Pac-12 Football: Power Ranking Top 10 Players Heading into 2014 Season
With the college football season now less than three weeks away (!!), it's time for something we can all agree on without any arguments: the top 10 players in the Pac-12 heading into the 2014 campaign.
We kid, of course, about everyone being in agreement following the final slide, because fans have passion and always want to see their favorite players get the credit they feel they deserve. And really, there's no perfect formula for coming up with the 10 best players in the conference.
What we're looking at is a combination of both statistics and how important a player is to his team. The latter is the main criteria, and in other words, looks at what kind of impact a player has had in wins and losses regardless of stats.
Check out our power rankings on the top 10 players in the Pac-12 and feel free to share who you feel deserves a spot (while remembering that you have to remove someone to make room) or who might climb into this elite group come December.
All stats via cfbstats.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.
Just missed the cut: Washington CB Marcus Peters, USC WR Nelson Agholor, Oregon C Hroniss Grasu, Stanford WR Ty Montgomery
10. WR Jaelen Strong, Arizona State
There are a lot of great receivers in the Pac-12, but none were as dominant as Arizona State's Jaelen Strong last fall. Of course, we're excluding players like Brandin Cooks who are now in the NFL, but it was remarkable how well Strong adapted to the FBS in just his first season after spending a year in the junior college ranks.
The 6'4" 210-pound Strong hauled in 75 passes for 1,122 yards and seven scores, topping the 100-yard mark in seven of the Sun Devils' 14 contests. He quickly became the main target for quarterback Taylor Kelly, and he will reprise his role once again when the season kicks off in three weeks.
Strong has the height and physicality to be virtually unstoppable in jump-ball situations, and the key now will be to become a more consistent target. He only had more than four catches in two of the team's final nine games. If Strong manages, say, six or seven catches per game, he'll be in the running for the Biletnikoff Award and will perhaps bring it home to Tempe.
9. OT Andrus Peat, Stanford
You'd be hard-pressed to find a better offensive lineman in the Pac-12 than Stanford's Andrus Peat, though Oregon's Hroniss Grasu and Arizona State's Jamil Douglas might belong in the conversation.
However, neither player brings to the table what Peat does, and at 6'7", 320 pounds with offensive line play in his genes—his father Todd had several stints in the NFL in the late 1980s and early '90s—his potential is downright scary. That was obvious back in high school, as Peat was named the top prospect in the country by Sporting News.
Now, as the returning veteran on an otherwise youthful offensive line, Peat has a chance to not only lead with his play but become the captain of perhaps the most important unit in Stanford's offense. While other offensive linemen in the conference are consistent and occasionally dominant, none can become the type of stone wall during a game that Peat can.
Which is to say, you cannot go under, over, straight through or around him. Defensive ends and linebackers will give Peat their best shot, but in all likelihood they'll end up on the ground or to the quarterback after he's already thrown a pass.
8. QB Sean Mannion, Oregon State
Count this writer as a non-believer in Sean Mannion up until the fall of 2013. After all, before his junior season Mannion had thrown for 31 touchdowns and 31 interceptions. He's always had a strong arm but accuracy and decision-making have been an issue.
That was, until 2013 when it became apparent that both he and Cooks had been putting in work in the offseason. Cooks had over 1,700 yards receiving en route to the Biletnikoff Award and Mannion ended up with over 4,600 yards through the air and 37 touchdowns.
With Cooks gone, the onus is now on Mannion to bring the young players up to speed and ensure that the offense will take another step forward without the team's best player from 2013. He can make every throw in the book, is as smart and experienced as they come and no doubt hungry to ball out from underneath the shadows of Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley and Taylor Kelly.
7. LB Myles Jack, UCLA
What more can you say about UCLA linebacker Myles Jack that hasn't already been said? The most remarkable aspect of Jack's journey is that few around the country knew who he was even 11 months ago.
That started to change when the true freshman from Washington put on a jersey for real and began making plays on Saturdays. He showed a nose for the ball unlike any we've seen in recent years from a player so young, and his speed and athleticism were unparalleled—outside of Anthony Barr, of course.
What really caused the country to tune in, however, was Jack's breakout performance on offense. After being inserted at running back in a game at Arizona in which the Bruins were struggling to score, Jack piled up 120 yards and a touchdown on six carries. The next week against Washington he managed only 59 yards but had four more scores. There's nothing he can't do on the football field and all eyes are on UCLA's new defensive star to see just how special he can become.
6. CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon
Where do you rate arguably the top cornerback in the country? On the one hand, you can count on Oregon's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu to virtually eliminate one of the opposition's receivers on any given play. On the other hand, it's only one player, although in Ekpre-Olomu's case, he's never shy about fighting through blocks or becoming a playmaker in run defense as well.
