Coming off a season where eight teams made bowl appearances, along with the rise of Stanford and Oregon into annual top-five status, the arrow on the Pac-12’s future is clearly pointing up.
The Cardinal and Ducks have been jockeying for Pac-12 supremacy over the last few years, and with both teams returning most of their core for 2013, the Ducks and Cardinal are the favorites to win the conference once again. And it wouldn’t be a shock to see either team make an appearance in the national title game. Of course, there are a few question marks for both teams to address, as Oregon transitions from Chip Kelly to Mark Helfrich at head coach, while Stanford must find a way to jump start it’s passing attack.
Outside of Eugene and Palo Alto, hope is running high at Arizona State and UCLA. The Sun Devils won eight games in Todd Graham’s first season in Tempe, while the Bruins have won back-to-back Pac-12 South titles. Arizona is also on the right track behind coach Rich Rodriguez, but a questionable defense and a quarterback battle have the Wildcats likely battling for third or fourth in the South this season. USC is the South Division’s biggest wildcard. The talent is there for Lane Kiffin’s team to make a run at a division title, but quarterback play is a concern.
The Pac-12 will have two new coaches for 2013, as Mike MacIntyre was hired from San Jose State to rebuild Colorado, while Sonny Dykes was picked to replace Jeff Tedford at California. Both hires were two of the best in the nation but success may not be easy in 2013. The Buffaloes have a talent gap to close with the rest of the conference, while the Golden Bears are searching for a No. 1 quarterback.
Pac-12 Team Spring Storylines and Quarterback Battles to Watch
Switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense
New defensive coordinator Andy Buh has the unenviable task of switching the base 3-4 defense used under former head coach Jeff Tedford to a new 4-3 scheme. Finding the right guys for the right spots quickly will be paramount this spring. The line between outside linebacker and defensive end is blurred and finding explosive edge pass rushers is important for any 3-4 gameplan. Ends become tackles, tackles become ends and linebackers will be changing positions all spring long. The coaching staff is experimenting with linebackers Brennan Scarlett and Chris McCain at end this spring, which should help some speed off the edge. Getting the right guys in the right lines on the depth has to be the primary focus of Cal’s spring practice. (Other than quarerback, of course).
Quarterback Battle Breakdown: Kyle Boehm (SO) vs. Allan Bridgford (SR) vs. Jared Goff (FR) vs. Austin Hinder (JR) vs. Zach Kline (FR)
The winner of California’s quarterback battle should put up some big numbers in Tony Franklin and Sonny Dykes’ offense. Bridgford has the most experience, but the winner of this job will likely come down to Kline, Hinder or Goff.
Related Content: California Golden Bears 2013 Spring Preview
Replace senior leadership in the front seven
The Ducks didn’t just lose its heralded head coach this offseason, they also lost a ton of senior leadership and talent off both sides of the ball. In particular, the defensive front watched end Dion Jordan and linebackers Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay depart this winter. Filling those voids is the primary focus of new coach Mark Helfrich and new defensive line coach Ron Aiken. The time has come for Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner to impose their will on the defensive line. A long list of talented young tacklers will vie for time at linebacker — Tyson Coleman, Joe Walker, Rodney Hardrick and Derrick Malone – to name a few.
Continue the defensive line trend
Oregon State ranked dead last in the Pac-12 against the run in 2011 after allowing 196.8 yards per game on the ground (101st nationally). Last season, Mike Riley and coordinator Mark Banker did a remarkable job developing the defensive line and it resulted in the 27th-best rushing defense in the nation, which was good enough to rank third in the Pac-12 (129.5 ypg). Now, both starting defensive tackles have moved on. Scott Crichton is a star to build around, but the reinstated Mona Rosa won’t be available this spring. Finding a supporting cast who can continue the recent and obvious growth along the defensive line is important this spring.
Quarterback Battle Breakdown: Sean Mannion (JR) vs. Cody Vaz (SR)
The Beavers have two options they can win games with, but the offense needs one quarterback to settle into the No. 1 role. Sean Mannion has more talent, but he lost the starting job to Vaz at the end of the year. Expect this battle to go deep into fall camp.
