The SEC is still college football’s No. 1 conference, but the Pac-12 has made considerable progress in closing the gap over the last few seasons. The Pac-12 is positioned to produce a few contenders in the new playoff format, and the league features a wide-open battle for the No. 1 spot in 2014.
Oregon is Athlon’s projected champion of the Pac-12, but Stanford, UCLA and USC aren’t far behind. The Ducks need to keep quarterback Marcus Mariota healthy and find new set of receivers after the loss of Bralon Addison for the year due to injury.
Stanford has defeated Oregon in each of the last two years and is a close No. 2 in the North. Both teams are breaking in new defensive coordinators, but there is a clear advantage in the schedule to Oregon. The Cardinal has a tougher slate ahead – one that features five teams projected to finish in Athlon’s top 25 for 2014. Despite the changes on the coaching staff, Stanford should be solid on defense, while quarterback Kevin Hogan should benefit from a stocked receiving corps.
Washington is projected to finish No. 3 in the North, and the Huskies will be an intriguing team to watch. With quarterback Cyler Miles back in the mix, Chris Petersen’s first year in Seattle got a lot easier. Petersen was regarded as one of the nation’s top coaches from his stint at Boise State, and he inherits a team with enough talent to push Oregon or Stanford in the North standings.
Rounding out the North Division projections is Oregon State at No. 4, Washington State at No. 5 and California at No. 6. The Golden Bears struggled in Sonny Dykes’ first year, but injuries played a major role in the team’s win total. With better luck in the health department, combined with improvement by quarterback Jared Goff, California will be a much-improved team in 2014. Oregon State and Washington State have a chance to surprise this year, but both teams have considerable question marks on the offensive line.
Much like the North Division, the South is crowded at the top. UCLA is Athlon’s projected champion, but USC is a close No. 2. The Bruins have one of the conference’s toughest schedules in 2014. However, UCLA hosts USC, Stanford and Oregon this year. The Bruins also return quarterback Brett Hundley and seven starters from one of the Pac-12’s top defenses.
USC appears to have the right coach in Steve Sarkisian, but the Trojans still have depth issues from NCAA sanctions. If USC avoids major injuries – especially on the offensive line – the Trojans could be a top-10 team in 2014.
Arizona State is the defending Pac-12 South champion, and Todd Graham’s team will be in the mix once again. However, the Sun Devils have several holes to fill on defense. Only two starters are back, and standouts like tackle Will Sutton must be replaced.
Arizona is an intriguing team to watch in 2014. The Wildcats are making steady gains under third-year coach Rich Rodriguez, but there’s uncertainty at quarterback, and running back Ka’Deem Carey must be replaced.
Utah and Colorado are predicted to finish at the bottom of the South, but both teams will show improvement in 2014.
Prep for the 2014 season, follow Athlon Sports and its college football editors on Twitter: @AthlonSports, Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), David Fox (@DavidFox615) and Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Inside the War Room: Key Questions That Shaped Athlon's 2014 Predictions
Stanford has beaten Oregon two years in a row and won the division title two years in a row, yet Oregon is the pick again. Please explain.
Maybe we’re slow learners, but we still like Oregon in the Pac-12. A healthy Marcus Mariota is perhaps the top quarterback in the country and a Heisman contender. When Mariota’s mobility was hindered due to injury, Oregon’s offense stalled. He’ll have to stay healthy, and with five returning offensive linemen, that’s possible. We’re a little curious how the Ducks’ defense will turn out with Nick Aliotti gone, but Oregon has a building block at every level of the defense, led by Thorpe-contending cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Stanford should remain a Pac-12 contender, but the Cardinal lost much of the foundation of the last two teams, both on the offensive line and in the linebacker corps. Stanford should be able to reload, but that process might not be immediate. We also have questions about Kevin Hogan’s potential. He doesn’t need to be as dynamic a quarterback as many of his counterparts in the Pac-12, but he needs to give Stanford more than he did last season. It’s a close call for the No. 1 spot in the North, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that Oregon has a much easier schedule than Stanford in 2014. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Washington, with Chris Petersen now in charge, seems to be on the move. Can this team challenge Stanford for second place in the North?
