Will quarterback Sam Darnold be able to help the USC Trojans avoid a road upset versus the California Golden Bears?
X-Washington Huskies 10-3 (7-3)
It has not taken head football coach Chris Petersen that long to turn around the fortunes of the Washington Huskies. In three years at Washington, Petersen has compiled a record of 27-14 which included going 12-2 last year. En route to winning 12 games for the first time since 1991, Washington won the Pac-12 Conference for the first time since 2000 as Peterson has once again created a buzz for Husky football in the Pacific Northwest. But whereas Washington was able to creep up on some opponents last year, they won’t be able to do the same thing here in 2017 as they look to repeat as Pac-12 Champs.
Junior quarterback Jake Browning will begin this season as the reigning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year. Browning spent 2016 shredding defenses around the Pac-12 as he threw 43 touchdowns to just 9 interceptions. Browning also completed more than 62% of his passes as he is a cool customer in the pocket which is evident by the fact that he hardly gets rattled. And being that Browning has ice water in his veins will once again be important for the cause of the Huskies.
Along with Browning there is plenty of talent returning at the skill positions for Washington. Junior running back Myles Gaskin is coming off of a season where gained 1,373 rushing yards as he averaged 5.8 yards per carry. And with the National Football League in the near future of Gaskin, I expect him to once again be one of the better ball carriers in the Pac-12. Senior wide receiver Dante Pettis has been a dependable target for Browning in the passing game, while junior wide receiver Chico McClatcher could be a sleeper in Washington’s deep passing game.
Whereas Washington was a young team in 2016, they have become a veteran team rather quickly which is illustrated by their offensive line. This season the Huskies will have a pair of seniors as well as two juniors starting on the offensive line. And led by senior center Coleman Shelton, Washington should have one of the better offensive lines in the Pac-12.
Last year saw the Huskies have the 12th best defense in the nation and this unit has the potential to be special this time around under co-defensive coordinators Jimmy Lake and Pete Kwiatowski. Senior inside linebackers Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria will tackles anything that moves while overall Washington has a swarming front seven which led to 40 sacks in 2016. Last year as a true freshman, free safety Taylor Rapp led the team in interceptions with 4 and he has the potential to improve off of that.
2016 saw the Huskies get back onto the national scene. However Washington’s 24-7 loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoffs shows that they still have some work ahead of them to be a consistent national title contender. The non-conference slate will be a cake walk for the Huskies, but when Pac-12 play begins, they’ll have a conference title game rematch with the Colorado Buffaloes along with a road meeting with the Stanford Cardinal which could decided who’ll win the Pac-12 North.
X-Stanford Cardinal 9-3 (6-3)
The last seven years have seen the Stanford Cardinal become the class of the Pac-12 Conference. Since 2011, Stanford has won three Pac-12 Championships which is more than any other football program in the conference over that stretch. Stanford head coach David Shaw continues to go about his business as he has compiled a record of 64-17 in his six years in Palo Alto. Under Shaw, the Cardinal have made a bowl game in each season, while his four bowl victories are more than any other head football coach in the history of the program. And now that Stanford has established themselves as one of the premier programs within the Pac-12, how will 2017 work out for them?
The Cardinal must replace one of the most dynamic players in their program’s history as running back Christian McCaffrey is now in the National Football League. However the cupboard is never bare in Palo Alto at the running back position. Running back Bryce Love spent last year as McCaffrey’s understudy and he held his own which included rushing for more than 100 yards in each of Stanford’s final two games. Love enters his junior year as a potential breakout performer in the Pac-12, and although that his elusiveness might not be on the level of McCaffrey, he can still hold his own.
Stanford has become one of the top programs in the nation as far as developing offensive linemen, and this year will see them once again have another solid unit up front. Led by left tackle David Bright, Stanford has three seniors that’ll be starting on their offensive line and they embody Shaw’s strategy which is to wear down your opponent as the game goes along. Aside from opening holes for Love, the big boys up front will also provide protection for senior quarterback Keller Chryst.
Chryst was Stanford’s starting quarterback last season, and if the Cardinal are going to compete for the Pac-12 Title, he will need to pass more effectively in order to balance out the team’s power running game and shed his reputation of simply being a game manager.
Defensively the Cardinal might fly under the radar, but with the guidance of defensive coordinator Lance Anderson this is a unit that knows how to fly around the football. Senior defensive tackle Harrison Phillips is an anchor on the defensive line and he is a part of a unit that will feature eight senior starters.
After the Cardinal open the regular season against the Rice Owls who are out of Conference USA in Australia, they will head to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on September 9th to face the USC Trojans in a contest that will be telling for them within the Pac-12. And over a seven-day span in November, Stanford will face the Washington State Cougars and Washington Huskies in a pair of contest that’ll go a very long way in determining who will get to Santa Clara for the Pac-12 Championship Game.
X-Oregon Ducks 8-4 (5-4)
2016 was a year in which the Oregon Ducks would like to quickly forget. The Ducks went 4-8 for their worst campaign since 1991. Oregon’s issues began on defense where they were ranked 126th out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. The Ducks surrendered at least 50 points in a game four times while teams were no longer intimidated of going to Autzen Stadium in Eugene as Oregon lost on their home field three times last season.
The struggles of Oregon signaled that it was time for the school to move on from head football coach Mark Helfrich after four years in order to find someone who would once again provide a spark. That search led school officials at Oregon to make the journey to Tampa, Florida where they found Willie Taggart.
Taggart comes to Oregon after first turning around the fortunes of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and most recently the South Florida Bulls. Taggart’s first season at South Florida was 2013 and his team went 2-10. However last season would see the Bulls go 10-2 under Taggart, while also winning their bowl game for the best mark in school history. And now Taggart will be charged with getting Oregon back to being one of the best football programs that the Pac-12 Conference has to offer.
Last year as a freshman, quarterback Justin Herbert was thrown to the wolves as it was baptism by fire. Herbert did not have the luxury of playing on a talented Oregon team, but he still managed to complete more than 63% of his passes while only throwing 4 interceptions. And now as Herbert is heading into his sophomore campaign, he will have to become a leader for an Oregon offense that is in a transition period under Taggart.
Running back Royce Freeman still managed to average 5.6 yards per carry in 2016, but he did not have the impact that he was expected to have when the season began. Freeman only had 168 carries and I expect his workload to increase under Taggart in this his senior campaign.
Senior left tackle Tyrell Crosby will anchor the offensive line, but the key word for this unit will be toughness as Taggart is using this time to see who is ready to buy into what he is selling which is being more competitive. And for the Ducks to be more competitive, it begins in the trenches.
Prior to Taggart’s success as South Florida, Jim Leavitt was the most successful head football coach in the brief history of the program as he led them to five consecutive bowl appearances. And ironically Taggart hired Leavitt to be his defensive coordinator at Oregon. Like Taggart is with the team as a whole, Leavitt is going to find the guys who are committed to his system as it all about changing the culture in Eugene.
But as bad as things were for Oregon last season, there were some freshman on the defensive side of the football who earned some valuable playing time. Safety Brenden Schooler led Oregon in interceptions with 4, while inside linebacker Troy Dye led the team in tackles (91) and sacks (6.5). And the combination of Schooler and Dye will be building blocks as the Ducks look to turn things around.
2017 will be a work in progress for the Ducks, but a winning record and a bowl appearance will be a tremendous step in the right direction for Taggart and Oregon.
X-Washington State Cougars 6-6 (3-6)
2016 began and ended in the same fashion for the Washington State Cougars. Washington State surprisingly lost their first two games before they reeled off eight consecutive victories. With two games remaining in the regular season the Cougars were in first place in the Pac-12 North, but they would come up short versus the Colorado Buffaloes and Washington Huskies by a combined 42 points in their final two contests. And with Wazzu favored by 10 points over the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the Holiday Bowl, they came up short there as well. Mike Leach is set to begin his seventh season as the head football coach at Washington State and he is attempting to do something that no other head coach of the program has been able to do which is to lead the Cougars to a bowl appearance in three consecutive years.
With Leach running the show you know that the Cougars will have one of the better passing offenses in the nation. The Cougars were third in the nation in 2016 in passing, and with senior quarterback Luke Falk running Leach’s offense, the football will be flying around once again in Pullman. Over the last two years Falk has combined to throw for 9,029 passing yards and 76 touchdowns as he has thrived in Leach’s “air-raid” offense. And even though that Washington State doesn’t have one wide receiver who stands out from the others, this passing game can still be effective; especially since Falk will be protected by an offensive line that includes three seniors.
But whereas the Cougars can put up points with the best of them, their defense is not a unit that puts fear into opponents. The Cougars were 62nd in the nation last year in total defense and they must play with more a chip on their shoulders in order to somewhat offset the team’s high-octane offense. Senior middle linebacker Peyton Peuller is a solid tackler, however outside of him Wazzu lacks impact players on that side of the football.
