As college football nears its Sept. 3 kickoff, we're going around the country to preview the 2015 season, conference by conference. While some conferences may be more nationally relevant than others, every league has intriguing teams and players to watch. So far, we've covered the Sun Belt, Mountain West, Conference USA, MAC, AAC, Independents and Big Ten. Today, we continue with 20 things to know about the Pac-12.
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1. The SEC is still the nation's best conference from top to bottom, but the Pac-12 is closing the gap. The Pac-12 North has had a 2000s Big 12 South thing going on in recent years, with Oregon and Stanford trading blows and consistently playing meaningful national games, sort of like Texas and Oklahoma had been doing. Oregon is still a top-10 caliber team and Stanford should rebound from last year's 8-5 frustration, but now it's the Pac-12 South that has everyone's attention. It is clearly the second best division in college football entering the season, with five of the six teams in the title race and in the selection committee's final top 25 last year. Now, the conference just has to hope that the parity doesn't prove to be a hindrance, despite the league's growing reputation.
2. Arizona is ranked 22nd in the preseason polls, but based on its lack of offseason hype, it's easy to forget that the Wildcats won the Pac-12 South last season. Arizona brings back many key pieces who were young players last year, meaning it can't be dismissed as a contender again. Junior linebacker Scooby Wright went from two-star recruit to Bednarik Award winner in just two years, leading the nation in tackles, tackles for loss and forced fumbles. Sophomore tailback Nick Wilson ran for 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns and would have done more had he not been limited by a midseason ankle injury. Junior receiver Cayleb Jones had 1,019 yards. Sophomore quarterback Anu Solomon threw for 3,793 yards and 28 touchdowns. In other words, many of Arizona's best players last year were freshmen and sophomores. Rich Rodriguez has built a terrific foundation capable of competing with anyone on any given week in the Pac-12.
3. We saw that strong foundation last year, when Arizona shocked Oregon on the road, in addition to blowing out Utah on the road and edging rival Arizona State. Arizona lost to four good teams -- USC, UCLA, Oregon in the Pac-12 title game and Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl -- and, again, it was relying heavily on younger players to emerge as stars. Then again, the Wildcats beat UTSA by three, Nevada by seven and Washington by one, with a Hail Mary comeback win over California. It's easy to see breaks going the other way and Arizona taking a small step back, in such a brutal division. It doesn't take much to go from 10 wins to seven or eight. Still, Rodriguez is a tremendous fit at Arizona. He has an excellent group of skill players and the nation's most productive defensive player. While Arizona has five Pac-12 road games, it avoids Oregon in the regular season. With turnover on the offensive line and in the secondary, Arizona is a long shot to repeat as Pac-12 South champs, but it will play a role in the race. A step back is inevitable, really, but won't be any sort of indictment of where Arizona is heading.
4. It hasn't been a smooth ride for Utah since joining the Pac-12, with a pair of 5-7 seasons after an 8-5 debut and a bunch of assistant coach turmoil. Last year, the Utes rebounded to go 9-4, showcasing a physical style on both sides of the ball. They beat Michigan, UCLA, USC and Stanford, and they blew out Colorado State in the Las Vegas Bowl. It was followed by more coaching changes. While Kyle Whittingham has been a constant, with 10 years as head coach, the Utes lost both coordinators, which has been an unfortunate trend. This will be a good team again, but the road through the Pac-12 is tough, even with no Stanford on the schedule and five conference home games. Four starters return to the offensive line, along with 1,500-yard rusher Devontae Booker. We know the Utes will be able to run the ball successfully, using a methodical approach as, essentially, the Stanford of the South Division. The passing game has been inconsistent, though, and three of the top four receivers are gone. Defensively, there's plenty to like with the return of Hunter Dimick and Lowell Lotulelei on the line and Jared Norris at linebacker, but the Utes are replacing their two best players, end Nate Orchard (18 ½ sacks) and defensive back Eric Rowe. Win turnover battles and get consistent production from Booker, and Utah can win a lot of games. But the margin for error for the Utes will be slim, as it was last year when the Utes played seven games decided by six points or fewer, going 5-2 in those games. That's a tough record to sustain, and while the Utes may be as good as they were last year, their record may not show it.
