2016 NCAA Football Preview: Pac-12 Conference

August 25, 2016
By K. Becks

It’s kind of funny for me to look back on prior years’ college football previews I’ve written for Around The Corn. Based on my prose from last year’s American Athletic Conference preview, you’d have thought I had reached rock bottom regarding my writing career. It couldn’t possibly get any less frequent – at least in my mind.

But here we are, nearly one year to the day later, beginning the 2016 previews on the heels of just five previous articles since May 3, 2016. The changes I had promised in August of 2015 never quite came to fruition – at least not officially. For those wondering, Around The Corn has focused itself on college football, college basketball and world soccer. Every once in awhile, I’ll write about the Olympics or Triple Crown horse racing. Essentially, things that pique the interest of essentially any sports fan.

Nevertheless, despite my daily routine being pretty much set at this point and embarking on my junior year of Real Life, covering college football is something I can’t quite let go of completely. So these preseason previews are still kicking and my weekend previews will still show up during the regular season. I love college football, and when my overall alertness allows, I still love writing about it.

Since the NCAA had the genius idea of allowing a game to be scheduled in Sydney, Australia almost a full week before the rest of the FBS begins play, we’re going to start with the Pac-12 Conference this season. The Mountain West will follow, but then after that it’s anyone’s guess as to the order. In a strange twist, the uncertainty may actually bring people back to the site and I’m not complaining one bit about that.

Overview

Of the Power 5 conferences in 2015, only the Pac-12 was left out of the College Football Playoff. To some, it was a result of a league that was down from the very beginning. To others, it was a testament to the balance of the conference as a whole, where no one would make it out unscathed. And to others yet, it was simply a case of talented teams such as UCLA and Oregon under-performing.

This season, it wouldn’t be as much of a surprise if the Pac-12 is again the lone Power 5 conference without a belle at the ball. A healthy portion of the league, including usual title contenders Oregon, Stanford and Southern Cal, must find a replacement at the quarterback position. While Oregon was able to successfully do it last season with an FCS transfer, Stanford lost the man who led them to three Pac-12 titles and Southern Cal needs to fill the void of its most accurate passer in school history. In other words, the big dogs may come back to the rest of the pack to some degree in 2016.

With uncertainty at the top of the pile, the Pac-12 may provide the most interesting conference battles in the nation this season between its two divisions. Youth is a double-edged sword in the college game, which means that there is the potential that a great team lies within this group of schools. The exciting part will be figuring out which one of them that is, because heading into the season it’s very unclear.

College Football Playoff Contenders

Stanford

If it weren’t for a fluke loss at the hands of Northwestern in its season opener, Stanford would have had a legitimate argument for one of the four College Football Playoff spots last season. Solid defensively but surprisingly potent offensively, the Cardinal were humming to end the 2015-2016 campaign beating Notre Dame, Southern Cal and Iowa in consecutive games. Much of this offensive firepower was thanks to versatile tailback Christian McCaffery, who is without a doubt one of the favorites to lift a certain bronze trophy in New York City this December. McCaffery should take a lot of the pressure off of sophomore quarterback Keller Chryst, who will be tasked with replacing a so-called “game manager” who is currently an NFL quarterback with the Kansas City Chiefs.

If Chryst can adjust fairly quickly and the left half of the offensive line (which will be new this season) holds up, offensively Stanford will be just as good as last season. The x-factor will be the defense, which has seven returning starters and has consistently been a hard-nosed group under David Shaw. The return of both cornerbacks from last year should shore up some issues in the secondary, and the benefit of several new starting quarterbacks in the conference could help as well. The Cardinal open with a tough four game slate (Kansas State, Southern Cal, at UCLA and Washington), but if they can survive those games they’ll be one of the early season favorites to reach the Playoff.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Arizona

Despite being one of the few teams in the Pac-12 with an experienced quarterback, Rich Rodriguez isn’t making any promises to Anu Solomon. The junior, who threw for over 2,500 yards and 20 touchdowns to just five interceptions in 2015, has been questioned about his commitment before, but perhaps the staring job hanging in the balance is the sort of kick he needs. Talented guys like Solomon sometimes have a major growth period in between the sophomore and junior campaigns from a mental toughness standpoint, and if this happens then Arizona could really click on the offensive end.

Defensively, Rodriguez cleared house on the coaching staff and brought in former Boise State defensive coordinator Marcel Yates. It really can’t get much worse for the Wildcats on that side of the ball, so any improvement should bring with it positive results. Rich Rod’s teams seem to have a knack for overperforming when the expectations are low, and in this writer’s opinion it is really a mistake to poke a sleeping giant like Solomon. Arizona may be fun to watch this season.

Hi, My Name Is… (Players to Watch)

Myles Gaskin, Washington sophomore running back

Chris Petersen has a knack for developing stud running backs (think Doug Martin, Jay Ajayi at Boise State), and Gaskin looks like he could be the next on that ever increasing list. His 1,302 rushing yards were second in the country for freshman in 2015, but he also proved himself as a finisher with 14 rushing touchdowns to go along with the yardage. This season Gaskin will line up behind a more experienced quarterback, but don’t expect the load for the sophomore to diminish much. Petersen’s teams are creative offensively but have always been predicated on establishing a strong rushing attack.

A fairly soft early season schedule for the Huskies may allow Gaskin to rack up a ton of yards early, putting him on the radar of the rest of the country. But where he will really make a name for himself is in the last week of September and first week of October. Games against Stanford and Oregon will define Washington’s season and determine whether Gaskin has the chops to receive first-team All-Pac-12 honors or potentially more.

