The rivalry between the UCLA Bruins and USC Trojans just got very interesting.
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
As point guard Lonzo Ball was tearing up the high school basketball scene in the State of California, he could have attended any basketball powerhouse that he chose to. As a high school senior, Ball took home numerous accolades which included him being a McDonald’s All-American, the State of California’s Mr. Basketball, and the Naismith Prep Player of the Year as he averaged 23.9 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 11.7 assists. Ball would ultimately decided to put his basketball skills to use for the UCLA Bruins which has been beneficial for all parties involved. As a freshman, Ball is averaging 15 points and 6.3 rebounds, while his 7.6 assists per contest are leading the nation, and he is a big reason why UCLA is once again in the national spotlight.
When the Bruins went 15-17 last year for their first losing season since 2010, there were some followers of the UCLA program that wanted head basketball coach Steve Alford fired to the point that a banner was flown around the campus seeking his removal. But as UCLA decided to stick with Alford, he went out on a limb to give back a portion of his salary for this college basketball season. And with a star studded freshmen class that includes Ball, Alford is once again the man of the hour in Westwood.
The Bruins are currently 27-3 which is good for third place in the Pac-12 Conference. The Bruins are the third ranked team in the Associated Press and they’ve held their own this season against the best the college basketball has to offer. In non-conference play, UCLA was able to defeat the Kentucky Wildcats of the Southeastern Conference who were the top ranked team in the nation at the time. And after their first meetings against the Oregon Ducks and Arizona Wildcats respectively, the Bruins were able to avenge each loss the second time around with Ball having a hand in all of it.
Ball’s first collegiate game came on November 11 against the Pacific Tigers and he messed around and almost got himself a triple-double as he finished with 19 points, 11 assists, and 8 rebounds. In UCLA’s first game against Arizona, Ball had 24 points, 8 assists, and 6 rebounds. And in the rematch with Oregon which resulted in a UCLA victory, Ball had 15 points and 11 rebounds.
Ball hasn’t been asked to consistently carry the Bruins due to he fact that he plays alongside freshman forward T.J. Leaf and senior guard Bryce Alford, but don’t sleep on his potential at the next level.
At the very worst Ball will be selected third overall in the upcoming NBA Draft as at 6’6″, he is tremendous ball handler with court vision that a franchise can build around. But in the interim, Ball is making the most of his time in college as UCLA could still win the Pac-12 Title, while they are also seeking their first trip to the Final Four since 2008. And with the calendar ready to shift to March, I expect Ball to add to his resume when the bright lights of the Pac-12 and NCAA Tournaments are on him.
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
1. Clemson Tigers
2015 was indeed a magical year for Clemson Tigers Football. Clemson won 14 games which was a single-season school record, but they were just short of winning their first national championship since 1981. And as good as 2015 was for the Tigers, 2016 can actually be better.
Last year as a sophomore, quarterback Deshaun Watson was healthy and he showed his ability as an impact player by passing for 4,104 yards while also rushing for 1,105 yards. And as a junior, Watson will be one of the early favorites to win the Heisman Trophy while National Football League scouts are also drooling at his play making ability.
Running back Wayne Gallman had the opportunity to leave school last year for the NFL Draft, but he decided to return to Clemson and the combination of him and Watson will be tough on defenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Led by junior wide receiver Artavis Scott and redshirt sophomore Hunter Renfrow, Watson has an array of talented wide receivers to throw the football to while he’ll be protected by an offensive line that will be returning three starters from last season.
Defensively the Tigers were ranked tenth nationally last year and they will return six starters. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has changed the culture on that side of the ball at Clemson as they are now consistently sending players to the National Football League. And led by senior cornerback Cordrea Tankersley, the Tigers have a defensive unit that can set the tone for their team.
Clemson has a non-conference that’ll see them dip into the Southeastern Conference as they will be on the road against the Auburn Tigers, while finishing up their regular season slate at home against the South Carolina Gamecocks. As for Clemson’s Atlantic Coast Conference schedule, their road meeting with the Florida State Seminoles on October 29 will more than likely determine who will get to the conference title game, while also having an impact on the College Football Playoff scene. But for Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney, his team should be up for the challenge.
2. Oklahoma Sooners
After surviving the gauntlet that is the Big 12 Conference schedule last year, the Oklahoma Sooners took their place in the College Football Playoff. But in the Orange Bowl, the team speed of the Clemson Tigers was too much for Oklahoma too deal with. The Sooners will come into the 2016 college football season with some unfinished business that they are hopeful to attend to. And luckily for Oklahoma head football coach Bob Stoops, he has a team that will once again be in contention to win the national championship.
