The Pac-12 remains secure in its place among the high-profile conferences of the land, with its inclusion into the new order of championship-deciding, the creatively-coined College Football Playoff, having always been secure. Indeed, the Pac might be looking forward to the playoff after having mostly bad luck in the old BCS system, which crowned only one Pac-10/12 champ (Southern Cal, in 2004) in its just-concluded sixteen-season run. In fact, the Pac only provided three entrants (SC in 2004 & ‘05, and Oregon in 2010) in BCS title games; perhaps the expanded four-team playoff will give the Pac a better chance to make an impact.

Still, all is not going quite as swimmingly in the Pac as been hoped, partly because the fledgling Pac-12 Network continues to spin its wheels. The Pac-12 Network is about to enter its third year of existence, yet there are no signs that it soon will be carried by DirecTV, one of the nation's top programming distributors--and the major one among sports fans. The two sides haven't even had any tangible discussions in 2014, so a resolution to the impasse is anything but imminent.

That is hardly good news for the Pac-12.

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With the SEC Network about to enter the fray in August, the Pac can ill afford being shut out of DirecTV for a third year and likely beyond. Should the SEC join the Big Ten to launch its network on DirecTV, it'll further cement Pac-12's status as an also-ran with its TV network increasingly marginalized.

Onet mistake the Pac-12 and its commissioner Larry Scott made was not to bring DirecTV into the fold when the network was launched in August 2012. And soon after the initial talks fell apart, the Pac-12 carried on a confrontational tactic that asked its fans to switch from DirecTV, with conference athletic directors leading the charge...ill-advisedly so. The tenuous relationship with Direct TV soon became an adversarial one.

Thus, distribution of the Pac-12 network is far, far beneath original projections, and not in the ballpark compared to the Big Ten and its prototypical conference network model. The new SEC Network figures to quickly bypass the Pac-12 version as well.

Make no mistake: DirecTV is in no rush to make a deal with the Pac-12. It has already sustained whatever loss of subscribers it was going to be hit with over the past two years and is not at risk to lose a chunk more. It also needs to prioritize whom it needs to make a deal with in an increasingly crowded and expensive sports programming market.

With more than 20 million subscribers around the nation and nearly two million in its base in Southern California, DirecTV has other issues of concern beyond the Pac-12, specifically its spat with Time Warner Cable, which launched a new Dodgers channel this spring. All major carriers in SoCal so far have resisted Time Warner's fee demand of nearly $5 per subscriber and having the channel placed on the basic tier. Entering July, the Dodger channel can still only be accessed on Time Warner systems.

True, the Pac has more coverage than the Dodgers through the region, but as long as it continues to lose the stare-down with Direct TV, its network is going to far undershoot any of those rosy projections.

On a different front, DirecTV is actively in negotiations with the SEC Network ahead of its Aug. 14 launch. DirecTV has to seriously engage the SEC after its opening gambit was met with tremendous blowback from SEC fans, as well as the fact that the SEC Network is co-owned by ESPN, the most powerful entity in sports television.

The Pac-12, on the other hand, has no such clout. By deciding not to take on a media partner, the conference left its network with no leverage whatsoever. And since the Pac-12 fan base is not as rabid as SEC fans and the conference footprint contains six NFL franchises, massive fan defection from DirecTV just hasn't materialized. DirecTV remains the exclusive provider of the NFL Sunday Ticket through 2014.

While the SEC has partnered with aforementioned ESPN, and the Big Ten has been riding the coattails of Fox, the Pac’s decision to go it alone continues to blow up in its face.

Being shut out of DirecTV for two years has not helped the Pac-12's recruiting and branding, not just in football but also other sports, particularly men's basketball. This past March, a majority of the Pac-12's conference tournament games were available only to a fraction of the national audience, when every other major conference had every game on TV. Although the Pac did not budget for actual revenues from the network during its start-up phase, the fact it continues to seek traction is an ongoing concern for the Pac, lest it fall further and further behind the SEC and Big Ten in the TV wars.

The end game here probably isn't going to be pleasant for Scott, who must compromise way more than DirecTV would be willing. The Pac-12 probably needs to lower its demands and perhaps offer give-backs to other distributors that already carry the network. Unlike the SEC, or Big Ten, the Pac-12 model is simply not prepared to play hardball with cable distributors.

Meanwhile, on the field, prospects for 2014 are hopeful, especially if UCLA emerges, as some believe, as a legit contender in the new playoff system. In recent seasons, only Oregon and Stanford have been serious challengers on the national scene, and the Bruins’ potential inclusion in the title chase could further raise the Pac’s national profile. A couple of serious Heisman candidates, Oregon QB Marcus Mariota and UCLA’s Brett Hundley, might also help in that regard, although it’s worth noting that numerous recent Heisman winners have come out of the blue, not mentioned in preseason prognostications (like Johnny Football and Jameis Winston the past two years).

