Pac 12

Why Stanford Will (or Won't) Win the Pac-12 Championship in 2016

Christian McCaffrey returns for an encore run at another league title
Why Stanford Will (or Won't) Win the Pac-12 Championship in 2016

won its third championship in four seasons last year.

More Stories:

Why UCLA Will (or Won't) Win the Pac-12 Championship in 2016

Josh Rosen leads a talented Bruins squad with high expectations
Why UCLA Will (or Won't) Win the Pac-12 Championship in 2016

Since Jim Mora's arrival as head coach in 2012, has lingered achingly close to the Pac-12 title.

 

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#12 Stanford Cardinal

NATIONAL FORECAST

#12

Pac-12 North PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: David Shaw, 54-14 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Bloomgren | DEF. COORDINATOR: Lance Anderson

Stanford has claimed at least a share of the Pac-12 North title in four out of coach David Shaw’s five seasons. But the Cardinal face a significant rebuilding effort in order to earn their fifth in six years. Running back Christian McCaffrey is one of the nation’s best players, and he will anchor an offense that features a new quarterback (likely Keller Chryst) and a rebuilt line. The defense suffered key losses at each level, but a line that’s thin on depth and proven options is coordinator Lance Anderson’s biggest concern. In addition to the personnel issues, Stanford has to deal with an improved Washington in the North and a challenging schedule, featuring road trips to UCLA, Notre Dame and Oregon.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter:

Previewing Stanford’s Offense  
 

The quarterback competition between Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns will be one of the most closely watched in the country. Chryst had minimal experience last year, completing 5-of-9 passes for 59 yards and one touchdown. Burns has attempted just one pass since his arrival to Stanford. No doubt they are green, but they were both four-star recruits coming out of high school.

The new quarterback will have the luxury of playing with one of the most dynamic playmakers in college football. Running back Christian McCaffrey set the NCAA single-season all-purpose record last season with 3,864 total yards, including a school-record 2,109 on the ground.

McCaffrey will get plenty of touches — he also caught a team-high 45 passes — but there are other weapons to keep an eye on, including wide receivers Michael Rector and Francis Owusu. Plus, Stanford has fancied itself Tight End U during its recent run of success. Look for that trend to continue with Dalton Schultz emerging as a go-to target.

Aside from replacing quarterback Kevin Hogan, the Cardinal have to fill three spots on the offensive line — including plugging the void left by the departed Outland Trophy winner in Josh Garnett. The only regular returners are Casey Tucker and Johnny Caspers. History suggests that Stanford will be able to cobble together a quality line. And McCaffrey is good enough that he can make plays on his own while the new unit comes together.

Previewing Stanford’s Defense 
 

, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

The Cardinal will lean heavily on defensive lineman Solomon Thomas (10.5 TFLs last season) to anchor the front seven. He’s versatile enough to play either end or tackle; the coaching staff would prefer to use his athleticism outside rushing the passer. That would mean Harrison Phillips, coming off a torn ACL, has locked up the nose spot.

Gone is linebacker Blake Martinez, who led the Pac-12 with 141 tackles last season. Look for Kevin Palma and Bobby Okereke to fill the void from the inside backer spots. Peter Kalambayi, Mike Tyler and Joey Alfieri will form a productive three-man rotation at outside linebacker.

The Cardinal have a nice mix of youth and experience in the secondary, with key returners like Alijah Holder and Terrence Alexander at corner and Dallas Lloyd at safety. They also get a boost with the return of former starting safety Zach Hoffpauir, who took a season off to play minor league baseball. Quenton Meeks, who had a team-high three interceptions last season, will see the field plenty as the starting nickel back.

Previewing Stanford’s Specialists

McCaffrey was one of the most dangerous return men in the country last season, averaging a league-best 28.9 yards on kickoff returns and 8.7 on punt returns with a combined two scores. Conrad Ukropina set a school single-season record by converting 90 percent (18-of-20) of his field goal attempts. He was also a perfect 67-of-67 on extra points. Jake Bailey, who handled kickoffs last year, will replace Alex Robinson as the Cardinal’s punter. Stanford again should be rock solid on special teams.

Final Analysis 
 

There’s a reason the Cardinal have won the Pac-12 three of the last four years — they have been able to overcome attrition and reload. Granted, they have to fill some pretty big spots in the 2016 — starting with quarterback and on the offensive line. But by this point Stanford should receive the benefit of the doubt that any step backward won’t be significant.

