College Sports

12 questions heading into Pac-12 football season

FILE - In this Dec. 27, 2014, file photo, Southern California quarterback Cody Kessler throws a pass against Nebraska during the first half of the Holiday Bowl NCAA college football game in San Diego. Kessler thinks his third season as USC's starting quarterback will be the season when the Trojans finally have the depth and poise to live up to their lofty expectations. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi, File)
FILE - In this Dec. 27, 2014, file photo, Southern California quarterback Cody Kessler throws a pass against Nebraska during the first half of the Holiday Bowl NCAA college football game in San Diego. Kessler thinks his third season as USC's starting quarterback will be the season when the Trojans finally have the depth and poise to live up to their lofty expectations. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi, File) The Associated Press

Is the Pac-12 the best football conference in the country?

Big Ten stalwart Ohio State is favored to repeat as national champion while the SEC, which has produced five of the past seven champions, has more teams in the AP preseason poll (eight) than any other league.

Still, the Pac-12 boasts a couple of national title contenders in USC and Oregon as well as six teams with enough talent to capture the conference crown.

Here’s a 12-pack of questions facing the Pac-12 heading into one of the most unpredictable seasons in recent memory.

1. Are the Trojans ready to return to glory?

On paper, USC has everything it needs to make a run for a national title. Senior quarterback Cody Kessler returns after the most efficient passing season in school history. The Trojans have the best talent at receiver in the conference, led by JuJu Smith, an All-American freshman last season.

Kessler, Smith and senior center Max Tuerk, an All-American candidate, will have to carry an offense that needs to replace departed running back Javorious Allen. The defense lost four players, including standout defensive end Leonard Williams, who was taken sixth in the NFL draft. But USC has defensive playmakers at all three levels, including nose tackle Antwuan Woods, linebacker Su’a Cravens and cornerback Adoree’ Jackson.

USC’s Nov. 21 trip to Oregon could be a Pac-12 title preview. The teams haven’t met the last two years.

2. Can Adams save Oregon from itself?

No matter how coach Mark Helfrich spins it, it’s never ideal when your projected starting quarterback makes his much-anticipated debut midway through fall camp. But Oregon had no choice but to patiently wait for Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams Jr., who needed to pass a summer math class before joining the Ducks.

Now all Adams, who threw for 10,548 yards and accounted for 121 total touchdowns the past three years, has to do is beat out junior Jeff Lockie for the right to replace Marcus Mariota, the Ducks’ only Heisman Trophy winner. Mariota led them to a Pac-12 title and the first College Football Playoff title game last season.

Oregon’s Sept. 5 season opener against Eastern Washington has drawn national intrigue, but the Sept. 12 trip to Michigan State is the toughest game on the front half of the schedule.

3. Will Stanford’s defense be a problem?

After four straight BCS bowls and double-digit win seasons, Stanford was 8-5 last year, which was the worst record under fifth-year coach David Shaw. Senior quarterback Kevin Hogan took most of the blame because the Cardinal ranked 11th in the conference in points (27.2) and yards (388.6) per game.

With eight returners, the offense should be improved. However, the defense -- which has traditionally been a strength -- lost seven starters and needs to be revamped.

4. Will Bercovici’s patience pay off at ASU?

Mike Bercovici could have transferred from Arizona State with two years of eligibility when he lost the starting quarterback job to Brock Osweiler in 2013. He might have left before the 2014 season when Taylor Kelly won the job.

But Bercovici stayed and when Kelly went down, he stepped in for three games. ASU went 2-1 with Bercovici, who threw for 1,243 yards and orchestrated a 38-34 win over USC.

This is his team now and ASU should win 10 games for a third straight year. The season starts with a tough matchup against Texas A&M in Houston. But the schedule is favorable as USC (Sept. 26), Oregon (Oct. 29) and Arizona (Nov. 21) visit Sun Devil Stadium.

