Every Pac-12 Football Team's Best- and Worst-Case Scenario for 2015
The Pac-12 Conference's reputation has been on the rise the last few years in college football, to the point where several teams in the league should be considered playoff contenders.
In a perfect world, it would land two or more teams in the semifinals to battle it out for national supremacy.
Or it could be the league that gets shut out altogether, like the Big 12 was in 2014.
These are the best- and worst-case scenarios for the Pac-12 as a whole, but on a team-by-team basis the range of realistic possibilities is far more varied. Every team has a legitimate ceiling to what it can achieve this season, as well as a potential everything-goes-wrong low point.
Here's our look at how things could go for each Pac-12 school during the 2015 season if all things click or the bottom falls out.
Defending South Division champion Arizona retains its crown, this time losing only one conference game after dropping two last season. That only loss comes on Nov. 7 at USC at the back end of a two-game road trip that started in Seattle, but by knocking off rival Arizona State on the road in the regular-season finale, the Wildcats finish atop the crowded field.
Arizona's bye week comes after 12 consecutive games, which makes it fresh and rested for the Pac-12 title game against a less battle-tested North Division team that just played a week earlier. The Wildcats roll to victory, but even with a 12-1 mark don't earn a playoff bid because of their weak nonconference schedule.
Instead, the Wildcats earn their first-ever bid to the Rose Bowl, making them the last of the schools from the Pac-10 era to play in the game.
Arizona's issues with playing on natural grass—it has lost seven of eight on that surface under Rich Rodriguez—continue, as the Wildcats play four times on grass during the regular season and drop three of those contests. The only win comes at Colorado, and even that one is a struggle, mostly because Arizona's defense can't make any stops.
Scooby Wright's production takes a major dip at linebacker, as injuries to other players around him enable opponents to take him out of the equation. Arizona's offense can't produce enough to overcome the defensive breakdowns, with quarterback Anu Solomon falling back to his old habits of holding on to the ball too long and taking sacks.
Arizona ends up dipping to 7-5 after a 10-win season in 2014 and is relegated to the Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara, California...which happens to played on grass.
Todd Graham keeps Arizona State on its best run since the 1970s, which includes a second trip to the Pac-12 title game in the past three years. The Sun Devils also make an early entrance into the national championship conversation after posting an impressive win over Texas A&M in Houston to start the year.
ASU also takes control of the South Division by knocking off UCLA and USC in successive weeks to begin conference play, turning even more eyes toward Tempe. A stumble in the road comes in the form of a mid-October loss at Utah, but two weeks later the Sun Devils regain their form by knocking off Oregon in a Thursday night game just before Halloween.
Behind the duo of quarterback Mike Bercovici and versatile slot receiver/running back D.J. Foster, ASU has one of the most efficient offenses in the country. Graham's aggressive defense makes waves, too, sparking a Pac-12 title game victory and a No. 4 seed in the playoffs, though the run ends with a loss to defending national champion Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl semifinal game.
The move to put Foster at the slot produces some good numbers in the passing game, but ASU's young running backs don't step up and balance the offense. This ends up turning the Sun Devils into a pass-heavy team, but without enough weapons to make it work.
A risk-taking defense fails more than it succeeds, and some of ASU's losses end up being lopsided. With a schedule that includes five opponents who had at least nine wins last season—as well as the opener against a rising Texas A&M team—there ends up being a handful of blowouts.
ASU is still talented enough to beat the weak teams on its slate, of which there are enough to maintain bowl eligibility.
The rebuilding effort that Sonny Dykes started in earnest in 2013 achieves its first goal, as California becomes bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011. The first sign that the Golden Bears might make some noise this year comes when it sneaks out of Austin with a low-scoring win over Texas that is more a product of an improved defense than what Jared Goff and his receivers do.
In the end, though, it's still all about the offense. Goff breaks several of his own school records, topping 4,000 yards and throwing for more than 40 touchdowns, and his fast-rising stock puts his name on many NFL mock drafts. He's able to lead Cal to at least one significant upset during the season, either against USC or rival Stanford (on the road).
Cal finishes with six or seven wins and is rewarded with a bowl game across the bay against a Big Ten team that's not prepared to defend 50 passes.
All attempts to shore up the nation's worst pass defense fail miserably, making it so that opponents rarely even bother running the ball against Cal. There's no need to when they can throw all day and with regular success.
