The stage is almost set for what should be a very interesting Final Four.
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.
It’s safe to say that the National Football League has diminished the value of having a quality running back. This decade has only see nine running backs selected in the first round of the NFL Draft while this past season only produced seven running backs that gained at least 1,000 yards on the ground. The NFL has become more of a passing league where teams have diminished the role of the running back. More teams are going to running back tandems in order to keep their backs fresh as the physical riggers of the game can be grueling on the position. This off-season has already seen running back Marshawn Lynch retire. Lynch is only 29-years of age, but he apparently had enough of the physical pounding that comes with playing the position. But as Lynch decided to retire, the running back position in the NFL is still defined by Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson who is the current gold standard for the position and Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley who is the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year. But there could be some help on the way from the collegiate ranks to make the running back position once again the glamour position in the NFL.
The past college football season saw 66 players gain at least 1,000 yards rushing at the Football Bowl Subdivision level and some of these guys are expected to be headliners once again in 2016. Last year saw Alabama Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry win the Heisman Trophy and for the first time since 1999, we could see a running back win the Heisman in consecutive years.
This past season saw Stanford Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey finish second to Henry in the Heisman voting. McCaffrey gained 2,019 yards on the ground while setting a new NCAA single-season record for all-purpose yards with 3,864. There was a growing consensus about the “West Coast” bias when it came to McCaffrey not winning the award, and he gave the nation an opportunity to see what he was about in last month’s Rose Bowl victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes where he set a Rose Bowl record for total offense with 368 yards. McCaffrey will return to Stanford for his junior year, and if it were not for the National Football League rules which require a player to be out of high school for at least three in order to get drafted, he would be a first-round pick this April. But McCafrrey’s loss in college football’s gain as he will be displaying his skills for free for another year.
Whereas McCaffrey stepped onto the college football scene as a relative unknown, the same could not be said about LSU running back Leonard Fournette. Fournette came to LSU as a highly touted recruit. Last year Fournette had three consecutive games in which he rushed for at least 200 yards which paved the way for him gaining 1,953 rushing yards to go along with 22 touchdowns on the ground. Like McCaffrey, Fournette has been done in by the rules of the National Football League as he must return to college for his junior year before becoming eligible to be drafted next year. At 6’1″, 230 lbs., Fournette is a load and I feel sorry for any defenders that have to tackle him.
Dalvin Cook-Florida State
Florida State Seminoles running back Dalvin Cook is another back that has his sights set on the National Football League in 2017. Like McCaffrey, and Fournette, Cook will be a junior heading into the 2016 college football season and he is the real deal. Cook was a product of Miami Central High School which has produced NFL talent such as Bruce Armstrong and Willis McGahee. As a freshman at Florida State, Cook ran for 1,008 yards and he was also the MVP of the Atlantic Coast Conference Title Game. This past season Cook rushed for 1,691 yards and 19 touchdowns and heading into 2016, he will look to reach the 2000-yard mark in rushing.
As a true freshman in 2014, it didn’t take running back Samaje Perine that long to make an impact for the Oklahoma Sooners. In Perine’s first collegiate game, he rushed for 77 yards on 13 carries and he was just getting warmed up. Before 2014 ended, Perine set a new single-game Football Bowl Subdivision record with 427 rushing yards against the Kansas Jayhawks as he was named as the Big 12 Conference’s Rookie of the Year. This past season, Perine ran for 1,713 yards in helping Oklahoma win the Big 12 and advance to the College Football Playoff.
Perine’s running ability will translate to the next level due to the fact that at 5’11”, he runs very low to the ground and he has very thick legs as he tips the scales at 237 lbs.
Another potential junior that will garner interest from the National Football League next year is Oregon Ducks running back Royce Freeman. Make no mistake about it that Freeman is a burner and he is tailor-made for the spread-offense attack of the Ducks. Freeman will be an early favorite to be the Pac-12 Conference’s Player of the Year as there are not that many defenders around in the nation that can catch him when he gets a full head of steam.
Unlike the other running backs so far, Clemson Tigers running back Wayne Gallman had the opportunity to leave school this year. Heading into the 2016 college football season, Gallman will be a redshirt junior, but he is returning to school as he is looking to help Clemson win their first national title since 1981.
Last year Gallman exploded for 1,527 rushing yards as he was intrical in helping the Tigers play for the national championship. This year all eyes in the Atlantic Coast Conference will be on Gallman and Clemson, but another strong performance will have the scouts of the National Football League focused on him.
Elijah Hood-North Carolina
Last year saw the North Carolina Tar Heels win 11 games for the first time since 1997 along with making their first trip to the Atlantic Coast Conference Title Game with a big part of the team’s success being running back Elijah Hood. As a sophomore in 2015, Hood ran for 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns, but he was overshadowed within the ACC by Cook and Gallman. However if Hood can lead the Tar Heels to the ACC Title in 2016, everyone will know who he is.
The Tennessee Volunteers are coming off of their best season since 2007 and heading into the 2016 college football season, they will be a trendy pick to win the Southeastern Conference. A big part of the Volunteers re-emergence can be traced to running back Jalen Hurd. At 6’4″, 240 lbs., it is safe to say that Hurd is a load as he gained 1,288 on the ground last year. And as a junior in 2016, a 1,500-yard season by Hurd should symbolize a solid season for the Vols. Due to Hurd’s size, defenders tend to tackle him low, but he is agile, and he can be a solid short yardage back at the next level.
And once you factor in the talent of New Mexico State Aggies sophomore Larry Rose III , Wyoming Cowboys sophomore Brian Hill, Georgia Southern Panthers junior Matt Brieda, Northwestern Wildcats sophomore Justin Jackson, and South Florida Bulls sophomore Marlon Mack, the running back position will be loaded heading into the 2016 college football season with all of these players expected to make National Football League rosters in 2017 as we could see a return to the ground attack as opposed to doing everything by air.
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