Make no mistake about it that the Cougars face a tough schedule which includes home games with Colorado, the Stanford Cardinal, and USC Trojans as well as road meetings with Washington, the Arizona Wildcats, and Utah Utes. And without a stellar defense to lean on Washington State will have to work hard to become bowl eligible in 2017.
Oregon State Beavers 5-7 (3-6)
2013 was the last year in which the Oregon State Beavers were able to finish with a winning record, but they could be on the cusp of breaking through. Gary Anderson has two years under his belt as the head football coach at Oregon State, and after going winless in the Pac-12 Conference in 2015, the Beavers were able win three conference games last year which included them defeating their arch rivals in the Oregon Ducks for the first time since 2007. But after taking some strides in 2016, will the Beavers be able to break through and become bowl eligible this season?
For the Beavers to have a successful season on offense, it will start with the production of junior running Ryan Nall which means that he will need to have at least 200 carries. And even though that Nall is expected to be the feature back for Oregon State, they will be very young on offense as wide receiver Jarmon Hunter and right guard Fred Lauina are the only seniors that will be starting on that side of the football.
Defensively the Beavers were 79th in the nation last year which isn’t going to cut it. Kevin Clune is set to begin his second season as the defensive coordinator at Oregon State and his feature player will be senior inside linebacker Manase Hungalu who after being second in tackles with 83 in 2016 for the Beavers could be a sleeper as far as being one of the better middle linebackers that the Pac-12 has to offer.
You can’t accuse Anderson and Oregon State of having a soft non-conference schedule as they will travel to Fort Collins to face the Colorado State Rams of the Mountain West Conference while also hosting the Minnesota Golden Gophers of the Big Ten Conference. And as the Beavers have road meetings in the Pac-12 with the Washington State Cougars, USC Trojans, Arizona Wildcats, and a trip to Eugene to face Oregon, Anderson will have his work cut out for him to get this team to a bowl game this season.
California Golden Bears 1-11 (0-9)
When the California Golden Bears knocked off the UCLA Bruins 36-10 on November 26th, it marked the end of a very tough season for them. The Golden Bears went 5-7 for their fifth losing season in the last six years. But surprisingly Sonny Dykes was fired as California’s head football coach. In four seasons with Cal, Dykes had compiled a record of 19-30; however he had inherited a program that he had to revive, while also losing the first overall pick in the 2016 National Football League Draft in the form of quarterback Jared Goff. And now California is once again starting over; this time with Justin Wilcox as their new head football coach.
Wilcox has never been a head football coach as he has served as a defensive assistant; most notably as the a defensive coordinator for the USC Trojans and Wisconsin Badgers respectively. Now Wilcox is charged with not only making the Bears respectable in the Pac-12 Conference, but also making sure that they are able to maintain it.
With a new head coach in the Wilcox, and no clear cut favorite to be Cal’s starting quarterback, it means that there will be an open competition. Junior quarterback Chase Forrest is coming off of a redshirt in 2016, while sophomore quarterback Ross Bowers has never taken a game snap for the Golden Bears. But one if not both of them will get their chance to be the starting quarterback for California this year.
I doubt that Cal will once again have the fourth best passing offense in the nation like they did last season which means that their defense must improve. In 2016, the Golden Bears defense was 125th in the nation which included giving up at least 40 points in a game nine times. Former Fresno State Bulldogs head football coach Tim DeRuyter will be California’s new defensive coordinator, and along with the experience of Wilcox on that side of the football, they will be out to change the culture in Berkley with senior inside linebacker Devante Downs as a potential building block.
If the folks that follow the Bears thought that 2016 was tough, just wait until the team takes the field this fall. California will face a tough non-conference schedule as they’ll face the North Carolina Tar Heels of the Atlantic Coast Conference along with the Ole Miss Rebels of the Southeastern Conference. And when Pac-12 play begins, the Golden Bears will start off by hosting USC who are one of the favorites to win the conference, along with road affairs versus the Oregon Ducks, Washington Huskies, Colorado Buffaloes, Stanford Cardinal, and UCLA Bruins as this will be a tough go round for Wilcox.
Y-USC Trojans 11-2 (8-2)
The West Coast has been in need for the USC Trojans to once again be a power on the college football scene, and this could be the year where it finally happens. The Trojans didn’t win the Pac-12 last year, but they still managed to make their 34th Rose Bowl Game appearance and 25th victory in “The Granddaddy of Them All” which are each more than any other school. And after a 10-win season for the Men of Troy in 2016, they ceiling is high for them entering this season. But unlike most programs, USC knows how to live up to the expectations.
The buzz that is around with USC begins with sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold. Darnold did not begin 2016 as the Trojans starting quarterback, but when head football coach Clay Helton decided to make the change, USC went 9-1. Darnold enters 2017 as the reigning Pac-12 Conference Offensive Player of the Year, while he made a name for himself when he set a Rose Bowl Game record with 5 touchdown passes and his 453 passing yards in the contest were the second most in the game’s history. Darnold’s passing ability and overall savvy has gotten the attention of many National Football League scouts, and now he must show the last season was no fluke.
This might not the era of “student body right” for ‘SC, but they still possess a solid rushing attack. Last year as a sophomore, running back Ronald Jones II averaged 6.1 yards per carry, and with his explosiveness at tailback, he is always a play away from taking it to the house. Jones will be doing his thing behind an experienced offensive line that consists of seniors and juniors. Senior center Nico Falah anchors the line for Southern California as this unit will not only provide protection for Darnold and Jones, but they could also produce a first-rounder as well.
Clancy Pendergast returned to Southern California last year for his second go round as the team’s defensive coordinator, and although that the Men of Troy were ranked 36th in total defense, they came on as the season progressed, while finding the knack to make the big play. Junior inside linebacker Cameron Smith could keep USC’s reputation going as far as developing solid linebackers and he has the potential to be one of the best at his position in the Pac-12.
For USC head football coach Clay Helton, what a difference that a years makes. After Helton went 5-4 in 2015 as USC’s interim head coach, there were some people who questioned why former athletic director Pat Haden decided to make him the full-time head coach going into 2016. And fuel was added to that fire when the Trojans began 2016 with a record of 1-3. But after USC’s turnaround everyone is singing the praises of Helton in Los Angeles. Now Helton heads into the 2017 college football season in a different position as many people expect ‘SC to be the team to beat in the Pac-12, but it’s just a matter of whether or not that they’ll be able to live up to it.
X-Colorado Buffaloes 9-3 (6-3)
2016 saw the Colorado Buffaloes come out of nowhere for their best season in a very long time. The Buffaloes won 10 games for the first time since 2001 while also making their first appearance in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Colorado head football coach Mike MacIntyre was able make the Buffaloes respectable once again, but will he be able to build off of 2016’s success in order to make his program consistent?
Last year as a freshman, quarterback Steven Montez got his fair share of reps as Colorado’s starting quarterback. And with the graduation of Sefo Liufau, Montez has to be the guy now for MacIntyre at quarterback. At 6’5, 225 lbs., Montez has the prototypical size for a quarterback, but most importantly he has moxie which is a skill that cannot be coached which gives Colorado an edge.
Senior running back Phillip Lindsay has the potential to build off of his campaign last season where he gained 1,252 yards on the ground. Lindsay is slight in stature, but he is ball carrier that MacIntyre can rely on as he was able to tote the rock 244 times last season. And I anticipate seeing Lindsay get closes to 250 carries once again.
Speed is the name of the game for the Buffs at wide receiver as they have some of the fastest players in the Pac-12 at that position. Senior wide receivers Shay Fields and Devin Ross are a matchup nightmare for any secondary within the conference, and overall Colorado might possesses the fastest players at the skill positions within the league.
Left tackle Jeromy Irwin anchors an offensive line that has three seniors as this Buffaloes offense has the potential to build off of being ranked 47th in the nation in 2016. And that offense will be vital if Colorado is going to get to the Pac-12 Championship Game this year.
Junior middle linebacker Rick Gamboa led a unit that flew under the radar for the most part last season. However the Buffs will have to find a way to forget that they gave up a combined 79 points in their final two games and get back to being the unit that held six opponents under 20 points earlier in the campaign.
The Buffs should be able to cruise through their non-conference slate which includes the annual meeting with the Colorado State Rams of the Mountain West Conference to kick start the season. However Colorado will be tested when Pac-12 play begins as they will have a rematch of the conference title game with the Washington Huskies who blew them out by 31 points. This time Colorado will get Washington at home. But Colorado’s chances of winning the Pac-12 South will come down to their final two games of the season as they’ll host the USC Trojans before traveling to Salt Lake City to face the Utah Utes.
X-Utah Utes 8-4 (5-4)
For Utah Utes head football coach Kyle Whittingham, he has a squad that is more than respectable as they are cusp of being championship contender in the Pac-12 Conference. Through Utah’s first 10 games in 2016, they were sporting a record of 8-2 and if they had won out they would have been heading to the Pac-12 Championship Game for the first time in school history. But unfortunately for the Utes they would lose their final two games which saw them denied a chance to win the conference crown and play in the Rose Bowl. However Whittingham knows how to get the most out of his teams, and it will be interesting to see if he’ll be able to do the same here in 2017.
