Breaking news, rankings, predictions and analysis all in one place.

College Football Preview 2017-2018: Previewing the Pac-12

Myles Gaskin, Washington
Pac-12 Conference

2016 In Review: Prior to last season, Washington was viewed as a possible dark horse in the Pac-12 race, but a team with a ton of youth and inexperience. The Huskies didn't disappoint, putting together a nearly flawless regular season and going on win the Pac-12 and earn a spot in the College Football Playoff. They were able to propel themselves past North Division powers such as Stanford, who they dominated, and Oregon, who struggled mightily en route to a 4-8 season and last place finish in the division. On the other side of the conference, an even bigger surprise managed to play their way into the Pac-12 Championship Game. Colorado had won just ten games their previous three seasons combined before breaking out in 2016, going 10-4 and losing just one regular season game in the conference. They would eventually lose to UW handily in the Championship, but it was still a huge breakthrough for Mike MacIntrye and the Buffs. USC meanwhile started off the year going nowhere, at 1-3, before winning their final nine games and beating Big Ten Champ Penn State in the Rose Bowl. UCLA, much like Oregon, was a surprise in the complete wrong way, as the preseason Top 25 team limped to a 4-8 record.

Ranking the Pac-12 (click on Top 25 teams for more in-depth previews)

North Division

1. Washington Huskies (National Rank: 6)
Washington's 12-2 breakthrough in 2016 certainly was a surprise, but the Huskies proved they were legit by dominating Colorado in the Pac-12 Championship Game and going toe-to-toe with Alabama for much of the Peach Bowl. They sent off a number of playmakers to the NFL, including speedy quick wide out John Ross and three starters in their secondary, but this the cupboard is far from bare in Seattle. Junior quarterback Jake Browning won Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year last season and should once more engineer one of the nation's most explosive units. He'll be aided by a great 1-2 punch at tailback that includes junior Myles Gaskin and senior Lavon Coleman, along with a receivers corps spearheaded by senior Dante Pettis, who makes a living making tough, circus catches. The defense may undergo somewhat of a rebuild to begin 2017, but D-coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski should get it going in no time. Junior nose tackle Vita Vea and linebackers Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria will keep the rush defense very stout, while the Huskies are excited about possible breakout candidates Taylor Rapp and Byron Murphy in the secondary. With all that Washington has returning and a schedule that includes a very soft non-conference slate and won't have to play USC, the Huskies looked primed to once more win the North. If their defense can find some new weapons quickly, another trip to the Playoff could also be in the cards.

2. Stanford Cardinal (National Rank: 21)
After a four game stretch that saw them lose three games, including bad losses to Washington and Washington State, Stanford could have easily quit on the 2016 season. However, head coach David Shaw decided to move veteran Keller Chryst into the starting QB role, and the season changed. Stanford won six straight, and handled UNC in the Sun Bowl (without superstar running back Christian McCaffrey) to finish off 10-3. McCaffrey made the expected jump to the NFL, but expect junior Bryce Love, who played terrific in his absence, to have no issues taking over featured back duties. Chryst tore his ACL in that Sun Bowl and his status for the start of this year is still uncertain, but when he does come back, he'll have a solid receivers corps to through to (including junior Trenton Irwin and junior tight end Dalton Schultz), while operating behind a very experienced and deep O-Line. The Cardinal's defense took a step back last season, but should be up to their usual tricks in 2017. Senior defensive tackle Harrison Phillips sets the tone on the D-Line, while nearly everybody is back in at linebacker. The pass defense was just average last season, but cornerbacks Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder should help it evolve into a strength. Stanford has become one of this conference's most consistent winners and while losing McCaffrey will obviously hurt, they are still serious threats in the North. If the aerial attack and pass defense does improve, they might even have a chance to overtake UW in the division.

