1. Arizona Wildcats
Arizona fans were definitely hopeful when Rich Rodriguez came to Tucson three years ago. The Wildcats hoped Rodriguez could turn the program around like he did with West Virginia. No one could have seen what transpired in 2014. In only his third season at Arizona, Rodriguez led the Wildcats contending for a Pac-12 title and claim the South Division, and their first 10-win season since 1998. With the backfield of Anu Solomon and Nick Wilson, a Lombardi Award winner in Scooby Wright, Arizona could be in the race again for another Pac-12 title.
Sophomore quarterback Anu Solomon is back to run RichRod’s offense. He may not be the most prestige quarterback in the conference, but he has all the poise and confidence to lead this offense. Solomon threw for 3,793 passing yards and 28 touchdowns. Former LSU quarterback senior Jerrard Randall, who is a running threat with explosive speed. Solomon’s backfield mate and fellow sophomore tailback Nick Wilson rushed for over 1,300 yards as a freshman. He is a power runner with adept at hitting openings and making something out of nothing.
Junior Cayleb Jones is one of the most under-rated receivers in the nation. In his first year as a starter, he led the team with 73 receptions for 1,019 yards with 9 touchdowns, and was Solomon’s go-to receiver. The Wildcats have a deep and experienced group of receivers; junior Samajie Grant became a big-play receiver with 45 catches with six of them going for touchdowns. Trey Griffey will look to build on his role after snagging 31 balls last season.
Senior end Reggie Gilbert was awarded a fifth year by the NCAA, which is huge for Arizona. He is the rock of Arizona’s three-man front. Junior Sani Fuimaono and sophomore Parker Zellers will most likely split the reps at the nose tackle spot; both played extensive minutes in 2014. Defensive POY in the Pac-12 linebacker Scooby Wright is the heart and soul of Wildcats defense. If he can perform the way he did in 2014 with 163 tackles, 29 tackles for a loss and 14 sacks the Wildcats will be hard to beat. The Wright has some good experience working beside him in Juniors Cody Ippolito, Jake Matthews and Derrick Turituri all started at least six games.
Senior safeties Jamar Allah and Tellas Jones combined for 47 tackles last season and are physical players. Sophomore cornerback Jarvis McCall Jr., who started 12 games, might have difficulty reclaiming his job. Notre Dame transfer Junior DaVonte’ Neal, was moved to corner in spring ball and played well enough to be considered to take over the starting spot.
Projected record in the Pac-12 will be 10-2, and 3rd in the South Division
2. Arizona State Sun Devils
Todd Graham lost both of his quarterbacks on the field on each side of the ball. Quarterback Taylor Kelly and Safety Damarious Randall are gone to the NFL. But he has two capable and solid replacements to fill those shoes. Mike Bercovici started three games last season when Kelly went down with a broken foot and let the Sun Devils to a 2-1 record including a comeback victory against USC. Jordan Simone is a tackling machine at the strong safety position. Fortunately for Graham he has 15 returning starters (8 on 0ffense and 7 on defense), who went through the wars from last season and is amp to win another Division title. The Sun Devils were just a game short of winning the Pac 12 South, losing to rival Arizona.
ASU will lean more on its running game, more specifically their versatile back D.J. Foster, and with two horses backing him up in Demario Richard, two-way player Kalen Ballage. Going to the ground first also makes sense, because the two big question marks on offense most affect the passing game. The Sun Devils has to replace both of its starting tackles, and the wide receiver position has been depleted with Jaelen Strong declaring early for the NFL and Cameron Smith out for the season after knee surgery. The Sun Devils was able to find a diamond in the rough when UCLA transfer Devin Lucien decided late to come down to the dessert; supplying Bercovici with another proven target.
