Pac-12 Preview by Michael Leese

The biggest questions:

  • How high will Vernon Adams fly in Eugene?
  • Who is the best team in the Pac-12 South and are they the best team in the South?
  • Who will surprise?
  • Can Colorado compete in a difficult division?
  • Will the Pac-12 be represented in the College Football Playoff?
  • Who is my pick to win the Heisman Trophy?
  • What is the best team in the State of Washington?

Big conference games:

  • September 19       Stanford at USC
  • September 26       UCLA at Arizona
  • October 3               Arizona State at UCLA
  • October 3               Arizona at Stanford
  • October 10             Cal at Utah
  • October 24             Utah at USC 24
  • November 14         Oregon at Stanford
  • November 21          UCS at Oregon  21
  • November 27           Washington State at Washington

High-impact newcomers:

  • Arizona                   Cam Denson  – CB
  • Arizona State        Evan Goodman  – T
  • Cal                              Matt Anderson – K
  • Colorado                Bryce Bobo – WR
  • Oregon                      Canton Kaumatale  – DE
  • Oregon State          Seth Collins – QB
  • Stanford                   Solomon Thomas  – DE
  • UCLA                         Josh Rosen – QB
  • USC                              Stevan Mitchell – WR
  • Utah                           Kyle Fitts – DE
  • Washington             Elijah Qualls – NT
  • Washington State  Treshon Broughton – CB

High-impact coaches: 

  • Colorado – Jim Leavitt, defensive coordinator
  • Oregon State  – Gary Anderson, head coach
  • Utah – John Pease,  defensive coordinator
  • Washington State – Alex Grinch, defensive coordinator

Team summaries

South Division

USC      It’s been a decade since Reggie Bush was the last Trojan awarded the Heisman Trophy.   That will change this years, as Kody Kessler is my pick to bring the hardware back to Southern California.   He simply shined last season.  He completed 70 percent of his passes, for 3,826 yards with a 35 – 5 touchdown to interception ratio!   The entire offensive line returns with a combined 99 career starts.   The only question mark on this highly potent offense, will be who gets the nod at running back, and a tailback-by-committee approach might be the way to go here.    The defense will be loaded again, and outstanding recruits are ready to fill the void left by the departures of Leonard Williams and Hayes Pullard.  The Trojans have tough road games at  Oregon and Notre Dame,  but the game that scares me, is the September battle in the heat of the desert at Arizona State.  I think the Trojans are the best team in the South, win the Pac-12 title game, and advance to the College Football Playoff.

UCLA      The Bruins return 18 starters from a team that went 10-3 last season.   The big loss is quarterback Brett Hundley, who is now in Green Bay.  Head Coach Jim Mora will decide between Freshman Josh Rosen and seasoned back-up Jerry Neuheisel.  He hit lightning in a bottle when he decided to play Hundley as a freshman, will he do it again with Rosen?  Other than quarterback, everyone else is back on offense including RB Paul Perkins who led the Pac-12 in rushing yards with 1,575.    He will operate behind the most experienced offensive line in the nation (131 career starts).   Two-way player Myles Jack will spearhead what should be one of the top defenses in the league.   (He also sees time toting the rock, as he scored three TDs.)    The schedule is tough with road games at Utah, USC, Arizona and Stanford.   I love the Bruins, but with that schedule and an untested quarterback, winning the division will be a challenge.

ARIZONA      Last year, the Wildcats surprised many by winning the Pac-12 South title, as Rich Rodriguez led Arizona to its first double-digit win season since 1998.   This year, the Wildcats have several key performers to replace, but get back Quarterback Anu Solomon and the leader of the defense Scooby Wright.  Solomon directs an offense that features 1,000 rusher Nick Wilson and studs Cayleb Jones and Samajie Grant at receiver.   Rodriguez must fill the void of three departed offensive linemen.   On defense, Scooby Wright was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2014, with 14 sacks and a 163 tackles!   The secondary could be a major weakness, as three starters departed.  The Wildcats dodge Oregon from the North, but play a schedule that has no bye-weeks.   Arizona may not win 10 games again this season, but they will be major players in the South Division.

UTAH    It’s taken a few years, but the Utes are now no pushover in league play, as the Utes had their best season since joining the Pac-12, going 5-4 in conference play.  The defense figures to once again be the calling card, with seven starters returning, and the Utes should sport a great defensive line.    The offense features one of the best running backs in the country, in the form of Devontae Booker.  He rushed for 1,566 yards and added 43 receptions out of the backfield.  The quarterback battle between Kendal Thompson and Travis Wilson will be tightly contested, as both are seniors with starting experience.   The Utes get five league home games, and avoid Stanford from the North.  Another winning season is on the docket.

ARIZONA STATE    Many will call me foolish for picking the Sun Devils to finish fifth in the South, and the truth is that I could easily see them winning the division, that’s how good it is.   The Sun Devils own a 19-9 record over the last three years, best in the South, and the defense could be arguably the best in the South.  On offense, Quarterback Mike Bercovici will replace Taylor Kelly.  Bercovici has NFL talent, and I expect better consistency from the position.  The offensive line could be the only real weakness on offense, and I am scratching my head over the decision to move 1,000-yard rusher D. J. Foster to wide receiver.  Head coach Todd Graham is banking on a group of highly-touted running backs to fill that void.  The Sun Devils open the season with a high-profile match-up with Texas A&M in Houston.   This game will set the stage for the season.

