The Pac-12 has closed the gap on the SEC in recent years, but the conference is looking for its first national championship since 2004. 2015 will be an interesting setup in the Pac-12, as Oregon and USC will be national title contenders, but no team from this league ranked inside of the top five in Athlon’s projected 128 rankings.
Will one team emerge as the dominant clear favorite in 2015? Or will this league see several teams finish 10-2 or 9-3?
Despite the departure of quarterback Marcus Mariota, Oregon is the favorite in the North. If the offense takes a step forward under senior quarterback Kevin Hogan, Stanford could improve off last year’s 8-5 mark and challenge the Ducks for the division crown.
Here’s a look at five things to watch in the Pac-12 in 2015, followed by Athlon’s predictions.
5 Key Questions That Will Shape the Pac-12 in 2015
1. Replacing Marcus Mariota
It won’t be easy for Oregon coach Mark Helfrich to replace Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota. While the Ducks may not match Mariota’s production at quarterback in 2015, they may not suffer much of a drop with Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams at the controls. Adams was a dynamic player on the FCS level, but he needs time to adjust to FBS play. With a game against Michigan State in early September, Adams will be tested right away. Helping his transition will be a deep backfield and receiving corps, along with an offensive line that regains the services of tackle Tyler Johnstone. With Washington rebuilding, California looking for the right answers on defense, and Stanford entering 2015 with question marks on both sides of the ball, Oregon is the clear No. 1 pick in the North. Just how high the Ducks finish nationally will be determined by Adams’ development under center.
Related: Complete College Football Rankings for 2015: No. 1 to 128
2. USC Back Among the Nation’s Elite?
The Trojans are still recovering from scholarship sanctions, but coach Steve Sarkisian has the necessary pieces in place to challenge for a playoff bid. USC closed 2014 by scoring 40 points in back-to-back games, and the offense will remain one of the best in the Pac-12 behind senior quarterback Cody Kessler, a talented group of receivers and an improving line. But for USC to challenge for a playoff bid, its defense will be under the spotlight. The back seven should be in good shape with the return of linebacker Su’a Cravens and cornerback Adoree’ Jackson. However, the line must replace end Leonard Williams and more overall depth is needed to close out games in the second half. Sarkisian’s first year had its share of ups and downs. Can Sarkisian elevate this program back into national title contention?
3. The South Division Outside of USC
USC is the favorite to win the South, but there’s little separating the Trojans from the rest of the division. Arizona State and UCLA ranked among Athlon’s projected top 25 teams for this season, with Arizona close behind. Is one of these teams capable of challenging USC? For all three teams, quarterback play will be crucial to catching USC, and each squad has promise under center. Arizona State will turn to Mike Bercovici to replace Taylor Kelly, the Bruins have talented (but unproven) freshman Josh Rosen, and Arizona expects Anu Solomon to take a step forward in his second year under center. But there are other positions to watch outside of the quarterbacks. How Will UCLA’s offensive line develop? Is Arizona’s defense ready to take a step forward? Can Arizona State get enough production from its wide receivers to replace Jaelen Strong?
4. Chris Petersen’s Second Year at Washington
Chris Petersen had high expectations for his debut at Washington, but the Huskies only finished 8-6 and 4-5 in league play. One year does not determine how a coaching tenure will play out, and Petersen should be a good fit in Seattle for the long haul. However, just getting to a bowl game would be a good year for Petersen in 2015. The Huskies return only nine starters, feature uncertainty at quarterback and lose three standout defenders from last year’s unit. Petersen’s team is in rebuild mode for 2015, and non-conference games against Boise State and Utah State won’t make a winning record an easy assignment. How much will this team improve throughout the year? If the quarterback position remains an issue all year, California could easily pass Washington in the North.
5. Stanford Rebuilds on Defense…Searches for Offense
For the first time under coach David Shaw, Stanford did not win at least 11 games in a season. Shaw set the bar high in his first three years, and the Cardinal must reload to get back in contention in the North. The defense is Stanford’s biggest concern. Only four starters from last year’s dominant group returns, but there’s a solid core of players ready to step up and replace some of the lost production. The line is arguably Shaw’s biggest concern, and California graduate transfer Brennan Scarlett will help this group right away in 2015. While the defense is rebuilding, Stanford won’t challenge for 10 wins once again without improvement on offense. Taking the next step on offense falls on the right arm of quarterback Kevin Hogan, who hopes to build off a solid three-game finish to 2014. Hogan should have plenty of help though, as Stanford’s line is one of the best in the Pac-12, and sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey is a player on the rise.
Pac-12 2015 Team Previews
Visit the Athlon Sports Online Store to order a copy of the 2015 Pac-12 Preview Magazine, which features in-depth analysis and previews for all 12 teams, predictions, rankings and features to prepare for the upcoming year.
Pac-12 Predictions for 2015
Pac-12 Superlatives and Season Predictions
Coach of the Year
Coach on Hot Seat
Top Coordinator Hire
Key Position to Watch
Hardest to Evaluate
Coach on the Rise
USC at Oregon
USC at Oregon
USC at Oregon
USC at Oregon
USC at Oregon
Ranking the Pac-12's Coaches for 2015
1. Todd Graham, Arizona State
2. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
3. David Shaw, Stanford
4. Chris Petersen, Washington
5. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
Ranking the Pac-12's Quarterbacks for 2015
1. Cody Kessler, USC
2. Jared Goff, California
3. Anu Solomon, Arizona
4. Vernon Adams, Oregon
5. Mike Bercovici, Arizona State
Ranking the Pac-12's Running Backs for 2015
1. Devontae Booker, Utah
2. Paul Perkins, UCLA
3. Royce Freeman, Oregon
4. Nick Wilson, Arizona
5. Daniel Lasco, California
The Pac-12's Top 5 Players on the Rise for 2015
1. Adoree' Jackson, CB/WR, USC
2. JuJu Smith, WR, USC
3. Budda Baker, S, Washington
4. Christian McCaffery, RB, Stanford
5. Demario Richard, RB, Arizona State
The Top 5 Non-Conference Games for 2015
1. Oregon at Michigan State - Sept. 12
2. USC at Notre Dame - Oct. 17
3. Texas A&M vs. Arizona State (Houston) - Sept. 5
4. Notre Dame at Stanford - Nov. 28
5. Washington at Boise State - Sept. 4
Key Coordinator Hires for 2015
1. Kalani Sitake, Defensive Coordinator, Oregon State
2. Tom Bradley, Defensive Coordinator, UCLA
3. Jim Leavitt, Defensive Coordinator, Colorado
4. Dave Baldwin, Offensive Coordinator, Oregon State
5. Aaron Roderick, Co-Offensive Coordinator, Utah
Top Incoming Freshmen (from 247Sports)
1. Iman Marshall, DB, USC
2. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
3. Canton Kaumatule, DL, Oregon
4. Keisean Lucier-South, LB, UCLA
5. Rasheem Green, DL, USC
6. Chuma Edoga, OL, USC
7. Soso Jamabo, RB, UCLA
8. Osa Masina, LB, USC
9. Ronald Jones II, RB, USC
10. Porter Gustin, LB, USC