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Pac-12 Preview: It’s Stanford and UCLA’s year in the ‘Conference of Champions’

Finally.

The 2016 college football season gets underway Friday night in Sydney, Australia of all places, when the California Golden Bears take on the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors at ANZ Stadium.

From now through November, the number of championship competitors in the Pac-12 will be reduced to two, and the champions of the North and South Divisions will meet at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

Who’s going to get there? Here’s one man’s look at the Pac-12 campaign.


Pac-12 South

ucla1. UCLA Bruins (10-2 overall, 8-1 Pac-12)

The Bruins have a weird schedule in 2016 — a tough non-conference slate mixed with a very manageable Pac-12 calendar.

UCLA opens Sept. 3 against Texas A&M in College Station, comes home for a gimme against UNLV, then hits the road once again to face BYU in Provo.

The Pac-12 opener is a tough one, but at least UCLA will get Stanford in the Rose Bowl. The two other toughest conference games are also in Pasadena — Oct. 22 against Utah and Nov. 19 versus USC. The Bruins miss both Oregon and Washington again this year.

utah2. Utah Utes (9-3 overall, 6-3 Pac-12)

Yup, the Utes finish second in the South despite losing starting quarterback Travis Wilson and stud running back Devontae Booker following an impressive 10-win season in which they were ranked as high as third in the nation.

The Utes will turn to Washington transfer Troy Williams at quarterback and hand the ball (often) to running back Joe Williams. After Booker went down with an injury late in the 2015 season, Joe Williams was very productive, gaining 399 yards on 85 carries in Utah’s final three games.

Kyle Whittingham’s defense is always formidable and the schedule is favorable, with BYU, USC, Washington and Oregon all visiting Rice-Eccles Stadium this year.

usc3. USC Trojans (6-6 overall, 5-4 Pac-12)

This projection isn’t to say the Trojans aren’t talented — they are. But with a head coach in Clay Helton, who’s in his first full year, a new quarterback in Max Browne and a schedule that could be dubbed both cruel and unusual, it may be a tough year in L.A.

USC opens with defending national champion and top-ranked Alabama at AT&T Stadium on Sept. 3. They get a trip to Stanford to open up conference play in Week 3. The middle of the slate is not too bad, but the Trojans end the season with games vs. Oregon, at Washington, at UCLA and vs. Notre Dame. Gulp.

In case you’re wondering, the last time USC went 6-6 was 2001, which was Pete Carroll’s first year on the job.

arizonastate4. Arizona State Sun Devils (6-6 overall, 3-6 Pac-12)

New quarterback. Rebuilt offensive line. A secondary that was brutalized by opposing passers last season.

These are all valid reasons to think Arizona State will struggle in 2016. On the quarterback front, all signs point to redshirt sophomore Manny Wilkins taking over for one-year starter Mike Bercovici. Wilkins, while not the passer his predecessor was, should give the Devils some offensive versatility similar to what Taylor Kelly provided in his three seasons in Tempe.

The secondary has to be better than it was, right? The Sun Devils gave up a mind-boggling 337.8 yards per game through the air in 2015. The offensive line is green, but will have the luxury of DeMario Richard and Kalen Ballage running behind them.

Pac-12 road games at USC, Oregon, Washington and arch-rival Arizona might ultimately keep ASU out of a bowl game for the first time since 2010.

arizona5. Arizona Wildcats (4-8 overall, 2-7 Pac-12)

There’s a lot to like about Arizona’s offense. Quarterback Anu Solomon is back for a third season, despite constant overtures from head coach Rich Rodriguez that his job is up for grabs. If that is true, sophomore Brandon Dawkins is an impressive athlete that, coupled with a powerful running game and a deep core of receivers, should keep the Wildcats’ offense humming.

About that defense, though. Arizona ranked 114th in FBS in pass defense a year ago. They were 98th in rushing defense. The roster, unlike years past, is almost devoid of playmakers who instill confidence on that side of the ball. That’s not a good recipe for success in the Pac-12.

There’s a good chance UA starts the season 3-0 with wins over BYU, Grambling State and Hawaii. There’s also a good chance they start the Pac-12 portion of their schedule 0-6 with games vs. Washington, at UCLA, at Utah, vs. USC, vs. Stanford and at Washington State in succession.

colorado6. Colorado Buffaloes (3-9 overall, 1-8 Pac-12)

I say it every year — the Buffs are getting better. I fully believe that is the case as head coach Mike MacIntyre heads into his fourth year on the job.

It’s still very difficult to see where the wins are going to come from, though.

Looks like CU will start 2-0 with wins over Colorado State (they’ve beaten the Rams seven out of the last eight years) and Idaho State. Non-con play is rounded out with a trip to Ann Arbor to play Michigan. Ouch.

Pac-12 play starts with a trip to Eugene before playing Oregon State in Week 5. The Buffs beat the Beavers last October to snap a 14-game conference losing streak. I think they’ll beat the Beavs again and then lose seven straight to close the season.


Pac-12 North

stanford1. Stanford Cardinal (10-2 overall, 7-2 Pac-12)

For the second straight season, the Cardinal open up with a quality non-conference opponent who wears purple uniforms and goes by the name Wildcats. Last year, it was Northwestern on the road, this year it’s Kansas State at home. Unlike last season, the Cardinal won’t get tripped up in their opener.

