The big question for the Pac-12, and any power conference, entering 2014 is whether one team will be good enough to make the inaugural four-team national championship playoff at the end of the season. Figure that one spot is nearly certain to go to the SEC, and also that defending national champion Florida State is a good bet to win the ACC again. Just two slots would be left with competition from the Big Ten, Big 12 and that dreaded possible second SEC team.
It says here that a prospective Pac-12 playoff entrant will have to win the conference and have no more than one loss. One early setback on the road at a respected opponent’s house in addition to a conference defeat might be forgiven, but that will be cutting it awfully close.
The best bet is UCLA, which has marquee stars in QB Brett Hundley and LB/FB Myles Jack who could make the difference in a close game. They have a daunting pair of September road games at Texas and at Arizona State, but they surround a bye week, plus Oregon, UCLA and Stanford all have to travel to Pasadena. Whether that’s enough, who knows, but the table is best set for the Bruins.
Other story lines include the Washington-USC coaching shuffle, in which Steve Sarkisian left Seattle for Los Angeles and the Huskies managed to pry Chris Petersen out of Boise. Sarkisian did a fine job in returning the Huskies to respectability and last year’s 9-4 season was something of a breakout. Petersen, meanwhile, was the sorcerer stirring the brew for Boise State when they knocked off teams like, well, the Huskies, along with Oklahoma, Georgia and Oregon.
On the other hand, it took Sarkisian five years to have that breakout season and, up to 2013, his record in Seattle was .500. And Boise State stumbled last year. Petersen may have left for a reason. He might be the right guy to build on Sarkisian’s foundation. We’ll have to see how it plays out.
It should be said that my track record over many years in predictions is pretty pathetic, but August is for us fans to jump out on a limb, right? So let’s start right here. Oregon is due for a down year and, no, it wasn’t last year when the Ducks were “just” 11-2 and relegated to the Alamo Bowl. It will be this year, when they have to play Michigan State and run the gauntlet of a conference schedule with QB Marcus Mariota coming off a knee injury, unproven receivers, some new defensive faces and an injured left tackle. Down for the Ducks could be 9-3 in the regular season — maybe 8-4 but certainly no worse — but three losses before the postseason would be the worst since 2008.
Look for a three-way battle for the division lead, with the Ducks, Stanford and Washington at the top. The Cardinal lose a lot, but return a lot, and Coach David Shaw says his young offensive line might be his most talented ever. That should scare opponents.
Oregon State and Washington State will fight it out for fourth place and a place in a minor bowl game. Beavers QB Sean Mannion might become a first-round draft pick next year, while Mike Leach is putting together a pretty good team in Pullman. Cal is coming off two rotten seasons, but don’t be surprised if the Bears snag a big win or two in 2014.
This isn’t the only blog on the UCLA bandwagon. Besides Hundley and Jack, the trenches appear to be strong. Bruins fans are also talking up their running backs but they are very unproven. Defending champion Arizona State would be logical choice to repeat, with QB Taylor Kelly returning, but the Sun Devils lost nine defensive starters, which will be trouble in this league.
Arizona and USC should battle for third. The Wildcats haIve great receivers and a veteran offensive line but have to replace RB Kadeem Carey and break in a new quarterback. Otherwise, they might join the battle for the top of the division. The Trojans have the usual 5-star recruits, especially on defense, and might be ready to showcase a new star receiver to replace Marquise Lee — Darreus Rogers. But if injuries start to take their toll, the Trojans could plummet like a rock.
Colorado and Utah will have a hard time breaking into the top four. Some previews out there are really tough on the Utes, who are dependent on injury-prone, interception magnet QB Travis Wilson. But the Utes are always tough under Coach Kyle Whittingham, who could be on the hot seat, and Wilson is still awfully fun to watch.
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