The college football season kicks off Aug. 26 with a partial schedule featuring some wacky road trips — Hawaii at U-Mass.! Rice vs. Stanford in Sydney! To get you ready — and to make sure your team has its moment, however brief — we’ll count down the days by ranking every Football Bowl Subdivision team by conference. Last week Patrick Stevens ran though the second-tier Group of Five leagues and independents; this week, it’s the Power Five, including his picks for the College Football Playoff.
A little divisional balance finally might be coming to the Pac-12.
After the conference went from 10 teams to 12 and split into divisions, the balance of power tilted toward the North. Oregon and Stanford were the heavyweights and combined to win every title between 2011 and 2015. The South Division has yet to snag one after Washington’s title run last year. Perhaps that changes this season with Southern California’s reemergence. The Trojans were a different team last season once Sam Darnold took over at quarterback, and expectations are running as higher than any point since 2012. That Southern Cal team had a star quarterback in Matt Barkley, but was still hampered by NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions and went 7-6.
There are no such constraints on these Trojans, who managed to pair a breakout year under Clay Helton with a relatively drama-free autumn. They also won at Washington last year, making it even easier to envision them claiming a league championship this December.
This also marks a rare time when both Southern Cal and Washington have top-10 caliber teams at the same time. Last year marked the first time since 1984 that both teams finished the top 10 of the final Associated Press and the first time since 1979 that each won 10 games. Two big-city programs at opposite ends of the Pacific Coast could repeat those feats this year, though they’re far from the only quality teams in the league.
1. Washington (No. 4 nationally, 12-2 in 2016): Pegging the Huskies as a post-hype team a year early wasn’t a good idea last summer. They were every bit a top-five team in 2016, and while there were some NFL defections, Washington could be even better this year. That’s why the pick here is for them to return to the College Football Playoff.
The offense, which was stifled by Alabama in the national semifinals, brings back quarterback Jake Browning and star tailback Myles Gaskin. The defense is led by a veteran linebacking corps, with Azeem Victor the best of the bunch. Maybe Washington doesn’t get the better of Southern California if they meet in the league title game, but no one should be surprised if it heads to the playoff again this year.
2. Stanford (No. 18, 10-3): After five 10-win seasons in six years, Cardinal fans might be growing accustomed to success under Coach David Shaw. That sentiment might surface again this year as Stanford brings back eight starters on each side of the ball.
The Cardinal is unapologetically old-school, and that means its defense will stop the run and force teams to throw. On offense, the team will rumble for 200 yards per game and ask the quarterback to do what he can. In this year’s case, it will mean unleashing efficient senior Keller Chryst, who recovered from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in December’s Sun Bowl in time to earn a starting nod for this week’s opener against Rice. Bank on another 10 victories, and maybe more if things break right.
3. Washington State (No. 26, 8-5): Somehow, a Mike Leach team is something of a forgotten entity. Chalk that up to sharing a division with Oregon, Stanford and Washington. At the same time, the Cougars were a victory away from reaching the Pac-12 title game last year and have Luke Falk, a quarterback well-versed in Leach’s Air Raid teachings, back for his senior year.
Perhaps more intriguing is that Washington State has settled into being a decent — not great, but more than adequate most weeks — defensive team over the past two seasons. The Cougars have developed a rushing attack they don’t always use much, but that isn’t completely inert, either. It’s a relatively balanced bunch, especially by Leach’s standards, and could get off to a good start with its first five games at home.
4. Oregon (No. 34, 4-8): Willie Taggart, the Ducks’ first head coaching hire who wasn’t promoted from within since 1976, takes over a program that went from the national title game with a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback to 4-8 in a span of two years. Sounds a lot like Auburn from 2010-12, and remember the Tigers went back to the national title game in 2013 with a new coach.
Two conundrums exist in Eugene that are likely to prevent that sort of a turnaround. One, the Ducks’ defense was dreadful last year, and how much progress is realistic? Two, is there anywhere near as much talent in the program as there was when Chip Kelly exited after the 2012 season? Probably enough to reverse last year’s record, but an instant return to Pac-12 contention is a stretch.
5. Oregon State (No. 73, 4-8): The parallels between 2016 Oregon State and 2015 Colorado are there if you’re looking for them. The ’15 Buffaloes went from 2-10 to 4-9, but dropped five games by eight points or less. The ’16 Beavers went from 2-10 to 4-8, but dropped three games by a touchdown or less.
