The latest submissions to the Gekko Files has us taking a far-away look at the not-so-imminent 2015 Pac 12 football season. Trying to project out what football teams are going to look like 9 months from now without the benefit of knowing how recruiting classes will finalize, how spring practice competitions play out or of knowing which players will make it through fall camp uninjured (hello, Ben Riva) is truly a fool's errand.
Fortunately, I'm a blogger and, well, nobody cares about my opinion anyhow.
We start with the intriguing Pac 12 South. I say "intriguing" because it is difficult to find any instance in recent history where there has been such a logjam of teams hovering around the top spot in a Power 5 division. It is completely feasible to construct a convincing argument as to why any one of five (of six) teams in the South hae a legitimate claim to being the "favorite" in the 2015 divisional race. While it is probably true that the best team in all of the Pac 12 resides in the North, it is equally true that the best depth in the conference resides in the South.
Premature Previews: Pac 12 South
I can see all the haters shaking their fists at me through their computer screens and cursing my damned love for all things Sark. Maybe. But there is a simple truth that cannot be denied: the Trojans are getting better and better the further and further away from sanctions that they get.
Give Sark credit. He knows timing.
The Trojans are suffering some key losses to be sure. DT Leonard Williams may have been the best all around player in the division last season. WRs Nelson Agholor and George Farmer are big play threats from anywhere on the field. RB Buck Allen, one of the better backs in the PAC, is also declaring early.
Still, this team boasts some of the best front-line talent in the league. Su'a Cravens is an early DPOY candidate. Adoree Jackson and JuJu Smith are exciting young players. RB will be a strength with Justin Davis and Tre Madden comprising a strong, power-running duo. And, of course, QB Cody Kessler has decided to return and will, undoubtedly, take on the role of "Best QB in the Pac 12". His production will be aided by a young O-Line that mostly returns intact.
Depth will continue to be a problem for Sark as he rotates in young players in the second and third levels. However, he now has experienced depth in key positions like the defensive secondary, at QB and along the OLine. USC looks like they are on a rising tide.
UCLA is the big mystery team going into 2015. On one hand, the loss of QB Brett Hundley is akin to having your heart physically ripped from your chest by a surgeon using a rusty scalpel and bare hands. It hurts.
On the other hand, there are a lot of returning pieces - good pieces - that Jim Mora and crew will have to work with. They are particularly interesting in the trenches on both sides of the ball. If ever you were going to try to rebuild a team behind a new QB, having strength at O-Line, D-Line and RB (with one of the highest upside guys in the league in Paul Perkins) is the way to do it. If you take the next leap of faith and accept that the Bruins run a very simple offense for whatever QB is behind center - a lot of short and lateral passes - you can see why some pundits may be inclined to rank UCLA near the top 5 in the preseason.
I'm not sure I can go that far. However, even without knowing who will play QB, I like this UCLA team better than last season's. I think that they will have to search hard for answers at QB, LB (outside of our old friend Myles Jack) and TE. However, they look stout on the defensive line of scrimmage, experienced on the offensive side, stocked at WR and capable in the defensive secondary. This team will be a legit threat in 2015.
I'm selling on ASU going into 2015. While you do have to like the fact that they have some pieces at running back and that their offensive line is serviceable, I'm not 100% convinced that senior QB Mike Bercovici is actually that reliable a QB. My perception of him is that he is a bit of a gunslinger who gravitates towards the ultra-aggressive just like his head coach. When you are losing in the passing game a mistake-eraser like Jaelen Strong, I'm not sure that is such a good thing.
Beyond the offensive questions, I have to think that teams are starting to figure out Todd Graham and that extreme blitzing defense of his. In his last two games of the season, you saw both Arizona and Duke flatout torch that ASU D not because of one-on-one matchup advantages but because of sound counters to ASU's predictable blitzing. The coaches of the Pac 12 have a lot of tape on Todd Graham now and I expect that his defense, which is somewhat small but speedy, won't be able to stop anybody if they can't cover opponents straight up.
That said, I don't want to belittle ASU's talent or dismiss Graham's qualities as a coach. He's demonstrated an ability to win everywhere and he's done a good job of stocking the talent shelves there in Tempe. I expect him to challenge for the top of the division, but come up short, in 2015.
Arizona was clearly the "breakout team" of 2014 in the PAC. With a young QB in Anu Solomon and questions at RB, not many people would have predicted this 'Zona team to challenge for the CFB Playoffs to start the year. But, powered by a surprising upset over Oregon in Eugene, challenge they did.
The problem is that nobody is going to be surprised by Arizona in 2015. Whatever they get done, they will have to do on the merits of their own talent and capabilities. While there is a ton of talent remaining in the offensive skill positions, I have some questions about the offensive line and whether or not Arizona can continue to get away with a defensive front that looks more like a collection of tight ends then defensive linemen. Sure, I expect Scooby Wright to again be very productive, and I think that their defensive secondary doesn't get enough love. However, there are still a lot of questions.
This can be a good team. For me to get comfortable with the idea that they can be top of the division, however, I need to get a sense that a) Anu Solomon can actually beat out highly touted redshirt Brandon Dawkins and that b) he can evolve to become a more accurate and reliable passer. The former is no guarantee and the latter remains to be seen. If he can accomplish both, then I can see Arizona being able to score at will on just about any team in the Pac 12. If not, they will be a herky-jerky middle of the division team.
How crazy is it that one of the biggest surprises of this past season is now showing up as fifth in my projections for next year? It's almost pathological to assume that a team that is returning it's top two passers, its top WR, its all-conference RB and some of best-coached offensive and defensive lines in the conference won't be able to repeat it's excellent play from 2014.
The sad fact is that the Utes are dealing with some drama. And drama is bad for football. Forget for a second about the questions surrounding Kyle Whittingham's job security (although there is little doubt that this is affecting recruiting) and focus for a moment on the loss of your offensive coordinator (which is an annual thing in Salt Lake), your defensive coordinator and your bright up-and-coming linebackers coach all in one fell swoop. Layer in the transition from key talents like Nate Orchard, Kaelin Clay, and Dres Anderson and you can be forgiven if you are not convinced.
I'm one of the skeptical, but I also won't be surprised if the team puts up a 6-3 campaign. There is a lot of young talent that flashed in 2014 and that I expect will be better in 2015. DL Hunter Dimick, LB Jared Norris and DT Lowell Loutuleilei and transfer DL Kylie Fitts (remember him from UCLA?) all will be factors for that nasty Utah D in 2015. But, can they score enough points?
That, I do not know.
Poor Buffs. I don't know what I can really say about them other than they are a team that is definitely getting better at a time when, unfortunately, so is everybody else in their division. They definitely will get a boost on offense next year now that WR Nelson Spruce has committed to one more year and that RB Christian Powell looks like a good leader on a nice little emerging RB committee. You can also look at their defense and see talents like LB Addison Gillam, DL Derek McCartney and DL Jimmie Gilbert all rising.
However, this is still a team that lacks the muscle and depth in the trenches to out-physical the physical team or the perimeter speed on either side of the ball to outrun the fast teams in the league. On top of that, I'm not sure that we've seen enough accuracy or play-making from QB Sefo Liufau to definitively conclude that he has the physical skills to match his obvious leadership skills.
This team is still a work in progress that I expect will bite a few teams in 2015, but still struggle to stay out of the cellar.