A transition year was expected in 2016 for the Pac-12, but the conference produced a playoff contender (Washington) and one of the nation’s hottest teams at the end of the season (USC). Additionally, the surprise emergence of Colorado in the South Division was one of the best storylines from 2016. As the Pac-12 turns the page to 2017, the Huskies and Trojans headline the list of contenders and the league’s best hope to make the CFB Playoff. Stanford, Oregon, Washington State and Utah are in the next group of contenders, but each team has its share of question marks to address this offseason. UCLA might be the biggest mystery for 2017. The Bruins aren’t hurting for talent and regain the services of quarterback Josh Rosen. However, UCLA finished 4-8 last year and has some significant question marks in Rosen’s supporting cast and in filling a few voids on defense.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2017 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Pac-12 for 2017:
The Huskies are the reigning Pac-12 champions and should have a good shot at a repeat trip to the CFB Playoff in 2017. Quarterback Jake Browning threw for 3,430 yards and 43 scores last season and returns to lead the way for Washington’s title hopes next fall. Browning could miss time during spring ball due to shoulder surgery but is expected to be at full strength by the opener. Running back Myles Gaskin and receiver Dante Pettis headline the skill talent returning to Seattle, but there’s no question the offense will miss big-play receiver John Ross. The offensive line should be a strength with the return of left tackle Trey Adams. Washington has led the Pac-12 in scoring defense in back-to-back years, but coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski has a few holes to fill after the early departures of tackle Elijah Qualls, cornerback Sidney Jones and safety Budda Baker to the NFL. However, the cupboard isn’t empty. Lineman Vita Vea is a rising star, linebacker Azeem Victor returns from injury, and safety Taylor Rapp will help ease the personnel losses in the secondary.
The Cardinal might be the toughest team to rank in the North. After Keller Chryst suffered a knee injury in the Sun Bowl, the quarterback spot is a mystery. Redshirt freshman K.J. Costello could stake a claim over Ryan Burns for the starting job this spring. Regardless of which quarterback starts, expect to see plenty of Bryce Love at running back. Love has big shoes to fill in replacing Christian McCaffrey, but he’s up to the task after recording 783 rushing yards in 2016. Guard Johnny Caspers is the lone starter gone from the trenches. The defense has been an annual strength under coach David Shaw and should be solid once again despite the loss of standout lineman Solomon Thomas. The secondary is the strength of Stanford’s defense for 2017.
New coach Willie Taggart was one of the offseason’s best hires. The Ducks won’t be down for long under Taggart and a rebound back into the top 25 is a reasonable expectation next fall. Taggart inherits promising quarterback Justin Herbert (1,936 yards and 19 TDs), and running back Royce Freeman decided to return for his senior season. The Ducks have a few voids to fill in the receiving corps, but Darren Carrington and Charles Nelson is a good starting point. The line featured four freshmen starters last season and regains the services of talented tackle Tyrell Crosby (season-ending injury in 2016). After giving up 6.4 yards per play last year, there’s only one way for Oregon’s defense to go in 2017. And helping lead the way for improvement will be coordinator Jim Leavitt, who was hired by Taggart after turning around Colorado’s defense the last couple of seasons. Linebacker Troy Dye is a promising player for Leavitt to build around this spring.
4. Washington State
The Cougars ended the 2016 season on a down note with three consecutive losses, including a surprising defeat in the Holiday Bowl against Minnesota. While the end to the year certainly didn’t go according to plan for coach Mike Leach, Washington State should be in the mix to be a top 25 team in 2017. Quarterback Luke Falk passed on the NFL for one more season in Pullman, and the offensive line returns standout guard Cody O’Connell and tackle Cole Madison. The Cougars also return three running backs who rushed for at least 475 yards in 2016. The biggest question mark on offense is at receiver. Gabe Marks (89 catches) and River Cracraft (53) will be missed. Can Tavares Martin (64), Robert Lewis (33) and Isaiah Johnson-Mack (35) step up their performance to fill the void left behind by Marks and Cracraft? Safety Shalom Luani, tackle Robert Barber and nickelback Parker Henry are the biggest losses on defense, but this unit returns in good shape and should improve on the stat sheet next fall.
