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2014 College Football Preview: The Pac-12

The North division looks vicious, and the South’s not much better. Welcome back to a wild, wild West Coast.

W   ith the 2014 college football campaign looming and the preseason in full swing, let’s take one last whip around the FBS to top off our talking points, shall we? Previously: the SEC and the ACC. Next up: the Pac-12, where the galaxy’s getting crowded.

Click here for more from our 2014 preview.

Spotlight Team: Oregon

It can get lonely on top of the trapeze platform. Coming out of 2013, the Oregon Ducks were operating on a floor so high there was barely room to stand without bumping into the ceiling. An 11-2 season, under a first-year head coach, leaving certain segments of the viewing public with bitter tastes on their tongues? In this fun house, it was possible, albeit everlastingly goofy. In 2014, the mirror maze should adjust itself a touch toward reality: Let Mark Helfrich’s second-year regime come up short — and we’re not even saying it will — with this set of personnel and against this season’s slate before twitching hands to clutch pearls. If then, but certainly not before.

The show pony for the 2014 Ducks will be redshirt junior quarterback Marcus Mariota, who’s neck-and-neck with Jameis Winston among returning QBs in making the most compelling television. Less clear: Who’s going to be Mariota’s can’t-miss pass-catcher? Not Josh Huff, who’s now a Philadelphia Eagle. Not Bralon Addison, who’s out for at least part of the season following a spring ACL injury.1 With tailbacks Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner returning to spell Mariota on the ground, running at will shouldn’t be an issue, though left tackle Tyler Johnstone’s ACL tear is a blow for an offensive line that was set to return its four most experienced players.

Defensively, Nick Aliotti has given way to new coordinator Don Pellum, who inherits a unit high on both turnover and potential, and one that got a boost from Ifo Ekpre-Olomu’s surprise return at corner. The big names are gone in the return game, but there are so many options to choose from that predicting how the transition will go gets sticky fast.

Back to the notion of “underachieving” for a minute: Please adjust all perceptions of the concept to account for the Ducks’ position within the maelstrom of the Pac-12, particularly as residents of the Hydra-headed North division. This team gets Michigan State in Week 2; plays Arizona and UCLA out of the South; and operates in a division containing defending Pac-12 champ Stanford, can’t-be-discounted peskiness enthusiasts Oregon State and Washington State, and a looming legitimate threat in Washington. The very least the Ducks have to manage just to maintain respectability in this league is, in itself, a big damn deal.

This iteration of the Pac-12 is one in which we almost hate to see anybody lose. It’s enough to make us want to damn the playoff, dam off the conference from the rest of the country, and make certain Pac-12 teams replay each other again and again for our entertainment and understanding. (Stanford-Utah 2013, you haunt us still.)

Pac-12 Story Time

Three absorbing plotlines to follow into the mists in 2014.

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AP Photo

Washington and Changing Tenses. Almost exactly as soon as Steve Sarkisian got the Huskies to a by-god breakthrough season, he skipped back to Southern California. But don’t expend sympathies on the Huskies, who managed what could end up being a flat-out upgrade in head coaching by prying Chris Petersen out of his lair at Boise State. Along with Sark, Washington loses its top two ball carriers in Adamantium-skinned quarterback Keith Price and running back Bishop Sankey, but almost everybody who played behind them returns. There’ll be tons of veteran experience on the offensive line behind which to experiment, and a squishy opening slate to provide ample room for trial and error.2 And from a defense that was tons of fun to watch last season, Petersen and incoming defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski inherit boatloads3 of tackles, as well as a defensive star with a possible two-way future in Shaq Thompson. It would’ve been interesting to see how Sark followed up his first really meaty successful campaign in Seattle; it’ll be even more interesting to see what Petersen does with what Sark left behind.

Stanford vs. the Scrum. The Cardinal look primed to hit a skid. There are smart folks who aren’t buying the idea of a down year for Stanford, and those people have valid reasons, and at this point in the calendar none of us is really doing anything more than reading barbecued tea leaves anyway. But the NFL draft took a big bite out of Stanford, drafting six stars to ascend to the pros (LB Trent Murphy, OT Cameron Fleming, OG David Yankey, S Ed Reynolds, RB Tyler Gaffney, DE Ben Gardner) and landing several others, including terrifying linebacker Shayne Skov, via free agency. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason took the head job at Vanderbilt.

