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Explain Yourselves: Athlon Answers Questions About 2016 Pac-12 Predictions

Jake Browning

Jake Browning

Before each college football season, Athlon Sports hears from readers wanting to know why one team was favored over another in our preseason rankings. Why this team was ranked so high or that team so low.

Some of these questions are in — um — colorful language.

That’s why Athlon takes you inside our decision process for some of the biggest questions you ask. Believe it or not, some of these questions are the ones we grappled with through our rankings meeting.

Here are the questions we anticipated about our Pac-12 predictions for 2016.

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UCLA was a relatively easy pick in the South. Why are we so confident?

At first glance, the Bruins’ 8–5 record last season might be considered a disappointment. They went only 5–4 in the Pac-12, lost to crosstown rival USC by 19 points and dropped their bowl game to a Nebraska team that had a losing record. But we can’t forget that UCLA started a true freshman at quarterback and was ravaged by injuries on the defensive side of the ball. Now, Josh Rosen — the No. 1 QB in the 2015 recruiting class — is a sophomore with 13 starts under his belt and figures to be one of the top quarterbacks in the nation in 2016. And the defense returns nine starters — not including standout tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, who went down with a torn ACL in early September. His return should help UCLA improve against the run, an area of weakness last year. Also, the schedule is very, very forgiving; the Bruins do not play Washington or Oregon — two of the top three teams in the North — and host both USC and Utah. The UCLA pick also indicates our lack of confidence in USC. The Trojans will once again have a ton of talent, but there are questions at quarterback and with the coaching staff.

Why did Utah get the nod over the Arizona schools for third in the South?

The Utes loses some key players from last year’s surprising 10-win team, but Kyle Whittingham has built a solid foundation that will keep this program competitive. The overall offensive numbers were not good last season, but Utah still managed to run the ball with consistency and play well defensively — two staples of the Utes in recent years. And while All-Pac-12 tailback Devontae Booker is gone, Joe Williams appears more than ready to step into the role as primary ball-carrier. Arizona State was one of the more disappointing teams in the league last season and has some significant holes to fill on both sides of the ball. Arizona will continue to score a ton of points, but the Wildcats have issues on defense — again.

How did Washington get the nod over Stanford, a team that has either won or shared the Pac-12 North title in four of the last five seasons?

The record wasn’t overly impressive — 7–6 overall and 4–5 in the league — but Washington showed significant improvement in Chris Petersen’s second season. For the most part, when the Huskies won, they won impressively, and when they lost, they lost close games to good teams. UW returns two of the top young skill-position players in the league in quarterback Jake Browning and tailback Myles Gaskin and welcomes back explosive receiver John Ross from injury. Stanford isn’t going anywhere, but the Cardinal suffered too many key personnel losses and must identify a new starting quarterback. Washington also has the easier conference schedule and gets Stanford at home (on Sept. 30).

Why no respect for Oregon?

It’s not time to panic, but the Ducks lost four games in 2015 — the most since 2007 when Mike Bellotti’s penultimate Oregon team went 9–4. The positive spin? Three of the four losses came by seven points or fewer and two of the three losses came with quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. either slowed by an injury or out with an injury. The negative spin? Adams is no longer around, and the team has significant concerns on both the offensive line and defensive line. Dakota Prukop put up huge numbers at Montana State, but there is no guarantee he will be as successful as Adams, last year’s FBS transfer. There is also a coaching transition, with a new offensive coordinator (Matt Lubick) and defensive coordinator (Brady Hoke). Hoke figures to be a significant upgrade over Don Pellum — demoted to linebackers coach — but don’t expect too big an improvement in 2016.