Pac-12 football preview: 20 things to know heading into the 2017 season
The Pac-12 made an intriguing appearance in last year's College Football Playoff, and it might do the exact same this year. It's a conference you'll want to read up on.
Here are 20 things to know about the Pac-12:
1. Last fall, Washington ended a seven-year streak of either Stanford or Oregon winning the Pac-12, blowing out both in the process, and it continued the North Division's dominance of the league. The North is 6-0 in Pac-12 title games, and no team in the South has won a conference title since USC in 2008. The North looks like the Pac-12's stronger division again, but USC gives the South a chance to finally win a championship. This is capable of being a big year for the Pac-12, which should have a couple national title contenders, solid depth in the middle and outstanding quarterback play.
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3. After such an unbearably long down period, making back-to-back bowl trips is a reasonable, attainable goal for Colorado, even if it takes a significant step back from a division title. There is a lot to like about the offense, which should have the Buffaloes in the bowl picture: The run game is in good hands with a veteran offensive line that returns four starters, led by Jeromy Irwin, and a talented, underrated running back in Phillip Lindsay, who rushed for 1,252 yards and 16 TDs and caught 53 passes. Sophomore QB Steven Montez also got his feet wet in relief of Sefo Liufau a few times last year, and while he was predictably inconsistent, he showed off running potential, particularly with a 135-yard effort against Oregon. Throw in an impressive receiving corps featuring Shay Fields, Devin Ross, Jay McIntyre and Bryce Bobo, and Colorado will have its best offense in years, ensuring that it won't sink back to previous depths.
4. It's been nearly two decades since UCLA last won a conference title. It happened in 1998, with first-round pick Cade McNown at quarterback. Now, the Bruins are in danger of wasting three years of Josh Rosen. In Rosen's promising freshman debut in 2015, UCLA went 8-5. Last year, with Kennedy Polamalu stepping into the offensive coordinator role, Rosen got little protection and no support from the running game. He ended up missing the second half of the season with a shoulder injury, and UCLA plummeted to 4-8. It was an inexcusable campaign for a team that recruits at UCLA's level, and with his job potentially on the line, head coach Jim Mora brought in Jedd Fisch from Michigan to transform the offense and try to put the talented Rosen in better position to succeed. The Bruins finished 127th in rushing yards per game (84.3), so there is nowhere to go but up. Coming back from his shoulder injury, the pressure is on Rosen to deliver on all the hype, but he's going to need substantially more help from his line and his running backs to actually do it.
5. UCLA will rebound. The question is whether it will be enough of a rebound to save Mora, especially if rival USC restores its national power status. The Bruins quietly played well on defense in 2016, ranking 15th in yards per play allowed, and they were only blown out twice, the final two games against USC and California. With a healthy Rosen and a better running game, there's enough talent to return to the top half of the Pac-12, as high as second in the South. The Bruins do need new pass rushers to emerge with Takkarist McKinley gone -- Jaelen Phillips could be the answer -- but the defense is in solid shape. Can the Bruins survive a brutal schedule? They have five Pac-12 road games, including Washington and Stanford from the North plus Utah and USC, and they also travel to Memphis in a nonconference trap and open the season at home against Texas A&M. UCLA has a reputation for not playing up to its full potential, and while Fisch will fix at least some of the offense's problems, that brutal slate will make it tough on the Bruins to get back to where they really want to be.
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6. Utah didn't finish a season ranked in the AP poll until 1994, and Kyle Whittingham has guided the Utes to ranked finishes in three straight years. After a somewhat bumpy start to Pac-12 membership with a 9-18 conference record the first three years, Utah is 16-11 in Pac-12 play the past three years, going 28-11 overall. It makes Whittingham one of the most underappreciated coaches in college football. A fourth straight top-25 finish is unlikely, but the Utes won't stop being reliably competitive. The biggest questions are clear: How quickly can they rebuild their running game and their secondary? After a brief in-season retirement, Joe Williams had a massive year behind a strong O-line last year. Now, Williams is gone, along with four starters up front, putting pressure on an unproven group of blockers, backs and receivers -- although the addition of WR Darren Carrington from Oregon helps -- to support senior QB Troy Williams in a new-look offense under yet another new coordinator in Troy Taylor, who brings a different style after overseeing a prolific pass-heavy offense at Eastern Washington last year. Defensively, there's a lot to like up front, especially with DE Kylie Fitts back from injury, and punting continues to be a huge advantage for field position, but the secondary has only one starter back, star safety Chase Hansen, and his status is uncertain because of an injury. The Utes play a nonconference road game at BYU and draw the four toughest teams from the North (Stanford, Oregon, Washington State and Washington), so their ability to reload with an inexperienced team is going to be tested, especially with a new-look offense. Whittingham has earned the benefit of the doubt, but at least a small step back will be difficult to avoid.
