Percy Allen sizes up the Pac-12 heading into what is expected to be another competitive football season in which maybe, just maybe, someone besides Oregon or Stanford will break through and emerge as champion.
You’ve got questions about the upcoming Pac-12 football season, and we have answers so let’s get started.
Will the Pac-12 place a team in the four-team college football playoff after being left out last season?
Unfortunately, no. There’s just too much parity in the conference and too many of the top teams are playing ridiculously difficult schedules for anyone to finish the season unscathed.
Pac-12 bowl predictions
Foster Farms: Stanford
Las Vegas: Oregon
Armed Forces: Washington State
OK, will a Pac-12 player win the Heisman Trophy?
Again, no. But the conference will be well represented at the PlayStation Theater in New York where the winner is announced.
All right, will a team other than Oregon or Stanford break through and win the Pac-12 title for the first time since 2008?
Oh yeah, that’s going to happen. And we’re looking at you, UCLA. And you, too, Washington.
Here are 12 more tidbits you need to know to get ready for season.
1. Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey is a Heisman front-runner
Stanford often reloads rather than rebuilds so it shouldn’t be too difficult for the Cardinal to replace quarterback Kevin Hogan, three offensive linemen taken in the NFL draft and Blake Martinez, the Pac-12’s leading tackler.
Expect the Cardinal to lean heavily on junior running back McCaffrey, the Heisman Trophy runner-up last year who broke the FBS record for all-purpose yards (3,864). He led the Pac-12 with 2,019 rushing yards and was tops on the team with 645 receiving yards and 45 receptions. And McCaffrey was a dangerous returner who scored on a punt and kickoff return.
Sophomore quarterback Keller Chryst, who has attempted just nine passes, will have to learn on the fly while leading an offense that lost seven starters. Sophomore defensive end Solomon Thomas is one of six returners on a defense that was third in the Pac-12 in points and yards allowed (24.3).
2. USC has the toughest schedule in the country
After two weeks of fall camp, junior Max Browne, the former Skyline High standout, won a hotly contested quarterback battle over redshirt freshman Sam Darnold. Browne is surrounded by plenty of talent, including nine other returning offensive starters led by receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and right tackle Zach Banner – the Lakes High product.
12 must-see Pac-12 games
No. 20 USC vs. No. 1 Alabama (in Arlington, Texas), Sept. 3: Trojans are 13-1 in season-opening road games.
No. 16 UCLA at Texas A&M, Sept. 3: Bruins have a four-game winning streak in openers.
Brigham Young at Utah, Sept. 10: Rematch of last year’s Las Vegas Bowl – a 35-28 Utes victory.
No. 8 Stanford at No. 14 Washington, Sept. 30: The first of two games to decide the North Division.
No. 24 Oregon at Washington State, Oct. 1: Last year the Cougars rallied from a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit for a dramatic 45-38 2OT win that snapped an eight-game losing streak to the Ducks.
No. 14 Washington at No. 24 Oregon, Oct. 8: Ducks have won 12 straight, including 11 by at least 17 points.
No. 8 Stanford at No. 10 Notre Dame, Oct. 15: This game has playoff implications, but not sure either team will be in the top 10 when they meet.
Utah at No. 16 UCLA, Oct. 22: Potentially the biggest game in the South Division. Utes won 17-9 last year.
No. 8 Stanford at No. 24 Oregon, Nov. 12: One of these teams has won the Pac-12 title the past seven years.
No. 20 USC at No. 16 UCLA, Nov. 19: Bruins coach Jim Mora is 3-1 against USC, but Trojans coach Clay Helton is 1-0 versus UCLA.
No. 18 Washington at Washington State, Nov. 25: Huskies have outscored WSU 113-40 in past three Apple Cup wins.
No. 9 Notre Dame at No. 17 USC, Nov. 26: Trojans have lost four of the last six to the Fighting Irish.
Clay Helton, who went 5-4 last year as an interim coach, begins his first full season with perhaps the most talented roster in the Pac-12. However, the schedule is just too difficult for the Trojans to improve on last year’s 8-6 campaign.
USC opens against defending national champion Alabama in Arlington, Texas, and finishes the regular season hosting No. 9 Notre Dame. The Trojans play five of their nine Pac-12 games on the road, at Stanford, Utah, Arizona, Washington and UCLA.
3. UCLA quarterback Josh “Chosen” Rosen lives up to the hype
There is a ton of inexperience on a UCLA offense that lost leading rusher Paul Perkins, four of its top five receivers and three offensive line starters. And coach Jim Mora has a new play-caller in Kennedy Polamalu.
But the Bruins return quarterback Josh Rosen, who won the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year award last season. If he can cut down on his 11 interceptions and improve on a rookie campaign in which he completed 60 percent of his passes and averaged 282.3 yards per game while tossing 28 touchdowns, then UCLA could make its first trip to the playoffs or end an 18-year Rose Bowl drought.
UCLA is a dark-horse candidate to win the Pac-12 title because the Bruins don’t play Oregon and Washington. They also play just four road games and their toughest contests (Stanford, Utah and USC) are at home.
4. Washington is the nouveau pick to win the Pac-12
Has it really been 16 years since Washington had a double-digit win season? In 2000, the Huskies finished 11-1 following a 34-24 win in the Rose Bowl.
In his third year, coach Chris Petersen has UW poised for a run at the conference championship. He has budding stars at quarterback (Jake Browning) and running back (Myles Gaskin). He also has what’s expected to be a standout defense that features all-conference talent at every position, including defensive tackle Elijah Qualls, middle linebacker Azeem Victor, cornerback Sidney Jones and safety Budda Baker.
