As college football nears its kickoff, we're going around the country to preview the 2016 season, conference by conference, with analysis and projected records for every team. Today, in Part 8, we cover 20 things to know about the Pac-12.
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1. Congratulations to the Pac-12, which got left out of the second College Football Playoff but at least didn't spend the next year panicking as much the Big 12 did after missing the first. Unfortunately for the Pac-12, it may be the conference most likely to be left out of the playoff again. There are a lot of good teams in the league. It's debatable whether there will be any great teams. Combine that with a nine-game conference schedule and several tough nonconference games, and it seems likely that the Pac-12 champion will again have at least two losses. Just look at the schedules of the defending division champions: Stanford has road games at UCLA, Washington, Notre Dame, Arizona, Oregon and Cal. USC has games away from home against Alabama, Stanford, Utah, Arizona, Washington and UCLA, plus home dates with Oregon and Notre Dame. Stanford, Oregon or USC has won at least a share of the Pac-12 title every year since 1998. That may finally change in 2016.
2. USC could have the toughest schedule in the country, particularly at the beginning and end. The Trojans open with a physical September: Alabama in Texas, Utah State, at Stanford, at Utah. They end with Oregon, at Washington, at UCLA and Notre Dame. It's a brutal grind for the first full season under head coach Clay Helton, with a new quarterback -- Max Browne won the job over Sam Darnold -- and only one returning starter in the defensive front seven. USC had a disappointing 8-6 season last year, but that came with the Steve Sarkisian drama early in the year, and it still ended in a trip to the Pac-12 title game thanks to a win over the rival Bruins. As always, the Trojans have the talent to win the Pac-12 South and compete for the overall conference championship, but the schedule is such a grind, with two potential top-10 teams out of conference and the three best teams from the Pac-12 North, that it's hard to be too optimistic.
3. Beyond the schedule, the winner of USC's quarterback derby -- Browne, for Week 1 at least, is set up to succeed. And it's not as if the Trojans are lacking talent at QB, either: Browne was a five-star recruit who patiently waited his turn behind Cody Kessler. Darnold was a four-star recruit and brings more mobility to the table. Regardless of the choice, USC's new QB will be playing in an offense that returns every other starter. While the offensive line has had issues in recent years, now it's one of the deepest, most experienced and most talented units in the country, led by tackles Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the nation's best receiver. Sophomore Ronald Jones and senior Justin Davis form a terrific tandem at tailback. There's depth and talent everywhere here, and if the new quarterback plays well, USC is capable of beating anybody on its schedule. Of course, actually racking up double-digit wins against such a daunting schedule is a huge challenge, especially given the turnover up front on defense, so expectations should be kept in check.
4. Arizona tumbled from Pac-12 South champion to just 3-6 in the conference last season, with a familiar problem for Rich Rodriguez: defense. Star linebacker Scooby Wright missed most of the season with injuries, and the Wildcats allowed 40.3 points per game in Pac-12 play. In those nine conference games, only Oregon State failed to score 30 points on Arizona. Wright left for the NFL, and Rodriguez brought in Boise State's Marcel Yates as his new defensive coordinator. Yates is tasked with fixing a defense that struggled against both the run and pass, and while there is decent returning experience, this unit is likely to be in the bottom third of the Pac-12. Again, that puts pressure on the offense, which is hoping for a healthy season out of tailback Nick Wilson and is trying to figure out if two-year starter Anu Solomon will keep his job at quarterback over sophomore Brandon Dawkins. Solomon has thrown 48 touchdown passes in his career. When he was injured last season, Dawkins filled in against Arizona State and threw for 305 yards with two TDs and two picks. Regardless of who's playing QB, it's a RichRod offense, and Arizona is going to put up numbers, but substantial improvement on defense would be needed for the Wildcats to move back to the top of the division.
