Last weekend, I kicked off my mini-series looking at the prospects for each team in the Pac 12 as they look ahead to the 2015 season. It is indeed a fool's errand to engage in such folly this far out and without the benefit of understanding recruiting classes, upcoming position battles and injury situations. Still, engaging in this analysis helps us all as Husky fans put the myopic view that we have of our own team into perspective.
Plus, it gives fans something to talk about. And, Lord knows we need something to talk about other than QBs that need to be benched and Coaches that need to be fired. Can I get an "Amen"?
While the Pac 12 South is interesting because of the apparent parity across the board and the 5-way logjam that looks certain to go down to the wire atop the division, the Pac 12 North presents its own intrigue.
The dominant team for the last decade - the Ducks - appear to be as vulnerable as ever. Two teams - Stanford and Cal - return high-performing starting QBs and promise to present themselves as formidable challengers to Oregon's title. The three remaining teams all appear destined to duke it out for the right to claim the cellar of not just the North, but the entire Pac 12, though each one of them have enough interesting pieces to surprise.
It's going to be an interesting ride in the Pac 12 North in 2015. Here is how I sense things may well shake out:
Pac 12 North Premature Preview
I was strongly tempted to put Stanford in this spot. However, I still see the Pac 12 North being Oregon's division to lose. I admit, there are plenty of reasons to think that Oregon may shrink back to the rest of the Pac:
- the loss of Marcus Mariota,
- the continued regression of their rush defense,
- the general stagnation of a program that may be "topping out" with its long-tenured coaching staff,
- the continued progress of the rest of the football world in catching up to Oregon's tempo attack
Even if you believe all of that equates to decline, you can't ignore the underlying talent - much of it experienced talent - that Oregon still has stocked in the cupboards. Their RB situation is the deepest in the conference by a wide margin. They probably will have the best receiving corps in the conference when it is all said and done. The O-Line is still a strength. And there is still a ton of size and speed scattered throughout that defense.
While they have the athletes to dominate, I don't see Oregon running roughshod in 2015. The rest of the Pac 12 has been catching up to the old Chip Kelly philosophy for a while now. Arguments that Scott Frost and Mark Helfrich have "imprinted" their own style on that approach are laughable. There are going to be a few losses on that record sheet as the Ducks break in a new QB and try to figure out how to stop some of the higher scoring offenses in the Pac.
However, with the athletes that they have, there aren't going to be too many teams that beat Oregon in a track meet. Talent rules and that's why they'll win the North, again, in 2015.
Given all the anti-Stanford positions I've taken over the past three seasons, I almost feel dirty arguing that Stanford is the team best-positioned to dethrone Oregon. At the very least, I feel like most of you won't believe me.
In truth, I think Stanford is very close to taking the reigns from Oregon. When I look at the Tree, I see a team that does not look like its 2014 counterpart. The 2015 version has all the elements you like to see in a contender: a senior QB who has mastery of the offense and all the right physical tools, an experienced and deep offensive line, a strong cache of running backs, a stout defensive front seven and a smattering of game breakers on in each phase of the game.
More Pac 12 Previews
More Pac 12 Previews
Ironically, the biggest questions facing Stanford in 2015 are all on the defensive side of the ball. This offseason is the second of two waves of graduations for that vaunted Stanford D and, by the time they open up next season, they will have effectively turned over every single starting position from the 2013 lineup. That's the bad news. The good news? Most of the projected starters have been in the program two to three years and are all grown men. They may take a bit of time to gel, but they have the pieces that they need.
Offensively, the Cardinal should be able to move the ball. While I don't think he's a world beater, Kevin Hogan is a much more effective QB than he's been given credit for. The RB corps has some players in it including breakout star Christian McCaffrey. The receving unit, while losing Devon Cajuste and Ty Montgomery, has a star to build upon in Michael Rector and a couple of young TEs in Austin Hooper and Eric Cotton who can flat out play.
Whether or not they can outscore Oregon is another matter. But this is a solid team going into 2015.
Lots of teams have potential stars to build upon in areas like the defensive secondary, the defensive line, the running back units and on the offensive line. We can debate endlessly if one team's linebackers are better than another and so on. What we can't debate, however, is the importance of a QB. You either have one or you don't.
The Cal Bears have one.
Jared Goff is entering his third year as a starter in the Pac 12 and he continues to grow every time he gets on the field. While he doesn't necessarily have the cannon you like or the fleetness that characterize other QBs, he has a good mix of the full package. He's smart, he's gutsy, he can make most throws from the pocket and he's got great anticipation in an offense that fits his style pretty well. Whatever other weaknesses you think Cal may have, the QB play, complemented by the presence of a deep receiving unit, will keep Cal in a lot of ball games.
They'll need that kind of a-list performance from Goff because this is still a team with a lot of holes. The offensive line is just "meh" and is breaking in a new coach. The defensive line has some pieces in Mustafa Jalil and Brennan Scarlett, but has mostly been a liability. The linebacking corps is up and coming, but still more potential than proven production.
Cal is going to get scored on, no doubt. Goff may also take a few big hits in the process. Still, this was the second highest scoring unit in the Pac a year ago. If they get more growth in their D - and they should - then this is going to be a good year for Sonny Dykes.