The Huskies, who have the weakest nonconference schedule in the Pac-12, should get off to a great start, beginning with the Sept. 3 opener against Rutgers followed by home games against Idaho and FCS heavyweight Portland State.
5. Oregon is going with another FCS transfer at quarterback
New quarterback Dakota Prukop, a graduate transfer from Montana State, was one of the hottest recruits in the offseason who drew interest from Alabama and Michigan. He takes over for Vernon Adams Jr., the Eastern Washington transfer, who only played half of last season due to injuries.
New offensive coordinator Matt Lubick takes over the Pac-12’s top offense that features running back Royce Freeman, receiver Darren Carrington and tight end Pharaoh Brown.
New defensive coordinator Brady Hoke has installed a 4-3 front while overhauling a unit that ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in yards (488) and 10th in points (37.8) allowed per game.
6. Former Husky quarterback Troy Williams leads Utah
Hardly anyone considers Utah a serious Pac-12 title contender despite the Utes’ steady ascension since joining the conference five years ago. Last season, they started 6-0 and rose to No. 3 in the polls before going 3-3 to finish the regular season.
Four returning starters along an offensive line that surrendered just 19 sacks (ranked fourth in Pac-12) should ensure an easy transition for Williams, the former Washington quarterback who played at Santa Monica College last year.
Lowell Lotulelei, a 310-pound junior defensive tackle, is literally the Utes’ biggest star. Older brother Star was a first-team All-American at Utah before being taken 14th overall in the 2013 NFL draft.
7. Rich Rodriguez is waiting until opener before naming a quarterback
Cranky is probably the best way to describe Rich Rodriguez during fall camp. Entering his fifth year at Arizona, Rodriguez is eager to recapture the magic of 2014 when the Wildcats won the South Division, finished 10-4 and played in the Fiesta Bowl.
That season, freshman quarterback Anu Solomon passed for 3,793 yards and 28 touchdowns. After a slumping sophomore season, Solomon is locked in a quarterback battle with sophomore challenger Brandon Dawkins. And the competition isn’t likely to end soon.
Due to the uncertainty at quarterback, junior running back Nick Wilson and senior receiver Trey Griffey – the son of Mariners Hall of Famer Ken Griffey – are expected to take bigger roles. And new defensive coordinator Marcel Yates is tasked with revamping a defense that ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in points allowed per game (40.3) last season.
8. Washington State has a dark horse Heisman candidate in quarterback Luke Falk
Falk, a junior, finished fifth in the nation with 4,561 passing yards despite missing the Washington game due to injury and is expected to rank among the country’s leaders again this year. And if the Cougars can improve on last season’s 9-4 finish, then Falk should be among the Heisman Trophy finalists.
The offense is loaded with playmakers, including receivers Gabe Marks, an All-American candidate, and River Cracraft and running backs Gerard Wicks and Jamal Morrow.
Washington State was 5-3 in games decided by seven points or less, which partly explains how Falk garnered the nickname “Cool Hand Luke.”
9. California lost too much to make a smooth transition
The last time coach Sonny Dykes and the Golden Bears broke in a new quarterback, a freshman prodigy named Jared Goff slogged through a miserable 1-11 season. Goff, who set 26 school passing records, left early for the NFL and was the No. 1 overall pick, which has forced Dykes turn to Texas Tech transfer Davis Webb.
Webb, a 6-5 and 225-pound graduate senior, started his first two years with the Red Raiders. He set Big 12 freshman passing records during his first year and was named the Holiday Bowl MVP.
Webb won’t hold Cal back. The Bears’ biggest problem is overcoming the loss of their top six receivers and seven defensive starters, including leading tackler and senior middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson Jr., who transferred to Illinois.
10. Todd Graham is still mulling his choices at quarterback
Until a quarterback emerges, expect Arizona State’s new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey to lean on the one-two punch of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage at running back, who combined for 1,757 rushing yards last season.
Graham, who enters his fifth year with the Sun Devils, floated the idea of using a platoon system at quarterback featuring redshirt freshman Brady White and sophomore Manny Wilkins.
It’s not ideal for an offense that lost seven starters, including four offensive linemen and three of the top four receivers. But the Sun Devils do bring back their two leading tacklers in linebackers Salamo Fiso and Christian Sam.
11. Colorado is hoping quarterback Sefo Liufau returns from foot injury
The Buffaloes had Webb for a few weeks, but the Texas Tech quarterback changed course and settled on California for his final season of eligibility.
Webb’s reversal forced coach Mike MacIntyre to once again put the offense in the hands of three-year starter Liufau, who is recovering from a Lisfranc foot fracture that ended his junior season. Liufau was steady during fall camp, but it remains to be seen if he regains the form that made him a freshman standout in 2013.
Colorado is the most experienced team in the Pac-12 with nine returning starters on offense and defense.
12. Oregon State needs transfer quarterback Darrell Garretson Jr. to make an immediate splash
Garretson, a junior transfer from Utah State who sat out last season, marks a definite upgrade under center for Oregon State. With Seth Collins and Nick Mitchell at the helm last season, the Beavers ranked last in the Pac-12 in passing yards per game (176), completion percentage (46.2) and points per game (17.8).
Garretson, who tallied 2,586 yards, 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 13 games in two seasons at Utah State, is a better fit to run coach Gary Andersen’s spread offense. Meanwhile, Collins, OSU’s leading rusher last season, has moved to receiver.
|Percy Allen’s Pac-12 forecast|
|Pac-12 title game: Washington over UCLA|