The Pac should not be counting on a Heisman for added exposure. The new College Football Playoff, however, could be a different story.

Following is our 2014 Pac-12 preview will be broken down by divisions, provided by Senior Editor Chuck Sippl. First up, the North half of the loop, to be follwoed by the South in our next installment. Teams are presented in order of predicted finish, with 2013 staight-up, pointsptread, and over/under records included. --Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

OREGON (2013 SUR 11-2; PSR 8-5; O/U 7-6)...After another dazzling start last season (8-0 SU; 7-1 vs. the spread)--this time under rookie HC Mark Helfrich--the Ducks suffered a couple of surprising disappointments. Oregon had scored at least 42 points in winning every game prior to November, reaching 55 or more six times and many times lifting their webbed foot off the accelerator before halftime. Who needed Chip Kelly anyway?

But that wasn’t the question being asked after November losses to nemesis Stanford and run-oriented Arizona that dropped OU into the runner-up spot in the Pac-12 North. At that point, the questions had more to do with whether Helfrich had the special touch that Kelly had exhibited in leading the Ducks to four straight BCS bowl games before departing for the NFL.

Much to the credit of Helfrich, he is changing things up just a bit in 2014. In last year’s two losses (26-20 when visiting physical Stanford, and 42-16 visiting run-oriented Arizona), the ultra-high-tempo Ducks were ball-controlled and saw some defensive shortcomings exposed. Stanford ate 42:34 of the clock in out-rushing Oregon by an embarrassing 274-62 count. Arizona’s spread attack outdid that of the Ducks, owning 35:29 of the clock, running for 304 yards to U of O’s 198, and completing nearly every ball-control pass (19 of 22 for the game) the Wildcats attempted.

So what’s new for this season? A bigger, tougher version of the Ducks, which saw several of their stars (including QB Marcus Mariota & cover CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu) return to Eugene to take another shot at the national title (thank you, four-team playoff) rather than becoming sure-fire high NFL draft choices last May.

For sure, there won’t be much slowing of the now-famous fast, faster and fastest Oregon uptempo offense. Not with the marvelous Mariota (26 career starts, 63.5% LY, 3625 YP, 31 TDs vs. only 4 ints.!) around. The long-legged 6-4 jr. also burned flustered, spread-out, gassed defenders for 715 yards on the ground and 9 TDs overland. But NFL scouts say he can further refine his mechanics and strength as he makes another Heisman running 2014.

Giving Mariota plenty of time to do his thing will be the impressive Webfoot OL, one of the few such units to return intact after last season and led by mobile sr. C Hroniss Grasu. The Ducks’ “big uglies” up front have been asked to add muscle this season so that Oregon can be more effective at controlling the pigskin at crucial stretches of big games. The OL/TE crew had reportedly gained more than 100 combined pounds (and counting) by the end of spring, with the extra girth added in the “proper manner.” The Ducks’ rotating RBs, jr. Byron Marshall (1038 YR LY) and soph Thomas Tyner (711 YR as a freshman LY) also pack a little more punch than Oregon’s usual collection of speed-burning smurfs, toting about 211 & 215 pounds, respectively.

However, this year’s attack is not expected to be quite as prolific as last year’s 45.5 ppg machine that averaged 6.3 ypc and ended +11 in TO margin. The Ducks’ aerial game suffered a major blow in spring when top WR Bralon Addison (61 recs., 7 TDs LY) suffered a torn ACL. That means that 5-9 sr. Keanon Lowe (18 recs. LY) is the team’s most experienced returning wideout. Thus, 6-2 redshirt freshman Darron Carrington and 6-0 RS frosh speedball Devon Allen have been getting extra attention in order to have them ready for key early-season tests. 5-8 hoops point guard Johnathan Loyd, a DB/KR in high school, has a year of eligibility left in football and hopes to add his talents to the receiving unit. Plus, the returning TE trio of Pharoah Brown, Johnny Mundt, and Evan Baylis is now ready to carry more of the load.

Of bigger concern than the offense is a defense that was overpowered in the losses to Stanford & Arizona, that returns only five starters, and that has seen long-time coordinator Nick Alliotti retire. It can be argued that Alliotti’s schemes were often rated too highly (as proven in many a big-game disappointment). So the elevation of ILB coach Don Pellum might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. It appears that the talent is present to improve upon the allowance of 20.5 ppg and 3.8 ypc in 2013, when UO covered only 1 of its last 5 games.

The defensive front three returns only one starter (6-7, 285 jr. DeForest Buckner), but is loaded with potential in 6-8, 295 jr. Arik Armstead and still-to-blossom 6-9, 280 Stetson Bair. If nothing else, the Duck front three should lead the nation in elevation. Adding quickness will be touted 6-5 juco DE Tui Talia. Sr. OLB/DE Tony Washington is a rush specialist from his outside spot who should improve upon last year’s 7½ sacks. Washington and his veteran mates should make his LB unit the steadiest of the team’s defensive platoons.

