Pac-12 Preview: Expert Predictions
Oregon and UCLA are the favorites to meet in the Pac-12 title game, but what about USC? Are the Trojans overrated or underrated? Our experts break it all down in the Pac-12 preview for 2014.
Offensive player of the year: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon. One NFL observer told me Mariota spins it as well as anyone he has seen. The question is whether MM can bolt out of the pocket against pro defenses. For now, Mariota is the best dual-threat QB in the game. With a repaired knee, he'll be the biggest offensive force in the Pac-12.
Defensive player of the year: Leonard Williams, DE, Southern California. Should flourish in Justin Wilcox's 3-4 scheme. An All-American, Williams (74 tackles, 13.5 TFL, six sacks) was a Bednarik semifinalist and anchors perhaps USC's best unit. His hair alone could conduct interviews.
Top newcomer: Adoree Jackson, DB, USC. Steve Sarkisian beat out Florida, LSU and UCLA for this five-star ball hawk.
Coach of the year: Jim Mora, UCLA. In his third year, Mora has taken over LA after a 10-win season. The Bruins should win the South Division and make it back-to-back 10-win seasons in Westwood for the first time in 16 years.
Most underrated team: Washington State. Mike Leach had the Cougars in a bowl game in his second season. Leach doesn't need five-stars to win. (See Texas Tech.) Connor Halliday is the nation's second-leading returning passer. With a massive facilities upgrade, the Cougs are no longer a pushover in recruiting. Could be 5-1 headed to Stanford on Oct. 10.
Most overrated team: Arizona State. Brutal schedule. UCLA, USC, Stanford, Washington during in a five-week September-October stretch. The defense lost nine starters.
Most intriguing conference game: Oregon at UCLA, Oct. 11. The winner becomes the Pac-12 favorite for the playoff. Preview of Pac-12 Championship Game?
Most intriguing nonconference game: Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6. Brawn vs. Blur. The last time Oregon lost a September nonconference game at home was 2008.
Bold conference prediction: Oregon State's Sean Mannion will be the second Pac-12 player taken in the 2015 draft behind Mariota.
Offensive player of the year: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon. Would love to be a contrarian but the thought of a healthy year from Mariota makes this an easy choice now and four months from now. That balky knee a year ago probably cost Oregon two games. Brett Hundley will be more accurate and will push for this title.
Defensive player of the year: Leonard Williams, DE, USC. Washington's Shaq Thompson and UCLA's Myles Jack make this a great year for Pac-12 linebackers, but linebackers won't outperform Williams and his 15 sacks. If Williams wants to be dominant, he will be.
Top newcomer: Cayleb Jones, WR, Arizona: I might regret not listing Oregon frosh RB Royce Freeman, who has garnered rave reviews from Ducks camp, but Oregon's already loaded at tailback. Jones, a Texas transfer, had an impressive spring and should be a marquee target for the next Wildcats QB.
Most overrated team: USC. Finishing any better than third in the Pac-12 South will be an arduous task. UCLA and Arizona State have more experience and proven quarterback play. The Trojans have four- and five-stars all over the field but might need one more year to get past the depth issues from NCAA scholarship sanctions.
Most underrated team: Washington. Stanford and Oregon are expected to lock up the North, but make room for the Huskies, too. Sark left a talented roster, especially on defense, and Peterson knows how to maximize talent. Once quarterback Cyler Miles gets caught up after serving a suspension, the Huskies could be 4-0 heading into a Sept. 27 home matchup with Stanford.
Most intriguing conference game: Stanford at Oregon, Nov. 1. Players aren't supposed to think ahead, but let's just say this game might've been on the Ducks' minds for the past eight months. Stanford will keep pushing Oregon around up front until the Ducks show otherwise.
Most intriguing nonconference game: Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6. This might as well be a playoff quarterfinal game. Arguably the best teams in the Pac-12 and Big Ten both run the ball effectively but with contrasting styles. Pat Narduzzi's defense against Oregon's hurry-up will be delicious.
Bold conference predicetion: Jim Mora's program hasn't peaked yet. Bruins win the league for the first time since 1998.
Offensive player of the year: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon. If not for a knee injury, Mariota might have been the Heisman Trophy winner last season, when he threw 31 touchdowns and four interceptions. NFL scouts have their eyes on him as a possible top-10 pick.
Defensive player of the year: Leonard Williams, DL, USC. Williams' athleticism at 6-feet-5, 310 pounds could make him a future NFL first-round pick. This assumes he's healthy after spending the summer rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery that bothered him in 2013.
Top newcomer: Derik Calhoun, LB, Arizona State. There are plenty of spots to fill on Arizona State's defense, which returns only two starters. The freshman participated in spring camp and quickly rose up the depth chart.
Coach of the year: Steve Sarkisian, USC. Sarkisian enters a perfect scenario to win a coaching award: Low expectations in Year 1, taking over a program with talent, and no Oregon on the schedule.
