We conclude our look at the Pac-12 with Senior Editor Chuck Sipple's preview of the South half of the loop. As always, teams are presented in predicted order of finish, with 2013 straight-up, spread, and over/under results included...

by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

UCLA (2013 SUR 10-3; PSR 9-4; O/U 6-6-1)... One thing is apparent for UCLA going into this promising 2014 campaign. 6-3 jr. QB and Heisman candidate Brett Hundley is eager to assume more of a leadership role. As if he were not doing enough already. Last year, Hundley connected on 66.8% of his throws, good for 3071 YP, with 24 TDs vs. only 9 ints. in guiding the Bruins to a 10-3 record that included victories at Southern Cal (35-14) and over Virginia Tech (42-12) in the Sun Bowl. Hundley also helped boost the inconsistent UCLA running game by leading the team with 748 YR and another 11 TDs.

While the Bruin PR department was designing its Heisman campaign for Hundley in 2014, the heady QB was busy in the spring boosting his leadership profile on the team. In addition to preparing for an expanded offensive package (Hundley will be taking more snaps from under center TY), the QB also spent some time in spring with the OLmen in their meetings to learn more about their roles and preparation, and he spent some time with recently-elevated defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich (LBs & STs LY) to gain more insight from the stop unit’s perspective.

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But Hundley didn’t stop there. He spent some time with current pros Philip Rivers of the Chargers and Brock Osweiler of the Broncos, both of whom played for a while under current UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. Hundley also had a chance to pick the brains of long-time NFL QBs Jeff Garcia and Donovan McNabb. He even got some tips from Tim Tebow (Heisman Trophy winner in 2007) about how to deal with the Heisman hype and hysteria.

The Bruins scored 37 ppg in 2013, and there’s a good chance they can improve upon that this season. Injuries forced UCLA to frequently juggle its OL, and an early-season ankle injury virtually snuffed out October and November contributions from September rushing leader Jordon James (424 YR the first three games; only 110 thereafter). James’ injury allowed quick 5-11 Paul Perkins (573 YR) to blossom. But lack of a power running element forced the dangerous over-use of Hundley as a clutch ball carrier, and eventually led to the sensational development of straight-ahead guy Miles Jack (267 YR, 7.0 ypc, 7 TDR), a true frosh starting LB who entered games at key junctures accompanied by one or more defensive lineman (usually 310-pound Eddie Vanderdoes, etc.) to pound out key first downs and TDs. HC Jim Mora is hopeful that a little more RB and OL seasoning will make it less tempting for him to risk the so-valuable Hundley & Jack as runners.

The Bruins have a deep and experienced receiving corps, with coaches hoping long-striding 6-1 jr. Devin Lucien (10 recs. last two games of 2013) can become a secondary-stretching deep threat. 6-4 soph H-back/TE Thomas Duarte (16 recs., 3 TDC) demonstrated a welcome red-zone chemistry with Hundley in the spring. Because of its young depth and potential, the UCLA OL is expected to develop as the season goes along. However, top blocker Xavier Su’a-Filo left early for the NFL (now Houston), former starting LT Torian White has been dismissed from the team following an arrest, and former starting RT Simon Goines is trying to recover from LY’s leg/knee injuries. Fortunately for UCLA, its deep 2013 OL recruiting class has been able to step up, with LG Alex Redmond becoming a freshman All-American, while emergency RT Caleb Benenoch (a true frosh G forced into action at tackle LY due to Goines’ injury) has “transformed” his body in the offseason and earned the LT job in the spring. Still, the OL unit (which allowed 36 sacks LY) exhibited some pass pro problems in the spring.

This year’s defense has a chance to improve upon 2013's allowance of 23.2 ppg. The Bruins were rebuilding their entire starting secondary last season. Now, that unit is deep and experienced, led by physical jr. CB Fabian Moreau and CB/KR Ishmael Adams (4 ints. LY).

