The Pac-12 has started to cement themselves as one of the top conferences in the country. Last year they finished just behind the SEC with a 31-6 record in non-conference play. Their 6-3 record against BCS schools actually proved to be the top mark in the land. They went 6-3 in bowl games and had a conference-record six teams finish inside the Top 25.

The only real knock on the Pac-12 last year was it lacked a BCS Championship team. Oregon slipped up and didn’t even win its own division after getting upset by both Stanford and Arizona. The Cardinal represented the Pac-12 in the Rose Bowl, but lost to Michigan State. The next step to get the recognition the Pac-12 deserves is to finally have a national champion for the first time since 2004.

It appears that there are nearly a handful of teams that have a shot to make the four-team playoff. They are Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and USC. The Pac-12 champion this year will almost certainly get into the playoff. This figures to be one of the most fun conferences to watch in 2014 with eight of the top nine quarterbacks in passing efficiency from ’13 returning.

Pac-12 South Predictions

1. UCLA (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12) – Jim Mora took over a UCLA team that had four losing seasons in five years. All he has done is lead the Bruins to a combined 19-8 record in his two seasons here, including a Pac-12 South Title. He will now be working with 17 returning starters who will certainly benefit from being in the third year of his system in 2014. After having to play Stanford and Oregon on the road last year, they now get both of those teams at home and could be a favorite in every game. That’s why expectations are very high for this team, and for good reason.

2. USC (10-2, 7-2 Pac-12) – The Trojans finished last season very strong by winning six of their final seven games, including a victory over then-No. 5 Stanford. Ed Orgeron did a tremendous job as an interim head coach, and now it’s up to former USC offensive coordinator and Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian to pick up where Orgeron left off. He’ll have 14 returning starters to work with, and seven of those are from a defense that will be the Pac-12’s best stop unit. While USC avoids Oregon and Washington from the North, it does have to play both Stanford and UCLA on the road, which is why I give the edge to the Bruins to win the South.

3. Arizona (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12) – Rich Rodriquez has taken Arizona to back-to-back eight-win seasons and turned it into a much more competitive team in the Pac-12. Despite going just 4-5 within the conference last year, the Wildcats actually outgained opponents by 22.9 yards per game, which was the sixth-best mark. They did have 17 returning starters last year and now have just 13 back, but Rodriquez has added some very highly-touted transfers at receiver. They lost three games by a touchdown or less last year, including two to USC and UCLA. Seven of their eight wins came by double-digits, including the win over Oregon. With five Pac-12 home games this season, the Wildcats could improve, but the road schedule is very tough. I’ll call for a third-place finish in the South for Arizona.

3. Arizona State (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12) – The Sun Devils capitalized on the talent and returning experience last year by winning the South and making it to the Pac-12 Title game. Now, their 28 lettermen lost are the second-most in the conference, and their eight returning starters are by far the fewest. The savior will be an offense that returns six starters including QB Taylor Kelly from a unit that put up 39.7 points and 457 yards per game last year. The defense only returns two starters, so they’ll have to win shootouts this year, which isn’t a great recipe for success. They have to play five Pac-12 road games this year, and while they do avoid Oregon, this team simply has to take a big step back with the lack of returning starters.

5. Utah (5-7, 3-6 Pac-12) – After going 21-3 in Mountain West play in their last three years in the conference, the Utes have really struggled since the switch to the Pac-12. They have gone just 9-18 the last three seasons within the conference, including a 2-7 mark last year. They lose the second-most lettermen (28) in the league and bring back just 12 starters. They did beat Stanford last year and had their chances against UCLA and Arizona State to prove that they could play with the elite teams in the Pac-12. However, they draw five Pac-12 road games and must face both Oregon and Stanford from the North. They also don’t get to play the worst team from that division in California. The tough schedule will have them settling for a third straight 5-7 finish and another year without a bowl bid.

6. Colorado (4-8, 1-8 Pac-12) – The Buffaloes have been by far the worst team in the Pac-12 over the past three years. They have gone a combined 4-23 while getting outgained by 177 yards per game in conference play during that span. Their lone Pac-12 victory last year came against California. I do look for this team to be vastly improved in 2014 with 16 returning starters. Their 18 lettermen lost are tied for the fewest in the league, while their 57 lettermen returning are the most. They get five Pac-12 home games this year and avoid Stanford from the North. Unfortunately, they will likely be favored in just one conference game this season, so another 1-8 finish is what I’ll call for. I will be backing this team a lot against the spread because they’ll be catching a ton of points this year and should be more competitive.

