In 2016, USC HC Clay Helton made the wrong choice of quarterbacks to start the season and the Trojans were promptly smoked by Alabama to start the season and found themselves 1-3 after four games. In stepped a roly poly freshman named Sam Darnold to change not only the USC season but likely saved Helton and got the iconic program back on track. The Trojans reeled off nine straight wins including a victory over Penn State in the Rose Bowl and now Darnold is one of most talked about returnees in 2017.
The Trojans open up with Western Michigan, Texas, and Stanford … tough to be sure but all at home. With the Pac-12 South being the weaker of the two conference divisions, USC looks to have clear sailing into the conference title game. Utah figures to be the Trojans primary concern while crosstown UCLA should be improved but a full notch below the top two.
In the Pac-12 West, the Washington Huskies appear to be much the best as 13 starters return from last year’s 12-2 team. UWub once again has scheduled an embarrassing non-conference schedule should be unbeaten headed into their November showdowns with Oregon and at Stanford. The Cardinal is loaded with 16 returning starters. Oregon as promise under new HC Willie Taggart who comes over from Sout Florida. Mike Leach and Washington State could surprise with gunslinger QB Luke Falk and nine returning defensive starters.
If the Trojans come out of the gate flying, they will be a real National Championship playoff contender. Darnold to Deonte Burnett figures to be one on the nation’s top pitch-and-catch combinations. The defense improved tremendously in the second half of the year of last year and looks to be one of the Pac-12’s best in 2017. A workable schedule has many pundits high on USC this year.
The 2017 Utes will not be like the recent smashmouth editions you’ve seen in recent years. Utah will have a wide open offense this year that throws the ball around. The defense will once again feature and stop the run defensive line that can also pressure the quarterback. The Utes need an early win at BYU on September 9th and are always tough in Salt Lake City.
The Bruins have been hit hard by injuries in recent years and will need to avoid the bug this year to contend with the top two selections. UCLA will go as junior QB Josh Rosen goes. Rosen is an elite talent that could play on Sundays and will have the benefit of nine back on offense. A tough non-conference schedule plus roadies at Stanford, Washington, Utah, and USC will make or break UCLA.
The Buffs had a magical season last year that could have been even better if it were not for a late injury to QB Sef Liufau. Backup Steven Montez saw significant time and returns with the most of the offense in tact. Mike MacIntyre is an excellent coach but with just three back on defense and an overall lack of experience, the Buffs will be playing to go to a January Bowl.
The Sun Devils will score a lot of points and also give up a ton of points. All the skill people are back including QB Manny Wilkins and dual threat Kalen Ballage out of the backfield. Todd Graham will need to figure out a way to improve a defense that allowed 43-56-44-49 and 54 points the final five games of last year.
Last year’s 3-9 Wildcats were decimated with injuries but the program has been in a state of decline for years. The school is stuck with Rich Rodriguez another year as he makes so much that it would be pointless to buy him out or replace him. The Cats do figure to be improved and miss both Washington and Stanford out of the West. Zona should be improved and certainly more competitive.
Chris Petersen should be ashamed of himself for opening wit Rutgers, Montana and Fresno State. That said, if the Huskies take care of their own business, they’ll win ten games, contend for the Pac-12 title and go to a major Bowl so all will be fine in Seattle. UWub gets their toughest opponents at home but will need to win at Stanford to be in the National Championship picture.
Christian McCaffrey has moved on to the Carolina Panthers but David Shaw returns 16 (8/8) starters of a very good core nucleus that will challenge Washington. The Tree has a brutal start to the season facing Rice in Australia before playing at USC, at San Diego State and then home to UCLA. If the Cardinal can go 4-0 and then shake off the jet lag, Stanford will definitely be in the Pac-12 championship mix.
The Willie Taggart regime breaths new life into an Oregon Duck outfit that comes off a rare 4-8 season. Taggart has already made his presence felt by kicking senior WR Darren Carrington (43, 606, 5 Tds) off the team. Taggart had the same high flying offense in South Florida that the Duck faithful have become accustomed to so the Quack Attack should not miss a beat.
Sure Mike Leach is a little gruff but the guy can really coach. He’s won 17 games the last two years in a loaded conference without one of his players going in the first round of the NFL draft. Wazzou is stacked this year with QB Luke Falk (4400+ yards, 38 Tds) returning along with nine on defense. The Cougars have struggled early under Leach and have big second halves. A September 9th home win over Boise State and look out.
The Beavers have been in rebuilding mode the last two years but have made giant strides under Gary Andersen who is now in his third year. In fact, OSU was winless in the Pac-12 two years ago but upset Cal and Oregon last year. The Beavers return 15 starters and should be improved again but will be life and death to get Bowl eligible.
The Bears achilles heel the past few years has been defense so when Cal missed a Bowl last year after upsetting Texas early, Sonny Dykes was let go and Justin Wilcox was brought in. Wilcox is no stranger to Berkley or defense as he was the Cal LB coach under Jeff Tedford and most recently the DC of the excellent Wisconsin Badger defense. Sadly, the talent is just not there and Cal looks to need a complete rebuild from the floor up.