5. Oregon State
The Beavers improved their win total by two games from 2015 to 2016. Coach Gary Andersen enters his third year in Corvallis with a team capable of pushing for a bowl bid. The biggest question mark on offense revolves around the quarterback position. Can junior college recruit Jake Luton beat Marcus McMaryion, Darell Garretson or Conor Blount for the starting job? Regardless of which quarterback starts, expect to see running back Ryan Nall (951 yards) increase his workload in 2017. Top receiver Victor Bolden (46 catches), and three key linemen – Dustin Stanton, Gavin Andrews and Sean Harlow – have also expired their eligibility. After giving up 37 points per game in 2015, the Beavers cut that total to 30.5 in 2016. However, it’s clear more improvement is needed for this team to hit six wins. Cornerback Treston Decoud and linebacker Caleb Saulo are the biggest losses for coordinator Kevin Clune.
A coaching change in January came as a surprise, as Sonny Dykes was dismissed after four seasons in Berkeley. While the move came late in the coaching carousel offseason, California deserves high marks for its hire of Justin Wilcox as the program’s new leader. The Oregon native worked as an assistant under Jeff Tedford from 2003-05 and also has stops as a defensive coordinator in the Pac-12 at Washington and USC. Wilcox also assembled a standout staff for his offense, headlined by former Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin. The top priority for Baldwin this spring will be to break in a new quarterback after Davis Webb expired his eligibility. Leading rusher Khalfani Muhammad (827 yards) also departs, but Baldwin has talented options in the backfield with the return of Tre Watson and Vic Enwere. Demetris Robertson and Melquise Stovall headline the receiving corps and must take on a bigger role after Chad Hansen (92 catches) left early for the NFL. Wilcox’s background should immediately help a defense that surrendered 42.6 points per game in 2016.
The emergence of quarterback Sam Darnold quickly transformed USC’s 2016 season and outlook for 2017. Darnold was inserted into the starting lineup after the 1-2 start and guided the Trojans to 9-1 record over the final 10 games. With a full offseason to work as the starter and develop under coach Clay Helton and coordinator Tee Martin, Darnold should be one of college football’s top quarterbacks and a frontrunner to win the Heisman next fall. Darnold’s supporting cast will feature a couple of new faces. Top receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster left early for the NFL, and the offensive line loses three key starters – Zach Banner, Chad Wheeler and Damien Mama. Running back Ronald Jones (1,082 yards) is another emerging star. The defense entered the 2016 season with a handful of question marks but held opponents to 24.2 points a game. This unit doesn’t lose a ton for 2017. However, the losses were significant. Tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, linebacker Michael Hutchings, cornerback Adoree’ Jackson and safety Leon McQuay leave big shoes to fill this spring.
For the first time under coach Kyle Whittingham, Utah has finished in the Associated Press top 25 for the three consecutive seasons. While the Utes have some key personnel losses to address, this team could be the top challenger to USC in the South Division. New coordinator Troy Taylor is one of the Pac-12’s top offseason assistant hires and should help quarterbacks Troy Williams and Tyler Huntley take a step forward in their development. Joe Williams will be missed at running back, but Zack Moss (4.5 ypc) showed promise in limited action. The Utes lose four starters up front, including standout left tackle Garett Bolles and guard Isaac Asiata. As usual in Salt Lake City, expect Utah’s defense to be among the best in the Pac-12. End Kylie Fitts returns from injury, while Lowell Lotulelei is back to anchor the interior. The emergence of safety Chase Hansen eases the loss of safety Marcus Williams to the NFL. Utah’s schedule features a tough crossover against Oregon, Washington, Washington State and Stanford. Additionally, the Utes hit the road to take on USC and rival BYU.
