As seemingly everyone else is doing right about now, I decided to compile some power rankings now that Spring Practice is over and we wait for Fall Practice and finally for the season to get underway. It seems to be the consensus that the Pac-12 has two top-10 teams, if not top-5, in Stanford and Oregon. Unfortunately for the Dawgs, both those teams are in their division. After that, there is a second tier that contains Arizona State, UCLA and Washington. I think Utah, Oregon State and USC are just sightly behind those three with Arizona a little further back. Then, there are the bottom three that don’t really stand a chance to compete this season in California, Washington State and Colorado. Remember when the Cougs and hot, new coach Mike Leach were the favorite underdog to get to a bowl game last season? That optimism has faded away a little.
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It really is a toss-up in the top-two of the conference. You can’t go wrong either way as both are fantastic teams that have BCS dreams. I went with Stanford at No. 1 because they offer a more proven entity. Oregon is going through a coaching change and while Mark Helfrich should be able to take over seamlessly, it is never easy replacing a coach such as Chip Kelly. Once the Cardinal figured out Kevin Hogan should be the starter, things turned for the team. Josh Nunes (who is now retired due to injury) wasn’t able to take the team to the heights that Hogan can. Stephan Taylor is a huge loss, but David Shaw has been able to bring in players to fill the hole and the offensive line should be just as massive as it has been in the past.
There is very much a chance that Oregon comes out on top this season, but I’m a little hesitant to crown the Ducks champions right now. Before I step onto the Helfrich train, I’m going to need to see a map of where it’s going. No matter whether the change takes a little time or not, Marcus Mariota will be running a Heisman campaign that will certainly lead to at least a 10-win season for the Ducks. For them to eclipse that mark and be Pac-12 champs, it depends on how smoothly Helfrich can take over for Kelly.
3. Arizona State
Seeing Todd Graham take a team with less talent than Dennis Erickson had and turn it into a bowl game winner impressed me last season. The Sun Devils aren’t going anywhere; in fact, they have only improved. They lose Cameron Marshall, but he didn’t see the field much at all last season due to the arrivals of D.J. Foster and Marion Grice. Both should be dark-horse candidates for first team All-Pac-12. I’ve managed to write four sentences without even mentioning the dominant defensive line led by Will Sutton or star quarterback, Taylor Kelly. The only presumable weaknesses the Devils might face are at wide receiver (no worries, Chris Coyle can catch 60 passes from the tight end spot) and the secondary. If things play well for Graham and the Sun Devils, look for them in contention for a BCS berth when they are playing in the Pac-12 title game.
Ah, yes. My first gripe with the ESPN rankings. I said in my reaction that ASU, UCLA and UW could be rearranged in any order and make sense. In my mind, Washington is an eight- or nine-win team. With an improved offensive line that won’t be changed on a weekly basis, Keith Price can have some semblance of normalcy in the pocket and adding three four-star receivers to an already impressive group can only help the quarterback get back to his sophomore domination. Losing Desmond Trufant hurts a lot, but Marcus Peters seems ready to step up and fill that slot. This is Steve Sarkisian’s make-or-break year; if he can’t break the seven-win threshold, his job could be in jeopardy.
One thing you’ll find in common with all the top teams: they all have a quarterback. UCLA might have one of the best, too, in Brett Hundley. I’m still not a big Jim Mora Jr. fan after seeing what he has done in the pros, but there are no questions that he led his team to an impressive season last year. Like Stanford, the Bruins lost their key running back in Jonathan Franklin, but expect Hundley to lead the offense while the offensive line and backfield try to find their identity. Projected first round draft pick Anthony Barr will lead the defense, but it is far from perfect as there are still some question marks in the secondary.
6. Oregon State
The Beavers won’t be catching anyone off guard this season, like they did last year. Mike Riley is one of the best coaches in the conference, if not the country. The Sporting News sure thinks so, ranking him 14th in the nation. Both Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz have made their cases to be the starting quarterback, but neither have proven to be dominant college quarterbacks. Even with the QB controversy, it’s hard not to like the Beavers after last season.
I was tempted to let the Utes jump Oregon State, but I’m not quite sold on them. I was also tempted to drop them below USC and Arizona. It just goes to show how much depth the Pac-12 has this season. Either way, Utah is a very solid team with a quarterback I like a lot in Travis Wilson. Like ASU’s Kelly, Wilson was a freshman starter; however, he didn’t put up quite the numbers Kelly did. He still showed signs of potential, especially in his 300-yard, 2-touchdown game against Arizona. If the Utes can find a way to replace Star Lotulelei, they can contend in a South Division that doesn’t have anyone standing out right now.
Two words: Kadeem. Carey. The loss of Matt Scott hurts, sure, but you don’t need a great signal caller when you have the best running back in the conference. Like Cal and Oregon State, the Wildcats will be rocking some fancy, new Nike uniforms and they can only hope to run like Phil Knight’s boys next season. Even at No. 8, the Wildcats are a near-lock for a bowl game, again presenting the depth that the conference has this season. Even USC at No. 9 has the ability to jump up and be a very good team next season.
Like I said, the Trojans have a chance to be one of the top teams in the South and even compete for the title. There is simply not enough for me to put any confidence in them right now, though. In my opinion, Lane Kiffin is near the bottom of the conference in coach rankings and he doesn’t have a quarterback like Matt Barkley to lead the way for him. Along with Barkley went Robert Woods to the NFL. Those were two key pieces to the Trojan offense, leaving Marqise Lee to fend for himself with a first-year starter at quarterback.
And we’ve hit the drop off. All of the first nine teams in the rankings have realistic shots at seven- or eight-win seasons depending on how things pan out, but it will take a serious miracle for the Golden Bears to come close to that. After a few years of mediocrity under Jeff Tedford while possessing some of the top NFL talent in the conference, they decided to part ways and hire Sonny Dikes. After losing the one truly “sure” part of their offense in Keenan Allen, the Bears will need some players to step up in order to climb out of the cellar with WSU and Colorado.
11. Washington State
Funny how much can change in year. Coming into last season, Mike Leach was going to be the savior of Cougar football. They were going to be the surprise team out of the Pac-12 and make a good bowl game! Oh wait. That didn’t happen? All the Cougs have to hold onto last season is an Apple Cup victory and wins over Eastern Washington and UNLV. They also lost to Colorado at home (on homecoming, nonetheless!). Jeff Tuel and Marquess Wilson always seemed to be the rocks in an ever-changing WSU program, but both are gone now. It looks like Leach will turn to Connor Halliday under center, a guy who took Tuel’s job and then gave it right back to him. It will be an interesting battle to see who can be worse: WSU or Colorado.
Right now, I’m picking the Buffaloes to bring up the rear this season. A young team with a first-year head coach didn’t do so well last season. All that means they can only get better from here on out, though. An extra year of experience for everybody should mean more than one win next season. Unfortunately, Colorado plays in one of the best conferences in the nation and even three or four wins probably won’t keep them out of the cellar.