But the star of the defense is future NFL OLB Jack, who quickly became one of the top coverage LBs in the nation last season with 13 passes defensed, an incredibly valuable trait in these days spread-‘em-out speed offenses. Sr. Eric Kendricks (team-leading 106 Ts) is the stay-at-home LB in the middle, while 6-4 jr. OLB Kenny Orijoke demonstrated the athletic ability in spring to somewhat replace pass-rush specialist Anthony Barr (23½ sacks the L2Ys; ninth overall in draft to Minnesota). Depth at LB is a concern more so than DB, so the Bruins might end up playing more 4-2-5 nickel than their variable 4-3-4. Up front, UCLA has plenty of size (the aforementioned Vanderdoes; 6-5, 330 Ellis McCarthy; 6-3, 315 NT Kenny Clark), plus All-Scrabble Team nominee DE Owamagabe Odighizuma (returning from hip surgery) to replace high-motor DE Cassius Marsh (fourth round, Seahawks). Injuries have been a problem for some of the big guys in the past, however.

With the Bruins rated a consensus Top 15 team (or better) to open the season, coach Mora has a daily warning for his charges. “Don’t listen to the noise,” is Mora’s chosen motto for this year’s team. But the coach let his own optimism show through a few months ago when expressing his relief at Brett Hundley’s decision to return to Westwood rather than leave early for the pros. The former NFL coach’s words slipped out. “Those 15 games will do wonders for him.” The only way UCLA can get to 15 games this season is its 12 in the regular season, win the Pac-12 championship game, and win a national semi-final contest to reach the national title game.
Perhaps LB Myles Jack did a little better when commenting on the “Don’t listen to the noise” sign in the Bruin locker room when he said, “We haven’t accomplished anything yet....Last year, we didn’t win the Pac-12. We didn’t even win the Pac-12 South. We can’t listen to the noise. We have to earn our own legacy.”

Summary...Expectations are soaring in Westwood. Going into the South 2014 race, UCLA rates a slight edge over chief rivals Arizona State because of the Sun Devils’ rebuilding defense and over Southern Cal because this year’s meeting is at the Rose Bowl. However, facts are facts, so it might be best to pump the brakes a bit. The Bruins’ last three games are against Washington, USC and Stanford. UCLA hasn’t been to the Rose Bowl Game in 15 years. And it’s a fact that Mora is a combined 0-4 against North powers Stanford & Oregon as HC of the Bruins. The UCLA OL and running game have been inconsistent. Still, UCLA has unique players on offense and defense in Hundley and Jack, respectively. But, not to throw cold water on Hundley’s Heisman run before it even starts, but who was talking about the Heisman for Johnny Manziel before the 2012 season or Jameis Winston before the start of 2013? UCLA has not done well when under high expectations in the recent past. In the tough Pac-12, it’s best the Bruins not become endeared with their own substantial potential until they get deep, deep into the 2014 campaign.

SOUTHERN CAL (2013 SUR 10-4; PSR 7-7; O/U 4-10)... The Steve Sarkisian era begins at Southern Cal following the failed regime of Sarkisian friend and former coaching mate Lane Kiffin. Sarkisian arrives after five years spent reviving the program at Washington, but Coach Sark is actually returning back home. He was born in Torrance, played briefly as an undersized infielder for the Trojan baseball team, then as a QB for El Camino JC in his home town ot Torrance, where he grew just big enough to earn a scholarship to BYU. There, he trained under HC LaVell Edwards and offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who was later to mentor young assistant Sarkisian in the early days of the Pete Carroll era at Troy.

So, in fact, Coach Sark is finally home, now tasked with steadying the proud USC program that had three coaches last season-- Kiffin (3-2 SU), interim leader Ed Orgeron (6-2 SU), and replacement interim coach Clay Helton (1-0; acting HC in the Las Vegas Bowl). Under NCAA sanctions since 2010 for misdeeds during Carroll’s time, the Trojans are still a bit short on manpower. They will finally be able to have a full recruiting class next season. But even though Troy is still short of its full scholarship complement, don’t cry for Southern Cal, which has filled its somewhat-shortened allotment of players with beaucoups five-star and four-star recruits that would be the envy at least 80% of football-playing schools in the country. In fact, insiders at cross-town rival UCLA concede that even back-to-back victories by the Bruins over Troy the last two years have resulted in few “poached” recruits from the Trojans’ offer list.
So the Trojans have a chance to make up in quality what they might lack in quantity.

