The USC Trojans fired their coach mid-season, lost 3 games in league play, and still made the Pac-12 title game. This sums up how the league out west didn't quite live up to expectations. Let's review all the programs.
Stanford (11-2, 8-1)
The Cardinal were one of a couple North division teams who came out of the gate with embarrassing losses only to turn things around quickly. For Stanford it was a 16-6 laugher at Northwestern--although the Wildcats did turn in a 10-win season anyway. A slip up to a resurgent Oregon squad turned out to be the only league loss but a game-winning field goal against Notre Dame lifted spirits. They easily took care of USC to win the whole conference.
Each side of the ball did a 180 this year, resulting in an improved offense that was able to make up for an average defense. McCaffrey coming back may grab headlines but the Cardinal lose many of their top players. The schedule is odd too, with an opener versus K-State, both USC and UCLA in September, and a finale versus Rice.
Oregon (9-3, 7-2)
The Ducks started the season 3-3 after not having lost 3 games in a full season since 2009. Things looked awfully bleak following that third loss against Washington State. Perhaps worse, Oregon seemed irrelevant as a good team in early October. One way to respond is to finish the season winning your last 6 games which is exactly what the Ducks did in 2015. If they win the bowl game it'll clinch their 8th straight season with at least 10 wins and their 11th season out of 16 campaigns meeting that goal.
Oregon is bringing in another grad transfer at the quarterback position. They need to get that position figured out and if they can the offense should remain full of octane. Defensively, questions abound with a bunch of seniors lost, including Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year DeForest Buckner. A pair of Power 5 teams await (Virginia, Nebraksa) in September which could provide a stumble. If not, an undefeated run into early November is possible.
Washington State (8-4, 6-3)
The Cougars opened with a loss against Portland State (the Vikings went 9-3 and lost in the 2nd round of the FCS playoffs, FWIW) and it looked like Mike Leach was on the hot seat. A loss in week 4 to California further dampened the mood. However, Wazzu finished 6-2 and already have their most wins since 2003! However, a 35-point loss in the Apple Cup was a buzz kill to finish the season.
Most importantly, the Cougars' offense is young and bringing back so many weapons. They might not trip up out of conference again yet tricky Eastern Washington and Boise State are in the first two weeks. Oregon, Stanford, and UCLA fill up the first 3 weeks of October. They can have a similar season if they get through the first 6 games with 2 losses or less.
California (7-5, 4-5)
Rumors were swirling that 3rd-year head coach Sonny Dykes wanted out of Berkeley and was interviewing at other jobs throughout the country. Then he got a nice raise from Cal, so awesome. The Bears have improved in each season under Dykes although a 4th place finish in the division felt a little underwhelming. That's probably due to a 2-5 finish to the regular season.
Dykes sees quarterback Jared Goff leaving and probably wanted nothing to do with a new man under center. Cal also opens up in Australia(!!) against Hawaii which could provide an epic season opening loss. With the bulk of their top tacklers gone the Bears may slide down behind Washington next year.
Washington (6-6, 4-5)
Many were predicting a painful first year in Seattle for Chris Petersen so notching 6 wins is a notable achievement. They also didn't lose to anyone they really should have beat, plus they finished the season winning their last 2 games by a combined score of 97-17. If the Huskies win their bowl game look for them to get the old momentum bump into the off-season.
Petersen has a pair of young quarterbacks to groom for the future and should close out strong in recruiting. There are a couple must-win early games (Rutgers, Portland State) to set up a season in league play where they can easily improve upon their record from 2015.
Oregon State (2-10, 0-9)
Gary Andersen left Wisconsin for this. A coach who was 30-9 from 2012-14 straight up hit rock bottom in the Pac-12 with the Beavers this year. They beat Weber State and San Jose State while losing their final 9 games. Down that stretch they gave up at least 40 on 7 separate occasions and at least 50 on 4 occasions.
Does it get better anytime soon? We know Oregon State is at or near the bottom of the league in talent. Next year they face Minnesota and Boise State out of conference play. It's tough to imagine something better than 3-9 next year.
