Over 7 months ago I sat like a naïve child glued to the big screen convinced this was the year that the PAC-12 would get the credit they deserved. I'm from Texas, the Ducks are playing at Cowboys Stadium; if its going happen, this is the year. No more Pete Carroll legacy - it's time for another PAC team to win the big one. And why would I think Ohio State even had a chance to come out on top. Oregon pounded the Seminoles 59-20 and sent Winston home crying just 10 days before… of course this was the year for the PAC -12. The 10 year stretch was over and Oregon was going to come out on top and not only show the SEC the gap had been closing over the years; but that the PAC-12 was the new powerhouse. But the Buckeyes had a different agenda. Talking with friends months after the championship game, all I remembered was the name Ezekiel Elliot..four touchdowns, 36 carries, over 250 yards…that is what I remember about that day.
Oregon Ducks - 2015 Championship Game
Even though it been almost eight months since BIG 10 Champion Ohio State had its way with PAC-12 Champion Oregon, it's still hard to think about. But as the 2015-2016 college football season approaches, no conference is more loaded with talent than the PAC-12.
Preseason history is repeating itself as much of the national media is quick to appoint the SEC as the dominate conference of the college football landscape. However, the past 2 National Champions have provided ample evidence validating the vulnerability of the SEC as the presumed elite conference of the past decade. Both Florida State and Ohio State knocking off the SEC winner the past 2 seasons has given PAC-12 fans reason for optimism. Even the most enthusiastic ACC (Florida State defeating SEC champion Auburn in the 2014-15 BCS Championship game) and BIG 10 (Ohio State defeating SEC champion and #1 overall seed Alabama in last season's college football playoff national Semi-final) football fan would admit their respective conference have not been nearly as talented as the PAC-12 the past two seasons—yet, the college football gods and the convenience of poor matchups for those SEC champions has proven that slaying Goliath is a reality. And nowhere is this reality more palpable than in the 2015-16 PAC-12.
Oregon (13-2 last season; PAC-12 Record: 8-1):
With the success the program has achieved over the past several seasons establishing Oregon as a nation power in the college football landscape, Duck fans are growing tired of just making it to big games. Although the Ducks are loaded with the usual speed at their traditional skill positions, many questions linger as the 2015-16 season approaches.
How will life after Mariota be for Coach Mark Helfrich and the Oregon offense? Last season the Heisman Trophy winner accounted for almost 70% of the Ducks' total offense. As Oregon's Head Football Coach, Helfrich has never had to prepare another starter to play the quarterback position for the Ducks other than Mariota. Helfrich has an outstanding 24-4 record in his two seasons as head coach, but as he enters his 3rd year many observers are interested in learning if Helfrich is able to achieve sustained success with his own players—and not simply with those recruited by his predecessor Chip Kelly.
Vernon Adams - Oregon Ducks
Oregon opens up against Eastern Washington in Eugene, a more important game than many pundits are accounting for—but not as it pertains to the outcome since the Ducks are just too deep and talented at every position. Though there is no doubt the kids from Eastern Washington will give it everything they have, it will nonetheless be surprising if the Ducks margin of victory is less than 4 touchdowns. However, this first game is enormously important for the Ducks' mindset as they enter a hostile environment and take on revenge minded Michigan State the following Saturday in East Lancing. Sparty is loaded on both sides of the ball with one of the best Quarterbacks in the country in Connor Cook and a defensive that can compete with any in the SEC. Against Eastern Washington, the Ducks will be forced to play the balancing act of perfecting their execution and working out all the kinks, while not showing too much on the field in the way of offensive play calling and defensive schemes. New starting QB Vernon Adams will be sure to want to impress against his former team but the real test will come the following week in East Lancing. The ideal outcome for the Ducks is for Adams to maintain a level of comfort in his execution of the offense that will hopefully translate the following week during practice and leading up to the Michigan State game on September 12th.
Note: Much of the national media is making quite a bit of noise regarding the loss of RB Thomas Tyner and the unproven commodity in transfer QB Adams. Perhaps the latter concern is legitimate as only time will tell (though the "is he a Jeremiah Masoli or Russell Wilson" discourse is just plain silly—probably just as silly as the trendy prediction of Adams as a Heisman finalist which some in the national media are forecasting). Tyner is big loss for sure. However, so long as Royce Freeman stays healthy and the Ducks have the benefit of RB/Receiver Byron Marshall reducing Freeman's load, the Ducks will be just fine at the RB position.
Stanford (8-5 last season; PAC-12 Record: 5-4):
Stanford Head David Brian Shaw (with a record of 42-12 over 4 seasons) was able to achieve what many believed impossible when Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck left for the NFL a few season ago: a sustained level of success with their signature hardnosed football while maintaining the commitment to academic and off the field excellence which has been a trademark of Stanford Student-Athletes.
