Aug. 30 at Virginia (2-10 in 2013, 7th place in ACC Coastal Division)
Head coach: Mike London enters his fifth year and has had all of the tools to put together a winning product, but ultimately the team has failed to meet expectations since the 2011 Chick-Fil-A Bowl.
QB: Sophomore Greyson Lambert had mixed results in seven games last season backing up David Watford. He completed 44 percent of his passes (33-77) and was picked off twice — both times against Clemson — but earned high praise during the spring when he was not only named the starter, but a captain as well. His improvements are needed — Virginia had the fifth-worst pass efficiency rating in the FBS.
Biggest challenge: Virginia hasa deep veteran secondary led by senior strong safety Anthony Harris. Harris intercepted an ACC-high eight passes last season, helping the pass rush becoming a surprising strength (fifth-best in ACC, 122.4 passing yards allowed per game).
Sept. 6 vs. Memphis (3-9, last in American Athletic Conference)
Head coach: Justin Fuente is now two seasons into the rebuild job and the Tigers are trying to take a bigger step forward than they have been able to in 2012 or 2013.
QB: Redshirt freshman Paxton Lynch is a big and strong at 6-foot-6, 225, but didn’t have to do a whole lot last season as the Tigers primarily relied on the running game. When he did throw, the results weren’t great (203-349, 2,056 yards, 9 TDs). Paxton can run as well (63 rushes for 311 yards), but he’s also got a strong compliment of backs to hand off to.
Biggest challenge: There won’t be much of one, as this team is still in the early phases of the rebuild, but Memphis may challenge UCLA late: they out-scored opponents 91-75 in the fourth quarter last season. Defensive coordinator Barry Odom was briefly considered for the Arkansas D-coordinator job last season but ultimately stayed with Fuente, and the defense should come out much stronger than the last two years.
Sept. 13 vs. Texas at AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas (8-5, 4th in Big 12)
Head coach: The Charlie Strong era has officially begun. Longtime head coach Mack Brown left and and the former Louisville head coach has ushered in a culture change. At Big 12 Media Day, Strong said he was going to run the program his way, but he’s already had some major obstacles thrown at him and the season hasn’t yet to start. Two wide receivers have been suspended for sexual assault allegations and two running backs and a defensive back were all dismissed from the team. Long known for his disciplinarian coaching style and unwavering belief in his core values, Strong has proven before that he doesn’t need five-star players to succeed.
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QB: When healthy, David Ash is accurate, quick and can read a defense. But he has struggled to stay healthy in latter half of his career. He owns a 63.2 percent career completion percentage and has thrown for 4,372 yards during parts of three seasons. He played only three games last year and had to compete for a starting spot this season.
Biggest challenge: The biggest challenge is simply the unpredictability of a new team. They are strong on the offensive side with a bevy of speedy and efficient receivers, but need Ash to stay healthy. Defensively they have some pieces in place, but other veteran ones have departed. UCLA’s big win over Texas was a defining win for a program under a new head coach when Rick Neuheisel was still in town. Should the Longhorns beat UCLA, it could do the same for Strong.
Sept. 25 at Arizona State (10-4, 8-1 Pac-12, first place South Division)
Head coach: At the time, last year’s game against UCLA was the biggest game Todd Graham had ever coached. He won that, but the Sun Devils failed to beat Stanford in the Pac-12 title game. But the win at the Rose Bowl showed that Graham was able to get his team all on the same page and somewhat quickly at that, given that it was only his second year at the helm. He brought the program back to prominence and has big plans to keep it there.
QB: Taylor Kelly helped the Sun Devils to the 32nd best passing offense in the FBS last season, but he can do more than just throw the ball. He’s smart and mobile and he’s got 27 games of starting quarterback experience. He has executed a sideline-to-sideline passing game to perfection at times and is a very underrated quarterback that tends to get lost in the shuffle with guys like Brett Hundley, Sean Mannion and Marcus Mariota in the Pac-12.
Biggest threat: The move that still haunts Jim Mora is using linebacker Myles Jack only as a running back against the Sun Devils. They torched the Bruins on the ground to the tune of 223 rushing yards, and that was even with star back Marion Grice injured during the game. Kelly is deceptively quick and he averaged 43.4 yards per game on the ground, and D.J. Foster (503 yards on 93 attempts) is ready to take over as the every-down back. Jack will play linebacker for this game, almost assuredly.
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Oct. 4 vs. Utah (5-7, 2-7 Pac-12, fifth place South Division
Head coach: Kyle Whittingham turned Utah into a BCS-busting power, but since coming into the Pac-12 there’s been growing pains. The Utes are starting to recruit the type of player needed to compete in the Pac-12 but it hasn’t been a quick process. To the outsider it may seem as though Whittingham is on the hot seat, but he feels that the team is right on track with it’s progression in the Pac-12.
QB: Local product Travis Wilson was cleared to play after a previous brain trauma was discovered while he was getting treated for a concussion. Wilson is big – 6-foot-7 – and deceptively mobile for his size, averaging 42.9 yards per game (386 yards on 81 carries). But Wilson was young and made freshmen mistakes and missed valuable time down the stretch with a concussion.
Biggest challenge: Wilson is said to have improved and containing him will be tough. But the Utes’ calling card has always been their strong, physical defense, playing similar to the way Stanford plays which at times has worn down the Bruins. Last year’s season wasn’t totally lost – it was punctuated by a big win over the Cardinal. Win against a team like UCLA and they will be well on their way to where they want to be in the Pac-12.
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