The PAC 12 is a fast paced conference that is going to go through an interesting year this year. Many of the top signal callers have moved on, leaving a new guard to make waves in the conference. There are a number of potentially strong running backs that could make things interesting this year, ad I think they will. I think there will be some upsets along the way. One of these teams profile as one of my surprise college football playoff contenders, but they are a little lower on the list that for some people.

As it stands right now, I would rank the conference as follows:

North

South

1. Washington

1. UCLA
2. Oregon

2. USC

3. Stanford

3. Utah
4. Washington State

4. Arizona

5. California

5. Arizona State
6. Oregon State

6. Colorado

 

Washington Huskies

It is truly amazing the difference a year makes. Going into last season, most were down on the team, looking at them as a middling team with a reasonably strong defense. Flash forward a year, and they are the darlings of the media and the PAC-12. It’s hard to argue this, considering what they will be returning. Jake Browning is one of the better QB’s in the Mountain West, but not the best. He should still grow this year, and will be much better than last year. The team will return John Ross, who was injured and out for the year prior to the 2015 season. Joining him in the receiving unit is Dante Pettis, the highest returning receiving on the team. Myles Gaskin busted onto the scene in his freshman year, racking up over 1300 yards and 14 touchdowns. It is conceivable that he will have another big year this year.

The team loses some of their defense, but does return 7 starters, including their top two tacklers. This is Chris Petersen’s third year at the school, and, as has been mentioned a number of times on these previews, that is usually when the team starts to blossom, as most of the guys on the field are the coaches recruits. I would imagine they should see a slight decrease in points allowed per game, moving to around 20 points per game. On top of that, I would expect the offense to have a better output per game as well.

This team could challenge for a playoff berth, as they have a friendly schedule, seeing Stanford at home, but Oregon on the road. My biggest concern is just the lack of substance on the schedule, with no out of conference firepower, and the PAC 12 overall seeming a little less potent than last year. It can happen, but they are going to have to play near perfect and will need help.

Oregon Ducks

Many, if not most, have Stanford coming in the second spot in the North. I will not. I’ll get into my reasons next, but I think Oregon is in a bit of a better position. First, they have their quarterbacks on site practicing, since the spring game. Remember Vernon Adams? Yeah, he did not show up until basically the last minute last year. Having a quarterback who has been practicing in this Helfrich led offense will be important. Also important is that, aside from Bralon Addison, all the offensive talent will be returning. The receiving unit is stocked with Dwayne Stanford, Darren Carrington and the returning TE Pharoah Cooper. The running back situation is good too, with Royce Freeman leading the way, and Kani Benoit and Taj Griffin behind him.

Last year was an anomaly for this defense, with the team giving up almost two touchdowns more. Brady Hoke will be coming to the school, and it should help the defense round into shape. It is possible that we will see as much as a touchdown difference in production. The team does lose some of their star power on that side of the ball, but overall, I think Hoke will be able to mold this unit into an improved defense.

This team has an outside shot to contend, but I wouldn’t bank on it. Everything would have to go right for them, and completely wrong for many others.

Stanford Cardinals

I personally believe way too much hype is being put on the Stanford Cardinals. Yes, Christian McCaffrey is very good. Teams know that now, and don’t think they haven’t been planning all offseason on how to stop him. Both Remound Wright and Barry Sanders are gone. Wright actually led this team in touchdowns. I think that is reasonably important, as the team didn’t trust McCaffrey all that much in short yardage situations. Probably the biggest loss to this team will be Kevin Hogan. He was vastly underrated and a consummate game manager. Can Keller Chryst do the same thing? That remains to be seen. Michael Rector is the top returning receiver, outside of McCaffrey, and while talented, doesn’t play the role of a major threat well.

The Stanford defense should see 6 starters return, and my gut reaction is that the production will resemble the production of the 2015 season. I think for the most part the team should keep their points per game allowed at around 20 points. My biggest concern is on the offensive side of the ball, where is almost assuredly will not reach the almost 38 points per game they managed last year. This team has difficult games on the road against UCLA, Washington and Oregon, as well as Notre Dame out of conference. I think you’re dreaming if you think they make it out of that even relatively unscathed.

Washington State Cougars

Washington State is one of my favorite teams to watch on offense. I was almost shocked when I saw they only scored around 31 points per game. It feels like so much more. The team returns the best quarterback in the conference in Luke Falk, as well as most of his weapons in Gabe Marks, River Cracraft and Robert Lewis. The only loss in that unit is Dom Williams. The team also returns their running back unit, which was utilized more in 2015. Gerald Wicks should see most of the work, but Jamal Morrow should also be involved. Overall, I think this is one of the most complete offenses in the PAC 12.

The defense should be improving yet again, after it saw the points per game reduced by ten points last year. The defense does lose a lot of their top players, but it returns enough, and sees some strong recruits that could certainly manage to make this team a little bit stronger on that side of the ball. The team posted a strong record in 2015, and they are a long shot candidate to end up with their hand raised in this conference in 2016.

California Golden Bears

It will be very interesting to see where this team goes in the first year after Jared Goff. There are not many teams who lost more than this team, with their best quarterback in terms of yardage gone, as well as their top 6 receivers. That is going to hurt, and it will hurt in a big way. Texas Tech transfer Davis Webb will ease the pain somewhat, but he genuinely has very little in terms of experience in the passing game. I’d have to imagine there will be some more of a focus on the running game, with their top three players, Khalfani Muhammad, Vin Enwere and Tre Watson, will all return. I could see as much as a ten point drop off in offensive production this year.

The defense loses some pretty significant talent as many of their starts have moved on, and Hardy Nickerson transfers to Illinois to play with his dad. The team had been doing well over the past two years in improving, but it is hard to believe that will continue again this year. It is likely that this team will return to their 2012 form, picking up just a few wins.

