The Wild Wild West
2016 was a crazy year out west. Washington made it to the College Football Playoff a year or two before most people thought that they would contend for a Pac-12 championship. USC started out 1-3 only to switch QBs, find a bonafide stud and dominate the last half of the season ending in a Rose Bowl victory. UCLA, Arizona, and Arizona State seemed to have more players on the DL than on the field, including star UCLA QB Josh Rosen. Oregon went from playing for the National Championship in 2014 to being the 2016 cellar dweller in the Pac-12 North division, costing head coach Mark Helfrich his job. Colorado came out of nowhere to win the Pac-12 South division. Utah started out the season on fire and fizzled late.
This year the conference looks to be really strong. USC (4), Washington (7), Stanford (14) and Utah (25) are all ranked in the preseason Coaches Poll. Washington State, Colorado, Oregon, Arizona, and UCLA have received votes in the same poll. That’s nine of the twelve teams in the league. While preseason polls don’t mean much, it’s still respectable that three-fourths of the league received national attention. However, the one constant in the wild, wild west is that things will be wild and crazy.
Pac-12 North (in alphabetical order)
Cal has a new head coach, a new offense and a new outlook on life. Beau Baldwin left the red turf of Eastern Washington for the Bay Area. Last year they had Davis Webb leading their offensive attack. He left for the NFL, so they will have a new signal caller under center. Whoever wins the starting QB job will have a plethora of targets led by track star Demetris Robertson.
The offense wasn’t the problem in 2016; it was the defense. They couldn’t stop anyone. They had the second worst run defense in the nation giving up 273 yards per game. This year the new coaching staff stressed tackling and being physical. It won’t be hard to improve in those areas, so expect the defense to be better than last season.
Key games- Ole Miss 9/16, USC 9/23, @ Washington 10/7, @ Stanford 11/18
After a poor season last year, Oregon let go of Mark Helfrich and brought over Willie Taggart from South Florida as head coach. He won’t mess much with the offense that was ranked 15th in the nation last season. They will still be up tempo but they should feature the run a little bit more. That’s great news for star running back Royce Freeman. Look for him to be a key cog on offense along with Sophomore QB Justin Herbert. Herbert isn’t the runner that the Oregon faithful are used to but he’s still a good athlete with an accurate arm.
Like Cal, the offense really wasn’t the problem last season. It was the defense. This unit gave up more first downs than anyone else in college football last season. They couldn’t stop the run or the pass. They were abysmal! This season they should be better. They really don’t have anywhere to go but up. They are switching to a 3-4 which should help with a solid core of returning LBs. Troy Dye was great as a freshman, leading the team in tackles, and should be even better as a sophomore leader.
Key Games- Nebraska 9/9, @ Stanford 10/14, Utah 10/28, @ Washington 11/4
Gary Andersen came to Oregon State after a brief, yet successful, stint at Wisconsin. He was supposed to turn the program around. He has made some strides but is probably starting to feel his seat starting to get warm. He needs to have a good season this year. Last season the offense could run the ball behind RB Ryan Nall. Nall returns this year and should spearhead the offensive attack again. However, the passing game needs to step it up or it could be another rough campaign in Corvallis.
Andersen’s seat is probably hotter more for his defense than his offense. He’s been a stout defensive mind with great running defenses while at Utah State and Wisconsin. But the defense has been less than ideal with the Beavers. Last year his D gave up over five yards per carry. That has to get better if the Beavers are going to compete. Look for senior LB Manase Hungalu to lead the LBs and the defense.
Key Games- MInnesota 9/9, Washington 9/30, 10/7 @ USC, 11/24 @ Oregon
Always a threat to compete for a division and conference title, this year should be no different. Last year the Cardinal had one of the most explosive and exciting players in Christian McCaffery in the backfield. This year McCaffery is sharing the backfield with Cam Newton in the NFL. Junior RB Bryce Love will shoulder the running load this year. With four returning offensive lineman in front of him, he should have a great year running the football and controlling both tempo and clock.
