photo courtesy of usctrojans.com
The Pac-12 fared quite well in 2016. Washington was selected to play in the college football playoffs before getting drilled by Alabama. Most Pac-12 fans thought the Huskies were not quite ready for the big dance—USC had already exposed the team's weaknesses.
Nevertheless, Washington still had earned the right to get into the playoffs. The bottom line is that the two best teams in the country—Alabama and Clemson— were much better than No. 3 Ohio State and No. 4 Washington.
This season the Pac-12 will generate a lot of excitement in the college football landscape. Teams that had been dead weight in the past—Colorado and Washington State—are now not only respected, but potential division contenders.
The cyclical nature of college football has permeated the Pac-12. Nothing is a given in the North or the South—the conference just keeps getting stronger and deeper. That makes predicting how each team will finish in the standings even more difficult.
But college football fans want fodder. Any fodder will do right about now. So let's usher in their onset of myopia. Let their screams of derision or joy ring through the air.
It is time for the pre-spring practice polls.
No. 1 USC (10-3, 6-3)
The Trojans are one of two Pac-12 teams returning the lowest number of offensive starters: five. While that may be a concern for one team, it should be not a major concern for USC. The Trojans do lose some big names including receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers and cornerback-receiver-special teams returner Adoree' Jackson. But for the past five years, USC has reloaded after losing such great receivers as Nelson Agholor, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods.
The Trojans avoid Oregon and Washington from the North but draw Stanford at home and Washington State on the road. They also play UCLA and Utah at home. Their final road game is at Colorado on November 11. Circle the date.
No. 2 UCLA (4-8, 2-7)
The Bruins return a ridiculous nine starters on offense. In a league that emphasizes offense, UCLA is in the driver's seat if its offensive line can keep quarterback Josh Rosen in a happy place—upright and not in a position to make hurried throws. Offensive line coach Adrian Klemm was terminated following the 2016 season. Clearly, head coach Jim Mora knows where his bread is buttered.
The Bruins' schedule is a doozy. They open conference play at Stanford and then host South champions Colorado. They also drew Oregon for Homecoming and travel to Washington and Utah in back-to-back weeks.
No. 3 Colorado (10-4, 8-1)
The Buffaloes are not going to surprise anyone this year. While they return an offense mostly intact, losing quarterback Sefo Liufau will be felt. Liufau was the team's heart and soul. His leadership was incredible. Steven Montez shows a lot of promise but the loss of Liufau cannot be overlooked. Neither can the loss of eight defensive starters. If anyone can keep Colorado overachieving, it is head coach Mike MacIntyre.
The Buffs' schedule is surprisingly doable. They did draw both teams from the state of Washington, but at least they get the Huskies at home. They also drew Oregon State and Cal and get USC at home in chilly mid-November.
No. 4 Arizona (3-9, 1-8)
Head coach Rich Rodriguez is entering his sixth year and if things do not turn around quickly, this may be his last hurrah. The Wildcats are in good shape on both sides of the ball, returning seven starters on each side. If they can stay healthy, Arizona should could make waves in the South. The biggest question is who will replace quarterback Anu Solomon. Brandon Dawkins will need to improve his accuracy if he wants the job.
The Wildcats' schedule is formidable. With road trips at Colorado, USC, Oregon and Arizona State, Arizona will probably struggle again to get bowl eligible.
No. 5 Arizona State (5-7, 2-7)
Like Arizona, Arizona State returns the majority of its starters: seven on offense and eight on defense. Last season the Sun Devils' offense was green. This season should see a significant improvement except...
the schedule does them no favors. Arizona State's seven-game stretch is what nightmares are made of : Oregon, at Stanford, (bye), Washington, at Utah, USC, Colorado and at UCLA. Last season the Sun Devils had a similar seven-game stretch and went 1-6.
No. 6 Utah (9-4, 5-4)
Yep, this is a surprising spot for the constantly underrated Utes. The offensive line must be rebuilt and they lose running back Joe Williams. Defensively, the front seven loses four—always a strength, I have no doubt this unit will reload. But it will have to do so by early October because the schedule looks daunting for an offense returning five starters and a defense returning six.
