Over the course of the past couple of months, I've invested approximately 50 hours in researching and writing the Gekko Files. While they are not necessarily the most heavily read of the pieces we put up at the 'Pound (really, nothing can compare to Ryan's Dots), they serve the dual purpose of acquainting our readers with the story lines surrounding other Pac 12 teams and, sometimes, attracting rival fan bases in for a little chat.
However, writing those things can be a bear. Finding the motivation to dig a little deeper on Utah's Offensive Guard rotation or Colorado's backup Safety competition can often be a frustrating experience when all you want to do is get the darn piece published. When I need that extra push to help me get over the finish line, I often think ahead to this piece.
For those of you unfamiliar, I end every Gekko Files series in the pre-season with a look at each individual game played in the Pac 12 for the season ahead. I summon my powers of divination and I actually pick every one of those games for the enjoyment of my discerning audience. In making these picks I consider a variety of factors: the state of each individual team, the when and where each game takes place, the games that happen on either side of the game being picked and my estimation of where the teams' overall health and state-of-mind is likely to be when they play. I also take into account the fact that, every season, at least 10 attention-grabbing upsets are likely to occur in the Pac 12.
It is not an exercise for the timid at heart nor those who are afraid of having their insights critiqued in posterity. The Internet never, ever forgets.
Lucky for me, my track record is not too shabby. Last season, the Pac 12 played 54 games. My record in picking those was a personal best 34 out of 54 for a winning percentage of 63%. You can double check my picks right here. Keep in mind that these picks were locked in two weeks before the season began, so 63% ain't bad.
With my credibility now firmly established we can move on to 2014. Let's start with the Pac 12 South.
Pac 12 South Preview
The story line of the South this season is the adoration that the national media has for the UCLA Bruins. Enamored with both the Heisman candidacy of Brett Hundley and the two-way accomplishments of Myles Jack, the Bruins are the sexy pick to be a National Title dark horse. However, the Bruins have more holes than what you would expect to see in a Pac 12 South contender, much less a title contender. While they do have the makings of a good defense, they are still very young on that side of the ball and lacking in a real pass-rush threat. Offensively, they possess the least established set of skill players of any contending Pac 12 team and their offensive line is a huge question mark. Don't get me wrong, I think this is a stellar football team that is on the upswing, but I think Brett Hundley's last season in Westwood is no better than a second place finish.
My pick to win the South is USC. Few people will dispute that the Trojans possess the most complete starting 22 in the league. The pairing of Cody Kessler with Steve Sarkisian's new up-tempo offense seems like a brilliant match. In addition, the playmakers that USC has in guys like Buck Allen, Tre Madden, Victor Blackwell and Nelson Agholor make this a dangerous offense. Defensively, Justin Wilcox has a number of toys to play with, including All-American Leonard Williams. If they can stay healthy, their schedule is a huge plus for them as they get to miss both Oregon and Washington while playing most of their pivotal matchups in the Coliseum.
The middle of the South will be fought out between Arizona and Arizona State. ASU was the Pac 12's only 8 conference win team in 2013, but they lost 10 of 12 starters on Defense, including two-time Pac 12 DPOY Will Sutton. Their offense, led by the steady Taylor Kelly and OPOY candidate WR Jaelen Strong should be its same stellar self. They are a push talent-wise with Arizona. The 'Cats are breaking in a new starting backfield tandem, but return one of the deepest receiver corps in the Pac 12. They are an up-and-coming team who could pull some upsets in 2014. However, they have the misfortune of playing Oregon when ASU does not. Advantage: Sun Devils.
The two newest arrivals in the Pac, Utah and Colorado, will fight it out for the Pac 12 South cellar. It is a testament to the rising profile of the Pac that both of these teams - programs that are clearly improving - can't find many wins on the schedule. Utah is cultivating a tough, hard-nosed program that is being built from the line-of-scrimmage out and peppered with a few soon-to-be known playmakers like WR Dres Anderson and RB Davante Booker. Colorado, too, is on a turn-around path with sophomore leaders QB Sefo Liufau and MLB Addison Gillam leading the Buffs out of their long football slumber. Unfortunately, neither team is getting much of a break with their schedules.
Pac 12 North Preview
Despite a regression in performance that was detectable in both traditional and advanced statistics, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, the Oregon Ducks return the most potent offensive attack in not just the Pac 12 but all of College Football. Of course, they possess one of the Heisman award favorites in QB Marcus Mariota. More importantly, they boast the best rushing attack in the league with junior Byron Marshall, sophomore Thomas Tyner and true freshman Royce Freeman all running behind an elite offensive line. The defensive side of the ball is a big question mark, particularly in the pass rush. But Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is a strong piece to build around and there is some hope that their young and inconsistent D-Line might gel. Health is going to be a key factor for the Ducks in 2014. They've already lost their starting LT Tyler Johnstone for the season and the backup QB situation behind Mariota is not good enough to carry them to a title. But the Ducks do have one of the easiest Pac 12 schedules and look well-poised to win the North.
