College football is nearly underway across the nation, kicking off one of the most fascinating and exciting sporting weeks of the year. In a sport like college football, where even one loss can derail national championship conversation, the importance of coming out of the gates with authority is hyped from the first kickoff.
The Pac-12 conference is loaded with quarterback talent, in what should be an offensive-centric attack this season. Entering the season with five NCAA Top-25 teams in the AP Poll (Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Oregon State), the Pac-12 is prime for a note worthy year. Here’s how the conference stacks up, in our first power rankings of the year:
1. Oregon (8-1, 12-1 Last Season)
Opponent: Home vs. Nicholls State
The Oregon Ducks have one decisive edge over the tough and sturdy Stanford Cardinal, which ultimately propels them to the top of our list. It’s the play of quarterback Marcus Mariota. Mark Helfrich’s reign at Oregon will certainly feature the sophomore quarterback, who will emerge as one of the best signal callers in all of college football. Combine the fact that the Ducks return elusive weapons from last season including De’Anthony Thomas, Josh Huff and Colt Lyerla, the offense is built for success.
2. Stanford (8-1, 12-2 Last Season)
Opponent: Home vs. San Jose State
The Stanford Cardinal have built a machine under head coach David Shaw, and a big part of that has stemmed from developing one of the nastiest and athletic LB corps in the nation. Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov highlight the defensive corp of the Stanford defense which features four candidates (which ranks best in the country) on the Bronko Nagurski Trophy watch list for best defensive players in the nation. This physical club has a tough schedule in and out of conference, but should compete every single game.
3. Washington (5-4, 7-6 Last Season)
Opponent: Road at No. 19 Boise State
The greatest facet of the Washington Huskies roster lies in returning 20 impact players from a disappointing campaign. The biggest key on offense will be getting quarterback Keith Price back to his old tricks during his sophomore season. With renovations to Huskie Stadium complete, Steve Sarkisian’s club will need a vast improvement from its underachieving offense to complement a surprisingly strong (24.2 PPG Allowed) defense if they want to overcome staggering another staggering start.
4. Oregon State (6-3, 9-4 Last Season)
Opponent: Home vs. Washington State
Mike Riley worked wonders starting off the season 7-0, and faces similar propositions to the 2013-2014 season with quarterbacks Cody Vaz and/or Sean Mannion returning to campus along with a weak early slate. Oregon State returns one of the best under-the-radar athletes in the nation, with nearly 1,000 yard rusher Storm Woods. The Beavers biggest question mark may lie on the defensive line, an area of strength from last season (ranking second Pac-12 in rushing yards allowed) that will rely on two junior college transfers this season.
5. California (2-7, 3-9 Last Season)
Opponent: Home vs. No. 22 Northwestern
Sonny Dykes brings his tricks from Louisiana Tech to the highly competitive Pac-12 North Division for his first season as Cal Head Coach. His first installment has included announcing that true freshman Jared Goff will start at quarterback. Goff will be playing with emerging talent Brendan Bigelow (9.8 yards per carry in 2011) and St. John Bosco alum Bryce Treggs on the outside. On defense, the Bears will need to continue a strong effort from last season, relying on captain Mike linebacker Nick Forbes to lead the way. The Bears biggest downfall may truly be their strength of schedule, featuring a murderer’s row four-week stretch with Northwestern (22), Ohio State (2) and a trip to Oregon (3) on the docket.
6. Washington State (1-8, 3-9 Last Season)
Opponent: Road at Auburn
The Cougars have had their fair shares of ups and down under head coach Mike Leach, but a sense of stability should return to the program this season. This season Connor Halliday will be slated the tax of gunning the football 60-plus times a football game, an improbable feat reached twice last year. Sophomore WR Dominique Williams made waves over the season’s final five games (28 rec., 3 TD, 15.6 avg.) and will be featured as the top weapon.
