Pac-12: Utah Utes

Happy Friday. Welcome to the mailbag.

But first, you now have a full bag of Twitter handles that are required reading.

You have mine here. You have Kevin Gemmell's brand spanking new 140-character depot.

And you have our veteran Tweeters and new Pac-12 blog insiders, Chantel Jennings -- here -- and Kyle Bonagura -- here.

That is 560 characters that nine out of 10 doctors recommend -- and this is the 10th doctor.

To the notes!


Nick from Sacramento writes: If Sonny Dykes wins 5 games this season, with a new AD, think he sees season 3?

Ted Miller: Short answer: Yes.

I also think that if he wins four or even three games and the Bears are far more competitive on both sides of the ball than they were in 2013, he deserves a third season, unless things go haywire off the field. While Dykes didn't inherit an entirely empty cupboard from Jeff Tedford, there were certainly issues, and then the Bears' injury woes last season were among the worst I've witnessed -- UCLA fans, you could equate it to your 1999 season, when Bob Toledo was practically walking around campus asking guys to suit up.

Dykes hasn't been perfect. Most notably his hiring of Andy Buh as defensive coordinator didn't work out. But he also deserves credit for making a handful of changes on his staff this offseason, including the hiring of Art Kaufman to run his defense.

Of course, when a football coach of a struggling team sees the athletic director who hired him depart, he knows he is losing an important administrative relationship. ADs and the coaches they hire in revenue sports are tied at the hip. When one suffers, so does the other. In this case, with Sandy Barbour leaving, Dykes is now less secure than he was last week. And it's notable that we rated him as the least secure Pac-12 coach even before this news.

The question now turns to the sort of AD Cal has in mind to replace Barbour. There are plenty of athletic director types out there. Some move deliberately. Some are more impulsive. I've been told by more than a few savvy ADs that it's important to hire your own football coach because you would rather be judged by what you have done than what your predecessor did.

Yet, as with most things in college football, there is an easy solution: Winning.

If Dykes goes 4-8 this season and gets back to the postseason in 2015 with quarterback Jared Goff as a third-year starter -- and his team is academically and behaviorally sound -- I suspect we'll see him around for a while.


Tom from Seattle writes: Saw your QB blog about the PAC-12 and the comments on Utah's QB Travis Wilson -- "When healthy, Wilson has been a solid performer with good upside. "Are we talking about the same Travis Wilson that is the 11th ranked PAC-12 QB in conference play two years running and leads the world in INT's? Still love your blogs, though!

Ted Miller: Yes.

First, Wilson, despite playing with an injury for three games, ended up grading out fairly well, ranking 47th in the nation in ESPN.com's Total QBR. Sure, that is only ninth in the Pac-12, but in the conference of quarterbacks, it's important to keep a national perspective when we are evaluating what might constitute a "solid performer."

Second, see if you notice anything in these numbers. Can you guess when Wilson got hurt? What you see is a pretty good quarterback through six games and the bottom falling out during the next three conference games. Again, "when healthy Wilson has been a solid performer..." When he was bad last season, he wasn't healthy (other than the UCLA disaster).

What about that "good upside" part? Well, let's not forget that Wilson was a true sophomore last season. He was thrust into service prematurely in 2012 and played fairly well considering the circumstances. When the Utes were 4-2 after beating Stanford, he looked like a guy who could lead the Utes into the South Division race.

For comparison's sake, consider that Oregon State's Sean Mannion had a 127.1 rating with 18 interceptions as a redshirt freshman starter. Wilson finished with a 129.7 rating last season.

But thanks for loving the blogs. Most awesome people do.


Paul from Albany, Ore., writes: Losing Brandin Cooks is going to be very difficult on the Oregon State offense and this fact has been pointed out numerous times. What has not been pointed out is that this same dialogue was stated the prior year when Markus Wheaton was lost to the NFL. Yes Cooks had a better year last than Wheaton did one earlier. But why has so little been written about the common denominator in both seasons -- Sean Mannion?? He is returning and yet all you folks write about is the losses he has sustained. How about digging into the idea that maybe he is a key factor in helping these receivers achieve their lofty status?