The strength of the defense is the back seven. ASU can rotate five linebackers without much drop-off. Sophomore D.J. Calhoun is looking to make some noise in the linebacker position vying for a starting spot. He filled in well when during his freshman campaign. ASU lost a couple of key players in defensive lineman Marcus Hardison and safety Damarious Randall, but coach Todd Graham has James Johnson, who will help negate the loss of Randall along with Jordan Simone. Despite the Devils have no real pass rushing threat; that won’t stop Graham from bringing the pressure; Graham will remain aggressive.
Projected record in the Pac-12 will be 11-1, and 1st in the South Division
3. Colorado Buffaloes
Under second season with Mike MacIntyre took some steps forward. I know it seems hard to believe ending the 2014 season with a 2-10 record, but they seem to run out of gas at the end of games or just not enough to get the win. If the Buffs can keep their confidence up, they can flip those close loses into close wins.
Colorado showed some promise offensively last season, and the improvement of junior quarterback Sefo Liufau who threw for 28 touchdowns in 2014; more than double his output in 2013. With his go to receiver senior Nelson Spruce, who was on the other end of the 12 of the 28 touchdown passes back to help lead the quintet of sophomore receivers surrounding him, the Buffaloes’ offense is on the right track, but Liufau has to be consistent throughout the season.
Stopping opponents has been a problem for Colorado in recent years. The Buffs ranked at the above 100 in total and scoring defense last season. Those numbers pretty much forced Mike MacIntyre to hire a new defensive coordinator. He got former South Florida Head Coach Jim Leavitt, and he added former Central Michigan Defensive Coordinator Joe Tumpkin to coach safeties. It helps that Colorado has two experienced linebackers in juniors Addison Gillam and Kenneth Olugbode. The secondary might be the deepest and most talented unit on the team.
Projected record in the Pac-12 will be 5-8, and 6th in the South Division
4. UCLA Bruins
The Pac-12 had a bevy of quarterbacks that started in 2014, and a third of them went on to the NFL Draft. Amongst them was the dynamic quarterback from UCLA Brett Hundley. This left Head Coach Jim Mora with a few question marks at the quarterback position. With solid roster UCLA is more than capable of winning the South Division title. The Bruins have the experience in just about every unit especially on defense, but not a lot of on-field experience at the quarterback position.
UCLA can have solace in the fact that RS/JR Jerry Neuheisel who did relieve Brett Hundley in a game last season against Texas and showed a lot of poise and moxie leading the Bruins to a win over the Longhorns. But top quarterback recruit, Josh Rosen, who run a similar offense that of UCLA’s in high school is coming to be the replacement for Hundley, or at least be a convenient back for Neuheisel. But, if Neuheisel doesn’t do the job coaches are expecting him to do Rosen will definitely jump in with both feet. Whoever the Bruins pick as the starter, having Paul Perkins in the backfield, who led the conference in rushing with 1,575 yards and leading receiver Jordan Peyton will be a major comfort.
The defense’s leadership, at all three levels, is off to the NFL, and UCLA may have some trouble adjusting early to life without linebacker Eric Kendricks, but junior Myles Jack, who plays tailback on short yard situations will be more focused on the defensive side of the ball, as he will have to fill in that leadership role that is missing with Kendricks gone. His impact is more important on defense than it is on the offense. Outside linebacker Deon Hollins will have to build on his strong finish from last season, who had six sacks in the last four games of the 2014 campaign. The secondary may not be the biggest, but top corner Ishmael Adams is quick and a hands on type of cornerback. Safety Jaleel Wadood looks like he can make a serious impact.
Projected record in the Pac-12 will be 10-2, and 4th in the South Division
5. USC Trojans
Head Coach Steve Sarkisian might have lost some key pieces from last season, but he is definitely not short on talent and up and coming stars Southern Cal. Quarterback Cody Kessler decieded to come back for his senior season and another chance to bring a National Championship to USC. The one concern Sarkisian will have to get fix is getting a replacement of All-American D-Line Leonard Williams who went on to the NFL.