UCLA’s 2016 season was derailed after a shoulder injury to quarterback Josh Rosen in early October. After Rosen’s injury, the Bruins won just one game over its final seven contests and finished 4-8 overall. Getting Rosen back in the lineup is a huge boost for coach Jim Mora’s team, but there are other issues to address. Will this team develop a ground game after managing only 84.3 yards per game in 2016? The offensive line must replace second-team All-Pac-12 tackle Conor McDermott. Despite a lackluster offense, UCLA’s defense held its own last year. The Bruins limited opponents to 4.86 yards per play (No. 2 in the Pac-12) and allowed 27.5 points per game. Coordinator Tom Bradley has a few major voids to address this offseason. The line loses Eddie Vanderdoes and Takkarist McKinley, linebackers Deon Hollins and Jayon Brown and Marcus Rios, Fabian Moreau and Randall Goforth in the secondary. Just having Rosen under center should make UCLA a bowl team in 2017. However, the improvement in the other areas will determine if the Bruins return to the top 25.
All of the pieces for Mike MacIntyre’s rebuilding effort in Boulder fell into place in 2016. Colorado won 10 games – the same number this program won in MacIntyre’s first three years – and claimed the Pac-12 South title. A strong senior class was the backbone of the 10-win team, so the Buffaloes have some major voids to fill this offseason. The defense was hit the hardest by departures. Coordinator Jim Leavitt was hired by Oregon, and this unit must replace linebackers Kenneth Olugbode and Jimmie Gilbert, linemen Josh Tupou and Jordan Carrell and defensive backs Chidobe Awuzie, Tedric Thompson and Ahkello Witherspoon. For some perspective on how decimated this defense is, Colorado returns only four out of its top 11 tacklers from 2016. While the defense appears to be a rebuilding year, the offense is in good shape. New quarterback Steven Montez showed promise in a limited stint under center in 2016, running back Phillip Lindsay returns after rushing for 1,252 yards and 16 scores last year, and the team’s top three wide receivers are back. The Buffaloes catch Washington in crossover play but won’t have to face Oregon or Stanford.
5. Arizona State
After back-to-back 10-win campaigns from 2013-14, Arizona State has posted two consecutive losing seasons and missed out on a bowl in 2016. Is a quick fix in order for 2017? The Sun Devils return enough talent to rebound back to the postseason, led by an offense that has the firepower to be one of the best in the Pac-12. The backfield duo of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage is among the best in the nation, transfer Blake Barnett should provide stability at quarterback, and the receiving corps features rising star N’Keal Harry. The line is the biggest concern for Graham on offense after this unit surrendered 41 sacks in 2016. Former Baylor coordinator Phil Bennett takes over the play-calling duties for a defense that gave up 39.8 points per game last year and surrendered a whopping 357.4 passing yards a contest. This unit doesn’t lose a ton of personnel, so Bennett won’t be hurting for experienced players to utilize this spring. Arizona State caught a tough break in scheduling with Oregon, Stanford and Washington in crossover play, as well as road games against Utah and UCLA.
The Wildcats are coming off their first losing season under Rich Rodriguez and open 2017 offseason workouts with several question marks. The offense averaged only 24.8 points per game last year and was hit hard by injuries at the quarterback position. Three passers received significant snaps, including Brandon Dawkins (1,345 passing yards and 944 rushing yards). Dawkins is the likely frontrunner to take the first snap in 2017, but he will face competition from Khalil Tate. Dawkins needs to show more consistency as a passer after completing 53.6 percent of his throws in 2016. When healthy, Nick Wilson and J.J. Taylor form an effective one-two punch at running back. Three of Arizona’s top four receivers are gone from last season, with Shun Brown (521 yards) the team’s most-established target returning in 2017. Despite an overhaul on the staff prior to the season, Arizona’s defense struggled once again in 2016. The Wildcats gave up 38.3 points a game and 6.1 yards per play. This unit did not have a player receive all-conference or honorable mention honors last season and must replace arguably its top two performers last year in linebackers Michael Barton and Paul Magloire.