Ted Miller: Well, after passing for 10,436 yards and 68 touchdowns in three seasons, Mannion certainly merits a tip of the cap. And he has improved each year, which is a good thing.

I'd also contend he gets plenty of credit. For one, we ranked him fourth among Pac-12 quarterbacks, which is saying something when all four qualify as All-American candidates. And NFL draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. knows who he is, ranking him the nation's No. 2 senior quarterback Insider.

But this will be a revealing year for Mannion. For one, he's a senior. This is his last chance to make a statement as a college quarterback and as an NFL prospect. Second, for the first time, he doesn't have a proven, NFL prospect at receiver.

NFL scouts are presently wondering if Wheaton and Cooks made Mannion look good. If Mannion is a more efficient player this season with a less stellar supporting cast in the passing game and, yes, wins a couple of big games, his stock will rise both when it comes to college kudos and NFL love.


Wayne from Mesa, Ariz., writes: A few weeks ago, the PAC-12 announced a new start time window for football: 11:00am. A few stories circulated the announcement, but I have not seen anything since. Has there been much feedback regarding this start time? From my standpoint, while it provides needed content for that time slot on the PAC-12 Network, it's way too early for the fans, especially in a region where we are used to late afternoon and night games.

Ted Miller: We did a poll and 58 percent of 5,391 respondents were positive about the 11 a.m. window.

I generally agree with that result. While 11 a.m. isn't ideal, it's better than having four games kickoff at 7:30 p.m. PT. A lot of Pac-12 fans have been complaining about a surfeit of late kickoffs. This is a response to that complaint. My guess is those who will now complain about the early kickoff will be fewer in numbers.

It's important to note a few things about the 11 a.m. window.

Wayne, I notice you are from Arizona. If you are a fan of Arizona or Arizona State, you won't have to worry about an 11 a.m. kickoff, at least not until late October. The Pac-12 has no interest in fans melting into puddles in their seats.

It's also unlikely the 11 a.m. kick will be the day's marquee game. That still will almost always fall into primetime windows, be that on ET or PT.

I suspect the 11 a.m. kickoff will mean more TV eyeballs for what might seem like middling games. While some folks are worried about competing with SEC or Big Ten games at 2 p.m., I don't see that as an issue. Some viewers will tune in because they care more about the Pac-12. Some will tune in because they like to watch more than one game at once. Those who don't care about the Pac-12 wouldn't watch with any kickoff time.

Some don't like the 11 a.m. kickoff because it means waking up early to drive to the stadium, and it cuts into tailgating time. But I'm not sure if these party-hardy folks are looking at the big picture.

First, there will be some encouragement for fans to arrive Friday evening. That only means more fun. Then, on Saturday, you get the 8 a.m. bloody mary at the stadium with eggs and bacon and country ham from this guy. Yummy. Then you have a postgame tailgate and time for a dinner and -- potentially -- a nice evening to tool around the old college digs.

The socially creative among you will be emailing me at season's end telling me the 11 a.m. kickoff rocked.


Emily from Los Angeles writes: You want a heartbreaking loss? What about the 3OT game between USC and Stanford?

Ted Miller: You mean a game that featured big names, ranked teams, controversy, late heroics and three overtimes could be heartbreaking?

I was there. Really entertaining, strange game. Hated how it ended, though. Not in terms of who won, but that it was about a sloppy and unfortunate turnover rather than a dramatic play.


Trevor from Portland writes: We got an article about Pac-12 heartbreakers, and it left out the biggest heartbreaker of the decade. Cam Newton fumbled, he wasn't down by forward progress. Cliff Harris was in. Michael Dyer was down. I'm still not over it.

Ted Miller: I was there for that one, too.

The Ducks were so close to a national title. It was the only time I can recall that Chip Kelly expressed regret about his game plan and some in-game decisions, as that sort of navel gazing wasn't his thing.

That is the thing about close games. They are a thrill to win and excruciating to lose. They also are why we love sports. While we love the winning, there is also a masochistic side to us that enjoys the social aspects of wallowing in misery among friends.

