Sports handicapper Ian Cameron provides a betting preview of the PAC-12 North Division for the upcoming College Football season.
Stanford has the talent to win the division once again as they have in three of the last four years but they won't be void of an adjustment period with plenty of new faces. They'll have a new QB with Keller Chryst or Ryan Burns taking over under center. The offensive line must replace everyone on the left side with their left tackle, guard and center gone from last year's team. They will have their Heisman Trophy candidate RB from last season Christian McCaffrey once again after his scintillating season last year in which he ran for 5.1 yards per carry. The receiving corps should have much perimeter speed than last season which could result in some more deep play passing. On defense, the front seven is deep and talented and has a very experienced group which should prove to be a tough group that can stop the run and rush the passer.
The secondary which wasn't great last season is expected to be improved with two capable corners in Alijah Hobler and Quenton Meeks and the return of senior safety Zach Hoffpauir after a one year hiatus while he attempted a baseball career. They also have senior kicker Conrad Ukropina back on the team and he should be quite a weapon for them in the kicking game on special teams. Stanford is a good team and one to be reckoned with but the schedule has done them no favors with non-conference battles against Kansas State and Notre Dame and a very tough PAC-12 schedule with games at UCLA, at Washington, at Arizona, at Oregon and at California as you can argue they have the most brutal schedule of any team in the PAC-12. That could be too much of an obstacle to overcome especially with the inexperience factor at QB. Stanford could be a bit overvalued pointspread wise early in the season as the offense copes with a completely revamped left side of the OL and a new QB.
Oregon was 9-4 last season and that was a disappointment for the lofty standards that have been set in Eugene over the years going back to the Chip Kelly era. The offense has a new OC with QB coach Matt Lubick taking over the reins from the departed Scott Frost who took over the UCF head coaching job. Oregon Ducks will have a new starting QB and all indications point toward it being Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop who is a dual threat QB who not only can throw but can run as well. There are three new starters on the OL which means that unit may need time to gel but at the skill positions (RB and WR), Oregon is loaded with Royce Freeman returning at RB and a bevy of weapons at receiver for the likely impending starting QB Dakota Prukop to throw to. For the Ducks to achieve their goal of a division crown, the defense must improve. Period. There is no getting around it and Oregon has worked to improve their woes on that side of the football from last season with the hiring of former San Diego State and Michigan head coach Brady Hoke as their new DC.
Hoke didn't have the success at Michigan he hoped for but that was largely the offensive failures of the team. He made the Michigan defense a lot better during this time in Ann Arbor and will be looked upon to deliver the same defensive improvements for Oregon as their defensive coordinator. Oregon gave up 37.5 points per game last season not even close to being good enough. There is a shift from 3-4 to 4-3 defense but there is talent up front and the young secondary that struggled greatly last season should be improved and have a lot more experience which should lead to an improved group. Oregon will score as they always do but will only go as far as Brady Hoke can take that defense in 2016.
Washington is another team with eyes on a PAC-12 North title this season and why not? Chris Petersen is now in his 3rd year as head coach. His systems, recruits and now his QB too all firmly in place. Jake Browning returns at QB as he progressively improved during the course of last season and should be ready to take another big step forward in his 2nd year under center after completing 63% of his passes last season with 16 TD's and 10 INT's in his freshman year. The offense should be solid and the offensive line returns three starters including both their left tackle and left guard.
The team also has good depth at RB, WR and TE so there should be enough playmakers on this offense to produce. On the other side of the football, Washington had a very solid defense last season and that unit could be borderline dominant this season with a whopping 9 starters back on defense including a very experienced and strong LB corps and a secondary with 4 starters back including multiple highly ranked NFL prospects. Washington's stingy defensive front last season yielded just 3.3 yards per carry on the ground and there is expectations they could be even better than that this year. The only bad news for Washington is their two toughest games inside the division are both on the road facing Stanford and Oregon away from Seattle but the fact remains this could be the best defensive team in the division and that alone will have the Huskies nipping at the heels of a PAC-12 North title.