Find Kevin Hogan some playmakers
The offensive line has holes, but an elite recruiting class two years ago will help stabilize that position. The same can be the said about the running back position. So finding playmaking pass-catchers for quarterback Kevin Hogan should be the focus this spring. This team has lost a trio of elite tight ends over the last two years and didn’t have a wide receiver catch more than 33 passes last fall. David Shaw has restocked the tight end position with converted fullbacks and a defensive lineman and who is argue? But at wide receiver, only Ty Montgomery returns with more than two catches. Shaw needs to find talent on the outside.
Related Content: 2013 Stanford Cardinal Spring Preview
Keep the offensive line intact
Two years ago, the defense was atrocious and Keith Price threw for school records on offense. Last year, the defense showed marked improvement, while the offensive line dealt with widespread injuries and poor play. The youngsters who were tossed into the fire last year should enter this spring with the confidence of returning starters. Keeping this group healthy and intact will make the difference for Price and the offense in 2013. Does this group benefit from unexpected playing time or are they simply not good enough to compete at a high level? This spring might help answer that question.
Related Content: 2013 Washington Huskies Spring Preview
Figure out a way to pick up positive yards on the ground
Four times in 2012 Washington State was held to negative yards rushing in a game. Three more times, the Cougars were held below 20 yards rushing. Needless to say, improving the 120th-ranked rushing offense in college football will be key — even for a Mike Leach-coached team. The offensive line also ranked 120th in sacks allowed at nearly five per game (4.75). No matter how complicated and innovative it is, no offense will be successful without pathetic offensive line play. Leach must address this immediately this spring.
Quarterback Battle Breakdown: Austin Apodaca (FR) vs. Connor Halliday (JR) vs. Tyler Bruggman (FR)
Washington State was one of the most disappointing offenses in college football last season. With the arrival of Mike Leach, most expected the Cougars would be one of the Pac-12’s highest-scoring teams. Every level of the offense has room to grow, but quarterback play will be under the microscope this spring. Halliday has shown promise in his career but will face competition from Apodaca this spring, along with Bruggman when he arrives the fall.
Improving the defense
All eyes on Tucson will be situated on the quarterback battle, but if the Wildcats are going to push Arizona State, UCLA or USC for the Pac-12 South title, the defense has to make major strides in 2013. The Wildcats ranked 105th nationally against the run, 117th versus the pass and allowed 499 yards per game last season. Needless to say, those numbers have to decrease if Arizona expects to contend with a first-year quarterback. While last year’s statistics are the bad news, the flipside is the Wildcats bring 11 starters back for 2013. And the defense suffered no significant losses in terms of depth. With another spring practice to work under coordinator Jeff Casteel, the players should have a better grasp on the scheme, which should allow Arizona to show improvement on the stat sheet.
Quarterback Battle Breakdown: Javelle Allen (FR) vs. B.J. Denker (SR) vs. Jesse Scroggins (JR) vs. Anu Solomon (FR)
With Scroggins nursing a foot injury and Solomon arriving on campus after spring practice, Arizona won’t have much clarity to its quarterback picture. Denker has the most experience after making one start last year, but Allen, Solomon and Scroggins have the talent to unseat him this preseason.
Related Content: 2013 Arizona Wildcats Spring Preview
Finding new receivers for quarterback Taylor Kelly
With a new quarterback and offensive scheme, it was a surprise to see the Sun Devils finish second in the Pac-12 in scoring last season. A big part of last year’s success was the emergence of quarterback Taylor Kelly, along with a backfield that featured three solid running backs. Kelly should be able to build on his 2012 campaign this season, but receivers Jamal Miles and Rashad Ross expired their eligibility after the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Kevin Ozier, Richard Smith and Alonzo Agwuenu are the top three returning receivers but none had more than 21 receptions. Todd Graham and his staff dipped into the junior college ranks for two prospects – Joseph Morris and Jaelen Strong – while true freshman Ellis Jefferson is another name to watch. The Sun Devils have some options and talent at this position but developing a pecking order will be crucial this spring.
