What did each Pac-12 team learn in 2015?
It’s been a little more than a month since Alabama celebrated its latest national championship inside University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., but that doesn’t mean it’s too soon to review the 2015 season. For the Crimson Tide, it was mostly smooth sailing, but other teams endured plenty of turbulence. Over the week, SI.com will lay out the biggest lessons learned by each squad from the Power 5 conferences and explain how those lessons can be instructive for 2016. We began with the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and now turn to the Pac-12.
Arizona: Injuries can derail a promising season
The Wildcats entered last fall with lofty aspirations, and then they fell victim to an onslaught of injuries: Scooby Wright III, Anu Solomon and Nick Wilson were among the key players to miss multiple games after being hurt. The situation got so bad in the linebacking corps that Rich Rodriguez had to convert a few defensive backs to play the position. There were positive takeaways from an otherwise disappointing 7–6 campaign—Arizona ranked second in the Pac-12 in scoring offense, and Solomon didn’t throw an interception in the team’s first eight games—but the Wildcats need superior health to realize their upside in 2016.
Arizona State: The defense has to limit big plays
In some ways, the Sun Devils’ defense last season fared extremely well. For example, it amassed 46 sacks, tied for third in the nation. In other ways, however, it was a complete and unmitigated disaster. Arizona State allowed 34 opposing passing plays of 30 yards or longer—the most of any team in the FBS by a margin of five—and was regularly burned for big gains. In their final two games alone, the Sun Devils gave up touchdowns of 49, 52, 58, 59 and 64 yards, respectively. Todd Graham’s group brings back some nice pieces, such as defensive end JoJo Wicker, but has to limit foes from picking up yards by the dozen.
Cal: A star QB leaves the program in a better place than he found it
At a basic level, the Bears’ season saw improvement for the second straight year, from 1–11 to 5–7 to 8–5. But it was also the last time the offense will be led by Jared Goff, the prolific passer expected to go in the first round of this spring’s NFL draft. Goff fluctuated between brilliance and inconsistency—he threw for 1,009 yards with 11 touchdowns in Cal’s final two games, yet tossed five interceptions in a loss at Utah on Oct. 10—but represented the best quarterback the program has had since Aaron Rodgers was on campus back in ’04. The difference between their final seasons? Rodgers had running backs J.J. Arrington and Marshawn Lynch to complement him; Goff had a trio of guys who underwhelmed as senior Daniel Lasco missed time with injury. The Bears’ season represented a step forward, but also a missed opportunity. Cal opened 5–0 before losing five of its next six games. Can it keep climbing without Goff?
Colorado: Bowl eligibility was only a few breaks away
For a program widely perceived to be in disarray, the Buffaloes came awfully close to upsetting some Pac-12 contenders last fall. They led Arizona going into the fourth quarter on Oct. 17; they rallied from 15 points down to threaten UCLA in the final moments on Oct. 31; and they jumped to a 17–3 lead against USC before falling on Nov. 13. Coach Mike MacIntyre’s rebuilding job showed clear signs of progress in 2015, particularly on defense, where the Buffs jumped from 119th (39.0) to 70th (27.5) in points per game allowed. If Colorado keeps improving—and learns to score in the red zone—it may no longer be the doormat on which other Pac-12 teams regularly stomp.
Oregon: Having a stud under center makes a world of difference
The timing of opponents' matchups with the Ducks in 2015 was hugely important. In the first half of the season, they were ripe for the taking; they lost three of five between Sept. 12 and Oct. 10 and struggled offensively without quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. From that point until Adams got injured in the second quarter of the Alamo Bowl against TCU, though, Oregon was the high-scoring outfit fans have come to expect. The Ducks averaged 44.8 points during their regular-season ending six-game winning streak and dealt Stanford the loss (38–36 on Nov. 14) that presumably kept the Cardinal out of the College Football Playoff. Now, Adams is gone—and fellow FCS transfer Dakota Prukop is coming to Eugene. Will the flashiest attack in college football keep firing?
Oregon State: There are better things than transition years
The Beavers were a bad football team last season. They finished 2–10, ranked 100th nationally in total offense (5.12 yards per play) and 114th nationally (6.44 yards per play allowed) in total defense. That’s a recipe for sadness. The good news, however, is that coach Gary Andersen is set to enter his second year in Corvallis. His system is no longer novel, and Oregon State returns some dynamic wide receivers in Jordan Villamin and Victor Bolden. This is a group that was on the wrong side of several blowouts in 2015, but familiarity breeds success, and a more veteran roster—especially on the back end of the defense—could produce more palatable results in ’16.