The division is getting more difficult each year — Washington will join Oregon as a serious contender this fall — but Stanford will no doubt remain in the hunt. The Cardinal’s trip to Seattle on Sept. 30 could decide the North Division title.

The Debate

Will Stanford win its fourth Pac-12 North title in five years?

Click here to join the debate.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#11 Washington Huskies

NATIONAL FORECAST

#11

Pac-12 North PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Chris Petersen, 15-12 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jonathan Smith | DEF. COORDINATOR: Pete Kwiatkowski

Washington is a program on the rise under third-year coach Chris Petersen, and the Huskies have the necessary pieces in place to challenge Stanford for the Pac-12 North title. Leading the way for the offense is a pair of sophomores – quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin. Additionally, the Huskies return three starters on the offensive line, and big-play threat John Ross is back at receiver after missing all of 2015 due to injury. The defense limited opponents to just 18.8 points a game last season and returns eight starters, including one of the nation’s top safeties in Budda Baker. With Stanford visiting Seattle on Sept. 30, the road to the Pac-12 North title should run through Petersen’s team in 2016.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter:

Previewing Washington’s Offense
 

Last season, the Huskies started true freshmen at quarterback, tailback and left tackle and a redshirt freshman at right tackle, and scored 52, 45 and 44 points in three closing outings, all lopsided victories. The offense has considerable momentum heading into Chris Petersen’s third season as UW coach, and it all begins with Jake Browning. He defied the odds and did something no other Huskies quarterback has accomplished: He won the job outright as a true freshman, starting 12 of 13 games. Browning made his share of rookie mistakes, but he put his stamp on the team, has decent arm strength and will only get better.

Most surprising in Petersen’s second year was the emergence of true freshman tailback Myles Gaskin. He started just six games, but once he got going, no one could stop him. The Seattle-area product rolled up 1,302 yards and 14 TDs rushing.

Browning didn’t have a go-to-guy among his receivers, but junior John Ross might have filled that role had he not missed all of 2015 with a knee injury. Those two should get well acquainted this fall. The versatile Ross has been a starting wide receiver, cornerback and kick returner and already has come up with eight scores from 55 yards out or more in his career, making him a threat to go the distance at any time.

The Huskies did a masterful job last season of replacing four-fifths of their front line. They rebuilt around a pair of nimble yet extra-large tackles, Trey Adams and Kaleb McGary, now sophomores. The 6'8", 306-pound Adams might be the team’s best pro prospect.

Previewing Washington’s Defense 
 

, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

The UW gave its defensive front a complete makeover in 2015, which could have been disastrous but proved to be amazingly effective. Using a 3-4 set, the Huskies ranked as the Pac-12’s top defense statistically: They led the league in points per game (18.8), yards per play (4.9), yards per game (351.8) and ranked third in third-down conversion rate (36.8 percent). Junior nose tackle Elijah Qualls is a budding star with strength and quickness that make him difficult to block, as is his one-time backup, sophomore Greg Gaines, now the starting defensive tackle.

The Huskies have their most work to do in restocking their linebacking corps, where both outside starters moved on. Back are juniors Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria, who excelled at the inside spots as big and fast players who cover a lot of ground. Top signee Camilo Eifler also will be given every chance to get on the field early.

The UW secondary, as talented as any in the conference, is centered around junior free safety Budda Baker and junior cornerback Sidney Jones, both first-team All-Pac-12 selections and two-year starters. Opponents don’t often go in Baker’s direction. They might consider avoiding Jones, too, after he returned an interception and a fumble for touchdowns in 2015. A third returning starter is senior cornerback Kevin King, who was named honorable mention All-Pac-12.

Previewing Washington’s Specialists

The Huskies potentially have the most dangerous return game in the league, if not the nation. In just two seasons each, junior punt returner Dante Pettis has scored three times on electrifying runbacks covering 89, 87 and 76 yards, and the equally elusive Ross has provided three TDs on kickoff returns, racing 100, 100 and 96 yards.

Final Analysis
 

Petersen patiently has recruited well and rebuilt the Huskies, unafraid to use true freshmen as starters. After foundational 7–6 and 8–6 seasons, he has 17 starters back, plus speedster Ross, and everyone’s attention. His next move will be to return the UW to the Pac-12’s upper echelon and start beating the Oregons and Stanfords of the conference. It might not be long now.

The Debate

Is Washington ready for a breakout season?

