2015 NCAA Football Preview: Pac-12 Conference

September 3, 2015

Although you’re reading this the day after, know that last night was the moment of truth as to whether or not I would get all these previews done in time.

Clearly, I did.

Let’s take a look at the Pac-12 Conference.


To some extent, the Pac-12 could be a story of two leagues in 2015. In the South Division, you’ve got a wide open race that is characterized by potent offenses and stingy defenses, a collective that could end up being the strongest division in all of college football. In the North Division, you have won juggernaut, a contender that is looking to rebound from a down year and a slew of question marks. If you’re the juggernaut in the North, your out-of-conference battle in the second game of the season may be the most difficult contest of the year.

But rarely do things turn out as planned in the Pac-12. While the South Division looks strong, you have a couple of teams that must replace productive quarterbacks in Arizona State and UCLA. And while the North Division may be weaker on paper, teams such as Washington and Cal are a good quarterback (Huskies) or even mediocre defense (Golden Bears) away from having a breakout year. Expect at least a couple of teams to be in the playoff hunt, because this conference is unlikely to be left out of the party. The Pac-12 should compete for the figurative and hotly-contested title “Best Conference in College Football” this season.

College Football Playoff Contenders

Southern California

The last time the Trojans were poised to compete for a national title, in 2012, things blew up rather quickly. But there aren’t many areas of comparison between the 2012 squad and this one. For one, Steve Sarkisian is the head coach instead of Lane Kiffin, which makes a lot of difference by itself. Additionally, the Trojans are heading into 2015 a bit under the radar, with many pundits still predicting that Oregon will run the table in the Pac-12. Lastly, quarterback Cody Kessler is the most underrated player in college football and puts Southern Cal in great position to compete with everyone on its schedule.

The Trojans have one of the more difficult schedules in the country (featuring road games against Arizona State, Notre Dame, California and Oregon), so the road to the playoff will be anything but easy. If the defense is improved, and it should be with top recruit Iman Marshall ready to help the secondary, then this team has what it takes to stun several home crowds throughout the season.


It won’t take long before we know if Oregon will be playing catch up with regards to playoff contention. The Ducks have a huge matchup in East Lansing on September 12 that will define their season moving forward. A win is interesting, because it affords Oregon a letdown game in the Pac-12, where things will be tough. A loss puts them behind the eight ball, but with more than enough time to recover.

The loss of Marcus Mariota is a minor concern because of who Oregon has to replace the current Tennessee Titans rookie. Vernon Adams Jr. finished up an illustrious career at FCS power Eastern Washington and will now hone his talents in Eugene for one season. Adams is the perfect fit at quarterback for the Ducks and there shouldn’t be much of a drop off in terms of production. What remains to be seen is whether Adams is the right guy to lead an FBS team against the likes of Michigan State, Arizona State and Southern Cal. If he can step up when the team needs him, there is enough talent left on this team to make a return trip to the playoff.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)


Sonny Dykes is in his third season as head coach of the Golden Bears, and the time has arrived where results are necessary to keep the fanbase happy. Dykes was lucky enough to inherit Jared Goff at the quarterback position, who is wholly capable of operating the pass happy offense that Dykes employs. What will separate this team from the bottom half of the North Division, however, is even a small improvement on the defensive side of the ball.

Dykes has never been known to oversee strong defenses, but his record at Cal has been pitiful. The Golden Bears have been in the bottom five in the country in total defense the past two seasons, meaning that Dykes has coached a bottom five defense the past three years (Louisiana Tech was last in 2012). This team is a prime example that a potent offense cannot completely negate a terrible defense. But if California can improve slightly on that side of the ball, the Golden Bears will at the very least become bowl eligible in 2015.

