Pac-12 Football: Preview and Predictions for the 2017 Season
It's a conference that boasts as much star power and prestige as any, but the proud Pac-12 hasn't experienced a College Football National Championship since 2004 when USC held up the crystal trophy.
If the sport is cyclical, it's time for the westernmost Power Five conference to do it again in early 2018. That may not be such a far-fetched notion, either.
Though the conference isn't as deep on elite teams, the talent is certainly there. The Trojans again appear to be a formidable force coming off a year when quarterback Sam Darnold helped them turn a disappointing early season into a Rose Bowl victory.
Then there's Washington, who reloaded after a trip to the College Football Playoff a year ago. The Huskies still have numerous offensive playmakers, and coach Chris Petersen has recruited enough defensive talent to fill gaps from departed pros.
From the loaded North division to an up-and-coming South division that may feature the conference's best team, the Pac-12 looks like it may be back. So, how's everything going to shake out once the 2017 season kicks off?
Step into our Pac-12 preview and find out. There are a couple of teams everybody's buzzing about and some quiet second-tier sleepers who could surprise the college football world.
The USC signal-caller wasn't even a starter at the beginning of last season, but once he took over for Max Browne, the Trojans took off. Now, the 6'4", third-year sophomore is a preseason All-American and on everybody's short list for the Heisman Trophy.
He has all the skills to be a national championship-winning quarterback and a solid pro, from arm strength to build to decision-making. If the tweaks he made to his mechanics this summer pay off, he will be an unstoppable force that could lead the Trojans to at least a conference title.
First, Darnold and Co. must get through Washington, which has a steady star at the helm in the defending conference offensive player of the year.
The 6'2", 210-pound junior doesn't have the big arm of Darnold or UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, but he features dead-eye accuracy and tossed 43 touchdowns and just nine interceptions a season ago. With a strong supporting cast around him again, Browning will post huge numbers.
They may be enough to send the Huskies back to the playoffs.
Say what you want about Rosen's up-and-down career and be concerned if you will about him coming off an injury to his throwing shoulder, but there are few more talented quarterbacks.
Sometimes, the 6'4" rising junior tries to do too much, and it would be better if the UCLA Bruins had more playmakers around him. But all you need to see regarding what he means to Jim Mora Jr.'s team is how they collapsed after he went down a season ago.
When he's healthy, Rosen has the ability to be the top college football player in the country.
Falk gets overshadowed sometimes by all the talent at the position in front of him, but he's the ideal quarterback to run Mike Leach's wide-open offense. Though he must replace two top targets in Gabe Marks and River Cracraft, it could still be a big year in Pullman.
The Washington State Cougars actually have a strong running game and defense returning in 2017, so Falk won't have to do everything on his own. That could mean bigger statistics for a quarterback who led the nation's 18th-ranked offense a season ago.
The first non-quarterback on the list is a player who may wind up being college football's comeback player of the year after an injury-plagued junior season robbed him of top-shelf production.
Freeman returned to school to play running back for new Oregon coach Willie Taggart, and this offense is designed to showcase him in many different ways. With this being the 21-year-old's senior year, look for him to post a Heisman-caliber campaign that could help put the Ducks back on the map.
Will the real College Football Playoff contender please stand up?
There's good reason why Washington and USC are popular picks to be College Football Playoff contenders.
Does each team have its share of questions? Sure. Most teams do. But there is star power galore on both sides of the ball, and both coaches have shown they can develop talent. Teams normally need a dynamic quarterback to win it all, and these teams do.
Both running games are strong, both feature pass-catchers who are game-changers, and there are stars in each defensive front seven. They've got enough positives to be excited about big things.
Will they follow through, though? If so, which one? Everybody believes these two teams are the conference's best, but they have to prove it on the field. They may get to prove it against each other at the end of the year, too.
Can Josh Rosen return to elite form?
Everybody in the country is talking about a Los Angeles college quarterback, but it isn't Rosen. Instead, Darnold stole all the headlines while Rosen was recovering from shoulder surgery in 2016.
But the Battle for Los Angeles won't come to fruition if Rosen doesn't perform.
The junior told Bleacher Report's Matt Hayes recently that his shoulder is 100 percent. That's excellent news for a Bruins team with a coach who is close to—if not firmly on—the hot seat. Rosen has always boasted elite talent. Now, he needs the production to match.
Will Willie Taggart turn around Oregon?
Oregon made a quality hire when it plucked Taggart out of South Florida, where he rebuilt the Bulls after turning Western Kentucky into an offensive juggernaut.
Now, he gets to see if he can work his formula on an elite level with some of the best facilities in the world.
Recruiting is going swimmingly, and he has Freeman as the centerpiece around which to build the offense. He also made an exceptional hire in defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt from Colorado. But how much will that side of the ball be improved this year?
It's possible there's a massive turnaround in 2017, but it's probably a multi-year rebuilding effort. Still, former head coach Mark Helfrich didn't tear it that far down, so this is a sleeper to watch.
