And so we come to the portion of the Power Five previews where we cover the conference that was looking in from the outside at the College Football Playoff last year. In 2015, three-quarters of the teams ended the year with winning records, but none ended them with fewer than two losses after conference champion Stanford fell at Northwestern and home to Oregon during the season. This year the league will be even more balanced, and as a result the west coast could once again shut itself out of the playoff process.
For the past three years, the Pac-12 has ranked in the top two in terms of conference strength from top to bottom, according to the SRS ratings at Sports Reference. Yet whereas the SEC — the other league with which they’ve traded the top two spots — gets the benefit of the doubt when its teams cannibalize one another, the Pac-12 doesn’t seem to get that same advantage from pollsters and pundits for the internal strength of its circuit. If any league in any sport truly suffers from an east-coast bias, it might very well be the Pac-12.
Nothing would be better for this league than for a strong contender to emerge from each division in order to force everyone to take notice. The best-case scenario would be a pair of undefeated or one-loss teams with top-10 ratings facing off against one another at Levi’s Stadium in early December, turning the Pac-12 Championship Game into a de facto CFP quarterfinal in the process. As we saw in 2014, a Pac-12 champ isn’t likely to be shut out of the playoff picture if it ends up with less than two losses, and an undefeated victor would definitely be guaranteed a spot.
So let’s dive in and assess the Pac-12 pecking order, using the preseason PRS rankings as our guide to evaluate where each team stands heading into the 2016 season. (NOTE: While the PRS rankings are used as a guideline in determining the conference preview rankings, they are not a hard-and-fast rule. We try to contextualize the rankings as one facet of the analysis along with deeper evaluation of scheduling and personnel that impact what is likely to happen in 2016.)
6. Oregon State — Last year an incredibly young Beavers team went 2-10 in the first season under head coach Gary Andersen, which allowed for plenty of seasoning throughout the depth chart. A still-young team still has a lot of work to do to get up to speed in the Pac-12, but Andersen does have at least a decent chance to see some offensive improvement. He’ll likely turn to Utah State transfer Darell Garretson, who he originally recruited to the Mountain West when he coached the Aggies, to provide a known quantity at quarterback, and the hope is that sophomore Ryan Nall will take over in the backfield where an injured Storm Woods left off. A pair of All-Pac-12 selections, center Josh Mitchell and right guard Isaac Seumalo, must be replaced on the line as well. Defensive end Kyle Peko and inside linebacker Rommel Mageo are the biggest losses on defense, but a seasoned secondary should take pressure off the front seven. Minnesota and Boise State offer tough non-conference competition, and Pac-12 play will be no kinder in 2016 than it was last year as the Beavers miss the postseason for a third straight year.
5. California — Over the first three years under head coach Sonny Dykes, Cal has advanced from one to five to eight wins. Whether they can sustain that improvement into 2016 and beyond depends on how well Dykes can get fresh talent to Berkeley. Jared Goff is off to the NFL, and it will be interesting to see how the Cal offense works with a new quarterback operating Dykes’ offense. Texas Tech transfer Davis Webb is the favorite to take over, which could be a blessing in disguise — as whoever wins the job will take over an offense that lost basically every productive skill player from 2015 and two-fifths of the offensive line. The defense lost five of its top seven linemen and another five experienced linebackers, along with top cornerback Darius White and safety Stefan McClure. The schedule could prevent a return to a bowl game, though. Cal opens the year against Hawaii in Sydney, Australia, then returns to the US to play at defending MWC champ San Diego State before its home opener against Texas. And while they get five Pac-12 home games this year, they’ll have a tough time beating any of the five.
4. Washington State — Last year felt like it could have been the start of something big in Pullman, as Mike Leach led the Cougars to nine wins for the first time since 2003. Junior quarterback Luke Falk is back, a leader on the team returning the second-most experienced roster in the conference, and if he remains upright all season he will easily throw for more than 5000 yards in the Mad Pirate’s pass-happy offense. (This is no guarantee, given that Falk will be playing behind a line with a rebuilt left side after the loss of tackle Joe Dahl and guard Gunnar Eklund.) Split end Dom Williams is the only player who is gone from last year’s prolific receiving corps, though, and the top three threats out of the backfield all return. The defense could regress from its mid-level performance, after losing five key players from the rotation on the line and at linebacker. The secondary should at least be able to take care of things on the back end, led by free safety Shalom Luani and cornerback Marcellus Pippins. Wazzu faces FCS Eastern Washington, Boise State, and Idaho in non-conference play, hoping for at least a 2-1 start before diving into the teeth of conference play.
