2014 NCAA Football Preview: Pac-12 Preview

August 26, 2014

We are now less than 48 hours away from FBS college football’s return.

Let’s take a look at the Pac-12 Conference.


The Pac-12 is a strong conference. Like, really strong. Like, stronger than every other conference in the country except maybe the SEC strong. There is a ton of talent in this league and it’s spread out pretty well among the 12 teams in the conference. But at the same time, there is also no shortage of playoff contenders. The top of the league is as strong as any, including the SEC. So while the teams in the conference that will end up finishing at 8-4 or 7-5 looked really good against top competition from other leagues, it will be tough sledding against the top dogs.

There was once a time, not that long ago actually, where the Pac-12 (then the Pac-10) struggled mightily to gain the respect of the media concentrated mainly on the Eastern seaboard, a phenomenon commonly known as the “East Coast bias”. Since it coincided with the low periods of schools like UCLA and before the quick rise of Oregon, it may be difficult to fully agree that sportswriters and television networks truly had a vendetta against the conference. But my, how the times change. Now you’d be crazy to suggest that the Pac-12 doesn’t get the attention that it rightfully deserves.

Sometimes staying up until one or two in the morning is a bad idea. And it may even be a bad idea now, despite the number of marquee Pac-12 battles that will take place when those in the Eastern time zone are thinking about going to bed. But it’s a lot of easier to rationalize it these days thanks to the strength of the Pac-12 Conference. Some team from this league will make the playoff. You can take that one to the bank. So thanks, Larry Scott, for adding about three hours of decent football to our Saturday marathons.

Team(s) With the Best Shot at a Playoff Bid


Will the Ducks ever not make this list again? While that question may not seem so crazy given another year, in 2014 you’re still going to get looks for saying that Oregon is overrated. Head coach Mark Helfrich gets another year to make something happen with what is primarily a team made up of Chip Kelly’s players. Back is junior quarterback Marcus Mariota, a bit of a surprise depending on what you think of his prospects as a future NFL signal caller. As long as he doesn’t get hurt, Oregon’s offense will continue to be one of the most dangerous on the West Coast. The entire offensive line returns from 2013, which is huge for a quarterback that only needs a little protection to be the most dangerous weapon in the country.

The biggest question about the Ducks still resides in the toughness department. This school has churned out some of the fastest and most physically fit squads in the country in prior years, but when push comes to shove (literally), the Ducks don’t always stack up. Teams like Stanford and now UCLA will continue to be Oregon’s biggest enemy, that is, unless new defensive coordinator Don Pellum has changed things in Eugene. This isn’t the best Oregon team we’ve ever seen, but if the defensive line is stronger and can withstand the 60 minutes worth of banging that opponents will serve them, the Ducks can make it back to the top of the rankings.


I’m not as high on the Bruins as some of the other media types around the country, but I also wouldn’t be giving UCLA enough credit if I left them out of this section. Brett Hundley is a terrific quarterback and puts about as much fear into opposing defensive coordinators as does Marcus Mariota. Three starters return to the offensive line and there is experience sprinkled throughout the rest of the offense that should prevent the Bruins from stalling against tough opponents in the first month of the season. But talent isn’t really the issue I have with this team. If UCLA wants to elevate itself to conference champions for the first time since 1998, mental toughness will have to play a large part, especially near the end of the year.

The Bruins won 10 games last season, but failed to win a single game against a team that finished above them in the Pac-12 Conference. In fact, UCLA lost its games against both Oregon and Stanford by at least two touchdowns, a sign that the Bruins were a step away from elite status in the league. Expectations are understandably high this season in Los Angeles, so 14 point defeats will not be tolerated. A lot of responsibility rests on the shoulders of the defensive secondary, which anchored the defense last year and returns three of its four starters. The Bruins will be an interesting team to watch this year, but I’d be surprised if they’re still a legitimate playoff contender by the time mid-November rolls around. Still, there is too much talent on this team to ignore.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Oregon State

The Beavers are used to playing second fiddle in the state of Oregon, but 2014 is the kind of year where the experience of head coach Mike Riley could be the team’s greatest weapon. Riley has more seasons under his belt (13) in Corvallis than the rest of the coaches in the Pac-12 North have combined at their current schools (8). And while the Beavers don’t have the most talent in the division, they lost less of it on both sides of the ball than the other top teams did. Quarterback Sean Mannion is the best pure passer in the conference and will now be running an offense devised by John Garrett, who has NFL coaching experience. That combination should be enough to overcome the loss of Brandin Cooks, the most talented departure from last year’s squad.