After seeing limited action last year as freshman, quarterback Tyler Huntley will get the nod from Whittingham in regards to being Utah’s starting quarterback. With the graduation running back Joe Williams, Utah must find another ball carrier that will be able to carry the offense while leaning on opposing defenses, and you can expect Whittingham to give sophomore running back Zack Moss every opportunity to be that guy.
Defensively the Utes must replace 23.5 sacks that they got from the combination of defensive linemen Hunter Dimick and Pita Taumoepenu. Overall the Utes pass rush was able to generate 43 sacks which helped the defensive unit get 18 interceptions. And it will be interesting to see who is going to emerge and be the impact players for the Utes on defense.
As always I expect the Utes to be a tough out. But road against the Arizona Wildcats and the USC Trojans will go a long way in letting us know good that Utah will be here in 2017.
X-UCLA Bruins 6-6 (4-5)
In Jim Mora’s first four years as the head football coach of the UCLA Bruins, he was able to lead his program to bowl game in each season. And just when it appeared that UCLA was going to capitalize on their arch rivals In the USC Trojans who were attempting to climb from under NCAA sanctions that had handcuffed their program, 2016 happened. The 2016 college football season was a very forgettable one for the Bruins. UCLA was never able to recover from a tough road loss to the Texas A&M Aggies to begin the season followed by a home loss to the Stanford Cardinal to begin Pac-12 play. And once you factored in an injury to quarterback Josh Rosen, things got bad in a hurry for the Bruins. UCLA would finish 4-8 for their worst season since 2010 with their only two Pac-12 victories coming against the Arizona Wildcats and Oregon State Beavers. But as hope springs eternal for a new college football season, will it also mean that the Bruins are set to get back on track?
A healthy Rosen will be important for UCLA if they want to be a player in the Pac-12 South. In 2015, Rosen passed for 3,670 yards as he was the Pac-12’s Offensive Freshman of the Year. And now with National Football League scouts eyeing Rosen as a potential first-round pick in next year’s draft, he will be poised to bounce back.
Aside from not having a healthy Rosen at quarterback, UCLA struggled to run the football as they were 127th in the nation in rushing with running back Soso Jamabo leading the way with just 321 yards on the ground. However with Jamabo set to begin his junior campaign, along with the fact that UCLA will have four seniors on their offensive line which includes center Scott Quessenberry, this Bruins squad should put more of an emphasis on the run game this season.
In spite of UCLA’s struggles on offense last year, their defense continued to compete and I expect that spirit to once again be at the forefront this season. Senior middle linebacker Kenny Young was second on the team last year in tackles with 90 and he has the potential to be one of the best players at his position within the Pac-12 Conference, while also being a leader for his team.
UCLA will begin their season with a rematch against Texas A&M; this time at the Rose Bowl, while they will be tested in the Pac-12 with road affairs with the Stanford Cardinal, Arizona Wildcats, Washington Huskies, Utah Utes, and USC Trojans. And you have to wonder if Mora will be able to survive if the Bruins endure another subpar season.
Arizona Wildcats 4-8 (2-7)
When Rich Rodriguez became the head football coach of the Arizona Wildcats in 2012, he brought some excitement with him to the desert. Rodriguez lead Arizona to an 8-5 record in each of his first two seasons with the program, and in 2014 he was able to get the Wildcats to the Pac-12 Championship Game. However since the Wildcats won the Pac-12 South, their production on the field has gone south. The Cats were able to win 10 games in 2014, but since that time they’ve only won 10 games. Included in this was a 3-9 record last season for their worst campaign in program history. And whereas the production of the Wildcats has dipped, will Rodriguez be able to reverse the tide and get his team back on track in the Pac 12?
Look no further than the quarterback situation in Tuscon in order to see the issues with Arizona’s offense. Injuries and inconsistency have plagued the Wildcats at quarterback as the onus will be on junior quarterback Brandon Dawkins to put it all together here in 2017. And in order for Rodriguez’s spread offense to work, the quarterback’s production must be superb as it is as important for him to be able to consistently run the football as it is for him to throw it.
Defensive football has never been a specialty for Rodriguez’s teams which was once again the case in 2016 when they were 115th in total defense and this included them surrendering at least 34 points in each of their last nine games.. Marcel Yates is set to begin his second season as Arizona’s defensive coordinator, and if his unit is unable to improve, he could find himself out of a job.
The Wildcats should be able to navigate through their non-conference slate of games without a problem. However when Pac-12 play begins that’ll be when the rubber will meet the road as if Arizona is unable to improve in the win column, Rodriguez could be looking for a job.
Arizona State Sun Devils 3-9 (1-8)
Like Rich Rodriguez at Arizona, Todd Graham became a head football coach in the Pac-12 Conference in 2012 and was able to get off to a roaring start. Graham led the Arizona State Sun Devils to the Pac-12 Championship Game in 2013. But after Arizona State was able to post consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time since 1973, they have become just another team in the Pac-12. The Sun Devils are coming off of consecutive losing seasons and they must turn things around in a hurry as the Pac-12 is a tough conference to attempt to rebuild in.
The Sun Devils need to attain some consistency on offense as eight different players took reps at quarterback last season. While some of these instances involved gadget plays, Arizona State still had three players that attempted at least 49 passes. Arizona State’s success this season on offense will hinge on the ability of sophomore quarterback Blake Barnett. Barnett began his collegiate career with the Alabama Crimson Tide, but now it is time to see whether or not that he can get it done in the Pac-12 with the Sun Devils; especially since he’ll be under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Billy Napier who is in his first season in Tempe.
Defensively only the Texas Tech Red Raiders were worse on defense in 2016 than Arizona State at the Football Bowl Subdivision level as eight opponents scored at least 40 points against them. Like the offense, the Sun Devils defense needed a makeover as Graham has brought in former Baylor Bears defensive coordinator Phil Bennett to fix this unit which will be a tall task.
2016 was tough for Arizona State and all signs points to it not being that much easier for Graham and his team.
Pac-12 Championship Game- Levi’s Stadium-Santa Clara, California: Washington Huskies vs. USC Trojans
Conference Champion: USC
Sources: Cfbstats.com, Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com
When Mike Leach became the head football coach of the Washington State Cougars in 2012, the expectation level at Pullman changed. Leach was taking over a program that only had two Pac-12 Titles to their credit, and they not made a bowl game since 2003. By 2013, Leach got the Cougars to a bowl game, but when the expectations for this team grew in 2014, they folded under them as they were only able to go 3-9. However last year saw Washington State come out of nowhere to win 9 games, and now heading into 2016, the Cougars are ready to make a move in the Pac-12 North.
One thing that you’re going to get from a team that is coached by Leach is a proficient passing offense. Last year the Cougars were first in the nation in passing offense and you can expect more of the same in 2016. As a sophomore, quarterback Luke Falk had one of the most prolific passing seasons in school history as he threw for 4,561 yards and 38 touchdowns. Washington State knows how to put stress on opposing secondaries as their duo of senior wide receivers in River Cracraft and Gabe Marks are two of the best pass catchers that the Pac-12 has to offer.
Washington State hasn’t been known as a hotbed for defensive football, but there are some impact players on that side of the football this year in Pullman. Senior free safety Shalom Luani can cover ground in the secondary, while defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa showed tremendous run stopping and pass rushing ability in 2015 when he led the team in sacks with 7. Junior middle linebacker Peyton Peuller led Washington State in tackles last year with 101 and he’ll once again be vital to any success that the Cougars intend on having.
Washington State will attempt to do something that isn’t easy to do which is to defeat the Boise State Broncos of the Mountain West Conference on the road when they travel there on September 10. And once Pac-12 play begins, it won’t take us that long to see if the Cougars are for real as they’ll begin their conference slate by hosting the Oregon Ducks on October 1 before traveling to take on the defending conference champs in the Stanford Cardinal on October 8. There is also a good possibility that Washington State’s season finale against their arch rivals in the Washington Huskies could decide the winner of the Pac-12 North which would add even more intrigue to the Apple Cup.
Oregon Ducks 8-4 (6-3)
For most college football programs, a 9-win campaign would be something tremendous, but not if you’re the Oregon Ducks. Prior to 2015, you have to go back to 2007 to find the last college football season that ended with Oregon not winning at least 10 games. And whereas Oregon head football coach Mark Helfrich might not have a team that can contend for the national title here in 2016, the Ducks still have a squad that should be a player in the race to win the Pac-12 Conference.
Senior quarterback Jeff Lockie has had to bide his time as Oregon’s backup quarterback; first behind Marcus Mariota, and last year as the understudy to Vernon Adams. However in Lockie’s last year in Eugene, it isn’t a guarantee that he’ll be operating the Ducks spread offense when the season rolls around as he has competition from transfer Dakota Prukop. But whomever will be the starting quarterback for Oregon, he will have the ability to hand to football off to junior running back Royce Freeman.
