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2014 Pac-12 preview: Loaded conference preps for slugfest

The battle for the Pac-12 title should be fierce in 2014, with Oregon, UCLA and Stanford all hunting for a berth in the College Football Playoff.

Conference championship: Oregon defeats UCLA

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. Offensive MVP

Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

STAFF: Mariota makes's Preseason All-America Team

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. Defensive MVP

Myles Jack, LB, UCLA

SCHNELL: Do-it-all Jack looks to lead UCLA to new heights

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. Impact Freshman

Adoree’ Jackson, WR/CB, USC

He’s spent the majority of practice (so far) at corner, but coach Steve Sarkisian has said Jackson is so talented he’ll get reps at receiver, too. At Serra High in Gardena, Calif. -- the same place former All-American receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee prepped -- Jackson was a star on offenses and defense and a state champion in the long jump. He’ll play immediately, maybe on both sides, and will likely return kicks, too.

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. Coach on the Hot Seat

Sonny Dykes, Cal

Three key nonconference games

Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6 (FOX)

Perhaps the premier nonconference game in the country, this matchup will have plenty of College Football Playoff implications. It could be the best front seven Mariota & Co. will face all year, though the Ducks are heavily favored at home. Michigan State returns six offensive starters, including quarterback Connor Cook, but has to replace three offensive linemen. It’s not easy to win in Eugene, but if we learned anything from Michigan State’s 2013 run to the Rose Bowl trophy, it’s that Mark Dantonio’s squads aren’t intimidated by much.

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UCLA at Texas, Sept. 13 (FOX)

This game was enticing when it was scheduled in 2011, and it still is now -- but for different reasons. Charlie Strong is trying to revive a tradition-rich program and doing it with a somewhat depleted roster after numerous dismissals; UCLA is on the rise, eager to break into the upper echelon of college football. If Brett Hundley and the Bruins can get a win in Arlington, expect UCLA to become an even trendier pick for the CFP.

Notre Dame at Arizona State, Nov. 8 (TBD)

You can bet Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly has had this game circled on his calendar since last season's matchup, which the Irish won 37-34. Kelly threw a pick-six with 1:08 remaining last year that killed the Sun Devils’ chances, and you know he’s been thinking all offseason about avenging his performance. 

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Three key conference games

Oregon at UCLA, Oct. 11 (TBD)

Many believe this will be a preview of the conference title game, with the Ducks and Bruins favorites for their respective division championships. It will also be a matchup of the Pac-12’s two Heisman favorites in Mariota and Hundley. The Ducks thumped UCLA 42-14 in last year’s matchup; expect a much closer game in Pasadena.

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Stanford at Oregon, Nov. 1 (TBD)

This has become the de facto conference championship in the last couple years, with Stanford playing spoiler to the Ducks’ Pac-12 and BCS hopes two seasons in a row. The Cardinal must replace two key players (linebackers Shane Skov and Trent Murphy) who helped bottle up Oregon’s blur offense, but Mariota at full strength makes a big difference.  

USC at Washington State, Nov. 1 (TBD)

In a rematch of the game that started the Trojans’ messy 2013 season, Mike Leach and his pass-happy offense -- quarterback Connor Halliday is trying to improve on his school-record 4,597 passing yards -- will go for two in a row over USC. Expect a more mature Cody Kessler to stay cool(er) under pressure and a rowdy Pullman crowd to help keep this game close.


Five key questions

Overlooked again? Stanford ready to reload entering 2014 season

When will everyone stop doubting Stanford? For the fourth time in five years, Oregon was picked to win the Pac-12. But what about the Cardinal, the only team to solve Oregon’s speedy offense and beat Oregon two years in a row? Stanford coach David Shaw says he doesn’t pay attention to slights from fans or media, but you know his players see it, hear it and are sick of it. Maybe if the Cardinal make it three in a row, they’ll get some love in the 2015 preseason conference poll.

How will Chris Petersen fare away from Boise State? After years of speculation, two Fiesta Bowl wins, five conference titles and a 92-12 record, the wizard of Boise finally packed up and headed to a Power 5 conference. The pressure is on to win more than the last two coaches who left Boise State (Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins were fired by Arizona State and Colorado, respectively, after mediocre tenures) but the cupboard is full in Seattle. Most aren’t wondering if Petersen can turn Washington into a powerhouse; it’s how quickly he can do it.

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Can anyone in the South truly challenge the North? The Pac-12 is arguably the best conference, top to bottom, but we’re still waiting for someone from the South to give someone from the North -- namely, Oregon or Stanford -- a run for the conference championship. UCLA seems primed for the task if Hundley and Jack can live up to the hype. In Tempe, coach Todd Graham has declared Arizona State’s motto for 2014 to be “unfinished business.” USC’s roster is still stocked with five-star talent. We’ll have to wait to see if any of this adds up to a South team taking home the Pac-12 title.

What’s Steve Sarkisian’s ceiling in Year 1 at USC? He’s finally home, though not all the Trojan faithful are happy about it. Still, Sarkisian has proven himself to be a terrific recruiter, and USC isn’t short on talent. The Trojans have a loaded schedule with nonconference games against Fresno State, Boston College and Notre Dame, plus conference matchups with Stanford and UCLA. Sarkisian’s teams never quite lived up to expectations at Washington, but if he can win a few big games in 2014, the USC fan base should completely buy in. 

In a conference loaded with QB talent, which signal caller will become a surprise superstar? An eye-popping 10 quarterback starters return this season, with Mariota and Hundley (understandably) grabbing most the attention. But don’t let Arizona State’s Kelly (3,635 passing yards with 28 touchdowns and 608 rushing yards with nine touchdowns) or Washington State’s Halliday slip under the radar. Washington sophomore Cyler Miles, who started one game in 2013 and looked solid, is the natural successor to Keith Price and a potential standout … if he can stay on the field and out of trouble.

SCHNELL: Mariota, Hundley lead deep crop of Pac-12 passers