Ultra-athletic sr. CB Ekpre-Olomu (3 ints. LY) will usually be assigned to the opponent’s top WR. Although he is the only returning starter in the secondary, that unit is loaded with backups (e.g., fifth-year sr. safety Erick Dargan) who have accumulated plenty of playing time. Moreover, early-enrolling juco CB Dominique Harrison and long-armed 6-4 RS frosh safety Tyree Robinson showed in spring that they will quickly be ready for the myriad challenges they will face in the offense-oriented Pac-12.

Summary...Because the Ducks’ only two losses last season cost them a spot in the Pac-12 championship game, the honeymoon was quickly over for Helfrich, who is now looking to put his own stamp on the Oregon program. The Ducks have a somewhat less-difficult Pac-12 schedule than Stanford, which must travel to Eugene this season. That might allow the Ducks to end the Cardinal’s two-year reign in the North. But the Webfoots still will have to show that their rebuilt defense and young wideouts are good enough to win the Pac-12 title game and perhaps earn a spot in the national championship tournament. Most likely they fall a bit short.

Note: Oregon has won five straight (covering three) vs. UCLA and ten straight (covering ten) vs. Washington.

STANFORD (2013 SUR 11-3; PSR 7-7; O/U 6-8)...This should be both an interesting and challenging season for Stanford and HC David Shaw, who’s now beginning his fourth year since taking over for Jim Harbaugh. In Shaw’s three campaigns, the Cardinal have gone 11-2, 12-2 and 11-3, winning the Pac-12 championship game each of the past two seasons. Including Harbaugh’s final season in Palo Alto, Stanford has now gone to four straight BCS bowls (splitting in the Rose Bowl the last two seasons).

The challenging part for Shaw has to do with the significant and substantial losses from last year’s team, which hammered South Division winner Arizona State 38-14 in the Pac-12 title game. Here’s some of what Shaw will be missing from last year’s team. Start with power RB Tyler Gaffney, whose crunching 1709 yards on the ground set the tone for Stanford’s offense—a ground-and-pound, ball-control, clock-eating style that is an anachronism in these days of uptempo, no-huddle schemes and flippy-football, pass-happy spreads. Also, the Cardinal lost 4 of 5 starters on their OL, including in-your-face run blocker David Yankey at G. On defense, coordinator Derek Mason has left to take over as head coach at Vanderbilt. LB Trent Murphy, who led the nation last season with 15 sacks, is gone to the NFL, as are vocal leader and top tackler LB Shayne Skov (5½ sacks), and intimidating safety Ed Reynolds. Plus others.

The good news is that despite those substantial departures, Stanford still appears well-equipped to compete for a spot in its third straight Pac-12 championship game. Here’s why.

QB Kevin Hogan (61%, 2630 YP in 2013; 20 TDs, 10 ints.) is now a blossoming veteran with of 19 starts who is 10-1 SU vs. Top- 25 teams (the loss to rallying Michigan State in the Rose Bowl last January). Hogan, who directed the team to 32.3 ppg last season, spent much of the spring working on smoothing his mechanics and working with an expanded playbook in anticipation of a likely downtown in the Cardinal’s power-running element, at least until the new OL group gets a chance to meld. HC Shaw points out that this year’s “front five” was specifically recruited in recent classes with the full thought that they would take over this season. Leading the way for the 2014 crew will be 6-7, 315 returning LT Andrus Peat, the next highly-regarded NFL OL prospect on The Farm. The incoming starters saw plenty of action last season as backups or in special-situation “jumbo” packages.

The Stanford RBs are expected to rely on less power this season, but more speed and diversity. There seems to be a pause in the Toby Gerhart-Stepfan Taylor-Tyler Gaffney “muscle-car” RB production line, as the Cardinal will feature a sleeker, faster “sports-car” group that includes 5-10 one-time WR Kelsey Young (110 YR in 2013) and 5-10 jr. Barry Sanders Jr. (42 LY). At least 3 or 4 others are expected to be in the fight for either the starting RB nod or substantial playing time. Thus, look for fewer straight-ahead plays this year in favor of more screens and flips to backs on the move. And, while there also seems to be a pause in the Coby Fleener/Zach Ertz/Levine Toilolo Stanford TE tree, the Cardinal now boast two of most physical, big-play wideouts on the college scene. 6-2, 215 sr. Ty Montgomery had 61 catches for 10 TDs in 2014, while 6-4, 228 sr. Devin Cajuste caught 28 balls good for 22.9 ypc. Speedy 6-3, 210 soph Francisco Owusu is also set to join the WR rotation this year.