5. In some respects, Arizona State's defense did what it does best last season: It finished third nationally in tackles for loss per game and tied for first in sacks per game. But Todd Graham's aggressive mindset also showed off its worst qualities, because the Sun Devils either made a big play or gave up one. They finished 109th in yards per play allowed and surrendered a national-high 337.8 passing yards per game. That led to a 61-55 triple-OT loss to Oregon, a 48-46 loss to Cal and a 43-42 bowl loss to West Virginia. On the positive side, all six wins came by at least 10 points, but now the Sun Devils most rebuild much of their offense with QB Mike Bercovici, four offensive line starters, three of the top four receivers and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell all gone. Inexperienced sophomore Manny Wilkins and redshirt freshman Brady White are competing for the QB job, and at least the Sun Devils know they have an underrated backfield with Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage. The Sun Devils have speed on both sides of the ball. They have dangerous running backs and linebackers, and their receiving corps is in solid shape. The questions are whether the Sun Devils can protect the new quarterback -- Bercovici was sacked 39 times -- and stop anybody in the passing game, two factors that may keep Arizona State stuck in the middle of the pack in the Pac-12.
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QB: Josh Rosen, UCLA
RB: Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
RB: Royce Freeman, Oregon
WR: JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC
WR: Gabe Marks, Washington State
WR: Darren Carrington, Oregon
OL: Conor McDermott, UCLA
OL: Zach Banner, USC
OL: Tyrell Crosby, Oregon
OL: J.J. Dielman, Utah
OL: Johnny Caspers, Stanford
DE: Kylie Fitts, Utah
DE: Solomon Thomas, Stanford
DT: Lowell Lotulelei, Utah
DT: Eddie Vanderdoes, UCLA
LB: Cameron Smith, USC
LB: Salamo Fiso, Arizona State
LB: Azeem Victor, Washington
CB: Sidney Jones, Washington
CB: Adoree' Jackson, USC
S: Budda Baker, Washington
S: Marcus Williams, Utah
K: Andy Phillips, Utah
P: Matt Haack, Arizona State
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6. As usual, Utah will not be a fun team to play against. The Utes ranked sixth nationally against the run last year. They hit hard, and they get after opposing quarterbacks. They do lose four of their top five tacklers -- including linebackers Gionni Paul and Jared Norris -- but they have one of the nation's best defensive lines, featuring all-conference candidates Kylie Fitts, Hunter Dimick and Lowell Lotulelei. While the secondary gave up a lot of yards last year, that was mostly a product of volume because opposing teams threw so often; the Utes actually finished third in the Pac-12 in defensive passer rating. This stands a good chance of being the best defense in the South Division. Is that enough? The offense has to replace its top two receivers, QB Travis Wilson and, most importantly, do-everything tailback Devontae Booker. It will be up to senior tailback Joe Williams to shoulder the load now, with Washington/juco transfer Troy Williams likely playing quarterback. After a couple mediocre seasons, Kyle Whittingham has made Utah into a dangerous, physical team in the Pac-12, and given how wide-open it seems, the Utes can't be counted out in the division race. However, it's more likely that they take a step back from 2015's impressive 10-3 mark, especially given the lingering questions on offense.
7. Poor Colorado just can't catch a break. Coach Mike MacIntyre engineered an impressive turnaround at San Jose State, but it's a bit harder to pull off something similar against Pac-12 competition, even if the Buffaloes have historic success behind them. MacIntyre is 10-27 in three years in Boulder, and while last year's team was clearly improved, it still finished 1-8 in the conference, with the only win over Oregon State, and 4-9 overall, with a loss to Hawaii. The good news is that five of the nine losses were by eight points or less, so at least the Buffaloes were regularly competitive. Texas Tech transfer QB Davis Webb spurned Colorado and went to Cal, so again the Buffaloes will start Sefo Liufau, assuming he's healthy after a foot injury. Yes, he'll be surrounded by a more experienced team. The problem is that it's so hard to be reasonably confident in Colorado improving its win total, given the schedule. Beyond home games with Idaho State and Oregon State and perhaps the Colorado State game in Denver … is there anything to feel good about? The Buffaloes play at Michigan, and two of their three North opponents are Oregon and Stanford. They've come close to upsets, but the bowl drought will likely hit nine seasons.
8. Unlike Colorado, Oregon State is not far removed from relative success, but it has just as steep of a hill to climb right now. A young Beavers team went 0-9 in the Pac-12 last season in Gary Andersen's debut, beating only Weber State and San Jose State. This year's team plays Minnesota and Boise State out of conference and remains a step behind most of the rest of the Pac-12, making it tough for significant improvement in the standings. The Beavers will turn to Utah State transfer Darell Garretson at quarterback, while last year's starting QB and leading rusher, Seth Collins, is now playing receiver. Nine of Oregon State's 10 losses were by double digits, and the Beavers finished 100th in yards per play and 114th in defensive yards per play. Garretson creates some optimism at quarterback and there is a bit more experience overall, but it's going to take a lot of work to reverse a downward trend that has seen them go from 6-3 in the Pac-12 in 2012 to 4-5 in 2013 to 2-7 in 2014 to winless last year.