(Thousands of fans from various, struggling Pac-12 outposts immediately go, "Who... us?")
It was reported this week that LeBron James will exercise his early termination option with the Miami Heat and become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

So what does this minor sports factoid have to do with the Pac-12? Everything, of course, as the world is best seen through a Pac-12 prism.

While most reporters are focused on James' potential homecoming to Cleveland or forming a new superstar triumvirate in a major media market, your Pac-12 blog attached itself to a perfectly implausible notion: Which Pac-12 football team would be the best fit for James to take his talents?

You know you were thinking the same thing. Oh, yes you were.

Kevin Gemmell: When Ted first pitched me this idea for a Take 2, my initial thought was, what team couldn’t use a 6-foot-8, 250-pound athlete who is loyal and clutch in the fourth quarter. Then I remembered he was talking about LeBron James.

Zing!

I kid, your Grace.

So this is obviously for kicks. The man who launched a thousand recruits saying they’re going to “take their talents” on national signing day could be on the move again.

So which Pac-12 school would be the best fit for his highness? Well, let’s look at this strictly from a football perspective. Arizona and ASU are already silly with wide receivers. I don’t think he has the right makeup to be a fullback in the Stanford offense. Oregon’s Nike ties create an interesting incentive. The glamour of Los Angeles is also an interesting draw for either USC or UCLA.

But I’m going to go off the beaten path and say when you have a 6-8 tight end/receiver (I’m just assuming this will be much like his basketball career and he’ll strictly play offense), you pair him with a 6-7 quarterback. And with the news that Utah’s Travis Wilson has been medically cleared to play in 2014, this feels like a no-brainer.

For starters, the Utes are spreading things out even more under new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen. When things spread out, in theory, that creates single coverage. And while I like the safeties in this conference, I know they’d be hard-pressed to cover someone of James’ stature.

Next, the Utes have a pretty good-looking trio of running backs who are all going to get some work. That means grinding out some yards (yes, LeBron, you might have to block a little) and that means some good red-zone opportunities. That’s really where the King could make the greatest difference. Stick him in the corner of the end zone and let Wilson chuck fades and jump balls all day long.

And after a well-played game at Rice-Eccles, he can kick back and watch the Jazz.

This seems like a no-brainer. I feel like LeBron-to-Utah analysis would have dominated the sports world yesterday and today if only Luis Suarez hadn’t stolen the news cycle.

Ted Miller: Like most of you, my first thought was Washington State. LeBron James plus Mike Leach would equal endless awesome. They'd bond over their mutual hero, Geronimo. But having hung with James' posse countless times in South Beach, I can tell you that he's developed an affection for warm weather.

So the answer is obvious: UCLA.

For one, the ensuing celebratory musical theater after the announcement performed by coach Jim Mora and offense coordinator Noel Mazzone would be priceless. Imagine combining Monty Python, "Gladiator" and the "Britney/Brittany" episode from "Glee" into a two-man arrhythmic song-and-dance routine. Yes, it would be that good.

Without a doubt, James would play both ways. He'd become an A-list target for QB Brett Hundley, particularly in the red zone, and he could double as a spot pass rusher, replacing the perimeter athleticism of Anthony Barr. A spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff would be a certainty.

Further, James would offer a big boost for Hundley's Heisman Trophy candidacy, both in terms of on-field numbers and off-field soundbites. Here's a guess that James would appreciate being the No. 2 star on his team for once, too.

Let's not forget the What's-In-It-For-Me angle. There are plenty of reasons for LeBron to relocate to Westwood.

For one, after the inevitable easing of certain NCAA rules, he could moonlight with a team some call "The Los Angeles Lakers." While football would be the priority, he could take some heat off Kobe and Company in their battle with that that other LA hoops squad that has ownership issues.

Finally, picking UCLA goes against the grain. Many hearing that James was headed to LA seeking more coverage from the Pac-12 blog would immediately assume he would join USC, the Pac-12's longtime preeminent power. But opting to become a Bruin, thereby shifting the balance of power in LA, would mean he could establish his own preeminence.

