Will the PAC-12 be left out of another college football playoff in 2016? Early indications are yes, but it’s not because the conference isn’t talented, it’s just that the teams may end up cannibalizing each other along the way. The team that wins the conference this year may just have three losses — if not more.
But who will it be?
Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and USC all have questions that need to be answered before conference play. The Washington Huskies are trying to make their claim as the conference’s best team this year, but how will the young pups in Seattle respond to being the hunted. Washington St., Utah, and Arizona State may not contend for divisional titles but are talented enough to dash the title hopes of another program. There may not be any room for teams to take a week off — unless it’s against Oregon St. or Colorado.
It has been a major overhaul for the Cal Bears as head coach Sonny Dykes has had to replace 13 starters including No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff and linebacker Hardy Nickerson, who transferred to Illinois. New offensive coordinator Jake Spavital will have to rely on a running back-by-committee led by Tre Watson, Khalfani Muhammad, and Vic Enwere until new starter Chase Forest gets acclimated. It may be addition by subtraction on the defensive side as the starters lost really didn’t perform well. The Bears defense finished the season ranked 105th in rushing and 108th in total defense; defensive end DeVante Wilson and defensive tackle James Looney are two guys defensive coordinator Art Kaufman is expecting to take the next step.
It was a rollercoaster 2015 for an Oregon Ducks program that had some big wins –USC and Stanford — but also had some disappointing losses to MSU and TCU. After dipping into the Division II ranks for a quarterback in 2015, the Ducks do it again this year snagging Dakota Prokup from Montana State. The star of the Oregon offense will be running back Royce Freeman. Despite rushing for 1,836 yards and 17 touchdowns last year, Freeman is usually overlooked when it comes to the “best running back in the nation” conversations. If he has another great year, he should be one of the first three mentioned and will be headed to New York in December. The Ducks must find another defensive star to continue the star trend of Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner; DT Henry Mondeaux has the potential but has yet to match the production.
Quick, say something nice about the Oregon State Beavers… they have nice helmets. That’s how hard it was to find something good for a program that finished in the bottom half statistically on both sides of the ball in 2015. You have to wonder if head coach Gary Anderson is regretting leaving Wisconsin for a program that has struggled to find an identity over the last few years. The one bright spot on the team is its receiving unit as Victor Bolden and the supersized Jordan Villamin (6’5 232) lead the way. But who will be throwing them the ball? Utah St. transfer Darell Garretson is entrenched in the position for now but does he provide enough to improve on that poor passing offense that was 116th in college football? JUCO transfer Phillip Napoleon should help on the defense — but he can’t do it alone.
Many figured it was because he had Jim Harbaugh’s players but it’s time to admit that David Shaw is one of the best coaches in the nation and the Stanford Cardinal are a program that isn’t going away anytime soon. That being said this could be a year that the program takes a slight step back as it looks to replace 12 starters on both sides of the ball. One starter who will be the center of attention is running back Christian McCaffrey. The junior is coming off one of the best all-purpose seasons in college football history and we get to see how he responds with the bullseye on his back as the team breaks in new quarterback Keller Chryst. Coach Shaw will rely on defensive end Solomon Thomas and linebacker Peter Kalambayi to solidify a unit that was one of the best in the conference last season. This season we will find out if Stanford is a rebuild or a reload program.
The expectations are sky high for the Washington Huskies this year as Chris Peterson returns 15 starters — including eight on defense. Sydney Jones, Budda Baker, and Kevin King lead a defensive backfield unit that is one of the best in the nation. The success or failure in Seattle will depend on the continued progression sophomore duo Jake Browning at quarterback and Myles Gaskin at running back. If the offense can have the statistical growth this year that the defense did last, there could be roses in the future for Huskies fans everywhere. A Charmin-soft nonconference schedule should help prepare the young pups for the Pac-12 grind.
Mike Leach looks to have finally made inroads in Pullman and finished 9-4, but now he must build upon that success. If not for other record-breaking quarterbacks, Luke Falk would have been the talk of the conference last season as he passed for 4,561 yards and 38 touchdowns. The Washington St Cougars return eight starters including their top three receivers in Gabe Marks, River Cracraft, and Robert Lewis so the junior signal caller will have a chance to step into the spotlight this year. Sophomore Hercules Mata’afa leads a defense that was average last season — 74th in scoring defense and 64th in passing defense — which was a major step up from being poor in 2014 — 114th and 124th. Watch out in Pullman if somehow defensive coordinator Alex Grinch can get that unit to the next level.
To say the defense was bad out in Tucson would be an understatement as the Arizona Wildcats took a major step back on that side of the ball in 2015. Head coach Rich Rodriguez has never been known for handling that side of the ball well but to finish ranked near the bottom of every category nationally is unacceptable. He replaced his entire staff and new defensive coordinator Marcel Yates looks to reconstruct the unit immediately. Linebacker is one position that he shouldn’t have to worry about as four players with experience return — including Cal transfer Michael Barton. Offensively quarterback Anu Solomon returns as the starter but there are questions about his health and ability to last an entire season. Injury issues have also plagued the running back position. Nick Wilson had a breakout freshman year but missed time limited him to only 729 yards in 2015. After starting strong in the desert it seems as if Rodriguez is starting to wilt under the ‘Zona heat.