With Darnold and running back Ronald Jones Jr. carrying the load offensively, coach Clay Helton's team could put up enough points to outgun teams this year. Though JuJu Smith-Schuster is a big loss, talented pass-catchers such as Deontay Burnett can lighten the blow.
There will be holes to fill on the offensive line, which is easily the team's biggest question marks, but there's plenty of talent around to do it.
Defensively, players such as linebacker Cameron Smith, defensive tackle Rasheem Green and defensive end Porter Gustin are exciting.
This is the type of team that looks like it's constructed to be a conference champion with a few breaks and a few young guys stepping up.
A year ago, coach Petersen may have jumped the timeline by a year by making it to the playoffs thanks to an opportunistic defense and a bunch of offensive talent.
Though the Huskies must replace stud receiver John Ross, much of those offensive stars are back, led by Browning, the nation's top running back duo of Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman and receiver Dante Pettis. If they can fill some holes with potentially dynamic young defenders, this is a scary team.
It's going to be fun to see how far they can go, especially with Stanford and Washington State in their way in the division and possibly USC in the championship game at season's end.
Much like most years, nobody is talking about coach David Shaw's Cardinal. But Christian McCaffrey wasn't their entire team.
As a matter of fact, the offense may even be better not relying on the do-everything star to, well, do everything.
Guys like Bryce Love can pick up the slack, and the conference's quietest, yet deepest and arguably most talented defense will make things stuffy for those offensive-minded teams in the North division. Remember when those Oregon offensive juggernauts ran into the Stanford defenses a few years back?
Yeah, that could happen again. If the defense reaches expectations, this is a noise-maker.
Another underrated program is Utah, and that's because of its underappreciated coach Kyle Whittingham, who, like Shaw, wins the co-Mr. Consistency award for conference coaches.
The strength of this team is going to be its defense, where guys such as tackles Lowell Lotulelei and Kylie Fitts and safety Chase Hansen will anchor one of the league's top three or four units.
The biggest question is how much offense can the Utes produce having to replace star Joe Williams, receiver Tim Patrick and a revamped offensive line. This is quarterback Tyler Huntley's team after he beat out incumbent starter Troy Williams and Alabama transfer Cooper Bateman.
How high this offense's ceiling is will determine how far the Utes can go.
Washington State Cougars
Falk and company have a wealth of talent on offense, and Leach's side is always going to light up the scoreboard, but this is a more well-rounded Cougars team than you're used to seeing.
Senior running back Jamal Morrow and his 1,217 all-purpose yards return, and Gerard Wicks, James Williams and Keith Harrington give the Cougars four quality players behind what should be a strong offensive line. Those guys' skill sets complement one another.
WSU's defense was underrated a season ago and returns pass-rushing specialist Hercules Mata'afa. If they get good secondary play, the Cougars could be strong on that side, too.
Really, UCLA's season hinges on Rosen and how much help the Bruins can get him on offense.
Though they don't have a slew of big names on defense, UCLA is always strong on that side of the ball and won't be any different this season. If Rosen meshes well with new coordinator Jedd Fisch, the Bruins could rebound from a forgettable 2016 and give USC a scare in the South.
That would make things interesting.
Best Rivalry Matchup: Washington State at Washington
With all due respect to USC-UCLA, which could enjoy a resurgence if the Bruins can get healthy and much-improved on offense, the most underrated rivalry that could wind up being the best matchup may be waged in Washington.
On November 25 in Seattle, the Huskies will host Washington State, and while Stanford could have something to say about it, the game may decide the division. It will almost certainly have massive ramifications, regardless.
Who isn't excited about seeing two Wild West gunslingers going at it in Browning and Falk, lighting up the scoreboard and trying to one-up each other in what may be a showcase for more than just individual honors?
This is two well-rounded teams (both ranked in the AP preseason top 25) with an unproven defense in Washington and an underrated one in WSU, so those units may not yield as many points as we might expect.
Still, the Cougars will have much to prove, especially after losing to their rival 45-17 a year ago after giving up a 28-point first quarter. Case in point: Sports Illustrated's Bruce Feldman's recent article.
"Washington State is dangerous enough to knock off anyone in the league," he wrote, "but Falk needs to find a go-to receiver to replace Gabe Marks, and the Cougars’ D doesn’t seem stout enough to emerge from a very rugged Pac-12 North."
If those two things happen, this may be the year Leach's turnaround is complete in Pullman. It also may be the year Petersen repeats as the conference beast and gets back to the College Football Playoff.
Both teams may be in the thick of it when this game rolls around to decide it on the field.
Coaches on the Hot Seat
Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
It would be tough to find another coach in the country with a more dire situation than Rich Rodriguez, who has seen things turn south in a hurry in Tucson.
Though he helped turn around the program in his first three years at the school, the past two years have been brutal. Also, athletic director Greg Byrne is now at Alabama, so Rodriguez doesn't have the safety blanket of the AD who hired him anymore.
