Even though the Pac-12 fell short of landing a team in the College Football Playoff, 2015 wasn’t a bad year for the conference. Stanford finished 12-2 and won the Rose Bowl in impressive fashion over Iowa, Oregon and Washington State each finished with nine victories, Utah posted its highest win total since joining the Pac-12 and 10 teams played in a bowl game. As the focus shifts to 2016, the Pac-12 could be on the outside looking in for a playoff spot once again – at least in the early predictions. Stanford is the team to beat in the North, but Washington, Oregon and Washington State will be a factor in the division race. The South is USC’s to lose, with UCLA and Utah in the next tier.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2016 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Pac-12 for 2016:
Early Pac-12 North Rankings for 2016
Stanford certainly has its share of personnel concerns, but it’s hard to pick against coach David Shaw’s team. Of course, a lot could change between now and the end of spring practices. The Cardinal returns Heisman Trophy candidate and the nation’s top all-purpose threat in Christian McCaffrey. After McCaffrey is where the question marks begin. Who will replace quarterback Kevin Hogan? And who steps up to fill the voids in the trenches? Five starters return on defense, and coordinator Lance Anderson has personnel concerns to address at each level. In addition to the personnel concerns, the schedule provides plenty of obstacles, including road dates at Washington, Notre Dame, Oregon and UCLA.
The Huskies are a team on the rise and a Pac-12 North title in 2016 wouldn’t be a surprise. Coach Chris Petersen has plenty of reasons to be optimistic on offense next year with the return of freshmen standouts Jake Browning (QB) and Myles Gaskin (RB). The development of the receiving corps and offensive line are two areas to watch in offseason workouts. With eight starters back, the defense should be the best in the Pac-12 next year. Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria anchor an active linebacking corps, while the secondary returns All-America candidates in Budda Baker (safety) and Sidney Jones (cornerback). The Sept. 30 matchup against Stanford in Seattle could decide the winner of the Pac-12 North.
3. Washington State
Last season’s 9-4 mark was the highest for Washington State in Mike Leach’s four years in Pullman. With a favorable schedule and the return of quarterback Luke Falk, the Cougars should be a factor in the Pac-12 title race. In addition to Falk, receivers Gabe Marks and River Cracraft are back, while three starters return up front. The departures of left tackle Joe Dahl and guard Gunnar Eklund are the biggest losses for Washington State’s offense. Coordinator Alex Grinch was a solid hire for Leach last season, improving the defense from 10th in the Pac-12 in points allowed per game to seventh in 2015. Grinch loses a few cogs in the front seven, but the secondary returns cornerback Darrien Molton after a solid freshman season, along with safety Shalom Luani (four picks).
College Football Podcast: Early 2016 Top 25 Breakdown
It’s dangerous to pick Oregon outside of the top three, but the Ducks are a tough team to elevate prior to spring practice. Coach Mark Helfrich has plenty of question marks on both sides of the ball to address this offseason. Talented – but unproven at the FBS level – Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop is slated to replace Vernon Adams at quarterback. Running back Royce Freeman is a candidate for All-America honors, and the receiving corps features talented targets in Darren Carrington, Devon Allen and Dwayne Stanford. Tight end Pharaoh Brown is also slated to return after missing all of 2015 due to injury. Regardless of how explosive the offense is, the Ducks need improvement on defense. How much of an impact will new coordinator Brady Hoke make in one offseason? Five starters are back, but this unit loses standout end DeForest Buckner and three starters in the linebacking corps.
The Golden Bears are coming off their best season under Sonny Dykes, but a step back is in order for 2016. Quarterback Jared Goff left Berkeley a year early for the NFL, leaving Ross Bowers, Chase Forrest and Luke Rubenzer battling for the starting job. In addition to Goff’s departure, California must replace five of the top six statistical receivers, including Kenny Lawler (13 TDs) and Bryce Treggs (21.2 ypc). The news isn’t all bad for Dykes on offense. Four starters are back up front, and there’s a trio of capable options at running back – Tre Watson, Khalfani Muhammad and Vic Enwere. Progress is needed on defense, but California’s 6.1 yards per play allowed in 2015 was the best mark under Dykes. End Kyle Kragen, linebacker Jalen Jefferson and safety Stefan McClure are the biggest losses for coordinator Art Kaufman.
6. Oregon State
Expect improvement from the Beavers in coach Gary Andersen’s second year in Corvallis. Andersen inherited a team with just nine returning starters and uncertainty at quarterback last season, so a winless record in Pac-12 action wasn’t a surprise. Utah State transfer Darell Garretson joins the competition at the quarterback, while last year’s starter Seth Collins transferred in late January after moving to a slash (QB/WR) role. Restocking the offensive line is a priority for Andersen after center Josh Mitchell expired his eligibility and guard Isaac Seumalo left early for the NFL. New defensive coordinator Kevin Clune inherits a group that surrendered 6.4 yards per play last year. Most of the unit returns intact, but the defensive line loses three key contributors.
