The Pac-12 ended this past season on a disappointing note, when conference champion Oregon proved to be overmatched in a lopsided 42-20 loss to Ohio State in the national championship game.
The loss was certainly a tough pill for the league to swallow. Still, just the fact the the conference had a representative in the title game for just the second time since 2005 is encouraging enough.
Although the Pac-12 lost many of its biggest stars from 2015 such as Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, Javorius Allen, Leonard Williams, Danny Shelton, Shaq Thompson and Nelson Agholor, the league still returns plenty of intriguing talent.
Here’s a look every team’s most valuable player for the 2015 season.
Arizona Wildcats: LB Scooby Wright III
Rich Rodriguez may have found his next Pat White-Steve Slaton combination with the backfield duo of QB Anu Solomon and RB Nick Wilson. Both Solomon and Wilson turned in tremendous freshman campaigns and played a key role in the team’s run to a Pac-12 North title this past season.
The real heart and soul of the team, however, resided on the defensive side of the ball.
That’s where LB Scooby Wright III emerged as one of the most productive and dominant defensive players in the country in 2014.
Wright led the nation with 163 total tackles, including 99 solo stops and 29 tackles for loss, and ranked third in the country with 14 total sacks. It was a performance that earned him the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Award, the Nagurski Trophy, the Bednarik Award, the Lombardi Award, the Jack Lambert Award and numerous All-American honors.
The former unheralded 2-star recruit from Santa Rosa, California, who uses the twitter handle twostarscoob, has clearly been motivated by the fact that he was overlooked in high school. Wright’s used that motivation to now become one of the sport’s premier standout defenders.
Arizona State Sun Devils: RB D.J. Foster
As a sophomore in 2013, D.J. Foster showed the potential to be a dynamic and versatile playmaker when he rushed for 501 yards on just 93 total carries (5.4 yards per rush), caught 63 passes for 653 yards (10.3 yards per catch) and scored 10 total touchdowns.
This past season, Foster built on his success and produced at even higher level, rushing for over 1,000 yards, catching 62 passes for 688 yards and scoring 12 touchdowns. It was a performance which earned him a spot on the second-team All-Pac-12 offense.
Arizona State won’t have an easy time replacing the veteran presence of QB Taylor Kelly, who has been the leader of the offense for the past three seasons. But luckily, Foster is clearly well equipped to be the focal point of the Sun Devils offense in 2015.
Cal Golden Bears: QB Jared Goff
Sonny Dykes’ first season at Cal turned out to be a complete disaster. Dykes’ squad managed to win just one game in 2013. This past season, however, the Golden Bears began to slowly show signs of improvement.
They won five games thanks in large part to the continued progression of QB Jared Goff. Ranking fifth in the nation with 509 total pass attempts, Goff certainly had plenty of opportunities to prove his passing prowess. He did just that, as he completed 62 percent of his passes for over 3,900 yards and tossed 35 touchdowns compared to just seven interceptions.
The 6’4’’, 210-pound junior has begun to master the intricacies of Dyke’s spread offense. He’s now primed to have the best season of his career. If Goff can get a little more help from his supporting cast in 2015, he should be able to lead Cal to its first bowl berth of the Dykes era.
Colorado Buffaloes: WR Nelson Spruce
This past season was a pretty disastrous campaign for the Buffaloes. The team won just two games and went winless in conference play. As a whole, the season was an utter failure. Still, there was at least one bright spot amid the darkness.
WR Nelson Spruce turned in one of the best individual performances in the program’s history.
Spruce became the first Colorado receiver to break the 100-catch mark in a season, as he finished the year with 106 receptions for 1,198 yards and 12 touchdowns.
After bypassing the chance to leave school early for the NFL draft, Spruce will now be looking to cement his status as the greatest receiver in school history as a senior in 2015.
Oregon Ducks: RB Royce Freeman
Life after Marcus Mariota will be strange times for the Oregon offense. The 2014 Heisman winner has been leading the Ducks’ potent spread attack for the past three seasons. Jeff Lockie and talented transfer Vernon Adams will be the leading contenders to replace the heralded three-year starting signal-caller.
Whoever ends up winning the gig will at least have the good fortune of sharing the backfield with Royce Freeman: one of the top young running backs in college football.
Freeman arrived in Eugene last offseason as a highly touted 4-star recruit out of Imperial, California. Though he had plenty of hype coming out of high school, no one could have envisioned just how big of an instant impact Freeman would ultimately end up making in his debut campaign.
The 6’0’’, 229-pound freshman proved to be a perfect complement to Mariota, as he totaled over 1,500 total yards of offense and accounted for 20 total touchdowns.
Oregon’s offense has often utilized smaller, quicker backs such as De’Anthony Thomas, LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner in recent years, but Freeman is the type of big LeGarrette Blount-esque bell-cow back who’s capable of both running around, or running over would-be-tacklers.
Oregon State Beavers: RB Storm Woods
2015 is going to be a transitional year for Oregon State. The Beavers will have a new coaching staff, a new quarterback and a new-look defense that will have to replace its top six tacklers from a year ago.
One constant that remains unchanged, however, is the team’s top rushing option. Storm Woods showed signs of a breakthrough this past season, when he rushed for 766 yards on just 121 carries (6.3 yards per carry) and caught 26 passes for 179 yards.