Last year Freeman for 1,836 rushing yards, along with 17 touchdowns, and if it weren’t for the exploits of Stanford Cardinal running back Christian McCafferey, he might have been the Pac-12 Conference’s Player of the Year. Freeman has the blend of size and speed that makes him a match-up nightmare in the Ducks uptempo offense.
However the Ducks will be leaning heavily on Freeman as there will be some inexperience for them at wide receiver and on the offensive line where a pair of redshirt freshman in center Jake Hanson and right tackle Calvin Throckmorton are expected to be starters.
Last year as an abysmal one defensively for Oregon as they were 117th in total defense which isn’t going to cut it which falls into the lap of the team’s new defensive coordinator in former Michigan Wolverines head football coach Brady Hoke. The Ducks are hopeful that junior defensive back Tyree Robinson will continue to grow into a play maker, but he is only one player, and others must step up as well.
The Ducks should be on cruise control until they embark on a three-week stretch in November where they’ll face the USC Trojans, Stanford Cardinal, and Utah Utes which will decide their fate in the Pac-12 Championship race.
Washington Huskies 9-3 (6-3)
With two years under his belt as the head football coach of the Washington Huskies, Chris Petersen has seen his squad compete in the Pac-12 Conference, but is this the year in which they will have a breakthrough? Each of the last six years has seen the Huskies make a bowl game, but they have not won the Pac-12 since 2000 and they’ve taken a backseat in the Pac-12 North.
As Washington went 7-6 last year, there were plenty of underclassmen that were able to gain valuable experience which should pay off here in 2016. The Huskies will return 9 offensive starters with only one senior in guard Jake Eldrenkamp. Sophomore Jake Browning is on the verge of becoming one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-12 and if he is able to develop into a leader, the Huskies could be very formidable.
Peterson has a reputation for having pass happy offenses, but make no mistake about it that his teams can run the football as well. Sophomore running back Myles Gaskin is coming off of a year in which he gained 1,302 rushing yards while also averaging 5.7 yards each time that he touched the football as a runner. Gaskin is also a durable running back, and if he can once again eclipse 200 carries, it should mean that Washington had a good year.
Just like on offense, Washington has a ton of experience returning on defense in the form of seven starters from 2015. Junior linebackers Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria were Washington’s top tacklers in 2015, and each player has the potential to be All-Pac-12 performers this year. There’s also a wealth of experience in the secondary where three starters are returning as led by junior cornerback Sidney Jones, Washington’s secondary accounted for 15 interceptions last year.
Washington will be tested early as two of their first three conference opponents will be on the road as they’ll face the Arizona Wildcats and Oregon Ducks, but this Peterson led team is built for the long term and should be in the Pac-12 North race until the very end.
Stanford Cardinal 7-5 (5-4)
Very quietly the Stanford Cardinal have become the gold standard of the Pac-12 Conference under head football coach David Shaw. In five years at the helm of Stanford’s football program, Shaw has complied a record of 54-14 which includes three Pac-12 Championships and a pair of Rose Bowl Titles. Stanford is coming off of a convincing victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes this past January in the Rose Bowl. But after losing so much talent to graduation, this could be Shaw’s toughest year at Palo Alto.
A big part of Stanford’s recent success can be attributed to quarterback Kevin Hogan who was one of the most prolific winners in school history. But all good things must come to an end as Hogan is now in the National Football League. Enter sophomore quarterback Keller Chryst who is ready to add his name to the ledger of quality quarterbacks that have suited up for the Cardinal. Chryst shouldn’t attempt to do it all by himself as he can hand the football off to one of the best play makers in the nation.
Last year running back Christian McCaffrey enjoyed a season for the ages as he set an NCAA single-season record for all-purpose yards with 3,864. McCaffrey is the reigning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, and after finishing second in the Heisman Trophy balloting last December, he has his sights set on winning it this time around as he is arguably the most elusive runner in the country.
The Stanford offensive line has been at the forefront of the team’s recent success, but there are huge holes to fill on the line where just two starters will be returning from last year.
Defensively Stanford will also have to replace a ton of experience, however there are some play makers in the secondary in the form of senior strong safety Dallas Lloyd and sophomore cornerback Quenton Meeks.
Stanford will face one of the toughest schedules in college football with non-conference games against the Kansas State Wildcats and Notre Dame Fighting Irish, along with road games in the Pac-12 against the UCLA Bruins, Washington Huskies, Arizona Wildcats, and Oregon Ducks.
Oregon State Beavers 4-8 (2-7)
2015 wasn’t a banner year for Oregon State Beavers football as they stumbled to a 2-10 record and a last place finish in the Pac-12 North. The Beavers record also marked the first time since 1995 that they went winless in Pac-12 play as they lost seven conference games by 15 points or more. But Oregon State head football coach Gary Anderson is the right man to get things turned around in Corvallis as he set to embark on his second year there which is evident by what he was able to do during his stints with both the Utah State Aggies and Wisconsin Badgers. And although that the Beavers might not be a bowl team in 2016, they will definitely be a thorn in the side of the contenders in the Pac-12.
Anderson will have a very familiar face under center for him this season as junior Darell Garretson has transferred from Utah State. Garretson is familiar with how Anderson expects his offense to be run, and his ability as a dual-threat quarterback should help an Oregon State offense that was 111th in the nation last year in total offense.
The Beavers defense didn’t fare that much better as they were 116th in total defense. But led by senior linebacker Rommel Mageo, Oregon State will have their top five tacklers from last season returning and after a poor showing in 2015, there is only one way for the unit to go which is up.
I doubt that Oregon State will finish this year with a winning record, but they will be a team that nobody will want to face in the Pac-12.
California Golden Bears 1-11 (0-9)
It didn’t take head football coach Sonny Dykes that long to return the California Golden Bears to respectability as in just his third year at Berkley, he got them to a bowl game. But things will be much different for Cal in 2016 as they must find a way to replace the contributions of former quarterback Jared Goff. Last year Goff accounted for 43 touchdowns which led him to being the first overall pick of the National Football League Draft by the Los Angeles Rams.
Dykes will still implement the same wide open offense that has brought him success throughout his coaching career, but it is now up to Goff’s understudy last year in sophomore quarterback Chase Forrest to lead the Cal offense.
Goff’s play making ability covered for numerous deficiencies that the Golden Bears had, and without him this team will be fighting an uphill battle in the competitive Pac-12 North.
UCLA Bruins 9-4 (6-3)
Ever since Jim Mora became the head football coach of the UCLA Bruins, he has changed the way that people view the football program in Westwood. In four years at UCLA, Mora has never had a losing record which includes winning the Pac-12 South in 2012, and possessing a 3-1 record against the USC Trojans. Under Mora, the Bruins have begun each of the last three years ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll, and in 2016, they should once again be in contention to win the Pac-12 South.
The Bruins are coming off of an 8-5 season, but quarterback Josh Rosen gained valuable experience as a freshman which should really pay off for UCLA this year. At 6’4″, 210 lbs., Rosen has good size and the pro potential to play quarterback. Rosen also has pocket awareness that should have him the discussion to be the Pac-12 Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year. But the burden of carrying the UCLA offense will fall more on the shoulders of Rosen this year as the Bruins leading rusher from 2015 in Paul Perkins, along with the top two pass catchers in Jordan Payton and Thomas Duarte are now in the National Football League.
2015 wasn’t a banner year for UCLA’s defense as they were 67th in the nation in total defense. But as Tom Bradley is set to enter his second year as UCLA’s defensive coordinator, the unit should be an improved one; especially with play makers such as senior inside linebacker Jayon Brown and senior cornerback Ishmael Adams.
Under Mora, UCLA cannot be accused of hiding in Los Angeles as their non-conference schedule includes a trip to College Station, Texas to face the Texas A&M Aggies of the Southeastern Conference, and the Brigham Young Cougars. And when Pac-12 play begins for the Bruins, they’ll have to run the gauntlet as they have games against the Arizona Wildcats, Arizona State Sun Devils, Utah Utes, Stanford Cardinal and USC as this could be Mora’s toughest year at Westwood.
USC Trojans 8-4 (6-3)
The past six years have not been the best of times for the football program of the Southern California Trojans. USC had to dig themselves from under NCAA sanctions, while they’ve also employed five different head coaches. It appeared that Steve Sarkisian was going to be the guy that would return the Men of Troy to prominence until he was dismissed by the school last year after personal issues. Clay Helton would replace Sarkisian on an interim basis, but when USC knocked off the UCLA Bruins to win the Pac-12 South, he was given the job on a full-time basis. Now Helton takes over a program that went 8-6 last year, but they have lofty expectations in the very tough Pac-12 South.