Click here to join the debate.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#14 UCLA Bruins

NATIONAL FORECAST

#14

Pac-12 South PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Jim Mora, 37-16 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kennedy Polamalu | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tom Bradley

With 12 returning starters and a rising star in sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen, the Bruins are the team to beat in the Pac-12 South. There’s some turnover among Rosen’s supporting cast, but UCLA has options at running back and receiver, and the offensive line may not suffer too much despite losing three starters. The defense struggled to stop the run last year, but there’s hope for improvement with the return of end Eddie Vanderdoes from injury. Additionally, defensive end Takkarist McKinley and linebacker Jayon Brown are two players poised for their best season at UCLA. USC might have more overall talent on the roster, but UCLA doesn’t have to play Oregon or Washington in crossover play and hosts the Trojans on Nov. 19. The edge in scheduling is a huge boost to the Bruins’ Pac-12 South title hopes. 

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter:

Previewing UCLA’s Offense
 

Josh Rosen is aiming to build upon an impressive debut season that earned him Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year honors. The strong-armed passer threw for 3,669 yards and 23 touchdowns, although he did have 11 interceptions. Rosen lacks the running ability of his predecessor Brett Hundley, so the Bruins will move from their spread offense toward a more traditional, pro-style scheme that is intended to cater toward the skill-set of Rosen, considered a likely first-round NFL Draft pick when he becomes eligible in 2018, and to better match up against physical teams.

The backfield is deep, even with the loss of all-conference running back Paul Perkins, as Soso Jamabo and Nate Starks proved adept in backup roles last season, each averaging at least six yards per carry.

But depth thins out from there for a group that ranked in the top 30 nationally in total offense last season (465.9 ypg).

The receiving corps lost four of its top five pass catchers. Darren Andrews had 43 receptions, third-most on the team, and will pair up with top recruit Theo Howard and Eldridge Massington, who started nine games as a freshman in 2014 before seeing a limited role as a sophomore.

Gone are also three of the five starters are the offensive line, including former four-year starting center Jake Brendel. Left tackle Conor McDermott is the key to the unit.

Previewing UCLA’s Defense
 

, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Beset by injuries and apparently insufficient size, UCLA proved incapable of stopping the run last season. Three teams totaled at least 300 yards rushing against the Bruins in 2015, and the issue was accentuated in a Foster Farms Bowl loss to Nebraska, which totaled 326 yards on the ground. All-America nose tackle Kenny Clark, who was second on the team in tackles (75) and sacks (six), declared early for the draft, as did linebacker Myles Jack, who appeared in just three games before a season-ending knee injury.

UCLA welcomes back defensive end Eddie Vanderdoes, lost for 2015 because of a torn ACL, and he should bolster the interior. The 6'3", 305-pound Vanderdoes was an all-conference honorable mention selection in 2014 after finishing with 5.5 tackles for a loss, fourth-most on the team.

Leading tackler Jayon Brown, who tallied 93 in 2015, returns, as do linebackers Deon Hollins, a skilled edge rusher, and Isaako Savaiinaea, a sound inside linebacker. Star freshman Mique Juarez may come the closest to emulating Jack’s skill-set, though.

All the starters are back from a secondary that should again be a strength after leading the Pac-12 in pass defense (203.2 ypg). Cornerback Fabian Moreau, who missed most of the year with a foot injury, also returns.

Previewing UCLA’s Specialists 
 

Freshman JJ Molson, a native of Quebec who enrolled in January before spring practice, takes over for departed Lou Groza Award winner Ka’imi Fairbairn. He has a strong leg as well but no college experience. Another freshman, Austin Kent, takes over as the punter for Matt Mengel, who struggled to average 40 yards per attempt last season.

Final Analysis 
 

The Bruins again have the talent to challenge for a Pac-12 title, a product of a succession of highly ranked recruiting classes over the last five years under Jim Mora. But they saw six early departures to the NFL Draft, the second-most of any program after Ohio State, with four of them on the offensive side of the ball. That puts a good deal of pressure on Rosen, who is talented but still has just 13 career college starts under his belt and is transitioning to a new offense. The defense, which returns eight starters, can help if it fixes its issues up front. There are enough pieces left that it’s easy to see the Bruins again factoring into a tight Pac-12 South race late in the season.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#23 Oregon Ducks

NATIONAL FORECAST

#23

Pac-12 North PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Mark Helfrich, 33-8 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Matt Lubick | DEF. COORDINATOR: Brady Hoke

