Now that the earlier than ever before Pac-12 Media Days are over, the preseason predictions by the media are out as well. Expectations for Oregon State are not very high; indeed they are the lowest of anyone in the conference.
There are always question marks about programs when heading into the season, and attempting to prerank teams before any games are played, and a [still] young roster with yet another array of coordinators that’s facing a very tough schedule are certainly reasons for questioning how far Oregon State can go even more than any other conference team.
But Pac-12 wide, this year I found myself listing teams not as much based on positive potential (even though there’s a lot of that in some quarters), but instead on my degree of lack of confidence in each team’s ability to overcome the challenges ahead. Peter astutely already hit on this issue of who you trust, and it really is one of the major storylines conference wide this year.
But before delving into the upcoming season, I took a look back at my miscalculations from a year ago. They turned out to be a mixed bag, in that I only got 5 of 12 right, and 4 of those were the picks for 5th & 6th, but 6 of the other 7 were withing 1 spot of where they wound up. I also had the North providing the overall Pac-12 Champion; it just wasn’t the right team, as Stanford, not Oregon, earned a Rose Bowl trip, this despite the Ducks having cut down the Tree in Palo Alto.
Only Utah, which finished 2 spots above where I expected, had a major variance, and the Ute’s upset win of historic proportion in Autzen was not only a part of that, it was also what inverted my picks at the top of the North division.
This year, the Pac-12 Media, in aggregate chose Stanford to win both the Pac-12 North, and then the Conference Championship game. It’s the first time Stanford has ever been picked to win the Pac by the writers. Over the past 55 years, the media has been right only a little more than half the time, but only twice in the the last 9 years, though.
My pick to win the North is Stanford as well, and so too my pick to win the Pac-12 Championship, in part because the winner of the North always has won the title game since its inception, and in part because you can’t pick Stanford to win the North and Oregon to win the conference, although I think if things break the Ducks way, they are a better bet to win at Levi Stadium in December if they get there than the Cardinal.
I’m predicting a North finish of:
- Washington State
- Oregon State
That matches the media consensus except they have the Huskies and Ducks flipped.
Stanford has to replace their quarterback, as Kevin Hogan has finally graduated, and so far, the Cardinal coaching staff hasn’t decided who will take over between Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst. They also have to replace a number of linemen down on the farm, and that’s probably more important than who gets the QB job.
However, Stanford also has Christian McCaffrey, above enroute to a 206 yard rushing night at the expense of the Beavers last season, and David Shaw. In the spirit of who one trusts, I trust what I’ve seen, and I’ve seen McCaffrey demonstrate that he is a game changer among game changers.
I also trust Shaw’s recruiting of linemen.
Regarding Oregon and Washington, I trust a good defense, and the Huskies have the best one in the Pac-12, to keep a team in the hunt.
But I don’t yet trust Washington QB Jake Browning to be able to carry his team, or elevate the Huskies’ passing game to anywhere near the level of their running game with Myles Gaskin. I also don’t yet trust the Washington offensive line to return to the upper echelon in the Pac-12.
I also don’t trust Washington to win in Autzen Stadium, where they haven’t won since 2002, or in Arizona, where they haven’t won since 2006, or against Arizona State, who they haven’t beaten since 2001. That Purple D should end one of those streaks this year, but considering Washington also has to play Stanford on a Friday, with the Husky Stadium crowd effect deflated while stuck in traffic, at Utah, and in Pullman, there’s going to be some losses along the way.
I don’t yet trust Dakota Prukop either, but Oregon has Royce Freeman, right, and as always, more speed at the offensive skill positions than anyone else in the Pac-12. Both have proven trustworthy.
Oregon also doesn’t have to play in the desert heat, or against UCLA, and they do get Stanford in Autzen Stadium, though that is the Ducks only game there in November.