Last year’s stingy defense allowed only 19 ppg (10th in the nation) and a grudging 2.9 ypc. Even without previously-mentioned defensive leaders, don’t look for much of a drop-off, at least if spring is any indication. OLB coach Lance Anderson, in his eighth year on The Farm, was elevated to take over for now-Commodore Derek Mason as coordinator. Anderson drew repeated praise from Shaw in the spring for the preparation and intensity of the Stanford stoppers. The returning leaders of the platoon will be 6-6, 295 soph DE Henry Anderson (3½ sacks LY), sr. LB A.J. Tarpley (93 Ts LY), and sr. S Jordan Richards (69 Ts, 3 ints.). But spring also uncovered ascending talent at all levels. Opening eyes repeatedly were 6-3, 280 jr. DE Aziz Shittu, the DL surprise of the spring; 6-4, 235 jr. ILB Noor Davis (only 5 Ts LY); RS frosh OLB Peter Kalamayi (impressive in all facets of his play); and 6-2 jr. S Kodi Whitfield (16 recs. as a WR LY). In another 2014 plus--especially in the QB-rich Pac-12--both 2013 starting Cardinal CBs (sr. Wayne Lyons & jr. Alex Carter) return to patrol the flanks.

Summary...With this season’s Pac-12 championship contest set for the 49ers’ new Levi’s Stadium, just a bit down the Peninsula from Palo Alto in Santa Clara, the game site is favorable for Stanford taking a shot at its third straight league crown. However, in order for the Cardinal to be able to take that short trek, they will first have to finish a long and arduous journey, beginning with an early-season visit from revenge-minded USC. The list of Stanford’s 2014 road stops includes Washington, Arizona State, Oregon, Cal, and UCLA, all seeking revenge (mostly multiple revenge) vs. the haughty Cardinal, who lost twice as a visitor last season (not to mention later at the Rose Bowl Game). Undefeated Pac-12 champs have become very rare. But more than a couple of defeats might be in store for Stanford if its trademark RB/OL power sustains much of a setback from recent years.

WASHINGTON (2013 SUR 9-4; PSR 7-6; O/U 6-7)...For more than a decade, one team or another has been seeking to pry innovative, well-regarded, well-liked coach Chris Petersen from Boise State, where he began to impress as Dan Hawkins’ offensive coordinator as early as 2002 (when the Broncos went 12-1). Finally, with an ascendant program at the University of Washington in need of a coach following the departure of Steve Sarkisian for Southern Cal, the UW powers that be were able to “frack” Petersen out of Idaho and to transport him to the recently-renovated Huskies’ facilities in Seattle.

There are few who doubt that Petersen--92-12 in eight years as HC at Boise (5-2 in bowls)--is ready to step up in class, even though his 2013 Broncos stuttered to an 8-4 mark (8-5 after BSU lost its bowl game). California-born and raised, Petersen played QB at UC Davis under Hall of Fame coach Jim Sochor, whose 19 straight winning seasons showed that the latter knew more than just a little bit at how to get the most out of not so much. Petersen also spent 1995-2000 in the Pac-10 as an assistant at Oregon, working under another UC Davis guy, HC Mike Bellotti, and for a year on staff with a then-grad assistant named Mark Helfrich, now the Ducks' HC. All-told during his 18 years as an Oregon WR asst., Boise offensive coordinator, and Bronco head coach, Petersen has been a part of two undefeated seasons (2006, 2009) and seven more with only one loss.

Thus, it didn’t seem too curious to college football aficionados in the Pacific Northwest when they heard that Petersen expressed a desire to “change the culture” at U-Dub, even through Sarkisian had righted the formerly-listing Washington ship with four straight winning records and four bowl appearances. As far as Petersen is concerned, UW needs to substantially elevate its play if it intends to compete for championships instead of minor and middle-rung bowl games. Petersen uttered a telling statement during spring practice in April when asked if he had made any substantial changes to the way the Huskies will operate. “Yes,” said the new head coach. “Every single thing.” According to Petersen, his new culture includes a new foundation, a new philosophy, heightened expectations, and altered approaches to everything, from the training table, to weight lifting, to locker assignments, to fumble practice for QBs.

On the field, Petersen takes over a promising team, but one with some big vacancies to fill. A three-year starting QB in Keith Price. An 1870-yard RB in Bishop Sankey (the first back drafted this year). Mackey Award-winning TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Not to mention practically-perfect placekicker Travis Coons, who not only nailed 15 of 16 FG attempts last year, but also handled all of the punting and most of the kickoffs. All told, the 2013 U-Dub offense scored 38 ppg (18th in the nation) and ended +7 in turnover margin.