Early Pac-12 South Rankings for 2016
The Trojans are the early favorite in the South Division, but there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding all six programs in 2016. What changes will Clay Helton make in his first season as the full-time coach? Helton wants the offense to be physical and establish the run, and the pieces are in place in the backfield with the return of Ronald Jones and Justin Davis. The offensive line should be one of the best in the Pac-12. Max Browne and Sam Darnold will battle this spring to replace Cody Kessler, but regardless of who wins the starting nod, expect to see plenty of passes in JuJu Smith-Schuster’s direction. Clancy Pendergast returns after a two-year stint in the NFL to coordinate USC’s defense, and the veteran signal-caller has work to do in the trenches with the departure of Delvon Simmons, Claude Pelon, Antwaun Woods and Greg Townsend. Additionally, linebacker Su’a Cravens left early for the NFL. The secondary is the strength of USC’s defense in 2016.
The Bruins were hit hard by early departures to the NFL. Six players are leaving Los Angeles for the next level, including standout linebacker Myles Jack, two starters on the offensive line and All-American defensive tackle Kenny Clark. Despite the personnel losses, UCLA has enough returning talent to exceed last year’s 8-5 mark. Quarterback Josh Rosen should be better in his second season on campus, and Soso Jamabo is a capable replacement for Paul Perkins at running back. Clark and Jack are big losses for the defense, but this unit should get a boost from the return of end Eddie Vanderdoes from a season-ending knee injury.
Last season’s 10-3 record was Utah’s highest win total since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. Additionally, the Utes have back-to-back finishes inside of the top 20 in the final Associated Press poll and climbed as high as No. 3 in 2015. Utah will take a step back with a few personnel losses, but coach Kyle Whittingham’s won’t be an easy out for the rest of the South Division. Junior college recruit Troy Williams is expected to compete for the starting quarterback job, but the strength of the offense should be its returning talent in the trenches and running back Joe Williams. Six starters are back on defense, including standout safety Marcus Williams and cornerback Dominique Hatfield. The biggest concern for new coordinator Morgan Scalley is the linebacking corps. Gionni Paul, Jared Norris and Jason Whittingham leave big shoes to fill.
4. Arizona State
It’s a tough call between Arizona State, Utah and Arizona at No. 3. Each of the teams has its share of personnel concerns, but for now, let’s give an edge to the Utes, with the Sun Devils just a step behind. Coach Todd Graham’s team returns 10 starters, including running back Demario Richard and receiver Tim White. Quarterback Mike Bercovici expired his eligibility after a solid senior year (30 TDs). Three candidates – Manny Wilkins, Bryce Perkins and Brady White – will compete for the starting job this spring. In addition to finding a new quarterback, the Sun Devils need to retool the offensive line. The defense ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 in yards per play allowed (6.24), but six returning starters provide some hope for improvement in 2016. The schedule-makers weren’t kind to Arizona State for 2016. Crossover games against Washington, Oregon and Washington State are on tap, and the Sun Devils visit Arizona and USC.
A similar theme is set to play out in Tucson next season. Arizona should have an explosive offense, but the defense is a major question mark. How much improvement can new coordinator Marcel Yates get out of this group in 2016? Seven starters are back, but the Wildcats are losing their best defender – linebacker Scooby Wright – to the NFL. Arizona is going to have to win its share of high-scoring affairs next season, but coach Rich Rodriguez’s team has the firepower to do so. If quarterback Anu Solomon and running back Nick Wilson can stay healthy in 2016, both players should push for all-conference honors. In addition to a non-conference matchup against BYU, Arizona’s conference slate features crossover games against Washington, Stanford and Washington State and road trips to UCLA and Utah.
Progress has been slow for the Buffaloes under coach Mike MacIntyre, but the program is moving in the right direction. While the final record for 2015 was only 4-9, Colorado lost four Pac-12 games by seven points or less. Can the program take the next step and play in a bowl next year? The Buffaloes return most of their starting lineup from last season, but standout receiver Nelson Spruce is a huge loss, and left tackle Stephane Nembot, safety Jered Bell, cornerback Ken Crawley and defensive tackle Justin Solis must be replaced. Quarterback Sefo Liufau suffered a foot injury against USC and is not expected to compete in spring practice. The schedule isn’t kind to Colorado. Crossover games against Oregon, Stanford and Washington State are challenging, and MacIntyre’s team catches Michigan in non-conference play. That’s not exactly an ideal schedule for a program looking for a trip to the postseason.