9. Sonny Dykes has made steady progress at Cal, even if he's had a wandering eye toward other jobs. Dykes inherited a 3-9 team and went 1-11, but since then the Golden Bears have improved to 5-7 and 8-5. Despite losing the No. 1 pick in the draft at quarterback, Cal's postseason fate will be determined by progress at other positions. That's not to say Goff won't be missed; he threw for 4,719 yards and 43 TDs as a junior, and he was responsible more than anyone for the Bears' improvement. But they do have a strong potential replacement in Texas Tech transfer Davis Webb, who will make a smooth transition to Sonny Dykes' system and has 5,557 passing yards in his career. There will be a drop off from Goff to Webb, but Webb is capable of keeping this offense moving. So who's he going throw to? The Bears lose six players who caught at least 40 passes last season, and while there's potential, nearly everyone is unproven. Defensively, Cal still ranked only 102nd in yards per play allowed, and it says goodbye to five of its top six tacklers. With tough nonconference games against San Diego State and Texas (in addition to the trip to Australia to face Hawaii) and USC, UCLA and Arizona State on the cross-division schedule, getting back to a bowl game is a tough challenge.
10. At long last, Washington State has positive momentum. The Cougars went nine seasons without a bowl bid from 2004-12, and Mike Leach had a mess to clean up when he arrived, in addition to transitioning to his Air Raid system. Wazzu got to the New Mexico Bowl in 2013, only to tumble back down to 3-9 in 2014. Last year, despite an opening loss to Portland State, Leach directed the program's best season since 2004. Washington State beat Oregon and appeared in the top 25 for the first time since 2006. While they got blown out by Washington with QB Luke Falk injured, the Cougars also beat UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State and ended the season by topping Miami in the Sun Bowl. Even with the rivalry embarrassment and FCS loss, Washington State had its most successful season in years, behind an improved defense and a dangerous passing offense operated with accuracy by Falk.
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Top 15 Games
1. Stanford at Washington, Sept. 30
2. Washington at Oregon, Oct. 8
3. USC at UCLA, Nov. 19
4. Stanford at Oregon, Nov. 12
5. Stanford at UCLA, Sept. 24
6. USC vs. Alabama, Sept. 3
7. Stanford at Notre Dame, Oct. 15
8. Notre Dame at USC, Nov. 26
9. Washington at Washington State, Nov. 25
10. USC at Washington, Nov. 12
11. USC at Stanford, Sept. 17
12. Oregon at USC, Nov. 5
13. UCLA at Texas A&M, Sept. 3
14. Oregon at Nebraska, Sept. 17
15. UCLA at Washington State, Oct. 15
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11. Leach still mostly refuses to run. Washington State attempted 56.8 passes per game last season and, not surprisingly, led the nation with an average of 389.2 yards per game. However, Falk used a lot of quick, short throws, as the Cougars ranked 76th in yards per pass attempt. Still, this is a potent passing game, and Falk is back as a junior, surrounded by productive receivers -- including Gabe Marks, who had 104 catches. Repeating last year's 9-4 record will be tough in a competitive division, although two of the Cougars' four Pac-12 road games are against Oregon State and Colorado, the conference's worst teams. While it's unlikely that Wazzu can crash the top of the Pac-12 North, Leach has done an impressive job, with the Cougars primed for back-to-back postseason trips -- something that has only ever happened for the program from 2001-03.
12. Oregon is more vulnerable than it's been in years, entering a pivotal season. The Ducks have questions about quarterback development after bringing an FCS transfer in for the second straight year (Vernon Adams last year, now Dakota Prukop). Their defense was a mess. They lost to Utah by 42 points at home and to Washington State for the first time in a decade. They'll have another new play caller with offensive coordinator Scott Frost taking the UCF job and receivers coach Matt Lubick promoted. Mark Helfrich is 33-8 in three seasons as head coach, with a Heisman winner and a loss in the national title game, but he's now at the stage where the pressure is on to move out of the shadow of his predecessor, Chip Kelly. The Ducks crumbled in a second-half Alamo Bowl meltdown after Adams got hurt, and now they'll turn to either Prukop -- previously of Montana State -- or redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen to run the show at QB. Defensively, it'll be up to new coordinator Brady Hoke to fix a unit that gave up 37.5 points per game.
