Ducks, Beavers have reasons for optimism, as QB-deep Pac-12 gets ready to kick off 2014

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON - Chris Petersens arrival in Seattle after his success with Boise State has boosted the Washington Huskies hopes of contending for top honors and future glory in the Pac-12 North and beyond.As the Pac-12 Conference twists and turns ...

Another football season comes with plenty of excitement, given that Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and UCLA’s Brett Hundley loom as Heisman Trophy hopefuls among 10 starting quarterbacks returning, Chris Petersen finally gets his chance to compete with the big boys full-time at Washington, the league’s teams come off a 6-3 bowl record, the Ducks and Bruins and Stanford firmly sit in the preseason national picture and every team has the opportunity to dream of the national championship because of the NCAA’s new playoff format.

It should be an interesting year for Oregon and Oregon State. The Ducks, who stumbled near the end of 2013 — losing at Arizona, pulling out the Civil War win in the last minute and then scoring one offensive touchdown in winning the Alamo Bowl — get the chance to redeem themselves under second-year coach Mark Helfrich. The Beavers have the makings of a team that could contend with Oregon and Stanford, with OSU featuring senior QB Sean Mannion.

So, let’s take a journey through the Pac-12 as training camps open. We’ll start in the north and end in the south and try to make sense of a balanced and competitive league (last year’s overall/Pac-12 records and bowl result in parentheses) ...

• It’s not lost on Petersen, the great former Boise State coach, that his first Washington team (9-4/5-4, won the Fight Hunger Bowl) — doesn’t have a returning starting quarterback. Instead, Petersen’s first duty in camp will be to determine the initial starter from among Troy Williams and Jeff Lindquist — Cyler Miles, executor of UW’s blowout of OSU last year, has been suspended for the first game for being linked (but not charged) to two assaults and missing spring ball. Petersen says Miles has returned to good graces and will “absolutely” get the opportunity to start from “game one.”

Of more importance will be who replaces stud running back Bishop Sankey; the Dawgs even gave standout linebacker Shaq Thompson some spring totes, a la UCLA’s Myles Jack. But, “we don’t want to water him down and make him less of a defensive player,” Petersen says of Thompson, who leads an improving defense that has depth on the line.

• It’s year three of Mike Leach’s reign of air at Washington State (6-7/4-5, lost the New Mexico Bowl), and Connor Halliday, he of the 353.6 yards passing per game and 34 TDs in 2013, returns to sling the pigskin to a bevy of receivers. Leach downplays such things, but it’ll be interesting to see whether he and the WSU offensive coaches try to improve the rushing numbers — 53.4 yards per game in ‘13. Ouch.

The Cougs have been decent on defense — holding USC to seven points and Arizona to 17 the week before the ‘Cats routed Oregon; so, if they can play decent defense again and the Halliday-led offense gets better, it could be another bowl game and more upsets.

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF KARL MAASDAM - Fleet Victor Bolden will be a key skill player for Oregon State, which has the returning mix to be a spoiler, dark horse or more in the Pac-12 this season.• Are things not set up for Oregon State (7-6/4-5, won the Hawaii Bowl) to have a banner year? Led by Mannion (358.6 yards/game, 37 TDs in ‘13), who could become the league’s all-time leading passer, the Beavers have terrific potential on offense: good receivers (post-Brandin Cooks) and tight ends, veteran backs in Storm Woods and Terron Ward, an all-star in the making in wideout Victor Bolden, and some experienced offensive linemen. And, the defense sports experience in each unit, including D-end Dylan Wynn and linebacker Michael Doctor.

The running game, which languished last year until the Oregon game (231 yards, 5.9 per rush), must be better. “I’m excited about it,” coach Mike Riley says, adding, though, that “frankly, I’m worried about our offensive line,” because of youth, and injured center Isaac Seumalo’s uncertainty.

• Oregon (11-2/7-2, won the Alamo Bowl), has been picked to win the Pac-12 by media and is ranked top five in polls, mostly because of Mariota.

Helfrich, former coach Chip Kelly’s right-hand man, says players need to ignore such things, “slap ourselves in the face and go back to the process, go back to the culture.”

The dual-threat Mariota has thrown for 6,342 yards and 63 touchdowns (with only 10 picks) and rushed for 1,467 yards and 14 scores in two years as starter. He’s tremendous, and he’s back for his third season and raring to go along with other offensive veterans such as backs Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner and five returning offensive linemen (including center Hroniss Grasu). The offensive question mark remains receiver (with Bralon Addison presumably recovering from a blown-out knee), but hurdles great Devon Allen has everybody’s attention. The Ducks, although inconsistent, averaged league-bests of 45.5 points and 565 yards on offense last year.

Defensively, the Ducks elevated longtime position coach Don Pellum to D-coordinator when Nick Aliotti retired after his unit allowing one touchdown against Texas in the Alamo Bowl. The Ducks have some returning players, led by cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, but can Pellum outsmart offensive coordinators?

Says his boss: “Great guy, great person, great communicator and great teacher.” He’s Tony the Tiger’s kinda fellow.

