This may be the season for a changing of the guard in the Pac-12. Either Stanford or Oregon has won every league championship since 2009. This season both may be vulnerable. UCLA has the league’s best quarterback. USC has enviable talent. Utah is always sneaky. And that doesn’t get to Stanford and Oregon’s improved foes in the Pac-12 North, Washington and Washington State.
In what should be an unpredictable year in the Pac-12, Athlon looked at the top 10 storylines that would define the league.
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1. The maturation of Josh Rosen
The arrival of quarterback Josh Rosen at UCLA last season signaled the Bruins’ best chance to end a Pac-12 championship drought that dates back to 1998. He was a can’t-miss recruit and remains an enticing pro prospect in an era when polished pocket passers are falling by the wayside. Rosen was brilliant at times last season. In his first game, Rosen completed 80 percent of his passes for 350 yards with three touchdowns. But he also threw three interceptions against BYU and a combined four interceptions in his final two games of the year, both losses.
And it wasn’t always a smooth ride off the field. In October, Rosen got himself into some — ahem — hot water when he posted to Instagram images of a hot tub in his dorm room. (The hot tub was removed days later.)
As if coaching a big-time quarterback prospect in the social media age wasn’t tough enough, coach Jim Mora is dealing with another variable when it comes to Rosen. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone left UCLA for the same job at Texas A&M. Mora promoted running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu to offensive coordinator, but the more important move is the addition of Marques Tuiasosopo as quarterback coach. The experience tradeoff is stark. Polamalu has been an offensive coordinator for only three seasons at USC — at a time when Lane Kiffin was the play-caller. Tuiasosopo has all of one season as a QB coach under his belt. Handing two unproven assistants the best quarterback prospect in the country could be a gift or a curse.
2. Stanford’s rebuilding defensive line
Stanford has been stout in the trenches for most of its recent seven-year run of excellence, but that wasn’t the case in 2015 — due in part to suspect play on the line. Stanford allowed 5.57 yards per play last season, ranking 64th in the country. Both were the worst figures for the Cardinal since 2009. Stanford’s opponents rushed for 4.32 yards per carry, the most against the Cardinal since 2006.
The Cardinal replaced all three defensive line starters going into last year, and depth took a blow when nose tackle Harrison Phillips was lost for the year to a torn ACL in the opener. Stanford’s conundrum is that the churn will continue. Starters Brennan Scarlett and Aziz Shittu are gone, leaving nose tackle Solomon Thomas as the only proven and healthy defensive lineman on the roster.
New faces will need to make major leaps if Stanford’s defensive front is going to return to form. Phillips’ return remains in question. Luke Kaumatule, who has played tight end and outside linebacker, redshirted while making the transition to defensive line. And redshirt freshmen Dylan Jackson and Wesley Annan are expected to contribute. With all of that uncertainty, the most important name in Stanford’s defensive renewal could be Diron Reynolds. Former line coach Randy Hart retired after six seasons at Stanford and 46 seasons as coach. Reynolds, a defensive assistant at Stanford in 2014, coached the defensive line at Oklahoma last season. While Stanford’s new quarterback will get more attention, Reynolds’ defensive front might be the key to the team’s ability to contend in the Pac-12 North.
3. USC’s uneven offensive line play
The pieces for USC’s offensive line never quite seem to fit with the results. As anyone who follows recruiting would expect, all of the Trojans’ offensive linemen arrive on campus as top prospects. Four of the top five returning linemen have received some kind of All-Pac-12 honors, from first team to honorable mention status, and the fifth was a Freshman All-American two years ago. By a handful of measures, this talented, veteran unit — which loses only five-game starting center Max Tuerk — should be the best in the Pac-12. But as we’ve seen in recent years, talent hasn’t always translated at USC, especially on the line. The Trojans haven’t ranked higher than seventh in the Pac-12 in rushing since 2011 and have ranked 99th or worse nationally in sacks allowed in the last three years.
That said, USC’s line perhaps deserves a break. New position coach Neil Callaway, a journeyman assistant throughout the Southeast and a former head coach at UAB, will be the group’s fifth coach in the last five years. After Tuerk went down with a knee injury last year, USC had three different starting centers in the final nine games. The position further thinned when guard/center Toa Lobendahn was lost for the final seven games of the season with his own knee injury. And left tackle Chad Wheeler, a three-year starter and all-conference second-teamer, didn’t play in the bowl game after an altercation with police in December.
Having everyone healthy and available will be critical for Callaway — not to mention for USC’s first-time starting quarterback.
