Welcome to the THUNDERBLOG’s College Football Preview! With the season kicking off yesterday, we’ll be taking you through each conference to let you know what to watch for throughout the exciting season. Next up, the Pac-12 Conference.
(Note: All Rankings from AP Top 25)
1) #7 Oregon Ducks (2014: 13-2 – Lost in the National Championship to Ohio State)
Coach Mark Helfrich enters his third season with the Ducks at a pivotal point in his career here. No longer will Marcus Mariota be at the helm. Replacing one of the best dual threat quarterbacks in college football history will not be easy. But thanks to years of strong recruiting and the allure of the top notch, Nike-plastered facilities offered in Eugene, Helfrich has a team loaded with talent. The Ducks will rely heavily on tailbacks Royce Freeman (1,365 yards last season) and Byron Marshall to help ease in the newest Duck QB Vernon Adams. The Eastern Washington transfer dominated FCS play but it remains to be seen if that can translate to the bigger, faster Pac-12. A good omen though is that he won the starting job in just two weeks. The defense may not be as stout as last year’s, but returning DL DeForest Buckner should push for All-Conference honors and LB Rodney Hardrick is another bright spot of the 6 returning starters defensively for this club. They will be tested early on as they travel to Michigan State in Week 2 for a faceoff with the #5 Spartans. If they can muster a difficult victory there the next big test comes on Thursday October 29th against the highly touted Arizona State Sun Devils in Tempe, AZ. From there the Ducks face a gauntlet as the play Cal, Stanford, USC, and in-state rival Oregon State to close out the season. My prediction is that after a rough defeat at the hands of Connor Cook and MSU, Vernon Adams hits his stride and the Ducks win until a late season trip up against Stanford. At 10-2 they still have enough juice to make it to the Pac-12 Championship Game.
2) #21 Stanford Cardinal (2014: 8-5)
Stanford’s recent decade of success made the 2014 campaign look very poor. The biggest issue was a stagnant offense. Coach David Shaw though should see that bounce back. Senior QB Kevin Hogan is the key piece of the puzzle. The big QB has always been seen as having NFL talent but he needs to put it together this season. Fortunately for him, Stanford has some serious talent around him including top target Devon Cajuste. The 6-4 senior wideout is poised to break out after a good season last year. And a potential All-American at guard, Joshua Garnett, should help support a promising group of running backs. The bigger question will be on defense where only 2 starters return. Both are linebackers so it will be interesting to see if the new blood can spark resurgence, but we’ve seen the Cardinal reload on defense before. Three weeks into the season sees Shaw and Co. head to highly ranked USC which will be a show-me game for them. They also face a tough conference schedule including Arizona, Oregon, and UCLA. If they can mesh as expected, they will have to defeat visiting Notre Dame on November 28th with a potential shot at the Pac-12 title game on the line. But while I think this is a decent Stanford team, I don’t see enough in Hogan or on defense to see them nabbing that spot. They will finish at 9-3 and, even with an upset of Oregon, will miss out on a chance at the title.
3) California Golden Bears (2014: 5-7)
Is this the year for Cal to bounce back? The program has been bowl-less since 2011. Coach Sonny Dykes enters Year 3 with a lot of positives on the table. It starts with arguably the best QB in the Pac-12 as junior Jared Goff looks to build on a great 2014 season and vault himself into Top-10 NFL Draft talk. He will have a host of strong receivers, highlighted by the 6-3 Kenny Lawler, and a powerful backfield mate in Daniel Lasco to attempt to offset a still porous defense. The key for the Golden Bear’s success is that the 7 returning defense starters can do better than an average 40 points against per game. Hopefully safety Stefan McClure can stay healthy and Cal will be bowling once again. Their first test comes against Texas in Austin on September 19th. I seem them taking this contest in high fashion. They then must battle through until a brutal 3 game stretch starting October 22nd at UCLA followed by USC and Oregon. They then must close out against Stanford and Arizona State in late November. As much as I like this team, especially Goff, I simply don’t see enough to run this gauntlet. 7-5 will be enough though to send them to their first bowl game in 4 years.