You know, after Hundley.
There was a general feeling of cautious optimism when Utah quarterback Travis Wilson was cleared for non-contact participation this past spring. Pretty obvious reason for that. Just a few months before, the general feeling was his career was over because of a pre-existing medical condition that was discovered only after he suffered a concussion against Arizona State.

That pre-existing condition diagnosed in November was termed an injury to an intracranial artery. While the Pac-12 blog isn't a doctor, I think we can all agree that just sounds bad. When team physician David Petron felt he needed to tell Utes fans at the time, "We do not believe it is life-threatening," well, it was fairly obvious the issue was different than a torn something or other.

[+] EnlargeTravis Wilson
AP Photo/Rick BowmerTravis Wilson helped lead the Utes to an upset win against Stanford last season.
So it rates as more than just your run of the mill positive team news that Wilson has been fully cleared by doctors to rejoin the Utes. Whether you root for Utah or not, you have to feel good that a young man will get to resume playing a game he loves. Not too far in the background is the revelation that said intracranial artery has remained stable, which has to be reassuring for Wilson and his family, whatever happened with football.

Yet after we raise our glass to what is important in the grand scheme, we then can get reductive again: Football. What does this mean for the Utes?

For one, it means the Utah offense gets a two-year starter back, a guy who at his best looks like a legitimate Pac-12 quarterback. Recall that last season, after a dreadful game against UCLA, Wilson helped lead the Utes to an upset win against Stanford. At that point in mid-October, Utah was 4-2, those two losses coming in overtime to Oregon State and, despite six interceptions, by seven points to the Bruins, the eventual South Division champion. Though six interceptions put a dent in Wilson's overall numbers, it is notable that his efficiency rating at the time was just four points lower than Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, who ended up second-team All-Pac-12.

When healthy, Wilson has looked like a guy who can make the Utes a legitimate threat in the South Division.

Of course, our using the word "healthy" to describe a Utah quarterback has sent Utes fans scrambling to knock on wood, rub their rabbit's feet or burn incense in front of their Jobu shrine. The last time a Utah quarterback made it through a season without injury was in 2008.

So ... what happened in 2008? Anyone recall? Utah fans might want to remind dismissive Pac-12 fans about that.

Our feeling is that if Wilson is healthy for 12 regular-season games, Utah will return to the postseason this fall.

Wilson's return, however, is not without intrigue. Just a few paragraphs down in the news release from the school announcing Wilson's clean bill of health, it said, Wilson "will enter fall camp No. 1 on the depth chart, although he must beat out five other scholarship QBs to regain his starting job."

Hmm.

It is also curious that those five quarterbacks were listed in a news release about Wilson's medical clearance:
Battling Wilson for the starting job when fall camp opens on Aug. 4 will be Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson, redshirt freshman Conner Manning and junior Adam Schulz, along with redshirt freshman Brandon Cox and true freshman Donovan Isom.

Here is a guess that Thompson is the chief reason Utah is conspicuously writing Wilson's name in pencil as the No. 1 quarterback. Though Thompson is mostly an idea -- he did very little for the Sooners -- new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen clearly thinks Thompson has a shot to unseat Wilson. The institutional position -- via news release, no less -- is that this is an earnest competition, and Wilson's present lead is mostly about seniority. With pressure increasing on coach Kyle Whittingham to get Utah back to its winning ways, seniority only means you get the first piece of pizza on Day 1 of preseason camp. Little else.

If Thompson comes in and is decisively better than Wilson, then fine, that is how competitive sports work. You compete and sometimes you lose a competition and get relegated to second string. If Thompson beats out Wilson, then Utes fans should assume before the opener that he is pretty good. In that scenario, they also should feel pretty good about finally having a backup quarterback -- Wilson -- who inspires confidence.

But if the competition is close, things could be testy. There is the whole New Guy vs. Veteran deal, for one. More than a few players probably will feel loyal to Wilson. That could divide the locker room. And what if Thompson wins the job but struggles early in the season? How long before Christensen and Whittingham give him the hook, creating a quarterback controversy?

The same, by the way, could be written about Wilson starting slowly.

I know: We are negatively speculating on a day when the news is supposed to be good. Yes, we are Debbie Downers. But Utah's news release brought this up first, not the pure-as-the-driven-snow Pac-12 blog.