3. Washington State Cougars
Once again, Washington State opened their season slowly, losing to an FCS team, as Eastern Washington stunned them at home 45-42. However, in typical Mike Leach fashion, the Cougars heated up significantly, winning eight straight to put themselves back in North title contention. Three straight losses (including a bowl loss to Minnesota in which they managed just 12 points) to end the season were frustrating, but the Cougars still finished off 8-5 overall and second in the division. This team could be even better in 2017, thanks in large part to the return of gunslinger Luke Falk. Falk has operated Washington State's air raid attack nearly flawlessly over the past two seasons, including throwing for 4,468 yards and 38 touchdowns last year. He will have a talented group of receivers to throw the ball to, including senior Robert Lewis and junior Tavares Martin, essentially ensuring the Cougars' pass attack will once again be one of the nation's best. Leach has worked hard to improve the other side of the ball over his tenure in Pullman, and the group could be the best it has been since he took over. Junior Hercules Mata'afa is a difference-maker on the defensive line, while nearly everybody returns to an improving secondary, including shutdown corner Darrien Molton, who already has two years of starting experience under his belt. The Cougars may not have the depth or talent of their in-state rival Washington, but this team is still certainly a contender in this conference, particularly with Falk at the helm. If they can pull an upset or two and not have the poor start to the season they've had the last few years, they have a chance at their first double-digit win season since Leach took over.

4. Oregon Ducks
It seems like ages ago Oregon was battling Ohio State for the National Championship in 2014-2015. The Ducks, once the Pac-12's top program, have seemingly fallen off a cliff in the two years since, going 9-4 in 2015 then suffering through a miserable 2016 in which they went 4-8 and at one point lost five straight. Former South Florida head coach was brought in after Chip Kelly disciple Mark Helfrich was let go. Taggart's main goal is to improve a defense that was absolutely terrible in '16, finishing 126th nationally. He brought in Jim Leavitt to run the defense, after Leavitt led a very successful D at Colorado this past season. There is plenty of talent in the secondary and Miami transfer Scott Pagano should improve the D-Line, but there is still a long way to go. On offense, Oregon isn't what they once were in the peak-Chip Kelly days, but they can still score in a hurry. Sophomore QB Justin Hebert took over mid-season and played very well, with 1,936 yards and 14 touchdowns. He'll be helped by speedy senior Charles Nelson and talented sophomore Dillon Mitchell on the outside, but Oregon will be without Darren Carrington. Carrington, one of the conference's top receivers when healthy, was kicked off the team followed a DUI arrest. At running back, the Ducks should be as dangerous as ever, as senior Royce Freeman is back, after running for 945 yards and nine touchdowns in 2016. There should be some notable improvement this season in Eugene, but the defense is still a major work in progress, and Herbert is still learning the ins-and-outs of the offense. They should be able to get back to a bowl game, but expecting them to contend for a division title in Taggart's first season would be asking a little too much.

5. Oregon State Beavers
The Beavers did go 4-8 in 2016, but there was significant progress for Gary Andersen and the rest of this coaching staff. Andersen, formerly the head man at Utah State and Wisconsin, suffered through a 2-10 debut with Oregon State in 2015, but last year's edition resembled more the type of team he wants it to be: physical and hard-nosed. Junior tailback Ryan Nall is one of the country's most underrated rushers; the powerful runner had 951 yards and 13 touchdowns last year and should be dangerous once more. He'll hope to take some pressure off QB Jake Luton, a junior college transfer expected to take over starting duties. Expect junior Marcus McMaryion, who had 1,286 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2016, to push Luton. The Beavers should have a decent group of receivers to throw the ball to, as senior Jordan Villamin and junior Seth Collins return. Collins, who is a converted quarterback, is as athletic and quick as they come at the position, and Oregon State will look for him to create some big plays. On defense, the Beavers were decent a year ago and return a number of difference-makers. Senior end Baker Pritchard and junior outside linebacker Bright Ugwoegbu are expected to cause plenty of chaos up front, while the secondary brings back rising sophomore corner Xavier Crawford and various other pieces from the fourth-best pass defense in the Pac-12. Andersen is still rebuilding the Beavers, and this team still doesn't appear to be a serious threat in the North just yet. However, if they can find a quarterback to spread the ball out to some of their weapons on the outside they could take some big steps forward, and likely make their first postseason bid under the third-year head coach.