4) Washington Huskies (2014: 8-6)
This is the program to watch in the Pac-12. Its only Year 2 of Chris Petersen’s reign but the man can coach and soon his recruits will be in the building. I said soon, but not this season. Even with 4 defense starters from the 2014 squad entering the NFL via the draft, the Huskies defense still has some talent. Look for Travis Feeney, the new hybrid “buck” linebacker taking over for Shaq Thompson, to emerge as the star on this unit. The bigger issue than the talented but inexperience defense is how will this team score? Freshman Jake Browning probably should win the starting job under center, even if Coach Petersen has yet to announce it. But starting a freshman in this year’s deep Pac-12 will lead to some serious growing pains. The most intriguing matchup on their schedule is tonight as Petersen returns to his former post with a matchup against #23 Boise State. Should be a fun watch but I am not sure the Huskies will take out the Broncos on the smurf field. The also face off against all of the top teams in the Pac-12 with dates at USC, Stanford, and Arizona State along with Oregon and Arizona coming to town. For the Huskies a sixth straight bowl appearance seems unlikely and my prediction of a 5-7 season will end that streak, but look for this program to bounce back in a big way moving forward.
5) Washington State Cougars (2014: 3-9)
The Cougars are still trying to find their footing in the Pac-12. AS usual the Air Raid offense under spread guru Mike Leach will put up magical numbers. Returning QB Luke Falk, the former walk-on, showed much promise late last season. He has 3 big time targets in Gabe Marks, Kyrin Priester, and River Cracraft that will make the Cougars a fun watch every Saturday. And the entire offensive line, while unspectacular, all returns meaning Leach should start seeing Texas Tech-esque numbers in Pullman. The problem is the same one that has dogged Leach throughout his coaching career, no defense. First year coordinator Alex Grinch has little to work with meaning Falk and Co will have to win games all on their own. A weak non-conference schedule should help a bowl berth come along but this team will get dominated in the Pac-12 and with 7 conference losses, including a defeat at the hands of in-state rival Washington to end the season will drop them to 5-7 and bowl-less.
6) Oregon State Beavers (2014: 5-7)
You lose Mike Riley to Nebraska and Sean Mannion to the NFL and the expectations shouldn’t be too extravagant for Oregon State. It is a shame because they return every other offense starter including senior running back Strom Woods. But the QB battle is between two freshmen and that does not bode well in the deep Pac-12. What is worse is that only 2 starters return on defense. New head coach Gary Andersen will have his hands full. Guy to watch though is the 6-5 231 wideout Jordan Villamin. A week two matchup with Michigan in Ann Arbor will start the season slide for the Beavers and a 3-9 record will wrap up the season as the Civil War with Oregon will be a very one-sided affair.
Pac 12 South
1) #8 Southern California Trojans (2014: 9-4)
In a division loaded like the SEC, the Trojans will have their work cut out for them regardless of how talented they are. They return 15 starters including star quarterback Cody Kessler. The senior threw for 3,826 yards and 39 TDs last season and should only be better this year. The next great USC wideout should be Juju Smith-Schuster who will look to fill Nelson Agholor’s shoes. Add in a talented dense including shutdown corner Adoree Jackson, who will also be returning kicks and punts and running routes, and you can see why this team has been picked to win the Pac-12 Championship. But my favorite player from this squad is hybrid safety/linebacker Su’a Cravens. He had 17 tackles for a loss last season and will contend for defensive player of the year. If coach Sarkisian can get his mind right after some poor, drunk comments made recently, this team could and should be excellent. They play Stanford and Arizona State early on which should give us a barometer on where this team is at. A visit to South Bend on October 17th could be the matchup of the week. But this team’s postseason destiny will be discovered in the last two weeks of conference play where they play at Oregon and see rival UCLA come to town. I don’t think they escape Eugene unscathed but an 11-1 record will see them face the Ducks again on neutral turf for the Pac-12 Championship.
