Believe it or not, the start of the 2016 college football season is now only about two months away, so we are continuing our Power 5 conference previews today with the Pac-12.
Do not look now, but you will be making your early season college football picks before you know it with the start of the 2016 season just a tad more than two months away! Besides, it is never too early to begin your football preparation, so in an attempt to aid with that endeavor, we are continuing to preview all of the Power 5 conferences, today examining the Pac-12.
The Pac-12 was snubbed for a College Football Playoff spot last season, so the defending conference champions from Stanford had to be content with destroying Iowa 45-16 in the Rose Bowl. Then again, as fine a year as the Cardinal had, we feel the committee got it right by choosing Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Michigan State ahead of them for the Playoff, so Stanford really has no gripe.
This season presents new challenges with the perennial top two teams in the North Division, Stanford and 2014 College Football Playoff finalist Oregon, both having issues that could open the door up for Washington to win the division, while the South Division also seems wide open, making this one of the toughest Power 5 conferences to predict.
Nonetheless, we have never been deterred by that before so here we are with our predicted Pac-12 standings, along with each schools college football odds to win the conference.
Washington Huskies (+360): It seems that Washington is a popular choice, to be one of the most improved teams in the country, and why not? After all, this marks the third season for the Huskies with former Boise State guru Chris Peterson and they improved in his second season last year winning seven games and losing four games by 10 points or less. Washington could very well take the next step this year by winning 10 games, thanks to returning perhaps the best young backfield tandem in the conference in quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin and eight starters on defense.
Stanford Cardinal (+325): As mentioned, the Cardinal are the reigning conference champions and they demolished Iowa in the Rose Bowl. They also return one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy in Christian McCaffrey, who can do it all. However, there is a reason that the Stanford win total was set at a lowly 8 this season, as this team lost a lot on both sides of the ball, returning only nine total starters. The Cardinal are breaking in a new quarterback, have a revamped offensive line and lost both star defensive ends from last year in Aziz Shittu and Brennan Scarlett.
Oregon Ducks (+675): The Ducks are another perennial North Division power that could be in for a longer season than they have become accustomed to. The offense might be fine depending on how quickly whoever wins the quarterback battle between Dakota Prukop and Travis Jonsen develops, but the greater concerns are on the defensive side, even with Brady Hoke brought in to coordinate the defense. We do not doubt Hoke's abilities, but he simply may not have the horses to coach up as not much help was brought in personnel-wise to help a unit that struggled badly last year, especially while blowing a 31-0 halftime lead to TCU, which was playing with a backup quarterback, in the Alamo Bowl.
Washington State Cougars (+1300): Washington State won nine games under Mike Leach last year, the most wins in a season for the Cougars since winning 10 games in 2003, and the lethal combination of quarterback Luke Falk and receiver Gabe Marks is returning for more. Still, the Cougs did win five games by seven points or less and we are not convinced that the defense was really as good as it looked on paper as they did face a more favorable schedule last year than they face this season.
California Golden Bears (+2000): The Golden Bears not only lost the number one pick in the NFL Draft in quarterback Jared Goff, but also six wide receivers that totaled 265 receptions, 3,878 receiving yards and 38 touchdowns. Can you say rebuilding offense? At least California caught a break with quarterback Davis Webb transferring in from Texas Tech and being immediately eligible to play as a graduate transfer, but the receiving corps is a work-in-progress. The defense has improved gradually over the last couple of years, but that unit may now feel too much pressure with the offense probably not being as good.
Oregon State Beavers (+25000): There is a legitimate reason that the Beavers are remote 250/1 shots to win the conference as this team won two games last year in the first season under Gary Anderson while ranking 115th in the country in scoring offense and 114th in scoring defense. Sure, some improvement is expected in Anderson's second year at the helm and doubling that win total to four would be seen as a nice accomplishment. Unfortunately the schedule may not allow for four wins with a cross-divisional road game at UCLA as well as almost impossible road tests at Washington and Stanford.
USC Trojans (+625): As has oftentimes happened in the past, the South Division title this season might be decided by who wins the late-season USC/UCLA matchup. Just the fact that USC has the longer odds of those two to win the conference could be a good enough reason to back the Trojans, and they are also out choice to win the conference outright by beating the North winner (Washington?) in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Pac-12 is generally a pass-happy conference, but what may set the Trojans apart is having one of the best running back combinations in the entire country in senior Justin Davis (902 yards, 5.3 yards per carry in 2015) and sophomore Ronald Jones (987 yards, 6.5 YPC), which should help take the pressure off of new quarterback Max Browne. It also helps that the strength of the defense is the secondary, which is usually a good thing in a passing conference.
UCLA Bruins (+475): What we find quite interesting is that UCLA has shorter odds than USC to win the Pac-12 at +475 and yet the Bruins are currently in the +4000 to +5000 range to win the national championship while USC is lower, in the +3300 to +4000 range! That anomaly aside, the Bruins return 12 starters including quarterback Josh Rosen, but some defections are notable in all-conference running back Paul Perkins and four of the top five receivers last year in terms of receptions. Also the defense simply could not stop the run last year and that could be a fatal flaw with no real improvement expected.
Utah Utes (+1300): It may seems strange to call a team that won 10 games last season a good darkhorse to win the conference at square odds, but we feel the Utes fit into that category. The defense has a great and experienced front seven that may be the best in the conference, but the offense is a question mark even with an experienced offensive line. Yes that is a great starting point, but the Utes are breaking in a new quarterback with junior college transfer Joe Williams the current favorite to win the job. The Utes also lost stud running back Devontae Booker and lack blazing speed at the receiver position, but they could still surprise some people if running back Joe Williams runs as well as he did while filling in for an injured Booker last November.
Arizona Wildcats (+2000): The bottom half of the South Division looks weak to us, although we prefer Arizona at 20/1 over 17/1 Arizona State to finish in fourth place. We expect better offense from the Wildcats this year with seven returning starters on that side of the ball including quarterback Anu Solomon, who passed for 3,793 yards in 2014 but missed time last season with concussion issues. A healthy Solomon combined with an experience receiving corps and offensive line should lead to many shootouts given a very suspect Arizona defense, and remember that returning running back Nick Wilson also had an injury-plagued year last season after rushing for 1.375 yards in 2014 as a freshman.
Arizona State Sun Devils (+1700): Arizona State is another school that generally relies on great offense, but that may just not be there this season with only four returning offensive starters. Among the departures were quarterback Mike Bercovici, wide receiver D.J. Foster and four offensive linemen. The defense may also not be as aggressive as the unit that finished in the top five in the country last year in both sacks and tackles for loss, as that great pressure up front often exposed a weak secondary that allowed many big plays when the pressure did not quite get to opposing quarterbacks.
Colorado Buffaloes (+10000): Even with the two Arizona schools in decline, we still expect the Buffaloes to bring up the rear in the South Division. Colorado thought it scored a nice coup with graduate transfer quarterback Davis Webb from Texas Tech, but there is now uncertainty at the quarterback position again after Webb changed his mind and went to California instead. The defense is improving and experienced, but that may not be enough to offset the offensive shortcomings.
Predicted Big 12 Champion: USC (+625)
Darkhorse: Utah (+1300)