It’s still surreal to realize that Stanford(!) is the most stable program in the division
Last year, the Pac-12 was the power conference left out of the playoff – ultimately, Stanford’s week one loss to Northwestern, of all teams, left the league with a two-loss champion and the committee was given an undefeated (ACC) or one-loss champ (SEC, Big 12, B1G) by the four other conferences. At the risk of being too reductive, it was a pretty solid year for the conference, although the encouraging and disappointing seasons divided along division lines. The South was supposed to be a very strong division and it really underwhelmed. Both Los Angeles schools were preseason top 15 teams: USC had a ton of off-field problems (including a mid-season coaching change) but won the division and finished 8-6, UCLA finished third and 8-5. The Arizona Schools combined to go 13-13 after entering the season with some degree of hype. Only Utah really exceeded expectations at 10-3 and their blowout road win over Oregon was its best since joining the league.
In the North, five of the six teams finished with winning records: Stanford recovered nicely from that early upset to win the league and Washington State lost to an FCS team and went on to go 9-4, their most wins since 2003. Cal finally had a breakthrough of sorts with first overall draft pick, QB Jared Goff, and advanced stats favorite Washington arrived a year early with their own potential star QB, then-freshman Jake Browning. Even Oregon – who started the year in the top ten only to finish with a 9-4 record after blowing an enormous lead in their bowl game against TCU – took down Stanford on the road, denying their main competition at the top of the North a chance to make it into the playoff. The other four Pac-12 North bowl teams won those contests, highlighted by Stanford’s rout of Iowa in the Rose Bowl.
By and large, bowl wins mean little more than an increase in the trinity of hype / optimism / expectations and that will be the case again in the Pac-12 North. To open our rundown of the power conferences in college football, we’ll take a look at that division, home to a bona fide playoff contender with a star running back (Stanford), a potentially stumbling blue-blood (Oregon), and the return of good FBS football to the state of Washington as both programs look to be on solid footing for the first time in a while.
[after the JUMP, team-by-team previews]
Stanford RB and Heisman hopeful Christian McCaffery, aka Dairy Sanders aka Cardinal RicheWOOOO aka The Mayo Clinic
The likeliest Pac-12 playoff contender in 2016 is the reigning Pac-12 champs, as the Cardinal look to sustain the success they’ve seen over the last several years. David Shaw has built on Harbaugh’s foundation and Stanford’s won three conference titles and appeared in three Rose Bowls in the last four seasons. Before that, they were in consecutive BCS bowls. Though Shaw is often criticized for overly conservative game theory decisions – and Stanford having a good coach who might be bad at math surely rankles the nerds – he’s maintained their hard-nosed identity and frequently boasts the terrifying offensive lines and armies of tight ends that have become synonymous with Stanford football. Whatever legitimate criticisms there are of Shaw, he’s inarguably in the top tier of coaches in the Pac-12 – Washington’s Chris Petersen and (maybe?) Utah’s Kyle Whittingham are also there, but the former saw his success at Boise State and not his current school and the latter is simply more long-tenured than anything else.
Anyways, after the departure of four-year starting QB Kevin Hogan (an enigma as far as four-year starters go, but still very good) the biggest concern for Stanford is at the most important position, though Keller Chryst – the nephew of Wisconsin’s head coach, Paul – apparently has the inside track to be Hogan’s successor. The new quarterback will not have the benefit of an experienced receiving corps and Stanford loses three of five offensive linemen, including its two stalwarts, Josh Garnett and Kyle Murphy. Of course, any concerns are pretty much completely mitigated by the presence of Christian McCaffery, an all-purpose phenom blessed with a ridiculous combination of burst, agility, and speed. Having an electric superstar in the backfield (or in the slot, or split wide, or as a wildcat, or returning kicks or punts) covers for a multitude of sins, and McCaffery has already proven to be an invaluable weapon in many ways. Whatever problems the Cardinal have on offense, it’s hard to believe any of them could be fatal if McCaffery is healthy.
The defense lagged a bit behind the offense last year, but defensive coordinator Lance Anderson (still at Stanford) returns a few solid pieces in his 3-4 scheme: nose guard Solomon Thomas anchors a solid run defense with a few returning starters at linebacker and the secondary has a good mix of returning depth and experience. After the graduation of OLB Blake Martinez and two starting defensive ends, Anderson might need to get a little bit creative in order to manufacture a pass rush. Whether or not there are strides on this side of the ball might prove to be the decisive factor in whether or not Stanford can repeat as Pac-12 champions and possibly notch a playoff berth; last season, the Cardinal were clearly better on offense than defense, the stinker against Northwestern in the opener notwithstanding. With a new quarterback and several new starters on the offensive line, a better defense is a must to maintain Stanford’s level of play.
