After months of waiting, we are finally just hours away from the first Saturday of college football. The Pac-12 has six teams ranked in the preseason Top 25 and five of those teams play on Saturday. Glancing at the schedule, it’s hard to not expect the Pac-12 to come out still standing strong on Sunday. Let’s take a look at the games being played by ranked teams:
UCLA @ Virginia – 9:00 AM (PST), ESPN
First up on Saturday will be the UCLA Bruins playing the Virginia Cavaliers at Scoot Stadium in Charlottesville, Virginia. The two teams had opposite seasons last year as the Bruins ended at 10-3, while the Cavaliers had nine losses in a row to close out the season 2-10.
As a result of their success last year plus the return of a lot of talent including quarterback Brett Hundley, the Bruins are ranked 7th in the preseason poll. Virginia returns seven starters from last season, only one of whom is a receiver in Keeon Johnson but will have a new quarterback in sophomore Greyson Lambert.
Defensively, Virginia returns nine starters, while the Bruins return eight. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers’ defense wasn’t the worst in the ACC last season, it was not the best either. Having a year’s experience under their belts will definitely help. The Bruins defense was almost as good as their offense last year and ranked 35th in the nation in scoring, allowing only 23.3 points per game.
Objectively looking at this game, it is one that the Bruins can and should win easily. The Cavaliers might eventually become a good team but they need time and game experience for that to happen.
UC Davis @ Stanford – 1:00 PM (PST), Pac-12 Network
The last time these two teams met in 2005, UC Davis shocked Stanford with a touchdown pass with only eight seconds left in the game, ending the game 20-17. Stanford wasn’t ranked in 2005 but is this year with a preseason No. 11 ranking and are expected to be fighting Oregon for the top spot in the Pac-12 North, as well as an eventual berth in the first ever College Football Playoffs. A loss to the Aggies would effectively extinguish all those hopes.
One of the advantages for the Cardinal is that they play UCD at home where they are on a 16-game winning streak. (The last Cardinal home loss was to the Ducks on November 12, 2011.) Another big advantage for Stanford is the return of QB Kevin Hogan and WR Ty Montgomery.
Montgomery’s importance can’t be stressed enough but together with Hogan, the two become nearly unstoppable. They, along with the rest of the very talented offensive line for Stanford, should give UC Davis’ defensive coordinator plenty of things to worry about.
Fresno State @ USC – 4:30 PM (PST), Fox
USC is ranked #15 heading into their first season under new coach Steve Sarkisian, who brought a Washington program from the bottom of the Pac-12 barrel to within striking distance of the North Division top, takes over a USC team who went 9-4 last season under interim head coach Ed Oregeron.
Fresno State would love to upset the Trojans in a game that is a rematch of last year’s Las Vegas Bowl, which the Trojans won 45-20. While USC would love a repeat of last year’s game, the Bulldogs are a good team in their own right and will likely give USC a good fight. Though the Trojans return only 13 starters, most of those starters are in key positions.
The offense, which started the 2013 season slowly, quickly came into their own after Lane Kiffin was fired. Returning starters include QB Cody Kessler who passed for 2,977 yards and 20 touchdowns, throwing only seven interceptions. Receiver Nelson Agholor, a junior who is almost guaranteed a spot in the NFL, and RB Javorius Allen also return giving Kessler plenty of choices.
FSU lost Derek Carr, undoubtedly one of the best quarterbacks in the country and Davante Adams, one of the nation’s best receivers. Having to replace both of them at once isn’t going to be easy, but the ’Dogs do have good talent to choose from. There is a quarterback battle raging between Brandon Connette, a transfer from Duke, and Brain Burrell. No matter who wins the job, Fresno State will still have experienced talent in the receiving corps such as Josh Harper, who was one of the best wideouts in their conference last season.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Trojans will likely give Fresno State a very hard time as their returning defense, while not the best in the conference, definitely needs improvement. For the Bulldogs to even have a chance of winning, they must figure out how to stop the Trojans from scoring, which they were obviously unable to do last season.
Washington @ Hawaii – 7:30 PM (PST), CBSSN
The second team on the list to be starting the season under a new coach, the Washington Huskies face Hawaii under new head coach Chris Petersen. After USC hired Sarkisian away form the Huskies, Washington went out and snared one of the most sought after coaches out there from Boise State, where Petersen was 92-12. The Huskies went 9-4 last season (4-5 Pac-12) and are expected to do better than that this season — as well as fight for the top spot in the Pac-12 North. As a result they are ranked No. 25 in the preseason poll.
Hawaii, on the other hand, had one of the worst seasons possible, going 1-11 under second year coach Norm Chow. This year, the Warriors return some important starters on both sides of the ball but will have a new quarterback in Ikaika Woosley, a sophomore who has almost zero experience. Receivers Keith Kirkwood and Scott Harding return, giving Woosley two dependable targets, while Joey Iosefa returns to help with the running game.
Washington didn’t escape losing some important players during the off season. The Huskies will be missing their starting QB Keith Price as well as TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins and RB Bishop Sankey, all to the NFL. Sophomore Jeff Lindquist has been tapped to replace Price and will head into this game without having thrown a single pass in his college career. Wideout Kasen Williams and RB Dwayne Washington will try to replace the other two departed starters.
In all honesty, this game should not be close by the end of the first half. Expect the Huskies to come out on top and use this game to build confidence for their new quarterback.
South Dakota @ Oregon – 7:30 PM (PST), Pac-12 Network
Finally we reach the Oregon Ducks, the highest ranked Pac-12 team at No. 3 in the preseason poll. The expectations for the Ducks this year are off-the-charts high. It could be argued that they are higher then they’ve ever been as Oregon is expected to earn a place in the first ever College Football Playoffs. A loss to South Dakota (as unlikely as that is to happen) would be devastating and unrecoverable.
One of Oregon’s biggest stars and major weapon is QB Marcus Mariota who is probably the best quarterback in the nation. Adding to that, the Ducks return two talented and experienced running backs in Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall, as well as all five starters on the offensive line. While the Ducks did lose both their top wide receivers, one to the NFL and the other to injury, they still have a lot of talent to fill this position.
The Ducks’ defense, which is under new defensive coordinator Don Pellum, returns the nation’s best CB in Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. A defense that wasn’t bad last year should only get better this year as most of the starters have another year of seasoning. It will be interesting to see the changes that Pellum has made in the off-season.
South Dakota, an FCS program, sits right in the middle. They aren’t the best team in the FCS but they aren’t the worst either, so keeping an eye on them would be advised. And while the Ducks have a much stronger opponent to look forward to next week (Michigan State), the Coyotes’ biggest game is Saturday. You should never underestimate the importance of motivation – the Coyotes would love to kill the Ducks’ chances at the playoffs.
After watching all of these games, we’re going to have a lot to talk about. I can’t wait to get knee deep into college football once again.
Top Photo by Craig Strobeck