Washington looks to have an advantage over Stanford as a runner-up candidate in the North. While most national pundits are dreaming of Stanford days past, David Shaw's 2014 crew is a stark contrast to previous teams. That vicious Stanford D is replacing all of its key leaders from a year ago - guys like DE Ben Gardner, DE Trent Murphy and MLB Shayne Skov - as well as its Defensive Coordinator. Offensively, they are replacing four starters on that Offensive Line and 1,800 yard rusher Tyler Gaffney. In fact, nobody has stepped up to seize that workhorse back role and it looks extremely likely that the Cardinal will open up with a "running back by committee" arrangement. I think that Stanford will eventually reload given how well they've recruited, but they play both USC and UW in the first five weeks of the season - two games that I think they lose as they try to get into a rhythm for the season.
The Huskies, in contrast, return their entire defensive line from a team that ranked 21st in the nation in Defensive F/+ and gave up less than 23 points per contest in 2014. In addition, they return all five starting offensive linemen from a year ago and, in fact, are seeing one of those linemen, Rimington award candidate Mike Criste, get challenged for a starting position. Of course, there are questions in Montlake. Who is going to play QB? Is Kasen Williams back at full strength? Will that Secondary be ok? These are all important considerations. But the Huskies, right now, have more answers to their questions than does Stanford. Layer in the Chris Petersen factor and, importantly, a better opening schedule and I like UW to finish second.
The back half of the Pac 12 North is up for grabs. I think that all three among Oregon State, Washington State and California have strengths and weaknesses. WSU is probably the highest ceilinged of the three. They feature a tremendous receiving corps, a huge defensive line, and a high-risk, high-reward QB in Connor Halliday. Their challenges will be in generating a pass rush, protecting their QB and defending against big plays. The Beavers are built around stud QB Sean Mannion and a defense that projects pretty well despite the reliance on some JC transfers along the line. The question is who will step up and make some plays for that offense? RB Terron Ward, TE Caleb Smith, TE Connor Hamlett and WR Richard Mullaney are all candidates, but none are proven. Then there is Cal, the only team to not win an FBS game in the Pac a year ago. They have a nice stable of skill players at receiver and running back, but possess the ugliest defense in the league. While I think they'll probably upset somebody along the way, they look destined for another season in the Pac 12 North cellar.
The Pac 12 Standings Forecasted
Now that we've summarized how I see each of the divisions playing out, we can go about the business of projecting football games. In the chart below, you can see how I picked every single game in this year's Pac 12 season. The way to read this chart is to note that Home teams are listed along the horizontal axis while Road teams are listed vertically. The corresponding point of intersection on the matrix contains my pick to win the game. Click on the picture to see a blown-up image.
As always, I've picked some upsets among the games. There is always a strong tendency to want to play it safe and pick the favorites when doing a pre-season forecast like this. However, we know that every year games like Utah/Stanford, Arizona/Oregon and WSU/USC happen in the Pac. Its fun to try to guess where those might occur, so I went ahead and did that highlighting those picks in yellow.
When you add it all up, the Pac 12 standings look like this:
The picks play out pretty straight-forward with the majority being of the non-controversial variety. As you can see, Oregon paces the Pac 12 North with seven wins. Interestingly, I have them losing twice - both at home - to Stanford and UW. The former being consistent with a trend, the latter being purely emotional. Even with those losses, they still have enough to beat out UW in the North. Six wins would be a great season for the Huskies, but to get there, I project them having to beat both Stanford and Oregon. Ugh. I'm a little iffy on that. I see Stanford coming in at five wins after a few early season P12 losses. They get the tie-breaker over the upstart Cougs thanks to their head-to-head win. The Beavers put up a respectable four wins and easily outpace the one-win Cal Bears.
In the South, you can see that I stuck to my guns with USC and have them coming in at seven wins. Without having to play Oregon, it actually wasn't very hard to get them there. I have UCLA down for six wins including a pivotal win over ASU. The Devils come in just behind UCLA but ahead of Arizona with five wins. I project them to win the Territorial Cup in Tuscon which could be construed as a bit of an upset pick. Utah checks in with three wins, but to get there they have to pull off a couple of upsets. I have them winning both of their matchups against the Arizona schools. Finally, Colorado comes in as a one-win team in 2014. I tried really hard to find them a second win, but I just couldn't do it.
In all, I think this is a pretty conservative view of the game-by-game outcomes. There are a few upsets up there - all highlighted - but the only galling one is my admittedly emotional pick of UW over Oregon in Autzen. Let's just say that I'd rather be wrong about picking UW to beat Oregon than miss out on the chance to say "Hey, I called that upset and I can prove it" in the off chance UW actually pulls that one off. There is that and, of course, you just don't bet against Chris Petersen in the state of Oregon. The rest of the picks largely play out as the national pundits have somewhat projected. The big differences are with USC winning the South and Stanford coming in as a five-win team. I think the conclusions I've plotted in justifying those forecasts are well-grounded, if not altogether likely.
Of course, this is still an exercise in futility. College Football is intriguing to us because every season we are confronted with those moments that we thought to be most improbable, if not outright impossible. The feeling of suspended disbelief can be terrifying or cataclysmic depending on what side of the stadium you sit. It's why we are fans. Without exercises such as this, those feelings would not be so grand. If I've done nothing more with this series than give you a jumping-off point upon which to set your own expectations for the season ahead, than this has been a task well-executed.
When it comes time to project Bowls and to revisit these predictions, we'll be back with more Gekko File content. For now, it's time for football. Keep calm and WOOF on.