It will be tough for USC to replace the contributions that quarterback Cody Kessler has made over the last few years, but junior quarterback Max Browne will give it the old college try. At 6’5″, 220 lbs., Browne has that prototypical size to be a signal caller, it’s just a matter of whether or not that he’ll be able to handle the expectations that come with being the Trojans starting quarterback.
There is plenty of speed in the USC backfield with senior running back Justin Davis and sophomore Ronald Jones II as the duo has the potential to each gain 1,000 yards on the ground. And just like there is speed at tailback for the Men of Troy, that is also the case at wide receiver with the likes of juniors Adoree Jackson and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Last year’s coaching change at USC meant that underclassmen got more playing time which should pay off this year defensively where sophomore middle linebacker Cameron Smith and sophomore cornerback Iman Marshall could be ready to become defensive leaders in Los Angeles.
The pressure will be on Helton as USC faces one of the toughest schedules in the nation that begins with meeting the defending national champions in the Alabama Crimson Tide on September at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, along with conference road games against the Stanford Cardinal, Utah Utes, and Arizona Wildcats.
Arizona Wildcats 8-4 (5-4)
With high expectations heading into the 2015 college football season, the Arizona Wildcats stumbled to a 7-6 record. The Wildcats got punched in the mouth by the gauntlet that is the Pac-12 Conference schedule as they were 3-6 within the conference. But as Arizona head football coach Rich Rodriguez is set to begin his fifth season in Tuscon, he knows what it takes to win in the Pac-12 South, and he’s hopeful that he has a team that can win the division for the second time in the last three years.
After having a freshman season for the ages in 2014, quarterback Anu Solomon was served a huge slice of humble pie by defenses around the Pac-12 in 2015. Solomon could do no wrong in 2014 as his passes were precise, while he was also a deadly runner in Rodriguez’s spread offense system. But in six games last year, Solomon rushed for negative yardage which is something that must change if Arizona is going to improve.
As a unit Arizona was 23rd in the nation last year in rushing, but junior running back Nick Wilson must become the feature back for this offense. The big plus for the Wildcats offense is that they have four starters returning on the offensive line including a pair of seniors in center Zach Hemmila and guard Freddie Tagaloa.
But the main issue for Arizona that must be addressed is their defense which was 115th in total defense last year. The Wildcats had five games in which they surrendered at least 40 points which led to defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel not retaining his job in Tuscon. Marcel Yates has assumed the role of defensive coordinator for Arizona and he’ll inherit a unit that has eight starters returning from 2015, but will anyone be able to step up and become an impact player this season?
Arizona will have their work cut out for them to win the Pac-12 South as their schedule includes road games against the UCLA Bruins, Utah Utes, and Washington State Cougars.
Utah Utes 8-4 (5-4)
During the Utah Utes time in the Mountain West Conference, they were the epitome of the underdog. The Utes scrapped and clawed for respectability which included them going undefeated without a shot at the national title in 2008. Since joining the Pac-12 Conference in 2011, the Utes remain a team that nobody wants to face as a trip to Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City will leave opponents battered and bruised and they have to pack a lunch in order to defeat them. Kyle Whittingham is in his 12th year as Utah’s head football coach, and after a 10-win season, along with consecutive victories in the Las Vegas Bowl, is his team ready to win the Pac-12 South for the first time in school history?
It will be interesting to see who Whittingham will go with to be his starting quarterback as it will be either junior Brandon Cox or freshman Tyler Huntley. After being a backup for his first three years at Utah, Joe Williams will get his chance to be the Utes starting running back. The Utes will employ a veteran offensive line with all five starters being seniors as left tackle Sam Tevi will anchor the unit.
Defensively the Utes can bring the pressure as they amassed 37 sacks last year and you can expect more of the same this season from a defensive line that features senior defensive end Kyle Fitts who knows how to live up to his last name. Junior free safety Marcus Williams had 5 interceptions last year and his range in the secondary will make quarterbacks in the Pac-12 think twice about testing him.
As usual Utah will be tough and they could be a dark horse to win the Pac-12 South.
Arizona State Sun Devils 5-7 (3-6)
When Todd Graham became the head football coach of the Arizona State Sun Devils in 2012, he burst onto the scene which included winning the Pac-12 South in 2013. But the Sun Devils took a step backwards in 2015 as they went 6-7 for their first losing season on Graham’s watch as they found out how hard that life can be in the Pac-12 Conference. But will the Sun Devils be able to improve in 2016?
Sophomore Manny Wilkins appears to be the guy who will start the year at quarterback for Arizona State which should symbolize that the offense in Tempe will be a work in progress. As Wilkins gets his feet wet, the Sun Devils will look to junior running back Demario Richard to carry the offense. And Richard will attempt to do this behind an offensive line that features senior left tackle Evan Goodman.
It’s no secret that Arizona State’s defense got toasted last year as they were 113th in the nation in total defense as they surrendered 38 points or more in a contest eight times. Keith Patterson is set to begin his third year as the Sun Devils defensive coordinator and he must get more out his defense. For Arizona State to improve, it will begin with senior linebacker Salamo Fiso and junior linebacker Christian Sam who have the potential to be impact players for Patterson and Graham.
If the Sun Devils defense is unable to take huge strides, this could be a long year as their offense doesn’t have the ability to carry them like they have in year’s past.
Colorado Buffaloes 5-7 (3-6)
It’s been a tough go for anyone that follows the Colorado Buffaloes football program as they’ve indeed fallen on hard times. After having success in the Big Eight Conference and initially in the Big 12, the Buffs have gotten away from their winning ways. The Buffaloes have not played in a bowl game since 2007, while their last winning season came in 2005. Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, Colorado has an overall record of 14-48 which includes just five victories within the conference. Mike MacIntyre is set to begin his fourth year as Colorado’s head football coach, and after winning four games in 2015, he is hopeful that he can finally break through and get Ralphie and the Buffaloes to a bowl game.
In order for Colorado to become bowl eligible in 2016, they are going to need more out of an offense that was 68th in total offense a year ago which means that it will be paramount for junior running back Phillip Lindsay to rush for at least 1,000 yards, and senior quarterback Sefu Liufau to pass for 3,000 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Last year as a freshman, linebacker Rick Gamboa was second on the team in tackles with 78 and he could develop into a leader which MacIntyre needs. The Buffs also had 14 interceptions as a team and an opportunistic defense could keep them relevant in the Pac-12 South.
MacIntyre is building something in Boulder, and a trip to a bowl game in 2016 would be a huge shot in the arm for him and his program.
Pac-12 Championship Game-Levi’s Stadium-Santa Clara, California: Washington State vs. UCLA
Conference Champion: UCLA
Coach of the Year: Mike Leach-Washington State
Offensive Player of the Year: Luke Falk-Washington State
Defensive Player of the Year: Kyle Fitts-Utah
Sources: Nationalchamps.net, Cfbstats.com, Ourlads.com, Sports-reference.com
The Pac-12 Conference was able to set a record this month as for the first time in the 100 years of the conference, seven schools qualified for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. For a longtime the Pac-12 has been seeking respect in the face of the perceived “East Coast Bias”. But since the NCAA Tournament began last Tuesday, the Pac-12 has taken it on the chin as only the Oregon Ducks are still dancing as the conference’s opportunity for respect has gone out of the window in 2016. The Pac-12 is home to some schools that have storied histories when it comes to basketball as no program in the nation has won more national titles than the UCLA Bruins while over last 30 years, the Arizona Wildcats have been one of the nation’s elite programs as they’ve sent dozens of players to the NBA while also winning a national championship in 1997. And although that the Pac-12 did have a stellar season overall, there’s still some work that must be done.
Something that helps a conference gain notoriety is consistent deep runs in the NCAA Tournament. The glory days of the Big East Conference were in the 1980’s as they became the first and only conference to date to send three schools to the Final Four in 1985. The Atlantic Coast Conference has a storied basketball history that is continuing this March as a record six schools have made it to the Sweet 16. And since 1999, the Big Ten Conference has seen six of its schools reach the Final Four with the Michigan State Spartans and Wisconsin Badgers making it last year. And whereas the Pac-12 is a power conference, they have been unable to keep up as they’ve never been able to send multiple teams to the Final Four in the same year.
One thing that has hurt the Pac-12 in the NCAA Tournament is the inability of teams to adjust out of their time zone. Since 1993, the Pac-12 has seen its members make eight appearances in the Final Four. But in those eight appearances, only Arizona in 1997 and 2001, along with the Stanford Cardinal in 1998 won a non-West region to get there. However this time around the Pac-12 could have simply been a victim of bad luck.