There might not be a team in the country with a tougher four-game slate to start the season. After K-State, Stanford gets USC at home followed by consecutive road trips to UCLA and Washington, with the latter coming on a short week. They’ve also got road games at Notre Dame and Oregon.

The Cardinal could manage to win three of their first four, setting the tone for another Pac-12 North championship, although that Week 5 showdown in Seattle will determine the race.

washington2. Washington Huskies (10-2 overall, 7-2 Pac-12)

Is this the year of the Huskies? Many people believe that the third season under head coach Chris Petersen will be the charm. I’m not one of them. UW is on the doorstep, but not quite there to knock off Stanford.

Washington’s non-conference schedule (Rutgers, Idaho, Portland State all at home) will produce three wins. The Huskies open up conference play on Sept. 24 with a trip to Arizona. The fun starts after that. They’ve got Stanford at home on Friday, Sept. 30, followed by a trip to Oregon the next Saturday. I believe those will be the only blemishes on Washington’s slate this year, but that Stanford loss will cost them a title.

oregon3. Oregon Ducks (8-4 overall, 6-3 Pac-12)

You’d have to go back to 2006 to find an Oregon team that won less than nine games, but that streak will end in 2016.

Much of the uncertainty around the Ducks centers on the quarterback position. For the second straight season, it looks as though head coach Mark Helfrich will go with a graduate transfer to guide the offense. This year, it’s former Montana State QB Dakota Prukop’s opportunity. Prukop threw for 3,025 yards and 28 touchdowns for the Bobcats in 2015, while adding another 797 yards and 11 scores on the ground.

Oregon’s non-conference schedule is tougher than it’s been in years with a home game against Virginia followed by a mid-September trip to Lincoln to take on Nebraska. The Ducks will start Pac-12 play with wins over Colorado, Washington State and Washington (they’ve beaten the Huskies 12 straight years) before dropping three of their next five.

washingtonstate4. Washington State Cougars (8-4 overall, 6-3 Pac-12)

The Cougars are coming off a nine-win season (their first since 2003) in which they were really only beaten badly once. Their first three losses (to Portland State, Cal and Stanford) came by a combined 15 points. They got slammed by UW in the Apple Cup game 45-10, but followed that up with a Sun Bowl win over Miami.

Wazzu should go 2-1 in non-conference before starting off Pac-12 play with a tough stretch. In the first four conference games, they’ll play Oregon, travel to Stanford, host UCLA and visit Arizona State, where the Cougs haven’t tasted victory since 2001.

I think Oregon will get revenge for a 2015 loss to Washington State, and that will be the determining factor in a fourth-place North finish.

cal5. California Golden Bears (3-9 overall, 2-7 Pac-12)

Sonny Dykes won one game in his first year as head coach in Berkeley. That total went up to five in 2014 and eight last year. That upward trend ends this season.

Cal, of course, lost quarterback Jared Goff to the NFL. The Bears’ top six receivers from 2015 (who combined for 265 catches for 3,878 yards and 38 touchdowns) are all gone as well. Former Texas Tech QB Davis Webb takes over for Goff and will have a stable of capable backs to work with.

The Bears also have a very challenging non-conference schedule which includes a trip to Australia to face Hawaii to open the season, a road game at Mountain West favorite San Diego State and a home game against Texas. And then there’s the murderous six-game stretch to end the season that goes like this: vs. Oregon, at USC (on a short week), vs. Washington, at Washington State, vs. Stanford, vs. UCLA.

It’s just not apparent where the wins are coming from in what is a bit of a rebuilding year for Dykes and Co.

oregonstate6. Oregon State Beavers (2-10 overall, 1-8 Pac-12)

Progress will be slow to appear in Corvallis, where the Beavers are looking at another two-win season under Gary Andersen.

Oregon State will likely be 1-2 heading into their conference opener against Colorado in Boulder Oct. 1. Last year against the Beavers the Buffs earned a rare Pac-12 victory, 17-14. This year could be the same result. In fact, I don’t have OSU tasting victory until their second-to-last game against Arizona on Nov. 19.


Pac-12 Championship Game

The North champion has claimed the first five Pac-12 titles — by an average of 20.4 points.

This year, we’ll see a rematch of the 2012 Pac-12 Championship Game, which was the closest in history with Stanford knocking off UCLA, 27-24.

In 2016, the plot line is the same — the strength of the conference still lies in the North.

Prediction: Stanford 31, UCLA 27


Award Winners

Offensive Player of the Year: Christian McCaffrey, Stanford

McCaffrey shattered an NCAA record with 3,864 all-purpose yards last year, and without the luxury of an experienced quarterback, Stanford might be even more reliant on him in 2016.

Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year: Lowell Lotulelei, Utah

The 6-foot-2, 310-pound defensive tackle was All-Pac-12 First Team as a sophomore and should continue his dominance as a junior this season. In his first two years in Salt Lake City, Lotulelei has 59 total tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and two forced fumbles.

Coach of the Year: Chris Petersen, Washington

Petersen’s presence has kick-started the once-proud UW football tradition, and that improvement will continue in 2016. Look for the Huskies to earn their first 10-win season since 2000.

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