2014 was a wild year for the Pac-12. Oregon, the preseason favorite won the Pac-12 as expected, but Stanford, Washington, Washington State, and Oregon State all underachieved. The Pac-12 South turned out to be much deeper and more competitive than people initially thought with five teams from the division finishing ranked. Preseason favorite UCLA failed to win the division; instead, it was the surprise Arizona Wildcats. 2015 figures to be more of the same in the conference. Oregon is again the favorite to win the North, and the South looks to be a tangled mess with four or five teams all looking to have a legitimate shot to win. USC is the favorite right now to win the South, but most are not counting out Arizona, Arizona State, and UCLA. Utah is getting less love in the early top 25 lists (usually ending up on the list of teams just missing the cut). Things should start to become at least a little more clear after spring football ends, but at BlockU, we decided to take a very early look at the conference. Here are full rankings from all of us, and analysis of the top 7 teams (8-12 can be found here).
1. Oregon, last season 1, 12 position starters returning (7 offense, 5 defense)
Oregon won the Pac-12 and played in the inaugural College Football Playoff, falling in the championship game to Ohio State. Oregon loses a lot of talent including unanimous All-American, Heisman Trophy, Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Award, Davey O'Brien Award, Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, AP Player of the Year, and Pac-12 Player of the Year winning quarterback Marcus Mariota. They also lost All-Americans center Hroniss Grasu, tackle Jake Fisher, and cornerback Efo Ekpre-Olomu and players like defensive lineman Arik Armstead and safety Erick Dargan among others. The Ducks will have to rebuild their defense with only five starters returning (only one in the secondary), which was exposed at times during the season.
Oregon will get former Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams. In two games against Pac-12 teams, Adams passed for 886 yards and 11 touchdowns, he also ran for 123 yards and two touchdowns. He did this against then No. 25 Oregon State team and helped Eastern Washington pull the upset in 2013 and against a good Washington defense in 2014. Adams (or whoever wins the starting quarterback job) will have a bevy of weapons around him. Oregon returns running backs Royce Freeman, Thomas Tyner, and Byron Marshall (who can also play slot receiver). They also have receivers Bralon Addison (who missed all of 2014 with an injury), Dwayne Stanford, Charles Nelson, and Darren Carrington, and tight end Pharaoh Brown (who will be coming off a horrific knee injury suffered against Utah last season). Oregon should be able to put up a ton of points in 2015 but may give up a lot of points. The Ducks get the top spot due to all of their skill position talent, and they get the benefit of the doubt for winning the Pac-12 last season.
2. UCLA, last season 3, 18 position starters returning(10 offense, 8 defense)
UCLA returns more starters than any other Pac-12 team with 18 position players. They return all five offensive line starters (which is often key to success, for example 2014 Pac-12 South champion Arizona returned four offensive linemen and had the most combined starts returning in the Pac-12 South). They return the Pac-12's leading rusher in running back Paul Perkins. The only offensive starter not returning is quarterback Brett Hundley, who chose to leave early for the NFL Draft. Hundley's spot is likely to be filled by five-star recruit Josh Rosen.
UCLA loses talented defenders linebacker Eric Kendricks, defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa, and defensive tackle Ellis McCarthy, but the Bruins have been recruiting well and should be able to plug in talented players. Getting eight players back from the Pac-12's third best total defense in 2014 will go a long way to a successful 2015 campaign. They do have to deal with the loss of defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. Head coach Jim Mora is a defensive head coach though and can likely help new defensive coordinator Tom Bradley get settled in in Westwood. Bradley has experience as a defensive coordinator, a position he held at Penn State for 12 seasons. The Bruins have won three straight over rival USC, their biggest challenger to win the Pac-12 South. UCLA also gets the benefit of missing Oregon from the North, while USC, Arizona State, and Utah all have to play the Ducks (both USC and Utah have to travel to Autzen Stadium). UCLA does have to play at Arizona, USC, and Utah though.
3. USC, last season 5, 14 position starters returning (7 offense, 7 defense)
USC is off sanctions for the first time since the 2009 season. There is a lot to like about the Trojans. They have arguably the best returning quarterback in the Pac-12 in Cody Kessler. USC returns all five offensive linemen, so Kessler will have plenty of protection. He will have talented players like wide receivers JuJu Smith and Darreus Rogers (and possibly part time receiver Adoree' Jackson) to throw the ball to. USC also brought in one of the best recruiting classes in the nation, so plenty of talent will come in to replace departed players.