Josh Rosen, UCLA sophomore quarterback

Somewhat of a golden boy, Rosen had a good but not spectacular freshman campaign in 2015. To some extent, he is the archetype quarterback – strong arm, good decision making, in the mold of a guy like Peyton Manning. But similar to many of the greats in college football over the past decade or so, Rosen also has some scrambling ability and a bit of swagger to go along with it. In this way, Rosen will be both heralded and lambasted by the football purists throughout his college career.

UCLA is full of talent but has made a recent habit of spoiling potentially great seasons with at least a game or two of emotionless performances. Rosen is the type of player that can transform a team’s attitude. He’s talented enough to get the job done on the field and down-to-earth enough to earn the respect of his older teammates. If Rosen can become a leader and continue his trajectory as a future NFL first-rounder, he could lead the Bruins to a special season in 2016.

Out-of-Conference Games to Watch

Alabama vs. Southern Cal [game in Arlington, TX] (September 3)

The reigning national champion will begin its season in Jerry’s World with a tricky battle against historical battle Southern Cal. But while this one looks terrific based on the names, it will take a monumental effort for the Trojans to upset the Crimson Tide in this one. Alabama has the perceived upper hand with an experienced offensive line and powerful running back in Bo Scarbrough going up against a Southern Cal defensive front that is being completely revamped. If the Trojans want to keep this one competitive, they’ll need to stop that freight train more than a few times.

Given the scenario that the Trojans keep Alabama’s offense off the field as much as possible, the offensive firepower is there for Southern Cal to keep pace with the Crimson Tide. Additionally, Clay Helton’s squad is better equipped to score quickly if needed. But Alabama is routinely one of the most prepared teams in the country out of the gate and haven’t lost a neutral site season opener since 1958. It would be a huge upset if Southern Cal were to win this game.

Stanford at Notre Dame (October 15)

With the game being played squarely in the middle of both teams’ season, there will be plenty of film for each to evaluate which will result in this one being as much a chess match between coaches as anything else. By this time it will be clear whether Notre Dame’s relatively inexperienced defense has risen to the challenge of playing above their perceived talent level. If the answer is yes, then what we will likely see is a lockdown secondary with toughness up front. If no, then Christian McCaffery could have another opportunity for a Heisman highlight reel in what will almost surely be a game in the primetime slot.

It is entirely possible that a less than stellar Notre Dame squad could head into this one with a perfect record, whereas a very strong Stanford squad could already have suffered a loss. This juxtaposition of strength of schedule may become evident in the second half of this game. Stanford will have been challenged against Southern Cal, UCLA and Washington. Notre Dame’s most difficult opponent ahead of the Cardinal is a Michigan State team decimated by graduation. Mental toughness will dictate the outcome of this one.

In-Conference Games to Watch

Stanford at Washington (September 30)

It is three years into his tenure at Washington and it appears that Chris Petersen finally has a team capable of competing for the Pac-12 crown. A difficult stretch of three games in late September through early October, of which this is the middle contest, will define the Huskies’ season and Pac-12 North fate. Washington is likely to be the first team to give the Cardinal real fits on the defensive side of the ball, as the Huskies are one of the conference’s best. A unit that nicknamed itself “Death Row” has the size and ability up front to make Christian McCaffery look pedestrian.

If the Huskies are to please what should be a raucous crowd, the offense will need to step up. Four times in 2015 Washington was held to fewer than 20 points, which isn’t a recipe for success in the pass-happy Pac-12. The defense will keep them in games, but Petersen’s team taking the next step requires that the offense resembles that of his former Boise State teams. Progress has been made at Washington over the last two seasons, but close losses that build character aren’t going to cut it this year. It’s time to compete for a title and this game will absolutely play a part in deciding that for the Pac-12 North.

Stanford at Oregon (November 12)

The Cardinal have earned a reputation as being one of the few teams in the country that have been able to consistently figure out Oregon, but over the past 10 years the Ducks hold a 7-3 advantage over Stanford, with a few of those victories being blowouts. This year, the script is flipped somewhat as Stanford appears to be the team fighting for a title shot while Oregon will play the role of underdog. That’s always a fun scene at Autzen Stadium – the home team playing the role of spoiler.

It’s unclear just how strong Oregon’s offense will be this season, but chances are by mid-November it will be hitting its stride (as it usually does). The Ducks will challenge Stanford with an array of options at receiver along with the presence of Royce Freeman, who can also catch passes out of the backfield. Neither team will be afraid to push offensively, so in typical Oregon-Stanford fashion the winner will probably score in the mid-30s or higher. Oregon may not be in the Playoff race at this point, but the North Division title should still be a possibility.

Conference Predictions

North Division

1. Washington (10-2, [7-2])

2. Stanford (10-2, [7-2])

3. Oregon (9-3, [6-3])

4. Washington State (9-3, [6-3])

5. California (2-10, [1-8])

6. Oregon State (2-10, [1-8])

South Division

1. UCLA (9-3, [7-2])

2. Utah (9-3, [6-3])

3. Southern Cal (8-4, [5-4])

4. Arizona (7-5, [4-5])

5. Arizona State (5-7, [3-6])

6. Colorado (3-9, [1-8])

Championship Game (Washington vs. UCLA)

Winner: Washington

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*