In his first season as Oklahoma’s starting quarterback, Baker Mayfield displayed a solid blend of running and passing ability that made him one of the most dynamic play makers in the country. As a senior, Mayfield comes into 2016 as the reigning Big 12 Conference Player of the Year, and after finishing fourth in the Heisman voting last year, he’ll once again be in the conversation.
But the engine that makes the Sooners offense go is junior running back Semaje Perine. In two years at Oklahoma, Perine has gained 3,062 yards on the ground. And barring an injury, Perine is in line to surpass Adrian Peterson this year as Oklahoma’s all-time leading rusher. At 5’11”, 237 lbs., Perine has a very thick lower body that it makes it tough for defenders to tackle him.
Led by senior wide receiver Dede Westbrook, Mayfield will be throwing to experienced receivers while also being protected by a offensive line that has three returning starters as they’ll be led by sophomore left tackle Orlando Brown. Led by senior middle linebacker Jordan Evans, the Sooners are returning seven defensive starters as they will once again look to contain the high octane offenses in the Big 12.
The upcoming schedule won’t be an easy one for the Sooners as they’ll begin the campaign against the Houston Cougars who are the defending American Athletic Conference Champions. Also in non-conference play, the Sooners will welcome the Ohio State Buckeyes out of the Big Ten Conference to Norman for a game that could go a very long way in determining who’ll make the College Football Playoff. Most of Oklahoma’s toughest conference games will be at home while they’ll also have to worry about their annual tilt with the Texas Longhorns at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. But the Sooners could be one of the final teams standing come January.
3. LSU Tigers
With all of the controversy that swirled around the LSU Tigers in 2015, you would have thought that they had a bad season. But the Tigers did manage to go 9-3. At the beginning of November, LSU was 7-0 with an eye on the College Football Playoff. However the Bayou Bengals would suffer three consecutive losses, including a 14-point defeat to the eventual national champion in the Alabama Crimson Tide which put head football coach Les Miles on the hot seat. LSU appeared headed to firing Miles, until they began to see the negative backlash that they were facing and thus Miles is returning to Baton Rogue for 2016.
Led by junior running back Leonard Fournette, the Tigers will return 10 starters on the offensive side of the ball as they look to build some cohesion. And barring injury, Fournette should be in the running to win the Heisman Trophy.
The Tigers were ranked 25th in the nation last season in total defense and with six starters returning on that side of the ball, led by on all four starters on the defensive line, the Bayou Bengals will be a force to be reckoned with in the Southeastern Conference.
The schedule in 2016 won’t be an easy one for LSU as they have road games against the Wisconsin Badgers, Auburn Tigers, and Florida Gators. But the Tigers season will be defined by what they’ll be able to do on November 5 when they host Alabama whom they have not defeated since 2011.
4. Tennessee Volunteers
After finishing the 2015 college football season with a record of 9-4, it appears that the Tennessee Volunteers are back. In three years at Tennessee, head football coach Butch Jones has been in the process of building something special as the folks in Knoxville believe that this team is once again ready to contend for the Southeastern Conference Title. Whereas the better teams in the SEC typically have to worry abut players leaving school early for the National Football League, the Vols didn’t have to concern themselves with this as they’ll have nine starters returning on offense and eight on defense.
Senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs is entering his fourth year as Tennessee’s starting quarterback and he has plenty of expectations that will be heaped onto his shoulders. Dobbs is more of a dual-threat quarterback, but if he is able to become a more consistent passer, the Vols offense will be difficult to deal with.
The Volunteers offense will lean heavily on Dobbs and junior running back Jalen Hurd who at 6’4″, 240 lbs. is in the mode of former New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs.
Tennessee has eight returning starters on defense and there is plenty of pro talent on this unit. Junior defensive end Derek Barnett has the ability to be one of the best pass rushers in the Southeastern Conference, while senior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin has what it takes to win the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker. And the Vols also have a ton of experience in their secondary that features senior cornerback Cameron Sutton, junior cornerback Justin Martin, junior strong safety Todd Kelly, along with junior free safety Evan Berry.
The Volunteers season will be defined four-week stretch that begins in late September where they’ll host the Florida Gators, which will be followed by road games against the Georgia Bulldogs, and Texas A&M Aggies before returning home to face the defending national champions in the Alabama Crimson Tide on October 15.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes
It might be a new college football season, but that hasn’t prevented the Ohio State Buckeyes from being one of the top teams in the nation. After last year’s 12-1 campaign, Ohio State lost a ton of talent to the National Football League with 9 underclassmen declaring early. But if you’re Ohio State head football coach Urban Meyer, you need not worry as the cupboard is never bare in Columbus.