The question remains: Even if the linemen are all on the field at the same time, will they be on the same page?
4. An outsider at Oregon
For a program that’s often on the cutting edge of college football, Oregon doesn’t often think outside the box when it comes to coaching hires. The Ducks rarely look outside of Eugene. Five members of the Oregon coaching staff have been with the school for at least 13 years, working for three different head coaches. When Nick Aliotti retired after 2013, it seemed only natural that the Ducks would promote from within to replace the outgoing defensive coordinator. The Don Pellum experiment, though, was nothing short of a disaster. Aliotti’s last defense was ranked seventh in the country in yards per play. Under Pellum, the former (and current) linebackers coach, that figure dropped to 64th in 2014 and 98th in 2015. Last season, Oregon’s only chance to win was to do so in a shootout. The Ducks allowed 62 points and 530 yards in an embarrassing loss at home to Utah. They allowed 641 at home in a loss to Washington State. They allowed 742 yards to Arizona State and found a way to win 61–55. The low point was the Alamo Bowl when TCU overcame a 31–0 Oregon lead at halftime for a 47–41 win in triple overtime.
The season was bad enough to force Oregon to use a different area code when calling around for a new coach. Brady Hoke, the Ducks’ new defensive coordinator, could be the most important outside hire for the program since Mike Bellotti plucked an offensive coordinator from New Hampshire named Chip Kelly. Of course, Hoke is a more established commodity than Kelly was in 2007, but Oregon needs the former Michigan head coach to make as big of an impact. In addition to his stint in Ann Arbor, Hoke also has been a head coach at San Diego State and Ball State, but oddly enough, he’s never been a coordinator at the college level. He spent 19 years as a position coach, including five years at Oregon State, before taking his first head coaching gig in 2003. He’ll lead a defensive staff that still includes Pellum, back at his familiar spot coaching linebackers, and 13-year secondary coach John Neal. With 107 more games as a head coach than his boss, Hoke also could be counsel for Helfrich, entering his fourth year as the Ducks’ head coach.
5. Jake Browning’s development
With a young nucleus, an outstanding coach and a team that proved it could go toe-to-toe with some of the best in the Pac-12 last season, Washington will be one of the “it” teams of 2016. That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a sophomore quarterback. Jake Browning had a solid season, by freshman standards. A four-star quarterback in the class of 2015, Browning flourished against weaker teams. He completed 77.3 percent of his passes for 474 total yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions in wins over Arizona and Oregon State. Against the other six Pac-12 teams Browning faced, he completed 58.2 percent of his passes for 225.5 yards per game with three TDs and eight interceptions.
Browning led Washington to three wins and an average of 47 points per game in the final three games of 2015. Chris Petersen also has a fine résumé in developing four-year quarterbacks (see: Moore, Kellen). Petersen has praised Browning’s toughness, and, with the exception of the opener last year, he didn’t hold back anything from the freshman in terms of the playbook. The Huskies went 1–3 in one-score games last season. They only need a few breaks — and Browning’s continued development — to become a division contender.
6. Sonny Dykes’ new quarterback
Cal must replace the most prolific passer in school history. The Bears’ top six receivers are gone. And there’s a new offensive coordinator in Berkeley. Normally, that would result in a great deal of uncertainty, but Pac-12 opponents have a good idea of what Sonny Dykes will try to do despite all the new faces. He’s going to try to throw the ball more than anyone in the conference other than his old boss up at Washington State.
Jared Goff was a 12,000-yard passer in three seasons under Dykes and the main constant as Cal rose from 1–11 to 8–5 in three seasons. The next quarterback won’t match Goff’s production, but he’ll step into an offense that has been one of the most prolific in the country. Since he left Mike Leach’s staff at Texas Tech to become offensive coordinator at Arizona, Dykes has presided over five top-10 passing offenses in the last nine years, including four in a row at Cal and Louisiana Tech. Bringing in Jake Spavital — another branch off that Leach coaching tree — after he was fired at Texas A&M is an indication that Dykes isn’t straying much from the formula.
Chase Forrest, Goff’s backup who threw 18 passes last season, is the presumptive frontrunner to take over. But as many as five candidates are vying for the job, including quarterback-turned-safety-turned-quarterback Luke Rubenzer, redshirt freshman Ross Bowers, true freshman (and early enrollee) Max Gilliam and transfer Zach Kline (back for his second tour at Cal). As for the dearth of proven pass-catchers: Cal signed a total of 14 receivers in its last three recruiting classes
7. Luke Falk’s run for the record book
Nearly a decade has passed since a quarterback broke major single-season passing records. In 2007, Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell set the record for completions (512) and completions per game (39.4). In 2006, Hawaii’s Colt Brennan threw a record 58 touchdown passes. And in 2003, Texas Tech’s B.J. Symons set records for attempts (719) and yards (5,833). In other words, we’re due for a run at some of these passing records.