6. California Golden Bears
It's a new day in Berkeley, as California decided to move on from head coach Sonny Dykes and replace him with former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. Wilcox has proven himself as one of the brightest defensive minds in the sport, but it will be interesting to see how he handles a head coaching gig at a school whose finances are known to be very poor. Cal will likely move away from the air raid offense that Dykes utilized, but still run up-tempo. Sophomore Ross Bowers is competing with junior Chase Forrest to take over the starting quarterback job, after Texas Tech transfer Davis Webb graduated. Senior running back Tre Watson, who ran for 709 yards last year, will head the rushing attack, while sophomores Melquise Stovall and Demetrius Robertson will take over at receiver after star wide out Chad Hansen departs. On defense, the Golden Bears brought in former Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter to be their new D-coordinator, and he has plenty of work to do, as Cal finished 127th nationally in points allowed, and 125th in total defense in 2016. The good news is that nearly everybody returns to the front seven, including senior Devante Downs (84 tackles) and junior Cameron Saffle (four sacks). The secondary could still be a problem, but Cal is hopeful sophomore Evan Rambo can recover from a torn ACL and be an impact player for this team. As the Golden Bear shift away from the Dykes era, they may not have quite the prolific offenses they once had, but expect a more balanced, disciplined team. But, expect some growing pains as they adjust to Wilcox and some of the new schemes in place. A last place finish in the division seems highly likely.

South Division

1. USC Trojans (National Rank: 2)
After leading the Trojans to nine straight victories and tossing five touchdowns in the Rose Bowl win, sophomore Sam Darnold will enter 2017 as likely the Heisman frontrunner. Darnold has displayed impressive poise and confidence since taking over the starting QB job, and he should put up huge numbers spreading the ball around to USC's plethora of playmakers. That includes dynamic running back Ronald Jones II, a junior who should have a huge year now that he doesn't have to split carries, along with junior Deontay Burnett and sophomore Michael Pittman Jr. at receiver. If there is a concern on the offense, it is the O-Line, which loses three starters and long-time staples Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler. On defense, the Trojans are also blessed with talent at all three levels, and stocked to the brim with future NFL talent. Up front junior Rasheem Green is viewed by many as a breakout candidate, while physical nose tackle Kenny Bigelow is healthy after suffering his second torn ACL in 2016. Junior outside linebacker Porter Gustin is one of the top pass rushers in the conference, while junior inside linebacker Cameron Smith is an absolute tackling machine. The secondary must move on from Jim Thorpe Award winner Adoree' Jackson (given to the nation's best defensive back), but junior corner Iman Marshall and senior safety Chris Hawkins should keep the unit a notable strength. Second-year head coach Clay Helton has a very complete team to work with, and with Darnold leading the way, the sky is the limit for the Trojans. If they can stay healthy and patch up the offensive line, they could earn entry to the Playoff for the first time in school history.

2. UCLA Bruins (National Rank: 23)
The Bruins were one of the nation's most disappointing teams a season ago, as they slipped to a 4-8 record, as injuries and inexperience crippled them. The second straight season of declining win totals (they went 8-5 in 2015) has left some Bruins' fans wondering about the program's direction under head coach Jim Mora, but this team has the tools to return to conference title contention. First off, junior QB Josh Rosen is healthy once again after missing most of '16 with shoulder problems. Rosen was very impressive as a true frosh in 2015, and the former five-star recruit has the accuracy, smarts and overall swagger to be a top QB in the country. However, he'll be on his third offensive coordinator in as many years, as Jedd Fisch arrives from Michigan, and will also have to make due with an offensive line that has been very porous in recent years (but does bring back three starters). On defense, UCLA was pretty solid last season but watched as a number of their top contributors left to the NFL. The D-Line is the least experienced part of this roster, but UCLA is hoping youngsters like Osa Odighizuwa and Jaelen Phillips, considered one of the nation's top recruits, can step up right away. Senior linebacker Kenny Young will play a huge role as UCLA's top returning tackler and leader in sacks, while the defensive backfield does include possible All-Conference candidates Jaleel Wadood and Nate Meadors. There may be some pressure on the Bruins this season, as the program has not lived up to some lofty expectations over the past few years. However, a healthy Rosen can make a huge difference, and there is enough talent throughout the roster that UCLA should be able to stick in the Pac-12 South race for much of the year.