5. Colorado is finally starting to become a bit more competitive. Languishing as one of the worst major college football programs for nearly a decade now -- they haven't been bowling since 2007 -- the Buffaloes showed some signs of life last year, even in going 2-10. The biggest problem? Someone in the Pac-12 South has to lose, and it's still going to be Colorado. It is difficult to make up ground in this division right now. The Buffaloes are last in the league in recruiting over the last five years, with an average 247Sports rank of 66th, and last season they finished dead last in the league in yards per play on both offense and defense. The positive thing to say about last year is that they lost to California, Oregon State, UCLA and Utah by a total of 15 points, so they've decreased the number of blowouts. This year, they play five Pac-12 road games, with Oregon, Stanford, USC and Arizona all coming to Boulder, which means they're going to be significant underdogs in every Pac-12 home game. That doesn't bode well for making up much ground within the conference. They do, however, play a 13-game schedule with an opening trip to Hawaii, plus UMass, Colorado State and Nicholls State. Improving on last year's win total is a lock. Getting to bowl eligibility with a 13-game schedule? That's asking for too much, even with a now-veteran quarterback in Sefo Liufau, a terrific receiver in Nelson Spruce and nine returning starters on defense. Playing Colorado is no longer the pseudo bye week it was for a few years, but translating that into conference wins is another matter. While Mike MacIntyre took San Jose State from 1-12 to 10-2 in three seasons, upward mobility in the current Pac-12 is much tougher than the Mountain West.
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Top 10 Players
1. Scooby Wright, LB, Arizona
2. Su'a Cravens, LB, USC
3. Myles Jack, LB, UCLA
4. Cody Kessler, QB, USC
5. Adoree Jackson, CB, USC
6. Max Tuerk, C, USC
7. Jared Goff, QB, California
8. Devontae Booker, RB, Utah
9. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
10. DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon
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6. Washington State's journey upward is a bit easier in the top-heavy Pac-12 North. We know the Cougars will score points. Mike Leach has gone only 12-25 in three seasons in Pullman, with the offense improving each season, from 4.92 yards per play in 2012 to 6.12 last year. Of course, last year the Cougars also fell from a bowl game -- their first since 2003 -- back down to 3-9, prompting Leach to bring in Alex Grinch as his new defensive coordinator. The story of last season is told by one game: A 60-59 loss to California in which quarterback Connor Halliday set the NCAA single-game record with 734 yards. Wazzu lost on a missed chip-shot field goal. The Cougars passed 64 times per game last year, 15 more than anyone else, and ran an average of 20 times. Halliday got hurt late last year, meaning new starter Luke Falk does have some experience. With eight starters back on the offense -- including receiver River Cracraft -- there's little reason to believe the offense will have a problem moving the ball. Whether or not the Cougars can stop anyone will dictate whether they can get back to bowl eligibility. By Pac-12 standards, their schedule isn't bad, although they play five road games. With down years for both Washington and Oregon State, the 2015 season presents an opportunity for Wazzu to make a move toward the middle of the league.
7. Sleeping giant might not be the right term, but Washington has seemingly been underperforming for years. The Huskies went 0-12 in Ty Willingham's final season, then rattled off 7-6 records in three of Steve Sarkisian's five seasons, ending at 9-4 in 2013. Last year, despite a quarterback question, new coach Chris Petersen inherited a roster that looked poised to win right away. The Huskies had four early draft picks from a disruptive defense and returned a veteran offensive line. Alas, their overall defensive output didn't match the individual performances, and they went 8-6 in a season that followed the same path as the Sarkisian era. Petersen was justifiably hailed as a perfect match for a program that can be a Pac-12 contender with the right leadership. Now, though, Washington has to be prepared for a rebuilding season. The defensive front and offensive lines are going through big rebuilds, and the offense also lost quarterback Cyler Miles, who decided to retire because of a chronic hip injury. There are options at quarterback, a solid group of skill players and a budding star in safety Budda Baker, but with a tough schedule that opens with a road trip to Boise State, 2015 is all about building for the future.
8. Oregon State is in a similar position to Washington, only another step behind. After Mike Riley's unexpected departure for Nebraska, the Beavers made a good hire in Wisconsin's Gary Andersen, but the cupboard isn't exactly full. Only two starters return to what was a mediocre defense, and the Beavers must also replace productive quarterback Sean Mannion with a freshman, whether it's newcomer Seth Collins or redshirt Marcus McMaryion. The return of tailback Storm Barrs-Woods and receiver Victor Bolden can make the transition to a freshman quarterback easier -- as will a veteran line -- but after the Beavers went 2-7 in the Pac-12 and lost their quarterback and most of their defense, Andersen's debut is likely to be another step down from last year's disappointing 5-7 finish.