The defense was stout in 2016, except for two games against Washington and Washington State. They gave up just 20 points per game. This year’s edition of the defense will be solid as well. Up front they have a load at DT in Harrison Phillips. He’ll eat up offensive linemen and allow Joey Alfieri and the LBs to roam free and make tackles. The secondary returns 3 starters from last season and should be among the best in the Pac-12.
Key Games- @ USC 9/9, 10/7 @ Utah, 11/10 Washington, 11/24 Notre Dame
Everything clicked last year in Seattle for the Huskies. Their defense was among the best in college football. The offense was extremely efficient. And the coaching staff has done an amazing job bringing in talented recruits to keep the Huskies at the top of the Pac-12. The offense lost John Ross to the NFL but return some very key cogs. QB Jake Browning is a Heisman hopeful and leads a very talented offense. RB Myles Gaskin ran for almost 1,400 yards last year and could break 1,500 this year. Dante Pettis will lead the receivers that all have great speed and great hands.
Last year the defense was the heart and soul of the team. They return seven starters but lose S Budda Baker, CBs Sidney Jones, and Kevin King. Although lacking experience in the secondary, they have very talented players to fill the vacated positions. DT Vita Vea will eat up opposing offensive lines. He is one of the most talented DTs in all of college football. LB Azeem Victor almost had 100 tackles last year and should lead the team this year in tackles. This team has the talent to make it back to the CFP should it last through a brutal November stretch.
Key Games- @ Colorado 9/23, Oregon 11/4, @ Stanford 11/10, 11/18 Utah
QB Luke Falk came back for his senior year after leading the Cougars to 38 points per game last season. He lost two of his top three receivers but Mike Leach knows how to get the most out of his receiving corps. Look for Falk to break 4,500 passing yards again this season with 5,000 yards not out of the question. Tavares Martin will be the #1 WR but the entire receiving corps plus the RBs will get lost of targets.
DE Hercules Mata’afa has one of the coolest names in all of college football. He also is a nightmare for offenses coming around the corner. He has 12 sacks over the last two seasons and wants to really get after it this year as the leader on the defense. If he can get help putting pressure on opposing QBs, the secondary will have opportunities to create turnovers. S Robert Taylor and S Jalen Thompson need to be solid against the pass-happy offenses of the Pac-12.
Key Games- Boise State 9/9, USC 9/29, Stanford 11/4, @ Washington 11/25
Pac-12 South (in alphabetical order)
Rich Rodriguez teams are predictable every year. Defense is optional. The offense is explosive when healthy. Last year the Arizona offense, well, they weren’t healthy. It seemed like it was a merry-go-round at QB with all of the injuries they suffered. This year the O-line must be better if they are going to have a chance. J.J. Taylor and Nick Wilson are a dynamic one-two punch in the backfield that needs to carry the load if the Wildcats are going to take a step forward.
The injury epidemic didn’t just hit the offense last year. It hit the defense too. That allowed for younger guys to get experience and here’s to hoping that experience pays off this year. S Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles returns as the team’s leading tackler from last year. He needs to help the defense get off the field to allow for their offense to win them games. Last year it seemed like they couldn’t ever make a third down stop. This year they must be better if they are going to improve on last year’s disappointing season.
Key Games- Houston 9/9, 10/14 UCLA, @ USC 11/4, @ Arizona State 11/25
The Sun Devils will need more from their front five if they are going to survive. Last season they couldn’t pass protect or run block very well. They gave up 41 sacks. That’s not good. That will really put a dampener on an explosive offense. N’Keal Harry is back to catch balls and put opposing CBs on skates. Kalen Ballage will lead the backfield and can catch the ball too. If the line can give the necessary time, this should be a fun offense to watch.
The ASU pass defense last year was the worst defense in the nation. So they brought in Phil Bennett as the def defensive coordinator. They recruited defensive backs hard this last year so they should be improved there. They will need to be going against so many great quarterbacks.
