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There are many unique story lines inside the Pac-12 going into this fall's football campaign. First and foremost, can anyone topple Oregon? And second, how well will the Duck's quarterback transfer, Vernon Adams, adopt to their offense and big-time college football?
Stating the obvious, while Oregon is the team to beat in the Pac-12, they must get by two very good teams from Los Angeles in USC and UCLA. The Bruins are the deeper squad but will go with a rookie quarterback in Josh Rosen. If he can play like a veteran and limit mistakes, Jim Mora's UCLA squad could contend for a playoff spot. Then you have the Trojans, led by their quarterback Cody Kessler. He brings experience to the position, leading this USC team in their balanced attack. The big question is can the Trojan defense rise to the challenge this fall after losing their star Leonard Williams to the NFL?
I like both teams in the state of Arizona, as they return with two big-time signal callers: the Wildcats' Anu Solomon and the Sun Devils' Mike Bercovici. Can Solomon avoid the sophomore jinx at Arizona? Can Bercovici turn into an elite signal caller? I say yes to both, which could make things very interesting in the Pac-12 South.
Don't sleep on Stanford. Quarterback Kevin Hogan is back and he leads a very balanced attack. Combined with a stout defense, there's no question that David Shaw's Cardinal team could be a surprise this fall.
Of course there's Cal and their high octane offense, led by Jared Goff, who could be the league's best quarterback. But it won't matter if the Bears defense can't stop anyone.
This season has all the makings of an exciting football fall in the wild, wild west that is the Pac-12.
The Ducks and coach Mark Helfrich are loaded again despite losing Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota to the NFL. Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams has a ton of talent and could be the newcomer of the year in the Pac-12. He brings a ton of experience to the Oregon offense, but that was against FCS competition. I think it’s pretty simple: the Ducks go as far as their new signal caller will take them. Sophomore Royce Freeman is as good as any sophomore running back in the country. The Ducks did take a hit with a season-ending shoulder injury to the speedy Thomas Tyner. The wide receivers corps is deep and talented. The offensive front must replace center Hroniss Grasu and tackle Jake Fisher.
As always, the Oregon defense gets overlooked because of their prolific offense. Defensive end DeForest Buckner is as good as anyone in the league and he leads a front that also includes Christian French and Alex Balducci. Joe Walker and Rodney Hardrick are very good at linebacker. The key to this unit will be the play of the secondary. Charles Nelson is a dynamic player who moved from wide receiver to cornerback.
Key Games: @ Michigan State, Utah, @ Washington, @ Arizona State, Cal, @ Stanford, USC, Oregon State This Oregon program can certainly make another playoff run but they have to get by a very good Michigan State team early and on the road. Then the Ducks have a key stretch beginning in the middle of October with games at Washington, Arizona State and Stanford and home games against Cal and USC.
This USC offense has a chance to be really special in 2015. Of course this is a unit lead by senior quarterback Cody Kessler. He’s coming off a monster season. Juju Smith will become the new leader of the wide receiver corps. Watch out for Steven Mitchell and Adoree Jackson as well. To really take this offense over the top the Trojans must develop a complementary ground attack. Justin Davis, Tre Madden and Ronald Jones should evolve into a running back by committee. It will help that Southern Cal has a deep and talented offensive line.
Where the Trojans have some question marks is on defense, especially after losing Leonard Williams. Antwan Woods and Delvon Simmons are the leaders of the front while linebacker Su’a Cravens is the top player on this unit. The secondary should be good with Jackson and Leon McQuay. I would expect Iman Marshall to make an impact somewhere in the defensive backfield. He will be too good to keep off the field.
One thing I will say about 2015 USC is that they have a nice schedule. Of course they have Notre Dame in South Bend and have to also travel to Oregon, Arizona State and Cal. They get the Irish in the middle of the season and close with the Ducks and Bruins.
Jim Mora has this team on the cusp for sure and this fall could all hinge on the performance of true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen. That’s a ton of pressure to put on a young gun but this kid has some serious arm talent and just lacks experience. He will be surrounded by veterans and a terrific run game featuring one of the nation’s top runners in Paul Perkins. There are eight other starters returning for UCLA, including one of the Pac-12’s top wide receivers Jordan Payton.
