Pac-12: Arizona Wildcats
What they're selling: Rich Rodriguez's offensive system worked wonders at West Virginia and introduced the nation to Denard Robinson at Michigan. In 2012, the explosive offense scored at least 34 points in 10 of the Wildcats' 13 games.
What they're missing: The Wildcats don't have the Territorial Cup, which went to Arizona State following a 41-34 victory last season. If Arizona is going to climb the Pac-12 ranks, it'll need to win at home and lock up local talent over the Sun Devils.
Arizona State Sun Devils
What they're selling: There's a new attitude at Arizona State, as Todd Graham took the Sun Devils from the most penalized team in the country to one of the least penalized in just one year. Installing that discipline and accountability has been a major selling point for recruits signing up to play with Graham.
What they're missing: The Sun Devils won their final three games of the season for the first time in more than three decades, but losses to UCLA and USC leave them looking up at the Pac-12 South leaders in the battle for national prominence.
California Golden Bears
What they're selling: One of the top public universities in the world, Cal will always be able to pitch its strong academics to recruiting. The new facilities and revamped California Memorial Stadium will help accentuate the package with a pretty bow.
What they're missing: Coach Sonny Dykes has recent Pac-12 experience, but his three years at Louisiana Tech took him completely out of the minds of West region recruits. In-state recruits, essential to Cal's recruiting success, are unfamiliar with what Dykes' systems look like in game action, although the Golden Bears will have a chance to make several statements this fall.
What they're selling: The Buffaloes need playmakers at a multitude of position on both sides of the ball. Playing time and the ability to make an instant impact are certainly on the table for Colorado recruits.
What they're missing: Colorado was two points away from a winless season in 2012 and has very little on-field momentum heading into 2013. The Buffs have just four wins in two years in the Pac-12, and until that changes, it'll be difficult to win significant recruiting battles.
What they're selling: The noisy uniforms and noisier Autzen Stadium provide the flash, but there is plenty of substance in the fast-paced offense the Ducks run. It's unlikely that will slow down under new coach Mark Helfrich.
What they're missing: Mostly obviously, they're missing Chip Kelly, which has left a slight cloud over how the program might change direction or continue unaltered under the new staff. But the possibility of looming NCAA sanctions means the Ducks can't sell completely smooth sailing to recruits in this class.
Oregon State Beavers
What they're selling: The Beavers can sell credibility, not just on the field, but with the coaching staff as well. Mike Riley and his staff have proven they can win in Corvallis and year after year, the Beavers' coach comes across as incredibly genuine to recruits.
What they're missing: In state, Oregon State is the decided underdog when it comes to flash and national appeal. The Beavers aren't often referred to as a "dream school" by recruits, so there is rarely a sure-fire commitment for coaches when they go out of state.
What they're selling: Arguably no school in the country has the combination of academics and athletics of Stanford. When you're recruiting student-athletes, that's a good place to start.
What they're missing: Despite the recent success, Stanford is never going to be able to put together the game-day atmosphere of some of its Pac-12 competition, including Oregon, UCLA, USC and Washington.
What they're selling: Jim Mora's staff has Southern California buzzing about the new direction UCLA is headed. That's a good thing for the Bruins, who have climbed out of the shadow of USC.
What they're missing: The Bruins had a chance to completely pass USC, but dropped their final three games of the season. There is still a question about whether they've jumped the Trojans for good and until that is settled on the field this season, the Trojans will likely get the benefit of the doubt, regionally and nationally.
What they're selling: No Pac-12 program can fall back on tradition like USC. And now with the John McKay Center, old school meets new school in a much-needed facility upgrade.
What they're missing: Rumblings about Lane Kiffin's job security began after a 10-point loss to UCLA, grew louder after a loss to Notre Dame and became deafening after a Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech. Despite athletic director Pat Haden throwing his full support behind the coach, recruits and their families are having difficulty believing Kiffin and his staff are there for the long haul.