Washington State Cougars
Washington State was a major surprise in the PAC-12 last season with a 9-4 campaign including a Sun Bowl victory against Miami. After years of being an afterthought in the conference, the Cougars used a high-powered offense and a better than usual defense to make a big step forward but now the expectations are greater in Pullman and this team will be looked upon to live up to them. Washington State has their outstanding QB Luke Falk back after a season in which he was 5th in the country in passing yards at over 4,500 passing yards. They have three OL starters back and a ton of experience and quality depth at RB and WR including Gabe Marks the senior receiver.
The defense loses a lot up front with most of their sack producers gone but they have three of their top four cornerbacks in the secondary returning and there seems to be a belief that this is a team that has recruited bigger and stronger talent on that side of the ball and even though there is a lot of upheaval in the front seven, the Cougars believe they can keep making positive strides forward defensively as they did a season ago. This offense will be tough to stop with a tremendous QB in Luke Falk and plenty of weapons on that side of the football. The Cougars ability to contend in the division will come down to their defense and whether that group can continue to improve enough to stymie the likes of Stanford, Oregon and Washington. If the defense keeps on moving upward, Washington State has legitimate sleeper potential to win the North.
California Golden Bears
The post-Jared Goff era will begin this season for Cal but the era will begin with plenty of experience at QB as Texas Tech transfer Davis Webb is set to take over the reins. Webb was coming off a shoulder injury in the 2014 season at Texas Tech and lost his starting job to Patrick Mahomes in 2015. Over parts of three seasons, Webb had over 5,550 passing yards and a 46-22 TD-INT ratio. Cal head coach Sonny Dykes runs the same uptempo, pass heavy, Air Raid style of offense that he learned under Mike Leach at Texas Tech so Dykes running the same offense that Webb played in at Texas Tech should help the transition go even smoother. They have a ton of talent to replace at WR which is the big concern but the offensive line is solid and the ground attack is led by a very deep stable of RB's including senior Vic Enwere. Cal's defense was not great last season and has some question marks heading into this year.
They lost their top tackler Hardy Nickerson when he decided in the spring to transfer to Illinois to reunite with his father who is the DC at Illinois after Lovie Smith hired him there. Their top two pass rushers graduated so getting to the QB could be a challenge. The good news is the defensive line does have some solid run stuffers and the secondary returns three starters and should have solid depth in that area. California's offense should be aided by a veteran QB like Davis Webb taking over in a system he is comfortable in but there are questions at WR and still many questions on defense for a unit that gave up 31.3 points per game last season. Cal may be involved in some shootouts once again and may be forced to outscore the opponent to win games because this defense with all the new personnel could be in trouble against a tough slate of opposing teams and specifically opposing offenses and QB's.
Oregon State Beavers
There is such a huge gap for Oregon State to make up between them and the rest of this division that even modest improvement may not be enough for this team to escape their fate as the basement dweller in the North and among the worst teams in the PAC-12 yet again. The Beavers were an abysmal 2-10 SU, 3-9 ATS squad last season--the worst season for the program in 20 years and are on an 11 game PAC-12 conference losing streak since 2014. It was a very trying debut season for Gary Andersen as head coach. The offense was brutal as dual threat QB Seth Collins struggled with accuracy and connecting on his passes. The Beavers offense had just 10 TD passes during the season and as a team, QB's completed only 47% of their passes. The defense wasn't good either but the offense was a ‘3-and-out' machine that it constantly put the defense in bad positions in terms of field position and fatigue.
The good news for the offense is Utah State transfer Darell Garretson is set to take over and he has plenty of starting experience. The OL should be improved with 3 starters back and they do have an experienced receiving corps and he will be familiar with executing a run first style of offense because this is what Andersen ran at Utah State. Kalani Sitake left his post as Oregon State DC to become the head coach at BYU so there is a new DC in Corvallis this season and it is Kevin Clune who has worked with Andersen in the past. There are tons of new faces on the DL which is a concern but there is at least decent returning experience and depth for Oregon State at LB and in the secondary. This team will be tougher and may not get blown out as many times as they did last season but it isn't likely to add up to all that many more wins in what will likely be another losing season with no bowl bid for the Beavers as they continue their long rebuilding job.