The Pac-12 went 2-5 in the first round of this year’s tournament with some bad breaks along with some tough match-ups. The Wildcats were the six-seed in the South Regional and they received a tough draw in the first round against the Wichita State Shockers. It was just three years ago that Wichita State made the Final Four and led by senior guards Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, they got past Arizona 65-55 in the first round. The Southern California Trojans received their first tournament bid since 2009, but a late season swoon on their part led to them being an eight-seed in the East Region. The Trojans drew the Providence Friars in the first round, and in a typical eight-seed versus nine-seed affair, it came down to the wire with Providence scoring the winning basket as time expired. By the time that the tournament rolled around, the California Golden Bears were decimated by injuries. And although that California was a four-seed in the South Region, they were shut down in the first round by the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors 77-66. The seven-seed versus ten-seed first-round contests are always toss up, and for the Oregon State Beavers who were making their first tourney appearance since 1990, the lower seeded Virginia Commonwealth Rams were too much for them. The Colorado Buffaloes took a nine-point lead over the Connecticut Huskies to the locker room in their first-round meeting before they struggled in the second half and lost 74-67. The Utah Utes were the three-seed in the Midwest Region. But after Utah was able to get by the Fresno State Bulldogs in the first round, they were throttled by the Gonzaga Bulldogs who were the 11-seed by a score of 82-59 as it is now up to the Oregon Ducks to carry the Pac-12 banner.
But even though that the 2016 college basketball season will more than likely not finish in the fashion that the Pac-12 envisioned, all is not lost for “The Conference of Champions”.
This was a down year for Arizona, but head basketball coach Sean Miller can rest a bit easier knowing that he has one of the top recruiting classes in the nation headed to Tuscon which includes small forward Rawle Alkins. Cuonzo Martin just finished his second year as Cal’s head basketball coach, and if he is able to get pair of talented freshman forwards Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown to return to Berkeley, he could have a top ten team on his hands in the fall. Although that the Trojans were happy to make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2009, head basketball coach Andy Enfield only had one senior on his team with the potential of five players who averaged in double-digits this season in points returning to Los Angeles. Utah will more than likely see sophomore power forward Jakob Poeltl forego his final two years of eligibility and declare for the NBA Draft, but head basketball coach Larry Krystowiak has brought the program back to the level that it once was under former head coach Rick Majerus. In the four of the last five years, the Colorado Buffaloes have made the NCAA Tournament under head basketball coach Tad Boyle while you cannot expect UCLA to have another bad season under head basketball coach Steve Alford; especially since he has a pair of highly touted freshman coming to Westwood in power forward T.J. Leaf and point guard Lonzo Ball. The Arizona State Sun Devils showed signs of improvement in their first year under head basketball coach Bobby Hurley while Oregon State is no longer a pushover in the conference. The Washington Huskies always appear to be on the cusp of taking that next step under basketball coach Lorenzo Romar and the Washington State Cougars are looking to become relevant in the conference while the Stanford Cardinal are searching for a new head basketball coach since Johnny Dawkins was recently fired.
The West Coast is littered with talented high-school basketball players ranging from San Diego all the way up the Pacific Coast to Seattle. Some of the Pac-12 schools have some of the best facilities in the nation, and now it is just a matter of everything consistently coming together in the month of March where the conference continues to bring up the rear.
Stanford Cardinal 11-2 (8-2)
There wasn’t that much fan fare when David Shaw was named as the head football coach of the Stanford Cardinal in 2011, but he is very quickly moving up the ranks of all-time victories for the program. In four seasons at Stanford, Shaw is 42-12 with a pair of Rose Bowl appearances. And only Pop Warner, John Ralston, and Tyrone Willingham have won more games at Stanford than Shaw. After a five loss season in 2014, Shaw’s Cardinal could be ready to once again become one of the top teams in the Pac-12 Conference.
Stanford could have a big year in 2015, if senior quarterback Kevin Hogan can have a strong campaign. By some people, Hogan has been labeled as a “game manager”, but he has all of the talent to be in the running to be named as the Pac-12’s Player of the Year. Led by senior offensive tackle Kyle Murphy, Hogan will be protected by a massive offensive line that has been recently sending its fair share of players to the National Football League.
The Cardinal only return four starters from a defense that was ranked third nationally, but under defensive coordinator Lance Anderson you can expect them to once again be stingy.
The schedule for the Cardinal won’t be an easy one, but outside of traveling to meet the USC Trojans in Los Angeles, Stanford will have all of their tough Pac-12 foes coming to Palo Alto this year as they look to win the conference crown.
Oregon Ducks 8-4 (6-3)
The past few seasons have seen the Oregon Ducks become the class of the Pac-12 Conference as they’ve won the conference in four out of the last five years. But will 2015 be the year where the Ducks take a step backwards?
The Ducks must find a way to replace quarterback Marcus Mariota who was under center for them the past three years and in the process, he re-wrote the school’s record book for passing. Now junior quarterback Jeff Lockie will have his chance to run the spread offense in Eugene for Oregon head football coach Mark Helfrich. And led by sophomore running back Royce Freeman and senior wide receiver Byron Marshall, the Ducks return a ton of speed offensively which is their bread and butter.
The Ducks do return six defensive starters in 2015. But defense has never been Oregon’s calling card as they were 89th in the nation last season in total defense and must find a way to step it up in a much improved Pac-12 Conference.
The Ducks will have a huge test in their second game of the season when they travel to East Lansing, Michigan to take on the Michigan State Spartans. But Oregon’s Pac-12 fate will be decided in a stretch that begins in mid-October when they’ll begin a four-game stretch that will see them on the road for three games against the Washington Huskies, Arizona State Sun Devils, and Stanford Cardinal.
Washington Huskies 7-5 (5-4)
2015 will be the second year for the Washington Huskies under head football coach Chris Peterson. Peterson had a respectable first year in Seattle as the Huskies went 8-6 and they finished in third place in the Pac-12 North. But now with all of the renovations that Husky Stadium has undergone, it will be interesting to see if Washington will have what it takes in 2015 to win the Pac-12 North.
Cyler Miles was the Huskies leading passer in 2014, but he has decided to leave the team for personal issues which leaves a huge void for Peterson on offense as Washington hopes to not get lost in the shuffle in the Pac-12 North.
The Huskies will begin the 2015 college football season against Peterson’s old team in the Boise State Broncos before they embark on a tough Pac-12 Conference schedule that includes games against the USC Trojans, Stanford Cardinal, and Arizona State Sun Devils along with home contests against the Oregon Ducks, Arizona Wildcats, and Utah Utes.
California Golden Bears 5-7 (3-6)
From 2012-2013, the California Golden Bears were a putrid 4-20. 2013 was also the first season for the Golden Bears with Sonny Dykes as their head football coach. In 2013 under Dykes, the Bears were just 1-11 while they improved last season, but their 5-7 mark wasn’t good enough to make them bowl eligible. Dykes possesses one of the brightest minds in college football as far as developing passing offenses which was evident being that Cal was sixth in the nation last season in passing. But will passing along be enough to propel the Golden Bears to their first winning season since 2011?
Junior quarterback Jared Goff is entering his third season as the Bears starting quarterback and in each year at Berkley he has thrown for at least 3,500 yards. Running back Daniel Lasco did gain 1,115 yards on the ground last season and now as a senior, he will look to get his numbers closer to the 1,500 mark.
But as good as California’s offense was in 2014, they were 124th in total defense and as Art Kaufman enters his second year as the Golden Bears defensive coordinator, those numbers must improve drastically if the Cal will be a player in the Pac-12 North.
With a home game against the San Diego State Aztecs and a road affair with the Texas Longhorns, the non-conference part of Cal’s schedule wont be easy which will get them prepared for a Pac-12 Conference schedule that includes road games against the Washington Huskies, Utah Utes, UCLA Bruins, Oregon Ducks, and Stanford Cardinal as it won’t be a walk in the park for the Bears to become bowl eligible in 2015.
Washington State Cougars 3-9 (1-8)
2014 marked the third season for the Washington State Cougars under head football Mike Leach. And where the Cougars were expected to take that next step in the Pac-12, they took a giant turn backwards. The Cougars went bowling in 2013, but they suffered through a 3-9 season in 2014.
Luke Falk saw significant time at quarterback as a freshman and with Connor Halliday having graduated, it should be Falk’s job to lose this season. Washington State also lost their top two wide receivers from last season, but Leach’s pass happy offense doesn’t concentrate solely on one wide receiver as everyone gets an opportunity to catch the football.
However,unless the Cougars find a way to run the football and improve defensively as they were ranked 99th in total defense in 2014, they will spend this fall being the whipping boys of the Pac-12 North.
Oregon State Beavers 2-10 (0-9)
In 14 seasons as the head football coach of the Oregon State Beavers, Mike Riley was 93-80 as he won at a school that wasn’t as easy to achieve it. Riley decided to leave Oregon State to become the head football coach at the University of Nebraska, but the Beavers were able to lure Gary Anderson away from the Wisconsin Badgers who is now at his third different head coaching position since 2012; however he appears to be ready to hang around Corvallis as he wants to build a contender in the Pac-12. Anderson has won at every step along his coaching journey which has included stops at Utah State and Wisconsin. Winning won’t come immediately for Anderson at Oregon State, but he’ll get them to respectability soon.