Coming into 2016, redshirt junior quarterback J.T. Barrett won’t have to look over his shoulder as he is entrenched as the Buckeyes starting signal caller with Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller now pursuing careers in the National Football League. Barrett gives Meyer that dual-threat of a passer and runner that he covets at the quarterback position and more will be put upon his shoulders this year. With the departure of running back Ezekiel Elliot, you can expect seniors Bri’onte Dunn and Warren Ball to split the carries while Barrett could have a more active role in the Buckeyes running game.
The Buckeyes must replaces six starters on defense, but junior middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan is a play maker that could find himself in the discussion as far as being the Big Ten Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Ohio State can’t be accused of lining up the cupcakes in their non-conference schedule as they will travel to face the Oklahoma Sooners out of the Big 12 Conference on September 17 which will be a tune-up for Big Ten Conference play as the Buckeyes will have road games against the Wisconsin Badgers, Penn State Nittany Lions, and Michigan State Spartans, before finishing the regular season at home versus the Michigan Wolverines.
6. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Since Brian Kelly took over as the head football coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, he has succeeded in what the school wanted him to do and that was to make Notre Dame Football consistently relevant. In six years at Notre Dame, Kelly has a record of 55-23 with three of the last four seasons seeing the Irish ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press’ Poll. And after flirting with reaching the College Football Playoff last season, Kelly and Notre Dame will be thinking about bigger things in 2016.
Last year as a true freshman, DeShone Kizer was thrust into the role of starting quarterback after an early season injury to Malik Zaire. Zaire will be back for his senior season and Kelly has a difficult decision to make as Zaire is the better athlete, but Kizer has the better arm.
Like Kizer, Notre Dame relied on another true freshman last year in the backfield in running back Josh Adams. With C.j. Prosise having graduated and moving on to the National Football League, Adams is expected to be the feature back as Kelly will lean on him and Kizer due to the fact that Notre Dame will be a little green in the passing game.
Defensively the Irish must replace six starters from last season, but with defensive coordinator Brain VanGorder entering his second year in South Bend, Indiana, he now has more of a feel of what Kelly wants done.
With an early season road meeting against the Texas Longhorns, the rest of Notre Dame’s most difficult games will be at home, and if they are able to handle their business, they could be College Football Playoff bound come January.
7. Alabama Crimson Tide
Although that the Alabama Crimson Tide will enter the 2016 college football season as the defending national champions, they won’t be the top team in the land due to the many defections that they had. Alabama must replace eight defensive starters from a unit that was tied for second in the nation last year in total defense.
The Crimson Tide must also replace quarterback Jake Coker who they lost to graduation and running back Derrick Henry who won the Heisman Trophy. But the Tide still have Nick Saban as their head football coach which is the right person to be in charge as under him, it’s about reloading at Alabama, and not rebuilding.
It will be Cooper Bateman’s opportunity to be the starting quarterback for the Crimson Tide. Bateman spent his first two years at Alabama primarily serving as a backup quarterback, and now as a junior it will be his job to lose. Sophomore running backs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough will be splitting time this fall in the Alabama backfield as they will be running behind an offensive line that is returning three starters with junior offensive tackle Cam Robinson potentially being a first-team, All-Southeastern Conference member.
Defensively Alabama will be very green while they will also miss the leadership of former defensive coordinator Kirby Smart who is now the head football coach for the Georgia Bulldogs.
Right out of the chute we’ll see how good that this Alabama team will be as they’ll begin the season on September 3 against the USC Trojans out the Pac-12 Conference at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Tide also have road games in the Southeastern Conference against the Ole Miss Rebels, Arkansas Razorbacks, Tennessee Volunteers, and LSU Tigers. But Saban always knows how to get the best out of his teams.
8. Florida State Seminoles
Under head football coach Jimbo Fisher, the Florida State Seminoles have returned to being one of premier college football programs in the nation. In each of Fisher’s six years at Tallahassee, the Seminoles have finished the season ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll along with playing in a top-tier bowl game in each of the last five years. With the ‘Noles back on the national scene, it also means that they are once again sending talent to the National Football League, and when talent is headed to the pro ranks, it also means that there are consistent voids to fill on the roster which Florida State must do this year.
