The Pac-12 prepares for a slugfest of a season with seven teams seemingly capable of winning the conference title. But all seven can’t realistically reach expectations and the other five teams would like to play spoiler and launch themselves into the conference’s top tier, too. So who are the real contenders and whose hype will fade? We’re sorting it out with some conference superlatives.
Most improved: Stanford
After winning 11 or more games for the prior four seasons, the Cardinal fell to a merely above-average 8–5 record last season. Expect a return to double-digit victories this fall and possibly a run to the Pac-12 title game. It’s no secret Stanford’s offensive success is predicated upon an effective ground game, something the Cardinal lacked for much of last season (they averaged just 2.92 yards per carry in losses to USC, Notre Dame, Arizona State and Oregon). They found a groove late in the season as Christian McCaffrey’s workload increased. After bulking up to 205 pounds, McCaffrey is ready to be a workhorse back. His power running should allow quarterback Kevin Hogan to build on the success he found at the end of the season. Although the Cardinal return just four defensive starters, they’ve repeatedly proven their ability to maintain dominance with new bodies, and leading tackler Blake Martinez gives defensive coordinator Lance Anderson a star to build around.
Most on the decline: Washington
The Huskies lack a clear answer under center, and while their top three running backs all return, they’ll struggle to maintain an effective ground game unless a rebuilt offensive line can jell quickly. Washington’s offensive line ranked 98th last year in adjusted line yards, according to Football Outsiders, and now returns just one starter. The Huskies’ offense was hardly record-setting last year, but a star-studded defense helped them pick up eight wins. With four players selected in the first two rounds of the 2014 NFL draft, that star power is gone. Chris Petersen has his work cut out for him to keep Washington bowl-eligible.
Toughest schedule: Colorado
In the loaded Pac-12 South, Colorado has the unenviable role of the lone team without realistic division title aspirations. Another unenviable fact for the Buffaloes? They’re the only team that has to play all five contenders in the South. Even worse, Colorado also faces Oregon and Stanford in two of its cross-divisional games. Matchups with Oregon State and Washington State, its two best chances for a conference win, both come on the road. Good luck, Mike MacIntyre.
Most at stake: Cal
Sonny Dykes’s Bears made tremendous improvements after a brutal 2013, quintupling their win total to get to 5–7. The biggest reason for the progress was a passing game that improved its yards per attempt from 6.1 to 7.5. In Dykes’s Bear Raid offense, that makes a massive difference. Yet Cal’s ability to climb up the Pac-12 standings was hampered by a defense that allowed 6.3 yards per play, second-worst in the conference. Even with quarterback Jared Goff back, it’s difficult to see the Bears continuing to rise without their defense at least making some progress. Cal doesn’t need a defense that can match its Bay Area rival’s unit, just one that can allow fewer than 530 yards per game. What better time to start moving the defense towards respectability than a year in which it returns nine starters?
Easiest schedule: Washington State
Picking the easiest schedule in the Pac-12 comes with an important caveat that the depth of this conference and its nine-game conference slate renders no schedule truly easy. But the Cougars do get some scheduling advantages. By playing in the North, they get the easier divisional draw—including a home game against rebuilding Oregon State—and one of their inter-divisional matchups is against Colorado. Crucially for Washington State as it seeks its second bowl berth in 11 years, all three nonconference matchups (Portland State, at Rutgers, Wyoming) are winnable, though the trip to face the Scarlet Knights will be a challenge.
Biggest range: UCLA
The Bruins rank among the most experienced squads in the country with 18 returning starters, including 10 on offense. So why are they one of the toughest teams in the nation to predict? Because the one position at which they lack a returning starter is quarterback. True freshman Josh Rosen appears to be on track to win the starter job, though coach Jim Mora has not announced a decision. That could go spectacularly well with Rosen rising to the occasion, immediately establishing himself as one of the conference’s top passers as he leads UCLA to a division title. It could also end in disaster, with Rosen failing to make the immediate leap from high school to college and the Bruins squandering their returning star power as they sink to fifth place in the Pac-12 South.
Most overrated: USC
In a division generally lauded for its competitiveness (five teams won at least nine games last year and finished in the AP Top 25), the Trojans have built an impressive consensus as the clear favorite, garnering 32 of 45 votes to win the Pac-12 South in the preseason media poll. There are plenty of reasons to like USC—Cody Kessler’s consistency under center and Su’a Cravens and Adoree’ Jackson’s star power on defense, for example—but are the Trojans really the unmistakable top candidates in the division? They must revamp their running game without Buck Allen and have some major holes in their front seven without Leonard Williams and Hayes Pullard. With a brutal schedule that includes inter-division games against Oregon and Stanford plus a nonconference matchup at Notre Dame, the margin is pretty slim for USC to live up to expectations.
Most underrated: Arizona
The Wildcats enter 2015 as the defending Pac-12 South champions, and yet they got exactly zero of the votes in the preseason media poll to repeat their division title. This comes despite Arizona returning its talented quarterback (Anu Solomon), elusive running back (Nick Wilson), top receiver (Cayleb Jones) and the defending Bronco Nagurski Trophy winner (Scooby Wright). The Wildcats have some holes to fill on their offensive line, but they’re not as inexperienced there as they might seem. Cal transfer Freddie Tagaloa made seven starts for the Bears in 2013 before sitting out last year. And grad transfer David Catalano, a candidate to start at center, played in six games for San Jose State last year.
Best path to the playoff: Oregon
Marcus Mariota may be gone, but last year’s national runners-up remain the Pac-12’s top College Football Playoff contender. Whether electrifying Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams wins the starting QB job or not, Oregon will have no shortage of playmakers on the field. Adams’s competition, Jeff Lockie, proved himself capable of powering the Ducks’ offense, completing all nine of his passes in Oregon’s spring game for 223 yards with three touchdowns. Whoever starts under center will have a host of weapons to work with, including running back Royce Freeman (1,365 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns last year) and receivers Byron Marshall (1,003 receiving yards and six TDs), Darren Carrington (704 receiving yards and four TDs), Devon Allen (684 receiving yards and seven TDs) and Bralon Addison, who missed last season with a torn ACL after racking up 890 yards and seven scores in 2013. The defense has some holes to fill without Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Arik Armstead, but defensive end DeForest Buckner and linebacker Joe Walker should help pick up the slack.
Mark Helfrich’s squad separates itself from the rest of Pac-12 as the top playoff contender with its schedule, which includes an ideal mix of challenge and manageability. Road games at Michigan State, Arizona State and Stanford will test the Ducks, but if they can win two out of three, they’ll prove themselves playoff-worthy. Then Oregon just needs to take care of business at home, something it has proven itself quite capable of, and pick up some quality wins over USC and Utah. A one-loss record against a quality schedule—something that could prove too difficult for any of the Pac-12 South contenders to pull off—combined with another Pac-12 title would secure the Ducks’ return to the playoff.