Trying to rough out a forecast of Pac-12 football, 2015, is like the proverbial attempt to nail Jell-O to the wall. But hey, gimme a hammer and one of those ten-pennies.
Very tough to know what the shape of some teams will be, with major staff changes at Utah, a new head coach at Oregon State and a new quarterback at Oregon. Then there’s recruiting, climaxed by signing day next Wednesday. And spring and fall practices still to come. Remember, the thinking back in the spring of 2012 was that Bryan Bennett was Oregon’s quarterback, until a guy by the name of Mariota beat him out.
So, a look ahead with far-too-early predictions. In several cases, I wouldn’t put too much stock in the order, because some teams look very close, and there are so many unknowns still to play out (can we hedge any more?).
1. Stanford. I’ll take the Cardinal to supplant the Ducks at the top of the Pac-12 North, mainly on the strength of having a returning quarterback. Kevin Hogan hasn’t always been superlative, but he’s won and if he gets better at the mid-range passing game, he should be able to take advantage of the eight other returning starters on offense, including all the linemen except for Andrus Peat. Defense will be the bigger concern, where there are major losses up front. Watch for the name Harrison Phillips to emerge on the line.
Schedule: At Northwestern, Central Florida, Notre Dame (non-league). Five league home games, and roadies with USC and Oregon State to open.
2. Oregon. Hard to displace the national-title game participants as a division favorite, but the losses are considerable, and the dropoff from Mariota to Whoever is inevitable. But a caveat here: If Vernon Adams, the Eastern Washington quarterback visiting Oregon this weekend, opts to transfer, reverse the predicted order with Stanford, because Adams is a difference-maker and Oregon has a lot of offensive talent to go with him. If nobody transfers in, Oregon would appear to be left with Mariota’s backup, Jeff Lockie; redshirt freshman Morgan Mahalak; or possibly Wednesday signee Ty Waller or if they can flip his commitment to Texas A&M, five-star recruit Kyler Murray. Ducks lose some real studs in center Hroniss Grasu, tackle Jake Fisher, defensive end Arik Armstead, linebacker Tony Washington, corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and safety Erick Dargan.
Schedule: Eastern Washington, at Michigan State, Georgia State. Tough league road games with Arizona State, Stanford and Washington.
3. Washington. Huskies are as hard to read as anybody. They lose three defensive All-Americans and the quarterback picture is anybody’s guess, from Cyler Miles to Jake Browning to K.J. Carta-Samuels to Jeff Lindquist. I’d bet the second year of the Chris Petersen regime runs more smoothly, with expectations more clearly understood. It’ll be up to guys like Elijah Qualls, Joe Mathis and Will Dissly to try to replace the sackmeisters the Huskies had on the front line.
Schedule: At Boise State, Sacramento State, Utah State. Rugged stretch starting in fifth game with USC on the road, Oregon, at Stanford and Arizona at home.
4. Washington State. My take on the Cougars in 2014 was that despite the 3-9 record, they weren’t as far away as it might have looked. Rutgers, Nevada and Cal were all games that could have been turned around; WSU more closely approximated a 5-7 team instead of the 3-9 pauper it became. The entire offensive line returns and Luke Falk has three games starting under his belt. Now it’s up to new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch to infuse some cohesion and hunger into the defense.
Schedule: Portland State, at Rutgers, Wyoming. Pac-12 opener at Cal looks pivotal for a team with four league home games. Misses are Utah and USC, probably a good thing.
5. California. Bears made major strides in 2014 but came up a win short of a bowl appearance. Now they have 17 starters due to return, plus their kicker and punter. Receiver Chris Harper chose to enter the NFL draft, but that’s a position of strength. Bears must replace two offensive assistants — Zach Yenser and Rob Likens — who left for promotions at Kansas. If the arc continues upward, Cal will find itself in a bowl. If it doesn’t, there might be some yowling about Sonny Dykes.
Schedule: Grambling, San Diego State, at Texas. November is challenging, with Oregon, Stanford and Arizona State. Misses are Colorado and Arizona.
6. Oregon State. Beavers parried the loss of Mike Riley as head coach with another proven head man in Gary Andersen. The cupboard is hardly bare, but there are tons of questionmarks as OSU figures to return eight starters on offense and four defensively. Spring will not only be dedicated to installation of a new coach’s stuff, but sorting out a massive quarterback derby on the heels of Sean Mannion’s departure. A query to an OSU publicist about a logical starter there drew a response along the lines of a brewing competition between: Luke Del Rio, Seth Collins, Kyle Kempt, Tanner Sanders, Brent VanderVeen, Nick Mitchell and Marcus McMaryion. (How do you divide those practice reps?)