What they're selling: Offensively, there is plenty of intrigue as to how co-offensive coordinators Dennis Erickson and Brian Johnson direct the attack. Overall, there is still the memory of what Utah was able to accomplish as a BCS spoiler in 2008, and Kyle Whittingham hopes to spark some of that magic in the Pac-12.
What they're missing: In two years, the Utes are below .500 in the Pac-12 and missed out on a bowl game last season. At this point, it's still an uphill climb in terms of convincing recruits they can cause an upheaval in the conference standings.
What they're selling: It's tough to find a coaching staff with more energy on the field or recruiting trail, starting with head coach Steve Sarkisian and moving to every assistant coach on the staff. It's a young group that relates incredibly well to recruits.
What they're missing: The Huskies have yet to win eight games in Sarkisian's three years in Seattle, so hitting that number would be a big step toward proving there is some growing on-field momentum.
Washington State Cougars
What they're selling: Mike Leach is still one of the most interesting personalities in college football, and despite some stumbles in his first year at Washington State, recruits are still interested to see what the Cougars can do this fall in his second year.
What they're missing: The Cougars need wins and they need them now. Washington State hasn't posted a winning record since 2003 and when it comes to on-field performance, it simply can't compete with a majority of Pac-12 teams.
2. Oregon: While Stanford and Oregon feel like 1A and 1B, you have to account for the uncertainty of the Ducks' changing coaches, particularly when it's one with as big a presence as Chip Kelly. The returning talent, including Heisman Trophy hopeful Marcus Mariota at quarterback, is strong on both sides of the ball.
3. Arizona State: The Sun Devils and UCLA feel like 3A and 3B as the South Division favorites, but the Sun Devils welcome back 16 starters compared with 13 for the Bruins. The biggest question is at receiver, where incoming players are being expected to immediately compete for starting spots.
4. UCLA: There's a lot to like on both sides of the ball, including quarterback Brett Hundley and outside linebacker Anthony Barr. There are questions at running back and in the secondary. Answer those, and get better play out of the offensive line, and the Bruins could be sniffing the top 15.
5. Washington: The Huskies welcome back 20 starters for the re-opening of a renovated Husky Stadium. It's fortuitous that this looks like coach Steve Sarkisian's best team. The biggest question was whether quarterback Keith Price would bounce back from a poor 2012 season. His strong spring, as well as improved play from the offensive line, hints that this could be a Top-25 team.
6. Oregon State: The Beavers are held back, at least in terms of perception, by two things: (1) Uncertainty at quarterback; (2) A worrisome crossing of the fingers at defensive tackle. Neither Cody Vaz nor Sean Mannion separated himself at quarterback, and the Beavers are counting on junior college transfers to fill their two voids at defensive tackle. Still, there's enough here to merit a preseason Top-25 ranking.
7. USC: This low power ranking has nothing to do with talent or potential. The Trojans have enough talent, if things come together, to play in the Rose Bowl. But coach Lane Kiffin sits on the hottest seat in the conference, the Trojans are adopting a new defense under Clancy Pendergast, and there are questions at quarterback and in the secondary. The Trojans might be the most volatile team in terms of predictions. They could win 10 games. Or six.
8. Arizona: Arizona's two main questions are about absence (replacing quarterback Matt Scott) and presence (essentially the entire two-deep returning from a bad defense). It's difficult to believe the Wildcats' quarterback play will be as good as it was last season, but it's also difficult to believe the defense won't be vastly improved. Off-field issues for running back Ka'Deem Carey seem as though they will be resolved, but there is no escaping receiver Austin Hill's knee injury.
9. Utah: The best news for the Utes this spring was improved play from the offensive line and the seeming maturation of quarterback Travis Wilson. There are, however, plenty of questions on defense at all three levels, and it will be interesting to see how Dennis Erickson operates as a co-offensive coordinator.
10. California: Cal also is a volatile stock. A gander through the depth chart has a lot of "what if." As in: What if the Bears get good quarterback play in 2012? What if running back Brendan Bigelow stays healthy? What if the offensive line improves? What if the defense is as good as the recruiting stars suggest it should be? Answer those "what ifs" positively, and this is a bowl team.
