Pac-12 preview: New coaches, stars will shake up power structure in '14

Pac-12 preview: New coaches, stars will shake up the power structure out West in 2014, write Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel.

Sarkisian: Pac-12 competitive from top to bottom

 
JUL 24, 3:52 pm
USC head coach Steve Sarkisian on the depth of the Pac-12.

Editor's note: This year, we're eschewing traditional conference previews for more bite-size nuggets of information and insight.

Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel have spent the summer visiting teams and speaking with coaches around the country.

What you find below are byproducts of those conversations and their own opinions.

On Monday, we looked at the SEC.

Today, the Pac-12 is up.

SURPRISE TEAM

Mandel: Washington Huskies. Chris Petersen inherits a talented squad brimming with experience on both lines of scrimmage. “That offensive line, those guys have been there a long time,” said one Pac-12 coach. LB Shaq Thompson, DE Hau’oli Kikaha and the defense help secure the big wins that eluded UW in the past.

Feldman: Arizona Wildcats. A four-game midseason stretch where the Cats have to deal with road-trips to Oregon and UCLA, sandwiched around a visit from USC and a trek up to the Palouse, will be rough, but Rich Rod has a month to find and develop a QB. The good news is no one in the league has a deeper and more dynamic group of wideouts than Arizona. Better still, almost the entire O-line returns. It's a stretch to think Zona can push past either of the LA schools, but finishing in the Top 25 is doable.

FLOP TEAM

Mandel: Oregon Ducks. The string of 11- and 12-win seasons can’t go on forever, and despite the return of star quarterback Marcus Mariota, the Ducks’ once-unstoppable offense showed cracks last year following Chip Kelly’s departure. Oregon’s defense may miss retired coordinator Nick Aliotti.

Feldman: Utah Utes. They have been sputtering since arriving in the conference and don't be surprised if the bottom drops out in 2014. The rest of the league has elevated from when Utah planned the move to the Pac-12, and with CU improving, the hunch here is that Utah will end up in the South division cellar. 

BREAKOUT PLAYER

Mandel: D.J. Foster, RB, Arizona State. The versatile rusher/receiver racked up 1,154 total yards last season while backing up the departed Marion Grice. Now, as the Sun Devils’ feature back, the home-run threat may well rack up 1,000 yards rushing AND receiving. “He absolutely could,” said an opposing Pac-12 coach.

Feldman: Darreus Rogers, WR, USC. The Trojans have cranked out playmaking wideouts over the past decade and the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Rogers is the next one in the pipeline. Steve Sarkisian thinks enough of him to award him the No. 1 jersey (same as former Trojan star Mike Williams), and WR coach Tee Martin is such a believer he compared Rogers to former NFL star Sterling Sharpe for his strong hands and ability to fight for balls in traffic.

IMPACT FRESHMAN

Mandel: Toa Lobendahn, G, USC. The 6-3, 280-pound lineman enrolled early, impressed coaches in the spring and is now poised to become the Trojans’ first freshman offensive lineman to start a season opener since 2007.

Feldman: Budda Baker, DB-KR, Washington. A recruiting coup for Chris Petersen snagging Baker away from Oregon, the blue-chipper from the Seattle area has been as advertised flashing his uncanny playmaking skills in training camp. He will not only be an impact guy in the U-Dub D but also provide momentum-shifting plays on special teams. And maybe on offense, too, down the road.

HOT SEAT COACH

Mandel: Sonny Dykes, Cal. Dykes could not have had a more disastrous debut season, going 1-11. While it seems unlikely the school would make a change after just two years, a new athletic director might be anxious to bring in his own hire.

Feldman: Kyle Whittingham, Utah. Tough to doubt a guy who has won almost twice as many games as he's lost, but his team is just 9-18 in the Utes' three seasons in Pac-12 play and a third season in a row missing the postseason probably will prompt Utah brass to go in a new direction.

THREE MAKE-OR-BREAK POSTION GROUPS

1) Oregon receivers: Last year’s top four pass-catchers are either gone or, in the case of Bralon Addison, injured. Keanon Lowe is solid but unspectacular. The Ducks need production from redshirt freshman Darren Carrington and others.

2) USC offensive line: The Trojans have no shortage of talent at running back and receiver but success will depend on how well players like sophomore tackle Zach Banner develop and whether USC’s thin rotation can avoid injuries.

3) Arizona State defensive line: To continue momentum from their 2013 division title, the Sun Devils must replace nearly their entire front seven, most notably tackle Will Sutton. Senior end Marcus Hardison may provide an answer.

-- Mandel

THREE UNDER-THE-RADAR GAMES

1) USC at Stanford, Sept. 6: Overshadowed by Week 2’s big Michigan State-Oregon tilt, this clash of conference rivals has seen some incredible games the past few years, including the Trojans’ 20-17 upset last season.

2) Utah at Michigan, Sept. 20: The Utes’ undefeated 2008 season began with a win at the Big House. After struggling the past two years, coach Kyle Whittingham could really use another big non-conference win.

3) UCLA at Arizona State, Sept. 25: Last year’s ASU win at the Rose Bowl wound up deciding the South Division. This year the two meet in an early Thursday night clash of standout QBs Brett Hundley and Taylor Kelly.

-- Mandel

MORE PAC-12 INTEL

* Stanford has a trio of talented receivers in Ty Montgomery, Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector, but the Cardinal plan to get back to using their old three tight-end sets. Redshirt freshman Austin Hooper is the new starter.

* Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche, who started 12 games in 2012 before falling down the depth chart, has nailed down UCLA’s vacant left tackle spot. The 6-8, 327-pounder provides much-needed veteran leadership.

* Speedy Oregon State sophomore Victor Bolden has the unenviable task of replacing Biletnikoff winner Brandin Cooks. He’s a big-play threat. Freshman Xavier Hawkins could make a quick impact as well.

* Utah is hoping new coordinator Dave Christensen, formerly Wyoming’s head coach, will rejuvenate a long-dormant offense, but the addition of two talented tailbacks, juco transfer Devontae Booker and redshirt freshman Troy McCormick, could be the biggest difference-maker.

* Colorado receiver Nelson Spruce will help fill the shoes of departed standout Paul Richardson, but redshirt freshman Bryce Bobo and true freshman Shay Fields are garnering considerable buzz.

* Cal coach Sonny Dykes made a smart hire brining in coordinator Art Kaufman to resuscitate last season’s 122nd-ranked defense. Kaufman engineered turnarounds the past two seasons at Texas Tech and Cincinnati.

* One thing Washington State has been missing on offense since Mike Leach arrived in Pullman has been difference-makers, but that is changing. Vince Mayle, a 6-3 junior college transfer who showed up last year at 240 pounds, is down to 220 and running in the low 4.5s and impressing coaches and players with his agility and ball skills, while 5-10, 170-pound freshman blazer Calvin Green gives the Cougs a speed threat with the potential of turning short gains into long touchdowns.

-- Feldman and Mandel

PAC-12 PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

Feldman -- North Division Mandel -- North Division Feldman -- South Division Mandel -- South Division
1) Oregon 1) Washington 1) UCLA 1) UCLA
2) Stanford 2) Stanford 2) USC 2) USC
3) Washington 3) Oregon 3) Arizona 3) Utah
4) Oregon State 4) Oregon State 4) Arizona State
4) Arizona State
5) Washington State 5) Washington State 5) Colorado 5) Arizona
6) Cal 6) Cal 6) Utah 6) Colorado
Feldman's Pac-12 title pick: Oregon over UCLA Mandel's Pac-12 title pick: UCLA over UW    


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