Pac-12 Football Teams Ready to Take the Next Step in 2014

Kyle Kensing@kensing45Contributor IJanuary 23, 2014

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Taking the next step means different things to different programs, and how it is done is just as unique. 

Arizona State did it in 2013, winning the Pac-12 South title and 10 games. Washington State did too, playing in its first bowl game since 2003. For UCLA, it meant winning 10 games for the first time in eight years and for Washington, reaching its 12-year single-season benchmark for wins.  

All contributed to unprecedented collective success in the Pac-12, which in turn raises the bar for 2014. Not all will replicate their successes; some will take a step back. 

A few in the Pac-12 are equipped to take yet another step next season, however.  

UCLA is a trendy preseason pick to return to the top of the South, and perhaps even contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Outlets including Sports and USA Today rank the Bruins in their preliminary 2014 top 10, and with good reason. 

Few teams boast as much returning experience heading into this offseason as UCLA, as magazine publisher and college football guru Phil Steele noted via Twitter.  

Experience does indeed go a long way for a team seeking to take that next step. Stanford and Arizona State, the two conference championship game participants, were among the conference's most veteran teams in 2013. Both were particularly heavy on seniors, thus facing considerable turnover this year. 

Yet experience is only one possible catalyst for a breakout season, which a particularly young UCLA lineup proved last season. Head coach Jim Mora played 18 true freshmen and still won 10 games. 

Sheer talent can sometimes compensate for experience, and UCLA was rife with it after a couple stellar recruiting classes. Standout prospects from the 2012 and 2013 classes that played roles in UCLA's 2013 success will be even more central to the team's 2014 efforts. 

UCLA isn't the only Pac-12 team that should see a return on recruiting investment next season, though. Oregon's won or competed for conference championships every season since 2009, but the Pac-12 crown has eluded the Ducks the last two seasons. 

In other words, they've taken a step back. But in 2014, Oregon is primed to take that step back to title contention, thanks in no small part to the stockpile of talent landed in recent recruiting classes. The Ducks' 2011 class is proving to be one of the conference's more productive in the last half-decade, and its stars have gained invaluable experience—including losing the last two Pac-12 championships in the regular season's final month. 

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Experience on the field is great, but experience on the sidelines can be just as significant to a team taking the next step. UCLA's improvement in 2013 was partially a result of the experience its coaching staff gained. The Bruins were in their second season under Mora and his coaching staff, and the veterans played with greater confidence. A chief example is All-American Anthony Barr, who moved to linebacker under Mora's guidance. 

"I basically was a freshman last year. I wasn't confident enough to make that jump," Barr told USA Today

Barr's situation is somewhat unique given his position change, but it's still reflective of a team growing more comfortable after time to mesh. 

This was a unifying theme for many of the Pac-12's improved teams in 2013. Arizona State, UCLA and Washington State all scored their most wins in at least six years playing for head coaches in their second year. 

Eric Gay/Associated Press

The formula is simple: An offseason of laying the groundwork, a season putting it into action and another offseason to make adjustments, and Year 2 yields results. 

Oregon played for the BCS championship in former head coach Chip Kelly's second year. Perhaps Mark Helfrich can lead the Ducks into the College Football Playoff in his. 

It's a big step, but it's the next logical one for the program.