But don’t look for the long-familiar, well-developed, USC West Coast offense that has successfully developed the likes of southern California high school stars such as Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, and Matt Barkley in recent years. Sarkisian has imported his dynamic, uptempo, no-huddle offense that was productive for him the last few seasons in Seattle. Insiders say the pace of practice all spring was brisk to the extreme in order to help returning Trojan players get used to the new scheme and pace. Spring was also marked by the withholding of about two dozen previously-injured or recovering players from spring workouts as much as possible, a bow to USC’s sanction-reduced roster numbers. But Troy’s young, healthy players ended up getting extended spring work, with the notion that they will then be ready to provide more Trojan depth than in the past two years.

Jr. QB Cody Kessler (65.4%, 2968 YP, 20 TDs, 7 ints. in 2013) successfully fought off the challenge of 6-5 redshirt frosh Max Browne in spring, due partly to improved intermediate and long-distance passing. But Sarkisian says the promise of Browne’s immense talent means that Browne will eventually get his chance. Even though USC has lost prolific WRs Robert Woods and Marqise Lee over the last two seasons, the Trojans still have plenty of talent at wideout in jr. Nelson Agholor (56 recs. for 918 yards LY), jr. George Farmer (out LY due to a knee injury), and promising 6-2 soph Darreus Rogers (22 recs. LY). Sr. Randall Telfer is a proven TE.

USC will start the season with impressive depth at RB, as jr. Tre Madden returns after gaining 703 YR before being slowed by leg injuries. But Madden’s woes merely opened the door for jr. Javorius “Buck” Allen, who rushed for 785 yards, 14 TDRs, 5.8 ypc and was named the team’s MVP. The major question on the Trojan offense (other than the shift to the uptempo, no-huddle attack) is the team’s OL, which was mostly peopled by backups and youngsters in the spring. One of those rested was sr. G/T Aundrey Walker (held out to allow injuries to heal). Jr. Max Tuerk will be moved from G to take over at C. If Sarkisian does have to count on youth in the fall, he will be able to test some of his highly-regarded frosh OLmen, including early enrollee Toa Lobendahn and massive 6-5, 365 Damien Mama, who seems ticketed for a shot at G. It could very well be that the most physical USC OLmen will be young.

The defense (8 starters back) seems better set. After finishing 13th in total defense and 16th in points allowed (21.2 ppg) in 2013, the 2014 group might be even better. Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has accompanied Sarkisian from Washington, installing a hybrid 3-4 similar to last season’s scheme. And he takes over a front three that is big and deep, led by DE/DT Leonard Williams (six sacks LY), who was among the early projections for the top pick in next year’s NFL draft. Joining Williams up front are jr. 300-pounder Antwaun Woods, 6-6 transfer Delvon Simmons (via Texas Tech), and jucos Kenny Bigelow and Claude Pelon. Few teams will be able to match USC’s DL size and depth. The LBing crew, led by steady sr. Hayes Pullard (94 Ts LY), is better than average despite the problems it displayed in last season’s 62-point allowance at Arizona State. And the starting secondary (3 of 4 return; USC had 17 ints. LY) has seasoning in sr. CB Josh Shaw (4 ints.) and A-A potential in soph S Su’a Cravens (4 ints. as a true frosh LY).

Somewhat unlike the deposed Lane Kiffin (and more like John Robinson & Pete Carroll), SoCal native Sarkisian has so far embraced the many meetings required of him with the many, influential Trojan booster groups. After addressing more than a thousand Trojan boosters in Orange County, Coach Sark said, “Those people matter....You go into a room to speak, you go shake all their hands, because this university wouldn’t be what it is without everybody. We’re a private institution. We’re essentially funded by donations.”