UCLA should have one of the Pac-12’s top defenses. Of course this unit is led by one of the nation’s most dynamic players in linebacker Myles Jack. They are strong up front behind the play of defensive linemen Eddie Vanderdoes and Kenny Clark, and Marcus Rios and Fabian Moreau are really good in the secondary. This is a super group.
I really wanted to put the Bruins at the top spot in the Pac-12 but simply can't because of the lack of experience at the QB position. But it wouldn't surprise me if Rosen proved me wrong.
Key Games: @ Arizona, Arizona State, @ Stanford, Cal, @ Utah, @ USC
The schedule sets up nicely for the Bruins, as they don’t get Oregon. They have some tricky road games at Arizona and Stanford before a season ending stretch at Utah and USC. If UCLA navigates the middle of their schedule well it will set them up for a chance at a nice run and momentum for the crucial season ending games.
The Cardinal is led by senior signal caller Kevin Hogan. He’s nothing flashy, but solid and steady. Stanford will need a big 2015 season from Hogan under center. It will also help if they can develop a good ground attack this fall. The player that they want to get going is running back Christian McCaffrey. Devon Cajuste leads the wide receivers and as usual the Cardinal will go big with some good tight ends. They return four or five starters up front and have to replace Andrus Peat.
Stanford fielded the best defense in the Pac-12 in 2014 but lost some key players on the backend. To repeat that performance this fall the Cardinal must get good play in the secondary to counter the lethal passing attacks they will face. The front seven should be strong, led by linebackers Kevin Anderson and Peter Kalambayi.
Key Games: @ USC, Arizona, UCLA, Washington, Cal, Notre Dame
The Cardinal gets the Trojans early and then have home games against Arizona, UCLA, Washington, Cal and Notre Dame. Those are some tough opponents, but it’s favorable considering Stanford will be at home.
All Anu Solomon does is win, and the Wildcats need him to avoid the sophomore jinx. He played so well as a freshman one year ago, and he has some very good talent around him like running back Nick Wilson. Cayleb Jones emerged as one of the top wide receivers in the Pac-12.
Defensively, this Arizona team is led by one of the top football players in the nation: linebacker Scooby Wright. He’s a playmaking machine and very disruptive. Wright is the unquestioned leader of a very underrated defense for the Wildcats. The secondary may be a concern. Former Notre Dame transfer DaVonte Neal is now at cornerback and will have a chance to shine at his new position.
Key Games: UCLA, @ Stanford, @ Washington, @USC, Utah, @ Arizona State
It’s an interesting schedule for the Wildcats. They will be favored in six of their first eight games. In that stretch, they face the UCLA and Stanford before closing with a tricky slate: three road games and Utah at home.
Quarterback Mike Bercovici may be one of the Pac-12’s most underrated players. He’s a classic, pro-style signal caller with a big arm and lots of upside. I love the fact that he’s surrounded by some dangerous players, most notably D.J. Foster, who switched from running back to wide receiver. Foster will need to make a quick transition, especially losing wideout Jaelen Strong to the NFL. The run game should be stout with Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage.
The Sun Devils did have some key departures on defense, most notably safety Demarious Randall and defensive lineman Marcus Hardison. Still, it’s a talented unit at all three levels that can really get after the opposition.
Key Games: Texas A&M, USC, @ UCLA, @ Utah, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, @ Cal
It’s a tough schedule for the Sun Devils, as they get the top three teams in the league. At least ASU hosts Oregon and USC. They also get rival Arizona at home.
If Utah is going to make any kind of run in the Pac-12 South, they need monster production from star running back Devontae Booker. He says he wants to rush for 2,000 yards, and he needs to be in that vicinity - especially with such a difficult schedule ahead. Quarterback Travis Wilson brings a lot of experience to the position, but Utah needs someone to step up on the perimeter with some big plays. This is a physical offense that must get good play up front to succeed in 2015.
John Pease takes over as the Utah defensive coordinator. His first task is to find a replacement for Nate Orchard, who recorded 18.5 sacks last season. Good thing Hunter Dimick is back. The front seven should be their strength while the secondary remains the question.
Key Games: Michigan, @ Oregon, Cal, Arizona State, @ USC, @ Washington, @ Arizona, UCLA
Utah has a four-game stretch where they play at Oregon, host Cal and Arizona State and then travel to USC. That’s brutal. They also go to Washington and Arizona but do get UCLA at home. They play an interesting non-conference game to start the season against the Wolverines.