7. Todd Graham led Arizona State to 10 wins in both 2013 and '14, but his aggressive approach on defense has backfired the past two years, losing seasons in which the Sun Devils have ranked 109th and 127th in yards per play allowed. Last year's team started 5-1, only to lose six in a row, with an offense stumbled to 103rd in yards per play despite scoring 33.3 points per game. There are plenty of intriguing pieces here. Can Graham fit them together, with another new offensive coordinator in Billy Napier? Napier, who was Alabama's receivers coach, comes aboard along with Crimson Tide transfer QB Blake Barnett, who lasted about a quarter as the starter in Tuscaloosa last year. Barnett is battling mobile junior Manny Wilkins for the QB job, and whoever wins will have a stellar supporting cast featuring rising star wideout N'Keal Harry and the running back duo of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage. The offense should be good enough for Arizona State to get back on track. Graham's future at Arizona State depends on fixing the defense, which gave up a national-worst 357.4 passing yards per game and was repeatedly burned for big plays. It's up to new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett to fix the secondary and strike a better balance between aggressiveness and actually getting stops. A schedule littered with toss-up games puts the Sun Devils squarely on the postseason bubble.
8. The coaching carousel is fickle. One minute, a coach is a hot candidate for another job. The next, he's on the hot seat. Rich Rodriguez knows the ups and downs of coaching as well as anyone. He was a huge success at West Virginia. His short tenure at Michigan was a disaster. He took Arizona to the Pac-12 title game in 2014 and turned down the South Carolina job the next year … only to fall to 3-9 in 2016 and put himself on the hot seat. With a new athletic director, Rodriguez suddenly faces immense, immediate pressure in Tucson. Beating Arizona State to end the season helped, but Arizona nevertheless had seven Pac-12 losses by double digits, with massive struggles defending the pass and a disappointing -- albeit injury-plagued -- offense. If QB Brandon Dawkins and RB Nick Wilson stay healthy -- Wilson in particular has struggled with injuries after a big freshman season -- Rodriguez can be expected to return this offense to respectability. The defense, however has problems at every level, including the lack of a pass rush. A schedule that features Cal and Oregon State instead of Washington and Stanford makes bowl eligibility possible, but getting back to a bowl seems unlikely.
9. California has been to only one bowl game in the past five seasons, and that came with a No. 1 overall pick at quarterback. Even with a productive passer in transfer Davis Webb last year, the Golden Bears still fell back to 5-7, and Sonny Dykes lost his job. In steps Wisconsin defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who made a sharp hire in landing Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin as his offensive coordinator. Wilcox made good hires, but it's unlikely to matter much in 2017: Cal's offense will regress and its defense is more than a one-year fix, entering a season against one of the nation's most difficult schedules. The Golden Bears face two Power Five opponents in nonconference play -- North Carolina and Ole Miss -- in addition to visiting Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Stanford and UCLA and hosting USC and Washington State. The only sure win is the FCS game against Weber State. Cal is inexperienced at quarterback and on the offensive line, and it has ranked last in the Pac-12 in scoring defense in three of the past four years. Players like DL James Looney and WR Demetris Robertson give Wilcox some standouts to build around, but there is too much rebuilding to do in Year 1, with too many tough games, to expect much from Cal right away.
10. Gary Andersen's first two years at Oregon State were rough, but after going winless in the Pac-12 in 2015, the Beavers improved to three wins against conference foes last year. Andersen has Oregon State on the right track, and another two-win leap to bowl eligibility is on the table. Of course, like Cal, the Beavers have to withstand a tough schedule, featuring USC from the South and tricky nonconference tilts with Colorado State and Minnesota. Last year's team did make significant strides, and there's a solid amount of experience returning, headlined by rising stars in junior RB Ryan Nall and sophomore CB Xavier Crawford. The key is finding some consistency at quarterback, where juco transfer Jake Luton has risen to the top following two years of QB rotations under Andersen. With most of the defense back and increased optimism on offense, Oregon State will be a tough out capable of springing an upset and returning to the postseason.
