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Pac-12 Football 2016 Predictions

Christian McCaffrey

Christian McCaffrey

Most preseason predictions and rankings have the Pac-12 on the outside of the playoff picture for 2016, but there’s no shortage of intrigue or potential surrounding this league. Stanford has lost only nine conference games in coach David Shaw’s tenure, and despite significant personnel losses, the Cardinal is penciled in as one of the favorites for the 2016 title. However, with Stanford likely to take a small step back, the door is open for Washington, Oregon and Washington State to win the North Division.

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The battle to win the South Division is likely to come down to one of the league’s top rivalry games – UCLA vs. USC. Clay Helton had the interim tag removed at the end of 2015 and the coaching stability should help the Trojans. However, Helton needs to find an answer at quarterback, develop a few standouts on the defensive line and navigate one of the nation’s toughest schedules. Utah is a step behind USC and UCLA in the South Division, but the Utes will be a tough out for the rest of the league. And if junior college recruit Troy Williams is the answer at quarterback, Utah will inch closer to the Bruins and Trojans in the South. Arizona State and Arizona have significant question marks to answer, but both programs should reach the postseason in 2016. Mike MacIntyre has Colorado trending in the right direction and could push for a bowl if Sefo Liufau returns to full strength at quarterback.

Five Key Questions That Will Shape the Pac-12 in 2016

1. How Fast Will Stanford Reload?

Stanford has claimed three out of the last four Pac-12 titles, but coach David Shaw has his work cut out for him in 2016. The Cardinal have to retool on both sides of the ball with only nine returning starters, and the schedule won’t do Shaw’s team any favors. Running back Christian McCaffrey is one of the frontrunners to win the Heisman Trophy, but the junior’s supporting cast is surrounded in uncertainty. Can Keller Chryst replace Kevin Hogan at quarterback? And how quickly will the Cardinal find the right mix on a rebuilt offensive line? The defense should be strong in the secondary, but the line is thin on depth and proven options, while the linebacking corps must find a replacement for standout Blake Martinez. While all of those areas are a concern for Shaw, the top contenders in the North – Oregon, Washington and Washington State – each have their own set of concerns. Simply, there’s not going to be one dominant team in this division. Over the last five years, Stanford has averaged a 22.2 finish nationally in recruiting ranks – just a few spots behind Oregon. The Cardinal may not match last year’s 12 wins, but this program is better equipped to handle personnel losses than in previous seasons. Don’t expect a huge drop off for Shaw’s team in 2016.

Related: Athlon's 2016 Team Rankings No. 1 to 128

2. Washington is Poised for a Breakout Season

Choosing the projected champion of the North Division was easily the longest discussion of Athlon’s Pac-12 prediction meeting. Washington State and Oregon were considered, but Stanford and Washington eventually emerged as the favorites. The Cardinal has won three out of the last four Pac-12 titles, but a changing of the guard could be in order for 2016. The Huskies have made steady progress under coach Chris Petersen and capped a seven-win season in 2015 with an impressive victory over Southern Miss in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. While the overall win total (seven) has room to improve, advanced metrics were a big believer in Washington last year. In Football Outsiders’ F+ rankings, the Huskies ranked as the No. 13 team in 2015. And with 17 starters returning, Washington should take a big step forward in the win column. Quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin lead the way for the offense, while the defense should be the best in the Pac-12 after limiting opponents to 18.8 points a game in 2015. The Huskies have road trips to Utah, Oregon and Washington State to navigate, but Stanford visits Seattle on Sept. 30 in a game that could decide the North Division winner.

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College Football: Breaking Down Athlon’s 2016 Top 25



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3. USC vs. UCLA in the Pac-12 South

USC has the edge over its crosstown rival in overall roster talent, but the Bruins have some big advantages in their favor this season. UCLA has a clear edge at quarterback with sophomore Josh Rosen, and the schedule – including a home date against the Trojans – is significantly in favor of the Bruins. Additionally, the coaching element favors UCLA. Clay Helton guided USC to the South Division title last season, but there’s a better track record of success for Jim Mora. Despite the advantages in UCLA’s favor, the Bruins do have a few question marks to address. What tweaks will new coordinator Kennedy Polamalu implement for the offense? Additionally, Polamalu needs to revamp the receiving corps and fill a few voids on the offensive line. UCLA has to get tougher against the run after surrendering 198.5 yards a game in 2015. However, the return of Eddie Vanderdoes from injury should bolster the defensive line. Provided Max Browne provides steady play at quarterback, USC’s offense should be dynamic. But even if the offense ranks near the top of the Pac-12, a thin defensive line and brutal schedule could be too much to overcome.