1. Arizona State (5-4, 8-5 Last Season)
Opponent: Home vs. Sacramento State (9/5 Week 2)
Arizona State features one of the best and most efficient quarterbacks no one in the nation seems to be talking about in Taylor Kelly. Believe it or not, the Sun Devils (38.4 PPG) were the most prolific offense in the Pac-12 South last season under first-year head coach Todd Graham. This could drastically improve with sophomore running back Marion Grice showing promise in the final two games of the season (150 yards plus), hopefully adding balance on offense. The Sun Devils also welcome back junior defensive stalwart Will Sutton anchoring an improving defensive line along with four-star JC recruit Marcus Hardison. If the Sun Devils can escape a brutal opening stretch to the season that features Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame all in a row, they should be prime to take home the Pac-12 South honors and climb into the top 25 ranks.
2. UCLA (6-3, 9-5 Last Season)
Opponent: Home vs. Nevada
The fate of the UCLA Bruins chances will live and die with sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley under center. Following a breakout campaign, the offense will really be pigeonholed by the loss of starting running back Johnathan Franklin from last season. Luckily for the offense, star receiver Shaq Evans returns as the leading threat. While not as loaded in depth as the elite teams in college football, the star power on this roster puts the Bruins into Pac-12 championship consideration. An improving defense that also received Eddie Vanderdoes for the season should also help the cause. On the back end, Priest Willis will need to play solid at the CB position to replace the loss of Tevin McDonald.
3. USC (5-4, 7-6 Last Season)
Opponent: Road at Hawaii
If we haven’t pounded this topic to death, the Trojans biggest need for improvement needs to come at the quarterback position. Cody Kessler and Max Wittek are each going to get reps against Hawaii, but have plenty of weapons to feed the rock on the perimeter. That being said, the bevy of talent in the backfield should give the Trojans a nice security blanket to balance the offense. The biggest strength, and the one that will make or break success, lies on the defensive side of things. With talent at all three levels, the new 5-2 scheme should create pressure from different angles making life miserable on opposing quarterbacks. The first four games on the schedule are very winnable with a Pac-12 showdown on the road at Arizona State sitting as a make or break game for the Trojans early title chances.
4. ARIZONA (4-5, 8-5 Last Season)
Opponent: Home vs. Northern Arizona
The Arizona Wildcats sit as the biggest wildcard of the conference because of tremendous coaching but unproven talent laden across the roster. Off-field issues for running back Ka’Deem Carey (1929 Yards Last Season) seem as though they will be resolved, but there is no escaping leading receiver Austin Hill’s crushing knee injury. With dual-threat Matt Scott departed from the roster, Rich Rodriguez’s club is facing similar situations as their rivals in Los Angeles desperately looking for a quarterback to emerge. As of right now, B.J. Denker seems to be the favorite but junior-college transfer Jesse Scroggins (the former Trojan) and Nick Isham remain in the mix. That being said, the Wildcats have a much more manageable schedule this season, notably hosting Oregon and UCLA.
5. UTAH (3-6, 5-7 Last Season)
Opponent: Home vs. Utah State
The Utah Utes are still engaging in a state of flux following their departure from the sunny skies of the MWC to the tough sledding in the Pac-12 conference. Leading the revitalizing charge will be sophomore and former Elite 11 quarterback Travis Wilson. Bringing in offensive coordinator -and former ASU Head Coach- Dennis Erickson should bring life into the Utes attack which only averaged 26.5 PPG last season. John White III, an 1000 yard rusher from last season, is expected to carry the bulk of the carries on offense. There is no Star Lotulelei or Joe Kruger terrorizing the quarterbacks from the edge. Instead, the Utes have question marks at linebacker and in the secondary heading into the first game.
6. COLORADO (1-8, 1-11 Last Season)
Opponent: Road at Colorado State
New head coach Jason McIntyre is facing an entire slew of challenges in his first season in Boulder, most notably trying to implement the pistol offense. The Buffs were one of the nation’s youngest teams last season, and return their leading rusher (Christian Powell), receiver (Nelson Spruce) from last season and will most likely start Connor Wood at quarterback after losing their expected starter to an ACL injury. Paul Richardson (the leading receiver from 2011) returns to the roster hoping to provide some help on the outside.