The 2015 season is in the books for the Pac-12, and all the conference can do now is look on as Alabama and Clemson battle for the national championship. After a pair of record-breaking seasons for both teams and players out West, it’s never too early to start looking ahead to next year, however, and see what the future holds for the self-proclaimed conference of champions.
What might be in the cards for 2016 for the Pac-12 and the players, coaches and teams of the league? Peering into our crystal ball to look ahead at the upcoming season, here are five bold predictions for the Pac-12.
The Pac-12 will miss out on the College Football Playoff…again
It seems like only yesterday that the Big 12 was being left out of the College Football, which wound up prompting an existential crisis in the middle of the country. With five power conferences for just four playoff spots, somebody has to be left out, and once again in 2016 it will be the Pac-12 on the outside looking in. While missing out on the final four won’t prompt the league to reconsider everything about its tough scheduling practices, it will prompt plenty of questions for Commissioner Larry Scott every time he meets with the media.
As for the why the conference won’t make the playoff, it’s once again apparent that the lack of an elite team in 2016 combined with impressive conference depth will make for a difficult path to the postseason. Defending champion Stanford loses a ton of starters on both sides of the ball even if Christian McCaffrey returns. USC’s schedule is brutal, and Oregon has plenty of issues to sort out over the coming few months. Perhaps somebody can emerge as a contender despite suffering an early loss, but it will be an uphill climb for everybody in the Pac-12 to put forth a playoff candidate next year.
Christian McCaffrey won’t win the Heisman in 2016 either
Let’s face it, had more people tuned into Stanford’s late-night games or voting had occurred after the first of the year, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey would have won the Heisman Trophy that instead went to Alabama's Derrick Henry. While he narrowly missed out on being named the most outstanding player in the country, 2016 will be a bit different as he enters the season as one of the award’s front-runners and not a player who is boosted by a late surge.
The hard truth is that the standard McCaffrey established for himself in 2015—i.e. the most yards gained by any college football player, ever—is an incredibly high bar to set for himself going into his junior year. Most voters will want him to come close to the video game numbers he put up this year, and that just isn’t going to happen with more defenses gearing up to stop him and the fact that Stanford has to replace a number of offensive starters (including four offensive lineman and the quarterback). He’ll still be an incredible back, but even an invite to New York City might be a bit much to ask for next season.
Washington’s youth movement wins the North, USC will rally to win the South
We’ll let you in on a secret: Washington is the team many around the league think has the brightest future, and it’s not hard to see why. Running back Myles Gaskin was terrific, and quarterback Jake Browning had a solid year as a starter and seemed to get better each week. Add in most of the offensive line returning, and there’s reason to buy in to the fact that the offense will improve considerably and combine with a ferocious defense.
Even more than the players on the field, the fact that head coach Chris Petersen and his staff are entering Year 3 in Seattle might be the biggest reason to buy in to the Huskies. The group knows the landscape, and the roster is mostly stocked with its kind of players. Both offensive and defensive systems are well established by now, and one more offseason could be all it takes for UW to make the leap from solid to division champions.
As for USC, there’s little doubt that the roster will continue to be one of the best in the league. A new quarterback will need to be figured out, but playmakers like Adoree' Jackson and JuJu Smith-Schuster return a year wiser and a year stronger. The defense could be much improved depending on the defensive coordinator hire too.
The issue might be the schedule, as it does no favors to new coach Clay Helton. The nonconference slate is brutal, starting with Alabama and ending with Notre Dame. Still, those games don’t count in the conference race, and things are a little more favorable on that front, with Oregon at home and a just two trips away from Los Angeles after after September. Given some of the personnel losses that fellow South contenders like Utah, Arizona State and UCLA are going to have to absorb, here’s a hunch that the Trojans start out shaky but rally for the division.
Oregon’s second FCS transfer won’t work as well as the first
For the second year in a row, Oregon will be dipping down into the FCS ranks to find a starting quarterback. Unlike the 2015 campaign with Vernon Adams, however, things won’t go quite as well for the Ducks this time around.
Former Montana State signal-caller Dakota Prukop will be in Eugene for spring practices, which will help ease his transition, but he simply doesn’t have the film at the FCS level that his predecessor had that makes one confident in his ability to make the jump right away. Adams proved he could beat or threaten Pac-12 teams during his time at Eastern Washington, and (when healthy) he developed into one of the best quarterbacks in the country during conference play. Asking for lightning to strike twice might be asking a bit much, even if Prukop can still be a solid option under center for Oregon.
Also complicating things? Offensive coordinator Scott Frost is now the head coach at UCF, and there will be some staff shuffling on the offensive side of the ball for 2016 (Matt Lubick has already been named offensive coordinator). Prukop seems like a much better option than what is currently on the roster, but we should all be skeptical that he can reach the heights that Adams did during his one year in Eugene.
Colorado makes a bowl game
Head coach Mike MacIntyre took over one of the worst Power Five programs in the country when he was hired and has slowly but surely been rebuilding the Buffaloes to be competitive in the Pac-12. In 2016 though, Colorado will go from simply a tough out to a bowl-bound team.
You’ve seen signs the past two seasons, where the team went from simply running out of gas in the second half to remaining in position to get a win right down to the wire. The defense made a big leap under new coordinator Jim Leavitt (10 points per game fewer in 2015 than the year before), and there’s a sense that if the offense can return to what it was two seasons ago, the bowl drought in Boulder will be over.
Assuming quarterback Sefo Liufau stays healthy and progresses as a signal-caller with another offseason, the offense should be good enough to help the team finally get some wins that it had previously let slip through its hands.
Aside from a trip to play Michigan, the nonconference schedule should produce two wins, and then it’s all a matter of closing out down the stretch in the Pac-12. Three of the team’s final four games in November are at home in the chilly confines of the Flatirons.
Bryan Fischer is a national college football columnist for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.