College Football 2016: Pac-12 preview

Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford

Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford

Quick – name the last time a team not named USC won the national championship. If you guessed Washington in 1991, then you guessed correctly. (Even that championship was shared by Miami – the Huskies claimed the UPI coaches poll, while the Hurricanes got the votes of the sportswriters in the AP). Before that it was UCLA in 1954.

The fact is that aside from USC, the Pac-12 has been a full step behind most other major conferences. To most of the nation, there are the Trojans, and then there’s the rest of the conference. There are a number of reasons for that perception. For one, USC’s reputation and tradition go back decades. Even casual football fans have heard of USC because of its seven Heisman winners and 11 national championships. The Trojans also recruit nationally on a level far beyond the rest of their conference peers.

So each year when you look at the preseason rankings, you’ll see someone in a major setting predicting that USC is the class of the Pac-12. This year, ESPN has placed USC at No. 8 nationally, even though three or four other Pac-12 teams are likely in a better position to win the conference. In many years, you can count on the Trojans to have the best players at many positions in the Pac-12, and this year they do have the best receiver and probably the best offensive line. But not at quarterback – that’s UCLA. Stanford and Oregon have the best running backs. Utah has the best defensive line, Arizona State has the best linebackers and top-to-bottom, Washington might have the best secondary.

There’s no way that I expect a Pac-12 team to contend for the national title this season, but there will be a lot of great football being played out west. Just be sure to look beyond the Trojans to find most of it.