11. Washington State: There is every reason to believe the Cougars will be better in Year 2 under Mike Leach, starting with the seasoning all those young players received the hard way in 2012. But it's difficult to see the Cougs eclipsing too many other teams in the conference pecking order. The No. 11 spot here could come with five wins.
12. Colorado: Colorado will be better in coach Mike MacIntyre's first season than it was in 2012, mostly because it can't get any worse. The Buffs were one of the nation's youngest teams last season, and it showed. They figure to be bigger, stronger and smarter this fall. But probably not so much as to escape the basement here.
1. Quarterback competitions (mostly) unresolved: Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon State and USC entered spring with straight-up QB competitions, and none arrived at any clarity at the position, though some seemed to hint at a front-runner. B.J. Denker looked like the Wildcats' best healthy QB, while Cal's Zach Kline seemed to assert himself slightly for the Golden Bears. At Colorado, Connor Wood's case was helped by attrition. USC's and Oregon State's battles were too close to call.
Further, returning veteran starters with something to prove, including Washington's Keith Price, Washington State's Connor Halliday and Utah's Travis Wilson seemed to assert themselves to varying degrees, though Austin Apodaca could push Halliday in the fall.
2. New coaches, new ways: Sonny Dykes took over at California as did Mike MacIntyre at Colorado. Both, as could be expected, brought changes. Mark Helfrich replaced Chip Kelly at Oregon and, as could be expected, he changed almost nothing. The most obvious change at Cal was open practice, which former coach Jeff Tedford's abandonment of curiously coincided with the Bears gradual decline. The Bears will adopt a no-huddle, spread offense, replacing Tedford's pro-style scheme, and switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense, a reverse of the overall Pac-12 trend. MacIntyre arrived preaching relentless optimism and a pistol offense, while defensive coordinator Kent Baer will retain a 4-3 scheme, but hopefully get better results with his version.
3. Defense, line play look strong: The Pac-12 heads into 2013 poised for a banner year. Oregon and Stanford look like national title contenders -- both are likely preseason top-five teams -- while as many as seven conference teams seem like top-25 candidates. Some of the reasons for the promise are typical: returning QBs and skill players. But what's potentially a bigger reason for improved national standing is the physical side of the game: Offensive line and defense. Nine teams have at least seven starters coming back on defense, while seven teams welcome back four starters on the offensive line. Only one team, Utah, doesn't have at least three starters back on the O-line. Further, there's as much, if not more, star power coming back on the lines and on defense than at the skill positions.
2012 record: 8-5
2012 conference record: 4-5 (fourth in South Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 11; kicker/punter: 0
RB Ka'Deem Carey, WR David Richards, LB Jake Fischer, LB Marquis Flowers, WR Terrence Miller, OL Fabbians Ebbele, OL Mickey Baucus.
QB Matt Scott, WR Dan Buckner, C Kyle Quinn, DL Dominique Austin, OL Trace Biskin.
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Ka'Deem Carey* (1,929 yards)
Passing: Matt Scott (3,620 yards)
Receiving: Austin Hill* (1,364, suffered ACL tear in spring, out indefinitely)
Tackles: Jake Fischer* (119)
Sacks: Marquis Flowers* (5.5)
Interceptions: Marquis Flowers* and Jonathan McKnight* (3)
1. Plenty of weapons: Yes, Austin Hill's injury is brutal. Yes, it's a big blow to the Wildcats. Is it a game-changer? Maybe, maybe not. It's not like the Cats are strapped for receiving options. Johnny Jackson, David Richards, Tyler Slavin and Garic Wharton still make up an awfully formidable receiving corps. If a couple emerge, Arizona will be OK. If they all do, the Wildcats might not miss a beat.