Despite those key losses from last year, sufficient ingredients appear on hand for the Huskies to be a major contender in the Pac-12 North in 2014. The QB situation remains “wide open” (Petersen’s words) going into August, as top candidate 6-4 soph Cyler Myles missed all of spring play following his part in an altercation amid the celebration after the Seahawks won the Super Bowl. [The same altercation has forced the transfer of potential starting WR Damaore’ea Stringfellow.] Come August, Myles will have to show he grasps the new Petersen offense after hitting 61%, for 4 TDs and 2 ints. and rushing for 200 yards as last year’s promising backup. If he cease the spot, the starting job will go to either RS soph Jeff Lindquist (3 games, but no pass attempts LY), or quick 6-1 RS frosh dual threat Troy Williams, who was ascending rapidly during spring. Blue chip true frosh K.J. Carta-Samuels might also get a shot in August.

The RB situation also lacks a bit of clarity, but there’s plenty of talent. Sr. Jesse Callier had 213 YR last season in his rebound campaign from an ACL in 2012. Sr. Deontae Cooper had 270 YR. 6-2, 221 soph Dwayne Washington busted for 332 (7.1 ypc). And those three veterans better not make any assumptions, as 6-0, 215 RS frosh Lavon Coleman repeatedly turned heads in spring. Running the spheroid should not be a problem for UW because the engine of any team’s offense--the OL--returns all five starters from a unit that produced 5.1 ypc and at least 190 yards on the ground in 10 of 13 games. And, to help the new QB, go-to target Jaydon Mickens (65 recs, 5 TDC) is back, as is rangy 6-3, 221 Kasen Williams (29 recs. in 8 games LY).

The defense figures to be plenty tough up in the DL and at LB, as 5 of those starting 7 players return. The top pass rusher is 6-3, 250 DE/OLB Hau’oli Kikaha, who piled up 13 sacks LY. In fact, UW returns players who collected 37½ sacks out of last year’s 41. In the middle is 6-2, 332 DT Danny Shelton (59 Ts, 2 sacks). OLB/DE Carey Littleton had five sacks. But the anchor of the defense is likely to be 6-2, 230 jr. ILB Shaq Thompson (78Ts LY), who not only has safety-like speed and a nose for the ball, but also might see some Myles Jack-like action at RB in special situations (and eventuality well within the playcalling menu of the coach who burned Oklahoma with a nouveau Statue of Liberty play and then a HB pass in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl).

The major concern on defense for new coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski (Boise d.c. the L4Ys) is the secondary, which lost 3 of 4 starters from last season. 6-0 jr. CB Marcus Peters (5 ints. LY) is one of the better cover guys in the Pac-12, which means he will likely be mostly avoided while opposing no-huddle offenses repeatedly pick on his DB mates.

Summary...Petersen believes firmly in his systems and methods, and is clearly a perfectionist who is hard to please. Statements such as “I think they want to win. I think they want to come together as a team....When we do, then we will start making progress.” And, “That’s the difference to everything; it’s the details. We are not detailed enough. So that’s where we’ve got to go moving forward.” Petersen’s perfectionism is already so well inculcated among the Huskies that he was able to play a hilarious (to him) April Fool’s Day joke on his players, introducing at a team meeting fake awful new uniforms, with the bogus pants complete with the word “DAWGS” across the butt and with a block W slightly above the crotch in front. Yes, the prank helped ease the transition from the easier-going previous regime. Also helping ease the transition will be UW’s first four games (at Hawaii, vs. E. Washington, vs. Illinois, vs. Georgia State). But then things get tough with a visit from Stanford, a trip to improved Cal, and a trip to nemesis Oregon. The Huskies have lost ten straight vs. their Pacific Northwest rival, by a combined score of 436 to 182! An upset in Eugene is unlikely, as is a North Division title. But a developing Washington team could easily be a spoiler in both the North and South races this season, which should end with U-Dub’s fifth straight bowl.

WASHINGTON STATE (2013 SUR 6-7; PSR 9-4; O/U 7-5-1)...Mike Leach begins his third season. He was 3-9 in his first year with the Cougars in a 2012 campaign that was marked by transition to Leach’s pet run-and-shoot offense, lots of tough talk about his players, and only those three victories. Year Two of Leach in the Palouse was marked by a three-win improvement to a 6-6 regular-season record, a Cougar return to the bowls for the first time in 10 years, and a less-caustic, less-surly, more fan-friendly coach Leach. Another improvement might well be in the offing for 2014.

Yes, the Cougars ended 2013 with a losing record (6-7 after an ugly 48-45 giveaway loss to Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl). It was the seventh straight losing season in the Palouse. But the future seemed bright enough for Leach to earn a contract extension through 2018. To say that Leach is one of the more eccentric head coaches is to say the least. He is one of the few today who never played college football. And he is one of the very few head coaches who also has a law degree. His fascination for 18th-century pirates has been well-documented, and his office reportedly is laden with an impressive amount of pirate paraphernalia. Leach is also the co-author of a recent book--Geronimo: Leadership Strategies of an American Warrior. In a spring “AMA” (ask me anything) session on the social media and networking website reddit.com, Leach was asked a question about which historical figures he would have for a football coaching staff. Leach responded by tabbing George Washington as head coach, with Geronimo as offensive coordinator and Tarzan [sic] as an offensive assistant. You get the idea. Leach is still his same esoteric self in Pullman. Maybe more so.

