The Reggie Bush scandal was one of the worst things to ever happen to USC. And one of the best for the Pac-12.
A funny thing happened to the Pac-12 when its most prominent member, Troy, was slapped with severe NCAA sanctions in 2010. The league grew stronger, much the way a team rallies around its injured starting quarterback. And now that the franchise has served its penance, the Pac-12 is peaking as a football power.
While the Trojans were healing, on and off the field, look at what’s happened around the league. UCLA became L.A.’s premier team. Arizona and Arizona State took flight under new coaches. Oregon remains a national power, while Stanford improbably captured back-to-back conference titles. And both Washington and Wazzu finally moved beyond a decade of futility. The Pac-12 now has ample depth and next-level talent to justify its status as the next best conference to the SEC.
Will the rise of the Trojans and the Bruins be enough to end the North Division’s run of five consecutive championships, three from Oregon and two from Stanford? UCLA is the favorite out of the South Division, largely because of the returns third-year head coach Jim Mora and junior QB Brett Hundley. Mora has been revelatory for a Bruin program that was pining for his kind of no-nonsense leadership and recruiting ability. While the schedule is nasty, UCLA appears up to the challenge of being the South representative.
Mora’s counterpart in cardinal and gold is Steve Sarkisian, who left Seattle to pilot the next stage of the USC recovery. He inherits plenty of talent from his old buddy Lane Kiffin, enough to represent the South Division in the Pac-12 title game for the first time. It’s a good time to be in Arizona, since the Sun Devils and the Wildcats are both rolling for third-year head coaches. ASU won the South in 2013, but a repeat will require the D to adapt to wholesale changes at every unit. Utah and Colorado are still trying to prove they belong in a higher weight class.
The North is the Pac-12’s version of the SEC West. No, the division hasn’t been that deep, but it’s been the dominant force over the past five seasons. Oregon and Stanford will once again be the heavy favorites in 2014. The Ducks want to rebound from their first BCS bowl-less postseason since 2008. But doing so will require beating the Cardinal, which has had the blueprint for stopping Oregon in recent years. The teams meet on Nov. 1 at Autzen Stadium.
The North welcomes Chris Petersen, who was lured out of Boise to get Washington over the hump and into divisional contention. Oregon State can never be taken lightly, especially with the return of QB Sean Mannion. Wazzu is competitive again now that Mike Leach is in charge. Cal is focused on small goals, like avoiding being the Pac-12’s worst team in consecutive years.
The Pac-12 is sizzling hot these days by measurements that extend beyond just Saturday afternoons and evenings. Just a few years after being a punchline for critics, the league is now a powerhouse, with the revenues, the respect and the recruiting classes to ensure long-term prosperity. Even better, that Pac-12 has evolved to new heights without a ton of help from its signature school, USC. Now that the Trojans are inching closer to full strength, and UCLA is surging, both divisions boast teams capable of competing for national headlines—and hardware.
- Stanford will win a third straight Pac-12 title, but lose head coach David Shaw to the NFL. Yeah, there are holes on both sides of the line, but the Cardinal now owns the blueprint on how to manage key personnel changes without so much as a hiccup.
- Marcus Mariota won’t be the highest quarterback from the state of Oregon drafted next spring. Sean Mannion will be. Mariota is fantastic, and could win this year’s Heisman, but Mannion is a prototypical pocket passes who’ll come on like gangbusters this fall.
- Stanford DE Henry Anderson is about to become a household name, especially inside the homes of NFL scouts. The clock is quickly ticking on his anonymity.
- Thomas Tyner is about to erupt into one of the most dynamic young running backs in the country. He’s just too fast for a 215-pounder, and he’ll be well-rested all season as a running mate with Byron Marshall. Tyner will average north of seven yards per carry, while ripping off a number of 50-yard explosions.
- Led by USC, the Pac-12’s defensive fronts will stack up well against any other league, including the SEC. The key will be Oregon, which really needs the towering bookend of DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead to reach its potential.
- Even after the graduations of Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt, UCLA will still harbor the league’s best group of linebackers. Myles Jack and Eric Kendricks return, plus Kenny Orjioke is poised to do his best Barr impression off the edge this fall.
- The Arizona offense will be just fine—again—despite losing All-American RB Ka’Deem Carey, and breaking in a new starting quarterback for a third straight year. Now that RichRod has the system fully installed, the Cats will have a plug-and-play feel to them going forward.
- One-time USC Trojan Jesse Scroggins will be the latest Arizona senior quarterback to excel in his Tucson finale. He’ll be helped—immensely—by a set of receivers that’ll do major damage now that Austin Hill is back from his ACL injury.
- USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox will be a head coach four months from now. He’s ready, with the Trojans’ defensive effort in 2014 serving as the exclamation point.
- UCLA CB Fabian Moreau will be one of the Pac-12’s biggest stars that no one is talking about in the preseason. He and Ishmael Adams will form an underrated corner tandem for the Bruins.
- Cal’s QB Jared Goff will lead the league in passing yards … and picks. Throwing as much as the Bears will this season always comes with a hefty price tag, namely turnovers and a gassed defense.