After spending the last three years as a backup quarterback, senior Sean Maguire is ready for the spotlight at Florida State. At 6’3″, 224 lbs., Maguire has a solid frame for a quarterback, but it won’t be a situation where he will have to do it by himself. National Football League scouts are drooling over the play making ability of junior running back Dalvin Cook. With two years as the Seminoles starting running back, Cook has gained 2,699 yards on the ground as he has become the heart and soul of this team. And in 2016, you can expect Cook to be a favorite to be the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Player of the Year. Led by junior wide receiver Travis Rudolph, the ‘Noles have their top three wide receivers returning from last year’s team while all five of the big uglies up front are back.
The Seminoles also have six starters returning from a defense in 2015 that was 19th in the nation and under defensive coordinator Charles Kelly, they will look to wreak havoc on the offenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
You can’t accuse Florida State of ducking anybody as their non-conference schedule includes games against the Ole Miss Rebels and the Florida Gators of the Southeastern Conference. But the Seminoles Atlantic Coast Conference slate will be defined by their home game against the Clemson Tigers on October 29 as that contest will more than likely determine who will win the Atlantic Division and get to the conference title game and be a potential player in the College Football Playoff.
9. Iowa Hawkeyes
The college football season 2015 saw the Iowa Hawkeyes fly under the radar, and before you knew it, this team was 12-0. But as good as Iowa’s season was, they will still enter the 2016 college football season with a bad taste in their mouths after losing their last two games from the previous season which were the Big Ten Championship Game to the Michigan State Spartans and the Rose Bowl to the Stanford Cardinal.
The workman like approach that was so effective for Iowa in 2015 will once again be at the forefront for head football coach Kirk Ferentz and his crew as they look to win the Big Ten. What helped Iowa in 2015 was their ability to not defeat themselves as they were 11th in the nation in turnover margin. The Hawkeyes have a senior quarterback C.J. Beathard who stays within the realm of the offense which means him not trying to do everything himself, while relying on Iowa’s solid running attack and stingy defense.
Iowa’s was 22nd in the nation last year in total defense, and led by junior linebacker Jewell Josey, this band of brothers will once again pack their lunch pales every Saturday afternoon in the Big Ten.
The fact that the Hawkeyes play in the Big Ten West will see them once again have a favorable schedule and they could fly under the radar just like they did in 2015.
10. Michigan Wolverines
It hasn’t taken Michigan Wolverines head football coach Jim Harbaugh that long to once again create a buzz around his football program. In just one year, Harbaugh has put Michigan back onto the national scene and after a 10-3 record in 2015, the Wolverines are eyeing bigger and better things this year. Last year Michigan benefited from a transfer at quarterback in Jake Rudock. And this year the Wolverines will lean on another transfer quarterback in John O’Korn.
O’Korn began his collegiate career at the University of Houston where he was the 2013 American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year as passed for 3,117 and 28 touchdowns. But injuries and the emergence of Greg Ward at quarterback made O’Korn expendable as he found a new home in Ann Arbor. Now O’Korn will play for a head coach in Harbaugh that wants him while also showcasing his live right arm. With four returning starters on the offensive line, senior running back De’Veon Smith should have plenty of running room to work with as Harbaugh is returning Michigan to the days of smash-mouth football of Bo Schembechler.
Last year the Wolverines were fourth in the nation in total defense which included three consecutive shutouts. And with hard hitting, redshirt sophomore Jabril Peppers making the move strong safety to linebacker, Michigan will have a physical presence once more.
Outside of road games against the Michigan State Spartans, Iowa Hawkeyes, and Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan has a very favorable schedule which bodes well as far as their chances of winning the Big Ten Conference.
11. UCLA Bruins
Make no mistake about that the expectations have changed for the UCLA Bruins ever since Jim Mora became their head football coach in 2012. The Bruins have been in contention in the Pac-12 Conference while also re-emerging on the national scene. And after an 8-5 campaign in 2015, is UCLA ready to win the Pac-12 and make the College Football Playoff?
If sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen can cut down on the turnovers in 2016, he has what it takes to be the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year. Rosen started all 13 games for the Bruins last year and he has the potential to be a very special player. Senior outside linebacker Jayon Brown is a solid tackler and the Bruins defense as a whole can get after opponents as they registered 28 sacks in 2015.
Under Mora, the Bruins don’t shy away from playing big teams from power conferences as they will begin the season on the road against the Texas A&M Aggies, while their Pac-12 slate includes road games against the Arizona State Sun Devils and Washington State Cougars.
12. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Although that the 2015 college football season didn’t end in the fashion that the Oklahoma State Cowboys would have liked, this a team that still has high hopes. The Cowboys won their first 10 games in 2015 before things fell apart as they lost their final three contests. Defense has never been Oklahoma State’s calling card as they surrendered 151 points in those three losses. But even with that Oklahoma State head football coach Mike Gundy has a squad that will be capable of winning the Big 12 Conference.
Junior quarterback Mason Rudolph has proven that he can sling the football around in Gundy’s wide-open, spread-offense attack. The Cowboys offense doesn’t focus on pounding you with a running attack, but more with a passing game that can spread out opposing defenses and exploit weaknesses. Junior wide receiver James Washington and senior wide receiver Marcell Ateman were first and third respectively in receiving yards last year for the Cowboys and defenses in the Big 12 Conference will once again have their hands full with this duo. All five starting offensive linemen from last year’s team are back for the Cowboys and that continuity up front should give Rudolph ample time to pick apart defenses.
Defensively Oklahoma State was ranked 100th in the nation in total defense last year, and even though that they are returning eight starters on that side of the football, the unit will still be a work in progress.
The Cowboys season will be defined the Bedlam Game on December 3 against the Oklahoma Sooners as the winner of this contest will more than likely not only win the Big 12, but get to the College Football Playoff.
13. Ole Miss Rebels
Don’t look now, but there is a certain buzz around the Mississippi Rebels football program that hasn’t been in Oxford, Mississippi for quite some time. Hugh Freeze is set to begin his fifth season as the Mississippi head football coach and in each year there, the team’s win total has increased. And after showing that they can compete in the Southeastern Conference, the Rebels are ready to show that they have what it takes to be a contender for the College Football Playoff.
There’s a growing consensus that senior quarterback Chad Kelly could be the Southeastern Conference’s Player of the Year. If the last name sounds familiar it is that the Rebels quarterback is the nephew of Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly. But the younger Kelly is writing his own legacy as he might be the finest pocket passer that currently calls the SEC home. Kelly will have to carry the Ole Miss offense this year due to the fact the team lost so much production from last year’s squad which included four offensive linemen and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell.
Ole Miss will face one of the toughest schedules in the nation which features games against the Florida State Seminoles of the Atlantic Coast Conference along with conference affairs against the Alabama Crimson Tide, Arkansas Razorbacks, and LSU Tigers.
14. Houston Cougars
For Houston Cougars head football coach Tom Herman and his squad, they are out to prove that 2015 wasn’t a fluke. The Cougars went 13-1 last season and only a three-point road loss to the Connecticut Huskies prevented them from having an undefeated season. But the Cougars return a ton of talent on both sides of the football as they are seeking to qualify for the College Football Playoff, while also impress the on lookers of the Big 12 Conference for a potential bid to join.
The Cougars have a dynamic play maker at quarterback in senior Greg Ward Jr. Last year Ward accounted for 3,936 yards of total offense for Houston and his name could be thrown around in the Heisman discussion this season. At 6’2″, 200 lbs., senior wide receiver Chance Allen has solid size and he has shown that he can be a go-to-guy for Ward in the red zone during jump ball situations. The Cougars have a young, but experienced offensive line that will be running the show as there are four returning starters from 2015, but none of them are seniors.
Senior outside linebacker Steven Taylor will look to cushion the loss of middle linebacker Elandon Roberts whom Houston lost to graduation as he leads a unit that forced 21 interceptions and had 36 sacks in 2015.
The Cougars will be in the mix to once again win the American Athletic Conference, but they can make a huge statement when they take on the Oklahoma Sooners of the Big 12 Conference to begin the season as they look to repeat as AAC Champs and potentially get to the College Football Playoff.
15. Baylor Bears
Hands down the past few years have been the golden era of Baylor Bears football. Four of the last five years have seen Baylor win at least 10 games as they’ve garnered national attention under head football coach Art Briles. But all good things must come to an end as Baylor parted with Briles due to numerous off-the-field situations involving his players with the most notable issue being sexual assault. Briles has been replaced by former Wake Forest Demon Deacons head football coach Jim Grobe who will try to maintain Baylor’s recent success on the football field.
The Bears must replace a ton of production on the offensive side of the football as they lost seven starters from last last year’s team including four starters on the offensive line. Senior quarterback Seth Russell is returning from a neck injury that ended his 2015 college football season abruptly and his right arm along the ability to find junior wide receiver KD Cannon will be important for Baylor’s chances as far as staying in the Big 12 Title hunt.