Most overrated team: UCLA. The Bruins may very well be ready to live up to their hype as the preseason No. 7 team. But this is still a team that in 2013 lost 42-14 to Oregon and 24-10 to Stanford.
Most underrated team: Oregon State. It's not so much the Beavers are underrated this year, it's that coach Mike Riley is perennially underrated with lesser talent. QB Sean Mannion is capable of scaring some upper-tier Pac-12 teams.
Most intriguing conference game: Stanford at Oregon, Nov. 1. Stanford has demonstrated the blueprint on how to slow down Oregon: Hit the Ducks in the mouth. Has Oregon adjusted in 2014?
Most intriguing nonconference game: Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6. This is the type of nonconference game we want to see more of in the College Football Playoff era, where strength of schedule is supposed to matter.
Bold conference prediction: Some really good coaches are going to be on the hot seat after 2014. With Lane Kiffin out and Chris Petersen in, the quality of coaching in the Pac-12 continues to improve. But someone has to lose.
Offensive player of the year: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon. Mariota is another Heisman candidate at a stacked position in college football. He's making his third attempt to get Oregon to the top of the league.
Defensive player of the year: Myles Jack, LB, UCLA. Jack was a two-way player last year, scoring seven touchdowns as a running back, but he is a ferocious linebacker first and foremost. Jack was last season's Pac-12 offensive and defensive freshman of the year.
Top newcomer: Derik Calhoun, LB, Arizona State. Calhoun enrolled early and won the starting job at outside linebacker in the spring. Defense wasn't a strength at ASU last year, so he'll get plenty of chances to contribute.
Coach of the year: Mark Helfrich, Oregon. Winning this league won't be easy, as Oregon has found out the past two years. The Ducks won't get through it unscathed, but they will get through it.
Most overrated team: Utah. The Utes have struggled with the transition from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. They made a bowl after a 7-5 season in 2011, but haven't been back to one since. With road games against Michigan, UCLA, Arizona State and Stanford, they will be hard pressed to do so again.
Most underrated team: Arizona. The quarterback situation is unsettled, but whoever it is should be well protected behind a veteran offensive line. The schedule gives RichRod's Wildcats a chance to pull a surprise or two.
Most intriguing conference game: Oregon at UCLA, Oct. 11. This is a possible preview of the Pac-12 title game.
Most intriguing nonconference game: Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6. The Pac-12 favorite hosts the defending Big Ten champ. This could be another preview game, but this time of a playoff semifinal.
Bold conference prediction: The top teams in this league aren't ducking anyone (no pun intended). They all play tough nonconference games and each other. The result of all that though is that the league will get left out of the playoffs.
Offensive player of the year: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon. He's a Heisman favorite for a reason. He's really good, and he's in an offense that suits his strengths. He'll put up huge numbers this season.
Defensive player of the year: Leonard Williams, DE, USC. Williams is one of the best defensive linemen in the country, and he's a disruptive force against both the run and pass. He's the anchor of what should be a good USC defense.
Top newcomer: Dalton Schultz, TE, Stanford. Stanford has been a tight end machine in recent years, but it finds itself with a lack of experience at the position this year. So in steps the 6-foot-5 four-star freshman to fill the void.
Coach of the year: Rich Rodriguez, Arizona. While UCLA is the favorite in the South, Arizona should benefit this season from facing both Arizona State and USC in Tucson. I think that could be enough -- along with overall improvement as Rodriguez enters his third year -- to help the Wildcats jump to second in the division this year, which would lead to Rodriguez being rewarded.
Most overrated team: USC. The Trojans have a ton of talent, and it's perfectly reasonable to expect them to contend with UCLA for a division title this year. The problem is that USC has always had a lot of talent, and while Steve Sarkisian is probably a coaching upgrade over Lane Kiffin, I expect some struggles in Year 1.
Most underrated team: Washington State. The Cougars are picked to finish fifth in the North, but I think the third year of Mike Leach's system, 14 returning starters and a favorable schedule could have the Cougars competing with Washington for third place.
Most intriguing conference game: Stanford at Oregon, Nov. 1. The game that will decide the North Division, and considering these two have won the past five Pac-10/12 titles, it could decide the conference champion as well.
Most intriguing nonconference game: Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6. This will be a good indicator of Oregon this season. The Ducks have always run into trouble against teams like Michigan State (think Stanford and USC, plus that whole debacle against LSU a few years ago), and we could get a good idea of whether or not things will change in 2014.
Bold conference prediction: USC's Nelson Algholor will lead the nation in receiving yards this season.
Offensive player of the year: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon. A player of Mariota's lethal dual-threat talents, now in his fourth year and full command of the most explosive offense in the country, with a newly Aliotti-less defense in one of the highest-scoring leagues in the country ... he may or may not win the Heisman, but if he stays healthy, no one is going to have better numbers than Marcus Mariota.