USC Trojans 10-3 (8-2)
The NCAA sanctions are behind the USC Trojans and thus a sleeping giant is ready to arise in the Pac-12 Conference. Since the Pac-12 expanded to 12 schools in 2011, the Trojans have taken a back seat in the Pac-12 South, but that could be ready to change in 2015.
Steve Sarkisian is in his second year as the head football coach of USC and he is ready to lead the Men of Troy back into the national spotlight. The Trojans went 9-4 last year with three of those losses coming by a combined 13 points.
Quarterback Cody Kessler is back for his senior season as he has become the big man on campus in Los Angeles. Kessler threw 39 touchdown passes last year to only 5 interceptions and when this season concludes, we could be talking about him as far as being the Pac-12 Conference’s Player of the Year along with winning the Heisman Trophy.
With wide receiver Nelson Agholor moving on to the National Football League, sophomore wide receiver JuJu Smith is ready to emerge as the next good wide receiver at Southern Cal. The Trojans get their entire starting offensive line from 2014 back which will look to protect Kessler while also opening holes for junior running back Justin Davis.
Defensively the Trojans were ranked 78th nationally last season, but there are nine starters returning as defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox will look to get the most of this unit in his second year in Los Angeles.
The Pac-12 South will be extremely tough this season, but Sarkisian has a team that is capable of winning it for the first time.
Arizona State Sun Devils 8-4 (6-3)
In three years under head football coach Todd Graham, the Arizona State Sun Devils have been one of the top teams in the Pac-12 South. And in a conference that has some of the best offenses in the nation, Arizona State is more than able to hold their own.
Last season an injury to quarterback Taylor Kelly allowed Mike Bercovici to gain some experience under center in Graham’s offense. Bercovici threw 12 touchdowns to 4 interceptions. Now as a senior, Bercovici will be running the show in Tempe and he won’t be looking over his shoulder. Senior running back D.J. Foster will be operating behind an offensive line that has three returning starters from last season as he hopes to have his second consecutive year in which he gains at least 1,000 yards on the ground.
In Arizona State’s three losses in 2014, the gave up a combined 139 points as they had the 83rd ranked defense in the nation. However the Sun Devils do return nine staters on the defensive side of the football as third-year defensive coordinator Chris Ball will look to improve his unit.
In consecutive weeks, Arizona State will find themselves clashing with the USC Trojans and UCLA Bruins and those two contests will go a very long way in deciding the winner of the Pac-12 South in 2015.
Arizona Wildcats 8-4 (5-4)
There is excitement once again in the desert for Arizona Wildcats football. Under head football coach Rich Rodriguez, the Wildcats are coming off of their first 10-win season since 1998 and they are thinking about winning the Pac-12 Conference Title in Tuscon. Rodriguez has been at Arizona for three years and he is the first head football coach in school history to lead the Wildcats to a bowl game in his first three years there. The Wildcats are coming off of a tough loss in the Fiesta Bowl to the Boise State Broncos, but Rodriguez does have an offense in 2015 that is capable of helping Arizona contend for the Pac-12 Title.
Quarterback Anu Soloman established himself as a play maker in Rodriguez’s spread offense last season as a freshman. Solomon passed for 3,793 yards and it is scary that he can get better. Solomon wasn’t the only freshman that did big things for Arizona as running back Nick Wilson ran for 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns in and he could be in the running to be a First-team All Pac-12 performer as a sophomore. Led by junior wide receiver Cayleb Jones, Arizona returns their top four wide receivers from last season and their familiarity with Solomon could allow them to do some big things this season.
Last year as a sophomore, linebacker Scooby Wright was all over the football field and he also wreaked terror on opposing quarterbacks as he amassed 14 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss. Wright will begin this season as the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and his presence should free up some of his defensive teammates.
Arizona’s final three games of the regular season will determine their fate as far as winning the Pac-12 South being that they have a home game against the Utah Utes that will be sandwiched between road affairs with the USC Trojans and their rivals from Tempe in the Arizona State Sun Devils.
Utah Utes 8-4 (5-4)
After two consecutive losing seasons the Utah Utes rebounded in 2014 to go 9-4 and finish ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll for the first time since joining the Pac-12 Conference in 2011. Under head football coach Kyle Whittingham, Utah’s roster may not jump out at the average or novice college football fan being that the majority of their players were overlooked by bigger schools when they came out of high school, but each of their opponents knows that they will have to pack a lunch if they are going to emerge victorious.
Wittingham asks senior quarterback Travis Wilson to not be a hero and instead simply be a game manager for his offense. Senior running back Devontae Booker is a durable stud coming out of the backfield for Utah and if he once again flirts with 300 carries this season, it should symbolize another good year for the Utes. Led by senior offensive tackle Jeremiah Poutasi, Booker will be running behind an offensive line that returns four starters and they will be looking to impose their will on opponents in 2015.
The Utes return eight starters from a defense that was able to tally 55 sacks last season. And even without defensive end Nate Orchard who is now in the National Football League, Utah will still be able to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Utah will have their work cut out as far as winning the Pac-12 in 2015. The Utes have road games against the Oregon Ducks, USC Trojans, and Arizona Wildcats along with home affairs against the Arizona State Sun Devils and UCLA Bruins.
UCLA Bruins 8-4 (5-4)
It’s hard to believe that the UCLA Bruins have not won the Pac-10/12 Championship since 1998, but that is the case. Under head football coach Jim Mora, the Bruins have re-emerged as of the best teams in the Pac-12 and they feel that they are ready to win the conference title in 2015, but it won’t be easy as the Pac-12 South is as tough as it has ever been.
The Bruins will have to find a way to replace quarterback Brett Hundley who has meant so much to their offense over the past few seasons. Jerry Neuheisel is the son of former UCLA quarterback and head football coach Rick Neuheisel and he is the front runner to be the next signal caller for the Bruins.
The Bruins will have a ton of talent around Neuheisel which will be led by running back Paul Perkins who is the workhorse back that Mora covets. The Bruins could have some All-Pac-12 performers on their offensive line which is led by center Jake Brendel.
The Bruins have outside linebacker Myles Jack who is becoming a very special player on that side of the football and he will anchor the Bruins defensively in 2015.
UCLA’s 2015 schedule will be a tough one as it includes road games with the Arizona Wildcats, Stanford Cardinal, Utah Utes, and USC Trojans.
Colorado Buffaloes 4-9 (0-9)
It’s hard to believe, but at one point the Colorado Buffaloes were a dominant college football program; however that has not followed them to the Pac-12 Conference which they have called home since 2011. The Buffaloes have not had a winning season since 2005 and there doesn’t seem to be that much relief in sight for them.
Mike MacIntyre is set to embark on his third season as Colorado’s head football coach and he is just looking to get some breaks for his team. The Buffs do have junior quarterback Sefo Liufau who will look to hook up with his favorite target in senior wide receiver Nelson Spruce, but most of their stats came as Colorado had to pass as they were playing catch up due to the fact that lost six games in 2014 by 14 points or more.
The Buffaloes are still a ways away from competing in the Pac-12 South and this year’s schedule that features home games against the Oregon Ducks, Arizona Wildcats, and USC Trojans won’t make it any easier.
Pac-12 Championship Game: Stanford vs. USC
Conference Champion: USC
Sources: Nationalchamps.net, Cfbstats.com, Sports-reference.com
Oregon Ducks 12-1 (9-1)
Since 1999, the Oregon Ducks have become a national power in college football as they have finished the season ranked in the top 25 11 times. The Ducks have been known for their offense as they had the second best offense in the nation last year and that will once again be the case in 2014.
Redshirt junior quarterback Marcus Mariota had an opportunity to jump to the National Football League after a stellar 2013 campaign, but he opted to return to Eugene for a shot at the national championship. Last year Mariota threw 31 touchdown passes to only 4 interceptions. Aside from being a good passer, Mariota was also Oregon’s second leading rusher last season and he should be in the running this season to win the Heisman Trophy.
The Ducks return nine starters on offense including their entire offensive line, but their upcoming Pac-12 schedule will be defined by five games. The Ducks have three key road games against Washington State, UCLA, and of course their “Civil War” to finish the regular season against Oregon State. The Ducks also will have key home games against Arizona and Stanford who were the only teams to defeat Oregon last season.
Led by Mariota, the Ducks should be able to win the Pac-12 this season and they’ll also be in the mix for the national championship.
Stanford Cardinal 8-4 (7-2)
When Jim Harbaugh resigned as the head football coach of the Stanford Cardinal in early 2010, there were some people believed that the program would take a downward spiral. But David Shaw has quelched that myth. In three seasons as the head football coach at Stanford, Shaw has led the Cardinal to a BCS bowl game and he will be looking for more in 2014, but it won’t be as easy.
The Cardinal replace a ton of talent on their offensive line which has been their bread and butter in the past few seasons. But the Cardinal still have junior offensive tackle Andrus Peat who could be an All-American when the season end and he’ll also be in charge of protecting the blindside of redshirt junior quarterback Kevin Hogan.
