The Stanford Cardinal have been the kings of the Pac-12 here of late. They have won three of the past four Pac-12 titles after trouncing USC 41-22 in the championship game last season. They would go on to crush Iowa 45-16 in the Rose Bowl to represent the Pac-12 very well.
There’s no question that the Cardinal are the hunted now in the North division. But there are three teams in 2016 that are capable of ending their reign. Washington, Oregon and Washington State will all be chasing down Stanford this season.
In the South, it has been a revolving door of champions over the past four seasons. There have been four different winners in UCLA (2012), Arizona State (’13), Arizona (’14) and USC (’15). I don’t expect there to be many contenders in the South as you’ll see with my 2016 Pac-12 football predictions below.
Pac-12 North Predictions
1st: Washington (10-2, 7-2 Pac-12)
You may think I’m crazy in picking the Huskies to win the loaded North in 2016 because they haven’t finished better than 5-4 in conference play since 2001. However, a closer look at this team shows that this is likely going to be their year. The Huskies went 7-6 last year in Chris Peterson’s second season, and now they enter Year 3, which is where coaches make their biggest marks with a new program. They go from being a very inexperienced team to having 15 returning starters and a plethora of talent. Offensively, they have a veteran QB in Jake Browning, a 1,302-yard rusher in Myles Gaskin, and nine of their top 10 offensive linemen back. Defensively, they gave up just 18.8 points per game last season, and now they have seven starters back after having just four last year. This is the best defense in the Pac-12. They do have five Pac-12 road games, but four are very winnable against Arizona, Utah, California and Washington State. They get key games against Stanford and USC at home. I believe they finish 7-2 in Pac-12 play, which will be enough to win the North.
T-2nd: Stanford (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12)
The Cardinal were very impressive down the stretch last season in winning the Pac-12 Championship Game and the Rose Bowl by a combined 24 points per game. They could be just as good in 2016 with Christian McCaffrey returning on offense, and a defense that should be among the Pac-12’s best. But they do lose starting QB Kevin Hogan, and they only return 11 starters in all. While they could get to the Pac-12 title game for the 4th time in 5 years, I’m guessing that they trip up in their three road games against UCLA, Washington and Oregon, which will ultimately prevent that from happening.
T-2nd: Oregon (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12)
The Ducks have five straight seasons where they averaged 12 wins before finishing just 9-4 last season. So are they going to bounce back, or was last year’s performance a sign of things to come? I’m guessing it’s the latter. The Ducks have just 11 returning starters this year and are one of the most inexperienced teams in the country. They will be breaking in a new starting quarterback, and they return just five starters from a defense that gave up 37.5 points and 485 yards per game last year. They also have five Pac-12 road games this season, though they do get to host both Washington and Stanford, two teams I have listed above them. Their 64-5 record at Autzen Stadium the last seven years will keep them in contention, but I have them falling just short of a North title in 2016.
4th: Washington State (7-5, 5-4 Pac-12)
The Cougars were the surprise of the Pac-12 last season as they finished 7-2 over their final nine games en route to a 9-4 record. Three of their four losses came by a touchdown or less as well. Now Mike Leach returns 14 starters, including eight on an offense that put up 31.5 points and 470 yards per game. This should be his best offense yet with Luke Falk running the show again. Falk completed 69.4 percent of his passes for 4,561 yards with 38 touchdowns against eight interceptions last year. The Cougars also have five Pac-12 home games this season, and two of their four road games are against teams that had a combined one victory in conference play last year. The schedule makes them contenders, but I’m expecting some regression after coming out of nowhere last season.
T-5th: California (4-8, 2-7 Pac-12)
The Golden Bears were a prime example of how a team plays in Year 3 of a new head coach. Sonny Dykes took a team that was 1-11 and 5-7 in his first two seasons to a bowl game in 2015 and an 8-5 finish. Of course, it helped that they had future No. 1 draft pick Jared Goff at quarterback among 17 returning starters last year. Now Goff is gone, and the Golden Bears return only nine starters in what appears to be a rebuilding year. Also gone are the top six receivers from last year and five of the top six tacklers on defense. Texas Tech transfer Davis Webb gives the offense some hope because there’s still a lot of talent at receiver. Unfortunately, Cal plays Oregon, Washington, Stanford and UCLA at home, meaning that most of its winnable games are on the road. That doesn’t bode well for this inexperienced squad in 2016.
T-5th: Oregon State (3-9, 2-7 Pac-12)
It was clearly a rebuilding year last season for the Beavers as they went 2-10 in Gary Andersen’s first season. They were starting from scratch with only nine returning starters as one of the most inexperienced teams in the country. Improvement can be expected in 2016 now with 13 returning starters who have learned the new systems. However, the Beavers have so much ground to make up after getting outgained by 207.4 yards per game in Pac-12 play, which was far and away the worst mark in the conference. They do get five Pac-12 home games this season and could pull off a couple upsets against the likes of California, Arizona, Utah or Washington State. But don’t expect much improvement in the win-loss column as this is probably still the least-talented team in the North.