Summary...USC has won at least a part of 11 national titles. But it would be a bit of a surprise if for the transitioning Trojans--adapting to a new offensive scheme--to be a prime contender for a spot in the initial national playoff. Sarkisian still has something to prove after never winning more than eight games in his five seasons in Washington. However, with scholarship restrictions ending, the widely-disliked Lane Kiffin gone, and another group of four and five-star recruits joining the team, USC appears solid enough (barring key injuries) to challenge UCLA and Arizona State for the South Division championship. In a coincidence, Southern Cal opens the season hosting Fresno State, a 45-20 loser to Troy in last year’s Las Vegas Bowl.

ARIZONA STATE (2013 SUR 10-4; PSR 7-7; O/U 9-4-1)... Offense, si; defense, no. That simple sentence pretty much summarizes the preseason prospects for Arizona State, winner of the Pac-12 South last year with an 8-1 conference mark (only to fall to physical Stanford 38-14 in the championship game). Major rebuilding is in store for the Sun Devil defense, which lost nine starters from last year’s unit. The semi-good news is that even those veteran defenders gave up a somewhat generous 26.6 ppg last season and that third-year coach Todd Graham is expressing confidence in this year’s incoming defensive recruits, many of whom will be asked to jump in immediately among holdover Sun Devil defenders, led by sr. FS Damarious Randall (75 Ts and 3 ints. LY).

The semi-bad news is that this year’s Pac-12 is packed with returning starting QBs (10 of 12), dynamic offenses, and improving lower-rung teams, so 2014 figures to be a test of whether Graham’s well-chosen defensive recruits can come in and contribute quickly. There was good news in spring in the form of quick true frosh LB D.J. Calhoun (4.4 speed at 6-0, 205) and bigger 6-4, 235 juco LB Antonio Longino. Plus, transfer safety Jordan Simone (via Washington State) turned out to be faster than expected. And 6-3, 384 jr. NT Mo Latu is still big, as in HUGE, and there is plenty of other size up front. Moreover, HC Graham (18-9 in two years in Tempe--being nobody’s fool-has redshirted several of his defenders in anticipation of the many senior departees from last year’s team.

As far as the August newcomers, Graham has high hopes for incoming 6-3, 308 juco DT Dalvon Stuckey; 6-4, 275 freshman DL Connor Humphreys; 6-1, 292 freshman DT Tashon Smallwood; 6-6, 236 juco LB Darrius Caldwell; and 6-0, 198 juco DB Kweishi Brown. However, regardless of the incoming help, the Sun Devils will be youthful in the back seven, which is usually a negative in this era of no-huddle, uptempo offenses.

When it comes to the ASU offense, however, it’s a different story. The Sun Devils produced 39.7 ppg last season, were +15 in TO margin, and humiliated Southern Cal in such a fashion (62-41) that coach Lane Kiffin was fired at the airport when the Trojans returned home. Graham’s uptempo offensive schemes are among the best, not just in the west, but anywhere, featuring deception, misdirection, key-busters, and mismatches in addition to strong basics. Sr. dual-threat QB Taylor Kelly has 27 starts under his belt, had a 28-12 TD/int. ratio last season, and ran for 608 yards and another 9 TDs as well. The Devils will miss departed RB Marion Grice (996 YR, 14 TDR; 50 recs., 6 TDC)-ne of the best in the game last year near the end zone and catching screen passes. But scouts report that battle-tested backup D.J. Foster (501 YR, 63 recs. LY) is more than ready to take over after adding 12-15 pounds in the offseason. 6-6 goal-line and short-yardage QB Michael Eubank has transferred to Samford in the search of more playing time, but ASU still has a highly-regarded backup in strong-armed jr. Mike Bercovici.

The Sun Devils had questions at WR going into last season. No more. 6-3 junior Jaelen Strong (75-1122-7 LY) is now one of the premier go-to WRs in the country. Meanwhile, 6-4 RS frosh Ellis Jefferson repeatedly flashed big-play potential in the spring, while HC Graham pronounced 5-10 soph Frederick Grammage (6 recs. LY as a frosh backup) one of the more improved Sun Devils in the spring, as was 6-4 RS frosh TE Grant Martinez. So there’s plenty of offense in Tempe. But even last year’s veteran defense had problems, as demonstrated in ASU’s controversial 32-30 “victory’ over Wisconsin (when the refs missed a quick kneel-down by the Badgers at the end), two hammerings at the hands of physical Stanford, and a semi-hammering by muscular Notre Dame. It’s no scoop to Graham that his team is rebuilding its stop unit. “But we’ve got enough,” said the HC near the end of spring. “I believe in this team.”