3. Utah Utes
After a tough transition to the Pac-12 early on, Utah has become one of the conference's more consistent programs, and is coming off a good, not great, 2016 in which they went 9-4. Despite the solid season, head coach Kyle Whittingham made some big changes this off-season, focused on improving a mediocre offense. New OC Troy Taylor will be Utah's eighth OC in nine seasons, and will change up the look of this offense in a big way. Instead of the conservative, pro-style approach the Utes have run for years, this team will look to spread things out and be aggressive. Whittingham further showed his commitment to this new scheme by surprisingly naming sophomore Tyler Huntley the starter at QB over senior Troy Williams, a team captain and a guy who passed for 2,757 yards last year. We haven't seen Huntley in much real-time game action but Utah coaches have raved about the young QB and he is a real dual threat. Utah must find a replacement for back Joe Williams, who came out of retirement mid-year in 2016 and ran wild, finishing with 1,407 yards. Utah has long prided themselves on the defensive side of the ball, and they should be stout once more this season. Senior defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei is a future NFL draft pick and the younger brother of former Ute star, and current Carolina Panther. He'll be helped by fellow veteran Kylie Fitts, who should take over a defensive end spot after missing most of 2016 with a foot injury. In the secondary, the Utes are hoping for overall more consistency, and should be better, with junior safety Chase Hansen and sophomore cornerback Julian Blackmon both possible breakout candidates. Amazingly, Utah is the only Pac-12 South team that has not won the division since the conference expanded six years ago. It is hard to see them breaking that trend in 2017, but this team is always physical and well-prepared. They'll once more win 9-10 games and finish in the middle of the pack in the division.

4. Colorado Buffaloes
Colorado's breakthrough 2016 was stunning not only because the program had struggled for so long, but because it was orchestrated by a mostly veterans, who had not experienced a winning culture in Boulder prior to last year. QB Sefo Liufau, the leading passer in Colorado history, put together a marvelous year, back Phillip Lindsay exploded on to the scene and an experienced defense finished off 19th in the country in total defense. Unfortunately, a large number of those veterans head out, which likely means Colorado will fall back a bit in 2017. Liufau will be replaced by sophomore Steven Montez, who did see a decent amount of action last year, finishing with 1,078 yards and nine touchdowns. Montez doesn't have Liufau's accuracy or feel for the game just yet, but he has a rocket of an arm and can really scorch defenses when he's on his game. Lindsay is an important returnee at running back, as he returns following a 1,252-yard, 16 TD campaign in 2016. At receiver, the Buffaloes have more than a few options to through to, as seniors Bryce Bobo, Shay Fields and Devin Ross are all back. The defense is likely going to be the unit that takes the bigger step back, as they lose their coordinator (Jim Leavitt took the same gig at Oregon) and a number of other difference-makers. The defensive line is especially concerning, as the Buffs lose nearly everybody and will have to rely on mostly unproven names. Junior linebacker Rick Gamboa will play a huge role in run support and is the the team's top returning tackler, but the secondary is also an issue. Only one starter returns, and Colorado loses NFL draftee Chidobe Awuzie, their top cover corner. As exciting as 2016 was for the Buffaloes, it's hard to imagine them replicating it this season. However, the offense should still be pretty dangerous and head coach Mike MacIntrye has greatly improved this team defensively over the years on the recruiting trail. They won't be winning the division title, but another bowl game and 7-8 victories seems about right.

5. Arizona State Sun Devils
Following a 5-1 start to 2016, Arizona State promptly fell apart, losing their final six games, including a very harrowing loss to in-state rival Arizona to finish the year, killing their bowl chances. The major collapse in the second half of the year has led many to question Todd Graham's job security, but the coach enters 2017 with the same confidence he always has had in Tempe. Perhaps it is the addition of Alabama transfer Blake Barnett that has Graham still very confident. Barnett was a huge get when 'Bama got him, but he was never able to lock down the starting gig. He should be an upgrade at the position over incumbent starter Manny Wilkins, who fell apart down the stretch. Barnett will be joined by plenty of other prime offensive talent, including a dangerous 1-2 punch at running back, with seniors Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage. Richard is more of the team's every-down back, but Ballage has proven he can be quite dominant himself, such as when he ran for a whopping seven touchdowns in a win over Texas Tech last season. Sophomore wide out N'Keal Harry is a dangerous weapon on the outside who had 659 receiving yards as a true frosh and is only getting better. The Sun Devils need to figure out their defense, which has lagged well behind the offense over Graham's tenure. They have a new DC in Phil Bennett, who ran Art Briles' defenses at Baylor and is well known for being aggressive and blitz-heavy. He does have plenty of talent to work with, including junior defensive end JoJo Wicker and senior outside 'backer Koron Crump, who had nine sacks last season. The secondary also has plenty of experience and playmakers, namely junior cornerback Kareem Orr and senior safety Marcus Ball. Arizona State may be coming off a 5-7 campaign, but this team has legitimate talent on both sides of the ball. If they can fix some of their defensive woes and Barnett can be a stud at quarterback, they should be able to make their way into a bowl game, and perhaps even be a serious dark horse in the division.