13. And yet it would be a mistake to take Oregon lightly. It shows just how far Oregon has climbed in national status that a 9-4 season -- after losing a Heisman-winning QB -- felt like such a failure. For much of Oregon's history, a 9-4 record would have been considered a massive success. Expectations have been raised significantly, and the Ducks have to continue fighting Stanford while fighting off the rise of Wazzu and Washington. They'll be right in the thick of the race. The new quarterback won't have a shortage of weapons, as Royce Freeman is a star at tailback -- 1,836 yards last year -- and players like Darren Carrington, Dwayne Stanford, Charles Nelson, Taj Griffin and Kari Benoit are all quality playmakers. And while there are a lot of new faces in the defensive front, things can't exactly get worse on that side of the ball, where the secondary should improve. Ultimately, last year's team lost four games: one an embarrassment, one a horrifying blown lead in overtime, one in double-OT to Wazzu and one by three on the road to Michigan State, a playoff team. Does Helfrich have something to prove? Sure. But the right quarterback could also have this team back in the top 10.
14. Stanford has the returning Heisman Trophy runner-up, Christian McCaffrey, who broke Barry Sanders' single-season FBS all-purpose yards record. It has won at least 11 games in five of the past six seasons. It finished ranked No. 3 in the AP poll last season after a blowout Rose Bowl win. It has won three of the past four Pac-12 titles. An also-ran in the conference for most of last decade, Stanford has become the surest thing in the Pac-12, and it's not hard to see why anybody would pick the Cardinal to repeat and hold onto the conference crown. McCaffrey's presence alone seems like enough. In 14 games, he ran for 2,019 yards, caught 45 passes for 645 yards, averaged 28.9 yards per kick return and returned both a kick and punt for a TD. He even threw two TDs. McCaffrey had one of the greatest all-around seasons in college football history, with a knack for making big plays in space while also having the ability to grind out yards in a physical offense. McCaffrey is capable of changing any game at just about any moment, and he's capable of winning just about any game for the Cardinal.
15. With that said, Stanford has plenty of holes to fill around McCaffrey, against a brutal first-half schedule. Three-and-a-half-year starting QB Kevin Hogan is gone, along with three starting offensive linemen, two of the top three wideouts and several impact players on defense, led by linebacker Blake Martinez. The defense was excellent in the Cardinal's 8-5 season in 2014, only to fall off last year, finishing 64th in yards per play allowed. McCaffrey can do everything … but he does need some help, and while Stanford has shown the ability to reload, it's going to have to do it quickly: It doesn't play a Group of Five team until the final game against Rice, and its first six games are against Kansas State, USC, UCLA, Washington, Washington State and Notre Dame. That's a tough road for whomever the new QB is -- junior Ryan Burns or sophomore Keller Chryst -- although the good news is that the defense will likely take a step forward again, led by an improved line. Stanford is undoubtedly a top contender for the Pac-12 crown, but the race is more wide-open than it's often been in recent years.
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1. Washington (10-2, 7-2)
2. Oregon (9-3, 6-3)
3. Stanford (9-3, 6-3)
4. Washington State (7-5, 4-5)
5. California (5-7, 3-6)
6. Oregon State (2-10, 1-8)
1. UCLA (10-2, 7-2)
2. USC (8-4, 6-3)
3. Utah (7-5, 4-5)
4. Arizona State (6-6, 4-5)
5. Arizona (6-6, 4-5)
6. Colorado (4-8, 2-7)
Conference Championship: UCLA over Washington
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16. Washington has not won the conference since sharing the then-Pac-10 title in 2000 and going to the Rose Bowl. It has lost 12 straight games to Oregon and seven of eight to Stanford. It is coming off a 7-6 season and has finished in the top 25 once (25th, 2013) since 2001. The Huskies were a strong program for a long time, but they've yet to earn the benefit of the doubt, which is why there is inevitable -- and justified -- backlash to the substantial hype they have gotten entering the 2016 season. Very little in recent history has suggested that Washington is capable of overtaking Stanford and Oregon in the Pac-12 North, so why is that going to change this year? Let's start with acknowledging that Washington played better than a 7-6 team last year. Six of its seven wins were by at least 13 points, while it lost three games by six points or less. Behind the Pac-12's best defense, the Huskies finished 26th in Sports Reference's Simple Rating System, 13th in Football Outsiders' F/+ ratings and 25th in Jeff Sagarin's ratings. They were a young team, and a lot of signs are pointing up.