This, of course, is ultimately not a day for Utah hand-wringing. It is a day of good news for the quarterback position, and those have hardly been plentiful since the Utes joined the Pac-12.

The love of competition, after all, is probably why Wilson started playing football. Being medically cleared means he can resume that bit of grittiness that makes sports rewarding.
All players are equal, but some players are more equal than others. That's the basis of our Most Important Players series.

First off, quarterbacks are excluded to make things more interesting. It goes without saying, for example, that Marcus Mariota is Oregon's most important player.

And most important doesn't necessarily have to be "best." An All-American's backup can be pretty darn good, too. USC’s Leonard Williams might be the best defensive lineman in the nation, but is he the Trojans' most important player considering the talent and depth on their D-line?

Our most important guys are players who could swing a win total one way or the other, based on them living up to expectations. Or their absence.

[+] EnlargeKenneth Scott
Russ Isabella/USA TODAY SportsUtah receiver Kenneth Scott missed the 2013 season with an ankle injury.
Utah: WR Kenneth Scott

2013 production: Injured himself in the first game of 2013. During the 2012 season, he recorded three touchdowns and 360 yards on 32 catches.

Why Scott is so important: OK, so hear me out. Earlier this week I wrote about how wide receiver Dres Anderson is positioning himself to have a huge senior season and how he and quarterback Travis Wilson could become one of the most dangerous QB-WR combos in the Pac-12.

There’s one caveat. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said that for any of that to happen, another wide receiver needs to emerge, taking some of the focus off Anderson. This is why Scott is so important -- yes, dare I even say, the most important player. He was the first wide receiver that Whittingham brought up after mentioning how important those “other” receivers would be to Anderson and Wilson’s success.

Obviously, the running game also needs to be strong in order to open up the passing game. But it seems as though junior RB Bubba Poole has a handle on the rushing attack and will make sure to hit the holes well enough that the passing lanes should be there for Wilson. So, the biggest question mark then returns to Scott: Can he do enough on the field so that teams aren’t able to run double coverage on Anderson on every down? Can he draw the attention away and make plays of his own? Can his production make Wilson-Anderson happen?

Much of the offense seems to be heavily riding on that Wilson-Anderson production (assuming Wilson is able to play this fall). But that equation is riding on whether another guy steps up. So, the key to the key is the key/most important player, no?

Other Most Important Players:

Pac-12 lunch links

June, 19, 2014
Jun 19
2:30
PM ET
Ain't no party like an S Club party.
Taylor Kelly and Jaelen Strong. Marcus Mariota and Devon Allen. Sean Mannion and Victor Bolden. Brett Hundley and Devin Fuller (or Jordan Payton, or Devin Lucien). Connor Halliday and ... every receiver.

Yes, 2014 is going to see a ton of Pac-12 quarterback-wide receiver combos that could put up some major numbers and turn some heads.

[+] EnlargeDres Anderson
Boyd Ivey/Icon SMIDres Anderson is looking for consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
And right in that group -- and really, near the front of it -- could be Utah, with junior Travis Wilson and fifth-year senior Dres Anderson.

Anderson earned Pac-12 honorable mention last year after recording seven touchdowns and 1,002 yards on 53 catches. He’s the conference’s top returning receiver (83.5 yards per game) and was 11th in the FBS in yards per catch (18.9).

Assuming Wilson checks out symptom-free from the concussion that cost him his 2014 season, these two will still need some time going into this season to really position themselves for major yardage.

“This is [Wilson’s] third year throwing to Dres,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “They seem to have good chemistry. … We need him and Dres to continue to be productive.”

From a conditioning perspective, Anderson has done everything the coaches asked of him during the offseason. Whittingham said Anderson seems faster than last year, which is good considering he’s also up about five pounds from 2013.

But on the field, the biggest key to Anderson’s production will be for another younger receiver to step up, make big plays and prevent teams from double-covering Anderson.

Currently at the top of that list, according to Whittingham, is junior Kenneth Scott, sophomore Dominique Hatfield and senior Kaelin Clay.