Cody Kessler has the privilege to have at his disposal one of the top receiving corps in the country, led by one of the top receiving freshman and Fresham All-American last season. Is now his go to guy, now that Nelson Agholor is gone to the NFL. Another stand out freshman from a year ago is Steven Mitchell, who flew under the radar because of the emergence of Agholor and Smith. He will have to take a step up the ladder, he is a shifty quick receiver who really showed coaches what is can do in spring practice, as well as Adoree’ Jackson, another Freshman All-American one of the most exciting two-way player in America. Yes as freshman they were good, now as sophomores they will have to great.
It’s not easy to replace a 1,000 yard rusher like Buck Allen, which is what the Trojans have to do, but they are not lost of talent. Junior Justin Davis as plenty of experience rushing for close to 600 yards and 4 touchdowns. Sarkisian has a trio of relievers to back him up in James Toland, Stalen Smith and Tre Madden, who likes to rumble between the tackles. Fortunately for Kessler has a some big experienced hogs to protect him up front, and senior All-Pac-12 center Max Tuerk will be partnered with a pair of Freshman All-Americans in Viane Talamaivao at guard and Toa Lobendahn at tackle. Much needed security protection in order to get the pass out to those talented receivers.
Trying to find a replacement for All-American Leonard Williams and top tackler Hayes Pullard won’t be easy and the void will be felt, especially for a team that struggled late in games. But the Trojans are not short of talent on defense. Outside Linebacker/rover safety Su’a Cravens, who led the team in interceptions with 3 and tackles for a loss with 17 last season and was an All-Pac-12 player. On the defensive line, senior Antwaun Woods will try to set the tone at nose tackle, and Delvon Simmons, Claude Pelon and Scott Felix will all do their part trying to fill the void of Leonard Williams. The secondary is led by the aforementioned Jackson, who is among the country’s best cover corners. Kevon Seymour, coming off a fine spring, will start at the other corner.
Projected record in the Pac-12 will be 10-2, and 2nd in the South Division
6. Utah Utes
Head Coach Kyle Whittingham has to be excited about the progression that his program is making sense coming to the Pac-12. Jumping from 5 wins in 2013 to 9 wins in 2014 the most wins sense moving to the Pac-12 conference from the Mountain West. There are some key pieces coming back so he can feel good about how well the team we do in 2015, but there are some concerns for the Utes. Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake and offensive coordinator Dave Christensen both left to go elsewhere.
Quarterback Travis Wilson’s has been an up and down performer throughout his career at Utah; inconsistent and turnover prone. Due to his inconsistency he was replaced by Kendal Thompson a couple times last season, but when Thompson blew out knee against Oregon Wilson regain the starter position led the Utes to a Las Vegas Bowl victory against Colorado State. Wilson did manage to cut down on throwing interceptions from 16 as a sophomore to just five as a junior.
Running back Devontae Booker came out of nowhere in the eyes of the nation last season. He had some big games for the Utes last season. Once he established himself as the featured back, he became a consistent force in the Pac-12, averaging 130.1 yards in conference games. Booker is a tough inside runner that can break it to the outside with explosive speed. With Kaelin Clay gone, Wilson will have to rely on senior receiver Kenneth Scott, who led the team with 48 catches and four touchdowns.
If you want to talk about a piece that will be seriously missed, none will be more missed than Nate Orchard, who recorded 18.5 sacks. New defensive coordinator John Pease is praying that defensive ends Hunter Dimick and Pita Taumoepenu can both fill the void up front and provide the same kind of pressure against the opposing offenses.
Utah’s linebackers were decimated with injuries last season, but able to hold things together enough to rank second in the conference in total defense, allowing 393.5 yards per game. Jared Norris is the group’s most productive player, capable of covering receivers and making big hits in the running game. The other two linebacker’s seniors Jason Whittingham and Jason Fanaika are going to have to show their productivity to take some attention away from Norris. The cornerback position is a concern for Pease; converted quarterback Jason Thompson was a surprise in the spring, competing at safety with Marcus Williams.
Projected record in the Pac-12 will be 8-4, and 5th in the South Division