In Tuesday’s editions of the Times, I took a flyer and assessed the shape of the 2014 Pac-12 football race, with predictions.
Obviously, it’s far too early for any kind of pinpoint read on what’s to come. Between now and the games of late August, players will get hurt, transfer, flunk out, under- (and over-) perform. Coaches will devise new plans, and players will maximize them or be slow to assimilate.
And, oh yeah, 2014 signing day hasn’t yet happened. Who’s this year’s Myles Jack?
Here’s what I forecast for each division:
North — 1, Oregon. 2, Washington. 3, Stanford. 4, Washington State. 5, Oregon State. 6, Cal.
South — 1, UCLA. 2, USC. 3, Arizona. 4, Arizona State. 5, Utah. 6, Colorado.
There are counter-arguments to any of those picks. Call it why-these-teams-won’t-finish-where-I-predicted.
Oregon — There are any number of good reasons why any given team in the Pac-12 North won’t win it. To my eye, Oregon looks to have the least assailable portfolio. Yes, it must prove itself under new defensive coordinator Don Pellum, and yes, it needs to be more physical than it was in 2013. If you think the Ducks aren’t going to win the division, it’s probably about the defense, and Oregon having to replace six starters. It’s worth noting that now that Stanford’s Ed Reynolds has declared for the NFL draft, there are four first-team all-Pac-12 players returning to the league in 2014 (excluding the special-teams performers), and Oregon has three. (The fourth, USC’s Leonard Williams, is only a sophomore and thus ineligible to leave early.)
Washington — Have to admit, I was open to the idea of breaking up the Stanford-Oregon dominance of recent years at the top, and rationalized the Huskies as No. 2, with a considerable array of young, rising talent. This presumes a smooth entry to regular quarterbacking by Cyler Miles, a reasonable transition to Chris Petersen, and the location of a replacement for Bishop Sankey, which might be the most pressing issue.
Stanford — It’s probably unfair to cite the Huskies as having good talent in the wings without conceding that the same is true at Stanford. But I just can’t reconcile that the Cardinal is going to perk along without a beat when it loses four of its starting offensive linemen and a passel of standout defenders. (You may reasonably argue that the loss of the O-linemen merely means that it opens up more room for talents like Kyle Murphy and Josh Garnett to flourish.) Another random thought on the Cardinal: It’s widely believed that Stanford is built to beat Oregon, and nothing will change that. But that was accentuated this year with the Ducks’ periodic difficulty in stopping the run, obvious against the Cardinal — and how much of the Oregon loss at Stanford had to do with the obvious physical limitation of Marcus Mariota? (It’s funny that Oregon is viewed as an inevitable good matchup for Stanford, yet Washington, which plays a very similar style to Oregon, is seen as a bad one for the Cardinal.)
Washington State — If you argue that this is too high for the Cougars, it’s on the basis of them needing to break in three new starting offensive linemen and a defense that I thought was surprisingly forgiving in 2013. Given that their talent still isn’t on a par with Oregon, Stanford or Washington, it would be hard to pick them higher.
Oregon State — Fifth seems like an affront to OSU, which figures to be better defensively, especially with linebacker Michael Doctor returning from injury as a two-year starter. Beavers still have to be more physical in the interior defensive line. The running game should benefit from some continuity on the offensive line, which was bombarded early this year by injury.
California — Sixth is the only logical spot for the Bears, who didn’t beat an FBS opponent in 2013. But they do return QB Jared Goff and some good receivers, and their defense will have a decidedly different look in ’14, with several people returned from injuries and a new coordinator, as yet unnamed.
And, to the South . . .
UCLA — I think it’s hard to justify anybody else in this spot. I thought it was very surprising how UCLA did down the stretch playing three true-freshman offensive linemen (you’re just not supposed to be able to do that). If you want to argue against the Bruins as South winners, you might point to Mel Kiper’s ESPN Big Board, which has linebacker Anthony Barr going as the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft.
USC – Steve Sarkisian had dropback quarterbacks at USC as an assistant coach and then at Washington, evolved into use of Keith Price as an occasional running threat with the read-option in a hurry-up style. Now he comes back to Troy, and waiting is Cody Kessler, who fits the former mode. If you’re going to play straight-up, dropback and hand the ball to the backs, you’d better have superior athletes, and I’m not sure USC’s (while still very good) are superior across the board, including on the offensive line. Big picture, it will be interesting to see whether Sarkisian favors the traditional USC style or tilts to what he was doing when he left Washington.
Arizona — A bit of a leap here, because ‘Zona doesn’t have a quarterback or right now, an obvious replacement for Ka’Deem Carey’s yards. Have to admit, this pick was made with the assumption that ASU is inevitably going to fall off with heavy attrition on defense.
Arizona State — Carl Bradford’s declaration for the NFL Monday made it nine starters lost on that side of the ball by ASU. I think you can make a case the Sun Devils deserve a higher projection than Arizona, but not UCLA or USC.
Utah — The Utes’ continuing quarterback injuries, and continued philosophical joust on offense, are troubling. First Kyle Whittingham turned the offense over to Brian Johnson, who, at 25, was too inexperienced. Then he imported Dennis Erickson and told him to run with it. Now he’s demoted Erickson and moved on to ex-Wyoming coach Dave Christensen. On the bright side, Adam Schulz (if he wins the job) had some good moments at quarterback down the stretch, but he has to cut down on the mistakes. He threw for 347 yards at WSU, but also heaved two pick-sixes.
Colorado — I’ve probably fallen victim to the idea that a sixth-place team doesn’t get elevated until it makes the move on its own (you know, the laws of inertia: An object at rest tends to stay at rest . . . ). But with QB Sefo Liufau having gained a year of experience, it’s not out of the question that the Buffs move up, especially if Utah keeps fumbling its offensive issues.