The SEC is still college football’s No. 1 conference, but the Pac-12 has closed the gap in recent years.
And the Pac-12 is expected to remain a close No. 2 in the conference hierarchy for 2014, as Oregon, UCLA, USC and Stanford could all begin this season as top-10 teams. Defending Pac-12 South champions Arizona State isn’t far behind, while the rest of the conference features an interesting group of teams in the next tier.
Washington could surprise with new coach Chris Petersen leading the way, especially with a defense that returns seven starters and could be among the best in the conference. The Huskies aren’t the only sleeper team to watch, as Oregon State is always a darkhorse to watch in the North. The Beavers return quarterback Sean Mannion and one of the top linebacking corps in the Pac-12.
Outside of Washington and Oregon State, keep a close eye on Utah, Arizona and Colorado. The Buffaloes should show significant improvement in Mike MacIntyre’s second season, and the Utes are expected to regain the services of quarterback Travis Wilson in 2014. Arizona is a bit of a mystery, especially with uncertainty at quarterback and running back.
Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
Who is a Sleeper Team to Watch in the Pac-12 in 2014?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
It’s tough to call Washington a sleeper team since it finished No. 25 in the final Associated Press poll last year, but I think the Huskies have a chance to challenge either Oregon or Stanford for the No. 2 spot in the North. Chris Petersen comes to Seattle after a successful stint at Boise State, and while he has to prove he can maintain that success at a higher level, Washington seems to have upgraded its head coach position with this hire. Quarterback Cyler Miles did not participate in spring practice due to an off-the-field incident, but he is expected to return by the fall. If Miles continues to build off his solid performance in limited action from 2013, the Huskies should have no trouble scoring points with a solid offensive line and a group of talented receivers. And with seven starters back, the defense could be among the best in the conference. Also, the schedule sets up favorably for Petersen’s debut year. Washington hosts Stanford, Arizona State, UCLA and Oregon State and should go 4-0 in non-conference play. The Huskies do have some personnel departures to address, but they finished two games behind Stanford/Oregon in the North last year. With both of those teams losing a couple of key pieces, Washington has a chance to make a move in the North in 2014.
With Oregon and Stanford expected to go head-to-head for Pac-12 North supremacy once again and a Chris Petersen-led Washington team lurking, I think it's safe to say that many would be "surprised" should Oregon State end up crashing the party. After all this is a Beavers team that ended last season losing five of their last six games and also will be without all-conference performers wide receiver Brandin Cooks, defensive end Scott Crichton and cornerback Rashaad Reynolds. However, there is still reason for optimism for Mike Riley's team, thanks in large part to the return of quarterback Sean Mannion, who threw for 4,662 yards and 37 touchdowns in 2013. If talented yet oft-injured running back Storm Woods can stay healthy, a rebuilt offensive line can keep Mannion upright and some reliable pass-catchers can emerge, Oregon State should be in decent shape offensively. I realize that's a lot of "ifs," but with Mannion running the show, I think the Beavers have at least a fighting chance. The defense lost some key pieces, but it also returns six players, including all three linebackers and both safeties. This unit has plenty of room for improvement, but also gets a slight break schedule-wise by drawing Colorado and Utah in crossover play, while avoiding projected South Division frontrunner UCLA. Road dates at USC and Stanford will be tough, as well as the Civil War regular-season finale against Oregon, but Riley's team gave the archrival Ducks a fight last season in Eugene before losing by one and then finished up its 2013 campaign with an impressive 38-23 win over Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl. Even with the personnel losses and questions on both sides of the ball, bowl eligibility shouldn't be a problem this fall. That said, if some new faces step up and the Beavers get a few bounces or breaks to go their way, the fans in Corvallis could be in store for a surprising season.
Kyle Kensing, (@Kensing45), CFBHuddle.com and BleacherReport.com
After consecutive 7-win regular-season finishes in each of his first two years at Arizona, Rich Rodriguez just might have the Wildcats ready to take another step. Losing All-American running back Ka'Deem Carey obviously leaves a void, but Rodriguez's offense helps foster productive ball-carriers. To that end, it's worth noting Carey was himself unproven commodity before his breakout performance in the system in 2012.
The Wildcats are again replacing a starting quarterback, perhaps more of a concern than the change at running back. But with the return of Austin Hill to lead a talented wide receiving corps and an experienced offensive line, the learning curve is somewhat shortened.
Arizona's defense made considerable strides in its second year under Jeff Casteel, and should continue to improve in 2014. Linebacker Scooby Wright is a star in the making, Jonathan McKnight is among the Pac-12's most dynamic playmakers in the secondary.
Arizona is not quite ready to compete for the division – preseason favorite UCLA should be as good as advertised – but a favorable schedule means the Wildcats should get past that seven regular-season win plateau. With the right breaks (and a surprise star-turn out of the new quarterback), Arizona could steal nine wins.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Since this league is so deep and is possibly the best in the nation, it's extremely difficult to pick a true sleeper. Arizona, Washington State and Utah could all make bowl games and all three could finish outside of the top seven in the league and outside of the Top 25 nationally. So that makes Washington the truest sleeper in the Pac-12. The Huskies are a team talented enough to make a push for a division crown but not perceived to be good enough to be ranked in the top 10-15 nationally in the preseason. The Dawgs have a great new coach, a loaded roster of developed defensive talent and an offense led by an extremely gifted but unproven signal caller in Cyler Miles. The schedule isn't easy, but the Huskies possess the necessary combination of talent, coaching, leadership and experience to make legit waves out West this fall.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
The spoiler in the Pac-12 may end up being the same team it’s been for a few years — Arizona. The Wildcats have a knack for scoring the big upset. They did it against Oregon last year and USC a year before that. Arizona under Rich Rodriguez is classic spoiler material: Good enough to beat a good team on a bad day but not consistent enough to carry it through the season. This year, Arizona is a bit of a mystery, especially on offense. Transfers from USC, Texas and LSU via junior college plus a redshirt freshman are all in the mix at quarterback. The possible starter at running back didn’t play in the spring. And the top receiver is coming back from a torn ACL. None of that is great, but Rich Rodriguez should find an answer. On defense, this group returns six starters, but the Wildcats have improved in each of the last three seasons. No, this team isn’t going to contend for the South, but Arizona is good enough to knock a team out — again.