Pac-12 Media Days (plural; its a 2 day affair for the first time this year, on Wednesday and Thursday; here's the schedule) are coming, and with them, the Pac-12 Media Poll.
Last year, my predictions were more in line with the rest of the Pac-12 Media than what wound up happening, though it was an improved year for me, with half the teams slotted correctly once December rolled around, though I once again didn't get the right teams into the Conference Championship game.
I got the top 4 of the North Division wrong, though it was just a matter of flipping the #1 & #2 positions, and the #3 & #4 spots. The South Division came closer, with the only difference being Arizona St. and USC winding up #1 & #3 instead of the other way around. Misjudging how Oregon St. would do in their 10th & 11th games, in Tempe, and then in the Beavers' infamous outing against Washington accounted for most of the inaccuracy, with Oregon QB Marcus Mariota's injury the other main cause of mis-calculation.
This year, I'm actually deviating very little from my picks for last season, with only 2 flip-flops across the conference.
This time around, I see the North winding up
4. Oregon St.
5. Washington St.
The reasons for picking Oregon are (again) simple; Mariota, a favorite for the Heisman, is back, and so is more speed than anywhere else in the Pac-12.The return of
A schedule that avoids the physical USC and the Arizona desert, as well as the Sun Devil offense, and sends both Stanford and Washington to Autzen doesn't hurt either.
Stanford is simply too solid to mess up too many times, and though he has his detractors, Kevin Hogan, below, has a knack for winning games he possibly shouldn't, and other people tend to lose to David Shaw coached teams when they shouldn't.
However, the defending Pac-12 North and Conference Champion Cardinal have a brutal schedule, one that makes them more likely to be vulnerable to fall further than to second than to contend for a 3rd consecutive conference title.
Back to back trips to Washington and Notre Dame starts a run of 6 road games in Stanford's last 9, and in addition to the trip to Oregon, the Cardinal must also visit Tempe (though they did pretty well against there last year in the Pac-12 Title Game) and close the regular season with a trip to the Rose Bowl to take on UCLA.
Washington is one of only two teams in the Pac-12 that does not have an experienced returning quarterback, and the Huskies must also find a replacement for Bishop Sankey at running back. That tempers what would normally be over the top expectations under new head coach Chris Peterson, who has a deep and experienced offensive line, and an intimidating defensive front 7 returning that includes the conference sack leader Hau'oli Kikaha, below picking up one of those sacks at Oregon St.'s expense.
The Huskies' inability to beat Arizona St, or even be competitive against Oregon, in years is also indicative of trouble in track meet games, and it will take Peterson some time to amass enough team speed to do so, which could be the last hurdle to overcome in the rebuild at Montlake.
Oregon St. returns Sean Mannion, above, the leading returner in the country in terms of quarterbacks passing yards. Barring injury, by Halloween, the Beaver triggerman will be the all time stat leader in the qb history of the PAC, which unlike any other conference in the country, is and has for a half a century been the home of an endless march of tremendous talents. That means the Beavers, despite the departure of Brandin Cooks, have the potential to have shot in any and every game.
But its also impossible to forget the poor performance that Oregon St. turned in at Arizona St., and then the complete failure of preparation that was the Washington game, back to back fiascos that made what should have been an upset win in the Civil War and a season ending win over Boise St. in Hawaii come as total surprises.
The season schedule is almost identical to last year's, and so while its entirely possible that the Beavers could win 9-10 games, they could also struggle to get more than 3 wins, and so something in the middle is most likely; a typical Mike Riley year, which always seems to feature a tremendous win no one saw coming, and also a completely inexplicable melt-down or two.
Washington St. (and Connor Halliday, above) should once again put up enormous numbers with the "Air Raid", and is the offense most likely to out-throw Mannion this fall. The Cougars could also have the deepest and most versatile receiving corp in the country, never mind the Pac-12.
But Halliday could cut his interceptions in half and still be a ball security concern, and Washington St. still shows no sign of being able to run the ball when needed. That makes games like last year's against Oregon St. in Pullman likely to occur again, and the difference between the Beavers and Cougars in the finish could be a stretch like the 3rd quarter in last year's game.