Stanford: Christian McCaffrey may be a generational talent
McCaffrey’s sophomore season was so absurd—3,864 all-purpose yards with 16 total touchdowns—that he broke Barry Sanders’s 27-year-old record for yardage and then prompted Sanders’s son, who had been backing him up with the Cardinal, to transfer to Oklahoma State in search of additional playing time. And though McCaffrey finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting, fans can bet he’ll be the frontrunner as 2016 fall camp approaches. There is plenty more to say about McCaffrey—like how he is just as elusive as Reggie Bush in the open field, or how he accounted for 461 yards in a win over USC on Dec. 5—but it’s more fun to link to this and reinforce that it’s worth staying up for some Stanford games this fall.
UCLA: A team is only as good as the sum of its parts
There were times last season when the Bruins looked like one of the most gifted teams in college football. True freshman quarterback Josh Rosen lived up to the hype, passing for 3,670 yards with 23 touchdowns. The defense ranked second in the Pac-12 in yards per play allowed (5.00) and absolutely manhandled Utah in a 17–9 win on Nov. 21. But a litany of errors and injuries kept this team from emerging as a true contender. UCLA was a beautifully built machine that had a habit of breaking down, doomed by penalties (it ranked 118th nationally in penalty yards), no-show performances (a 38–23 loss to Arizona State on Oct. 3) and a torn anterior meniscus suffered by do-it-all linebacker Myles Jack. The Bruins’ 8–5 record wasn’t bad, all things considered, but it wasn’t cause for celebration, either.
USC: Stability would be a welcome change
The Trojans’ 2015 season went something like Kanye West’s recent album release. The buildup was gigantic, and the final product featured a lot of brilliance, but there was way too much drama involved for it to go off without a hitch. This sort of arc has been consistent at USC: It came into the fall ranked No. 8 in the AP poll; limped to a 3–3 start that saw the school contentiously fire Steve Sarkisian; and then won five of its next six—including a 40–21 beatdown of crosstown rival UCLA—before falling to Stanford and Wisconsin. The talent is there, led by tailback Ronald Jones II and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, but any sense of program-wide stability is not. For the Trojans to reclaim the Pac-12 throne, much more of the latter is needed.
Utah: This program can be a force in the South Division
The first few years following the Utes’ realignment to the Pac-12 were shaky. A pair of 5–7 campaigns in 2012 and ’13 might have made fans forget exactly what Utah—a program that won at least 10 games five times between 2003-10—was capable of doing. No longer. Kyle Whittingham’s crew attracted plenty of attention last fall by demolishing Oregon in Eugene (62–20 on Sept. 26), forcing 34 turnovers (tied for second in the FBS) and finishing 10–3 with a Las Vegas Bowl victory over BYU. There is still lots of room for improvement—the offense averaged 180 passing yards per game—but last year felt like the beginning of something bigger. It helps that first-team all-conference selections Lowell Lotulelei and Marcus Williams will both return in ’16.
Washington: Chris Petersen is building something scary
It is completely nonsensical that the Huskies’ defense could lose four players to the first two rounds of last year’s NFL draft and improve in 2015. Somehow, though, that’s exactly what happened. Washington led the Pac-12 in scoring defense (18.8 points per game allowed) and total defense (4.90 yards per play allowed), and it limited opponents to a lowly 36.8% conversion rate on third downs. If the offense, which broke out in a major way in season-ending routs of Oregon State, Washington State and Southern Miss, can continue to develop under promising quarterback Jake Browning, this program could be poised to do some big things in the fall.
Washington State: This program has a QB-WR tandem to be reckoned with
Mike Leach’s offenses often have a vertiginous quality to them, and last year’s group proved to be no exception. The Cougars paced the nation with an average of 389.2 passing yards per game, and they carved up Oregon during a 45–38 win on Oct. 10. The headliners were quarterback Luke Falk (who threw for 4,561 yards with 38 touchdowns) and receiver Gabe Marks (who had 104 catches for 1,192 yards with 15 scores), both of whom will return in 2016. Washington State needs more from its defense—which made huge strides under first-year coordinator Alex Grinch in 2015—but the future is bright. Expect the aerial fireworks to continue.