Shaw looks to rebound from a disappointing 5-4 conference record last season as he has 9 starters returning on offense, and 4 returning on defense. Highlighting Shaw's returning starters is 5th-year Senior QB Kevin Hogan who although has 24-8 record as a starter, has been inconsistent much of his career. Hogan hopes to cap his time at Stanford on a high note and take pressure of a defense down from recent years. The Cardinals schedule sets up well as they open up nonconference play at Northwestern, a rising BIG 10 program. With a Top 25 recruiting class the Cardinals can expect to be serious threat to the Ducks in the PAC-12 North, looking to derail the "Quack-Attack" in Palo Alto where they host Oregon on a nationally televised Thursday night game Oct 29th.
California (5-7 last season; PAC-12 Record: 3-6):
When Cal administrators fired Jeff Tedford 3 years ago, a coach who brought the Golden Bears into national prominence (producing such future NFL stars as Aaron Rogers, Marshawn Lynch , and DeSean Jackson just to name a few), it was understood whomever took over would be given a rather long leash as the process of rebuilding the program unfolded. Well, as he enters his 3rd season as head coach (with a record of 6-18), Sonny Dykes' leash is little shorter this season and the collective patience of those same Cal administrators who fired Tedford is a little thinner.
Still searching for a marque win for his program, Coach Dykes hopes to build upon last season's 3 PAC-12 conference victories—wins that were anything but impressive (2OT 59-56 win at home vs. hapless Colorado; 1 point victory vs. Washington State; a win against Oregon State just before Mike Riley left Corvallis for Nebraska). But if there was ever cause to feel optimistic it has to be with returning starting QB Jared Goff, who is already third on Cal's career passing list almost 8,000 yards. The Golden Bears return 8 starters on offense and 7 on defense, making this Coach Dykes' deepest team since he arrived. Cal's 1st real test of the season will come when they travel to Austin to take on Texas the third week of the season—although the Longhorns are not the national power they were several years ago, they are still Texas with Texas recruits and facilities. If Coach Dykes can come away with a road win down in Austin he may likely have the elusive signature win for his program.
Washington (8-6 last season; PAC-12 Record: 4-5):
Most Husky fans considered it a fortuitous upgrade when barely over .500 coach Steve Sarkisian bolted for Southern Cal, leaving the void to be filled by long time Boise State head coach Chris Peterson. Now entering his 2nd season as head coach at Washington, expectations are sky high in Seattle knowing what Coach Peterson was able to get out Junior College transfers willing to play in Boise. When you add to the equation a program name rich with history and tradition (Husky fan is quick to remind Duck fan they own a national title, albeit with an asterisk beside it), coupled by the allure of playing in the major market of Seattle with major program facilities at UW, there is legitimate reason for optimism.
Now the reality—cupboards are bare for Peterson as he returns just 5 starters on offense and 5 on defense. Coach Peterson's Boise State teams were defined by exceptional play at Quarterback, yet coming out of spring practice it was unclear who will be taking snaps under center when Peterson returns home to open up against his former team on the formidable "Smurf Turf." The reality is, and what Husky fan doesn't want to hear, this will be a rebuilding year for Coach Peterson as he works to implement his own system and attract his own personnel.
Washington State (3-9 last season; PAC-12 Record: 2-7):
Mike Leach enters his 4th season at the helm in Pullman with an unimpressive 12-25 record and coming off just 2 conference wins last year. His trademark "air raid" offense puts up plenty of points and is fun to watch. However, his WSU defenses the past few seasons have been historically bad both in giving up points and yards. You would think Coach Leach would be on the hot seat entering this season—but you would be wrong. Though the Cougar fan base yearns for the days when WSU is relevant in national stage again—or even in the PAC-12—they are realistic and understand their team plays in Pullman, Washington and Coach Leach is proven winner (i.e. the original Air Raid Offenses of Texas Tech).
Coach Leach returns 7 starters on offense and 6 on defense, and most notably all five starting offensive linemen return from last season. The field goal kicking and punting struggles are well documented with Coach Leach making a rare mid-season firing of an assistant coach last fall. Given this inconsistency expect Coach Leach to continue to roll the dice on 4th down keeping his offense on the field regardless of field position. The Cougars schedule opens up quite nicely with 4 very winnable games before heading to Eugene to take on Oregon Oct. 10th, then a four week rough patch (at Arizona, Stanford, ASU, at UCLA) before ending the season with 2 winnable games against Colorado and Washington.
Oregon State (5-7 last season; PAC-12 Record: 2-7):
The Gary Anderson era could not come soon enough for Beaver nation with the OSU coming of a disappointing 2 conference win season in Mike Riley's last year. Expect LOTS of changes as OSU's offense transitions from Riley's traditional pro style sets to the up tempo/spread offense Coach Anderson brings with him. And with Shawn Manion in the NFL the Quarterback position is a major question mark heading into this season. Even if being portrayed as a rebuilding year under the new coach, Beaver fans can be optimistic as they return more offensive starters from last season (9) than any other team in the PAC-12 North. Most notably expect RB Storm Woods to get plenty of touches as Coach Anderson figures out the Quarterback situation. Defense is an even bigger question mark with only 2 returning starters from last season's unit.