2. The whole defense returns: Great -- except that the defense struggled last season. Having a ton of starters back is a good thing -- but only if they get better. A second year in the 3-3-5 should naturally lend itself to less thinking and more playing. And it's not just the starting 11. There are 20 defensive players who notched at least one start last season -- so there is depth to go with the experience.
3. O-line rising: It's no easy task replacing center Kyle Quinn. But the good thing about Arizona's line is that its members are versatile and can play multiple positions. Mickey Baucus (LT) and Fabbians Ebbele (RT) started every game last year and Chris Putton started multiple games at both guard spots and can also play center. The five isn't set -- but there is room and depth to mix and match.
1. QB roulette? Unlike with some other Pac-12 teams with quarterback competitions, Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez doesn't want to name his starter and then stand by his man. He could name a different starter the next day. And then a different one the day after that. Rodriguez said he could have three different quarterbacks start the first three weeks of the season. Many feel B.J. Denker had the strongest spring with Jesse Scroggins slowed by injury. Stay tuned.
2. Ready to lead? Did Matt Scott make Ka'Deem Carey look good? Or did Carey make Scott look good? Most think it was a bit of both. With Scott gone and Carey now a national name, the target will be squarely on the chest of last season's national leader in rushing. Carey isn't going to surprise anyone. Can he duplicate 2012's production with the increased attention and a new quarterback at the helm?
3. Injuries stink: That's not so much a fall question as a statement on the olfactory unpleasantness of injuries. The Wildcats had as many as 20 injuries this spring, meaning a lot of players who might not start in the fall got to start in the spring. That's great for depth, but it leaves a lot of holes and a lot of questions still be to be answered when the bulk of those injured players return in the fall.
A player or coach is never going to say, "We're doomed," when a star player gets hurt. It's "Next man in." As it should be. No one likes a whiner.
And woe to the sportswriter who, armed with a laptop, acts as the killjoy.
Take Arizona. It already was searching for a replacement for highly productive quarterback Matt Scott when, on the last week of spring practices, star receiver Austin Hill went down with a knee injury.
No worries, said fellow receiver David Richards.
"We have a lot of other weapons," Richards said. "I don't think we'll really lose a step. I don't think it will hurt us that bad even though he was a great receiver."
Richards added he plans to step up his game and help fill the void. That's good because he's now the Wildcats leading returning wide receiver after catching 29 passes for 298 yards with three TDs last year.
That, of course, is long way from the 81 passes for 1,364 yards with 11 scores Hill contributed as a sophomore. But we are not here to party poop. We are here to offer hope.
Hill's injury and the departure of second-leading receiver Dan Buckner leave a void without a doubt. Whoever wins the quarterback job won't have an obvious go-to option. On the positive side, he also won't be fixated on one guy, as, say, USC was last year with Marqise Lee.
The Wildcats have solid experience coming back at receiver. Richards is the leader of four wide outs who caught at least 19 passes last year, a crew that includes Tyler Slavin, Johnny Jackson and Garic Wharton. The imposing Terrence Miller also returns after receiving a medical hardship year from the NCAA. The 6-foot-4, 234 pounder had 13 receptions in the first four games before he got hurt.
Finally, there's a trio of promising redshirt freshmen -- Trey Griffey, Clive Georges and Jarrell Bennett -- who hinted this spring they are ready to help.
Let's just say there are plenty of teams in the country and even the Pac-12 that would trade their receivers for Arizona's, including rival Arizona State, which is essentially crossing its fingers over incoming players being ready to take over leading roles.
Hill's injury was a hit, but it didn't change the preeminent questions for the Wildcats: Quarterback and defense. Arizona has no idea who will be behind center, while the defensive question hangs on how much better 11 returning starters and some redshirt freshmen and newcomers can be compared to the overmatched group from 2012.
Richards, following the lead of his coaches, didn't reveal much about the QB competition, though B.J. Denker seemed to have the best spring, with USC transfer Jesse Scroggins sitting out and touted true freshman Anu Solomon arriving this summer.
