Prior to last season, either Oregon or Stanford had won the Pac-12 every year dating to 2008. While USC languished amid a rotating cast of coaches and NCAA-imposed scholarship reductions, and UCLA repeatedly failed to meet expectations, the Cardinal and Ducks lorded over the West Coast with two radically different formulas (supersonic offense for Oregon, bruising physicality for Stanford) that, for a long time, seemed impervious to challenges from other conference members. That changed in 2016, when Washington pulled off the rare feat of eclipsing outsize preseason hype.
The Huskies served notice of the changing of the guard in the Pac-12 by bludgeoning the Cardinal, 44–6, in late September, and their 70–21 evisceration of the Ducks in Eugene the following week accentuated their ascent to the top of the league totem pole. Washington couldn’t hang with Alabama in the playoff semifinals, but a 24–7 loss to one of the most dominant teams in college football history doesn’t override the broader message coach Chris Petersen’s squad sent in 2016: Washington is a national power again, and it’s not going away anytime soon.
And yet, the Huskies will have a hard time beating out a different Pac-12 program for a playoff bid in 2017. The Trojans are tracking towards another New Year’s Six Bowl after winning their final nine games to close 2016, including a 13-point triumph over Washington in Seattle in November. It would be foolish to discount the Cardinal in the league title race, and Oregon’s future looks rosy with Willie Taggart at the helm, but expect the Huskies and USC to run the show in the Pac-12 in 2017 and possibly beyond.