Based on (admittedly limited) precedent, Stanford needs to finish with less than two losses to have a good shot at the playoff. Their schedule is one of the oddest in the Pac-12: they host Kansas State on Friday night of Labor Day weekend to open the year and have a Week Two bye before facing USC, UCLA, Washington State, and Notre Dame (three of which come on the road) in the span of a month. If Stanford can survive that gauntlet – seems kind of unlikely – the back half of the schedule is much easier, though a late-season trip to Eugene (a matchup which usually dictates the fate of the Pac-12 North) could be a roadblock. Picking Stanford as the Pac-12 favorite feels like the default option and, while a conference title is definitely possible, making it out with just one loss would be quite the feat.
Mark Helfrich is entering his third season as Chip Kelly’s heir to the throne of the Nike empire, and there’s already a sense of dread manifesting around the long-term prospects of a Helfrich tenure. His first season went extremely well: they avenged their only regular-season loss by bludgeoning Arizona in the conference championship game, QB Marcus Mariota won the Heisman, and Oregon overwhelmed Florida State in the playoff semis before losing to Ohio State. Last season was a noticeable step back from there. When healthy, FCS fifth-year free agent QB Vernon Adams was an adequate replacement for an all-time great, but he dealt with injuries on his throwing hand. The defense was a disaster, despite having an elite pass rusher in DE DeForest Buckner – they gave up 61 to Utah, 45 to Washington State, and 42 to Oregon State, all at home, and conceded 55 to Arizona State in a 3OT road win. Giving up 47 to TCU in the Alamo Bowl after a scoreless first half was the last straw, and defensive coordinator Don Pellum was demoted.
9-4 is considered to be a pretty good record in most cases (look no further than 2015 Washington State), but it was a notch below Oregon’s standard. Helfrich looks to turn things around with two key offseason additions: he’s yet again circumventing the need to develop a quarterback from within and bringing in FCS stalwart Dakota Prukop to replace Adams, and hired Brady Hoke, who’s well familiar to all of us, to replace Pellum, who’s now focusing solely on linebackers. The Prukop addition was huge, as he fits in as a plug-and-play starter surrounded by the Ducks’ typical cast of weapons, featuring running backs Royce Freeman and Taj Griffin. Hoke is the bigger question – he’s bringing in the 4-3, which should play to his strength in developing defensive linemen. Still, Oregon was a disaster last year on that side of the ball, Hoke has never been a coordinator, and the league features plenty of the pace-and-space offenses – run-based or pass-based – that would seem to match up favorably with the type of schemes Hoke’s had before.
Oregon is still one of the power programs in the Pac-12 and will have a solid chance of wresting the division title away from Stanford. They face two power conference opponents in their three non-con games; new coach Bronco Mendenhall brings Virginia to Oregon and the Ducks travel to Nebraska to face old foe Mike Riley. That November game at home against Stanford could determine the division’s fate, though last season’s slide has certainly removed any aura of invincibility that the Ducks once had against the middle-class of the Pac-12. It seems as if the Pac-12 North duopoly is over, more because of Oregon’s slip than any meaningful improvement from U-Dub, Wazzu, Oregon State, or Cal. Still, an improvement on defense from terrible to acceptable would be significant and could provide for a quick rebound and a total 180 in the general feelings surrounding the Helfrich era.
Washington safety Budda Baker is a returning 1st-Team All-Pac-12 honoree
Even though Chris Petersen has posted a modest record of 15-12 in his two seasons at Washington, it’s worth remembering that even getting him in the first place was a major coup for a program that had really fallen on hard times. Petersen was an elite coaching prospect at Boise State for several years and likely could have chosen from a number of top-tier jobs over that span – and he built the Broncos into the platonic ideal of a mid-major program, right down to the famous Fiesta Bowl upset over Oklahoma. Perhaps Petersen felt that the odds would forever be stacked against Boise State, maybe he sensed that he’d plateaued there, or it’s possible that he just wanted a new challenge. When the Huskies hired him a few years ago (at the same time that Chip Kelly left rival Oregon for the NFL), it was easy to see the potential for a power shift in the division sometime down the line. Last year was supposed to be a somewhat extreme rebuilding year of sorts for U-Dub, but they acquitted themselves well in most losses and started notching a few dominant wins down the stretch – most notably, a blowout of Wazzu in the Apple Cup by a score of 45-10 – to finish 7-6.