Trying to find more than two wins in this stretch is a tough job: Stanford, at USC, Arizona State, at Oregon, UCLA, Washington State, at Washington, Colorado.
No. 1 Oregon (4-8, 2-7)
Shocked? Let me explain. I have maintained from the very beginning of the Mark Helfrich era that the Ducks' incredible talent was not being developed by Helfrich & Co. New head coach Willie Taggert will improve the defense immediately—Colorado defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt is now in Eugene. Tackle Tyrell Crosby and running back Royce Freeman are returning for their final year. Call it a hunch (and a forgiving schedule) but I have the Ducks on top.
Oregon avoided Colorado and USC from the South. It splits games with the Arizona schools, plays at UCLA and hosts Utah. Let's face it, avoiding USC and playing the Bruins at home (not a huge home field advantage factor) is a bonus. Road trips at Stanford and Washington are the big question marks.
No. 2 Washington (12-2, 8-1)
After thoroughly analyzing the Washington Huskies, it appears that they were overrated. As much as I hate the word "overrated," let's look at the facts. Washington lost to its two biggest challenges: Alabama and USC. Only three other ranked teams—Colorado, Stanford and Utah—appeared on their schedule. With its inconsistent defense returning only six starters—corner Sidney Jones and free safety Budda Baker declared early for the NFL draft—I have doubts about Washington repeating as the North champions, much less the Pac-12 champions.
Schedule-wise, the Huskies look in great shape. They avoid USC from the South and host Utah and UCLA. They do open league play at revenge-minded Colorado. Washington also hosts Oregon and Washington State but plays at Stanford.
No. 3 Stanford (10-3, 6-3)
As much as I wanted to move Stanford up to No. 3, I think the loss of running back Christian McCaffrey will hurt the Cardinal. In the three games where McCaffrey had 12 carries or less, Stanford went 1-2. Sure, head coach David Shaw reloads better than most. But a Shaw-coached team giving up a combined 86 points to Washington and Washington State, struggling against Notre Dame, Cal and UCLA and only scoring five points against Colorado point to a possible shift in the Pac-12 North. I repeat, possible.
The Cardinal open up the season at Rice and then take a bye before playing at USC. Circle the date September 9—the winner of that game may be the Pac-12 champions.
No. 4 Washington State (8-5, 7-2)
The Cougars return a respectable seven starters on offense but two of their losses are monumental: receivers Gabe Marks and River Cracraft. Quarterback Luke Falk will always have plenty of targets to throw to but until Washington State can pound the ball 150 rushing yards per game, it will not win the North. Their 8-5 record was partly due to a gratuitous schedule.
Last season the Cougars drew the hapless Arizona schools, a disappointing UCLA team and Colorado from the South—they went 3-0 before falling to Colorado. This season they drew USC, Colorado, at Arizona and at Utah. I don't foresee another 3-1 result.
No. 5 Oregon State (4-8, 3-6)
The Beavers are improving, especially on defense. Their final five games were a look into the future. Against Washington State, at Stanford and at UCLA, the Beavers were still in the game in the fourth quarter. They beat Arizona and Oregon, ending their season with a winning streak. This season Oregon State returns seven starters on offense and eight on defense. The O-line will have to be rebuilt but if the Beavs can continue to ride last season's positives, they are capable of upsetting a big boy this season.
The Beavers' schedule is front loaded: at Washington State, Washington, at USC, Colorado and Stanford. Portland State, Minnesota and Colorado State are also in that gauntlet. Oregon State's improvement may be overshadowed by an 0-7 start.
No. 6 Cal (5-7, 3-6)
Head coach Sonny Dykes' sudden dismissal was shocking. Even more shocking was the hiring of Justin Wilcox. Remember, this is the same Wilcox who was fired by USC head coach Clay Helton in 2015. The same Wilcox who has been employed by five different schools since 2010. Color me skeptical, but paint me hopeful—he does inherit a fairly intact roster.
Baptism by fire will be the first item on Wilcox's to-do list. A potential 1-8 start is on the horizon: at North Carolina, Weber State, Mississippi, USC, at Oregon, at Washington, Washington State, Arizona and at Colorado. Oh, and let's not forget the Golden Bears' final two games of the season on the road at Stanford and UCLA.