Top Pre-Preseason Pac-12 Questions

Can the South win the title? Is Oregon still elite? The UCLA QB?

Who’s the team to beat in the Pac-12?
Oregon will begin 2015 where it ended 2014—atop the Pac-12, with a gaggle of teams scrapping to dethrone it. But the gap on paper between the Ducks and the rest of the conference has narrowed. And that’s actually a good thing for the Pac-12 as a whole. As it stands now, as much as half the league are legitimate contenders, which puts even more importance on maximizing offseason development. Oregon can be caught, which will be the motivational mantra up and down the West Coast between now and September.

Can a South Division squad—finally—win a Pac-12 championship?
Four champions since the league split into divisions. And all four from the North, two from Stanford and two from Oregon. But the South is rising, right around the same time that the Cardinal has slipped and the Ducks begin life after Marcus Mariota. As USC, UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State keep nudging in a northerly direction, this could be the season that the South Division carries the banner out of Levi’s Stadium and into the College Football Playoff.

Is Oregon still a playoff threat without NFL-bound Marcus Mariota?
The Ducks won before Mariota, and they’ll win after him as well. But it’s unrealistic to believe the program will be as potent and efficient without the playmaking artistry of its Heisman quarterback. Skill players won’t be an issue. They never are in Eugene. However, the O-line is getting a new look, one more worry for the next quarterback, possibly Jeff Lockie. If Mark Helfrich can win another Pac-12 title and return to the playoffs, he’ll have effectively escaped Chip Kelly’s shadow.

What must USC do to become an elite, national contending team again?
Fair or not, the pressure is already beginning to rise on Steve Sarkisian to turn Troy into a contender. And it’s just his second year as the head coach. The Trojans are stockpiling young talent, like Adoree’ Jackson and JuJu Smith, and the return of senior QB Cody Kessler was a huge development. But ascending beyond Holiday Bowl trips mandates USC becoming more physical and more consistent, especially in the waning moments of tight games.

Who replaces QB Brett Hundley at UCLA, rookie Josh Rosen or veteran Jerry Neuheisel?
Of all the compelling quarterback derbies that’ll be staged this offseason, few will be more intriguing than the one in Westwood to succeed Hundley. In a competition of utter contrasts, Neuheisel will be trying to stave off the challenge of the blue-chip Rosen. Rosen has the higher ceiling. Neuheisel has the experience and the confidence and respect of his teammates. Auditions begin in earnest this spring, with no verdict likely before August.

Will Arizona house the league’s most feared offense?
The ‘Cats couldn’t be happy with the way 2014 ended, back-to-back losses to Oregon and Boise State. But better days are ahead in Tucson. Not only is Rich Rodriguez entering his third year with the program, but he also employed a backfield of freshman a season ago. QB Anu Solomon and RB Nick Wilson will continue evolving, and the Cayleb Jones-led receiving corps will stretch opposing defenses. Now all RichRod needs to do is retool an O-line losing three starters.

Can Stanford rebound after going 8-5, its worst season in five years?
Now that he’s facing adversity for the first time as the head coach, it’ll be interesting to see how David Shaw responds. The good news on the Farm? The Cardinal finished last season with three straight routs, and QB Kevin Hogan opted to return to school to address unfinished business. The concern? The vaunted D figures to be a serious work in progress this offseason, with seven quality starters needing to be replaced.

Is Arizona State QB Mike Bercovici about to emerge into a superstar?
The Sun Devils were a poor-man’s Ohio State in 2014, showcasing their depth behind center. Bercovici played well after starter Taylor Kelly injured his foot, impressing with his poise and arm strength. And now that Kelly has exhausted his eligibility, Bercovici will spend his senior year auditioning for NFL scouts. He has a rocket arm, but still needs a bona fide homerun hitter on the outside now that Jaelen Strong is headed to the draft.

Can the Washington offense pick up some slack now that the D has lost its best players?
The Husky offense tanked in 2014. If that trend can’t be reversed, the program will stall in Chris Petersen’s second season, because it can no longer count on the heroics of LB Shaq Thompson and linemen Danny Shelton, Hau’oli Kikaha and Andrew Hudson. QB Cyler Miles left the door open to the competition with his erratic play, and the O-line will be breaking in four new starters. RB Dwayne Washington flashed signs of being a feature back, and the receiving corps loses no one of significance.

Is Cal ready to take the next step by qualifying for its first bowl game since 2011?
The Bears took a big step forward in Sonny Dykes’ second season, going from one win to five, yet stumbled to the finish line to miss the postseason. But the return of prolific QB Jared Goff, along with just about every one of his playmakers, signals even more growth for the program in 2015. Now, if Art Kaufman’s D can make even modest gains, Cal could be a real nuisance in the North Division.

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