Because of their experience – the Huskies return more than half their starters on both sides of the ball, mostly including their better players – Washington is quite possibly the strongest dark horse candidate to make a run for the division and perhaps the conference championship. Two true freshmen who started at quarterback and running back return: former 5* Jake Browning threw for almost 3,000 yards and Myles Gaskin rushed for at least 90 yards in eight of his last nine games, totaling 11 touchdowns in that span. Three offensive line starters return, including two promising tackles, but the receiving corps is inexperienced. The Huskies were great defensively last year and they return multiple starters at each level of the defense. The real strength of the unit lies in the secondary as Sidney Jones and Budda Baker are each one of the best corners and safeties in the country, respectively. However, the front seven is plenty dynamic in its own right with playmaking linebackers in a 3-4 defense.
The Huskies have an easy non-conference slate and travel to Arizona to start Pac-12 play before hosting Stanford and traveling to Oregon in respective weeks. Those are the two most critical games of the season – if they split the two, they’ll be in the thick of the Pac-12 North race for the remainder of the season, and if they somehow sweep, they’ll be in decent playoff position in early October. Still, Oregon has beaten Washington thirteen times in a row, and for the Huskies to make any meaningful leap forward – which is certainly possible – they’ll have to pull a big upset over them or over a Stanford team that beat them by three scores last year. They’re a prime candidate for a breakout year and have the coaching, quarterback play, and defense to make it happen – but U-Dub needs to take a sizable step forward from last year to do so.
Mike Leach, Air Raid guru and pirate aficionado, stares into the abyss in Pullman
After initially being hailed as a home run hire, Mike Leach gained little traction through three years on the job – 12-25 overall – and even though it was well-understood to be a considerable rebuilding project, it wasn’t a good start for Leach. After they opened the season with a home loss to FCS Portland State to start Year Four, it was easy to wonder if the Leach era would eventually end in failure, perhaps sooner rather than later. It turned out that the upset was an anomaly, as Wazzu went on to win nine games and play some of the best football in the conference. They managed to upset Oregon in Eugene in a 2OT thriller, defeated a then-ranked UCLA team in the Rose Bowl; losses to Cal and Stanford by a combined eight points were what kept them from shocking divisional title contention, though the blowout L at the hands of Washington in the regular season finale would have ended it anyways. A bowl win over a rudderless Miami team helped wash out the taste of that Apple Cup beatdown, and when taken on the whole, the 2015 season was a considerable success for a coach who needed it.
With that 9-4 season, a reasonable upcoming schedule, and several returning starters in Leach’s potent offense, there’s good reason for Wazzu optimism for the first time in quite a while. Quarterback Luke Falk put up stupidly good numbers in the pass-happy scheme last year (4561 yards and 38 touchdowns to only 8 interceptions) and returns his favorite target in Gabe Marks – both were named first-team All-Conference. Six other starters return on that side of the ball: three offensive linemen, two more receivers, and a running back. Falk, a former walk-on, is the man who makes everything happen and he’s thrown for 51 touchdowns and over six thousand yards already in his career – with two years of eligibility remaining. The Cougars are yet another Pac-12 North contender, though those chances will be much more realistic with a more legit defense (typically a bugaboo for Leach teams). An early-season trip to Boise State should be a good barometer – Wazzu will have one of the best offenses in the conference, but they’re in a tough division and will need more from an up-and-down defense to take another step forward.
Head coach Sonny Dykes, who probably wants to be head coach somewhere else
Ordinarily, a coach who improved from one to five to eight wins in the first three years of his tenure would find himself happily entrenched in the program, heading towards brighter things. That’s not the case in Berkeley, as Sonny Dykes lobbied for several other jobs last December (which is cited on his Wikipedia page) before settling for an extension with his current school. If Dykes is actively looking to land elsewhere, it’s hard to believe that the arrangement will last long. Anyways, because of the zero-sum nature of division-based scheduling, the potential ascent of programs like Washington and Washington State is very bad news for Cal, who could be fighting uphill against even more quality teams than ever. Last season, they had Jared Goff, the best QB prospect in the draft and still finished with a losing record in conference play, and Dykes will be forced to break in completely new receivers, most of a new line, and a new quarterback. Plus the defense, which gave up 30 or more points eight times, remains in flux. Bowl eligibility is the goal, and the schedule is tough, though the toughest games are at home.
Good chance of another tough year in Corvallis for the Beavers
In escaping Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin, Gary Andersen signed up for a brutal rebuilding project at Oregon State (which makes you wonder how current Nebraska coach Mike Riley left the program in such dire straits). He went 2-10 in his first year and lost his defensive coordinator – who’s now the head coach at
Utah State [EDIT: BYU] – this past offseason. OSU suffered surprising attrition from the 2015 team and will suffer more than its fair share of losses yet again.