Predicted finish

Pac-12 North

  1. UW_helmetWashington (11-2). The Huskies have seen both heights and depths in their history. During the tenure of legendary coach Don James, Washington was at or near the top of the conference, and won the national championship in 1991 after going 12-0. Rick Neuheisel guided the Huskies to an 11-1 finish in 2000. But the effects of probation took their toll, and Washington went into a six-year funk that included an 0-12 finish under Ty Willingham in 2008. Now, under Chris Petersen, the Huskies have their best chance to return to prominence in the Pac-12. They bring back 14 starters, including the bulk of a very good defense. QB Jake Browning returns following a decent freshman season, and could see an uptick in the passing game should his receiving corps gel quickly. RB Myles Gaskin is a preseason all-conference pick, and could improve on last season with the return of most of the offensive line. The defense is stocked with talent, particularly in the secondary, where CB Sidney Jones and FS Budda Baker will anchor the best unit in the Pac-12. LB Azeem Victor is smallish, but is great in the middle. NT Elijah Qualls will own the middle of a line that should be very solid. Last year, the Huskies had the nation’s No. 13 scoring defense but were middle-of-the-pack on offense. With an improvement on both sides, this year’s team should be a lot better. Plus, the schedule is very user-friendly. UW gets Oregon on the road, but plays USC and Stanford in Seattle. The division will be close enough that the season-ender against rival Washington State will be a must-win.
  2. Stanford_helmetStanford (10-2). Stanford sits on the brink of a season that could see them have a good year, a great year or a truly special year. In the category of good, the Cardinal should win at least nine wins and make it to a very good bowl like the Holiday. In the category of great, Stanford might do what we’re predicting and win 10 games, and reach an even better bowl, like the Alamo. In the category of truly special, the Cardinal could stage a few road upsets against UCLA, Washington and Notre Dame and find itself flirting with the College Football Playoff late in the season. A year like that would probably include a Heisman Trophy for RB Christian McCaffrey, who narrowly lost out to Derrick Henry last season. The outcome of the season will depend on the answers to some key questions. Q: Will the Cardinal find a solid starting QB? A: Nobody knows, but we think they’ll find a good enough starter to throw safe passes and hand off to McCaffrey. Q: Will McCaffrey have another huge season. A: We believe he will. Q: Will three new starters on the line come together quickly. A: Again, we believe so. On defense, we have few questions about the Cardinal, which returns eight starters to a good, but not great, unit. This season should be a big improvement, especially with the conference’s best tandem of OLBs in Joey Alfieri and Peter Kalambayi. If Stanford survives the gauntlet of an early schedule intact, it could be on the way to a truly special outcome.
  3. Oregon_helmetOregon (9-3). Few teams have flirted with greatness without truly attaining it more than Oregon. From 1977 to 1994, Rich Brooks build a program that was finally on the way up. In his final season, he reached – and lost – the Rose Bowl. Mike Belotti took over in 1995, and by the time he left in 2008, the Ducks had three double-digit winning seasons. Amazingly, he never won the conference title. Then came Chip Kelly, who in his four seasons had three straight 12-win seasons and also won three Pac-12 titles. He got the Ducks to the BCS title game, where they narrowly lost to Auburn. Now, under Mark Helfrich, the Ducks are definitely among the class programs in the Pac-12. He and Heisman winner Marcus Mariota reached the 2014 College Football Playoff, but fell short against Ohio State. And even though Oregon is a bona fide power, it’s doubtful that this is the year the Ducks will break through. Transfer QB Dakota Prukop will likely get the job to lead the offense, and will have the luxury of handing off to all-conference RB Royce Freeman, who is a threat to score any time he gets the ball. He will have a solid complement of receivers, but the line may pose some problems with three new starters. The defense will be a project, with only three returning starters, and no real standouts among those who do return. The secondary may be the best part of the D, but it would have to be better, given that Oregon had the nation’s 125th ranked passing defense in 2015. There are enough questions that, in most seasons, Oregon would be expect to simply rebuilt. But a friendly schedule should keep the Ducks upwards of eight wins by the end of the year.
  4. WSU_helmetWashington State (6-6). Mike Leach is a true offensive wizard. A lawyer turned football coach, Leach simply has a brilliant mind for the offensive side of the football. It’s on defense where he struggles. At Texas Tech, Leach was known for great offenses … and terrible defenses. It’s a trend he’s brought with him to Washington State. Last year the Cougars had the best passing game in the country, but were ranked 84th in total defense. In 2016, Washington State might very well be an offensive machine. How well it fares in and out of the Pac-12 depends on if the Cougars can muster a defense that will opponents under 24 ppg – something that they did only three times in 2015 (including in the Sun Bowl against Miami). Junior QB Luke Falk returns after a stellar season and should be the conference’s best this year. He gets back his best running back and two of his top three receiving targets. Rebuilding the left side of the line is a concern. Defensively, the front six could be a project, with only two returning starters from a unit that gave up almost 200 ypg on the ground. (We have to mention DE Hercules Mata’afa, not just because he has all-conference potential, but also because he has a fabulous football name.) The secondary will be better, led by FS Shalom Luani. While the offense may score upwards of 35 ppg, improving on defense will be vital to improving in terms of wins and losses. We see the season-ender against Washington as the difference between a winning record and 6-6 for the Cougars.
  5. Cal_helmetCalifornia (4-8). Sonny Dykes is a very good football coach, and he has the Bears heading in the right direction. Whether he keeps them heading there will be a challenge in 2016. If he does, he should be considered for Pac-12 Coach of the Year. The problem is that he has history and his own roster working against him. California has never had much of a football program. There have been good players and good seasons, but it’s been rare to see the Bears put a lot of years of winning years together. Cal has a tendency of following very good seasons with losing ones or, at the least, less-winning ones. The Bears also return only 10 starters, including the heart of its offense. Gone is all-everything QB Jared Goff, along with the team’s top three receivers and best running back. New starters will abound on offense, save for the line, which returns intact and should be one of the Pac-12’s best. While the offense is a concern, the defense might be a bigger one as it only returns five starters from a unit that game up 30.7 ppg. There are no defensive standouts, and only a smattering of starting experience in each segment of the defense. The secondary is liable to be torched by opposing quarterbacks, and the total of yardage and points could be even worse in 2016. We expect Cal to enter the final two weeks at 4-6 needing two wins to reach a bowl. Those last two games are at home against Stanford and UCLA – so a rebuilding year without a bowl is very likely.
  6. OregonSt_helmetOregon State (3-9). If there’s a guy who can turn around the football fortunes of Oregon State, it might be Gary Andersen. Andersen took Utah State from a conference doormat to the top of the WAC. He went 19-7 in two seasons at Wisconsin before bolting to Oregon State. But in his first season, he saw the Beavers go from 5-7 to 2-10 and dead last in the Pac-12 North. Beaver fans are all too familiar with that position, as Oregon State has historically been on the bottom of the conference looking up. The Beavers only have 10 starters back from last year’s dismal team that scored just 19 ppg while giving up 37 ppg. On the plus side, transfer QB Darell Garretson should provide a boost on offense, but will need the lackluster play at running back and receiver to rise up several notches. The line is a somewhat bright spot. Defensively, just four starters are back from last year’s horrific unit, including just two of the front seven. It’s highly likely that the Beavers will look pretty bad on defense as the new starters adjust to their roles. The good news is that only seven seniors are projected to start this year, so 2017 looks like it could be the year Oregon State makes a move up the conference ranks. Until then, don’t expect the Beavers to do much better than two or three wins this season.

