2016 Pac-12 preview: Can anyone survive to make the playoff?

1:08 | College Football
2016 PAC-12 football preview: Changing of the guard
Friday August 19th, 2016

They might be projected to get left out of the College Football Playoff and they might only have a few superstars worthy of magazine covers, but don’t count out the Pac-12 teams just yet. The conference known for going crazy after dark has a Heisman Trophy favorite (Christian McCaffrey), Heisman hopeful (Josh Rosen) and Heisman dark horse (Luke Falk). It feels like everyone is in love with Washington as an upset team this year, and yet, for the first time in conference history, the Cardinal has been projected by the media as the Pac-12 champion. With so much uncertainty—can anyone get through this league unscathed?—you know you want to tune in when games kick off Aug. 27.

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Projected 2016 Pac-12 standings

North South
Stanford 10–2 (8–1) USC 9–3 (6–3)
Washington 9–3 (7–2) UCLA 8–4 (6–3)
Oregon 9–3 (6–3) Utah 7–5 (5–4)
Washington State 7–5 (4–5) Arizona 6–6 (3–6)
Cal 6–6 (3–6) Arizona State 6–6 (3–6)
Oregon State 3–9 (1–8) Colorado 3–9 (2–7)

Conference title game: Stanford over USC...again

    Offensive MVP
    Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
    2015 stats: 2,019 rushing yards, 645 receiving yards, 15 total touchdowns
    2016 projected stats: 2,231 rushing yards, 537 receiving yards, 18 total touchdowns
    He can do absolutely everything, and do it well. Defensive coaches dread gameplanning for him (good luck, guys!), and he’s the rare athlete who absolutely destroys defenses even though everyone knows the ball is going to him. McCaffrey has good breakaway speed, is tougher than he looks at first glance, and needs only a silver of room to break through and go streaking downfield. He was terrific last year and said he spent all off-season working to get faster, stronger and better at everything. Defenses have our sympathies.

    Defensive MVP
    Budda Baker, S, Washington
    2015 stats: 49 total tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions
    2016 projected stats: 81 total tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions
    Teams are scared of Baker and usually throw away from him as a result. But they’re learning that’s not necessarily the winning formula because the Huskies boast the best returning defense in the Pac-12. Baker is big, fast and salty. Bonus: He put on 18 pounds in the off-season, checking in at 192 at the start of fall camp. That should help him stay healthy and sharp in a season in which much is expected of him and his team.

    Impact Freshman
    Theo Howard, WR, UCLA
    2016 projected stats: 63 catches, 829 yards, 8 touchdowns
    The Bruins need a go-to receiver, and the 6-foot, 180-pounder is a natural fit. Ranked the No. 49 prospect in the country, according to Scout.com, Howard is long and smart and already drawing comparisons to another standout Pac-12 receiver: former USC All-America and Biletnikoff winner Marqise Lee. UCLA has a few other good wideouts but loses Jordan Payton, Thomas Duarte and Devin Fuller (a combined 2,236 yards and 18 touchdowns last season). The Bruins will benefit greatly from a reliable weapon downfield, and it helps, of course, to have a Heisman candidate throwing the passes. By the end of September, Howard could be Josh Rosen's favorite target. Says Pac-12 analyst Yogi Roth: "The kid is going to be a touchdown maker. You'll hear his name every week."

    Coach On the Hot Seat
    Mark Helfrich, Oregon
    2015 record: 9–4 (7–2)
    Overall record at Oregon: 33–8 (22–5)
    This seems borderline ridiculous, given that Oregon played for a national championship just two years ago. But life is different without Marcus Mariota. There are serious concerns about the Ducks’ inability to recruit and develop a young quarterback; for the second year, Oregon is relying on a graduate transfer from the FCS. What happens if Washington snaps the Ducks’ win streak and Oregon wins just seven or eight games?

Key nonconference games

USC vs. Alabama (Sept. 3)

Talk about a tough opener. On what is widely considered the best opening weekend of all time in college football, the defending champs are a double-digit favorite. The Pac-12 is considered the College Football Playoff outsider going into the 2016 season, but a win over the Crimson Tide at AT&T Stadium could help change that.