Hi, My Name Is… (Players to Watch)

Cody Kessler, Southern California senior quarterback

As a junior, Kessler threw for 39 touchdowns and just five interceptions, a TD-to-INT ratio that only Heisman Trophy recipient Marcus Mariota could best. This year Kessler may be the one holding the bronze hardware if he has similar success through the air. Cool and collected, the 6’1″ 215 pound senior is one of the most accurate passers in the country as well, which is what makes him so dangerous. Give Kessler’s receivers even a step of space and chances are he will hit his target dead on.

There will be plenty of opportunities to see Kessler live this season, as the Trojans play one of the tougher schedules in the country and come into the season a Top 10 squad. What will be humorous is the number of people that will falsely believe this guy came out of nowhere. In reality, he just makes the incredible seem routine.

Scooby Wright, Arizona junior linebacker

Perhaps more impressive than the fact that Scooby Wright is seriously being considered as a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate is that he is doing so on a Rich Rodriguez coached football team. Rich Rod has always been known as an offensive mind, but Wright gives the Wildcats a presence on the defensive side that can single-handedly change the course of a game. For example, his 18 tackles and 3 sacks against UCLA last year helped limit a Bruins offense that had been averaging 494.5 yards per game to just seven points.

Wright is a sack machine and has a knack for getting to the quarterback, which is one of the reasons he is so exciting. Rather than sit back and wait for a chance to make a play, the junior creates his chances. There aren’t many defensive players that can fill up a highlight reel, but Wright is definitely one of them.

Out-of-Conference Games to Watch

Utah at Michigan (September 3)

The Utes will travel to the Big House to play the Wolverines in a special Thursday evening matchup. This will be Jim Harbaugh’s first game as head coach of the Wolverines, so expect Ann Arbor to be rocking even though it isn’t a typical Saturday afternoon game. Utah presents a tough first hurdle for the Michigan man.

Devontae Booker is an extremely talented running back and will keep the Wolverines on their toes all game long. Utah doesn’t generally score a lot of points, however, so it may be a back and forth game with the punters stealing the show. First game jitters could also be a factor for both teams.

Southern California at Notre Dame (October 17)

Currently this appears to be a monster matchup, but both teams have tough games leading up to this one so it may not be quite as anticipated by the time October rolls around. Either way, the game should be entertaining. Cody Kessler will be tested by a strong Notre Dame secondary while the Trojans’ defensive front will have its hands full trying to slow down the Fighting Irish rushing attack.

If this game isn’t close in the fourth quarter, it will be because of turnovers. These two teams appeared to be very evenly matched, so anything less than a touchdown difference will be a disappointment.

In-Conference Games to Watch

Arizona State at UCLA (October 3)

Both teams will be replacing productive quarterbacks, but each brings in a new face will have the country watching. Mike Bercovici actually started a few games last season when Taylor Kelly went down with an injury, and can be electric but erratic. UCLA is hoping that highly touted freshman Josh Rosen is the real deal.

The Sun Devils blew out the Bruins in 2014, but this year’s contest should be much closer. With two potentially solid quarterbacks, it wouldn’t be surprising if this was one of the higher scoring affairs the Pac-12 sees in 2015.

Southern California at Oregon (November 21)

Not only is this game a potential round one of two if both teams end up winning their respective division, but there is also a decent possibility that the winner will be the odds-on favorite to represent the Pac-12 in the college football playoff.

Neither team will shy away from a shootout, but the winner will be the squad that does a better job containing the opposing quarterback. This is the type of game that Steve Sarkisian hasn’t been able to win at Southern California, but he finally has the team to do so.


North Division

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

2. Stanford (8-4, [6-3])

3. California (7-5, [4-5])

4. Washington (5-7, [3-6])

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

6. Oregon State (4-8, [2-7])

South Division

1. Southern California (11-1, [9-0])

2. Arizona State (9-3, [6-3])

3. Arizona (8-4, [5-4])

4. Utah (8-4, [5-4])

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

6. Colorado (2-10, [0-9)

Championship Game (Oregon vs. Southern California)

Winner: Southern California

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