Mailbag Q&A: Who Will Play in and Win the Pac-12 Championship?

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Mailbag Q&A: Who Will Play in and Win the Pac-12 Championship?
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
Stanford head coach David Shaw

It is Thursday, which means it is time to dig in the mailbag and answer some college football questions.

Some fans are already thinking about the postseason.

It is hard to jump to December when one down of football has not been played. But since college football fans are suffering from the offseason doldrums, why not take a peek ahead right now?

Mandy Stuart asks a question via Twitter.

This is difficult to answer because I think there are five teams with a good shot to play in the Pac-12 Championship: Arizona State, USC, UCLA, Oregon and Stanford.

The South Breakdown

Arizona State has a brutal four-game stretch starting on September 14. It plays host to Wisconsin, goes to Stanford, comes home to face USC and takes on Notre Dame in Arlington, Texas. If the Sun Devils come out of that gauntlet unscathed, you can count on them representing the South in the Pac-12 Championship. A loss to USC gives the Trojans the edge.

USC's schedule is very doable, but it does play 13 games. That could be an issue for a team that is skinny on depth.

USC may suffer a hiccup against Utah State. The Aggies are a potential trap game for a team looking ahead to Arizona State the following week. USC avoids Oregon this year, but it does get Stanford. It also plays at Notre Dame and hosts UCLA in its final regular-season game.

Two areas of concern need to be addressed for USC to have 10-plus wins. The cornerbacks have to close the wide separation between themselves and receivers. In USC's spring game, the corners were playing too far off the receivers and giving up big pass plays.

Quarterback play has to be consistent. The starting quarterback has not been named, but Cody Kessler looks like the front-runner going into fall camp. Posting a 10-3 record should be good enough for USC to win the South.  

UCLA has been the South champion for two consecutive years. For this first time in what seems like forever, the quarterback situation is resolved without any debate. Brett Hundley is the Bruins' main man. If  he continues to mature, he has a shot at the Heisman. 

The concern with UCLA is two-fold. Its schedule is scary and the loss of defensive talent is widespread. 

The Bruins open with Nevada and then travel to Nebraska after a bye week. UCLA drew Cal, Oregon, Stanford and Washington from the North. To make things worse, UCLA travels to Stanford and to Oregon in back-to-back weeks. UCLA has dropped four straight in Eugene and is riding a five-game losing streak against Stanford. 

UCLA has plenty of young talent on defense, but there is a glaring deficit—edge containment. During the Bruins' spring game, the outside was wide open for big gains on sweeps and play actions. This should be fixed during fall camp. 

The defense returns only five starters. The losses of free safety Tevin McDonald and cornerbacks Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester were apparent in the Bruins' spring game. On some pass plays, the secondary was a major question mark. The defensive line and linebacker corps look very sharp.  

Who is the South Champion?

The champion will be the winner of the USC-Arizona State game on September 28. Because Arizona State and USC both avoid Oregon—UCLA does not—that big schedule break helps both teams gain an advantage over UCLA. The winner goes on to play the North champion.

The North Breakdown  

The North champion comes down to Oregon or Stanford. Oregon is the sexy pick, but I'm going with Stanford for two reasons. First, although running back Stepfan Taylor is gone, the Cardinal have rebounded very well after losing top-notch talent.

Remember when Stanford was downgraded after losing Heisman finalist Toby Gerhard? Andrew Luck? Head coach David Shaw reloads like Alabama head coach Nick Saban. There is no drop-off. Stanford's style of play is also strikingly similar to Alabama's. That's a winning formula. 

Second, new head coach Mark Helfrich is an unknown. He has no head coaching experience that we can use as a starting point. Helfrich was the Ducks' offensive coordinator, but Chip Kelly called the plays. 

Helfrich could have the same success as Shaw. When Jim Harbaugh left Stanford to coach the San Francisco 49ers, Shaw was promoted to head coach despite having no prior head coaching experience. Novice head coaches can be successful. Just don't bet on it. 

Who is the North Champion?  

Until Helfrich proves himself on the field, defending Pac-12 champion Stanford is the team that should be the favorite to win the North.

Final prediction:

Stanford beats Arizona State to win the Pac-12 Championship

 

Do you have a question for Lisa? Ask it on her Twitter account: @LisaHorne  

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