The Ducks' sensational senior tallied three picks in 2013 and had the all-around skills coaches covet from their secondary guys. In other words, Ekpre-Olomu perfectly balanced the ability to stay with receivers in coverage with a knack for jumping up to the line of scrimmage and making big tackles.
His decision to return gives the Ducks some leadership in the secondary and another year of the same play we've come to expect will likely result in a Top 20 selection in the 2015 NFL draft. Other corners will be charging hard for this spot, but at present, Ekpre-Olomu is the best player in the Pac-12 at his position.
5. DE Hau'oli Kikaha, Washington
The massively underrated Hau'oli Kikaha is overlooked all throughout the country when you talk about the best and most impactful defenders. Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, Nebraska's Randy Gregory and USC's Leonard Williams all get plenty of attention, and deservedly so. But the Huskies' defensive end belongs in the conversation based on stats alone, and he makes the Top 5 on our list of the conference's best players.
In 2013, Kikaha notched 15.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks to go along with his 70 tackles. While he didn't receive the same attention as some of the aforementioned defensive ends, he still dominated games like few others.
Now a marked man, you can bet that offenses set to face the Huskies are already prepping for how to deal with Kikaha. That alone merits a spot on this list but look for the 6'3" 250-pound end to earn his Top 5 mark early and often.
4. QB Taylor Kelly, Arizona State
If you recall the opening slide, then you'll remember that our main criteria for the selection process was a combination of stats and impact on the team. Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly, having thrown for over 3,600 yards and 12 touchdowns last year with another 9 scores on the ground, gets an "A" for the stats portion.
But aside from the three players ahead of him, nobody in the league means more to his team than Kelly. He's a pass-first dual-threat player who nevertheless ran for over 600 yards last fall. He's efficient with the football and has a tool belt as full as any plumbers', although his are used mainly for shredding defenses.
Simply put, Kelly is a player that coach Todd Graham knows he can trust. He'll work with him, sure, and the moment you stop feeling the need to get better is when you start to regress. But while the Sun Devils enter the 2014 season with many questions and areas of weakness, quarterback is not one of them. Look for Kelly to pile up monster numbers yet again and play the biggest role in every one of the team's victories.
3. DE Leonard Williams, USC
USC defensive end Leonard Williams isn't escaping anyone's attention in 2014. While his name only registered in the minds of hardcore fans last fall, the entire country is aware of Williams' talents this time around.
While the idea of becoming the No. 1 overall pick in next year's NFL draft is an exciting one, it hasn't caused Williams to lose focus on the task at hand. Said the Trojans' junior standout (via Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times): "That's going to take care of itself. I'm just focused on getting ready for camp."
With USC seemingly back in the mix for a Pac-12 title and Williams leading the charge on defense, all eyes will be on the Trojans from day one. If the preseason All-American can live up to the hype, he may end up topping the list of the league's best players following bowl season.
2. QB Brett Hundley, UCLA
As far as Pac-12 signal-callers go—and it's a pretty darn impressive group at the moment—none may be more intriguing than UCLA's Brett Hundley. There's a reason he doesn't top this list, but there's no reason to think he can't be the league's best player if he puts it all together as a junior.
The Bruins' rise to power in the Pac-12 has unsurprisingly coincided with the emergence of Hundley as one of the nation's top passers. He threw for over 3,000 yards and 24 touchdowns last year with another 748 yards rushing and 11 scores on the ground. He's built very much like Cam Newton or Jameis Winston: strong arm, nimble for his size and athletic as they come.
But he's more like Newton than Winston in the run game, where his size and speed allow the staff to draw up designated rushing plays for him, which has added another element to the offense. If Hundley can learn to get in an early rhythm and remain confident when the team is struggling, he'll become the complete package and perhaps the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft.
1. QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon
You aren't surprised at No. 1, because by now you're never surprised to see Oregon's Marcus Mariota at the top of a list. Whether it's a list of humble leaders or best overall players in the game, Mariota is always at or near the top because of what he's shown on the field in the past two seasons.
Despite starting only one year in high school, Mariota has thrown for 63 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions in two years as the Ducks' No. 1 quarterback. Add in over 1,500 yards rushing and just three losses, and you can see what makes him so special.
When Mariota is healthy and on target, he's all kinds of unstoppable. Just ask Washington, which allowed Mariota to complete nearly 80 percent of his throws for three scores and 366 yards. Oh, and he rushed for 88 more and another touchdown as well. If Mariota can just become a little more consistent with his decision-making and first-quarter accuracy, the Heisman is his to lose.