- First-year Arizona State guard Christian Westerman will go from Auburn to the All-Pac-12 Team in his Sun Devil debut. He’s bringing a nasty streak to the desert, and at a most opportune time for a unit replacing a couple of starters.
- Stanford has its best collection of receivers and tight ends in years. It remains to be seen, however, if QB Kevin Hogan will be able to take full advantage of it.
- Cal DE Brennan Scarlett will wreak havoc on Pac-12 blockers, giving the Bears the pass rusher they desperately need in 2014. He’s an NFL talent itching to make his return from last year’s hand injury.
- In a league that likes using tight ends, Arizona State’s De’Marieya Nelson will become one of the more lethal downfield threats at the position. With Jaelen Strong warranting so much attention on the outside, Nelson will school linebackers over the middle.
- Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche will underwhelm at UCLA. The rest of the Bruin O-line will not. The front wall is young, yet flush in up-and-comers, such as Caleb Benenoch and Alex Redmond.
- Six different Washington State receivers will catch at least 50 balls from Connor Halliday. The Cougars have the kind of depth in the receiver corps that makes Mike Leach mad-scientist-giddy with anticipation.
Team That’ll Surprise
USC – Okay, it’s the Trojans, so it’s not as if this program is going to catch the rest of the Pac-12 napping. But Steve Sarkisian’s first team has the right mix of talent to steal momentum—and the South Division—from UCLA. Sark plans to flourish with steady quarterback play, an assertive ground game and a nasty defense. And as luck would have it, he inherits a team that has a check mark next to each priority. Cody Kessler returns as the starting quarterback, the backfield is among the deepest in the Pac-12 and the D will be special, particularly up front. If those nagging depth issues don’t get in the way, Troy is liable to shoot past expectations for the new regime.
Team That’ll Disappoint
Arizona State – The Sun Devils raised the bar a year ago by winning ten games. Reaching that bar in 2014 will be considerably more difficult. Yes, ASU will again score plenty of points behind the triumvirate of QB Taylor Kelly, RB D.J. Foster and WR Jaelen Strong. But in a league like the Pac-12, a fancy offense alone doesn’t guarantee prosperity. Arizona State will be more vulnerable in 2014 because nine defensive starters, and all eight of last year’s all-stars are gone. While Todd Graham did well to populate the two-deep with JUCO stars, the newcomers will need time to gel. The Devils remain dangerous, but not quite as much as a year ago, when the D was littered with seniors.
Game of the Year … Oregon at UCLA, Oct. 11
In a refreshing change, the Pac-12’s most important game of the year won’t pit Oregon against Stanford. Oh, that tilt will be plenty big on Nov. 1 in Eugene, but the Ducks and the Bruins in Pasadena will resonate even louder. If UCLA is indeed prepared to climb a rung higher on the Pac-12 ladder, this would be the time to do it, in a high-profile conference game with national—and Heisman—implications. Oregon has won five straight meetings, pulling away last year in Eugene, 42-14. If the Bruins and Hundley can outscore the Ducks and Marcus Mariota this time around, they could end the weekend as more than South Division favorites. A win of this magnitude would validate UCLA’s status as a playoff contender.
5 Big-Time Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight…
1. QB Taylor Kelly, Sr. USC
2. DE Henry Anderson, Sr. Stanford
3. DT Danny Shelton, Sr. Washington
4. WR Austin Hill, Sr. Arizona
5. LB Eric Kendricks, Sr. UCLA
Coach on the Hot Seat
Sonny Dykes, Cal – Short of an NCAA scandal, things couldn’t have gone much worse for Dykes in Year 1. The Bears were historically bad in 2013, getting swept by FBS opponents, while yielding twice as many points as they scored. After the season, five veteran starters turned pro early rather than spend another year in Berkeley. The silver lining is that last year’s team was extremely young, and the injuries that plagued it can’t possibly be as commonplace this fall. Dykes has high hopes for an Air Raid passing attack returning most of last season’s key components, such as QB Jared Goff and receivers Bryce Treggs, Chris Harper and Kenny Lawler. The D, though, must be overhauled by new coordinator Art Kaufman. Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham has also entered uncharted waters, thanks to consecutive 5-7 seasons.
5 Non-Conference Games the Pac-12 better take very, very seriously
1. UCLA at Virginia, Aug. 30
2. USC at Boston College, Sept. 13
3. San Diego State at Oregon State, Sept. 20
4. Rutgers at Washington State, Aug. 28
5. Washington at Hawaii, Aug. 30
5 Best Pro Prospects
1. DE Leonard Williams, Jr. USC
2. OT Andrus Peat, Jr. Stanford
3. CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Sr. Oregon
4. QB Marcus Mariota, Jr. Oregon
5. QB Brett Hundley, Jr. UCLA
5 Biggest Shoes to Fill
1. RB Jared Baker for Ka’Deem Carey, Arizona
2. LB Kenny Orjioke for Anthony Barr, UCLA
3. WR Victor Bolden for Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
4. DT Dalvon Stuckey for Will Sutton, Arizona State
5. LB Kevin Anderson for Trent Murphy, Stanford
Preview 2014 – Pac-12 Preview//
The Reggie Bush scandal was one of the worst things to ever happen to USC. And one of the best for the Pac-12.