Schedule: Weber State, at Michigan, San Jose State. Beavers get four league home games, but have the best combo of misses in the Pac-12 — Arizona State and USC.
1. USC. Trojans had four defectors to the NFL — Leonard Williams, Nelson Agholor, George Farmer and Buck Allen — but have a raft of returning talent, with eight starters on both sides of the ball. QB Cody Kessler’s year was dwarfed in the conference by the likes of Mariota, but he proved a big-time talent who will get a lot of run by comparison in 2015 with less decorated returning starters at the position in the league. USC also can get back to signing a full recruiting class, and if you don’t think that’s big, we’d point to players like Adoree Jackson and Juju Smith, who had a big impact in 2014.
Schedule: A relatively light non-league schedule — Arkansas State, Idaho, Notre Dame — is balanced by apparent bad luck in missing Washington State and Oregon State. Trojans get five home games, but Oregon returns to the schedule on the road.
2. Arizona State. Edge here to the Sun Devils over UCLA on the strength of QB Mike Bercovici having shown he’s a viable replacement for graduating Taylor Kelly. ASU should have 16 starters back and welcomes in primo JC linebacker Davon Durant in the current recruiting class. It loses WR Jaelen Strong, but is flush enough that it can move a 2,000-yard career rusher in D.J. Foster to wideout, a la Byron Marshall at Oregon. Sun Devils are touting redshirted RB De’Chavon Hayes as the fastest player in the Pac-12.
Schedule: Texas A&M in Houston, Cal Poly, New Mexico. Sun Devils then have a rugged one-two with USC in Tempe and UCLA (on the road) Sept. 26 and Oct. 3.
3. UCLA. Bruins have been touting their youthful talent the past couple of years, and now we’ll find out. Some 77 players who are eligible to take the field for spring ball had freshman or sophomore eligibility last season. Potentially, they could bring back 18 starters, 10 on offense — but the missing one is big, since it’s Brett Hundley. That spot could go to incoming freshman Josh Rosen, a five-star recruit, or touted Asiantii Woulard or Rick Neuheisel’s son Jerry. While the defensive losses are numerically minimal, they’re key players — linebacker Eric Kendricks, end Owamagbe Odighizuwa and defensive back Anthony Jefferson. The dynamic with USC will be worth watching: Do the Bruins surrender some ground without Hundley, or does Jim Mora’s touch against the Trojans continue?
Schedule: Virginia, at UNLV, Brigham Young. Misses are Washington and Oregon.
4. Arizona. Seems like a slight to the reigning South champions to put them here, and it’s quite possible this is too low. ‘Cats have the luxury of a returning QB in Anu Solomon, one of seven offensive starters, compared to six on defense. Solomon might be challenged by redshirt freshman Brandon Dawkins, more of a runner. Weird stat: Rich Rodriguez hasn’t had a second-year starting quarterback since Pat White at Virginia, so Solomon will be trying to break a trend. Linebacker Scooby Wright is back, and that’s all to the good. Three starters leave the secondary.
Schedule: Texas-San Antonio, at Nevada, Northern Arizona. ‘Cats miss Oregon and Cal. Only home game after Oct. 24 is Utah Nov. 14.
5. Utah. Utes had a restorative 2014, getting back to a bowl game and winning it big (against Colorado State). But just when things seemed on the uptake, Kyle Whittingham lost some key assistants, including coordinators Kalani Sitake and Dave Christensen. Whittingham, though, just agreed to an extension, something that was probably tied to the ongoing recruiting season. Utes could use an upgrade at receiver but could have back 16 starters, including QB Travis Wilson, and when you say they have the punter and kicker back, it means something here. Pass-rusher Nate Orchard is the biggest loss.
Schedule: Michigan, Utah State, at Fresno State, which probably constitutes the Pac-12’s most challenging non-league agenda. Right after those, the Utes go to Oregon. Misses are WSU and Stanford.
6. Colorado. If I had to bet money on Colorado finishing sixth or doing better, I’d say the Buffs do better. I just don’t know who they overtake in the tough South. Fifteen starters should be back, including nine on defense to a program that gained competitiveness in 2014 but couldn’t get over the hump, failing to win a league game. It’s still a relatively young roster, with 11 projected seniors. At mid-week, the recruiting class ranked only No. 70 by Scout.com.
Schedule: At Hawaii, Massachusetts, Colorado State, Nicholls State. Four home league games for the Buffs, who miss Washington and Cal.