The Pac-12 media poll comes out this week, a part of Pac-12 Media Day, which is (finally; the Pac-12 is the last of all the FBS conferences to hold theirs) tomorrow. It signals that football season is just around the corner.
To try to kick start the conversation towards football, I thought I’d share my preseason picks, and some context for them. There are sure to be some surprises (there always are with the diverse and competitive Pac), but its a starting point.
4. Washington State
6. Oregon State
3. Arizona State
Pac-12 Champion: Washington
The North practically owns the Pac-12 Championship, and the strength may lie even moreso in the North this season than most. And while the Pac-12 has individually and collectively been underwhelming in the last couple of years, the Huskies have been to 3 straight New Year’s 6 bowls, and there is no accident involved in that.
As is always the case in the Pac-12, with its poorly distributed unbalanced schedule, who you play, and when and where, and who you do not play, makes a big difference.
The North will be rugged again.
It’s not at all clear that Washington is a better team than Oregon, but even in a reloading year, co-defensive coordinators Pete Kwiatowski and Jimmy Lake have earned the benefit of the doubt. Combined with a favorable schedule that brings Cal, USC, Oregon, Utah, and WSU all to Husky stadium, until proven otherwise, one has to assume the Huskies will have the defense to repeat as Pac-12 North Champions.
Similarly, while the Oregon coaching staff has already demonstrated themselves to be the best recruiting staff in the conference, it remains to be seen how well they will be able to navigate a very difficult road schedule that begins with a trip to Texas to play Auburn, and includes road games at Stanford, USC, and Arizona State as well as the showdown in Seattle.
And then, there is Stanford. The Cardinal have a difficult overall schedule as well, but in the last 4 odd-numbered years under Coach David Shaw, when they get both Oregon and Washington (and Cal) at home, they have twice won the Pac-12 North outright, and tied for 1st the other 2 times. Picking them to finish even as low as 3rd seems dangerous in this year’s schedule configuration.
Plus, Stanford has a Cougar problem, having lost to Washington State the last 3 years, and the Cardinal barely got out of Pullman with a controversial win (and probably shouldn’t have) the year before that. Putting them ahead of WSU seems equally questionable.
And going with Washington, Oregon, and Stanford in the top 3 spots in any order means dropping Washington State to 4th. Cougar Coach Mike Leach has done more with less, and consistently exceeded expectations, at least outside of the Apple Cup, over the last 4 years, so even having to replace a record setting quarterback (again) doesn’t suggest Washington State won’t be a factor in the Pac-12 North race deep in November.
That, in turn, means slotting Cal at 5th. Which, with their defense, seems way low, even if the Bear offense only improves a little. And its hard to envision ANY scenario where that doesn’t happen, given how they fared last year. Coach Justin Wilcox has a defense that should be elite, and Cal is likely going to turn someone’s hopes of at least a very good bowl game into a Redbox experience.
Oregon State, which will more than likely be underdogs against everyone except Cal-Poly, and significantly in at least half their games, don’t have the personnel, especially on defense, to climb out of the cellar of the North, where its reasonable to expect all 6 members to be better defensively this year.
The South is Utah, and a wild scramble behind them.
The Utes are healthy, and they have the best program continuity in the South. More importantly, they also miss both Oregon and Stanford, and get Washington State and Arizona State at home.
USC is the program with a massive amount of talent, and a coaching staff no one trusts to maximize. Or maybe even survive the season if they don’t. Last year’s results certainly didn’t inspire confidence.
Arizona State, on the other hand, under first year Coach Herm Edwards, exceeded all expectations, even if the didn’t exceed what former coach Todd Graham typically accomplished. They also get Washington State, USC, Oregon, and the Territorial Cup all in Tempe.
That should translate to a cut above UCLA, especially if the Sun Devils can manage to beat the Bruins in LA. Coach Chip Kelly’s return to the collegiate ranks got off to a rough start last year, and though there a couple of bright spots, it looks like Kelly needs a couple more recruiting cycles to amass the talent required to climb into the upper echelon of the South.
Arizona is dangerous as long as quarterback Khalil Tate is upright. But the back end of the schedule is tailor made to chew up a thin roster, with back to back trips to USC and Stanford, after having taken on Washington, and a second half of November that wraps trips to Oregon and ASU around a visit from Utah.
Colorado is starting over (again) with their coaching staff, and every time they have done that in recent times (dating to before they joined the Pac-12), its taken time to rebuild to anything. It’s hard to see how a schedule that doesn’t include Oregon State’s defense or California’s offense, but does include trips to Oregon, Washington State, and Utah, is going to result in many pleasant surprises this season.
(Photo by Andy Wooldridge)