But we’re talking about Stanford, a white-collar program that excels at turning blue-collar positions into household names. The Cardinal return plenty of experience on the defensive front and every starting defensive back other than Reynolds. You will know the names of several of the burly killer bears on both sides by November. Offensively, quarterback Kevin Hogan returns along with his top three receivers from last year in Ty Montgomery, Devon Cajuste, and Michael Rector. Montgomery’s our target of intrigue heading into 2014, given his near-thousand-yard receiving campaign in 2013 and his scary prowess on kick returns, but since this is Stanford, we’re really looking for the next Gaffney to emerge, and multiple candidates wait in the wings. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is.

And even more so than with Oregon, merely getting through the Pac-12 schedule should trigger some kind of citywide balloon drop on Stanford’s behalf. The Cardinal’s slate is littered with rowdy road environments and nasty opponents and combinations of both, with Washington, Arizona State, Oregon, and UCLA all slated as away games. We’re skeptical of a repeat championship here, but we’re also used to being surprised by Stanford.

Arizona and [PEW PEW PEW PEW PEW TBD].4 Rich Rodriguez could start one of two quarterbacks you’ve seen before in different uniforms (USC import Jesse Scroggins or Texas ex Connor Brewer), or somebody completely different, and he and his staff are in no hurry to make up their minds. Ka’Deem Carey is gone, and nobody who played behind him at running back last year got more than a sliver of experience, because when you have Ka’Deem Carey you don’t tend to worry about handing the ball to anybody else. That sliver belongs to Jared Baker, who tore his ACL in 2013’s regular-season finale but returned ahead of schedule this summer, and who’s now being chased by a pack of freshmen.

Sometimes the snow comes down in June, and sometimes we save the best for last: Austin Hill returns, finally, from his spring 2013 ACL injury, and headlines a receiving corps that includes a couple of productive underclassmen (Nate Phillips, Samajie Grant) and another Texas transfer, Cayleb Jones. The offensive line loses just one player with any significant snaps (guard Chris Putton), and the Wildcats open their season with UNLV, UTSA, Nevada, and Cal. Pinball happiness will reign in Tucson, for at least this first month.

Who’s That Guy? Arizona State RB/WR D.J. Foster!

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AP Photo

Who’s That Guy? is an orientation tool for use in college football’s vast landscape, and is filmed in front of a live studio audience.

Who Is He? Arizona State running back/receiver D.J. Foster.

Where Is He From? Just across the Salt River in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Years Played: Foster is entering his third season.

Follow the Bouncing Ball: Not much bounce to it: Foster’s been here all along, seeing action in 13 games as a freshman in 2012 and in 14 last season. With Marion Grice off to the Chargers, Foster will ascend to a higher profile in ASU’s running back fleet, or continue to operate in a meaningful role, if you count his excellent performances during Grice’s injury absences last season (and you should). Foster recorded 501 yards rushing and 653 yards receiving as a sophomore.

Bio Tidbit: You may know Scottsdale as the site of Steven Spielberg’s formative years. You may know it as the home of Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home, Taliesin West. But did you know saguaro cacti can live to be 200 years old?

Social Media Presence: Foster is on Twitter @AState_8, breaking down the issues that affected us all as college students:

Career Highlight: Pick a play from last year’s Territorial Cup.

Should We Know Him? Arizona State’s crowded in the backfield this fall, but with Todd Graham professing to want Foster to hold the ball a couple dozen times a game, it’s safe to say he’ll be a familiar presence by season’s end.

Breakout Hits

Lesser luminaries of the league destined for bigger things in 2014.

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Victor Bolden, WR, Oregon State. There is no replacing Brandin Cooks. There are a lot of eyes on this diminutive sophomore Beaver (and, by extension, on new Oregon State offensive coordinator John Garrett) to try to do just that. Bolden has wildly prolific quarterback Sean Mannion throwing to him; between the two of them, however, will stand an offensive line that’s lost its three most experienced players.

Andrus Peat, OL, Stanford. Outshone by all the future draft picks he played alongside in 2013, the Cardinal’s returning left tackle is getting effusive praise (really, really effusive) out of head coach David Shaw, and he also provides us with the opportunity to type the name “Andrus Peat” while not getting too directly involved with the volatile Game of Thrones fan-fiction community.