No one knows if they can trust Washington State coach Mike Leach either, but more importantly, while I might trust Luke Falk, left, more than any other quarterback in the conference, if not the country, to produce at the controls of the Air Raid, I still don’t trust the Cougs to protect him. Falk, and every other recent WSU starter that wasn’t an emergency fill in, have gotten hurt at some point. Last year, that ensured an Apple Cup loss that negated the upset of Oregon.
And the Cougs will Cuog it at some point, like they did when they missed the Stanford beating field goal last year, which would have changed the Rose Bowl.
I’ve never trusted Sonny Dykes to field a defense, and with Cal replacing not only NFL Draft #1 pick Jared Goff, but all 6 oh his top receivers from last year, even the addition of transfer QB Davis Webb from Texas Tech and some highly regarded recruits doesn’t make the “Bear Raid” something I trust to go very far in the ultra-competitive Pac-12 North.
The trust issue does come into play at Oregon State as well, such as does any of us trust that Ryan Nall will get the ball consistently, but issues of depth and inexperience, and the still apparent lack of a speed rusher, trump a lot of the trust issues.
The “U”s Rule The South
The general consensus is that the “U“‘s rule the south, and specifically the LA Us, UCLA & USC, and by a wide margin, with Utah the only potential interloper.
Los Angeles, and southern California, is always sharply divided between USC and UCLA proponents, but its rarely been moreso than right now, and the media’s pick of the Bruins ahead of the Trojans by a scant 7 points reflects that.
My picks for the finish in the South match:
- Arizona State
USC has more talent overall, and better depth, but they don’t have a returning quarterback, and they also have in Clay Helton, a coach who has only been a head coach on an interim basis until being promoted last year to be the permanent top Trojan.
UCLA has some coaching consistency in Jim Mora, who despite being viewed as disappointing and under-performing by some (many?), is one of the most successful coaches the Bruins have ever had, and one who has fared well against the guys from across town.
More importantly, UCLA also has Josh Rosen, left, who is in the conversation with Falk as to who is the best quarterback in the conference.
USC also has the toughest schedule in the country to negotiate, though UCLA, with trips to Kyle Field (and Texas A&M) and BYU isn’t that far behind.
However, in conference, the Bruins get Stanford and Utah in the Rose Bowl, and get Oregon State instead of Oregon, and miss Washington, whereas the Trojans open conference play with back to back trips to Palo Alto and Salt Lake City, as well as having Oregon and Washington back to back, before having to go cross-town for the Battle for the City, and probably the Pac-12 South.
Utah will as usual ride their defense, a Kyle Whittingham trademark, but the Utes have to replace not only their quarterback, but the best of their receivers; this on top of having to count on Joe Williams to replace DeVontae Booker.
It’s unlikely that will produce enough offense to win the Pac-12 South, but Utah certainly could disrupt the race.
The Arizonas are both replacing a lot of key players, and if either climbs out of the bottom half of the Pac-12 South, more people will be at least mildly surprised than not. They are also hard to separate for many, myself included, and the fact that the ‘Cats and Sun Devils are only separated by 2 points in the media poll, the smallest difference between any 2 teams in the conference, regardless of division is indicative of that.
Arizona will be breaking in a lot of new players on defense, and breaking them into a completely new defensive scheme, brought by new defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, formerly the DC at Boise State, replacing the unique system of the departed Jeff Casteel.
Arizona State will be breaking in a new quarterback, and doing it behind an offensive line that only returns 1 starter.
As is usually the case in this conference, the schedule becomes the differentiating factor when trying to differentiate between 2 teams that seem similar in terms of their prospects.
Arizona also has a late October break, the lack of which has been an issue for the traditionally thin ‘Cats rosters in recent seasons.
Colorado could actually sneak past at least one of the Arizonas, and out of the Pac-12 South basement for the first time since the Buffs joined the conference. but I don’t trust their depth yet.
And does anyone but Sefo Liufau trust his foot post last season’s Lisfranc injury until we see it hold up on the field?
It promises to be another highly competitive Pac-12 season, one where the number of games that have a wide variance from the pregame line will be large.
(Photos by Andy Wooldridge)