Pac-12 Preview: Evaluating 2013
By Andrew Tomlinson
The NFL season may have just ended and the college football season may not be in some of your minds with the season still months away. Yet, with signing day just concluded there is never been a better time to look forward to next year in the Pac-12.
When looking at what this season holds for the Pac-12 conference, the story must start with the defending conference champion Stanford. Led by surprise starting quarterback Kevin Hogan, who took over midway through last season, the Cardinal can only trend up at this point. Hogan was a stronger passer who eclipsed Josh Nunes despite being a redshirt freshman. Even though Stanford may have found the replacement for Andrew Luck, they lost a top starting tight end in Zach Ertz, who was also the team’s leading receiver, and starting running back Stepfan Taylor to the NFL draft.
Losing seven starters total to the NFL leaves the Stanford a little bare on both offense and defense. Not only will Hogan need to get acclimated to a new center snapping him the ball, but last year's top five receiverd will all be absent. A weak overall recruiting class, No. 63 in the country according to Rivals.com, means Stanford will not glean many freshmen starters outside of maybe wide receiver and defensive back and also puts them in win now mode. With most of the defense returning, expect them to continue to have one of the top defenses in terms of stopping the other team from scoring, even if the offense struggles out of the gate.
Jim Mora Jr. is the new face of a resurgent UCLA football program that, despite limping to the end of the season with three straight losses, two to Stanford, earned Mora a one-year extension and reinvigorated the fan base. UCLA picked up a surprisingly strong recruiting class, coming in at eighth in the country (Rivals) with the top class of the Pac-12. With multiple top-10 recruits at defensive back, defensive end, offensive line and quarterback, the program should be stocked with starting talent in the near-future.
Next year does not look so bad either, with young Brett Hundley holding down the quarterback position after a strong 3,740 yard passing season with 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. UCLA could be boom or bust, but some strong defense would play a big part into continued success. Replacing projected second round defensive end Datone Jones will not be easy and a huge part of the defense’s ability to succeed will hinge on whether Cassius Marsh can be as productive.
If there was ever a year where Lane Kiffin should get a free pass it should be this one. He has been awful by Trojans standards since starting at USC as their head coach.
The world got an early glimpse of what life will be like after Matt Barkley with Max Wittek and let's just say it will not pretty. USC may have snagged another top recruiting class and the top overall quarterback in Max Browne, but it could be a rough year for the Trojans. Marqise Lee is still there, but Robert Woods is gone and it is no secret the two of them together is what helped Lee put up a productive season last year. Next season is a big test to see if Lee can fight through some of the double coverages he will now face because of the lack of a threat across from him.
Last season’s free agent -- read as recruiting -- prize Silas Redd is still on the roster, foregoing the NFL draft, a lone bright-spot for Kiffin. With such a productive back returning, do not be surprised if USC turns back into “running back U” for at least one season.
That said, Kiffin better start wondering where he is going next as his days may be numbered in California.
Bye, bye Dion Jordan, Chip Kelly and Kenjon Barner. Welcome, Mark Helfrich, and the harsh reality that is Oregon’s future. One of the fastest -- literally -- growing college football powers is staring at a put up or shut up season with several of their star players and their coach bolting for the NFL. Kelly was the face of this program and there is some concern about whether the former offensive coordinator, Helfrich, can keep the high-flying Ducks in the title hunt.
A good recruiting class, heavy on four-star recruits, may be called into action early, especially at the running back position. After losing LaMichael James and now Barner, the Ducks get to see if De’Anthony Thomas really can live up to the hype he has created for himself. Byron Marshall is next in line with a paltry, for Oregon standards, per-carry average of just moe than five yards. don’t be surprised if one of the six athletes and running backs they recruited get some carries if they are not redshirted.
With most of the team’s attrition coming from the offensive side, the defense stays relatively intact with the exception of Jordan. Tony Washington needs to step up to fill the hole or he will easily be passed on the depth chart by one of the underclassman.
Remember when Oregon State was an underdog against Wisconsin early last season and then came out of Corvallis with a smackdown of a team many considered Championship contenders? Yeah, that trend of play is going to continue this season.
As the only top-tier team in the Pac-12 with quarterback issues, Oregon State will have an interesting set of spring practices. Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz were both exciting and terrifying in some respects last year. Vaz was by far the most productive quarterback with 11 touchdowns and just three interceptions, but failed to seal the deal in terms of next year's starter during the Alamo Bowl. Vaz is going to be a senior, while Mannion is just a junior. As a result, deciding who starts may be a decision about whether the program thinks they have a better shot at winning this year or next.