Summary...There is no doubt that the hiring of Graham has been a big positive in Tempe after the frustrating regime of Dennis Erickson left the Sun Devil program waning. Now, ASU has a Pac-12 Southern Division title under its belt, Graham has a new contract extension (through 2019), the depth and recruiting have improved, there’s new-found discipline and commitment on the team, and there’s a move underway to renovate and modernize 66-year-old Sun Devil Stadium. However, despite the impressive strengths of the 2014 ASU offense, the youthful and rebuilding unit on defense will somewhat limit the upward potential of this year’s team. A tough early-season, three-game stretch of UCLA, USC and Stanford consecutively is likely to leave ASU in catch-up mode for the rest of the Pac-12 season. For Arizona State in 2014 it’s another bowl, yes; another title game, no.

UTAH (2013 SUR 5-7; PSR 6-6; O/U 5-7)... Utah’s much-anticipated move to the Pac-12 has not worked out exactly as planned. The Utes, though usually competitive in conference play, have been plagued by QB injuries in their first three years after moving from the Mountain West, going 9-18 SU in the Pac-12. Now, perhaps, the Utes are finally catching a break at QB.

After being felled by thumb, hand, and head injuries last season, promising QB Travis Wilson was cleared to return for spring, and it was a case of so far, so good. While being examined after his concussion in the ninth game last season, doctors discovered a career-threatening intracranial artery problem. But things have been okay since, with the 6-7, 240 jr. (injury-affected stats of 56%, 16 TDs, 16 ints. LY) tentatively greenlighted to resume his career, although final approval for the fall is still pending. That is good news for Utah in the QB-loaded Pac-12.

Unlike last season, however, the Utes have several options at the critical position should Wilson be unable to go. There is 6-1 jr. Adam Schultz (48.7%, 6 TDs, 5 ints.), who often struggled as No. 2 last year. 6-1 RS frosh Conner Manning (no relation to the Manning QB dynasty) made a move for the backup job in spring. 6-1 jr. Kendal Thompson, a transfer from Oklahoma who got caught up in the numbers game in Norman, arrives in August. True frosh Donovan Isam will likely redshirt.

While the Utes will have their sixth playcaller in six years (and third offensive coordinator in three years), the offense appears to be heading up with a bullet due to the addition of long-time Gary Pinkel right-hand man and coordinator Dave Christensen, whose five-season run as head coach at Wyoming imploded in 2013. Last year’s co-off. coordinator, Dennis Erickson, will still be contributing his expertise as director of the RBs. Christensen has installed his version of the uptempo, three-WR spread that turned out QB after QB at Mizzou.

There are some concerns at receiver even though 2013's go-to guy Dres Anderson (53 for 1002 yards, 7 TDs) returns. The Ute offense will be greatly aided if 6-3 jr. Kenneth Scott (a one-time four-star recruit) can regain top form after a season-ending ankle injury on just the second offensive series of 2013! The rangy Scott had 32 catches as a soph in 2012. Youngsters will get their chance to step forward at the other spots.

Meanwhile, the running game figures to be solid after gaining 160 ypg on the ground last season. Bubba Poole (607 YR LY) returns, but he was pressed hard in spring by 5-11, 210 juco Devontae Booker (a one-time 1400-yard runner in JC), who offered a bit more punch. 5-9 sr. Lucky Radley (284 LY) and 5-9 RS frosh Troy McCormick (good spring) provide depth and versatility. The OL figures to be big enough and rugged enough, led by 6-6, 320 Jeremiah Poutasi, a one-time G who has dropped 30 pounds to improve mobility at the (NFL big-payday) LT spot. The Utes’ spring roster included no fewer than 19 players (offense and defense) listed at 295 pounds or more. Utah has always been a physical outfit since the well-liked Kyle Whittingham (7-1 as a bowl coach) took over the program from Urban Meyer. With just a little better injury luck, the Utes should surpass last season’s decent 29.2 ppg.