Oregon State’s problem? It resides in the wrong neighborhood in the Pac-12. Another? It doesn’t have the quarterback stability Colorado enjoyed entering last season. The Beavers should be more competitive, and a bowl trip for the first time since 2013 is possible. Nonetheless, they’re not a good bet to replicate Colorado’s leap from a year ago.
6. California (No. 87, 5-7): Well, now what? The Golden Bears pushed their chips in on chucking the ball around and not worrying much about defense under Sonny Dykes, and it got them a 19-30 record over four years with one bowl bid and one No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft (Jared Goff).
Justin Wilcox takes over as a first-time head coach seeking new starters at quarterback and running back, and with a defense that was the second-worst in FBS at defending the run last year. There’s lots to figure out, and coming anywhere close to reaching six victories would make this a solid debut season.
1. Southern California (No. 6, 10-3): Is the wait for the next great Trojan team finally over? Some might argue it ended last year, and it’s tough to dispute that Southern Cal was probably one of the three or four best teams in the country after the start of October. But September counted, too, and that’s why the Trojans were part of a classic Rose Bowl rather than in the playoff.
Clay Helton’s second full season is promising not just because of quarterback Sam Darnold and tailback Ronald Jones, but also because the defense is moving closer to the standards set by the Trojans a decade ago. The schedule helps, too; Stanford, UCLA and Utah all visit the Coliseum, and Washington is nowhere to be found.
2. Utah (No. 22, 9-4): It’s fair to wonder whether anyone has won 28 games more quietly over the last three years than Utah. Other than Joe Williams’s return from retirement to rush for 1,407 yards, the Utes didn’t generate much attention last year even though they did produce their most yards since joining the Pac-12.
The reason? It might be that Utah’s predictability works against it. The Utes were driven by the same sort of solid and consistent defense they seemingly always are. Utah isn’t fancy, but it is as sound and effective as anyone. It will win another eight or nine games this year and make a case for an end-of-season ranking … again.
3. Colorado (No. 30, 10-4): The Buffaloes showed some signs of life in 2015, but who saw a 10-win season coming? And it’s not as if there was any shame in falling to the likes of Michigan, Southern California, Washington and Oklahoma State. Most impressive was a stingy defense masterminded by Jim Leavitt that repeatedly stifled Pac-12 foes last year.
Well, eight starters are gone from that defense. So is Leavitt, who landed on Taggart’s staff at Oregon. Those might be bigger departures than quarterback Sefo Liufau, which is saying something because the school’s career passing leader started for much of the past four years. Steven Montez takes over for Liufau, and he’ll lead an offense that needs to do more if the Buffs are to come close to last year’s production.
4. UCLA (No. 37, 4-8): A healthy Josh Rosen will certainly help the Bruins, but it’s worthwhile to remember they weren’t dominant even while he was on the field in 2016. That’s not to say Rosen isn’t a quality quarterback. It’s just that he’s not a panacea for all of UCLA’s problems.
Most of those issues are on the offensive side, where the Bruins owned the second-worst rushing attack in the country. The defense improved a bit under defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, but any progress this year’s team makes is probably going to stem from a rebound on offense.
5. Arizona State (No. 61, 5-7): The school chose not to exercise an option year in Coach Todd Graham’s contract, which is hard to quibble with after consecutive losing seasons. The Sun Devils collapsed after a 5-1 start, and an abysmal pass defense that yielded 357.4 yards per game, most in the country, is an obvious culprit. Offensive regression didn’t help.
A recovery on offense is a reasonable expectation with a healthy Manny Wilkins back at quarterback (assuming he continues to fend off Alabama transfer Blake Barnett). There might not be an easy fix for that pass defense, and facing the likes of Browning, Darnold and Rosen probably isn’t going to help.
6. Arizona (No. 81, 3-9): It’s been downhill since the 2014 Pac-12 title game, when the Wildcats were blown out by Oregon. A month later, they lost to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl, then went 7-6 in 2015 before last year’s cratering. There’s plenty of blame to go around; the offense couldn’t score despite an able running game, and the defense couldn’t stop much of anything.
Defensive concerns linger into this preseason, too. The line is undersized, and linebackers light on experience. It’s hard to see a path to six victories, and a loss to Houston in the season’s second week would narrow things considerably. It’ll be curious to see if there’s any desire to swap coaches if Rich Rodriguez oversees a second losing season in a row.
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