Yes. In our rankings meeting, we even talked about Washington finishing as high as second in the North. Many of the big names are gone on offense, including Keith Price, Bishop Sankey and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, but Washington’s offense should be in capable hands with highly regarded quarterback prospect Cyler Miles, who was reinstated to the team after spring practice. Five offensive line starters return, three of whom were honorable mention All-Pac-12 selections. The defense also returns seven starters. Steve Sarkisian rebuilt the roster with top-25 classes from 2010-13, so the core of this team is ready to compete. Throw in a Stanford team with question marks, and one that Washington has played well the last two seasons, and the Huskies could be ready to make a move. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)
What gives UCLA the edge in the South? The Bruins have a tough schedule.
The schedule is tough, as UCLA draws Oregon and Stanford for the second consecutive season, plus a road trip to Washington from the North. But compared to last season, UCLA gets a bit of a break. The Bruins faced both Stanford and Oregon last year, both on the road and in back-to-back weeks. Having both games at home separated by seven weeks is a fortunate change of pace. In addition, UCLA may be equipped to handle a tough schedule. Brett Hundley will be one of the better quarterbacks in the nation, and he is surrounded by outstanding talent. With a coaching change at USC and the defense rebuilding at Arizona State, the timing has never been better for UCLA to compete for a Pac-12 title under Jim L. Mora. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Is there a potential sleeper in the North?
Washington is definitely a team that could surprise this year, but let’s use the sleeper designation on a team picked No. 5 in the standings – Washington State. The Cougars took a step forward under Mike Leach last year, finishing 6-7 and winning four games in Pac-12 play. With 12 starters back, Washington State could improve upon its win total even more in 2014. Quarterback Connor Halliday threw for 4,597 yards and 34 scores last season and has another offseason to learn Leach’s pass-first offense. The Cougars also have one of the Pac-12’s top receiving corps, along with an underrated front seven on defense. The biggest areas of concern are in the secondary, and an offensive line that has just two starters back. Expect more improvement from Washington State in 2014, and this team has potential to pull an upset or two this year. – Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the College Football Playoff
Arizona has a big question at quarterback. If the Wildcats find a suitable signal-caller, can they challenge?
That’s an interesting question, considering that at this point last season, no one would have picked B.J. Denker to be the quarterback to lead Arizona to an 8–5 season. With Denker gone, Arizona has a crowd at quarterback, but the pieces are there for the winner of the job to succeed — an experienced offensive line and standout receiving corps. We wonder how the running game will recover without Ka’Deem Carey, but, again, this is an area to trust Rich Rodriguez. The defense has improved under RichRod, but this is still a team with too many questions to realistically compete with UCLA, USC and Arizona State. Can this team challenge for a bowl berth and a surprising season? Yes. A South Division title? No. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)
What is Utah’s outlook in the South?
After winning four conference games in their Pac-12 debut in 2011, the Utes are just 5-13 over the last two years. Utah has also missed a bowl for two consecutive seasons. Despite the losing record from 2012-13, the Utes could rebound back into the postseason in 2014. Sure, the schedule is tough. Crossover games against Oregon and Stanford will be challenging, and Utah has a non-conference date against Michigan. However, quarterback Travis Wilson is on track to return to the team, and new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen should help an offense that averaged only 29.2 points per game last season. As usual, Utah will be solid on defense. It may require an upset, but the Utes have a good shot to get back into the postseason in 2014. – Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Which of Cal or Colorado is closer to being relevant?