Scott missed last season after going down with a season-ending injury in the Utes' first game. Hatfield got a bit of experience in Scott’s absence. He played in 11 games and recorded four catches for 84 yards. And Clay, a transfer from Mount San Antonio College, led his conference last year with 16 touchdowns and 995 yards (he was second in his conference in receptions with 52).

So, assuming one -- or more -- of those three players can draw some attention away from Anderson, the redshirt senior is poised to really have a big season.

He could have an even bigger season in his final year for Utah than his father, Willie “Flipper” Anderson, did in his final year at UCLA. Flipper, like Dres, had a great quarterback (Troy Aikman), and they connected for more than 900 yards and six touchdowns.

Whittingham’s father actually coached Flipper in the NFL, after the Los Angeles Rams drafted him in 1988.

“When we were recruiting Dres and I found out he was Flipper’s son I thought, ‘Hey, this guy comes from good stock, we’ve got to make sure to get this guy in our program,’ ” Whittingham said.

And now the younger Anderson is poised to show some Flipper-like flare.

Pac-12 lunch links

June, 17, 2014
Jun 17
2:30
PM ET
Way back on the radio dial a fire got lit inside a bright eyed child. Every note just wrapped around his soul, steel guitars to Memphis all the way to rock 'n roll.

Pac-12 lunch links

June, 13, 2014
Jun 13
2:30
PM ET
Happy Friday the 13th!

Pac-12 lunch links

June, 11, 2014
Jun 11
2:30
PM ET
Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids.

Is the Pac-12 inexperienced?

June, 11, 2014
Jun 11
1:30
PM ET
As previously noted, there is no simple measure that consistently predicts college football success. We lean on returning starters most often -- it matters, of course, just who those returning players are -- because we typically value experience.

There's good reason for that. Experience matters. While it's not more important than talent, it often overcomes talent.

Another way to measure a team's experience is to look at returning "lettermen," who are loosely defined as players who contributed during the past season.

This is what Phil Steele does here. Of course, he also notes that each program defines lettermen differently, so he defines his measure in a percentage of lettermen returning.

And, by this measure, the Pac-12 isn't terribly experienced heading into 2014.

Last year -- one of the deepest in terms of quality in conference history -- 11 pac-12 teams ranked among the nation's top-65 (top half, really) in terms of experience. This year, just five teams do, and six rank between 85th and 124th.


Does this mean the Pac-12 should expect a downturn in 2014? Not necessarily.

For one, 10 Pac-12 teams welcome back experienced QBs, and half of those are all-star prospects as well as NFL prospects. That's almost always a benefit. No other conference even approaches the quality the Pac-12 will have behind center this fall. Further, as we've show the past two days -- here and here -- there's a strong collection of offensive line talent coming back. Finally, one of preseason themes is the depth across the conference at receiver.

What I think we'll see this year in the Pac-12 is a step back on defense and -- not unconnected -- a big step forward on offense, particularly the passing game.

Whether that translates to nonconference and bowl wins and, perhaps, success in the inaugural College Football Playoff remains to be seen.

Pac-12 lunch links

June, 9, 2014
Jun 9
2:30
PM ET
Every stop is neatly planned for a poet and a one-man band.
This week, we've looked at the worst offenses and defenses in the Pac-12 in 2013 and speculated on which is most likely to take a step forward this fall.

We broke things down. Now it's your turn to pick which team you think is headed for better things in 2014. We polled defense Thursday, and now it's time for offense.

Here's the North Division offensive breakdown. And here's the South.

Here's the North Division graphic.


And here's the South.


There is one problem.

Our poll tool only allows for five choices, so obviously one team must be eliminated. So goodbye to Stanford, which played pretty good offense last fall and is replacing four O-line starters as well as running back Tyler Gaffney. Our expectation -- and we're forcing it down your throats! -- is the Cardinal might score a few more points per game in 2014 because of an improved passing attack, but Stanford isn't a team that obsesses about scoring more than, say, 35 because it pretty much plays to its defense in the fourth quarter.

SportsNation

Which struggling Pac-12 offense is most likely to improve in 2014?

  •  
    14%
  •  
    17%
  •  
    44%
  •  
    18%
  •  
    7%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,612)

So who might improved the most?

