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A Pac-12 & Big Ten conversation between Pacific Takes and Off Tackle Empire

We recently had the chance to ask Off Tackle Empire's Jesse Collins about the Big Ten in 2014 and he asked me a bit about the Pac-12 in 2014.

Jeff Gross

We will start with Jesse's questions for me about the Pac-12.

Jesse: Can you believe it? Another offseason is about to evaporate into the ether, and a new year filled with conversations about the Playoffs stares us in the face. That in mind, let's start off with a recap. Give me the 10,000 foot view of the Pac 12. What major shifts of power should we know about? What did we miss in the offseason? What storylines should we be watching for early in the season? Basically, give me a summary of what we have missed because we're in the Midwest.

Jack: It is a very interesting year for the Pac-12. As far as power shifts, there is nothing going into the season. Oregon and Stanford remained at the top of the conference while the UCLA/USC/Washington/ASU/Oregon State/Arizona pack remained in the upper-middle and WSU/Utah fought for the middle and Cal/Colorado occupied the rear. This could change this season, but not much has changed in the past year. To give you something, watch out for the LA schools rising up and grabbing the top from the Oregon/Stanford stranglehold the next couple of seasons.

For storylines, I will give you the top few...

Oregon pursuing that illusive national championship and Marcus Mariota pursuing a Heisman... The Ducks have been closing to winning a national championship the past few seasons and the return of Mariota, their entire offensive line and the birth of the College Football Playoff means that they will have an excellent shot at the title this year.

The conference is loaded with quarterbacks this year... Mariota, Brett Hundley and Taylor Kelly are dual-threat Heisman candidates that should be regarded as being in the Top 5 of quarterbacks in the country and Sean Mannion and Connor Halliday should fight over being the most productive quarterback in the nation. Also, don't be surprised if Cody Kessler, Jared Goff of Kevin Hogan turn into stars as well.

This is UCLA's money year for Jim Mora... The Bruins have been greatly improving under Mora and getting Hundley to come back for another year means that the Bruins are a pre-season Top 10 team and this is a make-or-break year for Mora and the Bruins. They need to win the Pac-12 South and make a statement nationally, or 2014 will likely be a disappointment.

Can Stanford maintain??? Stanford lost as much experience and talent as any program in the country after 2013 and they face maybe the nation's toughest schedule, making not just winning the Pac-12 for a third-straight year a challenge, but getting to 10 wins.

Jesse: Now that we got that out of the way, let's start digging into the B1G-Pac matchups we will see this non-con. Northwestern hosts Cal, Rutgers goes to Washington State, Michigan State travels to Oregon, Illinois travels to Washington, and Michigan hosts Utah. Give me your one sentence reaction to each of these games. Bonus points if you can say anything positive about Rutgers.

Jack: Northwestern vs. Cal - Air raid vs. old school between two academic schools trying to get respect on the field and a decent match-up for a bad opening Saturday of games.

Rutgers vs. Washington State - An exciting one for the opening night of college football as this is a make-or-break game for the Cougars right out of the gate if they hope to get back to a bowl game.

Michigan State vs. Oregon - The most-anticipated non-conference game of the season and for good reason in about as good of a speed vs. strength match-up as you could dream up.

Illinois vs. Washington - Chris Petersen's first game against a program from a major conference as Washington's head coach should tell a bit about how well the Huskies will adjust under him and if the Illini are ready to climb out of the Big Ten cellar.

Michigan vs. Utah - Kind of a forgotten game between forgotten programs seems like one that could surprise and be a great game.

Jesse: Obviously, the crown jewel of this lineup is the MSU at Oregon game. Michigan State heroically brought home a Rose Bowl trophy for what feels like the first time in forever, and they still seem loaded on the defensive front. Conversely, Oregon returns one of the front-runners for the Heisman in Marcus Mariota. That in and of itself is a scary thought for even the stoutest of defenses. Considering this matchup is in Autzen, one can only assume the scales are ever-so-slightly in the Ducks favor. How do you see this game playing out? Should we continue to see Oregon as a Playoff contender or is that defense that was exposed at times last year, a liability? Moreover, how real do you see the Spartans as an outsider to the Big Ten?

Jack: The Ducks' Achilles heel since they started running the hurry-up has been big, physical teams so history would suggest that the Ducks will struggle in this one, but I just have a feeling that with an entire off-season to prepare for this one, a big home field advantage and an offense as experienced as the one they have that they will pull it off. I expect the Spartans to keep it close for the first three quarters, bottling up the Duck offense well, but their offense won't do much and will give the Duck offense too many opportunities until they eventually break through in the fourth.

The Ducks are definitely a major playoff contender this year with Mariota and a ton of talent and experience returning, but 2015 and beyond will be interesting. To me, Chip Kelly was a once in a century talent as a coach and his success might not be able to be replicated in the long run with another coach and the Ducks will lose a lot of talent inexperience after this season, almost assuredly including Mariota. As far as their defense goes, it will be a liability, especially the defensive line, but not enough to where I think it will prevent them from competing at an elite level and not enough to where it isn't something that their offense can mostly make up for.

