The Pac-12 was the only conference that had six teams win at least nine games in 2014. Five of those came from the loaded South, which was the second-best division in all of college football behind the SEC West. They had nine teams make bowl games and have had the best winning percentage (12-6, 67%) in all bowl games over the past two years.
Of course, it was Oregon that took up all the headlines last year. It made the four-team playoff by winning the Pac-12. It would go on to beat defending national champ Florida State in a 59-20 romp. Unfortunately, it fell one win short of the national title for the second time in the past five years when it lost to Ohio State 20-42 in the Championship Game.
The South division figures to have five of the six teams ranked in the AP Top 25 coming into the 2015 season, making it once again the second-toughest division in the country. Plus there’s Oregon and Stanford, along with an emerging California team, from the North. Here are my predictions on how both divisions will play out in 2015.
Pac-12 South Predictions
1st: USC (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12)
The sanctions are now over and the USC Trojans will now return their their full allotment of scholarship players in 2015 after having just 65 last year. They wore down late in games last season and lost two of them on the final play. With 14 starters back and more depth entering Sarkisian’s second season, I believe USC is the best team in the South. They have QB Cody Kessler back to lead the offense. They get five Pac-12 home games, including key games against Stanford and UCLA. That contest with the Bruins on November 28 will decide the South champion, and I give the Trojans the nod there.
2nd: UCLA (10-2, 7-2 Pac-12)
The Bruins return the most starters (18) in the Pac-12 in 2015. Jim Mora should have his best team yet, but unfortunately they lose their best player in QB Brett Hundley to the NFL Draft. They do have the top QB recruit in the country to take his place in freshman Josh Rosen. While a drop-off in production is expected at the QB position, Rosen will have the luxury of having 10 returning starters surrounding him on offense. The defense should be better with eight starters back as well. While UCLA has as much talent as anyone in the Pac-12, it has five conference road games and plays both USC and Stanford on the road, so the schedule will prevent it from winning the South.
3rd: Arizona State (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12)
The Sun Devils were one of the biggest surprises in the Pac-12 last year as they put together their second straight 10-2in season despite only having eight returning starters. They even had a chance to win the South in the finale, but lost at Arizona. Now they return 16 starters and will be a real threat to win the South. However, they did benefit from being +14 in turnover differential last year. They also had a 6-3 record in Pac-12 play despite getting outgained by 15 yards per game. ASU is nearly on USC and UCLA’s level talent-wise, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see it win the division. It gets five Pac-12 home games this year. It does draw Oregon from the North and plays both UCLA and Utah on the road. I have it likely losing those three games for a 6-3 season within the Pac-12 and an 8-4 campaign overall with a loss to Texas A&M out of conference.
T-4th: Utah (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12)
The Utes were a pleasant surprise last year as they went 9-4 and finished with a winning record (5-4) in the Pac-12 for the first time since joining their new conference. They beat the likes of UCLA, USC and Stanford last season. However, they were actually outgained by 84.2 yards per game in Pac-12 play despite their record, which was the worst mark in the entire conference. All five of their Pac-12 wins came by six points or less as well. They do have 14 starters back in 2015 and will be solid again, but I don’t expect them to catch nearly as many breaks in close games as they did a year ago. The schedule sets up well as they get five Pac-12 home games, but they do draw two of the best teams from the North in Oregon and California. They play Oregn and USC on the road, and I don’t give them much of a chance to upset UCLA or Arizona State at home. They can’t match the top three teams in this division talent-wise. I expect them to go 4-5 in Pac-12 play and 7-5 overall to return to a bowl game.
T-4th: Arizona (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12)
Arizona shocked the world by winning the loaded South division last season. Its only two losses during the regular season came to USC and UCLA by a combined 12 points. However, it was overmatched in a 13-51 loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship, and it went on to get upset by Boise State to finish 10-4. Arizona clearly was not as good as its record would indicate last year. It was actually outgained by 4.4 yards per game in conference action in spite of its 7-2 record. The Wildcats gave up 451 yards per game on defense and were +8 in turnover differential as well. Just like last year, they return 13 starters, including QB Solomon and arguably the best defensive player in the country in LB Scooby Wright. But the Wildcats must play five Pac-12 road games this season. They do draw two of the worst teams from the North in Washington State and Oregon State, but they don’t get one bye week the entire season, so they could ware down. That’s not good news considering their final three games come against USC, Utah and Arizona State with two of them on the road. I’ll call for a 4-5 season and a 7-5 mark overall for the Wildcats in 2015.
6th: Colorado (6-7, 2-7 Pac-12)
Colorado was easily the best 2-10 team in the country last year. It suffered four losses in Pac-12 play by five points or less to UCLA, Cal, Oregon State and Utah. It was competitive in every conference game outside of blowout losses to Oregon and UCLA. The Buffaloes were outgained by 188 yards per game in Pac-12 play in MacIntyre’s first season, but just 50.9 yards per game last year, which really showed how much they improved. With 16 returning starters in 2015, this is clearly MacIntyre’s best team yet. Unfortunately, the Buffaloes play in the loaded Pac-12 South and will be an underdog in every game. They play Oregon, Stanford, USC and Arizona at home, meaning that most of their winnable games are on the road. They have five Pac-12 road games, which will make it tough for them to show much improvement in the win-loss column. However, I’ll call for them to overachieve and go 6-7 overall and 2-7 within the Pac-12.