17. Washington hasn't been a top-10 team in 16 years, but it is capable of competing for a major bowl bid in 2016. Coach Chris Petersen led four top-10 teams at Boise State, and now he's in his third year at Washington, with his recruits and his system in place. Defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski has done a phenomenal job, as last year's team replaced a bunch of NFL talent and led the Pac-12 in yards per play allowed. Much of that unit is back, headlined by one of the nation's best defensive backfields and a stellar group of linebackers. Offensively, Washington was incredibly young last year: It started freshmen at quarterback, Jake Browning, and running back, Myles Gaskin, and the best receiver -- John Ross -- missed the season with an injury. The line was also young. Now, Browning -- who clearly got better over the course of his rookie year -- and Gaskin are back to lead a more experienced unit, against one of the more manageable schedules in the conference. The Huskies do have a tough three-game stretch in the first half (at Arizona, Stanford, at Oregon), but they miss UCLA from the South and should cruise in nonconference play against Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State. They have an excellent defense and rising young stars at quarterback and tailback, and despite the dominance of Stanford and Oregon in this division, the Huskies have a legitimate chance of winning the conference.
18. UCLA has the best young quarterback in college football. Josh Rosen has the look of an NFL passer, and while his freshman season had expected inconsistency, he threw for 3,668 yards and 23 touchdowns and showed off terrific mechanics, arm strength and command of the offense. While UCLA is changing offensive coordinators -- Kennedy Polamalu replaces Noel Mazzone, who left for Texas A&M -- the scheme will be more tailored to Rosen's strengths. In his second year as starter, expect Rosen to improve upon a 60-percent completion percentage, although he will have a new-look supporting cast with three of the top four receivers and star tailback Paul Perkins gone. Last year's UCLA offense had more all-around experience, but this year's offense has the advantage of a more seasoned Rosen. With promising players like RB Soso Jamabo ready to emerge, the Bruins remain in good shape on that side of the ball despite the turnover around their rising star quarterback.
19. UCLA's push for its first Pac-12 title since 1998 will be dependent on a rebound from its run defense. There are by no means no other questions here -- as stated at the top, it's likely there are no great teams in the Pac-12 -- and UCLA plays road games at Texas A&M and BYU outside the conference, in addition to drawing Stanford, who Jim Mora has yet to beat. But the Bruins have an easier path than USC, and there are ample reasons to believe that the defense will improve in coordinator Tom Bradley's second season. Last year's unit was ravaged by injuries, including LB Myles Jack, DT Eddie Vanderdoes and CB Fabian Moreau. Jack is off to the NFL, but both Vanderdoes and Moreau return. The secondary is loaded, and the linebacking corps is more prepared to handle Jack's absence, led by Kenny Young and Jayon Brown. UCLA was already solid against the pass last year, and the run defense can rebound after allowing nearly 200 yards per game. There may be a lot of new faces on offense, but the Bruins look like a complete team, with the best quarterback in the conference.
20. Since UCLA last won the league title in 1998, Stanford, Oregon or USC has won at least a share of the conference crown every year. Washington got to the Rose Bowl in 2000 and UCLA did it two years earlier, but the Pac-12 has been dominated by those three teams: first USC under Pete Carroll in the 2000s, and now Stanford and Oregon have won the last seven. Thus, it is not easy to predict none of those teams to even make the conference championship game. Make no mistake, Stanford, Oregon and USC have the talent to win the conference. The prediction here, however, is that UCLA finally gets over the hump and beats Washington for the Pac-12 title. The Pac-12 may not produce a playoff team again, but from week-to-week it may have the most entertaining and chaotic conference race in college football.