Washington State’s Luke Falk might be the guy to do it. First, he has the right pedigree as a Mike Leach quarterback, just like Harrell and Symons. And second, he might have approached some of these numbers last season had he stayed healthy. Falk missed all of one game and part of another yet still managed to throw 644 passes, the second-most in a season since 2009. As a group, Washington State quarterbacks threw 738 passes — 118 more than any other team in the country and 19 more than Symons’ mark in 2003.
With Gabe Marks and River Cracraft at receiver and three offensive line starters back, Falk has the tools to make a run at several records — or at least make late-night Pac-12 games that much more interesting.
8. Arizona State’s JUCO gamble
Todd Graham has always had a high-risk, high-reward defensive philosophy. The Arizona State coach likes his teams to be aggressive, and if that comes at the expense of big plays for the offense sometimes, so be it. Arizona State has ranked in the top 10 in tackles for a loss per game in three of the last four seasons. Throw in Graham’s lone year at Pittsburgh, and his teams have ranked in the top 20 in tackles for a loss per game in each of the last five seasons.
Last season, the Sun Devils had arguably the worst defensive season of Graham’s career, ranking 113th in yards allowed per game. No team gave up more 40-yard plays (30) last season than Arizona State. In Pac-12 play, the Sun Devils gave up 25 40-yard plays, six more than any other team in the league.
Graham needs a quick fix, and he went with a high-risk, high-reward strategy. The Sun Devils signed eight junior college prospects, most in the country. The haul includes three defensive ends, two cornerbacks, two offensive linemen and a punter. Most will be needed immediately — and not just on defense, as ASU returns only one starting offensive lineman.
The Sun Devils return all three starting linebackers and two defensive linemen, so all eyes will be on corners Maurice Chandler and J’Marcus Rhodes. Graham still has a dilemma with few high school defensive backs in his last two signing classes.
9. Arizona’s rebuilt defense
For several years at West Virginia, Rich Rodriguez had a secret weapon to complement his prolific offense. Jeff Casteel was one of the more underrated defensive coordinators in the country. He stayed at West Virginia when Rodriguez went to Michigan but followed his old boss to Arizona in 2012.
The Wildcats defense, however, has struggled in recent years, and Rodriguez made the difficult decision to part ways with Casteel and defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich, another longtime assistant. Contrast that with the offensive staff — Rodriguez still has two assistants who have been with him since the West Virginia and Michigan days.
RichRod clearly believes he needs some new ideas. For that, he hired Marcel Yates from Boise State to lead his defense. Out goes Casteel’s 3-3-5 stack. In comes Yates 4-2-5. Boise State ranked in the top 10 nationally in takeaways in each of the last two years under Yates. The goal is clear: Arizona’s defense needs to be more disruptive. Arizona also needs bodies. The Wildcats return five starters in the front seven, but not Scooby Wright. The secondary will be thin.
The new-look — and much younger — staff should also impact recruiting. Every defensive assistant was still in college in the 2000s. The results might not be immediate, but RichRod is banking on these radical changes to change the fortunes of his program’s defense for the long term.
10. How bad is it at Oregon State?
Not too long ago, Gary Andersen was one of college football’s can’t-miss coaches. He took over a moribund Utah State program and went 11–2 with a WAC championship within four years. He took that success to Wisconsin, where the Badgers went 19–7 overall and 13–3 in the Big Ten under his watch. His move to Oregon State after two seasons was as shocking as Mike Riley’s departure from OSU to Nebraska. The move signaled that perhaps Andersen wasn’t as good a fit at Wisconsin as many thought. It may have also signaled that the Oregon State job is in a worse spot than anyone realized.
Oregon State went 2–10 in Andersen’s first year and winless in the Pac-12. Conference opponents beat Oregon State by an average of 24.5 points and outgained the Beavers by an average of 208 yards per game. Riley’s staff did a good job of locating and developing under-recruited talent in major recruiting states and taking flyers on junior college prospects. Andersen’s first two signing classes seem to follow that blueprint. Oregon State has signed eight players from Florida in the last two years to go with 10 junior college transfers and the usual handful of prospects from California. Andersen will need to hit on more than a fair share of those recruits for this program to make a move.