Picking the Pac-12, and the Pac-10 & 8 before that, has long been a perilous proposition, as evidenced by the fact that the assembled opinion of those of us in the media that cover the conference has only gotten the Champion right twice in the last decade, and only around half the time in over a half century.
Last year was even worse than usual, as almost no one correctly picked the winner of either division, making picking the conference champion impossible by implication.
My predictions were as bad as anyones, getting only 3 of 12 spots right. Even picking the North to win the Conference Championship game loses some gloss when one considers that since its inception, the North division winner has claimed every Pac-12 title.
Colorado’s historic last to first turnaround to take the South had a lot to do with the miscalculations for everyone, though I did correctly have USC & Utah in 2nd & 3rd.
And everyone expected Washington to make a big surge, but the Huskies were ahead of schedule in winning both the North and the Conference on their way to the National Championship playoffs. Which has supplanted the Rose Bowl as the ultimate objective of everyone in the conference.
Coupled with Oregon’s epic collapse, it really scrambled the North. If you could have guaranteed a year ago that only 1 of 6 of my picks in the North would be correct, I suspect neither you nor I would have named Cal as the one that matched expectations most closely!
I do take some redemption in noting that last year would be more about unanswered questions than things we knew, and surprises were not in short supply at any time during the season.
It’s a new year though, and time again to try to digest an off-season of upheaval in an effort to predict where things will land come December, and the factors that will most affect those outcomes.
I’m predicting a North finish of:
- Washington State
- Oregon State
The only variance here from the overall choice of all the writers in Media Poll is Oregon being flipped ahead of Oregon State.
Washington will woof it up again this year, which is when a lot of what happened last season was supposed to come to pass along side Montlake. The Huskies will be better, and notably, more experienced, at every position group except the defensive secondary, and they have the cream of their recruiting crop concentrated there to address it. Chris Petersen has his system in place, and that’s proven to produce lots and lots of wins before. There’s no reason to not expect it to again.
Stanford would be considered a serious threat despite their player losses but for the uncertainty surrounding the recovery of quarterback Keller Cryst, above. from a serious Sun Bowl knee injury. But the combination of that and a tougher schedule than the Huskies have makes it likely the Cardinal come up unexpectedly short in some game somewhere along the line.
Washington State has to reload their wide receiver corp, but they have been able to handle that before, and when it wasn’t as easy a sell as it is now. There isn’t a game on the Cougars’ front loaded with home games schedule you can’t see a scenario in which they win, especially with Luke Falk, above, pulling the trigger on the Air Raid. But its also hard to believe Mike Leach won’t have his team Cuog it at some point, and as long as that’s a thing in Pullman, the Pac-12 North title will remain out of reach for a team that’s still fighting a resources battle they aren’t close in with half the division.
The closest and hardest to predict battle in the North might be separating Oregon and Oregon State in what could come down to the Civil War as a bowl qualification/elimination game. Given that this year, that battle will be fought in Autzen, picking the Beavers ahead of the Ducks is even more tenuous.
But new coach Willie Taggart and a new culture, not to mention new system, is going to result in a lot of surprises arising all season long. Given the combination of erratic defense and the loss of some serious skill, its likely there will be a couple of games that get away when the unexpected happens.
That still might not be enough to fall behind Oregon State, who is still a ways away on the defensive front, and probably looking at a lot of shuffling. But popular opinion is that in Jake Luton the Beavers will experience competent quarterbacking for the first time in the Gary Andersen era. If that comes to pass, it sets the stage for what could be the 1-2 punch that could win a lot of games the Beavers have been so good at losing, even pre-Andersen.
Ryan Nall is a force, but one subject to injuries in the face of over-predictability. But enter Thomas Tyner, who a lot of people around the conference kind of forgot about, and you have a 2nd backfield weapon capable of carrying a team, and keeping the workload on Nall down enough to keep him fresh and in play late in every game.
California is in complete rebuild mode, and doing so with the worst recruiting class (by a long shot) of anyone in the conference. The move to Justin Wilcox, and fielding an actual defense was long over due in Berkeley. But it will take personnel to do that, and time to get said personnel.
Time For The Trojans To Live Up To Expectations
I’m of the opinion that those who have repeatedly accused USC of consistently underachieving in the post-Pete Carroll era have also repeatedly underestimated the effects of the severe scholarship restrictions the Trojans endured for several of those years. Those have now not only passed, the after effects, which many people also don’t fully understand the impact of, are mostly over as well, and what happened once October rolled around last fall are a far better indication of things to come than the various travails that the Trojans experienced prior to then.
As such, my predicted South finish is:
- Arizona State
Again, there is only 1 variance from the overall Media Poll, which has UCLA ahead of Colorado in the 3 & 4 spots.
There is one other key variation, as the media has picked USC to repeat last year’s win at Husky Stadium, and beat Washington at Levi’s Stadium in the conference championship game.
I don’t trust Clay Helton as much as I do Petersen though, and while all streaks at some point come to an end, only a run of injuries seems capable of ending the run of the Pac-12 Champion coming out of the North.
Rounding Out The South
The Utes are simultaneously the most consistently competitive team in the Pac-12 South, yet also the only team never to win the South. Call it the Whittingham effect, but while it frustrates some Utah fans, it’s also what has frustrated opponents at least as much, as Utah is always a tough out, and what puts them squarely in the hunt, at least until November rolls around. It will again, as Utah has a lot to reload, but will manage to do so with enough success to inconvenience a number of flashier programs.
Hardly anyone, even the most ardent Buff fans, doesn’t expect some regression in Boulder, given the extent of the losses, both in terms of players, and subsequently their defensive coordinator to the Ducks. The question is how large, and how impactful, that regression is. My suspicion is that under Mike McIntyre, it won’t be all that bad, at least not now.
That’s in part because its becoming increasingly hard to envision Jim Mora not having an unsettled, and unsettling, season in Westwood. UCLA should be better than a 4th place team, but for the same reasons they should have been better than they were in recent years as well. And there’s also a reason the success Mora has had is on par with the best of the Bruins ever. Those factors haven’t gone away, and that makes it hard to trust UCLA to be as good some days as they are others.
It’s hard to believe that both Arizona and Arizona State might be in the market for a new head coach at the end of the season, but it’s not hard to believe that the Territorial Cup might decide which one goes.
Rich Rodriguez needs a level and quantity of talent that’s lacking in Tucson, and that’s a problem for the Wildcats that doesn’t seem to be improving. At the same time, at least a lot of the conference has figured out the high reward, but higher risk approach of Todd Graham, and the Sun Devils now seem to be back-sliding as has happened in each attempt to replace Frank Kush.
The Territorial Cup is in Tempe this year.
(Photos by Andy Wooldridge)