The schedule isn’t a whole lot easier than in 2013, but the most difficult road games of the year are near the beginning of the season as opposed to being back-loaded as they were last season. Home dates against Arizona State and Oregon in November will be huge if the Beavers manage to steal a win earlier in the year against USC or Stanford. Expectations aren’t terribly high at Oregon State, which is probably one of the reasons why Coach Riley has lasted so long on that campus. But the Beavers have the chance to do more with less in 2014, which is always something to hang your hat on as a coach when going into that yearly review.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player to Watch)

Shaq Thompson (Jr.), Washington linebacker

New Washington head coach Chris Petersen may experience some of the same troubles in the defensive secondary with the Huskies that he did in his last season at Boise State, but fortunately for Petersen his best player on the team is essentially a linebacker/defensive back hybrid. At 6’2″, 225 pounds, Shaq Thompson is big enough to put fear into opposing blockers as a run stopper but is also a major pain for tight ends and wideouts alike because he is quick enough to play the pass just as effectively. As the verbal and physical leader of the Washington defense, expect Thompson to receive a lot of the credit if the Huskies start the season well. With a new quarterback and running backs to break in, Thompson is the most important player on the roster.

It will be interesting to see how Thompson is utilized differently this season with Coach Petersen running the show. Since the secondary could be a major issue, it wouldn’t be surprising if Thompson’s numbers take a hit in the tackles department but improve as a coverage man. If that is the case, he could improve his draft stock for next year, proving that he is as versatile a player as everyone makes him out to be.

Out-Of-Conference Game to Watch

Stanford vs. Notre Dame (October 4th)

Okay, you caught me. The Michigan State/Oregon game is clearly the most anticipated out-of-conference game featuring a Pac-12 squad, but I didn’t want to list it twice since it was already mentioned in the Big Ten preview. But this game isn’t a bad second option. It’s difficult to predict how good Notre Dame will be with the news that four players, three of which were projected to be starters, have been suspended without a timetable for their return. But the return of Everett Golson gives Notre Dame an offensive presence that it missed dearly in 2013, suspensions aside.

Stanford is a bit of a mystery as well, needing to replace Tyler Gaffney at running back, who was the third leading rusher in the Pac-12 last season. Oddly enough, this game could end up producing a lot more points than we would have expected from a contest between these two teams in prior years. Both Stanford’s Kevin Hogan and Golson are proven passers and have the trust of their coaches to air it out. As much as both David Shaw and Brian Kelly would love to pound it out on the ground, the teams may have more success by opening up the passing game.

In-Conference Game to Watch

Stanford vs. Oregon (November 1st)

This game will be played in Eugene, but that hasn’t been much of an advantage recently for the Ducks when the Cardinal come to town. Since 2009 Oregon is 2-3 against Stanford and hasn’t beaten the Cardinal at Autzen Stadium since 2010. A lot can be said about Stanford’s physicality and Oregon’s perceived lack of it, but it’s really much simpler than that. The Cardinal have just been better than Oregon three of the past five seasons. While it has been a surprise when Oregon goes down, Stanford hasn’t been a major underdog in any of the games it has beaten the Ducks in the past five years. The teams should be fairly evenly matched in the 2014 edition as well.

Stanford may not have as dangerous a rushing attack this season, which should make Oregon’s defensive front particularly happy. But the Cardinal defense will still be hard-hitting and tough to move the ball against, which has been the major issue for the Ducks against Stanford the past few seasons. Head coach David Shaw has had Oregon’s number, limiting the offense to far fewer than its normal number of plays and keeping his own offense out of third and long situations. While the Cardinal may have a different look offensively this season, don’t expect them to deviate much from the M.O. that has worked against Oregon as of late.

Conference Predictions

North Division

1. Oregon (11-1, [8-1])

2. Stanford (9-3, [6-3])

3. Oregon State (9-3, [6-3])

4. Washington (9-4, [5-4])

5. Washington State (5-7, [2-7])

6. California (2-10, [1-8])

South Division

1. UCLA (10-2, [7-2])

2. Southern California (9-3, [6-3])

3. Arizona (8-4, [5-4])

4. Arizona State (7-5, [4-5])

5. Utah (5-7, [3-6])

6. Colorado (2-10, [1-8])

Championship Game (Oregon vs. UCLA)

Winner: Oregon

Questions from the Readers

This is a section dedicated to the readers, where I will answer the questions you have sent me through Facebook, Twitter (@KBecks_ATC) or email (kbecks@aroundthecorn.com). Unfortunately, there were no questions sent regarding the Pac-12 or its teams. Feel free to ask multiple questions, as I will answer any appropriate question that is submitted in time. Thanks guys.

– K. Becks

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