6. Arizona Wildcats
Nick Wilson, Arizona
Since making a New Year's Six Bowl in 2014-2015, things have quickly soured in Tuscson, as the Wildcats gave gone 7-6 and then slipped to a 3-9 mark last year. There were a number of reasons for the team's huge dropoff last season, from injuries to an ineffective offense. Head coach Rich Rodriguez's first order of business will be figuring out who his quarterback is. Two-year starter Anu Solomon transferred to Baylor, leaving it up to either junior Brandon Dawkins or sophomore Khalil Tate. Both are very dangerous with their legs, but neither has proven themselves to be much of a passer. At running back, Arizona is hoping senior Nick Wilson and sophomore J.J. Taylor can lead the way. Wilson ran for 1,375 yards as a freshman but has missed significant time over the past two seasons with injuries, while Taylor is recovering from a broken ankle himself. Junior Shun Brown (521 yards, three touchdowns in '16) and senior Cam Denson should give whoever wins the QB job something to throw to. On defense, Arizona does bring back a decent amount of talent, but this group was pretty bad last season. Senior Parker Zellers and linebacker DeAndre' Miller give them some bite up front, but the real pressure is on the secondary, which was 117th in the country in pass defense a season ago. Three starters are returning, however, including terrific cornerbacks Jarvis McCall Jr. and junior Jace Whittaker. Much like their in-state rival Arizona State, the Wildcats have dropped off significantly since their respective division title, leaving Rich Rod searching for answers. If the passing game can ignite, Arizona is can be dangerous but unless the defense takes some major steps forward (allowed 44.8 PPG in their eight conference losses) it's hard to imagine the 'Cats returning to a bowl.

All-Pac 12 Team
First Team
QB Sam Darnold, USC
RB Royce Freeman, Oregon
RB Myles Gaskin, Washington
WR N'Keal Harry, Arizona State
WR Dante Pettis, Washington
TE Dalton Schultz, Stanford
OL Trey Adams, Washintgon
OL Tyrell Crosby, Oregon
OL Coleman Shelton, Washington
OL Cole Madison, Washington State
OL Viane Talamaivo, USC
DL Harrison Phillips, Stanford
DL Vita Vea, Washington
DL Lowell Lotulelei, Utah
DL Rasheem Green, USC
LB Cameron Smith, USC
LB Azeem Victor, Washington
LB Kenny Young, UCLA
CB Iman Marshall, USC
CB Quenton Meeks, Stanford
S Taylor Rapp, Washington
S Justin Reid, Stanford

Second Team
QB Jake Browning, Washington
RB Phillip Lindsay, Colorado
RB Ronald Jones II, USC
WR Tavares Martin, Washington State
WR Darren Andrews, UCLA
TE Drew Sample, Washington
OL Cody O'Connell, Washington State
OL Nate Herbig, Stanford
OL Jeromy Irwin, Colorado
OL Scott Quessenbery, UCLA
OL David Bright, Stanford
DL Hercules Mata'afa, Washington State
DL Greg Gaines, Washington
DL Kylie Fitts, Utah
DL JoJo Wicker, Arizona State
LB Porter Gustin, USC
LB Koron Crump, Arizona State
LB Troy Dye, Oregon
CB Alijah Holder, Stanford
CB Darrien Molton, Washington State
S Chase Hansen, Utah
S Chris Hawkins, USC

Projected Awards
Conference Championship: USC over Washington
Offensive Player of the Year: Sam Darnold, USC
Defensive Player of the Year: Azeem Victor, Washington
Newcomer of the Year: Blake Barnett, Arizona State
Coach of the Year: Clay Helton, USC

No comments:

Theme images by LUGO. Powered by Blogger.