"All the quarterbacks pretty much had a good spring," Richards said. "I think it will be a good camp with them all competing. The person that works the hardest and proves he wants to be the leader of this team will be the quarterback."
That same could be said of who will become that QB's top target.
First off, quarterbacks are excluded to make things more interesting. It goes without saying, for example, that Oregon's Marcus Mariota is the Ducks' most important player.
And most important doesn't necessarily have to be "best." An All-American's backup can be pretty darn good, too.
Our most important guys are players who could swing a win total one way or the other, based on their living up to expectations. Or their absence.
Arizona: RB Ka'Deem Carey
2012 production: Carey rushed for 1,929 yards and 23 touchdowns. He also caught 36 balls for 303 yards and a touchdown.
Why Carey is so important: The Wildcats had three A-list offensive players last year: Carey, QB Matt Scott and WR Austin Hill. Scott is off to the NFL and Hill suffered a knee injury this spring that will, at least, keep him sidelined for a significant portion of the 2013 season.
Carey, of course, was the consensus All-American and the nation's leading rusher in 2012. He ranked fifth on our list of the top-25 Pac-12 players. He might be the best running back in the nation this fall, and that would almost automatically make him a leading Heisman Trophy candidate.
Carey is an obvious choice here, of course, because he's certain to be the first offensive option for a team breaking in a new quarterback -- who is still to be determined -- that also has a suspect defense. Carey needs to be even more of a force this season, and he also needs to be a leadership force.
But his importance has been magnified for two reasons: 1. Hill's injury; 2. Carey's own poor offseason.
Carey needs to do everything he can to resolve some embarrassing off-field issues, including a July 12 court date concerning misdemeanor assault and disorderly conduct charges from a domestic dispute with his pregnant ex-girlfriend, and get back in the good graces of his coaches and team.
Learning some humility along the way would also help.
The pressure and scrutiny on Carey, who hasn't given interviews this spring, will be significant this fall, due to his fame and newfound infamy. He likely will find road games particularly taxing, as he will be singled out for abuse.
He needs to step up and deal with it without flinching or making excuses. This team needs Carey -- a productive and mature one.
But now Hill is likely lost for the season with a torn ACL. What does that mean for the Wildcats?
It ain't good.
At the beginning of spring practices, you could say that the Wildcats were deep at receiver. Seven of the eight receivers on the bowl game depth chart were slated to return. But, really, a lot of that was Hill, second-team All-Pac-12, leading a group of promising young players.
Not to be Debbie Downer on this, but consider the situation now.
Hill and his 81 receptions for 1,364 yards and school-record-tying 11 TDs are gone, as are the 61 catches for 773 yards and five TDs from departed senior Dan Buckner.
Carey was the Wildcats' third-leading receiver. No. 4 was David Richards, with just 29 receptions for 298 yards and three TDs. No other returning receiver had more than two TDs in 2012.
Now, the situation isn't desperate. Far from it. There are a number of Pac-12 teams that would switch receivers with the Wildcats, even without Hill. And if Notre Dame transfer Davonte' Neal wins his appeal with the NCAA and is ruled immediately eligible, he could become a premier playmaker.
Further, there's plenty of intriguing talent with a mixture of size, speed and experience, a list topped by 6-foot-4 Terrence Miller, who won a year back due to a medical waiver from the NCAA, junior Tyler Slavin and junior Garic Wharton. The redshirt freshmen had solid springs, including Trey Griffey, Clive Georges and Jarrell Bennett. Further, as many as six incoming signees could end up as receivers.
Again, not desperate.
But Hill was a game-changer. He wasn't a burner, but his hands were as good as any player in the conference. He bailed out quarterback Matt Scott many times last year, and any ball he could get a finger on was likely to be caught.
Hill, a redshirt junior, could rush through his rehab and return sometime next fall. His plan likely was to enter the 2014 NFL draft. Now he has the option of coming back in 2014 as a senior, perhaps to buoy his NFL stock and overcome injury concerns.
But that's a future issue for Hill and the Wildcats.
