Oregon has owned the PAC-12 over the past couple seasons, but is USC ready to take back the top spot?
The college football season is less than a month away from kicking off, and most teams have already begun their fall camps. Just in time for the regular season, our writers have cooked up previews for all of the conferences in the FBS. We last covered the Big 12, and today we will take a look at the PAC-12.
What Happened in 2014:
Conference Champion: Oregon 13-2 (8-1); Won conference title game 51-13 over Arizona
Coach of the Year: Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
After a pair of 8-5 seasons, Rodriguez broke through the mold and cracked a double-digit win total, the first time Arizona has done that since 1998. Rodriguez also led the Wildcats to their first AP top-10 ranking since 2010, reaching as high as eighth in 2014. Arizona stunned the world when it beat #2 Oregon to start the season 5-0, and finished the regular season 10-2 with a berth in the PAC-12 title game.
Offensive Player of the Year: QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon
Mariota was the darling of the college football world of 2014. He put up numbers that made NFL scouts drool over him: he threw for 4,454 yards, produced a 181.75 passer rating and completed 68.3% of his passes. On top of that, he managed to throw 42 touchdown passes with just four interceptions. And in Oregon’s spread-option attack Mariota showed great mobility, rushing for 770 yards and 15 touchdowns and averaging 5.7 yards per carry. It’s easy to see why he won the Heisman and was selected as the second-overall pick by the Tennessee Titans.
Defensive Player of the Year: LB Scooby Wright III, Arizona
Arizona clearly saw something in Scooby Wright III that a lot of others missed, being the only FBS school to offer him a scholarship. It sure paid off last season after Wright brought home enough awards to fill a trophy case. The inside linebacker won the Chuck Bednarik Award, the Lombardi Award, the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Jack Lambert Trophy. Wright’s versatility was the key to his success, as he was able to be effective in the pass rush (14 sacks, 29 tackles for loss) and was able to bring down ball carriers with ease (163 tackles).
Three Memorable Games:
1. Oregon 24 vs. Arizona 31, Oct. 2nd - Two years, two upsets. Arizona has played the spoiler for Oregon two straight seasons, and 2014 was especially sweet. Oregon and quarterback Marcus Mariota had the game in their hands, for what was supposed to be another shining moment for the eventual Heisman winner. However, with 2:20 remaining in the fourth quarter Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright III wrapped up Mariota and stripped the ball out of his possession. The Wildcats put the first black mark to the Ducks’ name and let the world know that they were a PAC-12 contender.
2. USC 34 vs. Arizona State 38, Oct. 4th - At the end of this game, USC fans were saying: “Who is Mike Bercovici?” That’s because the Arizona State backup threw for 510 yards and four touchdowns after coming in for injured starter Taylor Kelly. Oh, and he also threw up a last second, 46-yard Hail Mary that somehow landed in the arms of receiver Jaelen Strong.
3. Oregon State 35 vs. Arizona State 27, Nov. 15th - Trailing 27-21 early in the fourth quarter, it looked as if Oregon State would lose its fifth straight game. But Beavers quarterback Sean Mannion had other ideas, tossing a 67-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Villamin. The pass put Oregon State on top 28-27 after the extra point. To put the icing on the cake, Michael Doctor intercepted a pass and returned it 35 yards for a touchdown to put the Beavers up 35-27 with just a 1:38 remaining.
Looking Ahead to 2015:
Conference Favorite: USC
Despite still not being up to the full allotment of 85 scholarships, USC has a roster built to win. It starts on the offense with QB Cody Kessler who is one of the most underrated signal callers in all of college football. Kessler’s rise to one of the top QB’s in the game makes it really easy to like USC this year. Add to that he’s got one of the top offensive lines in the game to protect him as well as a corp of talented receivers. USC put up an average of 35.8 ppg and 457.5 yards per game last season, but this season the Trojans could top that.
When you look at the Trojans defense, you see a unit that lost a couple key components (All-American Leonard Williams and leading tackler Hayes Pullard), but looks to have enough existing parts and shiny new incoming parts that can fill the gaps. Hybrid linebacker/safety Su’a Cravens is the next star out of the storied Trojans defense; Cravens led the team in interceptions (3) and finished fourth in the PAC-12 with 17 tackles for loss. With Adoree’ Jackson leading the secondary, the Trojans have one of the best shutdown cover corners.
Overall, there’s a lot to like about this team. The offense is sure to be one of the best in the country, while the defense should improve with experience. USC has three tough road tests against Arizona State, Notre Dame and Oregon, and all three could mean the life or death for the Trojans’ playoff hopes. But, if coach Steve Sarkisian can win two of those games, USC will have an impressive resume at the end of the season.
Conference Dark Horse: Arizona State
Todd Graham has turned Arizona State around since taking over the team in 2012. Over the last couple seasons, the Sun Devils have emerged as a serious contender for the PAC-12 title. Graham’s crew has won 10 games in each of the past two seasons while winning the PAC-12 South in 2013. But there’s reason to believe that 2015 is the year Arizona State will put it all together.