Leonard Williams, DE, USC. He put up 74 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, and six sacks as a sophomore while playing with a shoulder injury. What kind of monster will a healthy Leonard Williams look like?

Impact Freshman

Devon Allen, WR, Oregon. Here’s a very Oregonian problem: Allen is so fast in running track that Ducks football coaches worry about being able to keep him on the football team.

Toastiest Coach

Somewhat unfairly: Sonny Dykes, Cal. We aren’t actually counting on any Pac-12 head coaches losing their jobs this year, barring the always-possible melodramatic collapse of an entire program here or there. Call Dykes the likeliest of an unlikely bunch, then. Mike MacIntyre’s Buffaloes made incremental improvements in Year 1 and look set to keep bucking up in 2014; Utah’s Kyle Whittingham keeps turning up on preseason hot seat lists, and we disagree with all of them. That leaves Dykes, who has an appalling 1-11 first-year record under his belt, changes at the administrative level with which to contend, and other newish Pac-12 coaches achieving bigger gains and making him look bad. And the Bears are in the North, bless their fuzzy hearts. Still, we’d love to see Dykes get a shot worth several years; when it’s hopping, Dykes’s and Tony Franklin’s offense is pure joy on sparking tireless wheels.

Early Must-Watch Game, Conference Category

Most of the quality matches in league play come later for the Pac-12, but on the September slate, look out for USC’s Week 2 trip to Stanford (a daunting trip for any team, let alone one that won’t be able to look past its season-opening opponent in Fresno State), UCLA’s Week 5 trip to Arizona State (a game that last year produced more than 850 yards of offense), and Stanford’s Week 5 trip to Washington (our first really good look at a Huskies team that begins its season with Hawaii, an FCS team, Illinois, and a recently transitioned FBS team).5

Early Must-Watch Game, Nonconference Category

This is more like it: You’ve got your early potential trap game with that Fresno State–USC meeting in Week 1. You’ve got your vindication-potential rematch of a game that went horribly wrong last year with Cal-Northwestern providing fireworks, also in Week 1. You’ve got another UCLA-Texas game, which has seen scorching victories on both sides, in Week 3. But all eyes, for the moment, are on Rose Bowl champion Michigan State’s trip to Oregon in Week 2.

Outlandish Prediction

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UCLA and USC will be ranked next to each other again for this year’s rivalry game. Life’s more fun when the Bruins and Trojans are both good at the same time, and the closer together they are in the polls, the grudgier their annual meeting feels. UCLA-USC is a symbiotic relationship built off mutual disdain, and if one side is way, way ahead of the other come November, the allure just won’t be as sparkly.

It’s not an ungrantable wish: UCLA clearly sits a cut above at the moment, but the Trojans, still low on personnel post-sanctioning, have a schedule that skips them past Oregon and Washington this year, and most of their easier conference games (to the extent that “easier” is even a thing in the Pac-12) are clustered late. The Bruins, meanwhile, return lots and lots of really good experience, minus a couple of stars but with plenty of talent jostling to replace them. Their schedule hits all three of the most formidable teams in the North and includes road trips to Texas, Arizona State, and Washington. It could all even out in the polls by the time the teams meet on November 22. You never know.

What you do know is that you want lots on the line when this game comes around. Plenty of really important reasons for Myles Jack6 and Friends to keep Cody Kessler from getting that ball to Nelson Agholor. A division title on the line for Brett Hundley’s last college season.7 Stakes on stakes on stakes.

And Now for Something Completely Different

We’re running out of space in which to discuss a Washington State team that’s very much a cipher this season, but we love you too much to leave without giving you a way through to Mike Leach’s latest AMA. Find out what he thinks of the new Taco Bell in Pullman! 

Filed Under: 2014 College Football Preview, College Football, College Football Preview, Pac-12, USC Trojans, UCLA Bruins, Arizona Wildcats, Arizona State Sun Devils, Oregon Ducks, Stanford Cardinal, Washington Huskies, Cal Bears, Who's That Guy, NCAA, College Football Playoff, Heisman Trophy, Wingardium Mariota, Marcus Mariota, Chris Petersen, Steve Sarkisian, Mark Helfrich, Myles Jack, Brett Hundley, Holly Anderson

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Holly Anderson is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ HollyAnderson

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