Oregon’s streak of seven consecutive double-digit win seasons ended in 2015. However, the Ducks weren’t too far off their usual tally, as coach Mark Helfrich’s team finished 9-4 and suffered three of the four losses by a touchdown or less. As the focus shifts to 2016, Oregon has work to do in order to catch Stanford and Washington in the Pac-12 North this year. The Ducks are hoping a FCS graduate transfer (Dakota Prukop) is the right answer at quarterback, while the defense expects to take a step forward under new coordinator Brady Hoke. There’s plenty of talent in the program, and Oregon catches Stanford and Washington in Autzen Stadium this year. The development of Prukop and improvement on defense will determine just how high Helfrich’s Ducks fly in the North in 2016.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter:

Previewing Oregon’s Offense
 

For the second straight season, the Ducks will rely on an FCS graduate transfer at quarterback, this time Montana State All-American Dakota Prukop. He doesn’t have the same magic as a playmaker through the air as predecessor Vernon Adams, but at the FCS level Prukop rushed for 1,763 yards and 24 touchdowns, a dynamic Adams didn’t provide. Coaches also hope they’ve re-established a developmental pipeline that broke down the last two years. Both 2015 recruit Travis Jonsen and 2016 signee Terry Wilson showed promise in spring drills, getting reps ahead of returning veterans Jeff Lockie and Taylor Alie.

Running back Royce Freeman deserves to be mentioned with the rest of college football’s outstanding junior running backs such as Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook. Freeman has a shot at surpassing 5,000 yards for his career this season.

The receiving corps lost Bralon Addison to the draft, but junior Charles Nelson is probably even more dynamic, and the plan is for him to play offense full-time after starting at safety late in 2015. Darren Carrington is another big-time playmaker, and tight end Pharaoh Brown looks ready to return from a devastating knee injury suffered in 2014.

The offensive line will rebuild around senior guard Cameron Hunt and junior tackle Tyrell Crosby, who moved to the left side in the spring. The Ducks signed a graduate transfer, Zac Morgan of Dayton, to compete at right tackle, and redshirt freshman Jake Hanson is a promising young center.

Previewing Oregon’s Defense 
 

, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Gone is the 3-4, two-gap defense Oregon has played since 2009. New coordinator Brady Hoke installed a 4-3, one-gap package, and the predominant word in the spring was “aggressive.”

“We will attack,” senior defensive end T.J. Daniel says. “We’ve got one-gap responsibility, and we’re gonna go fast.”

The Ducks don’t appear to have another Arik Armstead or DeForest Buckner up front, but junior Henry Mondeaux has a relentless motor and can play tackle or end. Hoke was hired to replace Don Pellum, who was reassigned to his previous role focusing on linebackers. The unit slipped during his two years splitting time as coordinator, and he’ll try to get the linebackers on track with a boost from former junior college teammates A.J. Hotchkins and Jonah Moi.

The secondary returns essentially intact, a good news/bad news proposition after allowing more than 300 passing yards per game last season. Cornerback Arrion Springs and safety Tyree Robinson are looking to prove themselves as reliable veterans, and sophomore Fotu Leiato provides an intimidating presence at strong safety in Hoke’s new scheme.

Converted receiver Malik Lovette is a breakout candidate.

Previewing Oregon’s Specialists
 

A year after improbably winning the placekicking job as a walk-on true freshman, Aidan Schneider earned first-team all-Pac-12 honors in 2015 — and a scholarship. He doesn’t have a huge leg, but Schneider was 22-of-24 on field goals as a sophomore, and made all 67 of his extra-point attempts. Punter Ian Wheeler, another guy who joined the Ducks as a walk-on, hasn’t been as consistent the last two years. Among the returners, Nelson could be the top option on both kicks and punts.

Final Analysis 
 

The Ducks missed Marcus Mariota, Hroniss Grasu and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu last season more than they even imagined. They need Prukop to make as seamless a transition as Adams did, and for Hoke to quickly solidify a defense that ranked among the nation’s worst in 2015. “We just needed a new direction,” head coach Mark Helfrich said upon hiring Hoke. Entering 2016, just which direction Oregon’s program is headed was very much unclear.

The Debate

Is Dakota Prukop one of the top quarterbacks in the Pac-12?

