By Ryan Mayer
College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, sleepers, and the rest. Can your team truly challenge for conference supremacy? Are they being underrated? Stay tuned.To give you an idea of what each tier means, teams that are marked contenders are considered legitimate division and conference title contenders. Sleepers are teams that if everything breaks their way could pull a few upsets and steal a spot in the conference title game. The rest is teams that likely won’t contend for the division or conference title but are more likely to be fighting for a bowl spot.
Today, we head out west with the Pac-12 North, where there looks to be a three team battle for the top.
Preseason Media Poll
1) Stanford Cardinal
2) Washington Huskies
3) Oregon Ducks
4) Washington State Cougars
5) California Golden Bears
6) Oregon State Beavers
David Shaw’s group missed out on the College Football Playoff despite finishing the season on a three-game winning streak, including a 41-22 win over USC in the Pac-12 title game. They then proceeded to demolish Iowa in the Rose Bowl 45-16. This year’s group won’t be as experienced, but they should keep Stanford in the mix for not only the division title, but the conference title as well.
On offense, the Cardinal bring back Swiss Army Knife running back Christian McCaffrey, who will be near the top of every Heisman watch list heading into the season after putting up 2,019 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground, while also leading the team in receiving with 45 receptions for 645 yards and another five touchdowns. He is a large part of the reason that the running game averaged a ridiculous 224 yards per game last season. Having him back is huge because Stanford will be breaking in a new quarterback for the first time in three years following Kevin Hogan’s graduation. Sophomore Keller Chryst, a highly-touted recruit, was Hogan’s backup last season and is expected to take over the reins this year. Chryst will be working with a veteran group of receivers as the Cardinal lost TE Austin Hooper and WR Devon Cajuste from last year’s team.
The biggest question is actually along the offensive line where Shaw looks to replace three starters, including Outland trophy winner (best OL) and first round draft pick guard, Josh Garnett. Stanford traditionally has a strong offensive line so despite the team breaking in new starters, I wouldn’t expect much of a drop off.
The Cardinal defense is usually one of the more stout units in the country. This year’s unit brings back six starters from last year’s squad that allowed opponents just 22.5 points and 368 yards per game. The defensive line will look different with both defensive ends moving on, but the team does get Harrison Phillips back from injury and returns Solomon Thomas, who had a stand out freshman season. The linebacker group returns the team’s number five and six leading tacklers in juniors Peter Kalambayi and Kevin Palma (52 and 44 tackles, respectively). The secondary will be bolstered by the return of free safety Zach Hoffpauir, who comes back to the team after playing minor league baseball last year.
The Cardinal don’t have a favorable schedule with four of their toughest games coming away from home as they have to travel to UCLA, Washington, Notre Dame, and Oregon. The three week stretch in September that features games at home versus USC and on the road against UCLA and Washington in consecutive weeks could go a long way in determining whether they will be a Pac-12 contender.
Toughest Games: vs. USC (9/17), @ UCLA (9/24), @ Washington (9/30), @ Notre Dame (10/15), @ Oregon (11/12)
The Ducks had a “down year” last season, going just 9-4 in the third season under Mark Helfrich. Granted, it was the first of his tenure without QB Marcus Mariota and the team was breaking in a grad transfer QB from the FCS level in Vernon Adams. Despite that, the offense was still pretty prolific, averaging 43 points and 538 yards per game.
This season, the Ducks will once again be breaking in a new QB, and it looks like it will be another FCS transfer in Dakota Prukop, who threw for 3,025 yards with 28 TDs and 10 INTs while adding 797 yards rushing last season for Montana State. Prukop will have the top four rushers back to work with from last season including junior Royce Freeman, who set the school record with 1,836 yards rushing last season.
A strong receiver group led by Darren Carrington and Dwyane Stanford should be able to offset the loss of top guy Bralon Addison to the NFL and the Ducks are hoping to get tight end Pharaoh Brown back at full strength following the horrific leg injury he suffered in 2014 that nearly cost him his leg. The question mark for the Ducks on offense comes along the line where they will be breaking in new starters at left tackle, left guard and center. While the up tempo style does make things slightly easier on linemen, the unit is still a question new offensive coordinator Matt Lubick will need to find answers to.
The Ducks defense was a mess last year. Granted, Oregon is never usually a contender to lead the nation on defense due to the higher number of plays and time spent on the field than their counterparts, but last season was particularly rough. The Ducks allowed opponents to average 37.5 points per game. Helfrich made a change in defensive coordinators by bringing in former Michigan coach Brady Hoke who will transition the unit from a 3-4 to a 4-3. Hoke will have to do so with question marks all over the front seven as the top two defensive linemen in DeForest Buckner and Alex Balducci and the top four linebackers all moved on. The good news for Hoke is he will have a more experienced secondary to work with as all of the projected starters are juniors or seniors.