9. California is the Pac-12's wild card. On one hand, improving from 5-7 is going to be tough, with a schedule that features road games at Texas, Washington, Utah, UCLA, Oregon and Stanford, along with USC and Arizona State visiting Berkeley. On the other hand, the defense can't get worse, and the offense brings back a ton of experience, starting with touted quarterback Jared Goff. This team is absolutely capable of pulling off an upset or two. It's not a Pac-12 contender, but it could influence the race, especially with teams like USC and Arizona State coming to town. Goff is a safe bet to throw for over 4,000 yards, assuming he stays healthy, and the supporting cast is impressive, led by tailback Daniel Lasco and receivers Kenny Lawler, Stephen Anderson and Bryce Treggs. Sonny Dykes is a terrific offensive coach (as is coordinator Tony Franklin), and it hasn't taken long for the Bear Raid to start rolling after 2013's 1-11 disaster. The catch is that Cal gave up 367 passing yards per game last year, 70 yards more than anyone else, and 40 points per game. The Bears return nine starters to what was a young unit, so progress is inevitable, and tangible progress could lead to a satisfying first bowl bid since 2011.
10. After four straight 11- or 12-win seasons and BCS bowls, Stanford finally hit a wall last year, which was bound to happen at some point, no matter how stable the team has become. This year, there is optimism that Stanford will fix its offense, and thus become a contender again. With an inconsistent passing game and a running game that took a significant step back, Stanford struggled to finish drives enough to support a terrific defense. The Cardinal ranked in the middle of the pack in the Pac-12 in yards per play but dead last in red-zone scoring percentage, putting points on the board on only 42 of 57 trips inside the 20. The offense struggled to find a consistent rhythm, although things looked better at the of the year, with three straight runaway wins over Cal, UCLA and Maryland. Quarterback Kevin Hogan has had an up and down career, but with a veteran offensive line, a solid receiving corps (even without Ty Montgomery) and some intriguing players emerging at running back, including jack-of-all-trades Christian McCaffrey (Barry Sanders is still here as well), Stanford should be more capable of sustaining and finishing drives in 2015.
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Top 10 Games
1. USC at Oregon, Nov. 21
2. Oregon at Stanford, Nov. 14
3. Oregon at Michigan State, Sept. 12
3. UCLA at USC, Nov. 28
4. USC at Notre Dame, Oct. 17
5. USC at Arizona State, Sept. 26
6. Oregon at Arizona State, Oct. 29
7. Stanford at USC, Sept. 19
8. Arizona at Arizona State, Nov. 21
9. Arizona State at UCLA, Oct. 3
10. Michigan at Utah, Sept. 3
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11. Of course, the timing may be off for Stanford. The Cardinal continue to produce great defenses, but this is their biggest rebuilding effort in a while on that side of the ball. Only four starters return, with key players like Henry Anderson, Jordan Richards, A.J. Tarpley and Alex Carter among those who are gone. This unit has ranked in the top two in the Pac-12 in yards per play allowed each of the last three years, and it is unlikely to take a huge step back and become a liability. There is still talent here, led by linebackers Blake Martinez and Peter Kalambayi. But like every other Pac-12 team, Stanford faces a tough schedule. UCF is the only non-Power Five opponent, with Northwestern and Notre Dame also on the nonconference schedule. The good news is that of the Cardinal's toughest games, only USC is on the road. Make a leap forward on offense and avoid a steep drop-off on defense, and Stanford can absolutely vault back into the top 15 and challenge Oregon for the Pac-12 North title.
12. Oregon, USC and UCLA appear to be the Pac-12's three headliners this offseason. Just as Stanford quietly lurks in the North, though, Arizona State is a top contender in the South, and maybe even a playoff contender. Todd Graham's reputation for a wandering eye as a coach has overshadowed the fact that he's one of the nation's most underrated coaches, and he has surrounded himself with a quality staff, including offensive coordinator Mike Norvell. Graham is 28-12 in three years at Arizona State, and last year the Sun Devils managed to go 10-3 despite returning only eight starters. This year's team is much more experienced, and even though quarterback Taylor Kelly is gone, senior Mike Bercovici performed well in attempting 186 passes and starting three games last year. Beyond losing top wideout Jaelen Strong, the Sun Devils return plenty of pieces to like, including versatile receiver/tailback D.J. Foster, who ran for 1,081 yards and caught 62 passes last year. It appears that he'll shift to more of a full-time receiver role -- like Oregon's Byron Marshall did last year -- thanks in part to the Sun Devils' backfield depth (look out for juco transfer De'Chavon Hayes). Without Strong, Arizona State may not have a nationally known star, but this is a pretty deep team with impressive athleticism.