California welcomes back pretty much its entire unit, and it should benefit from true sophomore QB Jared Goff and company having a full year in Sonny Dykes' system.

Washington State scored 31 points per game last season, and with a bevy of talent back to run Mike Leach's Air Raid offense, this could be the Cougars' breakthrough year. After his first season at Texas Tech, Leach's offenses averaged more than 35 points per game in eight of the next nine seasons, three times eclipsing the 40-point threshold.

While USC is adopting a new, up-tempo attack under new coach Steve Sarkisian, the Trojans have plenty of talent and could pile up points. The only question is the O-line.

Just like USC, Utah and Colorado welcome back their starting quarterbacks -- assuming that Utes QB Travis Wilson gets a clean bill of health. The Buffaloes have to figure out how to replace wide receiver Paul Richardson's production, while the Utes should greatly benefit from the return of wide receiver Kenneth Scott, who missed the 2013 season with a knee injury.

So, which team do you think shows the most improvement on offense in 2014?
SportsNation

Which struggling Pac-12 defense is most likely to improve in 2014?

  •  
    28%
  •  
    15%
  •  
    28%
  •  
    18%
  •  
    11%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,031)

This week, we've looked at the worst offenses and defenses in the Pac-12 in 2013 and speculated on which is most likely to take a step forward this fall.

We broke things down. Now it's your turn to pick which team you think is headed for better things in 2014. We'll do defense today and offense on Friday.

Here's the North Division defensive breakdown. And here's the South.

There is one problem. Our poll tool only allows for five choices, so obviously one team must be eliminated. So goodbye Arizona State, which played pretty good defense last fall and lost nine starters. While there is no certainty the Sun Devils won't be better on defense in 2014, the odds are more against it than the other five teams.

And, no, you can't vote for Oregon, Ducks fans.

Obviously, California almost can't help but improve, particularly if its luck with injuries is a little better. Colorado has the most returning starters.

Utah has a strong defensive tradition, while Oregon State seems like a unit that alternates good years with bad -- with a good year perhaps approaching. Like Oregon State, Washington State loses its best player from 2013 to the NFL, but it has a sneaky good front seven coming back.

So what's your take: Which defense toughens up the most in 2014?

Pac-12's lunch links

June, 5, 2014
Jun 5
2:30
PM ET
And the piano sounds like a carnival. And the microphone smells like a beer.

Key stretch: Utah

June, 5, 2014
Jun 5
1:00
PM ET
Without a doubt, every game matters.

With few exceptions, a single game doesn't define a season. A great victory can be deflated by an upset the next weekend, while a crushing defeat can be redeemed by an inspired effort later in the season.

While the Pac-12's national title contenders -- we won't name names -- need to win every game (or just about), before each season you can point to a stretch of games on the schedule that appears defining for every team. In terms of a team's goals, that stretch is most critical.

We've defined a "key stretch" as three games, though we will allow for those three games to come among four.

UTAH

Key stretch: Sept. 6 vs. Fresno State, Sept. 20 at Michigan, Sept. 27 vs. Washington State

Why it's critical: What's most intriguing about this three-game stretch is that it's plausible the Utes could go 3-0 or 0-3. For a team that figures to be on the bowl fringe, it's a make or break three weeks.

Fresno State will be a tough game after the season-opener against Idaho State, but it's in Salt Lake City and the Bulldogs have to replace quarterback Derek Carr. A win against Fresno State would grease the skids for success going to Michigan, where Utah won in 2008.

Michigan hardly appears like a world-beater after finishing 2-6 following a 5-0 start last year. Much like against Fresno State, a win against Michigan would provide Utah a big boost of momentum headed into conference play, but a loss wouldn't be overly concerning.

At this point, Utah could be anywhere from 1-2 to 3-0. The Utes got off to a rough start against WSU a year ago and weren't able to fight their way back in a game that ultimately decided which team played in a bowl game.

And after that? Brutal. At UCLA, at Oregon State, vs. USC, at Arizona State, vs. Oregon, at Stanford.

Other key stretches:

SPONSORED HEADLINES