Click here to join the debate.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#22 USC Trojans

NATIONAL FORECAST

#22

Pac-12 South PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Clay Helton, 6-4 (1+ year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tee Martin | DEF. COORDINATOR: Clancy Pendergast

USC is one of college football's most intriguing teams to watch in 2016. New coach Clay Helton takes over on a full-time basis, and his first year at the helm features one of the nation’s toughest schedules. The Trojans open against defending national champion Alabama, play at Stanford, Utah, Washington and UCLA and match up against Notre Dame, Oregon and Arizona State at home. As if that wasn’t enough for Helton, USC has to break in a new quarterback and is thin on proven options on the defensive line. The Trojans aren’t hurting for talent. However, big question marks remain in Helton’s first year. 

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter:

Previewing USC’s Offense 
 

Max Browne’s introduction to the pressures of big-time college football will come soon enough. USC’s junior quarterback is expected to make his first start in the season opener against defending National Champion Alabama in Dallas. Browne, taking over for three-year starter Cody Kessler, finally gets his chance four years after being named the National High School Player of the Year. Much of the success or failure of the offense will rest on his strong right arm. Fortunately for Browne and coach Clay Helton, starting his first full-time season on the job, the rest of the offense is experienced and deep. Senior Justin Davis (902 yards, 5.3 average) and sophomore Ronald Jones (987 yards, 6.5 average) form one of the country’s top tailback combinations.

JuJu Smith-Schuster (89 receptions for 1,454 yards and 10 TDs) is an All-America candidate at wide receiver, and the entire offensive line returns intact, led by All-Pac-12 tackle Zach Banner. Helton has stressed the need for the Trojans to return to a more physical style of play, reiterating how he longs to lock up games in the fourth quarter with a bruising running attack. But he also wants to utilize the outstanding athleticism of kids such as Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson, the star cornerback who is a big play waiting to happen as a part-time wide receiver.

Previewing USC’s Defense
 

, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast returns to USC, where he was last seen molding a terrific defense in 2013. Replicating that feat this year might be difficult, especially with a defensive line that is alarmingly raw. There are no returning starters up front, and Kenny Bigelow, the nose tackle who was penciled in as the new leader of the group, went down for the season with a knee injury in spring practice. Not that the Trojans are lacking in large bodies with considerable potential. Promising linemen Noah Jefferson and Rasheem Green were in the rotation a year ago. And Porter Gustin, the top defensive end/outside linebacker in Pendergast’s 5-2 alignment, is quick and aggressive.

Cameron Smith, the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, is expected to come back strong after a late-season knee injury at one inside linebacker spot, with sophomore Osa Masina the likely starter at the other inside position, although he was pushed hard by Michael Hutchings and Quinton Powell in the spring.

The secondary should be a strength, with Jackson and sophomore Iman Marshall forming a premier pair at cornerback. The depth at safety was accentuated in the spring when returning starters Chris Hawkins and John Plattenburg were battling to keep their jobs among a bevy of talented candidates that include Marvell Tell III and Leon McQuay III.

Previewing USC’s Specialists 
 

The head coach and quarterback won’t be the only new things at the start of this season. Both kickers will be newcomers as well. Lefty Matt Boermeester takes over as the full-time placekicker, while sophomore Chris Tilbey, whose only experience has been with Australian Rules Football, is the likely new punter. At least senior Zach Smith returns for his fourth year as an excellent snapper. Jackson is a one-man kick returning unit.

Final Analysis
 

There wouldn’t be so much concern about a new quarterback and an inexperienced defensive line if it weren’t for a schedule that ranks among the toughest in the country. Helton, refreshingly humble compared to his recent predecessors, can’t stop gushing about how fortunate he is to have this job. The talent he has, especially at running back, up front on offense and in the defensive secondary, is good enough to contend for a Pac-12 title. But if he can’t go 9–3 or at least 8–4 with this group, he might not feel so lucky anymore.   

The Debate

Where does Clay Helton rank among new coach hires for 2016?

Click here to join the debate.




15 Biggest Wild Card College Football Teams in 2016

Which teams are the toughest to rank in 2016?
15 Biggest Wild Card College Football Teams in 2016

Kickoff for the 2016 college football season is still over 100 days away, but it’s never too early to start thinking about rankings, predictions and previews for the upcoming year. For most college football fans, one of the annual traditions each summer is the trip to the newsstand to pick up a preview magazine. The good news? The wait is almost over.

Ranking the Pac-12's Quarterbacks for 2016

Washington State's Luke Falk is poised for another huge season.
Ranking the Pac-12's Quarterbacks for 2016

The Pac-12 is known for producing its share of high-scoring offenses and standout quarterbacks. And the conference certainly isn’t hurting for talent under center in 2016, as Washington State’s Luke Falk and UCLA’s Josh Rosen return as the league’s top options.

Pages