Pac-12 Playoff Prospectus: The Three Teams That Can Make the Final Four

Figuring out who will win the Pac-12 and make a run at the playoff this year will come down to quarterback play.
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The College Football Playoff strives in many ways to replicate college basketball’s postseason drama, but in one important way, it will never be March Madness. When conference hoops tournaments come around every spring, 300-plus teams still have a chance to play for the title. College football doesn’t have the capacity for that optimism.

There are 130 Football Bowl Subdivision programs, but the number of teams with any conceivable chance of making football’s final four is nowhere near triple digits. This week, will go conference-by-conference in search of that number, highlighting the teams in each league that can harbor legitimate playoff aspirations. So far, we’ve covered the ACC and the Big 12.

This is a big year for quarterbacks, and no league is more well-stocked than the Pac-12. In Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Luke Falk and Jake Browning, they have the best quartet of QBs in college football, and it’s not even close.

Rosen has first-round talent, but he is working with his third offensive coordinator in three seasons, and it’s a stretch to think that UCLA, which went 4–8 last season, have the personnel to win more than eight games this fall.

Falk has the numbers of an Air Raid veteran: He has thrown for 76 touchdowns and just 19 picks and over 9,000 yards over the past two seasons. Washington State is dangerous enough to knock off anyone in the league, but Falk needs to find a go-to receiver to replace Gabe Marks, and the Cougars’ D doesn’t seem stout enough to emerge from a very rugged Pac-12 North.

The other two QBs, Darnold of USC and Browning of Washington, are fronting legit playoff contenders. Darnold is getting more of the hype right now. He’s got everything the NFL covets in a quarterback—the size, the feet, the arm, the field vision, the anticipation, the toughness, the playmaking savvy. Plus, he plays at a school that cranks out Heisman winners. What he doesn’t have is an experienced O-line or a seasoned receiving corps. But the skill guys are very talented, especially tailback Ronald Jones, who has focused on little-detail work of late and is primed for a big junior season after running for over 2,000 yards in his first two years at USC.

The House That Built Sam Darnold

Pac-12 Conference

2016 champion: Washington
Teams in committee’s final CFP rankings: Five
Teams with a playoff shot in 2017: Three

USC: The Trojans’ front seven should be better than it’s been in the past few years. A young D-line has matured, and Clancy Pendergast’s defense should put plenty of heat on rival QBs. The bad news: The schedule is thorny, especially since there are no bye weeks, and September is tricky. Last year USC opened 1–3, but that was before Darnold emerged. This time, there is no Alabama, but beware the Stanford-Texas double (Sept. 9 and 16). Cardinal head coach David Shaw’s team is the most physical on the West Coast. If USC can handle that, they have to bounce right back and face a Texas program that should be much improved in 2017. Worth noting: New Longhorns coach Tom Herman is 6–0 against ranked opponents. That’s followed by consecutive road games, the latter on a Friday night in Pullman.

Washington: USC doesn’t have to face Washington, at least in the regular season. Despite the Pac-12 media picking the Trojans as the favorites to win the conference, I’ll go against the grain and take Chris Petersen’s bunch to win the league and get a Playoff spot.

Browning doesn’t have the size or arm or speed that Darnold has, but he’s still a really good college QB. He’s smart and accurate, and his arm is stronger than it showed late in 2016 when a shoulder injury held him back. Still, his 43/9 touchdown-to-interception ratio proves how sharp he can be, as does the school-record 41.8 points per game the Huskies put up last year. He can turn to a 1,400-yard back in Myles Gaskin, and Lavon Coleman is a good understudy. Dante Pettis (15 TD catches in 2016) is explosive and has soft hands to lead a strong receiving corps that also contains big-play threat Chico McClatcher. Browning’s O-line also has four of five starters back.

Defensively, the Huskies lost three studs in the secondary, but the front seven should be fierce, starting with huge D-linemen Vita Vea and Greg Gaines. Behind them are standout linebackers Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria. Sophomore safety Taylor Rapp is a budding star on the back line.

Preseason Power Rankings: Who Will Make 2017's Strongest Playoff Case?

Stanford: The hunch here is that the Huskies won’t be challenged until November, when they visit Stanford six days after hosting Oregon. The Cardinal will be looking for vengeance after getting destroyed last year on a Friday night in Seattle, 44–6.

Stanford’s the only other Pac-12 team I see with a shot at making the playoff. Start with Shaw’s track record: three conference titles six seasons. There’s a lot to like with this year’s defense, particularly in the secondary. Unfortunately for the Cardinal, this team does have to replace the two best players in the league last season: Christian McCaffrey and Solomon Thomas. Those guys were true difference-makers. Without them, I feel like this team will be a notch below both Washington and USC because I have my doubts whether they have enough playmakers to win this conference.