Baylor was 61st last year in total defense, but they are returning seven starters as defensive coordinator Phil Bennett hopes that his unit will be able to do enough to offset the Bears high-powered offense.
Outside of road games against the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners, the Bears, Big 12 Conference schedule is a favorable one. But a weak non-conference schedule could once again impact Baylor’s chances of making the College Football Playoff.
16. Northwestern Wildcats
The Northwestern Wildcats will enter the 2016 college football season looking to build off of their surprising success in 2015. Northwestern was able to win 10 games last year, but they are looking to avoid taking a huge step backwards. The Wildcats would also win 10 games in 2012, but they won a combined 10 games over the next two seasons. However this time around Northwestern head football coach Pat Fitzgerald could have a team that can contend in the Big Ten West. Fitzgerald doesn’t attempt to mask his philosophy which consists of a solid defense and a strong running game as they are a throwback to old school, smash mouth football in the Big Ten.
Last year Northwestern running back Justin Jackson was a menace for opposing defenses to deal with as he gained 1,418 yards on the ground. And this year as a junior, Jackson and his elusiveness will once again be difficult to deal with. The Wildcats have four starters returning on their offensive line which is led by senior center Ian Park who could be an All-Big Ten performer.
Last year Northwestern had the 13th ranked defense in the nation, and with five starters returning on that side of the football, the Wildcats will once again be difficult to deal with. Junior middle linebacker Anthony Walker will be in the conversation to win the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker, while senior cornerback Matthew Harris will be in consideration to win the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back.
The month of October won’t be easy for Fitzgerald and the Wildcats as they’ll have three road games against the Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan State Spartans, and Ohio State Buckeyes, but they should be hang around in the Big Ten Title conversation.
17. Washington State Cougars
As Mike Leach is set to embark on his fifth season as the head football coach of the Washington State Cougars, he is looking to put it together in consecutive years. Under Leach, the Cougars are coming off of their first winning season since 2003 and they are now looking to become a player in the Pac-12 North.
Junior quarterback Luke Falk is coming off of one of the finest seasons in Washington State history as he passed for 4,561 and 38 touchdowns in Leach’s pass happy system. It has taken Leach some time, but he has found the right signal caller in Falk to operate his offense. Along with Falk, the Cougars have senior wide receiver Gabe Marks who could be an All-Pac-12 player this season while also becoming the school’s all-time leader in receiving yards. Washington State also returns three starters on the offensive line as they look to provide blanket protection around Falk and the skill players.
Defensively the Cougars have six returning starters from 2015 and they have some play makers in the form of junior middle linebacker Peyton Pelluer, sophomore defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa, and free safety Shalom Luani that can positively impact the game for the Cougars.
The Cougars have to travel to face the Stanford Cardinal, but they get both the Oregon Ducks and Washington Huskies in Pullman which could help them with the Pac-12 North.
18. Oregon Ducks
The Oregon Ducks are hopeful that their strong finish to the 2015 college football season will carry over to this year. The Ducks were able to win seven of their last nine games as head football Mark Helfrich is emerging from the shadow of his predecessor Chip Kelly.
Senior quarterback Jeff Lockie has been real patient as he has been the understudy to both Marcus Mariota and Vernon Adams. But now Lockie can finally show what he can do under center for the Ducks. The Ducks have a player to look out for in the Heisman Trophy race in junior running back Royce Freeman. Last year Freeman rushed for 1,836 yards to go along with 17 touchdowns, and in 2016, he still be one of the fastest players in the nation. If Lockie is able to get the Ducks offense going, he has an array of receivers to get the football to in Oregon’s spread attack which includes senior wide receiver Bralon Addison and junior wide receiver Darren Carrington.
On defense, the Ducks must replace six starters in their front seven, but they will have a ton of experience in the secondary where led by junior Arrion Springs, all four starters will be returning.
As the season progresses, Oregon’s schedule will get tougher which includes road games against the Southern California Trojans and Utah Utes, but the Ducks do have enough firepower to win the the Pac-12 Conference.
19. Michigan State Spartans
The Michigan State Spartans are coming off of their best three-year stretch in school history. The Spartans have won 36 games over the last three seasons to go along with a top ten finish in the Associated Press Poll in each year as well. And although that there has been some talent that has left East Lansing, Michigan State head football coach Mark Dantonio still has a team to be reckoned with.