The good news for the Ducks is their schedule is favorable with their two biggest competitors for the North crown (Stanford and Washington) having to come to Eugene. However, they will have to travel to USC, Utah and Big Ten West contender Nebraska.
Toughest Games: @ Nebraska (9/17), vs. Washington (10/8), @ USC (11/5), vs. Stanford (11/12), @ Utah (11/19)
Chris Petersen has won 15 games in his first two years with the Huskies (7-6 last year) and looks to have his best and most experienced group yet heading into this season. Last year, there were questions about the QB and RB spots heading into the year and freshman stepped into those roles and blossomed. Now, with a full year of experience under their belts and a lot of upperclassman talent surrounding them, the Huskies are the pick of many to win the North.
Jake Browning had a very good freshman year, throwing for 2,955 yards with 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while completing 63 percent of his passes. Now that he’s had a full year in the system, expect Petersen to open up the playbook a bit more for Browning as he gets to work behind an offensive line that returns four of its five starters from last season. Browning’s backfield mate Myles Gaskin exploded onto the scene is his debut year as well, setting a school freshman record with 1,302 yards rushing. Browning does lose his top two receivers from last season in Jaydon Mickens and Josh Perkins, but the Huskies get back John Ross Jr., who missed all of last year with an injury after splitting time between receiver and corner in 2014.
The defense returns three starters along the defensive line and the top two tacklers at the linebacker spot in Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria (95 and 77 tackles, respectively). The unit allowed opponents just 124 yards per game on the ground last season and with a large majority of their front seven back they should be able to put up similar numbers this season. The secondary is in good shape too with both corners back and free safety Budda Baker, who had seven pass breakups and two interceptions last season as a sophomore. After allowing just 18.8 points per game last season, this group looks primed to put up similar numbers this year.
The Huskies out of conference slate is a cake walk with Rutgers at home followed by Idaho and Portland State. They should be 3-0 after that stretch before opening Pac-12 play at Arizona on Sept. 24. Then back-to-back games against the Ducks and Cardinal in an early season test that could decide the Pac-12 North race. The Huskies close out the season on the road for the Apple Cup against Washington State and the Cougars will have revenge on their minds following a 45-10 beatdown in Seattle last season.
Toughest Games: vs. Stanford (9/30), @ Oregon (10/8), @ Utah (10/29), vs. USC (11/12)
Washington State Cougars
Mike Leach’s crew was one of the surprise teams in the country last season, going 9-4 after posting a 3-9 record in 2014. They won four games by seven points or less, including a double overtime stunner over the Ducks in Eugene. The Cougars won’t sneak up on anybody this season, but they have a lot of firepower returning once again to run Leach’s famed “Air Raid” offense.
A lot of the turnaround last season can be attributed to the progression of Luke Falk at the QB spot. As a sophomore, Falk completed 69.4 percent of his passes for 4,561 yards (5th FBS) with 38 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. The Cougars had the top passing offense in the country while averaging 389 yards per game through the air, which is not surprising given the design of the offense. Now heading into his junior season you would expect Falk to continue to improve especially considering the fact that he gets to work with almost all of the same receivers from last season. The only departure was Dom Williams, who was 2nd on the team with 1,040 yards and 10 touchdowns, but the depth is outstanding and replacing him shouldn’t be a huge problem. The Cougars also bring back their trio of running backs led by junior Gerald Wicks. While they don’t run the ball a ton (averaged 23 attempts per game last year), the experience should help keep defenses honest and allow for open spaces in the passing game. The line loses just two starters from last year’s group and should be able to give Falk the protection he needs.
On defense, the Cougars will need to find replacements for 1st team Pac-12 defensive end Darryl Paulo and 2nd team Pac-12 tackle Destiny Vaeao. They’ll also need to find replacements for two starting linebackers who moved on in Jeremiah Allison and Ivan McLennan. Their top tackler Peyton Pelluer (101 tackles 11 TFL) returns as man the middle, but how they replace those key losses in the front seven will be something to watch. The good news is the secondary remains mostly intact except for a new starter at safety following the departure of Taylor Taliulu. The defense allowed opponents to score 27.7 points per game last season and were gashed often by the running game (194 ypg average). Both of those numbers will need to come down if the Cougars hope to contend in the North.
