The most inexperienced Pac-12 head coach is Mark Helfrich, and he’s in charge of the Oregon Ducks, the team many are picking to be the conference’s first representative in the new four-team College Football Playoff. Ten starting quarterbacks return (only Washington and Arizona have new signal-callers). It’s setting up to be a pretty good year for the conference. Some thoughts on the Pac-12, in the likely order of finish.
If they had just beaten Stanford in either of the past two years, they would have likely made the BCS title game. This year, a chance to get in the first four-team playoff. If they beat Stanford. And if Heisman candidate Marcus Mariota can stay healthy, a problem that all Oregon quarterbacks have had since moving to the Chip Kelly “Blur” offense.
I want to see David Shaw when all of Jim Harbaugh’s recruits are gone. Stanford seems to be missing that special something, but I’ve thought that the past two years when all they’ve done is take down Oregon decisively — both years — and win the conference as well.
Oregon State Beavers
If this was 30 years ago, 6′ 5″, rocket-right-armed quarterback Sean Mannion would be the preseason Heisman favorite and on every magazine cover in the country. As is, the pro-style set the Beavs run is looked upon as passe … yet Mannion will likely own every Oregon State passing record by the end of the season, and a few conference marks as well. The defense could start nine seniors, yet this same group gave up 69 points to Washington last fall, so is that a good thing?
The Huskies were the winners in the Chris Petersen Head Coaching Sweepstakes. He didn’t have to move too far from Boise State and gets a team seemingly on the upswing. They have to replace Keith Price at quarterback, but I never liked him anyway. The Huskies defense ought to be one of the best against the run (the entire front line returns). They should be four-and-oh entering conference play, when they host Stanford and we learn a lot about both teams.
Washington State Cougars
The Mad Pirate, Mike Leach, has got to get this season started off right or who knows what sort of “Cougin’ It’s” (the common name — even by alumni — for Wazzu’s tendency to cough up leads in the fourth quarter) will happen. Last year, the Cougs nearly upset eventual BCS runner-up Auburn in the opener (and should have won it, a common refrain up on the Palouse). Starting QB Connor Halliday threw an NCAA-record 89 passes last season versus Oregon; I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he breaks 100 this season.
California Golden Bears
The Bears are covered extensively elsewhere on this site. The quick version: they will likely improve from last years debacle, but have an extremely hard schedule. The Sonny Dykes Bear Raid offense will put up plenty of points, so at least they’ll be fun to watch. If the defense can improve at all they will be much more competitive.
Head Coach Jim Mora is doing well so far as Pete Carroll 2.0 (fail as head coach in NFL, take underwhelming Southern California college football team and turn them into a national powerhouse). They won 10 games last year and, because those three losses were to Stanford, Oregon, and Arizona State (knocking UCLA out of the South Division Championship), it seemed like a bad season. QB Brett Hundley is another potential Heisman candidate, but the man is Myles Jack, who took home Pac-12 Freshman Defensive and Offensive Player honors. The expectation is for him to stick at linebacker, but if the running game struggles …
Steve Sarkisian left Washington for SoCal and promptly got in hot water. They should be pretty good this year with 17 returning starters (it was 18 until the Josh Shaw fiasco), but can Sark survive the scrutiny? He got frustrated dealing with Seattle media.
The Wildcats gave the starting QB job to redshirt freshman Anu Solomon, they return four of their five offensive linemen, giving him a better chance to succeed, and three of their five defensive returners are seniors. Super running back Ka’Deem Carey is in the NFL now, so that’s a lot of offense to fill, but their first four weeks (UNLV, at Texas-San Antonio, Nevada, and at Cal) are all totally winnable, so they might be in the top 25 before the big test at Oregon on Oct. 5 (the Ducks will want revenge for last year, when the ‘Cats mauled them 42-16 in the upset of the year).
Arizona State Sun Devils
I don’t trust Todd Graham, their head coach. They lost nine defensive starters, including top lineman Will Sutton. They return a top QB in Taylor Kelly, but man, they seem sketchy to me.
The schedule does them no favors — they’re at Michigan in Week 3, and also are at UCLA, Arizona State, and Stanford. They host Oregon and Arizona. Kyle Whittingham deserves better than this. I hope the Utah athletic department understands what kind of bind they put him in and stay patient. There were rumors last year he could be in trouble if they don’t win this season. That’s dumb. So that means it could happen.
Former San Jose State head coach Mike MacIntyre is in year two of a 25-year rebuilding project.