Finding answers on defense
There’s no sugarcoating it: Colorado’s defense was horrendous in 2012. The Buffaloes ranked 117th nationally in yards allowed and last (120th) in scoring defense. Colorado also allowed 226 rushing yards per game and generated just 1.6 sacks a game. Needless to say, those numbers won’t get it done if the Buffaloes want to win more than one game in 2013. New coordinator Kent Baer has a wealth of experience and did a good job rebuilding San Jose State’s defense during his tenure under Mike MacIntyre. The first order of business for Baer is to rebuild the front seven, which loses defensive lineman Will Pericak and linebackers Jon Major and Doug Rippy. The secondary has a few promising young players, but this unit also needs to show progress after allowing quarterbacks to throw for 39 touchdowns last season. In addition to finding the right personnel, Colorado has to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and force a few more turnovers.
Quarterback Battle Breakdown: Shane Dillon (FR) vs. Stevie Joe Dorman (FR) vs. Nick Hirschman (JR) vs. Sefo Liufau (FR) vs. Jordan Webb (SR) vs. Connor Wood (JR)
With a new coaching staff, expect a wide-open quarterback battle this spring. Liufau is a good fit for MacIntyre’s offense, but Webb, Wood and Hirschman have the edge in experience. Considering the uncertainty surrounding this position, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Colorado start more than one quarterback in 2013.
Who replaces Johnathan Franklin?
With 12 starters returning from last season, the Bruins are in the driver’s seat to win the Pac-12 South for the third consecutive year. Brett Hundley is one of the conference’s best quarterbacks, but the offense needs to find him a go-to running back this spring. Johnathan Franklin expired his eligibility after a standout career at UCLA, which opens the door for Damien Thigpen, Malcolm Jones, Steven Manfro, Jordan James or redshirt freshman Paul Perkins to claim the No. 1 spot. Perkins has generated a lot of buzz this offseason, but Thigpen, James and Jones own an edge in experience. Thigpen is recovering from a late-season knee injury, so the battle for carries could be undecided into fall camp. Whether it’s a committee approach or someone emerges as a No. 1 option, UCLA needs to sort out its running back plans this spring.
Adjusting to Clancy Pendergast’s defense
Regardless of which quarterback starts for USC in 2013, contending for the South Division is likely to rest on improvement from the defense. This unit wasn’t awful statistically last season, as the Trojans finished 41st nationally in total defense and allowed 24.3 points a game. However, USC was torched by Oregon for 62 points, by UCLA for 38 and by Arizona for 39. Defending the spread was a huge problem under former coordinator Monte Kiffin. Pendergast’s defense at California wasn’t any better on the stat sheet in 2012, but he should have a better idea of how to matchup against some of the conference’s top offenses. The defensive line should be USC’s strength on defense, but the secondary needs a lot of attention with just one returning starter.
Quarterback Battle Breakdown: Max Browne (FR) vs. Cody Kessler (SO) vs. Max Wittek (SO)
With three touted players competing for time, USC’s quarterback battle is one of the top ones to watch this spring. Wittek finished the year as the starter but did not play well in the bowl game against Georgia Tech. Browne ranked as the No. 11 prospect in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100 and will get a chance to win the job this spring. USC’s offense has the pieces to be explosive, but a clear No. 1 needs to emerge for this unit to thrive in 2013.
Related Content: 2013 USC Trojans Spring Preview
Rebuilding the defensive line
Just like Arizona and USC, the Utes have question marks to address on offense, but the defense is a bigger concern. Utah has to replace standout tackle Star Lotulelei, along with defensive end Joe Kruger and tackle Dave Kruger. With three key members of the line departing, the Utes needed to replenish this group through recruiting, so five new players will join the team this season. Junior college recruit Sese Ianu will be asked to play right away, while freshmen Myron Aiava, Filipo Mokofisi, Sam Tevi and Keio Vaenuku could push for time this preseason. However, the most pressing issue for coach Kyle Whittingham might be where to play Trevor Reilly. The honorable-mention All-Pac-12 selection could slide to defensive end after playing a hybrid end/linebacker role the last few seasons. Without Lotulelei in the middle of the line, Utah’s rush defense may take a step back this season.
Writeups compiled by Braden Gall (@BradenGall) and Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
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