Without any help from the defense, Goff tries to do too much, which leads to a huge uptick in interceptions, from seven last year to at least 15 in 2015. Dykes tries to mix things up again with run-first passer Luke Rubenzer, but Cal's line struggles to create running lanes.
After going 5-7 in 2014, the Bears dip to 4-8, and Dykes starts feeling his seat get a little warm.
After winning just one Pac-12 game in his first two seasons, Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre makes a huge leap forward in Year 3 of his rebuilding plan. But because the Buffaloes still lag behind most of the rest of the league in terms of talent, that still only results in three league victories.
Colorado storms out of the gate to a 4-0 record, though, opening with a hard-fought win at Hawaii and then picking off Massachusetts, rival Colorado State and FCS Nicholls State to head into Pac-12 play with a head of steam. The momentum is stunted with league-opening losses to Oregon and at Arizona State, but the pass-catching tandem of Sefo Liufau and Nelson Spruce is potent enough to pull out a few wins down the stretch.
Because Colorado played at Hawaii, it gets to play a 13th game. That extra victory proves critical, as the Buffaloes finish 7-6 and go bowling for the first time since 2007.
The Pac-12 era continues to be a woeful one for Colorado, which posts a second straight winless record in league play to run its conference losing streak to 19 games and drop the Buffaloes to 3-33 since joining in 2012. MacIntyre gets fired in early November, replaced by defensive coordinator (and former South Florida coach) Jim Leavitt.
Colorado avoids its first winless season since going 0-4 in 1890, because of the 13th game it was able to add thanks to the Hawaii trip. That comes in the form of Nicholls State, a program that lost to Air Force, Arkansas and North Texas by a combined 194-26 in 2014.
No Marcus Mariota, no problem.
The loss of the Heisman-winning quarterback becomes a non-issue after Vernon Adams leads Oregon to a convincing win at Michigan State in the second game of the season, and throughout the course of the season the graduate transfer from Eastern Washington makes plenty of the same kind of plays with his arms and his legs as Mariota did.
Adams also has a deeper group of receivers to work with, as Bralon Addison returns from a year off to lead the Ducks in receptions, yards and touchdowns. Byron Marshall, Devon Allen, Darren Carrington and Dwayne Stanford make it impossible to cover every route while also trying to slow down the two-headed running game of Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner.
The early win over MSU sets the table for a series of walkover wins in the middle of the season, then Oregon manages to survive a last-month gauntlet that includes winning at Arizona State and Stanford and knocking off USC at home. The Ducks go on to win a second straight Pac-12 title and grab the No. 2 seed in the playoffs.
That leads to a spot in the Cotton Bowl, where Oregon beats either Baylor or TCU and then meets Ohio State in Glendale, Arizona, in a repeat of last year's championship game. The outcome is flipped this time, though, as Oregon's defense manages to contain the Buckeyes en route to the school's first national title.
Adams was given the green light to enroll at Oregon on Tuesday, according to Andrew Grief of The Oregonian, but by not showing up until the first week of August, he ends up facing a major uphill battle to beat out Jeff Lockie for the starting quarterback job. Lockie is named the starter out of training camp, though he's pulled in favor of Adams midway through a loss at Michigan State.
The quarterback controversy becomes a distraction in Eugene, with coach Mark Helfrich splitting reps between the passers over the next five games and waiting until right before kickoff of the Oct. 29 game at Arizona State to settle on one guy. Adams gets the nod, but struggles and gets benched at halftime of that loss.
A difficult November results in additional losses to Stanford and USC, putting Oregon at 8-4 and sending it to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, where it falls to a Big Ten team.
Gary Andersen's shocking decision to leave a good thing in Wisconsin for Oregon State turns out to be a wise move, as the Beavers thrive under Andersen's fresh approach after more than a decade of Mike Riley's system. Andersen said he came to OSU because it had "everything you need to be successful," via Lindsay Schnell of Sports Illustrated, and shows this by reaching nine wins in his first season.
The use of a true freshman (Seth Collins) at quarterback actually makes the switch from a pro-style offense to Andersen's spread easier, and Collins ends up throwing for more than 2,500 yards while rushing for more than 700.
Andersen pulls off the upset at Michigan in mid-September in his return to the Big Ten, then pilots the Beavers to a 6-3 record in Pac-12 play to finish in the upper half of the division.