Related: Explaining Athlon's Pac-12 Predictions for 2016

4. Oregon and Washington State Lurking in the North

Washington and Stanford are Athlon’s projected top teams in the North, but Oregon and Washington State aren’t far behind. The addition of Brady Hoke should be a huge boost to the Ducks’ struggling defense, and the offense will be dynamic as usual. New play-caller Matt Lubick can lean on running back Royce Freeman until a quarterback – Dakota Prukop or Travis Jonsen – emerges as the No. 1 quarterback. The schedule has its share of challenges for coach Mark Helfrich’s team, but Stanford and Washington visit Eugene. Mike Leach guided Washington State to nine wins in 2015 – the program’s highest mark since winning 10 games in 2003. Quarterback Luke Falk and receiver Gabe Marks form one of the nation’s top pass-catch combinations, and the defense made progress under coordinator Alex Grinch last season. Washington State did have a bit of good fortune on its side in 2015 with five wins by one score. However, the Cougars are trending up for 2016, and Leach’s explosive offense could be enough to carry Washington State to nine (or more) wins this fall.

5. Rebuilding at Arizona and Arizona State

Arizona and Arizona State opened 2015 with high expectations, but these two programs finished with a combined 13-13 record. The Wildcats (2014) and Sun Devils (2013) aren’t far removed from an appearance in the Pac-12 Championship Game, and neither program is in danger of suffering another steep drop in 2016. However, both teams are likely headed for a rebuilding year. Arizona State finished spring practice without an answer at quarterback, question marks on the offensive line and concerns in the secondary. Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez revamped his defensive staff after this unit allowed 35.8 points a game in 2015. The Wildcats also need a healthy year out of quarterback Anu Solomon and running back Nick Wilson to exceed last year’s seven wins. Both programs are in good shape for the long haul, but Arizona and Arizona State face a tough path just to get bowl eligible in 2016.

College Football: Others Receiving Votes



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Pac-12 Team Previews for 2016

Visit the Athlon Sports Online Store to order a copy of the 2016 Pac-12 Preview Magazine, which features in-depth analysis and previews for all 12 teams, predictions, rankings and features to prepare for the upcoming year. 

Pac-12 Predictions for 2016

Pac-12 Superlatives and Season Predictions

 

Steven Lassan

Mitch Light

Mark Ross

David Fox

Braden Gall

 