According to USA Today's Brent Schrotenboer, Steve Berkowitz and Christopher Schnaars, Rodriguez's buyout is nearly $9 million, which is a lot for a program such as Arizona. But the Wildcats may decide it's worth going in a new direction.
Todd Graham, Arizona State
After winning 28 games in his first three years with the Sun Devils, Graham has endured back-to-back losing seasons. That's not the direction you want to be heading.
With Manny Wilkins beating out Alabama transfer Blake Barnett, ASU believes it has two capable signal-callers and a bunch of talent on offense. But the defense is what has crushed any Sun Devils hopes the past two years, and there won't be any quick fixes.
You'd think Graham at least needs a winning season to stay safe.
Jim Mora Jr., UCLA
Though the UCLA administration has shied away from giving Mora a vote of confidence or anything like it, he's on shaky ground in Westwood.
Not only are the Bruins coming off a losing season, they've got a grueling schedule facing them with road games against USC, Stanford, Washington and Utah. If you're counting, that's three top-15 teams and one in the Utes that won nine games a year ago.
Without any proven playmakers around Rosen on offense, that's a tall order. Another bad year, and it's going to be tough to justify keeping Mora, especially if his signal-caller turns pro.
Best Offense: Washington
Everybody wants to talk about the returning conference offensive player of the year in Browning, and rightfully so. But he isn't the only star in town.
The Huskies have the best running back duo in the country with Gaskin and Coleman, who combined a season ago for 2,225 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. The only thing that kept them from posting more numbers was Browning's big numbers and accuracy.
This is a well-balanced offense that could become even more so this year without John Ross, who gobbled up a lot of those yards a season ago. With him in the NFL, the Huskies may turn to the ground game more to take some pressure off Browning.
When Browning does throw the ball, he will have Pettis to catch it. He was a big-play machine a year ago, amassing 822 receiving yards and scoring 15 touchdowns, and those numbers should improve.
When you factor in that the Huskies return four offensive line starters, including star road-graders such as center Coleman Shelton and tackle Trey Adams, there is a lot to like about this group, even with the dynamic Ross gone.
It's the kind of offense that can win a national championship. So, even in a league with all these elite quarterbacks discussed already, and even in a league that boasts well-rounded offenses like USC, Washington State and Colorado, the Huskies stand out.
They've already proved it on the big stage, too.
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Best Defense: Stanford
If it seems like there's a lot of talk about Washington and USC, that's accurate. This is a conference preview, and those are—top-to-bottom—the two best teams.
But they aren't the only teams with talent and experience.
So, while the Trojans have a bunch of former top recruits outfitting their defense, and while the Huskies would be at the top of the list of many best defensive programs in the conference entering the 2017 season, neither sit at the top of this one.
Stanford narrowly edges out the superior talent of Washington and USC thanks to depth and experience.
The Huskies particularly lost a lot of playmakers off last year's team on that side of the ball, including safety Budda Baker, defensive tackle Elijah Qualls and cornerback Sidney Jones. Yes, they've got a lot coming back, but those are significant gaps.
Meanwhile, Shaw is always known for producing good defenses in Palo Alto, and this year shouldn't be any different. Though the Cardinal lost first-round pick Solomon Thomas, there is plenty of talent ready to step in.
Also, the back eight defenders should be the best in all of college football, led by linebackers Peter Kalambayi, Joey Alfieri and Kevin Palmer, as well as cornerbacks Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder and safety Justin Reid.
This group is big, talented and deep. The North division is going to have to prove it can get yards against this rugged group.
Projected Regular-Season Standings
2. Washington State
5. Oregon State
5. Arizona State
Projected Conference Championship Matchup: Washington vs. USC
This is the battle everybody wants to see, and it has the potential to be one of the most-watched and hotly contested college football games of the season.
If everything plays out the way most think, USC and Washington should be on a collision course to meet in Levi's Stadium to determine who wins the conference, and, most likely, which team represents the Pac-12 in the College Football Playoff.
Could two teams get there from the conference? Absolutely. These two teams are good enough to both go, but nobody wants to take the chance of waiting out a committee's decision after losing the league championship game.
It's hard to talk about these two teams and not mention that Darnold and Browning are arguably the nation's top two quarterbacks. Darnold (like UCLA's Rosen) has the NFL scouts drooling, but Browning is the one who has proven to be the better college quarterback so far.
Also, while Petersen's recruiting classes don't get the publicity as Helton's, the Huskies probably have a better overall supporting cast.
So, this matchup goes deeper than just signal-callers. It's two well-known, well-liked coaches and two storied programs that have a wealth of talent everywhere. It's recruiting success versus player development, and it's one of the nation's most popular teams against one that doesn't normally get the recognition it deserves.
Several teams will stand in the way, but the Pac-12 will come down to the two teams everybody expects to see. And though Washington has more experience, Darnold will carry the Trojans to the title in the end.
Winner: USC Trojans