California has been anything but golden of late, losing their last 16 in a row against FBS opponents, and the Bears have only come close a couple of times during the course of that disaster. Second year coach Sonny Dykes overhauled the non-existent defense after last season, but still has a "Bear Raid" offense that was great at throwing for yards in the middle of the field, but struggled mightily at producing in the red zone. And he does not have a number of players who have left the struggling program early.
Jared Goff will give California passing yards, but unless the "Bear Raid" becomes a reliable scoring machine, Dykes could be done in Berkeley. And the only game this season California won't be sizable underdogs in will be against FCS Sacramento St.
The Pac-12 South should again have a 3 way race for the division title, and the schedule will have a lot to do with how it unfolds. I expect it will wind up this way:
3. Arizona St.
That doesn't mean USC is better than UCLA; in fact they probably aren't. The Trojans are out from under their NCAA-imposed scholarship reductions, but it will take time to completely reload the roster.
And while its hard to say who will ultimately prove to be the better career coach, former USC assistant Steve Sarkisian, who came back to Troy from Washington, isn't currently operating on the level that UCLA coach Jim Mora is and has been in his 2 years in Westwood.
But the Bruins have a brutal schedule, and the Trojans a far more favorable one, despite having to travel cross-town for the rivalry game that could decide the Pac-12 South.
But the Bruins have to play the Sun Devils in Tempe in September, in their next game after a trip to Texas, and get Oregon and a trip to Seattle to play Washington, while the Trojans miss both the Ducks and Huskies, get Oregon St. instead of Oregon at home, and gets Arizona St. in the LA Coliseum as well.
Expect a game to get away from USC, and Sarkisian, at some point, but the Bruins could be beat up enough by the schedule to reproduce last year's second place finish.
Brett Hundley gives UCLA a great chance to overcome that schedule, but only if the Bruins can cut down on the number of sacks they allow. Cody Kessler, below, has a better set of targets across town too, headed by Nelson Agholor, below.
Second year coach Todd Graham not only won the Pac-12 South last year, his Sun Devils became the first South team (and last; the Pac-12 will hold the title game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara for the foreseeable future), but Arizona St. couldn't capitalize on the opportunity, as Stanford snared the trip to the Rose Bowl, and sent the Sun Devils into a season ending losing streak.
Arizona St. returns quarterback Taylor Kelly, his favorite target in Jaelen Strong, and a suitable replacement for Marion Grice in D.J. Foster (who was Kelly's 2nd favorite target last year) at RB. That would normally make the Sun Devils the favorite to repeat as the Pac-12 South champion, but the departure of 10 starters on defense is going to leave a lot of question marks for Graham to find answers to.
Question marks on defense are not a recipe for success when facing UCLA, USC, Stanford and Washington (in Seattle) all in a row before the end of October. It's possible that Arizona St.'s hopes for a return to the conference championship game could already be dashed before the defense gets solidified.
Utah has missed the post-season by 1 game the last 2 years (think about how big the Utah-Oregon St. rivalry is becoming in the fortunes of a pair of middle of the pack teams!), and lost their starting quarterback long before the season ended, as the main reason why.
But Travis Wilson, above, has been cleared to return to action, and its worth remembering that the Utes beat Stanford last year. If the Utah o-line can keep Wilson around for a full season, the mood in Salt Lake City could quickly return to being a bowl game celebratory one.
Arizona is the other team besides Washington that does not have an experienced quarterback, or even an idea of who will take the first snap of the season. In the uber-competitive Pac-12, that could trump the magic that coach Rich Rodriguez often seems to conjure up. Recall what the 'Cats did to end Oregon's run of BCS bowl appearances last November in Tucson.
If the lack of a qb doesn't, then the departure of RB Ka'Deem Carey, and Pac-12 opponents having a couple of years of video on Rich Rod, might.
The 'Cats are the greatest threat to the top half of the Pac-12 south from the bottom half, but also easily the most vulnerable to being overtaken, especially if it takes much time to find a new backfield.
Colorado may be the team that makes the most improvement over where they were a year ago and the one with the least to show for it all at once.
The Buffs switched to freshman Sefo Liufau mis season, and though he won't have Paul Richardson to throw to, Colorado could equal or even exceed last year's 4 win total without having to play any FCS foes! But a schedule that has 8 teams that went bowling last year, including a grueling 6 straight stretch that begins with Oregon St. and ends at Oregon, will be tough to make much headway against.
(Photos by Andy Wooldridge)