The Pac-12 might now be the best conference in football but 2015 offers a few challenges. Namely, the South division is shaping up to be insanely difficult compared to the North division. Can one of these teams survive the grind and win the league's first National Championship since 2004? Or will Oregon be a Ewing Theory team and finally get it done a year after losing a Heisman quarterback?
*Oregon moving on without Mariota
The Ducks are poised to remain among the top teams in the nation if they can figure out the quarterback position. It'll either be former lightly recruited 3-star redshirt junior Jeff Lockie or grad transfer Vernon Adams Jr. from Eastern Washington. Lockie has played very sparingly as a backup since 2013 while Adams (110 passing TD & 1,232 rushing yards at EWU) was an All-American for the Eagles.
Adams is the favorite to win the job--the only problem is he won't be on campus as Oregon opens camp today. He's still finishing up a math course in order to graduate and should be at practice later this week.
*USC ready for the hype?
The hype train is back for USC. They were ranked 10th in the Coaches Poll (the highest for any team that lost at least 4 games last year) and the Pac-12 media have picked the Trojans to win the whole league.
There's a lot of reasons to think USC will live up to lofty expectations (budding OL, star QB, 6 or 7 of the best playmakers in the conference) but the Pac-12 is deeper now than it ever was during the Pete Carroll era. It'll take a dominant team to get through unscathed.
*ASU, darkhorse playoff team?
The closer we get to the season the more it seems people are constructing a bandwagon for the Sun Devils. Nine starters return from an aggressive, play-making defense and while some receivers need to step up the offense should be typically explosive.
It's one of those situations where ASU was underrated but is becoming overrated for being so underrated in the first place. But they've put together back-to-back 10-win seasons and are 14-4 in the league since 2013. Should they be the favorite in the South?
*Rich Rod hitting his stride
It's a testament to the depth within their division that Arizona is bringing back 14 starters and some are picking them to finish fourth in the South. This coming off a 10-win season, defeating Oregon inside Autzen, and oh by the way winning the division last year too.
The Wildcats made a grave mistake though by losing their last 2 games, first a shellacking in the rematch with Oregon and a somewhat bad loss to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl. Pundits hate when you lose all that momentum into the off-season. Still, no one should be shocked if Arizona rises to the top again especially with 3 easy OOC games and Oregon off the schedule.
*Can UCLA keep up with a frosh QB?
UCLA is kind of loaded. They lost a small handful of impact players but everyone else is back including what should be a more stable offensive line. Quarterback Brett Hundley is gone though, and while he spent many a snap dealing with poor protection he was statistically very good.
Josh Rosen, the top quarterback from the 2015 class, is expected to start and will have his hands full dealing with the pressure of such an experienced roster. He's much more of a pocket passer than UCLA was used to in the past and it'll be fascinating to see how they manage without Hundley's legs (1,392 rushing yards & 21 rush TD for 2013-14) often turning nothing into something.
*Stanford defense under heavy construction
We talked about it in our off-season preview of the Cardinal that they're getting a lot of benefit of the doubt for the recent history of their defense but they have to replace a crap ton on that side.
The good news is they might be the only team to challenge Oregon in the North while getting the Ducks at home and missing ASU in cross-division play. If Oregon takes a step back...
*Everyone sleeping on Utah?
If you're picking up a theme it's the South is crushingly competitive. The Utes had a little breakthrough last year (9 wins, first time in the Pac-12 over .500 in league play, beat UCLA, USC, and Stanford) and still finished 5th in their division. Most project them there again in 2015.
18 starters are back, including a bunch of seniors so there's plenty of opportunity for the Utes to be yet another team that could jump up and win the division.
*Can California's defense keep Goff in the Heisman race?
The good thing about going 1-11 is that when you improve to 5-7 it's a big freaking deal. With quarterback Jared Goff ready to shatter school records a lot of people are expecting to see the Golden Bears make a move into bowl eligibility and start making more noise in the Pac-12.
However, Cal lost 6 out of their last 7 games last year and their schedule sets up for a similar downturn this fall. They could start 5-0 (Texas, Washington, Wazzu the toughest early games) but then from October 10th on they'll face the likely 6 out of the top 7 teams in the Pac-12. Their defense has been so bad recently and needs to get a lot better.
*Will Leach ever regain the magic?
Remember how good Mike Leach was at Texas Tech? 8 or more wins in his last 8 seasons in Lubbock! At least .500 or better in conference play over his last 9 seasons!
Well, things aren't going so well at Wazzu with 12 wins in 3 years, including a back track to just 3 wins last year. Leach has a long leash but this 4th year is looking like another near the bottom of the conference with several new faces on offense.
Gary Andersen, Oregon State
Just one new coach this year after welcoming 2 new men last year, if you count Sarkisian's move from Washington to USC among the new faces.
Andersen last coached the 59-0 laugher in a loss to Ohio State in the Big 10 Title Game and took the open Oregon State job 4 days later. The Beavers aren't expected to do much of anything this year, especially with a true freshman gaining the inside track to start at QB. Then again, Andersen is 30-9 over the last 3 years and could pluck a couple wins from favorites in typical Reser Stadium fashion.
The Favorites & Confidence In Said Favorites
USC vs. Oregon
If you're asking me to bet on this exact matchup for the Pac-12 Title Game I'd put very little money down. Oregon? Sure, they are a much safer bet to win the North for the 7th straight season.
But good luck to anyone guessing the winner in the South. I know many Irish fans don't trust USC to make it that far. That division could be a bloody mess by the end of November.
Top Non-League Matchup
Arizona State vs. Texas A&M (Houston)
The easy answer is Oregon's visit to East Lansing in week 2, of course. I didn't pick that because within the Pac-12 the Ducks would have an easier time recovering from an early loss and part of me still thinks they'll overwhelm the Spartans just like last year, even with a new quarterback.
If we're talking about padding the resume for the playoffs this week 1 matchup could provide a nice feather in the cap for Arizona State. It's also looking like an awesome game for offensive fireworks.
Top League Matchup
UCLA vs. USC
Any number of South matchups could decide the winner of the division. I don't know if there will be one with more anticipation than the Battle of L.A. though as the Bruins have won the past 3 meetings.
Freshman to Watch
Ronald Jones, RB, USC
Besides Josh Rosen, obvi. There's plenty of opportunity for a young running back to step up at USC and if their offensive line lives up to potential Ronald Jones could have a very nice debut season. Not looking forward to facing him for several years after Notre Dame was his runner-up.
Sell that Stock
Chris Petersen lost 12 games over 8 seasons at Boise State. He's likely to match that total after 2015 with Washington. Tons of talent is gone on defense and offense isn't any great shakes after quarterback Cyler Miles retired officially in June.
The schedule won't do them any favors, either. Petersen returns to Boise State to open the season and Utah State is another potential loss in week 3. A season with only 4 or 5 wins might be the outcome for the Huskies.
Buy that Stock
Realistically, the Buffaloes have no shot in the South division. However, an improvement similar to California last year could be in the cards. A 13-game schedule will help garner an extra win as they open up at Hawaii and could potentially start 4-0 against a not-difficult-at-all early lineup.
Finding another win in league play will be tough. They face both Oregon and Stanford in the North which makes for an absolute killer last 2 months of the season with barely any breathing room except for Oregon State and Washington State--both roads games. But dang, with a nice passing offense they need to get more than 2 wins.