Still, his Washington State team appears bigger, stronger, and deeper this season, with--like most of the teams in the Pac-12--a deeply experienced QB returning. That would be skinny, 6-4 sr. Connor Holliday, who now has 19 career starts. Last year, Halliday hit 63% for 4597 yards (third in the nation), with a nice 34 TDs and a still too-high 22 interceptions. If Halliday stays healthy, it’s not too hard to envision a 5000-yard season in Leach’s offense, which was usually at its best in its pass-drunk Texas Tech years when directed by senior QBs. 6-4 RS frosh Luke Falk seemed to have the edge over 6-1 RS frosh Tyler Bruggman in the race for No. 2 after spring. Although only 2 of 5 OL starters return, Leach’s “big uglies” up front are now heavier, taller overall, and better schooled in the pass-protection techniques his offense requires.

While the RB position remains unsettled in terms of a big-time producer, there is more speed and depth overall, so returning leading rushers Marcus Moon (429 YR in 2013) and Teondray Caldwell (271) will have to scramble to retain their spots in the pecking order. But an improvement from last year’s 2.9 ypc would appear to be essential in terms of the Cougars’ ability to keep opposing pass rushers off Halliday (6-4, 197) and to sock away games in which WSU is holding late leads (Wazzu blew a 45-30 lead in last year’s bowl game by giving up a late TD, then fumbling while trying to run out the clock, yielding a TD and a tying two-point conversion, then fumbling the ensuing kickoff to set up the Rams’ winning FG!).

When he was at Texas Tech, Leach turned out a slew of prolific receivers (among them Wes Welker, Michael Crabtree) when his offense was clicking. This year’s group might be a little thin in Leach terms (he says that, ideally, his receiving unit needs to be at least two deep at all four positions due to the constant route-running and many hits absorbed by his pass catchers). This year’s stars figure to be 6-3, 218 Vince Mayle (42 recs., 7 TDs LY), who made another big advance in spring; 6-2 sr. Kristoff Williams (51 LY); 5-8 sr. Ricky Galvin (39 LY), a quick & tough former RB; 6-2 jr. Drew Loftus; and 5-9, 160 RS frosh Robert Lewis, a darter who was one of the top targets in spring. One player who is stoked regarding the material on hand is QB Halliday, who says this has been the Cougars’ best spring in his tenure in Pullman. “The talent is unlike anything I’ve ever seen here,” says Halliday.

The situation is much the same for the front seven of WSU’s 3-4 defense, which gave up 32.5 ppg and 4.5 ypc in 2013. Solid NT Ionae Gauta has graduated. But DL coach Joe Salave’a says his group is now two deep--at least--at every spot. 6-4, 298 sr. Xavier Cooper (5 sacks LY) will lead the way. Jr. Darryl Monroe (94 Ts, 2 sacks) and sr. Cyrus Coen (60 & 3) return to anchor the LB group, which still needs more depth. This biggest defensive concern this season is the secondary, which lost A-A safety Deone Bucannon (6 ints. LY) and CB Damante Horton (5). Soph CB DaQuawn Brown (2 ints. LY) has flashed good potential, but this is not a good season to be young and rebuilding one’s secondary in the QB-plush Pac-12.

Also new will be the team’s kicker, needed to replace the departed Andrew Furney, who hit 16 of 20 FGs LY and 47 of 61 for his career. Pullman scouts say RS frosh Erik Powell showed the accuracy and length in spring to step in for Furney. But if he’s erratic early in the season, look for Leach—who loves to roll the dice--to gamble just a bit more on fourth down, especially now that his QB is a senior who is well-familiar with Leach’s uptempo, pass-happy attack.

Summary...Leach has the program moving in the right direction. There’s more depth. The quality of recruits is improving. And WSU had six early-enrollees this spring. One small problem is that the other recent Pac-12 strugglers such as Colorado, Cal and Utah also appear to be ascending. Wazzu was 5-2 as a dog last year, but surprises will be harder to come by this season. However, with an apparent dynamic offense on tap this season, plus a potentially vulnerable secondary, the Cougars might do a little better than last year’s 7-5-1 over/under vs. the total. Wazzu should make a run toward a second straight bowl, but--with a tough conference schedule--the Cougars better not get careless, as QB Halliday sometimes does with the football.