Pac-12 North Predictions
1st: Stanford (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12)
The Cardinal had won 11 or more games in four consecutive seasons before slipping to 8-5 last year. Their defense was once again dominant, but their offense could not hold up their end of the bargain. Plus, three of the Cardinal’s five losses came by exactly three points. They actually outgained Pac-12 opponents by 88.9 yards per game, which was the second-best mark in the conference despite their 5-4 record. I expect a big rebound from the Cardinal in 2015 with 13 starters back. Nine of those are on offense, including QB Hogan, so they should be much better on this side of the football. The defense will have a hard time matching last year’s numbers with only four starters back, but this will still be one of the top stop units in the country. Stanford gets five Pac-12 home games, including key games against UCLA and Oregon. Three of its four road games come against Oregon State, Washington State and Colorado, who went a combined 4-23 within the conference last year. The Cardinal should be favored in eight of their nine Pac-12 games. I’ll call for an 8-1 season within the Pac-12 and an 11-1 campaign overall with a return to the conference championship game.
2nd: Oregon (9-3, 7-2 Pac-12)
Mark Helfrich put all of his doubters in their places last year by leading the Oregon Ducks to the four-team playoff and one win away from the national championship. But Marcus Mariota is simply irreplaceable, so it will be interesting to see how the Ducks fare without their Heisman Trophy winner. Helfrich did a good job of replacing him by nabbing Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams, who has thrown for 10,438 yards with a 130-to-31 TD/INT ratio in his three years. The Ducks return 12 starters and 55 lettermen and are the favorites to win the North again. They do get five Pac-12 home games this year, but they draw three of the four best teams from the South in USC, ASU and Utah. They play their key game against Stanford on the road on November 14, and that contest will likely decide the North champ. I have the Ducks losing two Pac-12 games and their trip to Michigan State out of conference in 2015.
3rd: California (6-6, 4-5 Pac-12)
California was one of the most improved teams in the country last season. It went from 1-11 in 2013 to 5-7 in ’14 in Sonny Dykes’ second season on the job. It even suffered four losses by eight points or less, so it was very close to making a bowl game. Now, with 17 starters and 58 lettermen returning, this is easily Dykes’ best team yet. All 22 of the Golden Bears’ projected starters are expected to be juniors or seniors, so this is a veteran bunch. The offense is loaded with Heisman Trophy contender Jared Goff and eight returning starters from a unit that put up 38.3 points and 495 yards per game last year. The defense must improve after allowing 39.8 points per game, and that shouldn’t be a problem with nine starters and 12 of the top 13 tacklers back. Unfortunately, they have the toughest schedule in the Pac-12. They play five Pac-12 road games and draw the top four teams from the South in USC, UCLA, ASU and Utah. This is better than a 6-win team, but the schedule has me calling for a 6-6 season for the Golden Bears and a 4-5 mark within the conference.
T-4th: Washington (4-8, 2-7 Pac-12)
The Huskies won eight games in Chris Petersen’s first season last year, but only one of those victories came against a team that finished with a winning record. They were actually outgained by 22 yards per game on the season and 28.3 yards per game in Pac-12 play. They finished +12 in turnover differential, benefited from 12.9 yards per points offensively and 16.6 yards per point defensively, which was due to the turnovers and several defensive touchdowns. But now the Huskies lose three first-round NFL Draft picks and a second-rounder. Quarterback Cyler Miles retired from football as well. They bring back just nine starters and will be one of the most inexperienced teams in the conference. Petersen has had success everywhere he’s gone, but this will be his most trying year as a head coach. The Huskies do get five Pac-12 home games but will be an underdog in all but two of them. I’ll call for a 2-7 season within the conference and a 4-8 mark overall with a loss at Boise State out of conference.
T-4th: Washington State (5-7, 2-7 Pac-12)
Washington State clearly was not as bad as its 3-9 record would indicate last season. It outgained teams by an average of 76 yards per game and Pac-12 opponents by 46.0 yards per game, which was the fifth-best mark within the conference. But it finished with the third-worst turnover differential (-17) in the country and the worst defensive yards per points (11.5) as well. The Cougars are prime bounce-back candidates entering Mike Leach’s fourth season in Pullman. He’ll welcome back 14 starters this season and should have an excellent chance to make a bowl game. The Cougars do have five Pac-12 road games, but I have them winning their two home games against Oregon State and Colorado, while also going 3-0 out of conference. They will be an underdog in eight of their 12 games this season, so they’ll need to pull off a few upsets to become bowl eligible. I have them falling one win short at 5-7 overall and 2-7 in Pac-12 action.
6th: Oregon State (3-9, 1-8 Pac-12)
Oregon State parts ways with Mike Riley, who spent 14 seasons as its head coach. Enter Gary Andersen, one of the most underrated head coaches in the country who has gone 35-9 in his last 44 games between Wisconsin and Utah State. Riley left the cupboard very bare for Andersen as the Beavers return only 10 starters. The offense should be fine with eight starters back and a new run-first approach that will have success. However, the defense will be easily the worst in the Pac-12 with only two starters back. The defense loses four players to the NFL Draft. The Beavers draw Michigan out of conference and have to play five Pac-12 road games. The do draw the two worst teams from the South in Colorado and Arizona, but they should be an underdog in at least seven of their conference games. I’ll call for a 1-8 record within the Pac-12 and a 3-9 mark overall in what is clearly a rebuilding year for Oregon State in 2015.
Pac-12 Championship Game: Stanford Defeats USC
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