USC (8-5, 6-3)
The good news is that USC was able to put the Sarkisian era behind them and make the Pac-12 championship game. The bad news is that they lost said game, and went 1-4 versus ranked teams in 2015. That lone ranked win over Utah set off a 4-game win streak only to see a couple blowout losses in 2 out of their last 3 games. Ending the UCLA losing streak was admirable.
We all know USC is going to have the talent to win more than 8 or 9 games next year. A major concern will be replacing 3-year starter Cody Kessler at quarterback, plus a "new" coaching staff that really doesn't scare the pants off of anyone. The schedule could be absolutely brutal, too. The Trojans open against Alabama in Dallas, get all three of Stanford, Oregon, and Washington (Cardinal & Huskies on the road) from the north, and of course the Irish to end the season.
Utah (10-3, 6-3)
Following a demolishing of Oregon in late September the Utes were getting some love as the top team in the country. They sat at 6-0 and looked in complete control of their destiny within the division. Unfortunately, they dropped both games to the L.A. schools and slowly faded into the background with a 6-3 finish in the regular season. Utah won the Las Vegas Bowl over BYU to finish 10-3 overall.
Losing crazy, always banged up Travis Wilson at quarterback isn't a big deal but moving on without running back Devontae Booker and several veteran defenders is going to be rough. The schedule is pretty manageable for Pac-12 standards, though. With Southern Utah, BYU, and San Jose State out of conference they may only see one really strong team deep into October.
UCLA (8-4, 5-4)
After back-to-back 10-3 seasons the Bruins fell to 8-4 in 2016 with 3 losses to unranked teams--Arizona State, Washington State, and USC. A 4-0 start preceded a bunch of injuries on defense resulting in a disappointing 4-4 finish and a third place slot within the division. Number one freshman quarterback Josh Rosen didn't explode onto the scene but certainly didn't disappoint.
Having Rosen on campus is a trump card over the rest of the league. The Bruins could suffer some more NFL attrition but the roster is still shaping up nicely for 2016. A really tough schedule awaits so they might not improve a ton. Road games at Texas A&M and BYU come in the first 3 weeks, plus Stanford and both Arizona schools come within the first 6 weeks. That's one of the toughest starts to the season in the country.
Arizona State (6-6, 4-5)
The Sun Devils began the season ranked 15th in AP Poll, dropped their opener to A&M, and never again challenged in the Top 25 or within the Pac-12 conference. Nothing came together for ASU as their characteristically aggressive defense led the league in sacks and TFL but they gave up 34 or more points in every loss. This was a serious downturn from back-to-back 10 wins seasons by Todd Graham.
Moving on with a new quarterback and some new defensive starters won't be easy in the high scoring west. They also pick up Texas Tech out of league who will be difficult to keep up with on the scoreboard. The Sun Devils might not lose 6 games again but it wouldn't be crazy if it happened either.
Arizona (7-6, 3-6)
Zona won 10 games last year so at first glance you'd wonder why Rich Rod was flirting with South Carolina a couple weeks ago. Then again, the Cats have lost 8 out of their last 15 games dating back to the end of 2014. This year was full of disappointment outside of a victory over Utah in mid-November. They were thrashed in back-to-back weeks by UCLA and Stanford and ended up with 5 losses to unranked teams. Arizona beat New Mexico in their bowl game.
Anu Solomon, at minimum, will be the second best quarterback in the division. Rodriguez might have had second thoughts about returning to Tuscon but he has to be pleased that he's working with a talented, and now experienced, quarterback. It'll be surprising if they lose half their games again.
Colorado (4-9, 1-8)
Sometimes it has seemed like Mike MacIntyre has been Doing Good Things™ at Colorado then you look up and see he has 2 conference wins through 3 seasons with the Buffaloes. On the bright side they did win 3 games in a row!
Colorado is probably good enough to keep beating rival Colorado State now, yes? Beat Idaho State as well and they're starting 2-0 next year, baby. Unfortunately, they play at Michigan and pick up both Oregon and Stanford from the north division as road games. Might be another 1-8 season in league play.