Sonny Dykes and his offensive coordinator Tony Franklin will have this Bears offense cranking in 2015, and qarterback Jared Goff will push for top quarterback honors in the Pac-12. Cal needs him to be productive if they want to survive a murderous road schedule. Cal has some really talented wide receivers in Kenny Lawler, Bryce Treggs, and company. Daniel Lasco gives them a very complementary run game.
Defensively, this team was atrocious in 2014. They gave up 42 touchdown passes and the defense yielded 44.2 points over their last dozen games. That includes three games of giving up an astounding 59 points each. A tough schedule and bad defense are not a good mix in the high-flying Pac-12.
Key Games: @ Texas, @ Washington, @Utah, @ UCLA, USC, @ Oregon, @ Stanford, Arizona State
After two cupcakes Cal travels to Texas, Washington, Utah and UCLA. They get UCLA back at home and then hit the road again to Oregon and Stanford. That’s a brutal slate away from home.
What does Washington coach Chris Petersen have to do to get a quarterback? It’s a huge question mark for this 2015 Husky team. There’s K.J. Carta-Samuels. Jeff Lindquist could be their guy by default. At some point freshman Jeff Browning could take over, but do you burn a year with him? They should have a solid ground attack and have some talent at wide receiver. This program absolutely needs a quarterback to step up.
Defensively, Washington lost three players in the first round of the NFL Draft in Danny Shelton, Shaq Thompson, and Marcus Peters. Hau'oli Kikaha is a pro now, too. While Peters was actually dismissed from the squad last fall, this unit lost a ton of production. How do you replace those players? You can’t. Budda Baker is an outstanding talent at safety and the team’s best player now. He leads a very good defensive backfield that should be one of the league’s best. Washington will be young up front.
Key Games: @ Boise State, Cal, @ USC, Oregon, @ Stanford, Arizona, Utah, @ Arizona State
The season will start off with a bang as Petersen will lead Washington to Boise State for an away opening contest against his former team. This Husky team has a difficult stretch against USC, Oregon, Stanford, Arizona, Utah and Arizona State.
10) Oregon State
Gary Andersen takes over for the departed Mike Riley, who left for Nebraska. He inherits a team that is young and rebuilding. It starts at quarterback, where the Beavers will turn to true freshman Seth Collins. This kid has some talent, but makes typical freshman mistakes. Storm Woods returns at running back. The Beavers are pretty good at wide receiver and led by Victor Bolden and Jordan Vilamin. They both had some good production last season.
The defense is switching to a 3-4. They will have a chance to be pretty good up front, but lack experience in the secondary. They have to replace their leader Steven Nelson on the back end.
Key Games: @ Michigan, Stanford, @ Arizona, @ Utah, UCLA, @ Cal, @ Oregon
It’s going to be a tough road for Andersen and company with that schedule, especially away from Corvallis.
I expect to see an improved program from the Buffaloes this fall. Hopefully, that translates into more wins. The offense is a year older and showed some signs of life in 2014 with quarterback Sefo Liufau. He’s only a junior. Nelson Spruce is one of the best wide receivers out west while Shay Fields made his presence known as a freshman last year. Where this team has to improve is on defense. Here, Mike MacIntyre brought in former USC head coach Jim Leavitt to run the defense. This is his specialty, as Leavitt likes to attack. Does he have the pieces? No, but there will be an improvement in 2015.
Key Games: Oregon, @ Arizona State, Arizona, @ UCLA, Stanford, USC, @ Utah
This team must get off to a good start against non-conference teams Hawaii, Colorado State and UMass. In not, it could be another long season in Boulder.
12) Washington State
Mike Leach has a pretty versatile signal caller in the young Luke Falk. He played last season and got some experience at Washington State in Leach’s system, throwing for 1,800 and 13 touchdown passes in only six games. Not bad. That bodes well for the future of this offense. Leach’s aerial assault at wide receiver will be led by River Cracraft, Robert Lewis, Dom Williams and the team gets Gabe Marks back.
Alex Grinch is the team’s new defensive coordinator. Expect Washington State to utilize a five defensive back look a lot this fall. They have some talent and experience in the secondary. The real question about this unit is up front. Key players have departed.
Key Games: @ Rutgers, @ Cal, @ Oregon, @ Arizona, Stanford, Arizona State, @ UCLA, @ Washington
I threw Rutgers up there because it’s imperative that this program start fast. The first three games are all winnable for Leach and company.