We recently finished a “tour” of Pac-12 spring football camps, which reminds me to reassess predictions for the 2014 season. I took a stab at a very-early forecast back in January, will weigh in with this one and will throw out another one in August. I’m reserving the right to make changes along the way, inputting (a) events that happened in the spring (and up to it, in some cases), and (b) fall-camp developments. Herewith, then, the May version:
1. UCLA. This was my choice in January and it’s going to take something major for me to switch stories. The Bruins have Brett Hundley, who operated more under center in the spring than he had in the past, and he could be primed for a Heisman run. He has receivers, and the offensive line, which did a remarkable job last year despite sometimes starting three freshmen, returns all but standout Xavier Su’a-Filo. Jordon James is back from an ankle injury to juice the running game. The defense lost some key people, like lineman Cassius Marsh (to the Seahawks) and linebackers Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt, but still returns seven starters, including Myles Jack at linebacker. This could be a team that, if things break right, gets into the national-playoff conversation.
2. USC. Trojans could be formidable defensively, returning their top three tacklers, and tackle Leonard Williams will be a force, as will linemate Antwuan Woods. New coach Steve Sarkisian’s biggest job is to develop an offense to go with it, now that primo WR Marqise Lee is off to the pros. Cody Kessler is the quarterback and he wasn’t bad as the season developed a year ago. The offensive line is a bit in flux, but there are good backs, led by Javorius “Buck” Allen. Depth isn’t great; Trojans won’t have more than 70 players on scholarship, and the relevant, startling stat from 2013 is that in six games, USC used no more than 14 defensive players. All eyes will be on the early crucial, Sept. 6 at Stanford.
3. Arizona. If you pick Arizona this high, you’re going with a team with a good many parts, but no quarterback (as yet, anyway). Take Arizona State, and you opt for a proven guy at QB in Taylor Kelly, but a team replacing nine defensive starters. So I’m siding here with Arizona, although it came out of spring with a completely confusing outlook at quarterback. In the fall, the race will be among three transfers — Jesse Scroggins (USC), Connor Brewer (Texas) and Jerrard Randall (LSU) — plus RS freshman Anu Solomon. Randall appears to be the most athletically gifted. The receivers, led by Austin Hill, are as good as anybody’s, and the offensive line is proven. Defensively, the biggest question is whether UA will have a pass rush, which in this league, can be problematic to say the least.
4. Arizona State. Sun Devils strike me as one of the most intriguing teams in the league. Do they go from dominating their division to falling to this spot, or have they gathered enough parts to make it interesting for the better teams in the South? It’s also sort of a referendum on how well Todd Graham has recruited, because much of the success he engineered the past two seasons was on the backs of Dennis Erickson recruits. At any rate, Kelly is a good place to start, a terrific, heady college quarterback of whom the coaches want to see more with the deep ball this year. Some of those will go to WR Jaelen Strong. D.J. Foster caught more balls (63) than any back in the country last year. On defense, consider the Sun Devils against the team that thumped them for the Pac-12 title last year, Stanford. The Cardinal lost tons on defense but seems capable of reloading there. Is ASU, which lost studs like Will Sutton, Carl Bradford and Alden Darby, able to duplicate that?
5. Utah. Ah, Utah, perpetually in search of a quarterback, and thus, an offense. All eyes will be on a July medical report on QB Travis Wilson, who bowed out of 2013 in mid-season with a pre-existing brain condition. He took part in the spring, without contact, and the feeling around the program was that the Utes will get a positive go-ahead this summer. If not, the job is left to backup RS freshman Conner Manning, who nudged ahead of Adam Schulz, with Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson due in. The running game should help and Utah ought to be OK defensively, but it needs to be more acquisitive. It had just three interceptions last fall, while throwing 21. Big season for coach Kyle Whittingham, who really could use to move past one of the Arizonas just to reflect progress.
6. Colorado. The Buffs came into the Pac-12 in 2011 at a bigger deficit than most of us imagined, and coach Mike MacIntyre is about the task of gaining some sort of equilibrium in an unforgiving league. Sefo Liufau of Tacoma is the QB, but he could get an argument from redshirted backup Jordan Gehrke if the Buffs see value in his mobility. The offensive line functioned fairly well in the spring, and CU could feature a big-back offense with George Frazier and Christian Powell. On defense, LB Addison Gillam is a good block to build around. It’s getting better in Boulder, and the second year of the MacIntyre regime should begin to show advancement. Anything other than the cellar would represent a breakthrough.