The present problem for Arizona is a perceived strength now has become a question mark. The Wildcats have now become a team looking for a go-to target in the passing game.
Of course, a present Arizona receiver might see that as an opportunity, not a problem.
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Kote in Palo Alto writes (and writes, and writes, and writes): Hi Kevin, First off, I'm thrilled about Stanford football over the past four years. I don't think any Stanford fan isn't, and if they are, they're wrong to be. That said, I am concerned about the coaching staff's alleged conservatism, but it's not the general concern that most people have cited. Instead, I'm specifically concerned about conservatism in situations that call for more spontaneity. The Rose Bowl was a great example of what I mean. Stanford jumped out to a 14-0 lead on some terrific play-calling: the pitch to Terrell who tossed it to JRP, Hogan airing it out to Ertz, and the sweep to Young. Those were great plays, but they were ones that Shaw and Hamilton probably drew up and planned out weeks before. After those first two series, the playcalling got much more conservative, and we never saw the end zone again. Then I thought about the rest of this past year, and particularly Stanford's losses. In both cases, we had a lead, and in both cases the other team came from behind to win it. We can blame Josh Nunes and an anemic offense all we want, but it seemed like things got pretty uncreative at the ends of those games (just think about ND's goal line "stand"). For whatever reason, once Stanford gets beyond the initial game plan, things seem to tighten up a bit, and the result is less scoring. The defense also stops worrying about the long ball or the trick play as well, and that makes the vintage pound-it-up-the-middle strategy less effective, too. This was true in some other games as well -- we didn't score in the second half at all against Cal, and only 3 points in the second half against SJSU. That might be selection bias, but it seemed like a lot of the time this year the offense built a lead at the beginning of the game, and we either clung on for dear life or kicked a last minute field goal or two to get the win or pad the margin. Is it possible that Shaw and his staff are good at drawing up creative plays before the game starts, but that they need to work on the confidence/grit/toughness/whatever to call gutsy plays off the cuff?
Kevin Gemmell: Let’s check the scoreboard:
Pac-12 coach of the year honors for David Shaw: 2
Pac-12 coach of the year honors for Kote from Palo Alto: 0
I poke fun in jest. But hopefully the sentiment is well taken. David Shaw is not an exciting play-caller, nor are the Cardinal built to be the greatest show on turf. He’s a very traditional West Coast offense-minded coach who plays to his strength: strong running backs and a strong offense line. Isn't that what good coaches do? Play to strengths?
That doesn’t mean he can’t mix it up with a fun play every so often. But he’s extremely calculating. Don’t think for a second that someone on their staff hasn’t sabremetricized Stanford’s success/failure ratio on certain plays in certain situations. You cite the Notre Dame game. With that offensive line and that running back, I’d go up the middle four times too. Because the odds of Stanford failing to go four yards on four plays have to be extremely long. (And depending who you ask, they did go 4 yards.)
Allow me to offer an example of gutsy play-calling. Down 23-21 with a little more than five minutes left in the game, Stanford was at the Oregon State 13-yard line. The play-calling brain trust dialed up a post route to Zach Ertz – knowing that he was going to draw man-to-man coverage from Jordan Poyer, arguably the best cover-corner in the league last year with a league high six interceptions. Ertz beat Poyer with a head fake to the corner and caught the 13-yard pass, leading to Stanford’s 27-23 victory. This wasn’t a trick or flashy play – but given the circumstances and the defender, it was a gutsy call. It was taking a chance. It just doesn't meet your definition of "gutsy."
And there is a purpose to those vintage “drive it up the middle” plays. It’s demoralizing to a defense when they get dragged up and down the field. Stanford’s approach last year was to get an early lead, and then grind teams down with long drives. It is a proven formula as old as football itself.
Shaw isn’t totally against trickery, either. We’ve seen a couple of flea flickers. The Wildcat reverse of Andrew Luck to Ty Montgomery against USC in 2011 comes to mind, as does Luck’s one-handed catch. But every risk Shaw takes offensively is extremely calculated and measured.