@AthlonSteven

@AthlonMitch

@AthlonMarkR

@DavidFox615

@BradenGall

Offensive POY

Christian McCaffrey RB, Stanford

Christian McCaffrey RB, Stanford

Christian McCaffrey RB, Stanford

Christian McCaffrey RB, Stanford

Christian McCaffrey RB, Stanford

Defensive POY

Budda Baker S, Washington

Budda Baker S, Washington

Budda Baker S, Washington

Budda Baker S, Washington

Budda Baker S, Washington

Coach of the Year

Chris Petersen Washington

Chris Petersen Washington

Chris Petersen Washington

Chris Petersen Washington

Chris Petersen Washington

Coach on Hot Seat

Mike MacIntyre Colorado

Mike MacIntyre Colorado

Todd Graham Arizona State

Mike MacIntyre Colorado

Mike MacIntyre Colorado

Top Freshman

Mique Juarez LB, UCLA

Theo Howard WR, UCLA

Mique Juarez LB, UCLA

Mique Juarez LB, UCLA

Mique Juarez LB, UCLA

Top Newcomer

Davis Webb QB, California

Davis Webb QB, California

Davis Webb QB, California

Davis Webb QB, California

Davis Webb QB, California

Sleeper Team

Washington State

California

California

Utah

Washington State

Top Coordinator Hire

Brady Hoke DC, Oregon

Brady Hoke DC, Oregon

Brady Hoke, DC, Oregon

Marcel Yates DC, Arizona

Brady Hoke DC, Oregon

Key Position to Watch

Stanford OL

USC DL

Oregon DL

Stanford OL

Stanford OL

Hardest to Evaluate

USC

USC

Utah

Arizona State

USC

Coach on the Rise

Pete Kwiatkowski DC, Washington

Alex Grinch DC, Wazzu

Pete Kwiatkowski DC, Washington

Tee Martin OC, USC

Chip Lindsey OC, Arizona State

Must-See Game

Stanford at Washington

USC at Washington

USC vs.  Alabama

Stanford at  Washington

Stanford at Washington

Breakout Player

Ronald Jones RB, USC

Ronald Jones RB, USC

Jake Browning QB, Washington

Soso Jamabo RB, UCLA

Ronald Jones RB, USC

Comeback Player

Eddie Vanderdoes DL, UCLA

Eddie Vanderdoes DL, UCLA

John Ross WR/KR, Washington

Nick Wilson RB, Arizona

Eddie Vanderdoes DL, UCLA

Ranking the Pac-12's Coaches for 2016

1. David Shaw, Stanford

2. Chris Petersen, Washington

3. Kyle Whittingham, Utah

Click here to view the full Pac-12 Coach Rankings for 2016

Ranking the Pac-12's Quarterbacks for 2016

1. Josh Rosen, UCLA

2. Luke Falk, Washington State

3. Jake Browning, Washington

Click here to view the full Pac-12 Quarterback Rankings for 2016

Pac-12's Top 10 Players on the Rise for 2016

1. Ronald Jones, RB, USC

2. Jake Browning, QB, Washington

3. Cameron Smith, LB, USC

4. Soso Jamabo, RB, UCLA

5. Solomon Thomas, DL, Stanford

Recommended Articles

6. Kareem Orr, DB, Arizona State

7. Joe Williams, RB, Utah

8. Darrien Molton, CB, Washington State

9. Dalton Schultz, TE, Stanford

10. Dakota Prukop, QB, Oregon

Click here to view the Pac-12's Top 15 Players on the Rise for 2016

Pac-12's Top 10 Non-Conference Games for 2016

1. USC vs. Alabama (Arlington - Sept. 3)

2. Notre Dame at USC (Nov. 26)

3. Stanford at Notre Dame (Oct. 15)

4. UCLA at Texas A&M (Sept. 3)

5. Oregon at Nebraska (Sept. 17)

6. BYU at Utah (Sept. 10)

7. Texas at California (Sept. 17)

8. Washington State at Boise State (Sept. 10)

9. UCLA at BYU (Sept. 17)

10. Texas Tech at Arizona State (Sept. 10)

Pac-12's Key Coordinator Hires for 2016

1. Brady Hoke, Defensive Coordinator, Oregon

2. Chip Lindsey, Offensive Coordinator, Arizona State

3. Clancy Pendergast, Defensive Coordinator, USC

4. Marcel Yates, Defensive Coordinator, Arizona

5. Tee Martin, Offensive Coordinator, USC

6. Jake Spavital, Offensive Coordinator, California

7. Morgan Scalley, Defensive Coordinator, Utah

8. Kennedy Polamalu, Offensive Coordinator, UCLA

Pac-12's Top 15 Incoming Freshmen for 2016 (from 247Sports)

1. Mique Juarez, LB, UCLA

2. Demetris Robertson, WR, California

3. Oluwole Betiku, DL, USC

4. Jack Jones, DB, USC

5. Tyler Vaughns, WR, USC

6. Kaden Smith, TE, Stanford

7. K.J. Costello, QB, Stanford

8. N'Keal Harry, WR, Arizona State

9. Michael Pittman, WR, USC

10. Curtis Robinson, LB, Stanford

11. E.J. Price, OL, USC

12. Jamel Cook, DB, USC

13. Byron Murphy, DB, Washington

14. Theo Howard, WR, UCLA

15. Boss Tagaloa, DL, UCLA