3. Stanford — In his first five years after taking over for Jim Harbaugh in Palo Alto, David Shaw has gone 54-14, won three Pac-12 championships, a share of another division title, and two Rose Bowls. For many coaches this would be a career’s worth of accomplishments. And he has done this after Andrew Luck moved on to the NFL, thanks largely to the deceptive productivity of Kevin Hogan under center. The Cardinal do return do-everything Heisman finalist Christian McCaffrey to ease the transition of the new quarterback, at least, and a solid group of receivers. Outland Trophy winner Joshua Garnett and the two guys flanking him, left tackle Kyle Murphy and center Graham Shuler, are all gone, leaving the new QB with an inexperienced line. The defense will once again depend on the linebackers and a deep secondary to make up for deficiencies on the line, which could prove costly against better opposition. With Kansas State the warm-up leading into September conference play against USC, UCLA, and Washington, we’ll know before October whether or not Stanford is a contender or pretender. A year of regression still likely means eight to 10 wins.
2. Oregon — Mark Helfrich has become awfully dependent on the graduate transfer rule the past few years at quarterback. Vernon Adams Jr. was sublime when healthy, but without a backup plan the Ducks faltered in 2016 when he was out. Now Oregon will turn to Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop for another stopgap year, and if he can remain in the lineup the former FCS star will have plenty of weapons to whom to distribute the ball. Tailback Royce Freeman could vault up the charts as the top back in the country, and a deep corps of receivers offers plenty of targets as well. The line benefits from the baptism by fire of several younger players, along with the transfer of right tackle Zac Morgan from FCS Dayton. The defense loses talent, but could benefit more from the demotion of Don Pellum back to position coach and the hiring of Brady Hoke as the new coordinator. If Oregon can even just have an FBS-average defense in 2016, it will challenge for the division. The Ducks travel to Lincoln in non-conference play, but they get to face both Stanford and Washington at home in league play. If the Webfoots get flying early, they could reclaim their spot atop the Pac-12.
1. Washington — An experienced Huskies team would love nothing more than to break up the duopoly that Stanford and Oregon have enjoyed since expansion to the Pac-12 and the creation of divisions. Chris Petersen’s first two years in Seattle have yielded 15 wins, but the pieces are in place to make a possible leap in 2016. Jake Browning, just a sophomore, already has a season under his belt at quarterback. 1300-yard back Myles Gaskin is also a sophomore, and Browning will be throwing to a trio of junior receivers and senior tight end Darrell Daniels from behind a veteran offensive line rotation. The top-15 scoring defense set up Washington for success last season, and a seasoned crew of players returning on that side of the ball provides the biggest reason that many suspect the Huskies will steal away the division title. Rutgers, Idaho, and FCS Portland State should allow Washington to start 3-0 heading into league play. Stanford and USC both have to come to Husky Stadium, but UW will also have to travel to Eugene to face the Ducks in what might or might not amount to a virtual division championship game.
6. Colorado — Mike McIntyre’s first two years in Boulder have yielded positive results everywhere but the standings. Last season the Buffaloes were able to keep five Pac-12 games within one score, and even beat Oregon State for their first league win since November 2013. With 17 returning starters and a slew of upperclassmen this is a make-or-break year for McIntyre’s rebuild. The offensive line lost left tackle Stephane Nembot but returns eight players with starting experience, and Sefo Liufau returns from a Lisfranc injury for his fourth year at quarterback with every target but Nelson Spruce back as well. On defense, former USF head coach and current coordinator Jim Leavitt has all his front seven back and benefits from the return of standout cornerback Chidobe Awuzie. The season opens with the Rocky Mountain Showdown against Colorado State at Mile High Stadium in Denver, and Colorado also has a trip to Ann Arbor to face Michigan before Pac-12 play begins. Getting Oregon State at home means that CU should manage at least one conference win again in 2016.