Pac-12 North Predictions

1. Oregon (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12) – The Ducks really fell apart mentally after losing to Stanford following an 8-0 start. They would go on to fall to Arizona (16-42) while barely escaping rival Oregon State (36-35). Mark Helfrich needs to regain control of this team as he had some big shoes to fill with the departure of Chip Kelly. Oregon has 13 returning starters with eight of those coming on offense. QB Marcus Mariota decided to return for his junior season and will lead not only the best offense in the Pac-12, but arguably the best in the country. The defense should be among the top half in the Pac-12 even with just five starters back. They do draw UCLA on the road this year, but avoid USC and get Stanford at home. Oregon will win the Pac-12 and make the four-team playoff this year.

2. Stanford (10-2, 7-2 Pac-12) – Stanford has won the past two Pac-12 Titles games while making it to four straight BCS bowl games. David Shaw has done a tremendous job in recruiting as this team has won 11-plus games in four straight years. That’s why the Cardinal should be able to overcome having just 12 starters back. The defense will be one of the league’s best units again with seven starters returning. QB Kevin Hogan has played well and should continue to grow in his third season as a starter. I am anxious to see Barry Sanders Jr. try and become the seventh straight Stanford RB to rush for 1,000-plus yards. However, the Cardinal have to play at Oregon and UCLA this year, and losses in those two games will likely cost them a three-peat as Pac-12 champs.

3. Washington (8-5, 4-5 Pac-12) – The Huskies have gone 5-4 in Pac-12 play each of the last four years, and while they are happy to get to bowl games, they really have never been in conference title contention. They are hoping that new head coach Chris Petersen, the two-time Paul “Bear” Bryant winner, can help them take that next step. He went 92-12 at Boise State and does a tremendous job of finding players to fit his system. Washington outgained conference opponents by 59.9 yards per game last year, which was the third-best mark. It has 14 returning starters this season, but loses QB Price, RB Sankey, TE Seferian-Jenkins and WR Smith from a record-setting offense that put up 6,491 yards last year. Those skill position losses along with five Pac-12 road games will have the Huskies settling for a 4-5 finish within the conference in 2014.

3. Oregon State (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12) – The Oregon State Beavers opened 6-1 last year amidst the easy portion of their schedule, but would lost five in a row against the tough part to close out the regular season. They do have 14 returning starters this year including QB Sean Mannion, who threw for 4,662 yards with 37 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He loses his favorite target in Brandin Cooks (128 receptions, 1,730 yards, 16 TD), but he does have four of his top five receivers back. The defense returns each of its top six tacklers from a year ago and should be improved after a disastrous season (31.4 ppg, 437 ypg). The biggest concern is at the line of scrimmage where they will be breaking in three new starters along the offensive line and three along the front four defensively. They get five Pac-12 home games and avoid UCLA from the South. I’ll call for a 4-5 season within the conference and a 7-5 record overall.

5. Washington State (6-6, 3-6 Pac-12) – Mike Leach has been a head coach for 12 years and has gotten his teams to bowl games in 11 of them. The lone exception was his first season at Washington State, but this squad went from 3-9 in ’12 to 6-7 last year. Perhaps its best performance came in a losing effort as it outgained Auburn 464-394 on the road, but lost 24-31 as a 14-point underdog. Leach will be working with 14 returning starters this season, including QB Connor Halliday, who threw for 4,597 yards and 34 touchdowns last year. Also back are the top two running backs, 11 of the top 12 receivers, and seven of the top nine tacklers on defense. The Cougars avoid UCLA from the South and get five Pac-12 home games. I may be low-balling them by only picking them to win six games. I’ll certainly be betting them against the spread quite a bit, and I also recommend a wager on the over 5.5 win total set for the Cougars this year.

6. California (2-10, 1-8 Pac-12) – The Cal Golden Bears will be a lot more competitive this season because they suffered several terrible breaks last year. Sonny Dykes inherited a team with just 10 returning starters. Then, they lost 51 starts to injury, which was the third-most in the entire country. They also finished -15 in turnover differential, which was due to being predictable offensively after falling behind early in so many games. This year they have 15 returning starters and a lot of those injured players back. The schedule is the only reason I’m taking the Golden Bears to finish in the basement of the North again in 2014. They have to play both UCLA and USC from the South, and they play Washington State on the road. They will be an underdog in every game but one this season as their non-conference schedule is tough as well with Northwestern and BYU on it.

Pac-12 Championship Game: Oregon defeats UCLA

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