Athlon reviews the Pac-12 and looks ahead to the second half of 2015.
The halfway mark of the 2015 Pac-12 college football season has arrived, and it's been a busy and newsworthy first seven weeks for this league. Most of the storylines in the Pac-12 have resonated from Los Angeles, as USC is off to a disappointing 3-3 start and coach Steve Sarkisian was fired after taking a leave of absence prior to Week 7. The Trojans are now under the direction of interim coach Clay Helton, and while this team has underachieved, there’s no shortage of talent to play spoiler the rest of 2015.
In the North Division, Stanford has rebounded from an opening week loss to Northwestern to emerge as a playoff team. The Cardinal rebounded behind quarterback Kevin Hogan and running back Christian McCaffrey, while the defense – despite eight new starters – is allowing 21.3 points per game. Elsewhere in the North Division, Oregon is off to a slow start (4-3), and California has been a surprise with a 5-1 record.
Here are some award winners, plus second-half predictions from the Pac-12 in 2015:
Pac-12 Midseason Review and Second-Half Predictions
Offensive Player of the Year: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
The emergence of McCaffrey is a big reason why Stanford has is the team to beat in the Pac-12 North. After rushing for 124 yards through the first two games of 2015, McCaffrey has at least 115 in each of his last four games, including 243 yards against UCLA last Thursday. The sophomore leads the Pac-12 in all-purpose production with an average of 253 yards per game.
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Defensive Player of the Year: Gionni Paul, LB, Utah
It’s a close call between UCLA defensive tackle Kenny Clark, Oregon defensive end DeForest Buckner, USC linebacker Su’a Cravens and Paul for this honor, but the midseason award heads to Salt Lake City. Paul leads the Utah defense with 50 stops through six games and has recorded three takeaways, four passes defended and two fumble recoveries.
Coach of the Year: Kyle Whittingham, Utah
Whittingham continues to raise the bar for Utah in the Pac-12. After recording its first winning conference record (5-4) since joining the league in 2011, the Utes are the favorite to win the South Division and earn a playoff spot in 2015. Whittingham is the driving force behind Utah’s emergence and has the Utes ranked among the nation’s best after a 6-0 start, including wins against Michigan, California, Oregon and Arizona State.
Freshman of the Year: Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
It’s never easy starting as a true freshman quarterback for a Power 5 program, but Rosen has started all six games for the Bruins this season and passed for 1,568 yards and 12 scores. Rosen threw for 350 yards in his collegiate debut (Virginia) and is fourth among Pac-12 quarterbacks with three passing plays of 50 yards or more.
Newcomer of the Year: Shalom Luani, DB, Washington State
Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams is a strong candidate here, but the Eastern Washington transfer has missed a couple of games due to injury. Luani has been a key pickup for new Washington State coordinator Alex Grinch, as the junior college recruit is tied for second on the team with 46 tackles, ranks first with three interceptions and has recorded three pass breakups and two forced fumbles.
Biggest Surprise: Utah and California
While Utah is arguably one of the top surprise teams in the nation after seven weeks, let’s also give a tip of the cap to California. The Golden Bears are 5-1 and 2-1 in conference play so far and appear poised to make their first bowl appearance since 2011. Even if California finishes 7-5, there’s clear progress being made by coach Sonny Dykes in his third year.
Biggest Disappointment: Oregon and USC
USC and Oregon were picked by the media as the preseason favorites in July. After seven weeks, the Trojans and Ducks have combined for a 7-6 record, and both teams have work to do in order to reach a bowl game. Not only is USC dealing with its on-field struggles, but there’s also uncertainty and turmoil after coach Steve Sarkisian was fired prior to Week 7. The Ducks are dealing with the transition in the post-Marcus Mariota era, youth in the secondary, as well as an injury to quarterback Vernon Adams. Oregon and USC should get bowl eligible, but both teams had significantly higher expectations.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Will the Pac-12 Produce a Playoff Team?
Going into Week 8, Utah and Stanford are the Pac-12’s best hopes to have a playoff team in 2015. However, could the Pac-12 have too many good teams and not a clear standout? The Cardinal cannot afford another loss after dropping their opener to Northwestern, while the Utes still have obstacles to clear, including road trips to USC, Washington, Arizona and a home date against UCLA.
2. Improvement at Oregon
Assuming quarterback Vernon Adams can stay healthy the rest of the year, Oregon has a chance to build momentum over the second half of the season. The Ducks’ offense operates more effectively with Adams under center, but the Eastern Washington transfer has been dealing with a finger injury for most of the year. Road trips to Arizona State and Stanford won’t be easy for Oregon, but Oregon State, USC and California visit Eugene. How much progress will the Ducks make over the final five games with Adams under center and more experience from the new starters on defense?
3. What’s Next for USC?
Steve Sarkisian’s tenure ended abruptly after 18 games. How quickly will USC move to fill this vacancy at the end of the season? And for the short-term concerns, how big of a distraction will this be for the Trojans over the final six games?
Top Five Games in the Second Half
1. Notre Dame at Stanford (Nov. 28)
A potential playoff elimination game? Last three matchups in this series have been decided by seven points or less.
2. UCLA at USC (Nov. 28)
Some of the appeal of this matchup has diminished with USC’s 3-3 start, but this is still a big rivalry.
3. California at Stanford (Nov. 21)
The Big Game could have North Division title implications. Of course, California needs to navigate a tough stretch of games – at UCLA, USC at Oregon – to have a shot at the division title. The Cardinal have won the last five in this series.
4. Utah at USC (Oct. 24)
While Utah is unbeaten and USC is 3-3, the good folks in Vegas installed the Trojans as a slight favorite in this game. The Utes knocked off USC last season 24-21 in Salt Lake City.
5. Oregon at Stanford (Oct. 14)
This matchup was expected to decide the North Division title, but the outlook on his game has changed significantly over the last two months. Oregon is fighting to get back on track after a 4-3 record at the halfway point of the season, while Stanford is pushing for a playoff spot. Even though the appeal has diminished, this is still one of the North’s must-see matchups.
Predicting the Final 2015 Pac-12 Standings