Quarterback Tyler O’Connor has bided his time on the bench behind Connor Cook who is now in the National Football League. And as a senior, O’Connor will get his chance to be the starting quarterback for the Spartans. You can expect Dantonio to lean heavily on the running game which will feature sophomore running back LJ Scott who could become a very punishing runner in the mode of former Michigan State running backs Lorenzo White and T.J. Duckett.
The Spartans must replace some talent on the defensive side of the football as they lost six starters from last year’s unit, but led by senior safety Demetrious Cox, the defense should be able to take shape as the season progresses.
Michigan State won’t be able to steamroll through the season like they did when they reached the College Football Playoff last year, but under Dantonio they will once again be a tough out.
20. Pittsburgh Panthers
Last year the Pittsburgh Panthers overachieved under first-year head football coach Pat Narduzzi as they won eight games for the first time since 2010. But it will be interesting to see if this program will be able to take the next step that has alluded them for more than 30 years.
Narduzzi likes to keep it simple on offense which means ball control and not turning the football over. Last year as a junior, quarterback Nathan Peterman made the most of his chance to be Pitt’s starting quarterback as he threw 20 touchdown passes to just 8 interceptions. As a team the Panthers also averaged 4.8 yards on the ground and you can expect more of the same from them in 2016.
After being the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Player of The Year in 2014, running back James Conner was limited to being a spectator for the majority of the 2015 college football season as he underwent cancer treatment. But now Conner is healthy and his return to competition alone should be inspiring to the Panthers program. In Conner’s absence, running back Qadree Ollison stepped up to gain more than 1,200 yards rushing, and going forward this duo should be problems for opposing defenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Narduzzi has built his reputation on the defensive side of the football and with an experienced unit which includes eight seniors which is highlighted by senior middle linebacker Matt Galambos, the Pitt defense could resemble some of Narduzzi’s defenses during his time as the defensive coordinator of the Michigan State Spartans.
Pitt’s non-conference schedule won’t be a cakewalk as it includes games against the Penn State Nittany Lions of the Big Ten Conference and the Oklahoma State Cowboys of the Big 12 Conference. But when Atlantic Coast Conference plays begins, the Panthers will be staring down the barrel of some daunting road affairs against the North Carolina Tar Heels, Miami Hurricanes, and Clemson Tigers as all three teams with be in the hunt to take the conference’s crown.
21. Georgia Bulldogs
This college football season will have a different feel for the Georgia Bulldogs as for the first time since 2000, Mark Richt will not be the head football coach in Athens. Kirby Smart has spent the last eight years as the defensive coordinator for the Alabama Crimson Tide where he helped the school win four national titles while also sending a bevy of talent on that side of the football to the National Football League. Now Smart is returning to his alma mater in the hopes of adding to what Richt has accomplished by taking Georgia’s program to the next level.
I expect Georgia to continue pounding the football which means that you can expect a healthy dose of a pair of junior running backs in Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. Both Chubb and Michel are explosive running backs that are always one play away from going the distance. In front of Chubb and Michel, the Bulldogs will only have two starters returning on the offensive line, but one of those is junior left tackle Isaiah Wynn who will look to anchor the offensive line.
On defense for Georgia, there will be some inexperience in the front seven, but there is a very experienced secondary in Athens which includes junior safety Dominick Sanders who will be in the mix to win the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back.
A road game against the Mississippi Rebels along with their annual meeting in Jacksonville against the Florida Gators will be the determining factor into whether or not that Smart will be able to get the Dawgs to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.
22. Temple Owls
It’s a new day for Temple Owls football as they are being at looked as a team that can win the American Athletic Conference while finishing the season ranked in the top 25 for the first time since 1979. Matt Rhule is in his fourth year as Temple’s head football coach, and he is steadily developing a program that will make the folks in Philadelphia very proud.
Senior quarterback P.J. Walker has been Temple’s starting quarterback in each of the last three seasons and he has developing into one of the better quarterbacks in the American Athletic Conference. Senior running back Jahad Thomas is a work horse for Rhule who only gets stronger as the game goes on. Temple has a ton of experience on their offensive line which includes four returning starters from 2015. Of those four starters, the Owls have a pair of senior in left tackle Dion Dawkins and center Brendan McGowan who’s experience should pay dividends for Temple’s offense.
Last year Temple was ranked 20th in the nation in total defense and with seven starters returning on the side of the ball, they can once again be stingy. Senior middle linebacker Jarred Alwan has solid range and he has the potential to carry the Owls defense while being one of the best linebackers in the American Athletic Conference.
Temple is no longer Philadelphia’s little secret and they could be in line to win their first conference title since 1967.