Oregon State had been trending downward in Riley's last two years, and that momentum doesn't stop just because of a coaching change. If anything, Andersen's first year continues the dip, as the Beavers struggle to transition to the new system, resulting in the worst offense in the Pac-12.
A 4-8 record gives OSU a fourth losing season in the last six, and for at least the time being Andersen's career change doesn't look like a smart one.
After a red-zone-fueled one-year hiccup, Stanford returns to the land of double-digit victories that it occupied from 2010-13 while also returning to the top of the Pac-12 North standings. The combination of a senior quarterback, do-everything back Christian McCaffrey and promising young defensive stars make the Cardinal as balanced as ever.
Kevin Hogan won't win any statistical awards, but his consistent play is more than enough to get Stanford through a favorable schedule, the toughest game being a mid-September trip to USC. The Cardinal lose that one but win out the rest of their games, including victories over Oregon and Notre Dame at home in November.
The Cardinal are the unofficial home team of the Pac-12 title game in the Bay Area, winning a low-scoring slugfest over an Arizona or a Los Angeles-area school, but they're snubbed by the College Football Playoff Selection Committee and end up resorting to winning the Rose Bowl.
Hogan's decision to return for his senior year doesn't result in improved play, as hoped. Rather, it perpetuates more of the same problems Stanford had in 2014, when it ranked 112th in red-zone offense. Coach David Shaw eventually pulls the trigger and goes with redshirt freshman Keller Chryst, but the former blue-chip recruit struggles.
After years of being able to overcome attrition on defense, Stanford regress significantly on that side of the ball and finish in the bottom half of the league in most defensive categories. This translates to only six or seven wins, the fewest for the Cardinal since 2008.
UCLA has owned Los Angeles since Jim Mora took over the program in 2012, but this year the Bruins expand their rule to the entire conference by winning their first Pac-12 title since 1998.
True freshman quarterback Josh Rosen comes close to being the youngest Heisman winner ever, finishing in the top five after a masterful debut season that sees him lead the nation in passing efficiency and completion percentage. But the team MVP is Paul Perkins, the underrated running back who leads the conference in rushing for the second year in a row.
"For UCLA to take the next step, Perkins needs a repeat performance of last season," Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer wrote. "In fact, he will likely have to be even better."
UCLA wins its first five games before falling in double overtime at Stanford, but then runs the table and knocks off the Cardinal in the rematch in early December in the Pac-12 title game. The Bruins earn a playoff bid but fall to Ohio State in the Orange Bowl semifinal game, though the foundation has been laid for the West's next great program.
The growing pains that come with starting a true freshman pop up early and often for UCLA, as Rosen shows plenty of promise but also stumbles enough to the point where the Bruins are out of contention for the Pac-12 South title by early November.
The real problems, though, lie in a defense that massively underachieves despite a load of playmakers. New coordinator Tom Bradley doesn't click with his players as expected, and the Bruins end up in far too many shootouts.
UCLA goes on a four-game losing streak in September and October before rebounding to win five straight heading into the USC game. It can't win a fourth straight over the Trojans, finishing at 7-5 before playing in the Cactus Bowl in Phoenix.
The hope was that Steve Sarkisian's return to USC would bring the Trojans back to the level they were when he worked under Pete Carroll in the 2000s, and after a promising first season his talent-laden team breaks through big-time in 2015.
Paced by senior quarterback Cody Kessler and an endless supply of skill-position stars, the Trojans rank in the top five in several offensive categories, and Kessler tops his already impressive junior-year numbers en route to an invite to New York City for the Heisman Trophy awards ceremony. He doesn't win, but after being woefully underrated in his previous two seasons as a starter, Kessler finally gets his due.
USC's defense also makes waves by proving to be the key to several big victories, including two of three from the trio of road games at Arizona State, Notre Dame and Oregon. A convincing victory over UCLA clinches the Pac-12 South title, then USC knocks off Oregon for a second time to win the conference crown and head into the playoffs as the No. 4 seed.
The Trojans fall to Ohio State in that semifinal game, played at the Orange Bowl, but at 12-2 post their most wins since 2008.
Talent can only get you so far, and Sarkisian's reputation of being able to recruit well but not maximize those positives—his nickname is "Seven Win Steve," after all—shows up yet again as USC slips up several times during an underachieving season.