The defense returns only six starters, and it might have to do without promising 6-0, 230 sr. LB Jacoby Hale (37 tackles in 9 games LY), who suffered a torn ACL in spring workouts (but is hopeful of returning some time this season). However, the stop platoon should still show improvement after giving up 28 ppg and recording a weak, weak three ints., tied for worst in the nation. That low number of picks, plus a couple of injury-spawned interception jags (Utah QBs threw 21 interceptions) resulted in a -9 TO ratio for the team. That’s not conducive to a winning record.

Still, it must be remembered that when Wilson was healthy last season, the Utes were good enough to knock off eventual Pac-12 champ Stanford and that Utah later came within one point (20-19) of beating South champ Arizona State after holding a 19-7 lead in the fourth quarter. Utah has finished just 5-7 each of the last two years, but playing in Salt Lake City is usually no picnic.

HC Whittingham, a rugged LB at BYU and in a brief pro career, is pretty sure his defense will be better this year, especially if it gets more support from the offense. 6-4, 255 sr. DE Nate Orchard (3½ sacks LY) is expected to blossom into high-quality Pac-12 pass rusher. And he’ll be in a DE rotation with 6-1, 230 soph Pia Taumoepenu (good spring) and 6-3, 270 Utah State transfer Jason Faniaka, who also impressed. Utah will be smaller at DT this season, but Whittingham has high hopes for juco Pasoni Tasini as a penetrator inside. LB returns 6-2, 240 jr. Jason Whittingham (81 Ts LY; nephew of the HC) and 6-2, 237 jr. Jared Norris (64). However, the unit is thin following Hale’s ACL and the decision to keep 6-2, 220 sr. swingman Brian Blechen mostly at safety, where he was a frosh A-A in 2010. (Blechen was ticketed for LB until missing LY with a knee injury.) However, the Utes’ depth at RB has allowed 5-11, 222 soph power guy Marcus Saunders-Williams to be moved to LB in spring. Blechen (8 career ints.) and 5-8 soph N-B Justin Thomas are set, but Utah still needs more pressure and better coverage in order to improve last year’s poor interception total.

Summary...While HC Whittingham is concerned about the health of his top QB and about improving his team’s turnover margin, the Utah student government and administration have been busy getting politically correct with the school’s century-old fight song, which contains two “controversial” 21st-century phrases-- “I am a Utah man” and “our coeds are the fairest.” We’ll watch the students and administration duke that one out. What we do know is that if jumbo QB Wilson & rangy WR Scott are healthy again, Utah is going to be a factor in the South Division race, at least in the role of spoiler. However, facing one of the nation’s toughest schedules, the improving Utes will need an upset or two, and some good luck (for a change), in order to get back into the bowl picture.

ARIZONA (2013 SUR 8-5; PSR 7-6; O/U 5-7-1)...Rich Rodriguez has gone 8-5 and 8-5 in his first two seasons in Tucson, with a victory in a minor bowl each season. And, to a large degree, 2013's success was a bit unexpected, as slender sr. B.J. Denker surprised (read overachieved) with 16 TDP (only 7 ints.), 2516 YP, 949 YR and 13 TDR. The southpaw balanced RichRod’s run-oriented spread-option offense just enough to allow big-gun RB Ka’Deem Carey to motor for 1885 yards and 19 TDs on the ground. Both of 2013's stars, however, have departed. The loss of that backfield nucleus is of substantial concern, especially in a 12-team conference that returns 10 starting QBs.