23. Arizona Wildcats
In 2015, the Arizona Wildcats were unable to live up to their preseason expectations as they stumbled to a record of 7-6, which included losing four out of their last six contests. But for Arizona head football coach Rich Rodriguez, you can expect his team to take a turn for the better this year in Tucson.
After a stellar freshman campaign in 2014, quarterback Anu Solomon took a step backwards last year which was a microcosm of the Wildcats team. But there is a ton of talent returning on the offensive side of the football around Solomon which includes three starters on the offensive line, and junior running back Nick Wilson.
For the Wildcats to have a legitimate shot to win the Pac-12 Conference in 2016, they will need a much more spirited effort on defense. Last year the Wildcats were 115th in the nation in total defense as they had ten games in which they surrendered at least 30 points. Arizona does return six defensive starters, but for first-year defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, he is hopeful to find some impact players.
Arizona has a favorable non-conference schedule, but things will get tougher in October with consecutive road games against the UCLA Bruins and Utah Utes as the Wildcats will have their hands full as far as winning the Pac-12 South for the second time in the last three years.
24. Stanford Cardinal
The Stanford Cardinal might not get the respect that they deserve nationally, but this is a program that has become the class of the Pac-12 Conference. Five of the last six college football seasons have ended with Stanford finishing no lower than 11th in the final Associated Press Poll which included being third last year after their dominating Rose Bowl victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes.
But it won’t be as easy for Stanford to win the Pac-12 this time around as they have to replace a plethora of talent. The Cardinal lost eight starters on offensive line which includes four offensive linemen and quarterback Kevin Hogan who was a four-year starter. However the Cardinals still have Mr. Versatility in junior running back Christian McCaffrey. Last year McCaffrey set an NCAA single-season record with 3,864 all-purpose yards as he was named the Pac-12’s Offensive Player of the Year. McCaffrey is an early favorite to win the Heisman Trophy and if he is able to keep Stanford among the upper echelon teams in the nation, he could put to bed the “East Coast bias” that has been a stigma with the Heisman voting.
Like their offense, the Cardinal defense must replace a wealth of talent as five starters from last year’s unit graduated. But the cupboard hasn’t been bare for some time at Palo Alto as senior linebackers Kevin Palma and Peter Kalambayi will look to step up and fill voids.
Under head football coach David Shaw, Stanford never has a cupcake schedule which is once again the case this year as their non-conference schedule includes games against the Kansas State Wildcats of the Big 12 Conference and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish along with a brutal conference slate that will see them get it on with the USC Trojans, UCLA Bruins, Washington Huskies, and Oregon Ducks.
25. North Carolina Tar Heels
In just four years as the head football coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels, Larry Fedora has built his program into a power within the Atlantic Coast Conference. Last year Fedora led North Carolina to 11 wins which tied a school record. The Tar Heels won the Coastal Division of the ACC for the first time in school history, and as the 2016 college football season is set to begin, Fedora is looking to build off of that success.
After spending the last two years as the understudy to quarterback Marquise Williams, junior Mitch Trubisky is ready for his opportunity to be North Carolina’s starting quarterback. But whereas Trubisky might be inexperienced as Carolina’s starting quarterback, he has plenty of talent around him. The Heels have three returning starters on the offensive line which included both offensive tackles in seniors Bentley Spain and Jon Heck. The Tar Heels have two senior wide receivers in Bug Howard and Ryan Switzer that Trubisky can lean on to make plays. However the engine for North Carolina’s offense is junior running back Elijah Hood.
Last year Hood rushed for 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns, but he was overshadowed in the Atlantic Coast Conference by the play of Clemson Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson and Florida State Seminoles running back Dalvin Cook. But make no mistake about it that Hood is a play maker who will be in the running to be the ACC’s Offensive Player of the Year.
The Tar Heels have seven starters returning on defense as their pass rush will be anchored by senior defensive end Mikey Bart. The Heels also have experience in their secondary with no player being more vital to their success than junior cornerback M.J. Stewart who is one of the top corners in the nation.
As Fedora is attempting to build North Carolina’s brand, he and his program will have a golden opportunity to win a showcase game to begin the season when they travel to face the Georgia Bulldogs of the Southeastern Conference at the Georgia Dome on September 3, while they also have road games within the Atlantic Coast Conference against the Florida State Seminoles, Miami Hurricanes, and Duke Blue Devils.
In the mix-Western Michigan Broncos, Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, Northern Illinois Huskies, Boise State Broncos
Sources: Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com, Cfbstats.com