11. Washington State has started each of the past two seasons with a loss to an FCS team. It has responded each time with impressive seasons, going 9-4 in 2015 and 8-5 in '16, both years better than any other season the Cougars have had since a run of three straight top-10 finishes from 2001-03. After some early hiccups, Mike Leach has done a fantastic job building Washington State into a top-25 threat. While it's in a tough division, this year's Washington State team is capable of being Leach's best yet in Pullman. Senior QB Luke Falk is back with 10,888 career passing yards. He's protected by a terrific line, led by Cody O'Connell, and while there is some receiving corps attrition -- Gabe Marks, River Cracraft -- there are plenty of experienced options in an Air Raid attack that spreads the ball around through a high-volume passing game in which Falk completed 70 percent of his passes. Just as important has been improvement on defense under coordinator Alex Grinch, as the Cougars have climbed from 117th in points allowed in 2014 to 50th last season. This is a veteran team on both sides of the ball, one that just has to navigate a strange schedule that features five straight home games to open the year, then only two home games after Sept. 29.
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12. Oregon was bound to experience a down season at some point, but after seven straight top-11 finishes from 2008-14, nobody could have seen such a drastic drop-off happening. We saw signs of trouble in 2015, but just two years removed from coaching a Heisman winner and playing for a national title, Mark Helfrich was fired following a 4-8 collapse in which Oregon's defense couldn't stop anybody. Chip Kelly's Oregon teams finished in the top 15 in points allowed a couple times. Last year, Oregon finished 126th, giving up 41.4 points per game. The Ducks were clobbered by Washington State, Washington, USC and Stanford and ended a brutal campaign by losing to rival Oregon State. They were equally ineffective defending the run and the pass. Oregon will be better defensively in 2017, but even new coordinator Jim Leavitt can't fix this right away. Leavitt did a phenomenal job at Colorado, making him a terrific hire for new head coach Willie Taggart. Still, even with 12 of the top 13 tacklers back, Leavitt is tasked with fixing one of the nation's worst units. Promising players like LB Troy Dye offer hope; just expect incremental improvement rather than immediate success.
13. Taggart is 4-20 in first seasons as a head coach, at Western Kentucky and South Florida. While Oregon was in terrible shape last year, it's not as if the cupboard is bare, so expect bigger things in his third debut. Taggart can at least get the Ducks back to a winning record in conference play in Year 1 in Eugene, because he inherits an explosive offense. The big question is wide receiver, where top target Darren Carrington was dismissed and Charles Nelson is the only player returning with significant experience. The Ducks have a promising QB in Justin Herbert. They have a much better offensive line with Tyrell Crosby rejoining an otherwise young unit thrown into the fire last year. And they have one of the nation's top running back groups, headlined by Royce Freeman. Even with a bunch of problems on offense in 2016 -- injuries, youth -- the Ducks still finished 18th in yards per play. Taggart had issues on offense early in his USF tenure before embracing some Oregon-like philosophies that made him a solid fit for this job. We know the Ducks will be able to run the ball successfully. Herbert, however, needs new weapons to emerge for him to take a step forward as a sophomore and allow Oregon to actually hang around the Pac-12 race.
14. A trio of horrifying losses -- by 38 to Washington, by 26 to Washington State and 10-5 to Colorado -- made Stanford an afterthought last season despite the presence of Christian McCaffrey. Let's not forget, however, that Stanford is still capable of being a major factor in the Pac-12 race. Quarterback play and injuries were problems for the Cardinal a year ago, but there's been no Oregon-like fall from grace. Stanford has finished in the AP top 12 in five of David Shaw's six seasons, with three Pac-12 championships. As usual, the schedule is difficult with an opening journey to Australia against Rice and USC on the road, plus nonconference games against Notre Dame and at San Diego State, but the Cardinal get Washington at home on Nov. 10 when, hopefully, their QB situation will be on more stable ground. Improbably, Stanford has become one of the most reliable teams in the country, and it's a clear-cut No. 3, at worst, in the Pac-12 entering 2017.
15. Stanford hopes for growth from junior Keller Chryst, who tore his ACL in the Sun Bowl but is already practicing. The Cardinal passing game averaged only 6.7 yards per attempt last year, with Ryan Burns ceding the job to Chryst. Chryst finished the season strong, although it was against a series of beatable defenses. The passing game needs to stretch the field more, and Stanford also needs to get back to producing an overpowering offensive line after a forgettable 2016 campaign. If the offensive line makes expected strides, look for a breakout season from junior RB Bryce Love, who has shown flashes of big-time ability, even if fully replacing McCaffrey is impossible. While there are holes on offense, the defense has a chance to be excellent, led by a terrific secondary, so Stanford shouldn't be taken lightly as a Pac-12 contender and top-15 team, yet again.