Oregon at Nebraska (Sept. 17)

This game is interesting because of the personnel: Second-year Nebraska coach Mike Riley, previously Oregon State’s coach, has lost to the Ducks in his last seven tries, and there’s already chatter that if he doesn’t get the Cornhuskers back to nine wins, his job could be in danger. On the flip side, Oregon coach Mark Helfrich’s seat is warming, too. The Ducks have one of the best, and most underrated, running backs in the country in Royce Freeman.

Stanford at Notre Dame (Oct. 15)

Many believe that if Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey had a better outing against the Fighting Irish last year (he finished with 228 all-purpose yards, but rushed for just 94), he would have been a lock for the Heisman. Can he redeem himself in 2016?

Key conference games

Washington at Oregon (Oct. 8)

The Ducks have run their winning streak to 12 in a row over their bitter rivals. If Washington really wants to contend in the conference, the Huskies have to prove they can rise up and win in the conference’s most hostile environment. It’ll come down to a running back battle between Freeman and Washington’s Myles Gaskin.

Stanford at Oregon (Nov. 12)

No matter the stakes or the rankings, this always seems to be one of the best games of the year. It’s a clash of styles with Stanford’s old-school offense vs. the Ducks’ up-tempo approach. If the two best running backs in the country cancel each other out, who emerges as the game’s deciding factor? Look out for Oregon speedster, and hurdling Olympian, Devon Allen, a junior receiver.

USC at UCLA (Nov. 19)

The Battle for L.A. could very well decide the Pac-12 South champion. Like most Los Angeles-based events, it’ll feature plenty of star power, from Trojans standouts Adoree’ Jackson and JuJu Smith-Schuster to Bruins sophomore Josh Rosen, who may be the best quarterback in the country.

Christopher Mast/Icon Sportswire

Five key questions

Can Washington live up to the hype?

You’ve probably heard by now that the Huskies, who went 7–6 overall and 4–5 in conference in 2015, are the sleeper pick this year. And not just in the Pac-12, but the country. Washington has a lot to like, including the return of its leading passer (Jake Browning), rusher (Myles Gaskin) and tackler (Azeem Victor). The Huskies also have one of the most respected coaches in college football in Chris Petersen. But they’re short on big-time experience and might be a year away from truly breaking through.

Will the graduate quarterbacks stand out?

This is the second season in a row that Oregon, just two years removed from boasting the best quarterback in the country, will rely on an FCS graduate transfer to run the offense. Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop has not officially won the job, but he is expected to take the reins after accounting for 7,347 yards of offense in his career with the Bobcats.

Another fifth-year guy who has to help his roster right away: graduate transfer Davis Webb, who will take over for Jared Goff at Cal. In a similar offense at Texas Tech, Webb completed 459 of 747 passes (61.4%) with 49 touchdowns and accounted for 5,567 yards of offense.

Can WildCaff repeat his 2015 season?

One of the best players in college football—the best player, if you ask Pac-12 coaches—returns with plenty of expectation and potentially even more speed. From the outside, it seems borderline impossible for McCaffrey to improve upon his numbers from last year. He finished with 2,019 rushing yards on 337 attempts, 645 receiving yards on 45 receptions and scored 15 total touchdowns. Did we mention he’s the country’s best return man, too? If McCaffrey repeats, outdoes or even comes close to his 2015 stats, he has a great shot at winning the Heisman after finishing as runner-up last year.

Is USC ready to compete for the conference title again?

UCLA was the media’s pick to win the South, but as usual, USC has some of the best talent in the country. The Trojans will be led by junior wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster (1,454 receiving yards in 2015) and junior cornerback Adoree’ Jackson (35 tackles, 1 force fumble, 1 interception) this year. But USC better be ready to play at its highest level right away; after opening the season against Alabama, the Trojans have trips to Stanford and Utah before the end of September. Overall, they’re hopeful that 2016 is drama-free with Clay Helton settled in as head coach.

Will the Pac-12 get a team in the playoff?

The early predictions are no, partially because of a few brutal nonconference schedules. USC opens with the defending national champions, UCLA has to go to Texas A&M and BYU, and Stanford has its annual matchup with Notre Dame. Every Pac-12 team is likely to have at least one loss, and that’s no way to guarantee a spot in the postseason. One team that could surprise: Washington State. The Cougars have a dark horse Heisman candidate in Luke Falk and an offense that can put up a lot of points in a hurry.

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