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.
- Clay Helton
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