Mike Bercovici will take the reigns off the offense after showing glimpses of brilliance when stepping in for Taylor Kelly last season. Bercovici threw for 1,445 yards and had two games in which he threw for at least 488 yards. He clearly has the talent to be a star, but there are questions about the tools that surround him, namely at receiver, which was decimated with the departure of Jaelen Strong and the loss of Cameron Smith.
The Sun Devils have a daunting schedule ahead, facing a gauntlet of Texas A&M, USC and UCLA in three of their first five games. However, the schedule is a little more favorable after that, facing Oregon and Arizona at home this season. Arizona State has been a nice surprise in the PAC-12 the past two seasons, but now the Sun Devils are ready to make their mark.
Most Improved Team: California
The Cal Golden Bears were so close to reaching a bowl game last season; a two point loss to UCLA and a four point loss to Arizona each could’ve gone the other way and sent the team to the postseason. And with one of the best quarterbacks in the country, Jared Goff, returning to lead the offense, there’s no reason to believe that Cal won’t get to a bowl.
In his sophomore season, Goff led the Cal offense to the 11th best scoring offense in the country, putting up 38.3 ppg. Goff finished fifth in the nation in passing yards (3,973), fifth in passing touchdowns (35) and fifth in passing yards per game (331.1). However, he has poised himself to have an even bigger year with the improvement of the weapons around him. The Bears have running back Daniel Lasco returning who ran for 1,115 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. Cal also returns a deep receiving group that features Kenny Lawler (54 catches, 701 yards) and Stephen Anderson (46 catches, 661 yards).
On defense, the Bears must improve against the pass after finishing dead last in the nation, giving up 367.2 yards per game and 12.37 yards per completion. The PAC-12 is a pass-happy league and with a defense that is atrocious when the ball is in the air, there’s no way it can be successful.
Freshmen to Watch:
1. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA - There is a very strong possibility that Rosen could lead the UCLA offense from the get-go. The No. 1 ranked pro-style QB, according to 247Sports, comes in with a lot of hype surrounding him. Rosen is a strong passer, throwing for 3,186 yards and 29 touchdowns as a senior. And although he isn’t the dual threat that Brett Hundley was, Rosen has good enough footwork to navigate through the pocket and escape the pass rush. Rosen is a star in the making at UCLA.
2. Iman Marshall, CB, USC - Iman Marshall could be the next great defensive back to play for USC. Coming out of high school, Marshall was the top-rated corner as well as the top-ranked player in the state of California. Marshall broke up 16 passes during his senior season, which will definitely come in handy in the pass-heavy PAC-12. He’s a physical guy that has a nose for the ball, registering 79 tackles last season. Marshall could see early playing time if Adoree’ Jackson moves over to the offensive side of the ball.
3. Keisean Lucier-South, OLB, UCLA - Lucier-South has been seeing more time with the first team defense recently and hasn’t really looked out of place. Lucier-South has great size, standing at 6‘4” and weighing in at 215 pounds. His great athleticism and first step help him to be an effective rusher. He may have been clocked at 4.7 in the 40, but he has great closing speed and can zero in on the ball carrier. Ranked as the No. 2 weakside defensive end by 247Sports, Lucier-South recorded 44 tackles and seven sacks during his senior season.
Offensive Player of the Year Prediction - Cody Kessler, QB, USC
It’s amazing how Cody Kessler flew under the radar last season, despite putting up some incredible numbers. Kessler totaled 3,826 passing yards, 39 touchdown passes and completed 69.7 percent of his passes. He could have easily passed up his senior season to head to the NFL, but opted instead to finish his career at USC. There really is no telling what heights Kessler will reach in 2015. Kessler could very well be a frontrunner for the Heisman trophy by the end of the season.
Defensive Player of the Year Prediction - Scooby Wright III, LB, Arizona
After winning the award last season and putting up such gaudy numbers, how can you not pick Scooby Wright III to win it again in 2015? Don’t be surprised if Wright doesn’t put up exactly the same kind of stats as he did last year, although that would be pretty impressive. Nonetheless, Wright will still have another phenomenal year as he finishes up his career in Tucson. His passing coverage was the weakest part of his game last season so look for him to improve that part of his game in the coming year.
Three Games to Watch:
1. Stanford vs. Oregon, Nov. 14th - The PAC-12 has been owned by these two teams the past six seasons with Stanford winning the conference title twice and Oregon winning four times. And while neither of these teams are the favorites to win the title this season, both of them are predicted to finish atop the PAC-12 North. The rivalry has seen a pair of highly drafted quarterbacks go through and now will look for the next offensive breakthrough player.
2. Arizona State vs. Arizona, Nov. 21st - These two teams will no doubt be in the thick of the race for the PAC-12 South title which makes the Duel in the Desert all the more a must-win game. The 2014 version of this rivalry saw Arizona secure its berth in the PAC-12 title game with a 42-35 victory.
3. USC vs. UCLA, Nov. 28th - One of the best rivalries in the sport is showing a lot promise to be one of the must-watch games of 2015. Both teams are primed to have big seasons, competing not just for a conference title, but for a spot in the College Football Playoff as well. UCLA has dominated the rivalry the past two seasons, winning both games by a combined score of 73-34.
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