Competition in the Pac-12 is unpredictable: divisions decided on the last day, Hail Mary finishes, multiple-touchdown, fourth-quarter comebacks — and that was just 2014.
Related: Pac-12 Football 2015 Predictions
The Pac-12 is truly college football's Wild West. Winning in a conference in which a few plays can be the difference between title contention and mediocrity requires a few wild cards.
Each of the league's 12 teams feature candidates primed to breakthrough as the all-important wild cards, both on offense and defense.
Cal Golden Bears
Offense: Khalfani Muhammad, Running Back
Cal running back Daniel Lasco, one of Athlon’s most underrated Pac-12 players in 2015, rushed for more than 1,100 yards and scored 12 touchdowns a season ago. But Golden Bears head coach Sonny Dykes said this spring he’s hoping for even more production from the run game.
With dual-threat quarterback Luke Rubenzer converting to defensive back, Khalfani Muhammad should see more opportunities as the No. 2 option behind Lasco.
Muhammad is a burner, evident in his winning 100-and-200-meter-dash times recorded this past track season. His ability to translate track speed to the gridiron could prove an asset both in establishing a more multifaceted run game, as well as adding to Cal’s potent passing attack, with Muhammad operating as a backfield receiver.
Defense: Luke Rubenzer, Defensive Back
Dual-threat quarterback Rubenzer’s move to defense is certainly intriguing. Dykes used Rubenzer in specialty packages a season ago, and that speed should serve him well in the secondary, where the bulk of Cal’s defensive talent lies.
Rubenzer brings a unique perspective to the defensive backline with his intimate familiarity with the spread offense. His experience throwing passes at the college level could very well turn into an ability to read opposing quarterbacks and pick off a throw or two.
Offense: Vernon Adams, Quarterback
There may not be more of a wild card in the entire Pac-12 – if not all of college football – than Adams. The big-armed, fleet-footed transfer from Eastern Washington is an intriguing prospect to replace Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota at quarterback – assuming Adams will be eligible. He’ll be cutting it close as he finishes his academic obligations to Eastern Washington.
Adams was stellar throughout his career at Eastern Washington, leading the Eagles to the FCS Playoffs each of his three seasons. He proved capable of eviscerating Pac-12 defenses on a one-off basis, going for six touchdowns in a 2013 upset of Oregon State, and scoring seven in a near-miss last year at Washington.
Adams is playing catch-up to Mariota’s backup, Jeff Lockie. Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich raved about Lockie in the spring.
Defense: Arrion Springs, Cornerback
A highly touted prospect in Oregon’s 2014 signing class, it’s now time for former high school All-American Springs to shine at the collegiate level.
Springs will step into a secondary that’s been a decided strength for Oregon in the last half decade, and he has a high standard to meet. Last year’s Duck starters were seniors Troy Hill, who broke up 18 passes, and All-American Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, the star of Oregon’s defense for three seasons running.
Oregon State Beavers
Offense: Storm Woods, Running Back
Injuries obfuscated the flashes of brilliance Woods showed off through his first three seasons at Oregon State. He enters his senior season as a possible cornerstone of new head coach Gary Andersen’s spread offensive philosophy.
Andersen’s last starting running back, Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, put up numbers that were comparable to a degree to Barry Sanders’ 1988 records. While Gordon was an outlier, running backs playing for Andersen-coached teams have typically flourished.
With Oregon State completely overhauling its offensive philosophy, including starting a freshman at quarterback, establishing a reliable ground game is crucial.
Defense: Luke Hollingsworth, Defensive End
Experience is rare on this Oregon State roster, but the defensive end combination of Lavonte Barnett and Hollingsworth gives first-year Beavers coordinator Kalani Sitake a solid foundation on which to build the defense.
Barnett led the Beavers with 4.5 sacks a season ago and figures to be the driving force behind Oregon State’s pass rush, but the addition of Hollingsworth – who missed five games last season – should keep opposing offensive lines honest in their blocking schemes. Hollingsworth could essentially force them to pick their poison.
Offense: Christian McCaffrey, Running Back
Stanford head coach David Shaw raved about Christian McCaffrey’s progress during spring practices.
McCaffrey’s Stanford career opened with a bang. Playing wide receiver in Week 1, he took a pass 52 yards to the house for a touchdown. His career at receiver sputtered somewhat thereafter, but a late-season move to running back brought the best out of the youngster.
Stanford’s offense struggled without a clear, No. 1 running back in 2014. McCaffrey’s style deviates from past Cardinal running backs like Toby Gerhart and Tyler Gaffney, but his combination of speed and elusiveness should add a new element. McCaffrey also gives quarterback Kevin Hogan another option in the passing game.
Defense: Brennan Scarlett, Defensive End
Stanford’s typically stout defensive line got a new addition from a most unlikely source this season: archrival Cal.
Scarlett joins the Cardinal as a graduate transfer for his final year of eligibility, reuniting with younger brother Cameron, a 2015 Stanford signee. Scarlett missed seven games last season due to an ACL tear, but recorded two sacks in the previous five games.
