Is the Pac-12 the best conference in the country? That’s the question college football observers are asking more and more these days. The default rebuttal from SEC partisans is that the West Coast-based conference has not claimed a national title in the last decade, but Oregon and USC may be the two strongest candidates to put an end to the streak this year. The Pac-12 also features several other teams with the potential to make a run at a College Football Playoff berth. Expect a heated race in both the North and South divisions, with lots of upsets along the way and some thrilling installments of #Pac12AfterDark.
|Oregon||11–2 (8–1)||USC||11–2 (7–2)|
|Stanford||8–4 (5–4)||Ariz. St.||9–3 (7–2)|
|Cal||6–6 (4–5)||Arizona||9–3 (6–3)|
|Wash.||6–6 (4–5)||UCLA||8–4 (5–4)|
|Oregon St.||4–8 (2–7)||Utah||7–5 (4–5)|
|Wash. St.||4–8 (1–8)||Colorado||5–8 (1–8)|
Conference title game: Oregon over USC
Names to know
Offensive MVP2014 stats: 252 carries, 1,365 yards, 18 TDs2015 projected stats: 249 carries, 1,421 yards, 20 TDsIt’s scary to think about how good Freeman, still just a true sophomore, can be. If you consider 2014 a feeler year—Freeman has talked about how his head was spinning as a freshman, and he felt like he learned something new every week—expect a slight uptick in production now that he fully understands what’s going on. With fellow running back Thomas Tyner lost for the season after shoulder surgery earlier this month, the Ducks will need more from Freeman.
Defensive MVPScooby Wright, LB, Arizona2014 stats: 163 tackles, 29 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, 6 forced fumbles2015 projected stats: 172 tackles, 31 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 1 interceptionFrom two-star recruit to All-America linebacker, the 6’1”, 246-pound Wright is an easy pick. Everyone knows about him now, but Wright is still driven by all the people who overlooked and doubted him out of high school. He plays with a terrific motor, and could sneak into New York for the Heisman ceremony if he stays healthy.
Impact FreshmanIman Marshall, CB, USC2014 stats (high school):85 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 16 passes defended2015 projected stats: 46 tackles, 2 interceptionsThe top recruit in USC’s class, the 6’2”, 200-pound Marshall should make an immediate impact in the secondary, where he’ll compete for time at corner. He’ll be especially useful as a nickel back and will have an opportunity to prove himself early in a pass-happy conference. Marshall could return kicks, too; at Long Beach Poly he averaged 23.1 yards per return.
Coach on the Hot SeatMike Leach, Washington State2014 record: 3–9 (2–7)Record at Washington State: 12–25 (7–20)He’s not going anywhere just yet (he’s signed through 2019), but Leach’s shtick is wearing thin in a town hungry for football success. It’s nice that his offense led the nation in passing yards in ’14 (477.7 yards per game), but that’s easily forgotten if you’re home during bowl season. Leach is funny and interesting and will answer just about any question posed to him—including inquiries on dating and war generals—but he has yet to bring success to the Palouse. His success at Texas Tech seemed to indicate he could win anywhere. Well, it’s time he proved it. The Pac-12 isn’t getting any easier.
Three key nonconference games
Michigan at Utah (Sept. 3)
Jim Harbaugh’s debut takes center stage Thursday night in Salt Lake City, where the Utes bring back a terrific running back in Devontae Booker. Utah lost a few key pieces from its coaching staff, including defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, but it’s tough to win on the road in Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Arizona State vs. Texas A&M (in Houston) (Sept. 5)
Is the Pac-12 better and deeper than the SEC? A Sun Devils win would go a long way toward validating to that argument. Quarterback Mike Bercovici & Co. will basically be playing a road game in Houston, but the senior tends to shine in big moments. Having a receiver like converted running back D.J. Foster helps.
Oregon at Michigan State (Sept. 12)
Most assume this is a loss for the Ducks regardless of who’s playing quarterback for Oregon, but it’s early enough in the season that Oregon could still get into the playoff race. This game will set the tone for the Ducks' QB, though, whoever it is; if he struggles, it could be a long season. Sneak out of East Lansing with a win, and Oregon could ride that confidence to the conference title game and a playoff berth.
Three key conference games
Oregon at Arizona State (Oct. 29)
Weird things happen on Thursdays in college football, and Arizona State has plenty of talent on both sides of the ball to upset the Ducks in Tempe. Also of note: Oregon has a history of Thursday night stumbles, especially against teams from the desert.
Arizona at Arizona State (Nov. 21)
This game could settle the race for the Pac-12 South—as it did last year—or, given how competitive that division figures to be, its champion could very well not be one of these two schools.
Quarterbacks Anu Solomon and Bercovici will get the majority of the attention, but defense will determine the winner.
USC at Oregon (Nov. 21)
This is the matchup of the two most talented teams in the conference and could very well be a preview of the Pac-12 title game. These programs haven’t met the last two seasons—Oregon won the 2012 meeting, 62–51, in L.A.—which adds intrigue.
Five key questions
1. Who runs the show at Oregon with Marcus Mariota gone?
After passing the most discussed math test in college football history, FCS transfer Vernon Adams is in at Oregon, and the quarterback competition with veteran backup Jeff Lockie has commenced. In three years at Eastern Washington, Adams threw for 10,548 yards and accounted for 121 total touchdowns in 37 games. He’s got a strong chance to become the starter right away unless junior Lockie, who has attempted just 41 passes in his Oregon career, can outperform him in fall camp.
2.Can Steve Sarkisian finally prove himself?
To be clear, the nickname “Seven-Win Sark” is not a compliment. USC finally has all the pieces to compete for a national championship, including a coach who has been to the top before (as an assistant under Pete Carroll). But many question if Sarkisian is the one to lead the Trojans back to their glory days. We could find an answer this season.
3.Can the Pac-12 South survive itself?
Arguably the toughest division in college football, the Pac-12 South is loaded with contenders that might beat each other up so much that no one can emerge unscathed. Good luck picking the order with confidence: USC, UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State all have the pieces to win. Utah shouldn’t be counted out either.
4. Can Stanford bounce back?
Most teams couldn’t score against Stanford last year but that was O.K. because the Cardinal offense was so bad it couldn’t score either. That led to some very ugly football and a drop from atop the Pac-12 perch. With the return of quarterback Kevin Hogan, receiver Devon Cajuste and running back Christian McCaffrey, the offense should be markedly better. And the defense is always tough but returns just four starters
5. Is this the year the Pac-12 finally overtakes the SEC?
For the past couple of seasons, Pac-12 coaches and players have raved about the depth of their conference and how it’s the toughest in the country. Well, time to put a trophy where your mouth is. If the West Coast wants to be considered elite, it needs to beat the most dominant conference in college football. You’re up first, Arizona State.