As an outsider, the Spartans look like a scary physical team a lot along the lines of what Stanford has been recently and most Pac-12 fans were really impressed with them going toe-to-toe with the Cardinal and emerging victorious in last year's Rose Bowl. I think most Pac-12 fans definitely respect their defense and running game, but many probably question their ability to put a lot of points on the board in a shootout.

Jesse: Give me some players Big Ten fans should familiarize themselves with. Again, we know Mariota and Brett Hundley, but who are some lesser known players that we should get to know now?

Jack: Taylor Kelly QB Arizona State - A senior leader that for my money might be just as good, or even better in crunch time than Hundley or Mariota. He isn't as flash as those two, but he is an excellent dual threat quarterback that can take over a game.

Sean Mannion QB Oregon State - Another overshadowed quarterback, Mannion is a stat sheet filler with a big arm and ability to pick apart a defense.

Leonard Williams DE USC - An All-American, but not sure if everyone knows who he is. Williams is near 300 pounds, but can play anywhere along the line. He is a run-stuffer and pass-rusher that could be like a Ndamukong Suh or Jadeveon Clowney that shuts down his portion of the field all by himself.

Jesse: Finally, let's talk coaches and depth. With the addition of Chris Petersen, the Pac 12 seems to have a claim to the deepest stable of coaches in the nation. Leach, Helfrich, Graham, Rodriguez, Sark, Shaw, Riley, Mora... That list has a lot of talent, and with the rich hotbeds of talent in California, it seems like the Pac 12 could be on the verge of a good run. Talk to me a little bit about how you see your conference in comparison to the national scene. Lastly, who do you think is the best coach in your conference? You know, just so I can make you say something controversial.

Rutgers-Washington State: I'm not really super high on Rutgers this year. Under the right coach and leadership, they could become a pretty potent team. However, I think Leach has Wazzu in a better situation right now.

MSU-Oregon: In the big game between our conferences, I think this comes down to Oregon's ability to move the ball against MSU's stout defense (not unlike an Oregon-Stanford matchup). I'm picking Oregon because I believe they will be better at this point in the season, but it should be a fun game.

Illinois-Washington: I had a twitter convo recently talking about how I think Illinois could win 6 games this season. To do so, they need to steal a game, and this one seems possible. New coaches can be tricky. I'll pick the Illini.

Michigan-Utah: This and the Rutgers game still seem like weird inclusions to the conference matchups, right? Anyhow, I'm going Michigan because of talent disparity.

Now, all that said, the B1G will manage to go 1-4 in these matchups because that's what always happens.

Jack: Michigan State has quietly turned into a regular national player under Mark Dantonio, but after finally winning the Big Ten and Rose Bowl, have they peaked and will now slowly return to the middle of the conference? Or do you see them continuing to be an elite program in the conference?

Jesse: Yeesh. It's been kind of a tough offseason to remain fully objective about MSU due to a few fans being a little *ahem* overboard about their arrival this last year. That said, you'd be crazy not to think that this team isn't built for some sustained success. The problem with a MSU (and really most upper-mid school) isn't scheme or lack of talented players, it's depth behind those talented players. All it takes for a school like Michigan State to falter is injury, not unlike what happens to an Iowa or a Nebraska at this point either. Do I see them continuing a generally upward/maintained trajectory? Probably, but there's a thin line between 7-5 and 11-1, and it takes a little luck.

Jack: Two-part question I guess… which Big Ten team in the top of the perceived power pack (Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska), do you think might disappoint and which in the rest of the pack do you see having a better than expected season?

Well, I'll kind of twist this up a little bit and look at the entire tiering of the B1G. Going into this year, it seems to be tiered OSU/MSU, then Wisconsin/Nebraska/Iowa/Michigan (Penn State is also in this tier if they weren't still dealing with NCAA sanctions), then Minnesota/NW/Indiana/Maryland, and finally Illinois/Purdue/Rutgers. In that top pack, I think both OSU and MSU will drop games they shouldn't and keep the B1G out of the inaugural College Football Playoffs. However, that second tier is ripe with teams to overachieve. The sexy pick as of late is Iowa, and I'll stick with that. A sugary sweet schedule, a lot of returning talent, and a still vicious defense is a recipe for success. I'm picking them to win the Big Ten West (I promise that's not to jinx them... too much).

Jack: I kind of think the recent addition of Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten is a lot like the Pac-12 adding Colorado and Utah in that it is along the lines of "you could do that, and it probably wouldn’t’ hurt anything, but why? Is it necessary?" What do you think of the addition?

I'm not nearly as angry as a lot of the people I've talked to are, but I see the long game being played. The Pac-12 can continue to mobilize into the Big XII's territory if it must, and hey, why not? The SEC can cannibalize the ACC if it so chooses, and will eventually choose to. The B1G needed - relative terms here - to snag TV sets and was looking for schools who could potentially be good down the road. They landed that in both Maryland and Rutgers, and while a lot of people are only seeing this addition as negative, I think you'd be remiss to not at least give Delany credit for finding schools that have growth opportunity. Was this necessary? Maybe not, but in the long game where superconferences become a real thing (and autonomy is only leading us down that road), I don't knock the guy for making the move. I think it will be weird seeing Nebraska and Rutgers on BTN, but I still think it's weird seeing West Virginia and TCU on the Big XII game of the week. Sometimes you just roll with it and figure it all out later.