The Beavers will have little time to ease into their new coach's system, opening up at Michigan in Jim Harbaugh's first home game in the "Big House" with over 100,000 onlookers during just the second game of the season.
Washington drops out of top 25 with mediocre week one performance
I wasn’t convinced Peterson was worth his contract when he signed on with University of Washington, and his debut as head coach was anything but impressive as the Huskies edged the Warriors 17-16 Saturday to open up the Pac 12 season. Good news for the Huskies - their opener was against a Mountain West opponent coming off a 1-11 season; bad news – the running game alone is not effective in a conference like the Pac 12. This style of coaching can fare well if you’re up against the Lobos or Air Force, not so much against the Cardinal defense or the Ducks secondary.
Saturday they face Big Sky opponent Eastern Washington; a team who has outscored their opponents 97-44 in their first two games of the season. I’m betting against the spread with my pick this week. Shelton and Qualls were the only defense players that showed up last weekend, and with Lindquist finishing the day 10 of 26 for 162 yards I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw Miles under center this week. These two areas will be exposed Saturday, and if Eagles LB Ronnie Hamlin and his defense can shut down backs Washington and Coleman, it’s going to be a long day for the Huskies.
Game time: 12:05 Kickoff PST; Pac 12 Network
#13 Stanford and #14 USC Battle it out in this Pac 12 conference opener
Stanford is favored by 4 this weekend as they take on Southern Cal at home in this much anticipated conference opener. Trojans QB Kessler was 25 of 37 for 394 yards and 4 TD’s last week, and back Javorius Allen added 133 more on 22 carries. They finished the day with 700 yards on the offensive side. The defense side of the ball was strong too, holding their opponent to just 160 total yards and forcing 4 picks (from four different defensive players).
SC’s Kessler (minor toe surgery this week) and DE Leonard Williams are both expected to see the field Saturday.
Stanford spread the ball around on the offensive side last week with 10 players picking up a combined 424 yards in the air, while adding another 274 on the ground. On the defensive side of the ball, Stanford held the Aggies to just 115 yards last week as they walked away with the easy 45-0 win.
Senior QB Keith Hogan (12 of 16 for 204 yards and 3 TD’s) led the team to a perfect 7-0 record at home last season and was handed just one loss at home in 2012; from none other than USC. Off field controversy and drama (Anthony Brown and Josh Shaw) didn’t affect SC last week as some expected; but I wouldn’t be surprised if Sarkisian’s post game comments from their matchup last season comes back to haunt him this weekend. If I was Coach Shaw, I would play the audio clip of Sarkisian accusing Stanford of faking injuries before they head out on the field Saturday.
Fellow faithful college football fans - it is that time of year again. For the past 233 days we have been patiently waiting for this weekend to arrive. Patiently waiting to see how Leach will fare his second year in the Palouse, if no conference Notre Dame falls 0-3 against the PAC this season, if a Pac 12 team will win the national championship, and if Steve and Chris made the right decision (an $18 million dollar offer would make the transition from Boise to Seattle pretty easy for me).
Work production all over the US slowly decreased the past 4 weeks as we checked stats on team recruits, injuries, opponents, and spreads. As we overanalyze our Pac12 stats and put together the playoff brackets in our head, we all collectively hope that the SEC doesn’t return to claim their eighth consecutive title game.
Here are my recommendations of the top Pac 12 games to watch this weekend:
Rutgers vs. the Cougs: Leach returns for his third season with the Cougs as they take on this Big East contender Thursday night in the Palouse. Unlike Oregon or OSU, the Cougs face a tough opponent in their season opener. The Cougs could struggle on the defensive side of the ball as only 6 returning starters try to fill the holes of the two top tackles they lost last season. Washington State averaged 368 yards in the air last season, so expect the same from Halliday in this season opener. I think this will be a high scoring game with the Cougs capitalizing in the air, and the Scarlet Knights focusing on their rushing game.
Fresno State vs. USC: The Bulldogs travel to the Coliseum to take on SC without star QB Carr and WR Davante Adams; standout Adams finished his college career racking up 24 of the teams 50 total TD’s last season. Coach DeRuyter has yet to decide if Burrell or Connette will be starting Saturday, but whoever is chosen will face Leonard Williams, one of the top defensive lineman in the country. When you throw the recent SC headlines into the mix, Sarkisian has his hands full as he starts his career as the new head coach of the Trojans.
Recommendations to watch for entertainment value or because you’re a fan:
South Dakota vs. Oregon: We can only hope the weather is pleasant for the Duck mascot because he should be closing in on 200 plus pushups by the end of the day. This is a game for Oregon to pad their stats for the rest of the year and fine tune things before they face the Spartans.
Portland State vs. Oregon State: I wouldn’t waste any DVR space on this one, but you never know what can happen when the Beavs face a Big Sky opponent….Eastern Washington stunned the Beavers 49-46 season so anything could happen, but I would put money on the Pac 12 if someone wanted to throw some money on it.
Enjoy your first weekend of the best part of the year!