OREGON STATE (2013 SUR 7-6; PSR 7-6; O/U 7-6)... Is one of Corvallis’ favorite sons in trouble? Mike Riley is now in his 14th season in charge of the Beaver program. As the QB for Corvallis High back in 1969-70, Riley led the team to back-to-back state title games, when his dad Bud was an assistant on Dee Andros' OSU teams. He went on to play DB for Bear Bryant at Alabama. As a young head coach, Riley racked up two Grey Cup victories in Canada, spent two more in the fledgling World League of American Football in San Antonio, and later spent three as HC of the NFL Chargers. He’s 88-73 in 13 years and two stints (1997-98 and 2003-present) at Oregon State, including 5-2 in bowls.

But even though the amiable Riley is still much beloved and respected at OSU and throughout the Pac-12, one truth regarding football must always be acknowledged—fans are fickle. Riley collected his eighth winning season at OSU (not an easy college football outpost) in 2013, but he enters this season on a bit of a hot seat. The head coach began to feel the temperature rise in last year’s first game, a season-opening, 49-46 home loss to Eastern Washington. Narrow road victories at Utah (in OT) and at San Diego State did not help much. And then last November’s 69-27 home blasting by Washington greatly raised the anxiety level of the Corvallis faithful. Meanwhile, down the road in Eugene, the Ducks boast one of the premier programs in the country. Up north, Washington has lured Chris Petersen out of Boise, and Mike Leach has Wazzu on the upswing. This is to say nothing of Stanford, the two-time defending Pac-12 champ. Riley, who will be 61 in July, will likely have to deal with increasing fan-base angst every time his team loses a game in 2014.

Thankfully, Oregon State is one of those many Pac-12 teams that goes into the season with a vastly-experienced QB in 6-5 sr. Sean Mannion (31 career starts; 66.3%, 4662 YP, 37 TDs, 15 ints. LY). However, the hard-throwing Mannion faces a period of adjustment without his big-time, premier target of Brandin Cooks, last year’s Biletnikoff Award winner with a monster 128 recs., 1730 yards, and 16 TD catches in 2013. This year’s WR group has plenty of potential, with 6-3 jr. “hands” guy Richard Mullaney (52 recs. LY) the most experienced. However, Riley is hoping for big advancements from speedy 5-9 soph Victor Bolden (6 recs., 12 rushes LY), 5-10 RS frosh Hunter Jarmon (good spring), and promising 6-3 soph Malik Gilmore.

Of greater concern for new offensive coordinator John Garrett is the OSU OL, tasked to protect the slowish Mannion. Three starters must be replaced, while established jr. C Isaac Seumau (on the Rimington watch list) is recovering from a foot injury in last week’s bowl game. Left tackle, among other spots, was unresolved after spring. Not a good sign on a team that produced only 3.5 ypc on the ground last year, although there is some proven RB talent on hand in 5-7, 197 sr. Terron Ward (521 YR LY), developing soph Storm Woods (477 YR), and promising 5-10, 202 soph Chris Brown (144 YR, 7.6 ypc LY), who focused on countering ball security issues in spring. It would be of great help to Mannion if the restructured OL and decent RB corps can provide the QB with an insistent ground force up front. Tasked with developing that always-helpful balance will be new offensive coordinator John Garrett (brother of Dallas HC Jason Garrett), a long-time NFL assistant who is moving up to coordinator for the first time.

Defense is also a Beaver concern after allowing 31.4 ppg and 5.1 ypc last season. Seven starters return, including three senior LBs (including Michael Doctor, lost due to an ankle injury in Game Two LY). Three well-established DBs are back, including ball-hawking sr. CB Steven Nelson (6 ints.) and sr. safeties 6-3 Ryan Murphy (3 ints.) and hard-hitting Tyrequek Zimmerman (104 tackles LY). However, the DL is rebuilding after losing top pass rusher DE Scott Crichton (7½ sacks, 19 TFL) to the NFL. Crichton’s constant pressure helped generate 19 Beaver interceptions in 2013.

However, the frequency of big plays allowed by the OSU stoppers last season was deeply troubling to the Beaver Nation, especially to 14-year defensive coordinator Mark Banker. Upon further review, Banker attributed the failures a combination of misalignment, sloppy technique, and missed assignments in trying to cope with the many no-huddle, speed offenses in -the Pac-12. Thus, it was back to basics in spring, with the goals of taking away the deep ball in 2014 and lowering opponents’ completion percentage (60.4% LY). Banker’s new mantra is “Do your job first before you go to the ball.” The defensive coordinator is counting on 6-2 jr. DE Jaswha James to lead the pass rush, while 6-2, 300 jr. transfer DT Jalen Grimble (a former five-star recruit at the University of Miami) anchors the run defense.