This is not to say there is no QB talent on campus. Battling in spring were the following--6-3 sr. USC transfer Jesse Scroggins, who was plagued by inconsistency in his various attempts to win the starting job with the Trojans; 6-2 soph Texas transfer Connor Brewer, who is smart and accurate, but lacks arm strength; 6-1 juco Jerrard Randall, a dual-threat QB with a funky throwing motion who spent two years at LSU; and 6-2 RS frosh Anu Solomon, a four-star recruit who won four Nevada state titles with Bishop Gorman, the athletic high school power in Las Vegas. All were big-time prep recruits; all are looking for their chance to operate RichRod’s proven, hard-to-defend scheme. But they--and we--will all have to wait to see who will get the starting call against UNLV on August 29. Says Rodriguez, “I’m not trying to be coy. But I want to see what they do in August and throughout the whole summer.”

The steady Denker, and the successful Matt Scott before him, had the great advantage of having an All-American at RB in the person of Ka’Deem Carey in the backfield with them. RB in RichRod’s spread-option is un-established going into this season, with 5-7 sr. STs player Terris Jones-Grigsby (10 tackles LY!) most often getting first team action. Rodriguez has high hopes for incoming blue chipper Nick Wilson (who arrives in August), as well as RS frosh Zach Green and Pierre Cormier.

Finding a productive combination in the backfield would be a major plus for the Wildcats, who are strong in their OL (4 of 5 starters back, including sr. 6-8 bookend Ts Mickey Baucus & Fabbians Ebbele) and boast one of the strongest WR platoons in the nation. To begin with, frosh A-A WR Nate Phillips (51 recs., 7 TDs), Samajie Grant (47), Trey Griffey (14), and speedball Garic Wharton (17) all return from LY. Next, 6-3 sr. Austin Hill (81 for 1364 in 2012) returns after missing 2013 due to a knee injury. And, to make matters even better, 6-3 soph transfer Cayleb Jones (via Texas) often was the best of the cast in spring, and he was joined by 5-10 transfer DaVante Neal (via Notre Dame), who flashed potential for rushing carries and perhaps some DB in addition to WR/KR.

Scoring plenty of points will be important in an offensive-minded conference will be extremely important, especially for a team that still lacks Pac-12 size and depth in the front six of its 3-3-5 defense. 6-4, 261 sr. DT Reggie Gilbert (3½ sacks LY) and 6-1, 230 frosh A-A LB Scooby Wright (83 Ts LY; moving to MLB TY) are the leaders up front. Come August, the Wildcats anticipate getting a boost up front from former LSU starting DE Jordan Allen, a graduate transfer, and from 6-4, 295 soph DL Aiulua Fenene, who’s back from a two-year LDS mission. U of A allowed 24 ppg LY and returns 4 of 5 starters in its defensive backfield, including 5-10 sr. S Tra’Mayne Bondurant (4 ints.). But CB beyond sr. Jonathan McKnight is thin and has the U of A staff considering safeties, wideouts, and freshmen for depth.

Lastly, kicking (as in many recent seasons) is of concern again in 2014 in Tucson, as untested 5-10 jr. Casey Skowron is the heir apparent to Jake Smith (12 of 19 FGs LY). The return game, however, is expected to be strong.

Summary...Arizona was only 4-5 in Pac-12 play last season, but the Wildcats’ late-season upset of offensive juggernaut Oregon dashed the Ducks’ league title hopes. RichRod’s overall progress in Tucson (earning him a two-year extension) and a favorable early schedule (UNLV, UTSA, Nevada) should allow for another minor bowl game this season. But with the U of A QB situation unsettled, Ka’Deem Carey needing to be replaced, and league also-rans such as Washington State, Utah and Colorado apparently on the upswing, any Wildcat run at the South title seems wildly unlikely.

COLORADO (2013 SUR 4-8; PSR 7-5; O/U 8-3-1)... Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, Colorado is 8-29 SU in three seasons; 4-23 in conference play. The Buffaloes were 5-7 in their last season in the Big 12, but they have been way too slow, too small, too thin, and too unskilled to be competitive in their deep and offensively-skilled new league.