Kessler has a good year, but not good enough to warrant keeping him at the helm and keeping Max Browne on the bench, as the latter takes over the starting job midway through the season to mixed results.
USC wins some big games but also stumbles against opponents it shouldn't, falling at California on Halloween and also dropping a home game to Sarkisian's old team, Washington. When the dust settles, the Trojans have no more than seven or eight wins, yet several months later will have five players taken in the first three rounds of the NFL draft.
Utah broke through last year to get to nine wins, its best record since joining the Pac-12. The Utes continue that upward trend in 2015 with their first season of double-digit victories since 2010.
A spotlight-stealing win over Michigan (and Jim Harbaugh) on opening night gives Utah some early attention and also introduces much of the country to workhorse running back Devontae Booker. Veteran NFL and college coach Dennis Erickson, Utah's running backs assistant, told Fox Sports' Stewart Mandel that Booker is "probably the most diversified back I've ever coached," and we'll see that quite often as Booker rushes for more than 1,800 yards and hauls in 50-plus receptions while scoring more than 20 touchdowns.
Utah's defense led FBS in sacks last year, and despite losing Nate Orchard to the NFL, it will again be one of the most sack-happy units in the country. But the X-factor will be the continued maturation of quarterback Travis Wilson, who at one time thought his career was over after being diagnosed with an arterial brain condition but now gets Utah into a tie for second in the Pac-12 South.
Booker ends up leading the country in carries, rushing yards and all-purpose yards, but because Utah fails to produce any other playmakers his production is all for naught, and the senior gets stifled in several big games that keep the Utes from contending.
Wilson isn't able to be the go-to player Utah had hoped at quarterback, but none of the backups can do the job, either. This puts extra pressure on the Utes' defense to carry the load, and the loss of defensive back Dominique Hatfield—who was suspended for the season following his arrest on aggravated robbery and theft charges—doesn't have the players to handle the many uptempo offenses in the Pac-12.
The Utes need a win over Colorado in their finale to get into a bowl game, but it isn't a good one.
Chris Petersen lost six games last year despite having three high draft picks on his defense, but with his system in place and more players of his style contributing, the former Boise State coach gets Washington turned in the right direction.
The Huskies start things off with an impressive road win over Petersen's old program, pacing a 4-0 start heading into a big game at USC. They're unable to knock off the Trojans on the road but a week later shock Oregon at home to throw the Pac-12 North standings into disarray.
Petersen goes with freshman Jake Browning at quarterback, and while he isn't able to put up the kind of numbers that made him the national career passing touchdown leader, he is a huge improvement on what Washington had in 2014.
The pieces are still being put into place, but Washington gets to nine wins and ties for second in the North Division.
What worked in Boise doesn't work elsewhere, something former Broncos coaches Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins found after they were fired from their Pac-12 head coaching jobs. Petersen is more well-regarded than his predecessors, but even he is unable to translate his success over to the power-conference level, as Washington dips to 7-5 in his second season.
Neither Browning nor redshirt freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels is ready for the college game, and the Huskies are forced to go with Jeff Lindquist. The absence of injured playmaker John Ross at receiver makes Washington's offense devoid of big plays, and with no one stepping up to replace all of the big names who moved on from the defense, this ends up being a very middle-of-the-road team.
Even at its best, Washington State is only good enough to win shootouts. It will win a handful of those this season, just enough to squeak into a bowl game for the second time in three years.
Quarterback Luke Falk was impressive when he replaced Connor Halliday last November, and his development continues in the form of video game-like passing numbers all season long. He ends up with more than 5,000 yards but also close to 20 interceptions, as Mike Leach's complete unwillingness to develop a run game keeps his team predictable yet still dangerous.
Washington State pulls an upset somewhere along the way, possibly in early November against visiting Arizona State—a game that screams #Pac12AfterDark—while scaring the heck out of other teams en route to a 6-6 season.
The Leach Experience might be growing stale in Pullman, where a third losing record in four seasons puts the eccentric coach's job security into question.
Falk, who unlike Halliday was a quarterback Leach recruited to the program, puts up numbers but makes too many mistakes to be effective enough to overcome the lack of a run game. And with a defense that is only out there to delay the inevitable, the Cougars spend much of the season playing catch-up.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.