Summary...There are several reasons to believe that Oregon State is in danger of losing ground in the toughening Pac-12 North. The Beavers have plenty of issues come August/September, including OL stability, a youthful WR corps, a rebuilding DL, a defensive platoon prone to big plays, and an inconsistent kicker. The strong-armed Mannion might end up setting a new passing-yardage record in the conference. But he might have to do so merely in order for the Beavers to keep their heads above .500. Riley will likely have to call upon all of his considerable talents and experience to keep an increasingly-anxious OSU fan base soothed.

CALIFORNIA (2013 SUR 1-11; PSR 2-10; O/U 5-6-1)...Cal will be improved in 2014. Count on it.

The previous statement is virtually certain to be true by the end of the season, and not just because the Golden Bears have virtually only one way to go after a its sad 1-11 in 2013, with the only victory coming against FCS foe Portland State. It will also turn out to be true because Cal is a developing team in 2014 that has talent far exceeding last year’s injury-ripped, youth-laden squad.

For sure, Sonny Dykes’ transition from Louisiana Tech did not go as planned. Cal’s new, four-WR, uptempo “Bear Raid” offense took a while to get going, and Dykes’ decision to go with promising true frosh QB Jared Goff (60.3%, 3508 YP, 18 TDs, 10 ints.) helped produce a deleterious -15 turnover margin. And a defense that saw starter after starter sidelined by injuries or other reasons from the beginning of the season without surcease led to a “stop” unit that was worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize by giving up 45.9 ppg a figure that would have been even worse if some opponents had not turned to deep reserves late in games. The battered Bears had only 5 interceptions all season.

Tasked by Dykes to plug the many holes in his defensive dike is long-time defensive coordinator Art Kaufman, let go last season at Cincinnati, allegedly for reasons having to do with recruiting. However, in his one season with the Bearcats, the Cincy defense ranked No. 9 in yards (315.6 ypg) and No. 4 in points (21.1 ppg). Kaufman had spent the previous season at Texas Tech, where the Red Raiders were 38th in total defense. You get the idea. Kaufman will stay with last year’s 4-3 base, but perhaps with more 3-4 and 4-2-5 variants. Perhaps more important for are a boost for the Bear defenders would be the healthy return of injured 2013 starters/major contributors such as jr. DE Brennan Scarlett, jr. DT Mustafa Jalil, soph MLB Hardy Nickerson, jr. OLB Jason Gibson, jr. CB Stefan McClure, and jr. S Avery Sebastian. Kaufman used spring for back-to-basics, player evaluation, and a substantial amount of live hitting, with Dykes saying that, after 2013's disastrous season, he was heartened there were no serious injuries. And Dykes’ investment in youth last season led to the spring flowering of redshirt frosh LB Ray Davison, CB Darius Allensworth, and 6-3 soph S Griffin Piatt. The HC also says juco DT David Davis and juco CB Darius Wright should challenge for early playing time. Improving on last year’s 45.9 ppg allowance shouldn’t be too difficult.

Dykes’ “Bear Raid” offense of 2013 racked up lots of yards, but often with the eventual winner of the game never in doubt. However, very promising 6-4 soph Jared Goff gained invaluable experience while showing he has all the tools to direct Dykes’ pass-oriented spread to produce mountainous numbers. Last year, the lanky, mobile Goff tossed for 3508 yards, hitting 60.3% with 18 TDs and 10 interceptions. But he took his lumps and got the hook a few times. But, now, Goff is “the man” after last year’s No. 2, Zach Kline, has transferred. Another plus has been the apparent blossoming of 6-0, 210 jr. RB Daniel Lasco (317 YR last season) as a primary RB. If Lasco can carry the bulk of the load, lightning-quick 5-7 track star Khalfani Muhammad (445 YR, 6.0 ypc) will be even more effective as a long-distance threat in rotation. The OL has the required size, but must improve, especially in shotgun snaps and against the blitz

The big plus for Cal in 2014 should be its deepening WR corps. Jr. Bryce Treggs had 77 catches last season and trained at inside receiver in spring so that he might get more mismatches. 5-11 jr. Chris Harper grabbed 70 balls. 6-3 soph Kenny Lawler had 37. 6-2 jr. transfer Trevor Davis joins the attack this season after 10 starts in Hawaii’s pass-dominant scheme. All told, Dykes in his second season has developed a very potent set of young skill players that should be much better in 2014 after scoring 23 ppg in the very disappointing 2013. Says QB Goff, “We’re a brand-new team now, and we’re ready to go. We’re two or three deep at every [WR] position...and have NFL potential.”

Summary...Cal has the offensive talent and coaching to be much better in 2014. But, according to Dykes, “We’re dealing with some staggeringly-low numbers of upperclassmen.” Even if last season’s injured players return, the Bears will still be too young and too shorthanded defensively to contend for anything. Even the .500 level seems out of reach due to a tough schedule. However, although more rebuilding is still needed, there are enough high-quality players on hand to operate Dykes’ potentially-explosive spread and to make many foes nervous. And to upset any that get careless.


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