Things finally appear headed in a positive direction in the second season under Mike MacIntyre, who in three years boosted woeful San Jose State from 1-11 to 10-2 before taking over in Boulder. And, while last year’s 4-8 Colorado mark was a big improvement record-wise compared with the Buffs’ depressing 1-11 2012 mark, the 2013 campaign must be kept in perspective. CU’s victories came against this quartet--Colorado State, Central Arkansas, Charleston Southern, and 1-11 California. [Not exactly Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Florida State.] Meanwhile, in their eight losses, the Buffaloes gave up at least 44 points in seven of them. Opposing offenses were loving playing Colorado. So, there’s a long way to go.

Fortunately, MacIntyre appears to be on the right track offensively even though CU must replace its most dynamic performer of 2013 in big-play WR Paul Richardson (83 for 1343 yards and 10 TDC LY), who constantly drew extra attention from defenses and later become the top draft choice of Super Bowl champion Seattle. However, much like he did at San Jose State, MacIntyre is building a promising WR corps. 6-1 jr. Nelson Spruce (55 recs. LY) returns, as do diminutive 5-6 sr. D.D. Goodson (22) and 6-2 sr. Tyler McCulloch. Coming aboard this season will be stringy 6-2, 185 RS frosh Bryce Bobo, who repeatedly flashed big-play potential in spring, and 5-11 true frosh Shay Fields, a southern California speedster who caught 16 TD balls LY.

“On the mound” will be 6-4, 225 true soph QB Sefo Liufau, who took over the starting job in the second half of last year, hitting 59.4% for 1779 yards, 12 TDs and 8 ints. despite facing the tougher part of the Buffaloes’ schedule. MacIntyre says Liufau made the leap this spring the HC was hoping to see, improving his mechanics and reads, and thus quickening his release and helping his accuracy. Backup Jordan Gehrke also developed, with MacIntyre saying the 6-1 soph might see action this season as a change-of-pace dual threat. Three of five starters return in the OL. At the two open spots, 6-2, 305 soph Alex Kelley has demonstrated sufficient promise at C, while former backup Jeromy Irwin appears sufficiently recovered from a foot injury to be the leading candidate to be the new starting tackle.

Things would be easier for QB Liufau if the Buffs can boost a rush attack that generated only 3.4 ypc in 2013. If the OL can do its job, CU finally appears to have the RB versatility and depth to balance the Buffs’ 3-WR scheme. 5-10, 195 soph Michael Adkins gained 535 yards (5.2 ypc) last season, taking lots of pressure off 6-0, 230 RB/FB Christian Powell (562 YR, 3.8 ypc), who runs with power inside, but who also takes some big-time hits. 5-8, 175 RS frosh Phillip Lindsay displayed a nice speed element in spring, and will get some situational chances along with 5-7 sr. Tony Jones.

Still, in order for the Buffaloes to advance, they must improve their 38.3 ppg defense. Eight starters are back, but the unit overall is still undersized for the Pac-12 wars. 2013 saw the unit ripped for 4.9 ypc on the ground while collecting only 18 sacks. The platoon that should improve the most this season should be the secondary, where sr. CB Greg Henderson, jr. CB Kenneth Crawley, and sr. S Jered Bell return with lots of experience and 4, 2 and 3 ints. last year, respectively, and where 6-3 juco soph Ahkello Witherspoon made good use of his height in spring. The LBs are anchored by 6-3, 225 soph ILB Addison Gilliam (119 Ts, 3 sacks), the key Buff in the middle. Sr. DE Samson Kafavalu had 3 sacks LY, but needs lots of help from a front seven that is deeper this season, but is still lacking in the size/speed combo types needed in the wide-open Pac-12.

Summary...Some needed multi-million-dollar improvements of football facilities and Folsom Field are due to come on line before next season, making CU more attractive to a higher grade of recruits. All told, however, second-year coach MacIntyre is on target in asking his current players to strive toward “uncommon effort, uncommon attitude, uncommon focus.” It’s a plus that the Buffs had no staff changes this season. If soph QB Sefo Liufau develops as expected, a 6-6 season and minor bowl game do not seem unreasonable...as goals. After last year’s lickings, that might seem like a lot. But MacIntyre, who has shown to have a knack of inspiring his players despite frequent beatdowns, says that might be possible if the Buffs and their still too-small, too-slow defense can manage an early-season conference victory.


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