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#30 Washington State Cougars





HEAD COACH: Mike Leach, 21-29 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Leach | DEF. COORDINATOR: Alex Grinch

Washington State improved its win total by six games last season after a 3-9 mark in 2014. The Cougars also claimed the program’s second bowl trip under coach Mike Leach. As usual for a Mike Leach-coached team, Washington State will be dynamic on offense. Quarterback Luke Falk headlines the high-powered passing attack, while receiver Gabe Marks should push for All-America honors. The defense showed improvement under new coordinator Alex Grinch last season but has to retool in the front seven. 

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Previewing Washington State’s Offense 

Luke Falk, who threw for more than 4,500 yards, 38 touchdowns and just eight interceptions a season ago, will surely have the numbers to support a dark horse Heisman campaign. If everything else breaks like the Cougars think it could, Washington State may have the wins to make that dream for Falk a reality.

Biletnikoff Award semifinalist receiver Gabe Marks delayed entering the NFL Draft and heads a deep receiver corps that should give Falk plenty of capable targets. Marks caught 104 passes for 1,192 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, and fellow starting receivers Robert Lewis and River Cracraft are also back. The new starting receiver, sophomore Tavares Martin, is also the team’s fastest player.

It’s true that the Cougars must replace a pair of three-year starters on the left side of the offensive line, but the three returning starters each earned some sort of postseason honors last year.

Falk threw game-winning touchdown passes with just seconds left at Rutgers and UCLA, and tied the game with a scoring toss with just one second left in the overtime win at Oregon. If the new starting offensive linemen can protect his blind side, Falk — who missed the Apple Cup and left two other games because of injuries — can lead the Cougars to new heights.

Previewing Washington State’s Defense 

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

Mike Leach took a chance when he hired a first-year defensive coordinator in his mid-30s, and oh, did Alex Grinch deliver. The WSU defense improved its points-allowed average from 38.6 points per game to 27.7 in one year under Grinch and tripled its takeaways from eight to 24.

Depth along the defensive line is a concern after losing two all-conference defensive ends, but big things are expected from sophomore Hercules Mata’afa, who was named Outstanding Lineman of the Sun Bowl win after drawing double teams from Miami’s offensive linemen all game. Nose tackle Robert Barber has shown flashes but will need to play consistently for the Cougars to hold up along the line.

At linebacker, Dylan Hanser and Nnamdi Oguayo are inexperienced but athletic options at the rush linebacker position. Peyton Pelluer is a steady and sound presence at middle linebacker, while weak-side linebacker Frankie Luvu brings size and athleticism to the defense’s second level.

Grinch’s biggest impact was turning the secondary from a weakness to a strength last year, thanks in part to the stellar play of junior college transfer Shalom Luani at strong safety. Darrien Molton and Marcellus Pippins are capable cornerbacks, and Charleston White and Deion Singleton are rangy backups.

Previewing Washington State’s Specialists

Erik Powell has a big leg, but he must become more accurate from distance after making just half of his 10 attempts from 40 or more yards last season. Zach Charme was solid for a freshman punter last season and is expected to improve on his 39.6-yard average.

Final Analysis

The Cougars were left for dead by some after their season-opening home loss to FCS Portland State. Then they rattled off wins against some of the Pac-12’s toughest programs, winning on the road and often coming from behind in the final minutes to do so. New offensive coaches Dave Nichol and JaMarcus Shephard have brought energy to the wide receivers, and the defense is playing with a swagger not seen in Pullman since the Palouse Posse days of the mid-’90s. WSU won’t sneak up on anyone this year and still has to get through the Pac-12 North, which should be one of the toughest divisions in the nation this year. But Marks set a tone for this season when he announced that he would spurn the NFL to chase a Rose Bowl with the Cougars, and with so many key contributors returning, perhaps the Cougars won’t need to rely on Falk to lead game-winning drives in 2016.

The Debate

Is Luke Falk the Pac-12's best quarterback?

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#12 Stanford Cardinal





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.

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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?

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#11 Washington Huskies





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.

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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?

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#14 UCLA Bruins





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. 

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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.