Scarlett should fit into Stanford’s philosophy of aggressively pressuring the pocket quite well and help the Cardinal offset the loss of 2014 sack leader Henry Anderson.
Offense: Joshua Perkins, Tight End
In the last two seasons of Steve Sarkisian’s tenure as Washington head coach, the Huskies leaned heavily on tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins as one of the top receiving options.
Likewise, throughout his tenure at Boise State, current Huskies head coach Chris Petersen had offenses that used the tight ends effectively as receivers. That carried over nicely in Petersen’s first year at Washington.
Perkins was the second-leading receiver on the team with 25 receptions and three touchdowns. Given the Huskies’ quarterback question marks throughout 2014 and heading into ‘15, the big target Perkins provides in both red-zone and short-yardage situations should give the team’s new signal-caller something of a security blanket early on.
Defense: Travis Feeney, Linebacker
Feeney is first in line to replace the production of Hau’oli Kikaha, the nation’s sack leader a season ago.
While Feeney is working to replace Kikaha, his long frame is perhaps more reminiscent of another recent Pac-12 sack-machine, former UCLA star Anthony Barr. Feeney’s able to use his length to compress the pocket, and also go up to challenge passes. To that end, he has deflected 11 passes in the past two seasons.
Feeney showed his sack potential as a freshman, when he recorded four, but his output dropped each of the last two seasons. Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski’s favors an aggressive pass rush, thus Feeney recapturing that element of his game is a must for the Huskies.
Washington State Cougars
Offense: Jamal Morrow, Running Back
A Mike Leach-coached offense is going to pass. That’s just an incontrovertible fact, evident in Washington State (and previously, Texas Tech) routinely ranking at the bottom nationally in rushing.
Still, Morrow could play a huge role in the Cougars’ pass-happy attack. Morrow averaged just four yards per carry a season ago, but caught 61 passes for 460 yards to contribute quite nicely to the potent aerial attack.
The way Washington State’s air-raid uses passes to the running back functions essentially the same way a rush to the outside would in most other systems.
Defense: Destiny Vaeao, Defensive End
Washington State’s ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks is somewhat underrated, but the emergence of Vaeao in his senior season could help change that.
Vaeao will be a key component of new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s blitzing philosophy. Grinch previously served on Gary Pinkel’s staff at Missouri, which produced the SEC Defensive Players of the Year in both 2013 and ‘14.
Vaeao may not produce at a level approaching either Michael Sam or Shane Ray, but he should be a linchpin in the Cougars’ pass rush.
Offense: David Richards, Wide Receiver
The Arizona wide receiving corps is perhaps the deepest in the Pac-12, if not all of college football, returning 2014 standout Cayleb Jones, dynamic slot playmaker Samajie Grant, Trey Griffey and, returning from injury, Nate Phillips.
The difference between senior Richards and the rest of that corps is that, while the others were all recruited specifically for head coach Rich Rodriguez’s offense, Richards initially signed on to be part of the air-raid Arizona was running with Mike Stoops at the helm.
At 6-foot-4 and nearly 220 pounds, Richards also is much different physically from the speedy Grant and Phillips. As more of a prototypical possession receiver, Richards’ further integration into the offense should give sophomore quarterback Anu Solomon a reliable weapon to set up the rest of the receiving corps for home-run plays.
Defense: Derrick Turituri, Linebacker
The spotlight is fixed firmly on another Arizona linebacker, reigning Bronko Nagurski Award winner Scooby Wright. However, Turituri quietly enjoyed a breakout 2014 season.
After playing sparingly in the opener and missing Week 2, Turituri became a factor for Arizona’s much-improved defense during Pac-12 play. He had six tackles in the come-from-behind win over Cal, a personal-best he matched in defeats of Washington and Utah, and recorded a key sack in the upset of Oregon.
Wright’s emergence as a national star guarantees opposing offensive coordinators will key in on the dynamic ball hawk. Turituri’s continued progression is vital to keep teams from successfully double-teaming Wright.
Arizona State Sun Devils
Offense: Demario Richard, Running Back
Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell is not shy about tweaking his lineup to maximize the skills of his personnel. This year’s big move is shifting leading rusher D.J. Foster from running back to wide receiver, in order to showcase Richard in the backfield.
That’s quite the vote of confidence in Richard, who rushed for 478 yards and four touchdowns as the Sun Devils’ No. 2 back a season ago. Half of those scores came in a 36-31, Sun Bowl defeat of Duke, a contest in which Richard showed off his pass-catching abilities with a pair of touchdown receptions, as well.
Richard’s two-way ability fits how Norvell prefers using the running back, and resembles the Sun Devils’ 2013 star, Marion Grice.
Defense: Ismael Murphy-Richardson/Alani Latu, Linebackers
No one quite filled Arizona State’s blitz-happy “devil backer” position in 2014 to the standard Carl Bradford set a year earlier. Murphy-Richardson and Latu are jockeying to take on a role critical to the Sun Devil defensive philosophy in the season to come.
