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'Forgotten Four' aim to overcome (emerge from?) Pac-12 depth

5/1/2015
Cal's Sonny Dykes, left, and Colorado's Mike MacIntyre know it's a hard road to the top of the Pac-12. Getty Images

The Pac-12 might have seven teams ranked in the 2015 preseason polls, and that "might" qualifier is our humble way of strongly implying "should." There should be little question that Oregon, USC, UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona, Utah and Stanford are among the nation's best 25 teams.

Part of the justification for that assertion is the conference finished 2014 with six ranked teams, and those teams all look pretty salty coming out of spring practices, and Stanford's late-season rejuvenation makes it hard to ignore as we turn toward 2015. When you toss in eight teams playing in bowl games last postseason, you understand the depth of the Pac-12.

But once we acknowledge the conference's depth starting at the top and drifting toward the bottom third, we have to wonder about the "Forgotten Four." California, Oregon State and Washington State in the North Division and Colorado in the South didn't earn bowl eligibility last season, and most will project them being sucked down by the conference's depth in 2015, though Cal's potential might get noticed by more observant pundits.

One of the challenges of playing in a deep conference is crawling from the depths. It's not just about getting better. It's about getting better than teams that are good.

"It’s really hard," Washington State coach Mike Leach observed on moving up in the Pac-12 pecking order. "I think the Pac-12 was the best conference in the country last year, and I think it will be again this year."

So do any of the Forgotten Four get upgraded this fall, perhaps crawling forth toward, if not a national ranking, then bowl eligibility?

California and Colorado, by conventional preseason measures, seem to have the best chance to make a move. Both have among the most returning starters in the conference, Cal with 17 and Colorado with 16. Both also have multi-year starters at quarterback, typically something that is highly valued in the conference, though youngsters have comported themselves well behind center of late.

Cal, in particular, looks ready to make a move. The Bears, coming off a 5-7 season and led by quarterback Jared Goff, an NFL prospect, seem to have grown up in Year 3 under Sonny Dykes, who lauds a culture change first but then notes that his team simply looks different compared to the crew that suffered through a disastrous 1-11 campaign in 2013.

"From a pure football standpoint, we’re bigger, faster, stronger and have more depth," he said.

There also is an opportunity in the North, where the going should be easier than the deeper South.

Still, winning often comes down to the little things. It's notable that among the Forgotten Four, only Oregon State, at 3-2, had a winning record in games decided by eight or fewer points in 2014, and one of those wins came against woeful Hawaii. Meanwhile, Arizona, UCLA and Utah were a combined 17-5 in such games.

"Everybody is good," Dykes said. "There is a very fine line between winning and losing. We’re not going to roll out there with this football team and be a whole lot better than anybody we play, but at the same time we’re not going to be a whole lot worse."

Geography might hurt Colorado, which went 1-4 in games decided by eight or fewer points last season. The South, which Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre called the best division in college football, doesn't offer an obvious team the Buffs can step over. The good news, however, is they won't be trying to do that with a bevy of freshmen and redshirt freshmen starters, as they did the previous two seasons when they won just one conference game.

"We’re not a JV football team any more," MacIntyre said. "We’ve actually got 20-year-olds playing instead of teenagers."

Oregon State and Washington State have the benefit of playing in the more forgiving North, but they both rank in the bottom half of the conference in terms of returning starters. The Beavers, with 11, have the second fewest returning starters in the conference, one ahead of Washington, and among the fewest in the nation. They also are looking for a new quarterback after four years of Sean Mannion and, in one of the more surprising offseason stories, have a new coaching staff topped by Gary Andersen, who was hired away from Wisconsin.

If there's a model that could offer the Forgotten Four hope, it might be Arizona. Though the Wildcats hadn't fallen as far as Colorado and Washington State, Rich Rodriguez took over a team that went 2-7 in conference play in 2011 and posted consecutive losing conference records his first two seasons.

Then, with redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon, the Wildcats broke through in 2014 and won the South, something no one predicted they would do in the preseason.

"We’ve gotten incrementally better in all three phases, particularly defensively," Rodriguez said. "We got better making key stops. We weren’t dominant, but it’s hard to be dominant this day and age with all the great offenses."

Defense might be where a climb starts. It's certainly notable that the Forgotten Four were the bottom four teams in scoring defense in the conference last season.

Is there a crack at the top where a member -- or two? -- of the Forgotten Four might insinuate itself in 2015? It might not be obvious now, but just about every season a team expected to be good falters, and that provides an opportunity for a team to cast off low preseason expectations and make a move.