A lot of people are predicting USC to win the Pac-12 South and possibly even the Pac-12. There are a lot of reasons to buy USC as the frontrunner (see above), but USC is not without concerns. While USC had an amazing recruiting class, there is not guarantee the recruits all pan out, and they will have to step in to replace some seriously talented players who are no longer at USC. The biggest hole is the one left by All-American defensive lineman Leonard Williams. Williams was a force for USC and was versatile enough to play any position on the defensive line. He also forced defensive coordinators to game plan around him. USC also loses talented players like wide receivers Nelson Agholor and George Farmer, running back Buck Allen, linebacker Hayes Pullard, and defensive backs Gerald Bowman and Josh Shaw. While USC is off scholarship reductions, they still will not have a full roster of 85 players on scholarship in all likelihood, so they will still have less depth than other teams. USC also has the toughest scheduling draw of any of the Pac-12 South teams, having to face both Stanford and Oregon, something no other Pac-12 South contender has to do.
4. Arizona State, last season 4, 16 position starters returning (7 offense, 9 defense)
The Sun Devils had to rebuild their defense in 2014, which led to some struggles. Head coach Todd Graham favors an aggressive defensive scheme, and he will better be able to run it with nine starters back on defense (they only lose defensive end Marcus Hardison and safety Damarious Randall).
ASU loses talented offensive playmakers quarterback Taylor Kelly, wide receiver Jaelon Strong, tight end De'Marieya Nelson, and offensive tackle Jamil Douglas. Quarterback Mike Bercovici started three games last year when Kelly was out with an injury, so he is not a brand new starter. He does not have the running ability Kelly has but has a stronger arm, and he threw for over 450 yards in two of his three starts (the one he did not was against Stanford, the Pac-12's best defense in 2014). The Sun Devils also get back versatile athlete D.J. Foster, who can play running back and slot receiver.
Arizona State starts off with a tough Pac-12 slate, beginning with games against USC, at UCLA, at Utah, and Oregon in their first five Pac-12 games. Their final four games are much easier with their only games against Pac-12 opponents who made a bowl in 2014 coming at home (Washington and Arizona). A fast start will be necessary for the Sun Devils, or they could be out of the Pac-12 South race early.
5. Arizona, last season 2, 12 position starters returning (7 offense, 5 defense)
Arizona was the only team to defeat Oregon last season, and they did it in Autzen Stadium. Arizona will not have to face the Ducks in 2015. When talking about Arizona, the conversation starters with unanimous All-American, Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Rotary Lombardi Award, Chuck Bednarik Award, Jack Lambert Award, Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year winning linebacker Scooby Wright III. Arizona also returns quarterback Anu Solomon, running back Nick Wilson, and wide receivers Cayleb Jones, DaVonte' Neal, and Samajie Grant.
Despite Wright III, Arizona ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in total defense in 2014, and they only return five starters. They are losing players like linebacker/defensive back Jared Tevis, safety Tra'Mayne Bondurant, and cornerback Jonathan McKnight among others. Arizona runs a 3-3-5 defense, so losses in the secondary are particularly damaging to the defense. With Rich Rodriguez as the head coach, Arizona can put up yards and score points (as evidenced by finishing fifth in the Pac-12 in total offense and scoring offense), but they will need to stop teams if they want to repeat as the Pac-12 South Champion.
Teams that win a lot of close games one year (Arizona won 6 games by 7 points or less) often have a drop off the next season. With the losses on defense and losing players like wide receiver Austin Hill, running back Terris Jones-Grigsby, and offensive lineman Mikey Baucus among others, Arizona is likely to regress a bit next season. Arizona only returns two offensive linemen, which is usually a good marker of success. Last season, Arizona had more returning offensive line starts than any other team in the Pac-12 South. With all of the talented offensive skill players, Arizona should still have a potent offense in 2015, but the losses on defense and high likelihood that they will not win as many close games means Arizona will presumably regress in 2015.
6. Stanford, last season 7, 12 position starters returning (9 offense, 3 defense)
A lot of people are buying Stanford as a top 25 team, which makes sense with nine starters returning on offense. Quarterback Kevin Hogan is returning for his senior season. He showed promise in his freshman season, not losing a game. He did not lose a game until falling at Utah in his sophomore season. He led Stanford to the Rose Bowl in two of his three seasons as a starter. He struggled a bit in 2014 but showed promise at the end of the season, helping Stanford upset UCLA. In 2014, Stanford had to replace four offensive linemen and their starting running back. In 2015, they get all their running backs back and four offensive linemen (though they lose All-American Andrus Peat). Stanford lost games due to red zone inefficiency (see the USC game for example) in 2014, but they will likely be better with the returning experience on the offensive line and in the backfield in 2015.