Now that QB Sean Mannion and RB Terron Ward have moved on, Woods will be counted on to be an even bigger part of the Beavers’ offensive attack in 2015.
If the new coaching staff embraces Woods and rides him like the thoroughbred he’s capable of being, he’ll likely top the 1,000-rushing yard mark and be a legit contender for the league rushing title in 2015.
USC Trojans: QB Cody Kessler
Steve Sarkisian’s first season at USC had its fair share of ups and downs, but one thing that was clear was the connection that he had with QB Cody Kessler.
Just like former Trojan star Matt Leinart, Kessler proved to be a prototypical fit for Sarkisian’s offense. This past season, the 6’1’’, 210-pound signal-caller completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for over 3,800 yards and finished the season with an extremely impressive 39-5 touchdown-interception ratio.
Kessler led the Trojans to 10 wins in 2013, and nine victories in 2014, but he’s yet to lead them to back to the level of prominence it once enjoyed when Sarkisian was an assistant under Pete Carroll.
Both the coach and his quarterback pupil will have their sights set high in 2015, as they look to return USC back to the forefront of the college football landscape.
Stanford Cardinal: QB Kevin Hogan
Stanford seemed to be somewhat of a forgotten-about team in 2014. After losing to USC at home in Week 2, the Cardinal went on to finish the season with a modest eight-win record, firmly off the national radar that they had become accustomed to annually being on in seasons past.
The mundane campaign has to be considered a disappointment. But that doesn’t mean that hopes for future success have to be dimmed.
The return of QB Kevin Hogan is the main reason for hope. Hogan has shown plenty of promise over the past two seasons, as he’s displayed the type of skill-set that’s perfectly suited for David Shaw’s pro-style offensive system. Still, there still seems to be that one final step remaining between Hogan and greatness.
2015 is shaping up to be the season that the senior signal-caller finally makes the leap from tantalizing talent to nationally recognized superstar.
UCLA Bruins: LB Myles Jack
Myles Jack’s stat line from the first two seasons of his collegiate career is a complicated one. That’s what happens when you have a rare versatile player who is tasked with playing multiple positions.
How do you properly quantify the value of a player who’s asked to make an impact on both offense and defense in a day and age that no longer calls for two-way players at the collegiate level?
You start by looking at the raw numbers: the 163 total tackles on defense and the 10 total touchdowns on offense stick out the most.
Jack’s a hustler, no doubt about it. It’s a simple formula: Line him up at a spot, put the pressure on him to perform at a high level, and let him respond accordingly. In a time when playing a player on both sides of the ball still has a bit of a taboo feel, it’s refreshing to see a big-time program such as UCLA realize that you can maximize the talents of a great all-around talent in more ways than one.
Utah Utes: RB Devontae Booker
The fact that Utah ranked dead last in the Pac-12 in total offense in 2014 speaks to just how pathetic the Utes’ passing attack was last fall. That’s because the team’s run game, led by breakout star rusher Devontae Booker, was absolutely stellar.
In his first season following a transfer from American River College, Booker immediately made his presence felt in the Pac-12. He ranked second in the conference with 1,512 rushing yards, caught 42 passes for 311 yards and scored 12 touchdowns.
After receiving basically no interest from the Pac-12’s power programs during the recruiting process, the former 3-star prospect is now ready to make the conference’s marquee teams pay once again for not believing in his abilities.
Washington Huskies: QB Cyler Miles
Chris Petersen became one of the hottest coaching candidates in college football thanks in large part to Kellen Moore’s development and ultimate success as a quarterback at Boise State. Now that Peterson has made the step to a more high-profile job at Washington, he’s got the chance to work with a more gifted athlete at the quarterback position.
Cyler Miles, a former 4-star recruit from Denver, is a big, athletic dual-threat quarterback who possesses tremendous natural physical ability. Unfortunately, what Miles doesn’t possess at this point in his development is the type of maturity and leadership ability that Peterson had with Moore at Boise State. That became clear when the quarterback was suspended for the team’s season-opener after being allegedly involved in an assault.
The 6’4’’, 225-pound signal-caller managed to climb out of Petersen’s doghouse, though. He ultimately ended up having a solid first season as a starter, totaling over 2,800 yards and accounting for 21 touchdowns
Miles is clearly one of the most gifted quarterbacks in college football. Now, it’s time for him to show that he’s capable of being a mature team leader in 2015.
Washington State Cougars: LB Jeremiah Allison
Mike Leach has routinely demonstrated that he knows how to put together successful passing attacks. Leach’s pass-heavy attack led the nation with 5,732 yards in 2014. The reason the Cougars finished with just three wins, however, is that the team’s defense just wasn’t up to snuff. The unit ranked 99th nationally in total defense and 117th in scoring defense, allowing an average of 38 points and 442 yards per game.
Luckily, LB Jeremiah Allison is returning to fill a leadership role and be someone the struggling unit can rally around. Last year, Allison was one of the most consistent performers on such an inconsistent defense. He totaled 78 tackles, including 51 solo stops, 8.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
If Washington State wants to make an improvement on defense, the Cougars are going to need the 6’2’’, 224-pound senior to step up and have a standout season in 2015.