5. Can Arizona’s Solomon do it again?

Aside from the final play of the season -- taking a sack with no timeouts in the final seconds rather than throw the ball out of bounds in a 38-30 loss to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl -- Anu Solomon’s freshman season was a raging success. The Arizona quarterback finished with 3,793 passing yards and 28 touchdowns. Still, coach Rich Rodriguez wants him to reduce his interceptions (nine), improve his completion percentage (league-worst 58 percent) and make better decisions.

Arizona returns running back Nick Wilson (1,375 yards and 16 TDs) and receiver Cayleb Jones (1,019 yards and nine TDs) while junior Scooby Wright, the nation’s top linebacker, leads the defense.

Since taking over a 4-8 team, Rodriguez has won at least eight games the past three seasons, including a 10-4 finish last year and the Pac-12 South championship.

6. Will an inexperienced quarterback undermine the Bruins?

Highly-touted freshman Josh Rosen is battling junior Jerry Neuheisel for the right to replace Brett Hundley at quarterback. Both are inexperienced, but whoever wins the job will be surrounded by a boatload of talent.

The Bruins return running back Paul Perkins, who led the Pac-12 in rushing last season with 1,575 yards, their top two receivers, Jordan Payton and Devin Fuller, and four starting offensive linemen. Led by two-way standout Myles Jack, who will likely see more action at linebacker than running back, the defense returns eight starters from a unit that ranked third in the conference last year in yards allowed.

7. Can Goff’s brilliance overcome California’s horrific defense?

Jared Goff, who is a projected first-round NFL draft pick, is one of the nation’s top quarterbacks. The 6-5 junior broke Cal’s single-season passing record in each of the past two seasons.

The Golden Bears, which ranked 10th nationally while averaging 38.3 points, will light up the scoreboard once again. Surprisingly, third-year coach Sonny Dykes retained the entire defensive staff after Cal ranked 121st in yards (511.8) and 120th in points allowed (39.8) among the 125 FBS teams last season.

8. Is Utah ready to challenge for a division title?

A one-point loss to Washington State and a three-point overtime loss at Arizona State prevented Utah from finishing with 11 wins. In their fourth season, the Utes finished with their first winning record (5-4) in the Pac-12 last year and the program appears to be on the rise.

Senior quarterback Travis Wilson fended off challengers during the offseason while Devontae Booker, one of the league’s top running backs, return to anchor what has been a no-frills offense. Meanwhile, Utah returns five starters on a defense that ranked second in the Pac-12 in yards per game at 393.5.

9. Who will step up at Washington?

Coach Chris Petersen’s second season figures to be a transition year for a team that was 8-6 last year but lost four defensive standouts and must find a quarterback. The Huskies also need to replenish the depleted offensive and defensive lines while finding playmakers at receiver and linebacker.

10. The Cougars will score, but can they stop anybody?

Sophomore quarterback Luke Falk is expected to step in for departed Connor Halliday, and Mike Leach’s offense should once again be among the best passing attacks in the country. The key question is whether first-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch can cement a leaky defense that surrendered at least 40 points in five games last season.

11. How long will it take Anderson to turn things around at OSU?

First-year coach Gary Andersen, who spent the previous two years at Wisconsin, brings a spread offense to Corvallis to replace Oregon State’s pro-style system under former coach Mike Riley. The Beavers are also scrapping their 4-3 defense for a 3-4 attack.

The Beavers are relying on freshmen Seth Collins and Marcus McMaryion to replace quarterback Sean Mannion and they have to restock a defense that lost nine starters from a team that finished 5-7. No one expects it’s going to be a smooth transition.

12. Can Colorado be any worse than it was last season?

Probably not. In the second-year under coach Mike MacIntyre, the Buffaloes (2-10) were winless (0-9) in the Pac-12. Colorado has just four conference wins since joining the league four years ago.

Senior receiver Nelson Spruce is a favorite to lead the conference in receptions for a second straight year, but he’ll need junior quarterback Sefo Liufau to cut down on his conference-leading 15 interceptions. The defense, which ranked 11th in scoring and total defense, also needs a significant upgrade and new coordinator Jim Leavitt should help.

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