Both teams are a long way from returning to where they’ve been, but Colorado is in better shape for 2014 and the short-term future. Both teams struggled to compete against Pac-12 teams last year, but Colorado defeated Cal 41–24 in mid-November. Cal had an exodus of players leaving early for the NFL Draft, plus a restructuring of the defensive coaching staff. Colorado, which returns 14 starters, had no such turnover in Mike MacIntyre’s second offseason. That’s going to give Colorado a leg up as the Buffaloes try to return to bowl contention. Both teams are improving, but it would be a surprise to see either in a bowl this year. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)
2014 Pac-12 Team Previews
Pac-12 Bowl Tie-Ins for 2014
At-Large Access Bowl: Pac-12 Champion*
Alamo: Pac-12 vs. Big 12
Holiday: Pac-12 vs. Big Ten
San Francisco: Pac-12 vs. Big Ten
Sun: Pac-12 vs. ACC
Las Vegas: Pac-12 vs. Mountain West
Buffalo Wild Wings: Pac-12 vs. Big 12
* If conference champ is not in CFB Playoff
by Dan Raley
In search of a starting quarterback, Arizona had six players take significant snaps in spring practice. There were recycled signal-callers galore, including little-used transfers from LSU, Louisiana Tech, USC and Texas. Big ones, short ones, everything but a clear-cut leader. It was a reality TV show in the making. Amazing Race II.
No Pac-12 position battle has more candidates, uncertainty or wackiness than the Wildcats’ long-running audition for someone to run the huddle. Coach Rich Rodriguez is still taking applications, checking references.
Just two of the spring QB candidates played in an actual game at the position, and their experience comes with a disclaimer: Nick Isham (transferred from Arizona after spring practice) started seven times for Louisiana Tech in 2011 and wound up that season as a wide receiver; Jesse Scroggins got in for a solitary play to end a USC game in 2011. That’s it.
Rodriguez likely will need most of fall camp to find his guy. Hey, does Nick Foles have any eligibility left?
“If you’re trying to figure that out, good luck,” Rodriguez says of the competition.
For Pete’s Sake
He may be considered one of college football’s bright coaching minds after compiling a gaudy 92–12 record at Boise State, but Chris Petersen still has a lot to prove at Washington: Mainly, he needs to prove that, unlike his two Broncos coaching predecessors, he can make a splash at a bigger school.
In 2000, Dirk Koetter left Boise State — after collecting consecutive bowl victories and posting a 26–10 record — and landed at Arizona State, where he was fired after posting a mediocre 40–34 mark over six seasons. Dan Hawkins compiled a 53–11 record and won two of four bowl games in Boise through 2005, but he bombed at Colorado, winning just 19 of 58 outings in the Big 12. He was fired, too.
“We just know our way,” a hopeful Petersen says of his Broncos-turned-Huskies staff. “It’s been successful for us.”
One of the Pac-12’s major developments in 2013 was Washington State’s return to the postseason. It had been a while — since the Holiday Bowl against Texas in 2003, to be exact. This particular step was an important barometer for rebuilding coach Mike Leach, overlooking the fact that the Cougars blew a 22-point lead to Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl and lost 48–45.
“Even though we all felt like we left meat on the table, the program hadn’t been to a bowl game in 10 years,” Leach says. “So from that standpoint, we’re ahead of schedule.”
Oregon Identity Crisis
Arik Armstead is a 6’8”, 280-pound Oregon junior and a player long regarded as one of the top pro prospects in the Pac-12. The only question is where. The Ducks list him as a defensive tackle. He prefers defensive end. NFL scouts say, with his footwork, he should be an offensive tackle. One thing he’s not anymore: a college basketball player. After two abbreviated seasons with the Oregon hoops team, Armstead decided he was done trying to be a two-sport athlete and was ready to concentrate solely on football. “I have decided to focus my full attention on academics and being the best football player for the University of Oregon I could possibly be,” he said.