Oregon State Beavers

There will be some changes taking place for the Beavers in Gary Andersen’s second year as the head coach. QB Seth Collins will move to receiver, as Utah transfer Darrell Garretson will come in to take control of the offense. Some good news for him is that the team returns both Victor Bolden and Jordan Villamin, who are both talented receivers. Storm Barrs-Woods is done, and this will be the year for Ryan Nall to step up and take control of the rushing unit. This team has nowhere to go but up from the lackluster 19 points per game it put up in 2015.

The defense was pretty poor in 2015, giving up 37 points per game. In the offensively potent PAC 12, that simply isn’t going to cut it. The team is going to return 6 starters, so the unit is at least somewhat experienced. I still think this defense is a year away from moving down to the 30 point mark, but I think we could see some improvement back to around 35 per game.

UCLA Bruins

This year will see the Bruins freshman starter Josh Rosen aim to make strides. He had a solid 2015 freshman campaign, and is one of the most highly touted quarterbacks in the PAC 12. I think he should do well, but I am not as high on him as many. He will lose the vast majority of his production, which will hurt. Eldridge Massington and Ismael Adams profile to be two of his main targets. Paul Perkins is also gone, leaving Soso Jamabo as the top back. Overall, I think this offense will be OK, but don’t be surprised if there aren’t some growing pains.

The UCLA defense gave up over 400 yards, but actually did a reasonable job keeping points off the board, as they allowed only 26 per game. With 9 returning starters, it is conceivable that both of those numbers could improve again, making it a little easier on a rebuilding offense. I think they are the best team in the South, but it is close with the next team.

USC Trojans

Cody Kessler was a big Heisman candidate coming into the 2015 season, and it just didn’t work out how he imagined. Highly touted prospect Max Browne will take over an offense that is set up nicely for him. He will have JuJu Smith-Schuster, Adoree’ Jackson and Steven Mitchell returning to catch the ball. Justin Davis and Ronald Jones will be there to carry the ball. While not a perfect situation to come into, it is a very strong situation for a quarterback to enter in to. This offense should be able to maintain production, as Kessler was another one of those good game managers for the last few years.

Unquestionably, the biggest question mark for this team, and what keeps it from being number one on this list, is their depleted front seven. While this is a team that recruits well, it is still tough to put six new starters out there out of seven, and expect good results. I think it will be a few games before they get settled, and unfortunately, they don’t get that, as they play Alabama, Stanford and Utah on the road in three out of the four games.

Utah Utes

The Utes will be yet another PAC 12 team seeing a change in scenery at the helm. Both Travis Wilson and Kendall Thompson are done, leaving Troy Williams to run the offense. Both Kenneth Scott and Brittain Covery are also gone, leaving major questions at the wide receiver position. Harrison Handley is the top returning receiver, and will likely see a bigger role in this offense. Running back Joe Williams played well when Devontae Booker went down last year, and will get a shot to be the top dog in this offense. Overall, it will be a down year for the offense from 2015.

The defense will be returning 7 starters despite losing some of their top tacklers. This is still one of the better units in the conference, which is what will be necessary to keep this team in football games. The team has a reasonably soft non-conference schedule which will help their win-loss record, but I do think that it may struggle in conference.

Arizona Wildcats

I wanted to put this team as high as two on my list in the South, but just couldn’t pull the trigger for whatever reason. Anu Solomon will return for his third year as the quarterback of this team, and the hope is that he will have his best year yet. The potential is there, as he has a nice trio of receivers returning with Trey Griffey, Nate Phillips and Samajie Grant. This unit should provide Solomon all the opportunity he needs. Running back Nick Wilson will also be coming back off an injury filled year. I think the potential for this offense, and I do think it could surprise some.

The defense is what caused me to drop this team to where it is at. While signs are present that things could be getting better, it isn’t enough to really get me to buy in on it. The team returns 8 starters, but these are eight guys that did not play very well at many points during last season. I can’t buy in to the fact that they are healed and this is going to be strong defense. If somehow they do come together well, this team will be a team to be reckoned with in the conference.

Arizona State Sun Devils

Arizona State just somehow seems to put points on the board regardless of how inexperienced their team looks on paper. Will that continue this year? Red shirt freshman quarterback Brady White will look to continue in Mike Bercovici’s footsteps of solid quarterback play. He’ll have some nice receiving options in Tim White, TE Kody Kohl and Cameron Smith to throw to so that is a plus. The team will also return their top two running backs in DeMario Richards and Kallen Ballage. There is enough talent on this team to do some damage, if White is able to play competently at the quarterback position.

The defense allowed 33.5 points in 2015, and looks to be in the same spot in 2016. They do return 6 starters, and have a bunch of junior college transfers coming in, but something tells me that they will likely remain in the same position in 2015. I think this team, overall, reminds me of Arizona – if just certain, specific things take place, they could be a good team.

Colorado Buffaloes

Finally, we end with the Colorado Buffaloes. Senior quarterback Sefo Liufau will come back for one last year in hopes of making his last year his best. He will lost his top option in Nelson Spruce, but still retains two quality options in Shay Fields and TE Sean Irwin. The team also brings back their top running back in Philip Lindsay. The team has struggled with scoring points for the last several years, and has done some work in bringing in more talented junior college transfers. If those are able to work out, this offense could challenge to score around 30 per game.

The Buffaloes defense inexplicably reduced their points allowed per game by almost two touchdowns in 2015. With nine starters returning, you would have to believe they should be able to maintain this level of production, unless it was really an anomaly. I do not believe it is. If the offense is able to score more points this year, this could be another team that exceeds to expectations that were set for them.