• At Sonny Dykes-coached Cal (1-11/0-9), it’s only one way to go — up — and the Bears also have dealt with the mental issue of the death of teammate Ted Agu. The Bears beat Portland State, barely, for their only 2013 win, and ranked last in the league in scoring (23 points per game) and points allowed (45.9). The best hopes for a win or two more rely on returning QB Jared Goff, who rivaled Mannion and Halliday for most-worked QB in the league (44 attempts/game), and some good skill people.

• Stanford (11-3/7-2, lost the Rose Bowl) can boast of consecutive wins against Oregon, Pac-12 titles and Rose Bowl appearances, and moves forward with third-year dual-threat QB Kevin Hogan, multi-purpose Ty Montgomery, athletic skill in the secondary (including safety Jordan Richards) and typical big boys on the lines. The Cardinals lost a lot of experienced players (Tyler Gaffney, Shayne Skov, etc.) from last year’s team, but coach David Shaw does not expect the Cardinal to drop off.

“We have an experienced team that I think can play with the best in the nation,” he says.

It’ll be running back-by-committee, led by Kelsey Young and Barry J. Sanders — the great ex-Detroit Lion’s kid — and Shaw describes Montgomery as “one of the most explosive players in college football.” For Hogan, “the next thing is mastery and leadership, being a leader of the offense and eventually leader of the football team,” Shaw says.

Defensively, Stanford hopes to plug holes on the unit that gave up a league-best 19 points per game last season.

So, we’ll see whether the Cardinal can win at Oregon, again, and we’ll see whether they block and tackle and control the line of scrimmage. Simple as that.

• Utah (5-7/2-7) clearly hopes that concussion problems are behind Travis Wilson, the giant QB who moves well, and that the Kyle Whittingham-coached team can develop an all-around game to beat Pac-12 foes and be a factor in the championship race. The Utes are 18-19 overall and 9-18 in league play in three Pac-12 years.

• It’s the same thing, except worse at Colorado (4-8, 1-8), although plenty of people believe in coach Mike MacIntyre. The Buffaloes have a promising QB in Sefo Liufau (from Tacoma, Wash.), but too much to build to be championship material. In three Pac-12 seasons, the Buffs are 8-29 overall, 4-23 in league.

• Like Oregon, UCLA’s success will start and continue with its dual-threat quarterback, Hundley. The Bruins (10-3/6-3, Sun Bowl victory) have built their roster back to being one of the Pac-12’s best under Jim Mora, the ex-NFLer who enters his third season as coach.

Stars are Hundley and linebackers Eric Kendricks and the aforementioned Jack (from Bellevue, Wash.). Hundley could lead the Bruins to great things, or be bottled up, the case at Oregon last season.

“He’s had a great offseason,” says Mora, who helped Hundley befriend some NFL players. “He’s invested a lot of time in his craft, and he understands his offense now. He understands his capabilities. He knows the players around him a lot better.”

Jeff Ulbrich, a 10-year NFL linebacker, takes over as defensive coordinator.

• USC (10-4/6-3, Vegas Bowl victory) pushed to 10 wins last year, using two coaches, and then hired ex-Trojan assistant Steve Sarkisian away from Washington. USC is USC and always will be an attractive to top-level talent, but talk has the Trojans building their depth again to go with the likes of front-line standouts such as QB Cody Kessler, running backs Tre Madden and Javorius Allen (combined 1,488 yards rushing in ‘13), receiver Nelson Agholor, defensive end Leonard Williams, linebacker Hayes Pullard and safety Su’a Cravens.

Southern Cal has the best returning defense, yardage-wise (335.2), and stellar offensive players. Sarkisian is clearly on the spot. Can USC return to the top of the Pac-12? Are the Trojans the best team in Los Angeles?

• Arizona State (10-4/8-1, lost the Holiday Bowl) has really improved, and reached some potential, under third-year coach Todd Graham. The Sun Devils dropped only one Pac-12 regular-season game (to Stanford, which thumped ASU in the ‘13 league title match). ASU lost some good players, including defensive tackle Will Sutton, but optimism for repeat success exists because of QB Taylor Kelly (3,635 yards, 28 TDs in ‘13) and rushing-catching back D.J. Foster. But, the defense needs to be rebuilt, and it remains to be seen how effective the unit can be in the Pac-12.

• Like Washington, Arizona (8-5/4-5, won the AdvoCare V100 Bowl) doesn’t have a returning quarterback, and the Pac-12’s leading rusher Ka’Deem Carey left for the NFL. So, it’s time for coach Rich Rodriguez to retool the offense, which has maybe the league’s deepest receiver corps with the likes of Austin Hill (returning after a ‘13 injury), Trey Griffey (Ken Jr.’s kid), Nate Phillips and David Richards and more. At Pac-12 media day, the spread-offense innovator Rodriguez danced around questions of who would be the quarterback and primary running back, saying by-committee for the latter. In the mix at QB are Texas transfer Connor Brewer, Jerrard Randall (an ex-Duck prospect), senior Jesse Scroggins and Anu Solomon. At running back, it could be Zach Green or Terris Jones-Grigsby.

The defense continues to build depth and get better.

The Wildcats have gone 16-10 with bowl wins in Rodriguez’s two seasons.

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