Pac-12 South

  1. UCLA_helmetUCLA (11-2). You might think that we have something against USC, and honestly, we might. How else to explain why I have UCLA two games ahead of the Trojans in the Pac-12 South, while so many others have the Trojans ranked well ahead of the Bruins. There is a natural reaction among many to avoid having the favoritism toward USC that so many other sportwriters have. But there is a reality in the rosters, schedules and coaches of both teams that leads us to place UCLA firmly at the top of their division, while USC rebuilds for next year and beyond. True, the Bruins only have four returning starters on offense, but one of those is Heisman hopeful Josh Rosen. While his top three receivers have all departed, those who will replace them have enormous upside, starting with WR Ishmael Adams, who is making the transition from cornerback to receiver. Star RB Nate Starks is gone and will likely be replaced by a committee who will run behind a line that has three new starters. Still, the offense is likely to gel enough to score close to 30 ppg. That may be enough for a defense that should improve with seven returning starters. DT Eddie Vanderdoes is one of the best at his position in the Pac-12, as are OLB Deon Hollins and SS Jaleel Wadood. With strong units in every phase of the defense, the Bruins should provide the offense room to develop. The schedule is friendly in that early road games to Texas A&M and BYU will be non-conference tests that will help the team grow – but that the Bruins are capable of winning. The conference slate is fairly light, and Stanford and USC both play at UCLA. Coach Jim Mora has the Bruins definitely heading in the right direction, and should contend for a Rose Bowl berth with his team this season.
  2. USC_helmetUSC (8-4). By all rights, USC should be one of the best teams in the nation every year. The Trojans repeatedly have recruiting classes filled with four- and five-star players and this year’s team hasn’t had a class with an average recruit ranking of less than 3.8. The problem with USC isn’t the talent on the field – it’s with who’s coaching it. USC’s administrative and coaching has been, for lack of a better term, a dumpster fire. Following the successful tenure of Pete Carroll, the Trojans lured Lane Kiffin to town. He had a good season in 2011, but then the team fell apart and Kiffin was fired by AD Pat Haden at the Phoenix airport mid-season. The next year, Steve Sarkisian was brought in to right the ship, and after a single decent season, he was also canned mid-year for alleged on-the-job alcohol abuse. Now the Trojans will trust former OC Clay Helton to take them back to the promised land. Helton took over four games into the year last season and went 5-4 down the stretch. He should provide stability for USC, but until he proves he can win the big games, our money is on UCLA, which has outrecruited the Trojans in recent years. QB Sam Browne is the likely early starter and will benefit from nine returning starters on offense. The Trojans are loaded with talent in the starting lineup, led by RB Justin Davis and all-everything WR JuJu Smith-Schuster. The line is easily the best in the Pac-12. Defensively, USC is definitely rebuilding. CB Adoree Jackson is one of the best in the nation, and his fellow CB Iman Marshall has all-Pac-12 potential. The rest of the defense will feature fresh faces, and the front seven is especially depleted. With uncertainty at quarterback, it’s hard to project an improvement on last season’s 33.9 ppg, but it seems a fair bet that this year’s defense will struggle to keep opponents under 24 ppg. The opener against Alabama in Arlington will speak volumes, and will be an interesting bookend when compared with season-ender against Notre Dame.
  3. Utah_helmetUtah (8-4). One of the interesting and pleasant surprises in the Pac-12 in recent years has been the development of the Utes into one of the conference’s more competitive teams. Coming in from the Mountain West, Utah was one of that conference’s perennial contenders. Conventional wisdom was that it would struggle against the better competition in the Pac-12, and initially the Utes did. But after two seasons at 5-7, Utah rebounded to winning form and last season tied for first place in the Pac-12 South. This year should bring another winning record and bowl bid to the Utes, but advancing to the conference title game is highly unlikely. Aside from most of the offensive line, the entire offense has to be rebuilt. The most painful loss is all-conference RB Devontae Booker, who is likely to be replaced by a committee. The entire receiving corps is also gone, and a leader or two has yet to emerge. Fortunately, the line is good enough to provide time to whoever emerges at quarterback – likely JUCO transfer Troy Williams – to figure things out. The good news for Utah is that its defense figures to be very good, and maybe excellent. DT Lowell Lotulelei is one of the best in the nation, and he anchors the best defensive line in the conference. The secondary also returns largely intact, with FS Marcus Williams leading a deep and talented unit. Linebacker is a sore spot for the Utes, but even with adjustment issues there, they should field one of the best defenses in the Pac-12. Most of their difficult games (BYU, USC, Washington, Oregon) come at home, and we expect the Utes to find a way to eight wins by season’s end.
