Had a conversation on the Pac-12 football outlook with my younger son the other night, and he stopped me with this question:
Who’s going to be worse? As in, which teams might figure to take a step back this year?
I hadn’t particularly thought of things in that light. But indeed, the conference appears to be stacked at a level perhaps unprecedented, with quality teams and a passel of returning quarterbacks. It has struck me that for some teams — Utah, Arizona, Washington State, perhaps even Washington — the notion of upward mobility is difficult. It seems possible to get better without any real evidence in the standings.
That’s where getting worse comes in. You know there are some teams out there that will regress from 2013. But with (a) the undeniable, prospective strength of the league, and (b) the optimism that engulfs every camp this time of year, it’s not easy to cull the pretenders from the rest.
So today . . . who might be getting worse, and how it might happen for each team. Not saying it will, but how it might (I’m removing injuries from the equation):
Oregon — I have some nagging doubts about the Ducks, and perhaps that’s merely because they’ve played at seemingly an unsustainably high level in recent years. Now they have to replace key wideouts, and how does Don Pellum, their longtime assistant, fare at stepping in for defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti? Is head coach Mark Helfrich a reasonable facsimile of Chip Kelly, who went 46-7 there? Here’s another reason to question: Have spread-option offenses become so prevalent that the Ducks’ advantage in running it — granted, they do it better than just about anybody — diminished? I think there’s a chance Oregon slips from the 11-2 of 2013.
Stanford — The Cardinal went 11-3, and must replace four first-team All-Pac-12 defenders. They have two new coordinators and four offensive linemen will be full-time starters. Beyond all that, they’ve probably got the toughest schedule in the league, everything considered. Slippage seems eminently possible.
Washington — Stewart Mandel, former Sports Illustrated writer now toiling for FoxSports.com, likes the Huskies to win the division. Gutsy pick. A lot of things would have to break right for the UW (9-4 last year), including prospering without Bishop Sankey, adjusting to a new head coach, and oh by the way, successfully breaking in a new quarterback (whoever he is). A forgiving schedule will help, but those are significant imponderables.
Oregon State — I suppose anytime you lose a player the caliber of Brandin Cooks (128 catches last year), you risk getting worse. But I don’t see that track for the Beavers, who may be less explosive in the passing game, but should be able to run a little better, and ought to be more grudging up front defensively. Still, they’ve had some injury concerns on the offensive line, and any continuation of that jeopardizes a team that went 7-6 last year.
Washington State — If you want to entertain a doomsday scenario for WSU, think about this: The Cougars beat USC and Arizona on the road as roughly two-touchdown underdogs in last year’s 6-7 season, a notable achievement. But it’s probably fair to say both of those included an element of USC and Arizona not being focused. If they are this year, and WSU loses to either or both (in Pullman), that means the Cougars have ground to make up elsewhere. On a less abstract level, it’s alarming to face veteran quarterbacks with a very unproven secondary.
Cal — The Bears, 1-11 last year, can’t possibly be any worse.
UCLA — I’d be very surprised if the Bruins receded from the 10-3 mark of ’13, but maybe that’s because the trend has been steadily upward under Jim Mora. It is sobering, though, that the Bruins lost a lot of defensive playmakers in guys like Anthony Barr, Cassius Marsh and Jordan Zumwalt.
USC — If you project a shortfall here from 10-4 last season, it could be due to the adjustment under a new coach in Steve Sarkisian or the question of whether this is a very good offensive line. I said I wouldn’t entertain the injury factor, but it’s legitimate here in that USC’s numbers — still thinned by NCAA scholarship restrictions — could endanger any championship hopes if they take more than the normal hits to their roster.
Arizona State — Todd Graham is a coach who wants you to drink the Kool-Aid, and he says this will be the best offense short of the Packers. I’ll buy that, but I can’t see the Sun Devil defense, with nine new starters, playing to the level of 2013, when Sparky went 10-4. Overall, I see some regression.
Arizona — ‘Zona is the only other school besides Washington trying to determine a starting quarterback, which is either cause for alarm or a thick competition that’s going to forge steel at that position. Until the ‘Cats prove otherwise, I’m going to guess the former. Much like Washington without Bishop Sankey, they have to find ways to live without Ka’Deem Carey. And RichRod admits they don’t have the one dominating pass-rusher they’d like, so a repeat of 8-5 isn’t a given.
Utah — The Utes remind you of the guy swimming against a swift current, and though he’s madly trying, he’s gradually pulled farther from shore. The sense here is, Kyle Whittingham is a good football coach but doesn’t have much of a feel for the offensive side of the ball — and in recent years, for a lieutenant who can successfully run it. Now he may have found the guy in ex-Wyoming coach Dave Christensen. If he hasn’t, the whole crew likely gets swept out. Here’s why I think it’s unlikely Utah falls back from a 5-7, 2-7 pothole: It was very close to beating both Pac-12 division champions last year.
Colorado — For your for-what-it’s-worth file, Colorado returns 57 lettermen, more than any school in the Pac-12 (remember when returning lettermen was a prerequisite in team outlooks?). They’ve got a wealth of defenders back, but it’s also a defense that had horrible red-zone problems in 2013, when CU was 4-8 and 1-8. Players are talking bowl game, but this looks to me to be a case of simply too many clubs ahead of them with superior personnel. So, yeah, a slight regression is possible (Paul Richardson isn’t there anymore), simply because of the power of the league.