Whomever emerges from the competition atop the depth chart will have considerable responsibility, as well as a high bar to meet. The Sun Devils have ranked no worse than 13th nationally in sacks each of head coach Todd Graham’s first three seasons in Tempe.
Offense: Shay Fields, Wide Receiver
Nelson Spruce started the 2014 season a house of fire, and finished the year with 1,198 yards and 12 touchdowns. However, as defenses keyed in on the Buffs’ primary passing target, his production dipped.
Springing Spruce for the big plays he’s so well qualified to make is contingent largely on the continued development of Fields. He debuted with a splash in his freshman campaign, catching eight, six, seven and six passes in Colorado’s first four games.
However, he was only above four receptions again three times thereafter – not coincidentally, those instances came against Oregon State, Arizona and Utah, three of the Buffs’ most competitive Pac-12 games of the season.
Defense: Chidobe Awuzie, Cornerback
Tedric Thompson’s three interceptions didn’t just lead Colorado last season – they were the Buffs’ only three picks of the season.
Colorado’s inability to generate turnovers hamstrung its defense. Thompson needs a running mate to that end in 2015, and Awuzie is the most likely candidate.
Awuzie broke into the defensive rotation as a freshman, and has been among the Buffs top tacklers each of his two seasons in the program. He’s also broken up nine passes, and as a freshman, forced a pair of fumbles. However, an interception still eludes him.
Offense: Conor McDermott, Tackle
The offensive line woes that have haunted UCLA throughout head coach Jim Mora’s tenure weren’t necessarily solved when McDermott rejoined the lineup at left tackle midway through 2014. However, the line’s collective play certainly improved in the second half of the season.
McDermott proved himself a reliable option at left tackle, a position at which the Bruins struggled as Simon Goines battled injuries.
With an offseason focused on protecting the quarterback’s blind side, McDermott should be even better in 2015. He’ll serve as a cornerstone for what is collectively the Pac-12’s most experienced front five.
Defense: Takkarist McKinley, Defensive End
Midseason addition McKinley fit nicely into the UCLA defensive line rotation almost immediately as a reserve. Now, heading into his first full season on the roster, he’ll be looked to as one of the leaders in a unit that’s a decided strength.
McKinley takes over at defensive end for Owamagbe Odighizuwa. The NFL draftee Odighizuwa mentored McKinley in his transition from junior college to the Pac-12. Should McKinley perform at a level approaching Odighizuwa’s, with returning standouts Kenny Clark, Eddie Vanderdoes, Deon Hollins, Myles Jack and Kenny Young, UCLA should have one of the best front sevens in college football.
Offense: Steven Mitchell, Wide Receiver
USC lost the cornerstone of its passing attack from a season ago in Nelson Agholor. However, head coach Steve Sarkisian seemed optimistic following the Trojans’ spring game that the 2015 receiving corps would be a strength.
Credit Mitchell’s rise for the optimism. Mitchell’s career has had a series of false starts due to injury, but he shined in what was his first full spring as a Trojan.
The speedy Mitchell offers quarterback Cody Kessler a deep-ball threat, which should come in handy as defenses are forced to focus on the sure-handed JuJu Smith.
Defense: Iman Marshall, Cornerback
If incoming freshman Marshall is a star, it should come as no surprise. The product of Southern California prep powerhouse Long Beach Poly – the same school that produced USC’s 2014 super-frosh JuJu Smith – was rated the nation’s No. 1 cornerback in 2015.
But if Marshall asserts himself as a lockdown corner early, he doesn’t just add depth to the USC secondary; he’ll also give Sarkisian more options at wide receiver.
Adoree’ Jackson emerged as the Trojans’ top cornerback a season ago, but also proved explosive on the offensive end. Sarkisian said at season’s end he hoped to get Jackson more opportunities at receiver. Marshall’s integration into the lineup could allow the USC coach to do just that.
Offense: Siale Fakailoatonga, Tight End
Tight end has been a showcase position in the Utah offense in recent years, with Jake Murphy performing at an All-American level, then Westlee Tonga stepping up as a reliable target in 2014.
Some uncertainty surrounds the position heading into 2015. Fakailoatonga caught just two passes each of the last two seasons, but he should see a considerably heavier workload in the campaign to come.
Fakailoatonga offers the right balance of pass-catching ability and blocking an offense such as Utah’s requires. The Utes will rely heavily on the run game with Heisman candidate back Devontae Booker returning, so the additional blocker up front is a needed commodity.
Defense: Marcus Williams, Cornerback
With the dismissal of starting defensive back Dominique Hatfield last week, and all-conference stalwart Eric Rowe gone for the NFL, 2015 is Williams’ time to lead the Utah secondary. No pressure for a sophomore, right?
Williams had an impressive debut campaign, recording 59 tackles, picking off a pass and forcing two fumbles, playing primarily in multiple-defensive back sets. The unexpected shakeup of the defensive backfield with Hatfield gone leaves Williams to step up as the Utes’ lockdown corner.