Stanford’s road schedule alone this season is very daunting with contests against Washington, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon, and UCLA.
Oregon State Beavers 9-3 (6-3)
The Oregon State Beavers are nestled up in tiny Corvallis, Oregon, but this team is looking to walk tall in 2014. Unless you watch Pac-12 football consistently or you’re just a college football junkie like me, you may not know about Oregon State senior quarterback Sean Mannion, but he is the real deal. Mannion passed for more than 4,600 yards last season. However Mannion was overshadowed by other Pac-12 quarterbacks such as Kevin Hogan of Stanford, Brett Hundley of UCLA, and Marcus Mariota of Oregon. Along with Mannion, Oregon State is returning seven starters on offense in what could be a very explosive unit.
For Oregon State head coach Mike RIley, road games against USC, Stanford, and Washington along with their “Civil War” will determine whether the Beavers will be able to win the Pac-12 North for the first time in school history.
Washington State Cougars 8-4 (5-4)
Entering their third season under head football coach Mike Leach, the Washington State Cougars appear ready to turn the corner in the Pac-12. Last season Leach led the Cougars to their first bowl game appearance since 2003 and now he feels that his squad is ready to contend with the big boys in the Pac-12.
Washington State senior quarterback Connor Halliday is back to finish his collegiate career at Pullman and he’ll look to join the likes of Drew Bledsoe, Ryan Leaf, and Jason Gesser as great Wazzu signal-callers. In 2012, Halliday was thrown to the wolves as he was Leach’s first starting quarterback for the Cougars, but he came into his own last season as he passed for nearly 4,600 yards and 37 touchdowns. Halliday was intercepted 22 times last season and he was also sacked 31 times which are two numbers that he must be cut down on if Washington State is going to be able to contend this season in the Pac-12 North. Halliday knows how to spread the football around in Leach’s wide open system as four Washington State receivers gained over 500 yards receiving in 2013. The best of the bunch was wide receiver Gabe Marks who as a senior in 2014 could be an all Pac-12 performer.
The Cougars non-conference schedule is a cakewalk, but in their first Pac-12 game this season Washington State will host Oregon which will go a long way as far as seeing how the year will go in Pullman.
Washington Huskies 9-4 (5-4)
Things have changed drastically in Seattle for the Washington Huskies. After five years as the head football coach of the Huskies, Steve Sarkisian left to take over at USC. But all is not lost for the Huskies. After eight seasons as the head football coach at Boise State University, Chris Peterson was coaxed into leaving his comfortable digs in Boise for more money in Seattle and he is looking to keep improving off of what Sarkisian started.
Washington will get Stanford at home this season, but they’ll have their work cut out for them on the road against Oregon, Arizona, and Washington State.
California Golden Bears 3-9 (1-8)
After a 1-11 campaign in his first year as the head football coach of the California Golden Bears, there is only one direction to go for Sonny Dykes. Dykes and the Golden Bears must become more competitive this season as only one of their losses last season was by single digits.
California sophomore quarterback Jared Goff could pass for more than 4,000 in the upcoming season and if he does it should be an example of the improvement by the Golden Bears program. But for Cal to take that next step in 2014 they must improve on their rushing offense that was 106th in the nation last year.
The Pac-12 is one of the toughest conferences in college football and it is once again going to be tough for the Golden Bears to not get lost in the shuffle.
UCLA Bruins 12-1 (9-1)
When Jim Mora took over as the head football coach of the UCLA Bruins in 2012, he put an emphasis on making his squad tougher. UCLA was coming off of a 6-8 in 2011 season and in two years under Mora the Bruins had their first 10-win season since 2005. Now this season begins with UCLA thinking about winning the national championship.
The Bruins have one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation in redshirt junior Brett Hundley who’ll be behind an offensive line that features a trio of 300 pounders.
Defensively the Bruins return their entire starting secondary from last season in what could be college football’s version of “The Legion of Boom”.
UCLA will host Oregon on October 11 and I believe that these two schools will meet in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
USC Trojans 9-3 (6-3)
This season a new era will begin for the University of Southern California Trojans with a familiar face leading the way. For seven years during the 2000’s, Steve Sarkisian was on USC’s football coaching staff. Sarkisian spent the last five years as the head football coach of the Washington Huskies and now he is back in Los Angeles to lead the Men of Troy. Sarkisian inherits a Trojan squad that went 10-4 in 2013 and they are ready to accomplish bigger things in 2014.
USC junior quarterback Cody Kessler emerged as a leader last season and he appears ready to take his game to the next level. You can also expect a heavy dose of the running game from the Trojans with junior running back Tre Madden as he’ll run behind an offensive line that returns three starters from a year ago.
The Trojans return eight starters on defense including some players that will be playing on Sunday in the near future. USC junior defensive end Leonard Williams, middle linebacker Hayes Pullard, and sophomore strong safety Su’a Cravers have pro potential and each player should be All-Pac-12 performers this season.
The Trojans will avoid playing Oregon this season, but road games against Stanford, Arizona, and UCLA will determine if USC will return to national prominence this season.
Arizona State Sun Devils 6-6 (4-5)
In Tempe, Arizona and the surrounding areas there is a buzz in regards to Arizona State Sun Devils football. Last season Arizona State head football coach Todd Graham led the Sun Devils to the Pac-12 South Championship and they are looking for more of the same in 2014.
Last season the Sun Devils had the tenth ranked scoring offense in the nation. Arizona State senior quarterback Taylor Kelly passed for more than 3,600 yards in 2013 and he should be able to flirt with the 4,000 yard mark this season. Kelly is not just a pocket passer as he was the Sun Devils second leading rusher last season which allows him to extend plays. If Arizona State is able to have a successful 2014 campaign, then junior wide receiver Jaelen Strong will be a huge part of it; especially if he flirts with getting 90 receptions this season.
The Sun Devils defense will be a work in progress as they’ll only return two starters from last year’s unit. But Arizona State senior strong safety Damarious Randall will anchor the defensive squad.
Arizona State will face one of the tougher schedules in the Pac-12 as they have road contests against USC, Washington, Washington State, and Arizona along with home games against UCLA and Stanford who they lost to in last year’s Pac-12 Championship Game.
Graham has a good offensive club, but the Arizona State could get swallowed up within the depth of the Pac-12 Conference.
Arizona Wildcats 6-6 (3-6)
Not since the days of the “Desert Swarm” under former head football coach Dick Tomey has the excitement been like it is now for the Arizona Wildcats in Tuscon. Rich Rodriguez is set to embark on his third season as the Wildcats head football coach and he has two bowl victories under his belt. In Rodriguez’s first two years in Tucson, the ‘Cats have finished fourth in the Pac-12 South. But will Arizona be able to take the next step in 2014?
Rodriguez coached teams are going to run the football which was the case last season when Arizona was 11th in the nation in rushing offense. ‘Zona lost two of their top three rushers from last year’s team, but junior running back Jared Bell should get the bulk of the carries in Rodriguez’s spread offense. Arizona senior quarterback B.J. Denker had a 61.2 completion percentage last season while he was also the team’s second leading rusher and you can expect more of the same in 2014.
In a span of four games Arizona will face Oregon, USC, Washington State, and UCLA which could make or break their season.
Utah Utes 4-8 (2-7)
The grass is not always greener on the other side as the Utah Utes are finding out. In their last three seasons in the Mountain West Conference, the Utes were 33-3. But since joining the Pac-12, Utah is 18-19. Unlike other schools that bolted one conference in favor of a large payday in a bigger conference, the Utes move was partially due to the fact that they were not going to get a fair shake as far as the ability to play for a national championship in the Mountain West.
For Utah head football coach Kyle Whittingham he must get more consistency this season out of junior quarterback Travis Wilson who threw 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions last year. But Wilson will be able to lean on senior wide receiver Dres Anderson as his main target in the passing game.
Aside from their brutal conference schedule, the Utes have non-conference showdowns this year with Fresno State and Michigan in what could be another long season in Salt Lake City.
Colorado Buffaloes 2-10 (0-9)
The glory days of the Colorado Buffaloes football program are a thing of the past. From 1985-2005, the Buffaloes only had three losing seasons and they also were able to claim one national championship. Since then Colorado has become a bottom feeder; first in the Big 12 Conference and now in the Pac-12. The Buffaloes have not had a winning season since 2005 and under head football coach Mike MacIntyre, Colorado is hopeful to reverse the cycle in 2014.
MacIntyre is hopeful that the the offensive combination of sophomore quarterback Sefo Liufau and junior wide receiver Nelson Spruce will be emerge this year as offensive threats in Boulder in order to make the Buffaloes relevant in the Pac-12.
It will be extremely important for the Buffs to win their first two games of the season against Colorado State and Massachusetts in order to gain some confidence for themselves heading into conference play.
Pac-12 Championship Game-Levi’s Stadium-Santa Clara, Californina
Oregon vs. UCLA
Sources: Sports-reference.com, Nationalchamps.net, Cfbstats.com