With a relatively weak recruiting class, heavy on the three stars not so much on the four stars, Vaz may be the guy they tap on the shoulder. The offense should run through Storm Woods. Woods put together 13 touchdowns and 940 yards rushing and will see an increase in his yards with a veteran offensive line returning. In reality, their rushing offense could not get any worse. The Beavers finished 101st in the nation last year.
University of Washington fans only care about one loss: the last one. They may not own the Apple Cup this year, but they may claim the most experienced team heading into next year, losing just two players to the NFL Draft.
Quarterback Keith Price will be a senior next year while their leading rusher, Bishop Sankey, and last season's top two receivers, Kasen Williams and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, all return. Price was inconsistent early on in the season before solidifying his play to complete more than 60 percent of his passes in his last four games of the season, where he also threw 10 touchdowns compared to three interceptions. Despite ending the season with a thud in losses to Washington State and Boise State, Washington is set up strong going into next season.
The Huskies will replace a top-tier departing cast in the secondary. Based on his play last year, sophomore Marcus Peters might be a lock to line up across from the opposing team's top receiver. The other side of the defense will sport some kind of combination of Gregory Ducre and Tre Watson on the left side and at the nickel position. Figuring out the corner position could be a key cog in determining if this team will contend in the Pac-12 next year, or remain in neutral while it waits for Steve Sarkisian's recruiting plan to come to fruition.
Arizona State fans better be happy with beating Arizona last year, because there is a good chance they will not be good enough to do it again. The school loses eight players who were starters entering last year’s season to the NFL Draft and their replacements are relatively young.
Young is most likely going to be the word ASU uses most next season, as they bring in the 32nd-ranked recruiting class (Rivals) with a gem of a linebacker prospect in Chans Cox. Junior quarterback Taylor Kelly returns under center and will look to build on his 3,000-yard season, but may struggle with Jamal Miles and Rashard Ross both leaving the wide receiver group. Marion Grace should be the starting running back heading into the season, but will have to hold off productive duel-threat back D.J. Foster.
Last year’s Rich Rodriguez era started with some in Arizona Nation shaking in their boots, barely squeaking by Toledo in overtime. The program did shock the world with wins over a ranked Oklahoma State team and ninth-ranked USC, but loses to Oregon, Oregon State and Arizona State left a sour taste in some fan’s mouths.
With no major quarterback prospect entering and starter Matt Scott finishing his eligibility, the reins now move to B.J. Denker, who played limited time last year, to be generous. Of course, Rich Rod's offense centers on running the ball, and boy did they run the ball last year, with Ka’Deem Carey totalling 1,929 yards. Just a hunch, but I would bet the over on that total next season.
To say Utah is in major trouble next year is an understatement. The team is losing seven starters including a potential NFL first overall pick in defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. With a ho-hum recruiting class featuring no nationally-ranked prospects, Utah's program continues to trend down. They lose running back John White, who carried the load on offense with 1,041 yards rushing. The next-closest back had 273.
The country is not that far removed from Utah being a BCS busting team, but with few outstanding players on the defensive or offensive side of the ball, they could face another rough year in the Pac-12.
What do California fans have to be excited about?
Some of you may be thinking, 'Another offensive skill player poised to be selected in the first round.' Sadly that might actually be the only thing about Cal remotely noteworthy.
Good news for Cal fans: your school had a deep to 30 (Rivals) recruiting class to bring you hope. Too bad starting quarterback Zach Maynard is leaving with his eligibility over and the top two running backs are following him out the door to go with top receiver Keenan Allen. With so many skill players missing, the 93rd-ranked scoring offense may get worse. Even though they beat UCLA last year, do not expect Cal to repeat that feat again.
Remember how Mike Leach was a problem coach at Texas Tech and there were accusations of him mistreating players? It seems his new players are not too fond of him either. Washington State should be focusing on winning the Apple Cup for the first time in what seems like forever, but they are instead forced to focus on how, according to SB Nation Seattle, 18 players have left the program due to attrition since Leach started there.
Package the fact that Leach likes to throw the ball with the fact his starting quarterback and best wide receiver are leaving and the suddenly the road back to prosperity could be tough for Washington State. Freshman Gabe Marks was a nice surprise at receiver last year, but the Air Raid offense may be grounded for much of next year without a top signal caller.
Finally, we get to Colorado. Oh, Colorado. The river that runs through you is so strong, yet your primary state university is not, at least in football. Not only does Colorado lose several solid defensive players at every key position, the incoming recruiting class only has four players ranked positionally by rivals and none of them are ranked nationally. To be fair, Mike MacIntyre's staff inherited a 1-11 football team and took over for the fired Jon Embree late in the recruiting process.
As a team, Colorado ranked 99th or worse in every major offensive and defensive category. Some of those stats will increase based on the team being older and more mature, but don't bet on them being much better. Senior quaterback Jordan Webb is the engine that will drive this team, but how far can he carry them?