The schedule does this team no favors as they have their bye in Week 4 following the out of conference slate and then have to play all nine of their conference games in consecutive weeks. They start off Pac-12 play with the particularly brutal stretch of Oregon at home, Stanford away, and UCLA at home in the first few weeks of October. As mentioned above, they do get the Apple Cup at home, but it’s tough to see this team hitting nine wins again this season.
Toughest Games: vs Oregon (10/1), @ Stanford (10/8), vs. UCLA (10/15), vs. Washington (11/25)
California Golden Bears
After flirting with a couple of job offers from other schools, Sonny Dykes signed an extension that will keep him at the school through 2019. After starting 5-0 last season with an experienced group, including eventual No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff, the Bears went just 2-5 down the stretch before winning their bowl game against Air Force 55-36 to get to 8-5 on the season. This year, the Bears are much less experienced and it looks like the beginning of a rebuilding process for Dykes and company.
The offensive losses are staggering. Obviously the team needs to replace Goff, a three-year starter, but they also need to replace the top six receivers from last year’s team as they all moved on to the NFL. At the QB spot, Texas Tech transfer Davis Webb could take over but he will battle with sophomore Chase Forrest, red-shirt freshman Ross Bowers and true freshman Max Gilliam. The receiver group does benefit from Tennessee transfer Vic Wharton getting to play after sitting out a year, but the rest of the group is largely unproven. The good news is the top three rushers are back led by Khalfani Muhammad and the offensive line brings back three starters. New offensive coordinator Jake Spavital (formerly of Texas A&M) will have his hands full finding replacements for the massive amount of production lost.
On defense, the Bears are in a similar spot as the front seven loses two starters along the defensive line and two starters at the linebacker spot including top tackler Hardy Nickerson, who transferred to Illinois to play for his father. Meanwhile, the secondary loses two starters in corner Darius White and safety Stefan McClure. As you can tell, there’s a lot of inexperience here, which likely means a bit of a down year for the program.
Toughest Games: vs. Texas (9/17), vs. Utah (10/1), vs. Oregon (10/21), @ USC (10/27), vs. Washington (11/5), vs. Stanford (11/19), vs. UCLA (11/26)
Oregon State Beavers
Gary Andersen’s first year at the helm was a rough one as the Beavers went 2-10 and 0-9 in Pac-12 play. The inexperience at QB was a big problem as the team continued to switch back and forth between Seth Collins, Marcus McMaryion, and Nick Mitchell. As the old saying goes, if you have two or three quarterbacks you really have none and that was the case for the Beavers last season.
Heading into this season, Collins moves to wide receiver and Mitchell graduates, which means Marcus McMaryion is the leading returning passer. Andersen did bring in Darrell Garretson as a transfer from Utah State, so he will battle with McMaryion for the starting job. Running back Ryan Nall is back for his sophomore season, but he carried just 73 times for 455 yards last season, so it remains to be seen if he can handle a full workload. The good news is whoever wins the QB jobs will have three of their top four receivers back in juniors Jordan Villamin and Hunter Jarmon and senior Victor Bolden. The offensive line loses to All Pac-12 3rd team players in Josh Mitchell and Isaac Seumalo but gets back Gavin Andrews from injury.
The defensive line loses three starters from last year’s group, but after allowing 226 yards per game on the ground, there’s really nowhere to go but up. They do bring back their number two and three tacklers in linebackers Caleb Saulo and Jonathan Willis and the secondary brings two starters back as well. After giving up 37 points per game last season, you’d expect this unit to improve on that number this season with more experience back.
The biggest problem is, the Beavers get their bye in Week 2 and then have to play 11 straight games in 11 weeks, which would lead one to think they may get worn down come season’s end.
Toughest Games: @ Minnesota (9/1), vs. Boise State (9/24), vs. Utah (10/15), @ Washington (10/22), @ Stanford (11/5), @ UCLA (11/12), vs. Oregon (11/26)
Division Winner- Stanford
This division is going to beat up on each other and I don’t see anyone coming out of it unscathed. Stanford is my pick because despite the inexperience at QB and on the offensive line, they have one of the most dynamic offensive weapons in the game in Christian McCaffrey and Stanford always finds a way regardless of experience to get good line play. Washington is becoming the trendy pick and the Huskies could certainly win this division, especially considering the fact that they get the Cardinal at home, but I think in the end they’re still a year away. The Ducks will certainly be a factor, but the defense has too many question marks for me to feel comfortable picking them over either Stanford or Washington.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.