13. The Sun Devils may not be loaded with All-America candidates, but they're fast and talented across the board. Graham's defenses play with an aggressive mentality, and after rebuilding last year, they bring back 14 of their top 16 tackles, needing to replace leading tackler Damarious Randall and sack leader Marcus Hardison. From tackle Tashon Smallwood to cornerback Lloyd Carrington to safety Jordan Simone to linebacker Salamo Fiso, there's a lot to like. Arizona State gets USC, Oregon and Arizona at home, and it has a showcase game in Week 1 against Texas A&M in Houston, which is one of several swing games. Last year's 10-3 season was impressive, showing off the sustainability of Graham's program. The competition is difficult, but this season should represent another step forward anyway.
14. Despite the feeling that it did not live up to expectations last season, UCLA still finished 10th in the AP poll after starting seventh, beating USC, Kansas State, Arizona State and division champion Arizona along the way. The season wasn't exactly smooth, but the Bruins ended up with their second 10-3 record in a row. Now, they return a ton of experience, and the question is how much of a drop-off there will be after losing quarterback Brett Hundley. Don't expect UCLA to fall. Hundley was a very good quarterback, but the surrounding talent has gotten better, which can make a transition to all-world true freshman Josh Rosen relatively painless. No true freshman is ever guaranteed to have success at quarterback, but if Rosen beats out Jerry Neuheisel for the job, he'll join an offense with its best offensive line in years, a wealth of options at receiver led by Jordan Payton and the Pac-12's leading rusher in Paul Perkins. Jim Mora has built impressive depth, and UCLA may finally start living up to its potential.
15. The cause of a true freshman quarterback is also helped by the fact that UCLA's defense is ready to make a leap forward. The losses of Eric Kendricks, Owamagbe Odighizuwa and Anthony Jefferson are tough to take, but there's still talent at every level for new defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. Myles Jack is the centerpiece at linebacker, and he gets to play behind the strong defensive tackle tandem of Kenny Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes, with a wealth of options in the secondary. UCLA has spent much of the last 20 years outside the top 25. It's impossible to tell what Rosen could bring to the table as a rookie, but regardless, the Bruins are a Pac-12 South contender, capable of finding the type of consistency and stability as a program that has eluded them for so long.
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1. Oregon 10-2 (7-2)
2. Stanford 9-3 (6-3)
3. California 7-5 (5-4)
4. Washington 5-7 (3-6)
5. Washington State 5-7 (3-6)
6. Oregon State 3-9 (1-8)
1. USC 10-2 (7-2)
2. UCLA 9-3 (6-3)
3. Arizona State 9-3 (6-3)
4. Arizona 8-4 (5-4)
5. Utah 7-5 (4-5)
6. Colorado 5-8 (1-8)
Conference Championship: USC over Oregon
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16. Oregon knows all about needing to replace a great quarterback now. The Ducks lose Marcus Mariota, their first Heisman winner ever, and his replacement has been the biggest non-Ohio State quarterback discussion of the offseason. Instead of the job falling to last year's backup, Jeff Lockie, Oregon brought in competition in the form of FCS star Vernon Adams, who racked up huge numbers at Eastern Washington, including in two games against Pac-12 opponents. Lockie has a leg up because of his experience in the program and his status as the lead quarterback throughout the offseason, given that Adams didn't arrive in camp until mid-August, as he had to graduate from Eastern Washington first. But even if Lockie gets the start early, Adams' potential is hard to deny.* He has playing experience for a high-end FCS team, has performed well against top competition and has the arm and quick feet to excel in Oregon's system. Nobody at Oregon can duplicate what Mariota did, but the presence of Adams gives the Ducks a chance to return to the playoff.
*Update: After only two weeks, Adams has moved to the top of the Oregon depth chart.