5. Arizona State — After back-to-back 10-win seasons it was a step backward in Todd Graham’s fourth season in Tempe, as the Sun Devils went bowling but finished the year with a sub-.500 record . Arizona State could be in for another rough year in 2016, as they return the greenest team in the Pac-12. Gone is quarterback Mike Bercovici, the top two receivers, and four-fifths of the offensive line. If Demario Richard evolves at tailback as a junior, he could ease the burden of the transition on the line and in the passing game. Defense was ASU’s Achilles heel in 2015; five times the Sun Devils scored 40 or more points, but they went just 2-3 in those contests as the D ranked 99th nationally in points allowed. That unit returns most of the experience in its front seven, but there is little depth behind the starters. Kareem Orr, one of the best ballhawking defensive backs in college football in 2015, is the only returning player in the secondary. Texas Tech is the toughest non-conference test, but ASU has to play at Oregon and at Washington in cross-division play and must also take to the road against USC and Arizona. Six wins will depend on whether or not the Sun Devils can get a road upset.
4. Arizona — The state of Arizona generally stumbled a bit in 2015, as the Wildcats cratered defensively. It was an interesting threshold… Arizona won all seven games where the defense held opponents to 37 or fewer points, while they lost all six games where they allowed 38 or more. There was no in-between, and it sacrificed the efforts of what was a top-20 offense nationally. The defense returns nine starters from last year and plenty of depth, and coupled with new coordinator Marcel Yates from Boise State the hope is that experience and a new scheme can rejuvenate the unit. Two starters depart on the line and the team lost three of its top four receivers, but return third-year starting quarterback Anu Solomon and a loaded backfield. The team might skew slightly more toward Rodriguez’s favored run game this year, though Solomon is still a dangerous weapon with both his legs and his arm. They open with BYU in Glendale, and while they get Washington, Stanford, USC, and rival Arizona State all at home they still have to travel to UCLA, Utah, and Washington State. Everything depends on how well the defense improves, which means Arizona might not bowl for the first time in Rodriguez’s tenure.
3. Utah — Like TCU in the Big 12, it took a few years for Utah to settle in to their new role as a power-conference school, but Kyle Whittingham has steered Utah back toward winning ways and Pac-12 contention. In 2015 they were able to get statement wins at Oregon and at Washington, but the Utes couldn’t get the seventh conference victory that would have vaulted them past USC for the division crown and a trip to Santa Clara. With both starting quarterbacks gone, Brandon Cox has the inside track on the job this year. The Utes also must find new starting receivers and replace Devontae Booker in the backfield, though they at least return experience everywhere along the offensive ine. The defense is depleted in its front seven, but a deep secondary will be able to contain the pass-happy offenses of the Pac-12. The Holy War is back on the schedule with a trip to BYU in September, and the Utes have the advantage of playing USC, Arizona, Washington, and Oregon all at home this year. If the defensive line and linebacking corps come together quickly, it could be another season with double-digit wins on the Wasatch Range.
2. UCLA — The Bruins had promising returns in quarterback Josh Rosen’s first season as a true freshman, and while there were some growing pains there were also eight wins in Westwood. The sophomore will have to adjust to an offense that loses tailback Paul Perkins, its top two receivers, and three starters on the offensive line. The burden will thus be on an athletic defense, with a deep front seven and all of the top secondary in the conference back from 2015, to help the offense stay in contests as it adjusts to the slew of new players around Rosen. While Myles Jack is gone at linebacker, the return of defensive end Eddie Vanderdoes will be critical toward improving the team’s fortunes against opponents’ ground games. Interestingly, the Bruins also have to break in a new placekicker and punter, which might tilt the field-position battle against them. Trips to Texas A&M and BYU loom in non-conference play, while Jim Mora’s team lucked out by getting all its toughest league games at home. If Rosen continues to mature and builds a rapport with a new crew of skill players, the Bruins could push their crosstown rivals for the division crown.
1. USC — Southern Cal is always going to recruit the top talent in the Pac-12, but now they need to show that this assemblage of talent can actually operate effectively for head coach Clay Helton. Last year the Trojans beat the teams you’d expect, lost to the teams you’d expect, and posted a perfectly pedestrian 8-6 record in Cody Kessler’s final season at quarterback. Max Browne will look to take his place dishing the ball to one of the most dangerous receiving corps in the country, and he will do so behind a line that returns experience at every position. The defense is where the Trojans will deal with attrition, as the line lost four of its top five contributors from 2015 and the linebacking corps lost Su’a Cravens and Anthony Sarao. A deep secondary will have to do its job to take pressure off the front seven. USC opens the season with defending national champ Alabama and closes with their rivalry game against Notre Dame, with trips to Arizona, Stanford, Utah, and Washington interspersed throughout the schedule. A new group will have to rise up quickly for the Trojans to have a chance in 2016.