COLORADO    According to Head Coach Mike MacIntyre, “We (the Buffaloes) are now at the level were we can beat any team in the league.”    Really?  The Buffaloes are better and have some nice pieces to build around, but building is what they need to continue to do.   Quarterback Sefo Liufau has quietly become a real effective leader of the offense.   He has gotten better each season and will now start his third campaign in Boulder.   Nelson Spruce is the leading returning-receiver in the league.   He will be a key cog in an offense that should continue to improve. But will it be enough?   The defense welcomes back nine starters, but lacks any real impact performers.   They should improve on the 39 points-per-game allowed last season.   The Buffs play a crazy schedule that features 13 games with no bye-weeks.    This is a young team, that projects to only have four senior starters, and it’s going to be another long season in the Rockies.

North Division

STANFORD      After four consecutive appearances in BCS Bowl games, the Cardinal finished 8-5, disappointing many.    The offense is once again loaded, with nine returning starters.    Head Coach David Shaw has made it a priority in spring and fall practices to find a running game.   Christian McCaffery and Remound Wright are battling to be the feature back.   The defense has me concerned with only four starters returning as the entire defensive line must be replaced.   Shaw has done a great job recruiting in this area, and the time has come for the youngsters to step up.  The schedule could be the toughest in the league, as the Cardinal take-on Northwestern, Central Florida and Notre Dame in non-conference play.  The North will be decided in a key game in November, as they host Oregon.

OREGON       The Vernon Adams era begins Saturday September 5, with his debut will come against his old team, Eastern Washington!   At Eastern, Adams threw for 10,438 yards, with a 110-31 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and was twice the runner-up for the Walter Payton Award, the FCS version of the Heisman.   I have no doubt that he will succeed in this offense.   The only real question I have is about an offensive line that will need to come together quickly.   The rest of the offense is loaded!   Royce Freeman, who rushed for 1,392 yards last season, and the top five receivers all return.   On defense, the secondary is the major concern, as Head Coach Mark Helfrich, has said as many as eight players could see action.    I would not be surprised to see the Ducks return to the Pac-12 title game.

CALIFORNIA      The Golden Bears have not reached the post-season since 2011, but that drought ends this year!     Sonny Dykes has by far his best team.  Seventeen starters, along with a Heisman candidate in QB Jared Goff, return to an offense that saw their scoring output almost doubled from 2013   Further improvement should come this season with the return of 1,000 yard rusher Daniel Lasco and a solid receiving core.    The entire front seven returns on defense.    The emphasis in fall camp has been to create a pass rush and to tighten up the secondary.    The Bears play a brutal schedule that includes a road trips to Texas, Utah, UCLA, Oregon and Stanford.  Anytime you have a prolific offense, you always have a chance to pull an upset, and I’m betting we will see at least one!

WASHINGTON STATE         Head Coach Mike Leach has overhauled his own defensive coaching staff, and I  expect better performances across the board.  The defense is undersized for Pac-12 standards, but should fly to the football.   The offense is in good hands with quarterback Luke Falk, who was forced to step in for the injured Connor Haliday.   Falk showed remarkable composure last season and had a firm grasp of the offense.    The entire offensive line returns and should give Falk the time he needs to execute the short passing game.    If the Cougars can uncover a ground game, they will be tough to stop.  The schedule sets up nicely.  They avoid USC and Utah, and get Arizona State and Stanford at home.    Washington State is my surprise team from the Pac-12 this year, and the Cougars should find themselves in the post-season

OREGON STATE      Like most Beaver fans,  I was caught off-guard by the departure of Mike Riley.  The fact is, recruiting has suffered here for the last few years, and I believe Riley saw the handwriting on the wall, leaving while the getting was good.  New Head Coach Gary Anderson will need time to right the ship, as he inherits a defense that returns just two starters.   The offense is in better shape, but no quarterback on the roster has any experience.   I expect freshman Seth Collins to win the job.  This will be a long season in “Beaver Nation”.

WASHINGTON   Despite going 8-6, I think the Huskies under achieved last season.   They had five players drafted in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft.   They also lost QB Cyler Miles and top lineman Dexter Charles to career ending injuries.  On defense, Head Coach Chris Peterson and staff will have their hands full just trying to rebuild the a unit that lost its entire front seven!   There are just too many questions about this team.

How they’ll finish: 

SOUTH

  • USC                                 8-1    11-1
  • UCLA                              6-3    9-3
  • ARIZONA                      6-3    9-3
  • UTAH                               5-4    8-4
  • ARIZONA STATE       5-4    7-5
  • COLORADO                  1-8    4-9

NORTH

  • STANFORD                             7-2    10-2
  • OREGON                               7-2    9-3
  • CALIFORNIA                         5-4    7-5
  • WASHINGTON STATE    3-6    6-6
  • OREGON STATE             1-8    2-10
  • WASHINGTON                 0-9    1-11

Pac-12 Title Game — Stanford vs. USC 

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