Football season is nearly a month away, and there's plenty to talk about heading into this week's Pac-12 Media Days. Rahshaun Haylock of FOX Sports West identifies the most important things to watch.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY SportsMark J. Rebilas
It's the first year of the Steve Sarkisian era and the last year of the scholarship reductions for the USC program. Despite all the drama that led to the Sarkisian hire, the Trojans still had 10 wins in 2013. The team had a few, surprising, early entries into the NFL Draft leaving some holes to fill. Still, from a talent standpoint, the Trojans aren't taking a backseat to anyone in the conference. The team returns starting quarterback Cody Kessler, the most talented running back group in the conference, and a loaded defense a year ago led by All-American Leonard Williams. The elephant in the room is Sarkisian. The Trojans' first-year coach failed to win more than eight games in his five seasons at Washington. That won't cut it at USC.
Replacing Gaffney and Co.
A year ago this time, a similar conversation was being discussed -- who would replace Stepfan Taylor in the Stanford backfield. This time around, it's who will take over for Tyler Gaffney, who carried the ball over 300 times for 1,700 yards plus last season and wasa sixth round pick by the Panthers in the 2014 NFL Draft. At this point, it appears it would be a plug-and-play scenario for the Cardinal, who's power running game has been among the best in the nation in recent years. However, 2014 may have a different feel. For starters, there will likely be a running back by committee for the Cardinal featuring Remound Wright, Barry Sanders Jr., Rickey Seale, and Kelsey Young. Also, they'll try to do this behind an offensive line that needs to replace five of its top six linemen from a season ago.
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAYRobert Hanashiro
There's no secret Oregon's Marcus Mariota is at the top quarterback in the Pac-12. An injury suffered by the redshirt junior last season derailed the Ducks chances of advancing to their second Pac-12 Championship Game in three years. Mariota (pictired) and UCLA starter Brett Hundley gave up NFL riches as potential first round draft picks in the 2014 NFL Draft to return to school. Taylor Kelly led Arizona State to the Pac-12 title game a season ago; Kevin Hogan led Stanford to its second straight Rose Bowl berth; Sean Mannion at Oregon State threw for over 4,600 yards and 37 touchdowns a season ago; Cody Kessler led USC to it's first bowl game in three seasons following an NCAA ban. And 2014 was a 4,000-yard season for Washington State's Connor Halliday, who led the Cougars to their first bowl game since 2003.
Getty ImagesEzra Shaw
Petersen era begins
Getting to training camp has been an eventful journey for first year Washington head coach Chris Petersen. During his first spring practice in Seattle, he was without his starting quarterback Cyler Miles, who was serving a suspension, but was later reinstated in May. The Huskies went through spring drills with a redshirt sophomore, Jeff Lindquist, and a redshirt freshman, Troy Williams, taking all the snaps. As he tries to implement a new culture, he does so with a team that has a lot of talent left behind by former coach Steve Sarkisian. With Petersen, the question is can he be more successful than the previous three head coaches who left the blue turf of Boise State for greener pastures?
Last season was a banner year for Washington State and the program turned some heads in the process. They nearly beat Auburn in Auburn -- the same Tigers team that advanced to the BCS title game last season. The Cougars defeated USC at the Coliseum and by season's end, were playing in its first bowl game since 2003. Connor Halliday returns to lead Mike Leach's aerial assault after settinga WSU record with 4,597 pass yards in 2013. His 34 TDs tied Ryan Leaf for most in Washington State single season history. In 2014 he returns with a wide receiving corp. that is, arguably, the best in the conference. A North title may be a bit of a stretch, but expect a better finish than 6-6 in 2013.