I appreciate where you are coming from. But the sooner you understand that Mike Martz isn't running the offense and start embracing the smashmouth culture your team has adopted, you'll be able to enjoy their success that much more.
This is not whether the team of the day can win the Pac-12. And we're not predicting any winners. Rather, this is our take on the team's chances of winning the North or South.
Buy: Arizona has a sneaky-strong position as it sets up for the 2013 season and the South Division race.
It starts with the schedule, which includes fortuitous misses of Stanford and Oregon State. In fact, when you toss in three horribly weak nonconference games -- the nonconference schedule would make an SEC team blush -- you can envision seven games in which the Wildcats will be clear favorites. After that, you see three rugged road games -- Washington, USC and Arizona State -- and a pair of home games in which Arizona figures to be the underdog: UCLA and Oregon.
As it stands now, this schedule suggests seven or eight wins. What could swing the Wildcats in the upward direction -- or downward, if you want to be a pessimist -- is quarterback play. While the Pac-12 blog suspects many Wildcats fans don't realize just how good Matt Scott was last season -- obviously the Ted Miller half of the Pac-12 blog believes he was one of the elite players in the conference in 2012 -- the recent strong performances across the Pac-12 of first-year starters at the position means it doesn't require a Herculean leap of faith to wonder this with a degree of hope: What if the Wildcats are at least solid at the position?
AP Photo/John MillerA second season under coach Rich Rodriguez and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, left, could boost the comfort level for Arizona's returning players.
Now, I'm not picking the Wildcats to win the South. I'd rate them fourth at this point, behind Arizona State, UCLA and USC. But none of those teams is a sure thing. I also see a team that should be more comfortable with second-year coach Rich Rodriguez, one that has a lot of intriguing elements coming back.
Looking at this like a stock purchase, if you're willing to take on some risk, the Wildcats might be a team that will yield high reward.
Buy: I wanted Ted to go first for Arizona because I wanted to see how long it would take him to mention Matt Scott in relation to skeptical Arizona fans. He waited all the way until the middle of the third paragraph. His restraint is commendable. (Though it took him only three sentences to sneak in an SEC jab. Golf clap.)
The Wildcats are right on the edge -- and I agree that they are probably fourth in the pecking order of teams in the hunt for the division. As of today, I wouldn't pick them to win the South. But I wouldn't rule them out either. So I'm buying because of wait for it the improved defense! That's right, Jeff Casteel, this is your time to shine.
We're not talking about a handful of returners, we're talking about the entire defense returning. Are the Wildcats going to be at the same level as Stanford, Arizona State, Oregon State, et al? No. Probably not even in the same neighborhood. But they will be better than 105th against the run, 118th in total defense and 102nd in points allowed.
If the Wildcats make even incremental defensive progress, it is going to be a huge step forward and should be enough to offset a quarterback change on the other side of the ball. The 3-3-5 is a risk-reward scheme that, when run properly, can give offenses fits. It's unique to the conference, so teams aren't going to be used to seeing it, and Year 2 is usually when teams start to see progress because there is a better understanding of the big-picture concepts. I'm expecting the sacks to go up, the turnovers forced to go up and the yards allowed to go down.
The offense has enough elite playmakers to put points on the board. I think whoever wins the quarterback job is going to have enough warm-up time before that Sept. 28 game at Washington (and as of today I'd pick the Huskies in that one). With guys such as Ka'Deem Carey and Austin Hill, the Wildcats will again be an offensive force to be reckoned with. More importantly, the defense should do a much better job protecting leads in 2013, which gives the Wildcats a fighting chance against the South elite.
Part of that is because of the increased difficulty in schedule for a few of the teams. ESPN Insider/contributor Phil Steele recently looked at five teams in college football that have significantly tougher schedules next season -- and three of the teams he mentions hail from the Pac-12 South: ASU, UCLA and Utah.