Key Games- @ Texas Tech 9/16, USC 10/28, @ UCLA 11/11, Arizona 11/25
The surprise team in the Pac-12 South last year was Colorado. Everyone expected them to be a little bit better, but not nearly as good as they were. They ended up in the Pac-12 title game after winning the south. RB Phillip Lindsay is back and an all-around back that will lead the Buffaloes. He’s a hard runner that does everything for this team. QB Steven Montez had some great moments last year when Sefo Liufau got hurt. He has a plethora of targets back and should have a good season this year as the leader of the O.
The defense lead the team last season and should be good again this year. They were the fifth-most efficient against the pass last season but they lost three starters in their secondary. They’ll need help from the front seven to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Look for Rick Gamboa to lead the team in tackles as one of the two middle LBs in this 3-4 scheme.
Key Games- Colorado State 9/1 (in Denver), UCLA 9/30, USC 11/11, @ Utah 11/25
QB Josh Rosen came to UCLA highly touted. And he showed why. He has an amazing arm, a good head on his shoulders and can lead. But last year he couldn’t stay healthy. That was probably because the rushing attack was non-existent. The Bruins had the second-worst ground game in college football. They averaged less than 3 yards per carry and barely gained 1,011 yards all season. That meant opposing defenses could pin their ears back and get after Rosen. If the O-line can create some holes for the RBs, it could be a special year for the offense in Los Angeles.
The defense was solid a year ago and should be again this year. It will be a young defense but there is plenty of talent to go around. The secondary is lead by S Jaleel Wadood and S Adarius Pickett. Those two are hard-hitting leaders that will make sure everyone is lined up correctly and getting after it. They have the potential to be the best safety tandem in the Pac-12.
Key Games- Texas A&M 9/2, @ Washington 10/28, @ Utah 11/3, @ USC 11/18
Is this the year that the Trojans are back as a national player all season? The early speculation is--yes. They are a not-so dark horse for the national title. They have the talent on both sides of the ball. Lead by Heisman-hopeful and possible #1 overall pick Sam Darnold, why shouldn’t the USC faithful be excited coming into 2017? Deontay Burnett will try to replace Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers at WR. RB Ronald Jones will keep defenses honest. As long as the O-line can replace both starting tackles and give Darnold time, watch out.
The defense was underrated last season, finishing 36th in the nation. They’ll need to be solid again and they can beat anyone given the riches they have on the offensive side of the ball. CB Iman Marshall is the #1 CB now with Adoree Jackson gone. LB Porter Gustin, LB Uchenna Nwosu, and LB Cameron Smith will give any offensive coordinator fits. If DE Rasheem Green and the rest of the D-line can get pressure on opposing QBs, this could be a special team and a special year for the Trojans.
Key Games- Stanford 9/9, Utah 10/14, @ Notre Dame 10/21, UCLA 11/18
Another season, another new offensive coordinator for the Utes. They bring in Troy Taylor from Eastern Washington who was known for slinging the ball around the field. That isn’t what the Utes are known for, though. They are known for being big, playing smash mouth football and grinding the oppenent with the run and occasionally geting some plays from the passing game. It will be interesting to see how Kyle Whittingham deals with the new schemes. The offensive line has always been very good for Utah but they lost a ton of talent up front--four starters total including T Garrett Bolles. They will benefit from the addition of WR Darren Carrington, the recently dismissed player from Oregon who is constantly in trouble off the field. He is a playmaker that can change the course of a game singlehandedly.
The defense will always be tough and sound under Kyle Whittingham. It’s his trademark. They have great talent in the trenches with T Lowell Lotulelei and T Filipo Mokofisi that will stop the run cold. DE Bradlee Anae and DE Chris Hart need to get the pass rush going to continue the tradition of “Sack Lake City.” S Chase Hansen needs to be the leader in the secondary for this team to stop the slew of good QBs that will throw the ball around the field.
Key Games- BYU 9/9, @ USC 10/14, UCLA 11/3, @ Washington 11/18