17. The supporting cast for the new Oregon quarterback may merely be good, but with the right breaks it could be among the best in the country. The hope for good luck didn't get off to a good start, as No.2 running back Thomas Tyner will miss the season after shoulder surgery. Beyond the loss of Tyner, there is a decent amount of uncertainty. Receiver Darren Carrington, who was suspended for the national title game, will likely see his suspension carry into the season. Tight end Pharoah Brown is trying to return from a nasty leg injury. Explosive receiver Devon Allen is coming off a torn ACL. And yet there is still so much to like: Slot receiver Byron Marshall has had a 1,000-yard rushing and receiving season in his career. Dwayne Stanford had 639 receiving yards last year. Bralon Addison returns from a torn ACL after putting up 890 yards in 2013. Charles Nelson, who could also play defense, is one of the nation's most versatile and explosive playmakers. Tailback Royce Freeman had 1,365 yards as a true freshman. The offensive line has questions, but senior Tyler Johnstone returns after missing last season with an injury. We don't know what the combination will be, but Oregon has the weapons and speed to keep its offense moving, even if Mariota set an impossible standard to live up to. A step back overall is inevitable, especially given the losses in the defensive backfield, but Oregon is still probably the most sensible bet in the Pac-12.
18. Oregon's recent success makes it really hard to call someone else to favorite, but USC has the talent to unseat the Ducks. After its staggering run under Pete Carroll, it's become easy to poke fun at USC under Lane Kiffin and now Steve Sarkisian. The program has been dysfunctional, and, hindered by NCAA punishment, the Trojans have struggled to meet expectations despite still boasting superior talent. They're ranked in the top 10 of the preseason AP poll, but skepticism remains. So let's look at the arguments in favor of the Trojans. Senior quarterback Cody Kessler completed 69.7 percent for 3,826 yards, 39 touchdowns and five interceptions last year. Linebacker/safety Su'a Cravens is one of the best all-around playmakers in college football. Cornerback/receiver/returner Adoree Jackson is one of the nation's best all-around athletes. JuJu Smith and Steven Mitchell are poised for breakout seasons at receiver. The offensive line, led by Max Tuerk, is poised to go from liability to strength, with better experience and depth. Over the last five years, according to 247Sports rankings, only Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and LSU have recruited better than USC. This team has a proven quarterback and playoff-caliber talent.
19. There is more to getting to the playoff than raw talent, of course. That talent has to be managed, prepared and deployed properly. The jury is still out on Steve Sarkisian as a head coach, both on and off the field. Let's start with off the field, where Sarkisian was forced to apologize on Sunday for his bizarre, seemingly inebriated, speech at USC's kickoff event on Saturday. Then there's on the field. Sarkisian took a Washington team that went winless in Ty Willingham's final season to a bowl game two years later, and he kept the Huskies there, going 7-6 three times before ending with a 9-4 mark. He built Washington back up, but he seems to have a ceiling. He made the Huskies competitive again, but he never went better than 5-4 in the Pac-12 while in Seattle. In his first year with USC, the Trojans had a handful of solid wins -- Stanford, Arizona, Notre Dame, Nebraska -- but they played a lot of close games, and they also stumbled badly in looking unprepared at Boston College early on. Sarkisian's up-tempo approach worked at times, and Kessler had a fantastic season, but the Trojans, as a whole, never found a rhythm. It wasn't a bad season by any means, but it also didn't erase doubts about Sarkisian as the right man for the job. This offseason hasn't either.
20. The Pac-12 might be the most difficult conference in college football to pick. It's deeper than ever, with a long list of contenders, all of whom have a flaw or two that holds them back from being an obvious frontrunner. So, let's say that USC will win the Pac-12. In fact, the guess here is that USC loses to Oregon in the regular season in Eugene, then turns the tables a few weeks later and beats the Ducks in the Pac-12 title game. Nobody outside of Oregon or Stanford has won the Pac-12 since 2008, the last time USC captured the league title. Given its recent performances, and given the doubts about Sarkisian, and given a difficult schedule (road trips to Arizona State, Notre Dame and Oregon), it's not hard to envision USC coming up short. But the Trojans are another year removed from their NCAA sanctions, meaning they've developed greater depth. You could say they underperformed last year, but they were also starting, at times, three freshmen on the offensive line. Kessler still put together a hugely successful season, and even though several impact players are gone, USC is loaded with top-end talent. That doesn't always translate to championship-level play, but this looks like the best USC team since that 2008 title. It is capable of ending the drought.