The major concern is the loss of 8 defensive starters now that cornerback Wayne Lyons transferred to Michigan (and wide receiver/return man Ty Montgomery). They get no defensive line starters back, two linebackers, and only one defensive back. Stanford led the Pac-12 in all major defensive categories in 2014. Returning only three starters will likely cause the defense to slip a bit, but Stanford gets the benefit of the doubt a little since their defense remained elite in 2014 despite losing players like linebackers Trent Murphy and Shane Skov and defensive back Ed Reynolds. An improved rushing attack will also help keep Stanford's defense off the field and can wear down opponents, much like Stanford did when they won the Pac-12 two years in a row in 2012 and 2013. Stanford will also likely get better play out of tight ends with players like redshirt freshman Dalton Schultz (the former four-star recruit from Bingham High School).
7. Utah, last season 6, 14 position starters returning (7 offense, 7 defense)
Utah had their best season in the Pac-12 in 2014, finishing with a winning record in conference for the first time since joining the Pac-12. Utah was led by first-team All-Pac-12 running back Devontae Booker on offense (who decided to return for his senior season) and All-American, Ted Hendricks Award, and Morris Trophy winner defensive end Nate Orchard (who graduated) on defense. Utah struggled with injuries in 2014, leading to paper thin depth at positions like wide receiver, linebacker, and defensive back.
There is a lot to like about Utah in 2015. They return four offensive line starters (left tackle Jeremiah Poutasi opted to declare for the NFL Draft), an all-conference running back in Booker, starting quarterbacks Travis Wilson and Kendal Thompson (who split starting reps in 2014), and seven starters on the Pac-12's second best total defense (which will only be better if players like linebacker Gionni Paul and safety Tevin Carter can stay healthy). The starting numbers are a bit deceiving for Utah since Utah will return four defensive backs with starting experience (Carter, Marcus Williams, Justin Thomas, and Dominique Hatfield), yet Phil Steele only gave Utah two returning. The secondary should be deeper in 2015 than it was in 2014. Utah seemingly will have one of the best front sevens in the Pac-12 in 2015 (I hesitate to say best since a replacement for Orchard needs to be found). Utah will a ton of depth at defensive tackle, allowing the Utes to rotate players to keep guys fresh. In the rotation is freshman All-American Lowell Lotulelei (whose older brother, Star Lotulelei, was an All-American and first round NFL draft pick). They also get defensive end Hunter Dimick back, who finished with 10.0 sacks in 2014, despite missing the final two games. Utah also returns the best kicker/punter combination in the nation in first-team All-Pac-12 kicker Andy Phillips and Ray Guy Award winning punter Tom Hackett. Losing All-American return man Kaelin Clay hurts the special teams a bit but four-star junior college cornerback Cory Butler has shown the ability to be a dynamic return man. In 2015, Utah again figures to have the best special teams in the Pac-12 and possibly the nation.
There are some serious question marks though for the Utes. Utah finished dead last in the Pac-12 in passing offense and total offense in 2014. Utah will be without leading receiver Clay, receiver Dres Anderson, and tight end Westlee Tonga. Wide receiver Tim Patrick will be coming off a serious leg injury as well. Utah also has a different offense coordinator (Aaron Roderick and Jim Harding are splitting the duty) for the eighth season in a row. There is no clear player to start at left tackle as of right now either, the most important position for pass blocking. Utah also will have to replace the production from Orchard. Utah has talent at defensive end in players like Dimick, Jason Fanaika, and UCLA-transfer Kylie Fitts, but all three of them are more strong side defensive ends. None of them has the speed off the edge Orchard has (they are all bigger defensive ends). Orchard also dominated multiple left tackles who figure to get drafted. It remains to be seen if any of Utah's current defensive ends can dominate elite Pac-12 left tackles. I think Fanaika figures to have the best shot since he played some linebacker in 2014, so he can sort of fill the Trevor Reilly role of defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid. There are also holes to fill in the secondary with the graduation of strong safety Brian Blechen and cornerback Eric Rowe (getting cornerback Reggie Porter back and keeping Carter healthy will help). Utah also has a new defensive coordinator in John Pease. Pease brings in a lifetime of experience from coaching in both college and NFL. He helped put several Utah defensive linemen into the NFL in his short tenure at Utah. The road schedule is not favorable for the Utes, including trips to Oregon, USC, and Arizona. Utah, like Arizona, won a lot of close games (five wins of 7 points or less including two in double overtime), which often means a drop off in the next season. Utah has not won a Pac-12 game by more than one score since beating WSU 41-6 in 2012 (which is the longest streak for any Pac-12 team).