The cupboard isn’t bare for the Arizona State Sun Devils, but there are a lot of blank labels stacked on the shelves. The offense only returns four starters but two of those — running back Demario Richard and receiver Tim White — were productive in 2015. It still will be a major transition for head coach Todd Graham who is used to having a top offense as he has to find a new quarterback and replace four starters on the line. As it stands now it is a three-man race for the signal caller job and sophomore Manny Wilkins is leading after spring practice. Big plays surrendered by the passing defense — ranked 128th in the nation — may cause defensive coordinator Keith Patterson to be cautious in his blitz packages which left the back end vulnerable. Cornerback Kareem Orr handled the attention from opposing quarterbacks as he had six interceptions — he just needs more help.
The days of being a Big 12 powerhouse seem to be ages ago for a Colorado Buffaloes program that is still struggling to find its footing in the conference. Though the team may not have had much success in the win column the returning players should have cohesion on both sides of the ball. Sefo Liufau is slated to start at quarterback and while his stat line of 2,418 yards, nine touchdowns, and six interceptions isn’t awe-inspiring, it isn’t bad either. Freshman running back Beau Bisharat — the highest rated recruit under MacIntyre — could be the focal point of the CU run game but he will have Phillip Lindsay to help. Each level of the defense has a guy defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt can depend on — defensive end Josh Tupou, linebacker Jimmie Gilbert, and safety Tedric Thompson — but can they find success as an entire unit.
Josh Rosen and the defense will have to guide the UCLA Bruins as only four starters return from a UCLA offense that was prolific in 2015. The strength of the team should be the defensive backfield as it returns three starters — cornerback Marcus Rios, and safeties Jaleel Wadood and Randall Goforth — from a unit that led the conference in pass defense in 2015. This may be the year head coach Jim Mora Jr. has to earn his paycheck as there is talent on the roster, but it is just inexperienced. Despite only having NFL coaching experience prior to taking over the program Coach Mora Jr. has recruited well to Westwood as the Bruins finished last season ranked 12th in the nation led by the conference’s top recruit linebacker Mique Juarez.
It all starts in the trenches and luckily for the head coach Kyle Whittingham, the Utah Utes are very good up front. The team returns 8 of 9 starters, including all-conference candidate DT Lowell Lotuleilei, from 2015; the lone newcomer is JUCO Transfer Garret Bolles. One thing the Utes defense did better in 2015 was force turnovers; the +13 margin was best in the conference and Top 5 nationally. All-conference safety Marcus Williams led the way with five interceptions and with the disruption up front could see more this year. Whittingham may need those turnovers to make things easier for an overhauled offense. It’s still unknown whether Brandon Cox or Troy Williams will line up under center to start the season and there will be a new running back and three new receivers starting when the season kicks off against Southern Utah in September.
“Dual-threat U” seems to be the new nickname for the USC Trojans. It’s one thing to play one position well but to play both sides is outstanding. For the Trojans, it helps having three guys who can do that in Adoree Jackson, Juju Smith-Schuster, and newcomer Jack Jones helps. Instead of going for a big name USC stayed with interim coach Clay Helton. The continuity with the staff helped with producing the No.1 recruiting class in the conference for 2016. In addition to Jones, eight of the top 20 recruits in the conference will be playing for the Trojans including the uber-athletic defensive end Oluwole Betiku. The mettle of the younger players will be tested early as they head to Texas to face Alabama to start the year. USC fans may find out soon if new QB Max Browne is ready to continue the tradition of talented Trojans quarterbacks as USC opens the season against Alabama and its tough defense.
Oregon vs. USC– Yeah I know I picked this game last year and was way off but you have to figure these two teams are the most talented in each division. Royce Freeman will have a season that keeps him in the Heisman conversation all year which allows the Ducks defense to jell under new coordinator Brady Hoke. Despite an early hiccup against Alabama, no other team has the firepower that USC has and sophomore back Ronald Jones cements his name as an early 2017 Heisman candidate.
JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree Jackson provide enough highlight plays and the young Trojans come up big along the way. By the time the title game rolls around quarterback Max Browne has enough experience to guide USC to the title. Trojans 45 Ducks 30
Washington vs UCLA- Experience will be the key to winning the conference title, too bad there’s so much parity that the winner could have 3 losses. UCLA will have a more balanced offense by the end of the season and their D will be able to shut down most passing games in the country. The Huskies will depend on a ball control offense to win the close games. This game won’t be close due to turnovers and will take the conference on a time machine trip with the Bruins winning big. Bruins 42 Huskies 20