With one of the stoutest defensive lines in the league -- maybe the country -- the Sun Devils figure to be right in the mix. But a challenging nonconference schedule will test them early. Here's Steele's take on the Sun Devils:
Last season, despite being one of the most inexperienced teams in the country (just eight returning starters), the Sun Devils took advantage of facing four backup quarterbacks in their first four weeks, leading to an eight-win season. But now things are much more difficult.
It starts with one of the tougher nonconference slates in the entire country. In 2012, the Sun Devils played Illinois and Missouri, which combined to go 7-17. This season, they pick up Wisconsin and Notre Dame, two teams that went a combined 20-7 in 2012.
The Bruins, the defending division champs, won't give up the crown without a fight. But adding Washington and Oregon to the equation -- plus some tough road trips -- will make repeating challenging. Here's Steele's take:
In nonconference play, the Bruins will travel to Lincoln to play Nebraska. As far as Pac-12 opponents, Washington State and Oregon State are off the schedule, but they're replaced by their much tougher in-state counterparts, Washington and Oregon. In the Pac-12's uneven nine-game conference schedule last season, UCLA played five home games (four away), but in 2013 it plays four home games (five away). UCLA also has arguably the toughest back-to-back road games of any team in the country this season, playing at Oregon and Stanford in consecutive weeks. Finally, the Bruins will have to play at crosstown rival USC, who is still smarting from last season's loss.
The Utes are still a bit of a question mark with holes to fill on the defensive line and plenty of question marks on offense. It's not going to get any easier as they welcome Stanford and Oregon for the first time since joining the conference. Writes Steele:
In 2013, the Utes have to play the Ducks, Cardinal and also have key games in Pac-12 South play against USC and Arizona on the road. In terms of nonconference play, the final game in the Holy War rivalry (for now) against BYU will also be played on the road. Overall, the Utes go from playing just two top-25 teams in 2012 to playing two possible top-five teams this upcoming season, along with an additional seven teams that won seven or more games in 2012.
Author Braden Gall broke down his list into three categories: finalists, top challengers and defensive long shots. The Pac-12 blog -- in one form or another -- has included all of the following names as potential Heisman contenders. Except for Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson, who is an intriguing name on the defensive long-shot list.
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel -- last year's Heisman winner -- and Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller headline the group in terms of odds.
Here’s some snippets of what Gall has to say about the Pac-12 players. You can click here for the entire article and complete take on each player:
No. 5 Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon: Manziel gets most of the love as a redshirt freshman, but Mariota wasn’t far behind. He rarely played in any second halves and led the nation in road passing efficiency. Overall, he led the Pac-12 in passer rating and scored 37 total touchdowns. He plays with poise and confidence well beyond his years.Top challengers
No. 6 Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona: Carey was the most underrated player in the nation last fall. He led the nation in rushing (148.4 ypg, 1,929 yards), set the Arizona single-season rushing record and the Pac-12 single-game rushing record (366 yards). He scored 24 times and helped turn the Wildcats from a four-win team in 2011 to an eight-win, zone-read monster. And he did all of this as a sophomore.
De’Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon: An elite big-play machine, Thomas’ biggest weakness is actually one of his biggest strengths. The Oregon scheme lends itself to huge numbers but it also distributes the football.Defensive long shots
Marqise Lee, WR, USC: With a proven commodity at quarterback coming back, Lee would be in the “Finalists” category. But with Matt Barkley -- and counterpart Robert Woods who drew plenty of defensive attention -- leaving for the NFL, Lee’s numbers will almost assuredly go down.
Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA: The Bruins finally found a quarterback. The redshirt sophomore-to-be threw for three 300-yard efforts in his first four career games. He then led his team to the Pac-12 title game, scored 38 total touchdowns and produced nearly 4,100 yards of total offense in just his first year under center.
Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA: Is a terror off of the edge and will push for nation's lead in sacks.
Will Sutton, DL, Arizona State: Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year back on a team that could push for a division title.
Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington: Elite playmaker who should blossom into an All-American as just a sophomore.