  4. ASU_helmetArizona State (7-5). Todd Graham has been successful at each school on his head coaching resume – including Arizona State. Graham has coached at four schools in 10 years, and has taken his teams to bowls in nine of those years. (The lone exception – 2009 at Tulsa.) At Arizona State, he has improved the Sun Devils in part through a resurgence in recruiting. For the past four years, ASU has had drastically better recruiting classes, and the result is showing up on the field. Graham has plundered the JUCO ranks, especially on defense, to compensate for a lack of returning experience. This year, ASU doesn’t look like it will be a contender in the South, but it still should win its share of games and contend for a yet another bowl berth. The biggest concerns are at quarterback, where a definitive starter has yet to emerge, and offensive line, where the Sun Devils lost four of five starters. The brightest spot is running back, where ASU returns a great 1-2 punch in Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage. It’s likely that the Sun Devils will need the defense to step up while the offense adjusts, and that is a distinct possibility. The Sun Devils will be led by our preseason defensive POY in LB Salamo Fiso, who was a fiend behind the line last season with 20 TFLs. While Fiso owns the middle of the field, OLB Christian Sam will effectively patrol the outside. The line is similarly gifted – basically, Arizona State’s front seven will be quite a force. The secondary, however, could be a bit of a project, but should improve from last season’s dismal performance – they ranked 127th out of 128 teams in yardage allowed. The Sun Devils open with four winnable games to start the season and could be 4-0 when they visit USC on Oct. 1. After that, things get quite a bit more challenging, and wins should be harder to come by.
  5. Arizona_helmetArizona (4-8). Rich Rodriguez’s seat at his desk in Tucson is about to get very hot, at least if our predictions are correct. Rodriguez has led the Wildcats to a bowl in each of his four seasons in Arizona, and the ‘Cats won the Pac-12 South and went to the Fiesta Bowl in 2014. But a 7-6 finish last season tempered fans’ enthusiasm, and ‘Zona doesn’t look any better this season than it did last year. The Wildcats will be a case of “more of the same” on both side of the ball, and that is not a good thing. On offense, eight of 11 starters are back from a unit that scored 37.4 ppg in 2015. QB Amu Wilson will head up a potent passing attack, and the receiving corps, while not stellar is still quite capable. Arizona’s running game could be the best part of the offense, especially if Nick Wilson returns to his full potential. The line is above average and returns largely intact. Defensively, the Wildcats need a drastic improvement but aren’t likely to get it. The front six returns four starters and might do better against the run than a year ago (198.5 ypg, ranked 98th nationally). But the secondary will be an almost complete overhaul with one one returning player. The defensive coaching staff has also been overhauled, and that might pay dividends. But expecting a one-year turnaround is highly unlikely. Arizona opens with BYU and then gets Grambling and Hawaii at home. But a gauntlet follows with Washington, UCLA, Utah, USC, Stanford and Washington State coming in a seven-week stretch. A win in any of those will be a blessing. The Wildcats will likely tolerate Rich-Rod’s downturn in 2016. But the heat will undoubtedly be turned up in 2017.
  6. Colorado_helmetColorado (1-11). Can you remember the last time the Buffaloes finished the season with a winning record? Neither can most of their fans. The answer is 2005, when the Buffs finished 7-6 in Gary Barnett’s final season. Since then, three different coaches have tried to resurrect Colorado’s football fortunes to no avail. (It did go to one bowl – the Independence – in 2007, but lost that game and finished 6-7.) The latest coaching victim is Mike McIntyre, who is 10-27 in his three seasons in Boulder, and who is probably one more bad year away from the inevitable axe. Sadly for him, that year is almost certainly 2016. Colorado simply does not have the talent of the elite programs in the Pac-12, and appears destined for another year of futility. QB Safo Liufau returns for his senior year after throwing just nine TDs last season. He gets back his top running back and receiver, but both of them had around 600 yards each last year. Only two offensive linemen return, so protection and running lanes could be issues. Seven return on defense, led by CB Chidobe Awuzie, who is Colorado’s lone preseason All-Pac-12 candidate. The Buffs’ linebackers look solid and return largely intact, but the line is a complete overhaul. Colorado struggled to slow down rushing attacks in 2015 – this season won’t be any better. The season opener against Colorado State in Denver will tell a lot about how improved the Buffaloes are or aren’t. Then, after a home game against Idaho State, they travel to Michigan Oregon and USC in a four-week span. By midseason, a losing record could all but be assured – as will the fate of Coach McIntyre.

Bowl teams: UCLA, Washington, Oregon, Stanford, USC, Utah, Arizona State, Washington State.

Offensive player of the year: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
Defensive player of the year:
 Salamo Fiso, ILB, Arizona State
Coach of the year:
 Chris Peterson, Washington

2016 All-Pac-12 Team

Tomorrow: 2016 ACC preview

Copyright © 2016 Doug DeBolt

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About Doug DeBolt

Capnpen is a writer who was a newspaper and magazine journalist in a previous life. A college journalism major, he now works as an administrator, but gets his writing fix by blogging about a variety of topics, including politics, religion, movies and television. When he's not working or blogging, Capnpen spends time with his family, plays a little golf (badly) and loves to learn about virtually anything.
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