The late hiring didn’t get a lot of outside attention, coming on the eve of spring practice, but Stanford picked up one of the college game’s true characters in defensive backs coach Duane Akina. An inspirational and well-traveled leader, the fiery Akina was responsible for Texas being nicknamed “DBU” in his 13 seasons there, played a key role in the assembly of Arizona’s “Desert Swarm” defense in his 14 seasons there, and first learned the game while handling two roles for Washington’s legendary coach, Don James, as a graduate assistant coach and Warren Moon’s backup quarterback. That’s a track record that's hard for anyone to beat.
Pros and Cons
UCLA junior quarterback Brett Hundley took the bold step of passing on a certain NFL career and returning for one more season in Westwood. It was a decision worth millions. Had he come out, pro scouts considered Hundley a top-10 pick, possibly the top QB on the draft board.
Hundley, who will be a Heisman Trophy contender, consulted with former Bruins turned pro players in Johnathan Franklin and Datone Jones, with the former telling him, “There are some things in life that you don’t want to rush.” Hundley’s decision likely would have been far different had UCLA coach Jim Mora accepted an offer to coach at Washington, his alma mater.
Pac-12 Coordinator Carousel
by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
Arizona State: Defensive Coordinator
Old: Chris Ball, Paul Randolph; New: Chris Ball, Keith Patterson
Randolph is still on staff and will continue to coach Arizona State’s defensive ends. Patterson, the defensive coordinator at West Virginia the past two seasons, has known Arizona State head coach Todd Graham for decades. The two were college roommates at East Central University in Texas, and Patterson previously worked for Graham at Pitt.
California: Defensive Coordinator
Old: Andy Buh; New: Art Kaufman
Buh is still at California but not in a coaching role. He was reassigned to a new role in the athletic department in March. Kaufman was fired as the defensive coordinator at Cincinnati in January despite leading the Bearcats’ defense to a final ranking of No. 9 nationally.
Oregon: Defensive Coordinator
Old: Nick Aliotti; New: Don Pellum
Aliotti retired following the 2013 season. Pellum was promoted after serving as a position coach — most recently linebackers — at Oregon since 1993. This is his first stint as a defensive coordinator on any level.
Oregon State: Offensive Coordinator
Old: Danny Langsdorf; New: John Garrett
Langsdorf took a job as the quarterbacks coach of the New York Giants. Garrett was the wide receivers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013 after a six-year stint with the Dallas Cowboys. His brother, Jason, is the Cowboys’ head coach.
Stanford: Defensive Coordinator
Old: Derek Mason; New: Lance Anderson
Mason is now the head coach at Vanderbilt. Anderson was promoted from his position as outside linebackers coach to defensive coordinator.
UCLA: Defensive Coordinator
Old: Lou Spanos; New: Jeff Ulbrich
Spanos was hired by the Tennessee Titans to coach linebackers. Ulbrich was promoted after serving as UCLA’s linebackers coach the past two seasons.
USC: Offensive Coordinator
Old: Lane Kiffin, Clay Helton; New: Clay Helton
Kiffin was fired as the Trojans’ head coach last October. He is now the offensive coordinator at Alabama. Helton was retained by new USC coach Steve Sarkisian.
USC: Defensive Coordinator
Old: Clancy Pendergast; New: Justin Wilcox
Pendergast was not retained by Steve Sarkisian and did not have a job as of late April. Wilcox followed Sarkisian from Washington, where he had been the Huskies’ defensive coordinator the past two seasons.
Utah: Offensive Coordinator
Old: Dennis Erickson, Brian Johnson; New: Dave Christensen
Erickson was demoted and will now only serve as the running backs coach. Johnson, a former starting quarterback at Utah, left in February to take a job as the quarterbacks coach at Mississippi State. Christensen was fired as the head coach at Wyoming following the 2013 season.
Washington: Offensive Coordinator
Old: Eric Kiesau; New: Jonathan Smith
Kiesau is now the wide receivers coach at Kansas. Smith, a former standout quarterback at Oregon State, previously was the quarterbacks coach at Boise State under new Washington coach Chris Petersen.
Washington: Defensive Coordinator
Old: Justin Wilcox; New: Pete Kwiatkowski