Pac-12 South Predictions
1st: UCLA (9-3, 7-2 Pac-12)
The Bruins were the popular pick to win the South last season because they returned 16 starters. But they fell flat on their faces with a 5-4 finish in Pac-12 play. Of course, their defense was decimated by injuries, including their two best players being out for the year by Week 3, and their top two cornerbacks. With nine starters back on defense in 2016, this unit is going to be a lot better. The offense is in good hands with one of the top quarterbacks in the country in Josh Rosen as well. The biggest reason I’m picking the Bruins to win the South is their schedule. UCLA gets to host both Stanford and USC while avoiding both Washington and Oregon from the North. Three of their four Pac-12 road games are against teams that had losing conference records last season. Look for the Bruins to be playing in their first Pac-12 Championship Game since 2012.
2nd: USC (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12)
The Trojans made the Pac-12 title game last season with some help. That’s no what you would expect from a team that finished just 8-6, but the South simply wasn’t very good last year. There’s no question that the Trojans are probably the most talented team in the South heading into 2016, though. Clay Helton will be working with 15 returning starters, including 10 on offense, which should help ease the transition to a new starting quarterback. Max Browne is a former No. 1 QB prospect in the country and should be ready to take over. There are questions on defense with just five returning starters, including up front on the defensive line. But the biggest reason I’m not picking USC to win the South is the schedule. It must face the top three teams in the North in Washington, Stanford and Oregon. It also plays five Pac-12 road games with three coming against the top five teams in the conference. Not to mention, the Trojans have to play Alabama and Notre Dame out of conference. This is the toughest schedule in the country, and I simply cannot foresee the Trojans overcoming it.
3rd: Utah (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12)
The Utes were the surprise of the Pac-12 through the first three-fourths of the season. They opened 6-0 and then 8-1 and were a Top 10 team in prime position to win the South. Instead, they would lose their next two games to Arizona and UCLA to take them out of the race. It was still a great 10-3 season overall and Kyle Whittingham’s best yet since joining the Pac-12. But the Utes were very fortunate last season as they won four games by a touchdown or less. They only outgained teams by 21 yards per game in Pac-12 play as well. They do have 13 returning starters and should be a solid team, but not a South contender. They lose their heart and soul in Devontae Bookers along with each of their top three receivers and four of their top five tacklers on defense. Plus, they draw five Pac-12 road games with most of their winnable games on the road.
T-4th: Arizona State (6-6, 3-6 Pac-12)
Todd Graham likes it when his teams are counted out as the Sun Devils have come out of nowhere before to win the South. However, I just cannot foresee a team that went 6-7 last year with just 10 returning starters this year being able to contend in the South. The Sun Devils have serious questions along the offensive line, which isn’t good news because they’ll be breaking in a new starting quarterback. They should be decent on defense with six starters back and plenty of JUCO help coming in. They have five Pac-12 road games and will likely be underdogs in all but three or four conference contests. They draw both Oregon and Washington from the North as well.
T-4th: Arizona (6-6, 3-6 Pac-12)
I figured the Wildcats would take a big step back from their improbable run to the Pac-12 Championship Game in 2014. They did just that, finishing up 7-6 after a narrow win over New Mexico in their bowl game. The Wildcats do return 15 starters this season and are back to being under the radar, which is exactly what Rich Rodriquez would prefer. Junior QB Anu Solomon is back to lead an offense that returns eight starters. The defense can’t be any worse with eight returning starters from a unit that gave up 35.8 points and 467 yards per game last season. While Arizona could surprise, it plays USC, Washington and Stanford at home, meaning most of its winnable games are on the road. I have the Wildcats as underdogs in six of their nine Pac-12 games, so I’ll call for a 3-6 finish within the conference.
T-4th: Colorado (5-7, 3-6 Pac-12)
It would be easy to pencil Colorado in at last place in the South and be done with it. After all, the Buffaloes are just 2-25 in Pac-12 play over the past three seasons. However, they were much better than their 4-9 record would indicate last season. Injuries absolutely killed this team last year. Plus, the Buffaloes have lost a whopping eight Pac-12 games by a touchdown or less over the past two seasons alone. A little better fortune in close games, and this could easily be a bowl team. That’s because Mike MacIntyre has his best team yet with 18 returning starters. The key will be for Sefo Liufau to stay healthy at quarterback. The defense went from allowing 39.0 points per game in 2014 to 27.5 in ’15 and could even improve upon those numbers with nine starters back. Even though I have the Buffaloes missing out on a bowl game, I wouldn’t be surprised one bit of they are playing in the postseason for the first time since 2007.
Pac-12 Championship Game: Washington Defeats UCLA