense, and the line – a source of concern in 2014 – should be better with all five starters back and a healthy Isaac Seumalo ready to contribute on the interior. Andersen’s background is on defense, and the hire of Kalani Sitake (Utah) should pay dividends for the Beavers.
6. Washington State
2014 Record: 3-9 (2-7)
The Cougars appeared to be trending in the right direction after a 6-7 mark and a bowl appearance in 2013. But an injury to quarterback Connor Halliday and a struggling defense prevented coach Mike Leach’s team from showing improvement in the win column. Washington State enters spring practice with several question marks, with the No. 1 priority starting at quarterback. Is Luke Falk the answer under center? Falk averaged 443.3 passing yards over the final four games but tossed six picks in his last two appearances. The return of Gabe Marks will soften the blow of losing No. 1 receiver Vince Mayle. New coordinator Alex Grinch inherits a defense that allowed 41.9 points in Pac-12 games and gave up 6.6 yards per play in league action. Grinch is already dealing with a few challenges this offseason, as linebacker Darryl Monroe transferred, cornerback Daquawn Brown was dismissed, and top lineman Xavier Cooper left for the NFL.
Listen to the New Head Coaches Extravaganza podcast:
Early South Division Rankings
2014 Record: 9-4 (6-3)
The Pac-12 South is one of the toughest divisions in the nation to predict next season. Each team has personnel concerns, but a case could be made for five programs to have a legitimate shot at the division in 2015. The recruiting rankings favor USC as the most talented team in the South next season, but depth is an issue with the program still digging out from NCAA sanctions. Quarterback Cody Kessler is back for his senior year after throwing 39 touchdowns in 2014. Kessler headlines an offense that should be explosive once again, provided replacements are found for receiver Nelson Agholor and running back Buck Allen. The offensive line is slated to return all five starters from the Holiday Bowl, including freshman standouts Toa Lobendahn and Viane Talamaivao. With the loss of defensive end Leonard Williams, linebacker Hayes Pullard and rush end J.R. Tavai, the biggest concerns for USC in 2015 are with its defense. The schedule sets up favorably for a run at the South Division title, as the Trojans host Stanford, Washington, Utah, Arizona and UCLA.
2. Arizona State
2014 Record: 10-3 (6-3)
The Sun Devils have 20 wins over the last two seasons, which is the best two-year mark for the program since a 20-4 stretch from 1996-97. Coach Todd Graham’s team should squarely be in the mix for the South Division title in 2015, especially with Oregon, Arizona and USC visiting Sun Devil Stadium. Quarterback Taylor Kelly must be replaced, but Mike Bercovici (12 TDs, 4 INTs) has proven capable in limited opportunities. Receiver Jaelen Strong and left tackle Jamil Douglas are key losses for the offense. However, the return of running back (and potential slot receiver) D.J. Foster will help the receiving corps, while Damario Richard and Kalen Ballage is a solid one-two punch at running back. Graham’s aggressiveness on defense paid off with 39 sacks and 98 tackles for a loss. This unit returns largely intact but loses All-Pac-12 safety Damarious Randall and end Marcus Hardison (10 sacks).
2014 Record: 10-4 (7-2)
The Wildcats are the defending Pac-12 South champions and should be in the mix for the conference title once again in 2015. Provided the line finds capable replacements for tackles Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele and center Steven Gurrola, the offense could surpass last year’s 33.4 points per game average in Pac-12 contests. Quarterback Anu Solomon and running back Nick Wilson are back after standout freshman campaigns, and the receiving corps returns Cayleb Jones, Trey Griffey, DaVonte’ Neal and Samajie Grant. While the offense is among the best in the league, the defense is still trying to find the right pieces under coordinator Jeff Casteel. Linebacker Scooby Wright is one of the nation’s top defensive players returning in 2015.
2014 Record: 10-3 (6-3)
The Bruins are picked No. 4 in our early pre-spring rankings, but that’s largely a byproduct of how loaded this division will be in 2015. And if you need anymore evidence, it’s very likely five teams from the South rank among the top 25 in most preseason polls. How high UCLA climbs in next year’s projections largely depends on its ability to replace quarterback Brett Hundley. Will true freshman Josh Rosen win the job over Jerry Neuheisel and Asiantii Woulard? Replacing a standout quarterback is a huge question mark to overcome, but the Bruins can shield their new starter with a strong supporting cast. Running back Paul Perkins returns after recording 1,575 yards and nine scores, while seven players that caught at least 26 passes are back. Each level of the defense has losses to address, with the biggest coming in the linebacking corps with the departure of Eric Kendricks.
2014 Record: 9-4 (5-4)
It’s been an interesting offseason in Salt Lake City. There was reported friction between coach Kyle Whittingham and athletic director Chris Hill after assistant coaches Dave Christensen (OC), Ilaisa Tuiaki (DL), and Kalani Sitake (DC) departed for other jobs. While the Utes have holes to fill on the coaching staff, this team will be a tough out for the rest of the Pac-12 next year. Left tackle Jeremiah Poutasi left early for the NFL, but the offense returns largely intact. Is Travis Wilson ready to take the next step in his development? Or will Kendal Thompson claim the job after recovering from a knee injury. Until the passing game stabilizes, the offense can lean on running back Devontae Booker (1,512 yards and 10 scores in 2014). Although Sitake will be missed as the team’s signal-caller, Utah’s defense shouldn’t change much with Whittingham’s background on defense. The Utes led the nation with 55 recorded sacks and held opponents to 24.9 points per game. End Nate Orchard, tackle Sese Ianu, safety Brian Blechen and cornerback Eric Rowe are the biggest losses on defense.
2014 Record: 2-10 (0-9)
The win column may not show it, but Mike MacIntyre has Colorado moving in the right direction. The Buffaloes have won six games under MacIntyre’s watch and are just 1-17 in Pac-12 games. However, Colorado lost four games by five points or less in 2014. The outlook for this team in 2015 has improved thanks to the development of quarterback Sefo Liufau, along with the return of Nelson Spruce to Boulder after he considered jumping early to the NFL. The defense allowed 7.1 yards per play in Pac-12 games and surrendered 43 points per contest in league matchups this season. That’s the bad news. On the positive sign, most of the defensive two-deep returns, and the line regains the services of Samson Kafovalu (missed 2014 due to personal reasons). Expect improvement from Colorado in 2015.