2) #15 Arizona State Sun Devils (2014: 10-3)
The Sun Devils are a stacked team who match USC with 15 returning starters. The only difference is that they are breaking in a “new” QB. But Mike Bercovici is no slacker. The redshirt senior filled in for injured Taylor Kelly last season and was smooth with a 61.8% completion percentage. Bercovici has both D.J. Foster and Demario Richard to tote the rock creating a balanced offensive attack. The defense will shine again with only 3 starters being replaced. Jordan Simone anchors this group as the safety nearly averaged 10 tackles a game. This team will compete for the Pac-12 title this year. A first week matchup with Texas A&M shouldn’t be much trouble but they will open conference play with USC and UCLA in back-to-back weeks. Then a faceoff with Oregon looms in late October and a rivalry game with Arizona in late November will decide if Arizona State can finally get over the hump. But 10-2 with a losses to USC will once again shut them out of the title game.
3) #13 UCLA Bruins (2014: 10-3)
Gotta give Jim Mora credit, he is building a winner Los Angeles. The Bruins return 17 starters from an already good 2014 squad. The Pac-12’s top rusher, Paul Perkins, looks to hold that title while senior Jordan Payton will attempt to keep is 14.2 yards per catch through 2015. And Myles Jack is back. The best two-way player in the land had 8 tackles for a loss as a sophomore and will look to expand on this while still picking up some carries on the offensive end. So why aren’t the Bruins the favorite in the South? When you lose star quarterback Brent Hundley to the NFL, there are some serious concerns. How to quell them would be starting true freshman, 5-star phenom Josh Rosen. I like Rosen so much I considered putting UCLA ahead of ASU. The kid stands at 6’4” with a rocket arm and high level pocket presence and has shown the ability to scramble with a 40 yard dash clocked in at 4.70 seconds. That being said, the first real test for UCLA comes on September 26th when they visit Arizona out in the desert. If they scrap by then look for the following week’s matchup with the Sun Devils as a tough bounce back. Their shot at the title game could come in the last week of the season when they take on USC. Rosen though is still just a freshman in one of the deepest conferences in college football so while this team will succeed and contend for a big name bowl game, losses to Arizona State and Southern Cal will ultimately keep this 10-2 club out of the title discussion.
4) #22 Arizona Wildcats (2014: 10-4)
After a surprise berth in the Pac-12 Championship game, RichRod and his team look to build on this. While this team certainly has talent, there are two major holes that will keep them from succeeding. An inexperienced offensive line will need to keep rising QB Anu Solomon upright and create holes for Nick Wilson. And some question marks in the secondary will hold back star linebacker Scooby Wright. Even with his 163 tackles, 29 for a loss, and 14 sacks, Wright can’t cover wide receivers. A weak non-conference schedule should push them up the polls but an early season defeat at the hands of UCLA followed by a trip to Stanford will dim the hype quickly. After a midseason quartet of cakewalks, the Wildcats must visit USC and ASU in the last 3 weeks of the season. Finishing at 9-4, Arizona will be unable to squeeze into a second straight title game.
5) Utah Utes (2104: 9-4)
I heard that Utah is the forgotten team in the Pac-12 this year. A squad that always comes to play will return 14 starters including starting quarterback Travis Wilson and star tailback Devontae Booker. Add to that an effective defense led by DE Hunter Dimick and LB Jared Norris and the Utes will be in every game this season. But winning will be another story. They did squeak out against Michigan last night but away games at Oregon, USC, and Arizona will be very difficult. Couple that with Arizona State and UCLA coming to Salt Lake and this season is chalking up to be a hard one. At 6-6 the Utes and Kyle Whittingham will miss out on a bowl game this year.
6) Colorado Buffaloes (2014: 2-10)
It will be another tough year for the Buffaloes. The program is showing signs of life but they are playing in a division and conference simply too talented for them at this point. It will be fun to watch 3rd year starter Sefo Liufau throw to Nelson Spruce who may be the best wide receiver in the Pac-12. The senior had 106 catches and 12 TDs last year so look for him to shine again. The defense has a solid linebacking core but not much else. After a 4-0 start thanks to a non-existent non-conference schedule I don’t see Colorado winning a Pac-12 game repeating last year’s 0-9 record and finishing up with an 4-9 record.
Conference Title Game – Southern California over Oregon
Offensive Player of the Year – Royce Freeman – RB Oregon
Defensive Player of the Year – Myles Jack – LB UCLA