Your 2016 Pac-12 football preview, featuring the key games, players, pro prospects and coaches on the hot seat.
After being shut out of the 2015 College Football Playoff, the Pac-12 is eager to get back into the national title hunt. Will it, once again, all be up to North Division to supply contenders, or is this the year that the South Division becomes a player as well?
Rather remarkably, either Oregon or Stanford has won the Pac-12 championship in each of the last seven seasons – three for the Ducks and four for the Cardinal, including last season. The South crew? A nice, parity-infused mix of schools that took it on the chin when the NCAA sacked USC for four years at the beginning of the decade. The division lost its signature program, its best answer to Oregon and Stanford.
Well, the sleeping giant’s slumber ended two years ago, yet the Trojans are still looking to become the South Division bell cow. They knocked on the door in 2015 by reaching the Pac-12 Championship Game, but were outclassed by Stanford, lost the bowl game to Wisconsin and wound up with a mediocre 8-6 record.
Now the program moves forward without quarterback Cody Kessler and with a coach, Clay Helton, who needs to prove he has championship chops.
Across town, UCLA is attempting to make a case that it, too, belongs in the title discussion. Blue-chip quarterback Josh Rosen is an important year older, and Jim Mora continues to haul in highly-rated recruiting classes. However, the Bruins are still looking to get over the hump and into a new stratosphere of contention.
Utah is the rock-steady squad timepieces can be set to, so it should never be overlooked. Arizona and Arizona State share both a hatred for one another, and a need to rebound from disappointing campaigns. And barring a surprise, Colorado will once again pull up the South Division rear, leaving Mike MacIntyre’s future in doubt.
So, who represents the North Division in Santa Clara this December, the Ducks or the Cardinal? Or is there a third option for a change? True, Oregon and Stanford are littered with playmakers, like Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey, and they own the blueprint for adjusting on the fly to personnel changes. Yet both are a little more vulnerable than they have been in recent years, which could crack the door open for Washington to slip through.
The Huskies possess all of the ingredients to become this year’s big surprise in the league, a la Utah for a long stretch of 2015. Chris Petersen has had two years to put his stamp on the program, and there’s an abundance of quality young returners on offense and defense.
Over in Pullman, Wazzu will be dangerous since Luke Falk is back under center. Meanwhile, Cal is poised to dip now that Jared Goff is a Los Angeles Ram, and Oregon State is a long way off from competing for bowl-eligibility.
The chatter about the Pac-12 being the next best thing to the SEC died down a bit last season. Stanford and Oregon got out of the gate slowly, and the league’s lesser half failed to produce a bonafide powerhouse.
For the Pac-12 to regain some swagger in 2016, it needs a legit national title contender to emerge and the South Division to tug a little more of the weight than it has in recent years.
Pac-12 Football Team That Will Surprise
Washington – This offseason has a very different feel to it on Montlake. It’s been a rough 21st century for the Huskies, which last won 10 games or a league title in 2000. But all signs point to a new direction in 2016. Chris Petersen enters his third year with a team that’s loaded with young talent on both sides of the ball. Washington went with a pack of underclassmen a season ago, like quarterback Jake Browning, running back Myles Gaskin and next-level defensive backs Budda Baker and Sidney Jones. The team also finished with a flurry, beating Oregon State, Wazzu and Southern Miss by double-digits. If the Huskies can build on that strong close, and the kids keep maturing, they could seriously challenge Stanford and Oregon in the North Division.
Pac-12 Football Team That Will Disappoint
USC – Former AD Pat Haden retained Clay Helton in the hopes that he’ll be the guy to finally pilot the Trojans to the Pac-12 peak. However, it’s more likely that new AD Lynn Swann will be a little disappointed by this year’s results.
True, Troy harbors enough talent to win the entire conference. But it also faces uncertainty in key areas, and must play an absolutely brutal schedule. Cody Kessler will be difficult to replace, even more so now that backup Max Browne was unable to outright defeat Sam Darnold in the spring. And a completely rebuilt defensive front wall will cause problems for an otherwise talented back seven.
To also throw into the mix, the revamped staff and roster must grapple with one of the country’s toughest schedule, including the opener with Alabama, trips to Stanford, Utah, Washington and UCLA, and visits from Oregon and Notre Dame.
Pac-12 Football Game Of The Year
USC at UCLA, Nov. 19 – Plenty will be at stake when these two longtime rivals meet in the Rose Bowl toward the end of the regular season. As always, Los Angeles bragging rights will hang in the balance, which impacts West Coast recruiting. And Jim Mora will be looking to rebound from his first loss in the series.
Even more important is how this game will shape the race in the always-tight South Division. Teams currently residing in the North have owned the Pac-12 for the past seven seasons, but the winner of this year’s Victory Bell will have a legitimate shot of dethroning Stanford, Oregon or possibly even Washington two weeks later.
Five Pac-12 Players Who Deserve A Bigger Spotlight
The following five Pac-12 football players are stars, yet they often get overshadowed, even by players in their own locker room. Each deserves more national recognition this season, and has the talent to earn it.
1. DE Solomon Thomas, Stanford
2. LB Cameron Smith, USC
3. WR Darren Carrington, Oregon
4. DE Takkarist McKinley, UCLA
5. LB Paul Magloire, Arizona
Top 5 Pac-12 Football Coaches On The Hot Seat
Listed below are five Pac-12 football coaches who really need to deliver better results than they did a year ago. Now, appearing on a hot seat doesn’t mean a firing is imminent, but the pressure to meet or exceed expectations is higher than it was at this time in 2015.
1. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado
2. Mark Helfrich, Oregon
3. Gary Andersen, Oregon State
4. Jim Mora, UCLA
5. Clay Helton, USC
5 Non-Conference Games The Pac-12 Better Take Very, Very Seriously
Oregon travels to Nebraska. Stanford is back in South Bend. UCLA opens with Texas A&M. And it’ll be USC and Alabama in an epic Week 1 showdown. But lurking in the shadows of September’s mega-showdown is a handful of opponents that the Pac-12 best not overlook.
1. Cal at San Diego State, Sept. 10
2. Utah State at USC, Sept. 10
3. Utah at San Jose State, Sept. 17
4. Eastern Washington at Washington State, Sept. 17
5. Arizona State at UTSA, Sept. 17
5 Best Pro Prospects
1. WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC (Jr.)
2. RB Christian McCaffrey, Stanford (Jr.)
3. CB Sidney Jones, Washington (Jr.)
4. CB Adoree’ Jackson, USC (Jr.)
5. RB Royce Freeman, Oregon (Jr.)
5 Biggest Pac-12 Shoes To Fill
1. Cal QB Davis Webb for Jared Goff
2. Oregon DE Henry Mondeaux for DeForest Buckner
3. UCLA LB Mique Juarez for Myles Jack
4. USC QB Max Browne or Sam Darnold for Cody Kessler
5. Stanford OG Brandon Fanaika for Joshua Garnett