Defensive player of the year: Leonard Williams, DE, USC. Myles Jack and Shaq Thompson may both have something to say about this, but the guess here is that the Trojans will emerge with the Pac-12's best defense in 2014, and Williams -- a do-it-all pass-rushing, run-stuffing terror -- would be honored as the best player from that defense.
|RB||D.J. Foster||Jr.||Arizona State|
|OT||Jamil Douglas||Sr.||Arizona State|
|OG||Christian Westerman||Jr.||Arizona State|
Top newcomer: Devon Allen, WR, Oregon. Keep an eye on Oregon State defensive tackle Jalen Grimble, a Miami transfer. But I'll go with Allen, the Ducks receiver who in his spare time is nothing less than the reigning US and NCAA champion in the 110-meter hurdles ... and may be just a bit of a deep threat.
Coach of the year: Steve Sarkisian, USC. The Trojans are my surprise pick to win the conference, and barring Mike MacIntyre taking Colorado to eight wins (or something similar), that should be enough for the first-year USC coach to win this in a walk.
Most overrated team: UCLA. Consider this nothing more than a hunch; the Bruins have both talent and experience in bunches, get all their toughest Pac-12 games at home and Jim Mora and Co. haven't shown anything in the way of coaching weakness yet. But when picking a top-10 team to disappoint, the team that hasn't been there in a while -- and UCLA hasn't finished in the final top 10 since 1998 -- is often the right choice.
Most underrated team: Washington. USC would obviously qualify if it lives up to my expectations, but no team with Chris Petersen and as much strength as the Huskies boast on either line of scrimmage -- four senior starters on offense, three on defense -- deserves to be considered a clear-cut fifth- or sixth-best team in this conference.
Most intriguing conference game: Oregon at UCLA, Oct. 11. That skepticism I just expressed regarding UCLA? If the Bruins can knock off the Ducks at home, that all goes away and the run at a playoff berth can truly begin in earnest. And if the Ducks win this one on the road -- quite possibly setting up an 8-0 start before hosting Stanford on Nov. 1 -- it'll likewise be safe to assume the glimmers of malaise that set in late in 2013 were merely fixable bugs in the Mark Helfrich era, and not an ongoing feature.
Most intriguing nonconference game: Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6. The Pac-12's perpetual, admirable willingness to schedule meaningful out-of-conference games means there's no shortage of candidates here -- did you know UCLA plays Texas and Utah travels to Michigan? -- but watching Mariota and the Ducks' offense match up with Pat Narduzzi's Spartans defense promises to be the most exciting treat of all.
Bold conference prediction: USC will win the Pac-12. This won't fly at all if the Trojans can't stay healthy, but if they do, they have the league's best defense, a savvy offensive staff and an impressive collection of skill talent -- Cody Kessler, Buck Allen, Nelson Agholor -- that seems poised for a devastating collective breakout. And if they can reach the Pac-12 championship game, their defensive line (I mentioned Leonard Williams, right?) should make the difference vs. Oregon.
Offensive player of the year: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon. Oregon probably won't put up 50-plus in each of its first five games again, but if Mariota can lead the Ducks past Michigan State on Sept. 6 it could be a special year in Eugene.
Defensive player of the year: Leonard Williams, DE, USC. Williams was one of the best defensive lineman in the country in 2013 and he wasn't even 100 percent due to a nagging shoulder issue. Expectations are high, but no one doubts that Williams could meet them.
Top Newcomer: Budda Baker, CB, Washington. The ferocious playing style of this undersized defensive back has already earned Baker an endearing nickname, via teammate Shaq Thompson -- "Little Big Monster."
Coach of the year: Steve Sarkisian, USC. As colleague Jerry Hinnen pointed out in our preview video, USC has arguably the most talented "starting 22" in the league. With depth issues due to the scholarship restrictions, Sark will try his best to keep those 22 healthy and productive while keeping an edge on the field.
Most overrated team: Arizona State. Todd Graham has been enthusiastic when talking about his reloaded defense, but I'm not buying the Sun Devils as a threat in the South until they show it on the field. Will Sutton, Carl Bradford, Chris Young and Alden Darby will be missed dearly.
Most underrated team: Washington. No Keith Price, no Bishop Sankey, no Justin Wilcox and a division they can't quite conquer. The Huskies might be the third-best team in the North but with Petersen at the helm I'm calling at least one surprising upset.
Most intriguing conference game: USC at Stanford, Sept. 6. One week in, the Pac-12 title race will start to unfold. How exciting is that? Both Stanford and USC are division title hopefuls and both have brutal schedules. Making matters even more intriguing is USC's upset of Stanford in LA last November.
Most intriguing nonconference game: Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6. I think the early challenge will help the Ducks in the long run, particularly getting to test their offense against the Spartans before trying to reverse fortunes vs. Stanford later in the year.
Bold conference prediction: Kevin Hogan will bounce back for an all-conference caliber year. Whether he earns those honors is difficult to predict with all the star power at quarterback in the Pac-12, but a pair of rangy redshirt freshmen at tight end could help him regain that 2012 form.
|Pac-12 Predicted Order of Finish|
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