The Cuogs disappointed mightily in 2014. In a year where many expected Mike Leach's Air Raid to ravage the Pac, it feels as if the Cuogs flat out wasted the last years of guys like Connor Halliday, Toni Pole, Xavier Cooper and Vince Mayle. I know a number of Dawg fans that have expressed that sentiment.
In truth, the Cuogs may have just experienced a bump in the road. When I sit and project WSU's offense for next year, I can't help but to be impressed with the number of experienced guys who are returning. Sure, we can debate the merits of the new QB whomever it may be, but Luke Falk proved to us that Leach's system allows even guys with limited physical skills to be wildly productive.
I do worry about WSU's defense. This is a unit that can't seem to garner any kind of momentum and one that should have been a strength in 2014. It wasn't and now the Cuogs are facing the situation of several key contributors moving on - did I mention Daquawn Brown got the boot? - and a new defensive coordinator - from outside of the Pac 12 - getting hired.
I see the Cuogs having a herky jerky season in 2015, but one that should result in them earning bowl eligibility and taking a step forward.
5. Oregon State
If you've read this far, no doubt you are about to skip over whatever I write here and jump down to my write up for the Huskies.
Congratulations to you. By virtue of the fact that you are still reading, you have demonstrated a level of self-discipline and patience not seen in the common sports fan.
The Beavers are clearly in a transition year. The graduation of the best QB in program history, Sean Mannion, and of their iconic head coach in Mike Riley, leaves holes the size of Reser Stadium in the fabric of the program.
The good news is that the Beavers are not left bereft of talent. New Head Coach Gary Andersen, a defensive guy who has a reputation for building tough teams, has a cadre of tough players upon which to build. Unlike what Chris Petersen inherited at UW, the Beavers' new coach will have the luxury of building his system upon the shoulders of players who already fit his mold.
I think that this is key for the Beavers as they race to beat the Huskies to stay out of the Pac 12 North cellar in 2015. While we have no idea who their QB will be, we do know that the Beavers look more stout than UW on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Mind you - not by much. I'm splitting hairs here a bit. However, you have to like the two DEs that OSU returns in Lavonte Barnett and Luke Hollingsworth. In addition, the Beavs return the best offensive lineman in the league in Isaac Seumalo. If you are going to bet on one of two bad teams, bet on the one better in the trenches.
That would be Oregon State.
This is tough. When I originally sketched out this analysis, I had UW slotted fourth and bowl eligible at about seven wins. It may still turn out that way. The margin I project between WSU, OSU and UW is pretty thin. But when I look at the things that break ties - strong offensive lines, stout defensive lines, solid QB play - nothing favors UW.
That isn't to say that UW projects as a "bad team". Far from it. I think that this team actually has more grit and character to it than any other team that UW has rolled out in some time.
It doesn't project as "bad", but it does project as "not ready". And, as both Cal and Colorado have shown us the past few years, the rest of the Pac 12 eats "not ready" for breakfast and shits it out the next morning.
The Huskies are facing a long season in 2015.
This, of course, isn't to be unexpected. Now that we have the power of hindsight, it is pretty easy to see that when Chris Petersen came on board, he saw a roster that featured a ridiculous lopsidedness between the defensive line and secondary, an offensive line that didn't look like a Petersen offensive line, questionable depth at WR (including no healthy big possession guys), questionable QB capabilities, and a running back corps that lacked in any experience. In short, he saw a team that needed to be ripped apart and rebuilt.
2014 was painful to watch because expectations were attached to the presence of good players like Hau'oli Kikaha, Danny Shelton, Shaq Thompson and Kasen Williams. What we all chose to stay in denial about were the gaps that had to get covered. I suppose we all felt that Petersen would wave his magic wand and help those filling those gaps overachieve. A la Boise State.
Of course, this didn't happen and now the Huskies have watched all that talent walk out the door. What is left is a roster full of questions at every single position grouping on the roster. The QB situation has been well-debated with most fans expecting a red-shirt freshman to beat out the incumbent. The offensive line is replacing at least four if not five starters. The running back depth chart is a complete mystery. The receiving unit returns a bunch of small and slight guys who have some speed, but little demonstrated ability to block or generate YAC. The tight ends don't really look like tight ends. And that is just the offense.
Defensively, two All-Americans are being replaced by a rotation young players - two of whom (Vita Vea and Greg Gaines) will be redshirt freshman. The linebacking unit returns just one starter in Travis Feeney and, truthfully, he's no lock. The defensive secondary returns all of its starters, but it is still VERY young and will have questions around size, durability and decision-making left to answer.
In short, this is a team that has literally nothing to hang its hat on going into 2015.
The good news is that the Huskies boast a coaching staff that is not in over their collective heads. No matter what you thought of how they performed in 2014, you must admit that they have vision, experience, and commitment. They are recruiting well and they are building camaraderie as has been testified to by many of those same Steve Sarkisian players that are now leaving the program.
The problem is that they aren't very established yet. Young players are going to get beaten by older players on other teams. They are going to make mental mistakes. They are going to learn hard lessons. It's going to be a mess. A big mess and one that I expect will leave UW last in the Pac 12 North and home for the holidays in 2015.