16. Washington hadn't lost fewer than four games since 2000 or finished higher than 25th in the AP poll since 2001, and yet a breakthrough was easy to see coming last year: In Year 3 under Chris Petersen, a perfect match for head coach, the Huskies boasted a proven defense and rising stars on offense, earning a preseason No. 14 ranking. The hype was justified, and then some: Washington won the Pac-12 and made the playoff, an incredible turnaround after years of aimlessness. It was hardly a fluke, either. Washington is capable of duplicating last year's success. After all, players like QB Jake Browning -- who shouldn't be forgotten in preseason Heisman talk -- RB Myles Gaskin, OT Trey Adams and DLs Greg Gaines and Vita Vea were merely sophomores last year. Washington can survive the loss of six drafted players, especially with Browning being healthy again after dealing with late-season shoulder problems.
17. A favorable schedule gives Washington time to fix problem areas. Should Washington find itself in a playoff debate, the schedule featuring Rutgers, Montana and Fresno State in nonconference play and no USC in the regular season could end up being unfavorable, in the eyes of the selection committee. But there's no doubt that a lot of wins are on the table, and that the secondary -- which loses Budda Baker, Kevin King and Sidney Jones -- has plenty of time to gel. The Huskies don't play a proven quarterback until Oct. 28 against UCLA, and even their backloaded schedule features four home games (UCLA, Oregon, Utah and Washington State) in the final five. That's all sandwiched around the team's game of the year at Stanford on Nov. 10. Duplicating a 12-win season is hard anywhere, let alone a place that struggled for so long like Washington, but this is an excellent coaching staff and an excellent roster facing the Pac-12's easiest schedule. Washington has won double-digit games only twice since winning the 1991 national title, but it feels like a relatively safe bet to do it again in 2017.
18. USC was still in crisis mode when the calendar flipped to October last year. The Trojans lost by 46 to Alabama and by 17 to Stanford, and they stumbled in a loss at Utah to finish September 1-3. Clay Helton's first full year as head coach was on the verge of disaster. But just like its Rose Bowl opponent, Penn State, USC swiftly and emphatically changed the narrative surrounding the program. Behind breakout QB Sam Darnold, USC won nine in a row to end the season, including victories over Big Ten champion Penn State and Pac-12 champion Washington. A 1-3 start turned into a 10-win season, setting the stage for massive expectations for a full return to glory in 2017. The Trojans' last two top-10 starts turned out to be flops in 2012 and '15 but have a roster around Darnold that's ready to succeed at a high level.
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19. It's understandable to be wary of the avalanche of praise directed toward Darnold, who has emerged as both the Heisman favorite and the No. 1 overall draft pick favorite. Darnold deserves the preseason hype, though. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound redshirt sophomore was thrown into a tough, pressure-packed spot and quickly performed like a veteran, showcasing poise, mobility and a big arm. He completed 67.2 percent for 3,086 yards, 31 TDs and nine picks and rushed for 250 yards despite not starting the first three games, and his season was capped by a masterful performance in the Rose Bowl. Darnold does lose his top two receivers and key pieces of the offensive line, but the Trojans' depth has improved significantly over the past couple years on top of the continued recruiting success. The schedule is tough, but USC avoids Washington in the regular season and gets Stanford, Texas, Utah and UCLA at home. With Darnold, a rising star tailback in Ronald Jones and a defense as a whole that's on the rise, USC is ready to win the Pac-12 again.
20. Maybe it's unfortunate that Washington and USC don't play each other in the regular season, just from the perspective of viewers, but everything could set up perfectly for a Huskies-Trojans showdown to end the season in early December. The pick here is that USC beats Washington in a Pac-12 title game that serves, essentially, as a playoff quarterfinal. It's understandable to be skeptical of USC after all the post-Pete Carroll disappointment, and it's possible Washington will face some post-playoff regression. But USC has a loaded roster led by a quarterback capable of winning the Heisman, and Washington has the returning talent and schedule to make another run. Conference championship games have frequently been duds lately, but the Pac-12 has a chance to put forth a memorable one that serves as an extension of the playoff.