With the annual coming of Pac-12 Media Circus Days (here's the schedule and links to watch), so to comes the time to make our annual preseason picks for how the Pac-12 will finish.
Last year, I got the top half of the Pac-12 North right, but a struggling stretch run by Oregon St., which included blowing a 4th quarter lead to California, led to getting the bottom half inverted. Washington St. wound up 5th. as expected, but it was the Bears who wound up 4th, not the Beavers, who finished in last place in the Pac-12 North, instead. Oregon St. did have a better overall record than Washington St., though, but another blown 4th quarter lead led to the Cougs grabbing the win in Corvallis, and the conference race tie-breaker.
Things should stay the same towards the top this time around, but there should be a new contender emerging from the otherwise muddled bottom half of the Pac-12 North, which should see a spirited scramble, though one that won't attract that much attention outside the region.
I see the North finishing
4. Washington St.
6. Oregon St.
It's been popular to see this as the year that Oregon takes a step back, and since they played for the National Championship, after winning the Rose Bowl, the odds are they will.
They probably would have anyway had they not lost both the best quarterback in the history of the Duck program in Marcua Mariotta, AND much of the experience in their secondary, AND some other NFL talent.
But while I don't expect a return to the National Championship Game, I wouldn't rule it out, especially if the Ducks get through East Lansing unscathed on the second Saturday of the season.
There's plenty of reason for that, and certainly for a return to the Pac-12 Championship Game as the North winner, despite the exposure of the weaknesses of their linebacking group (no many teams will match what Ohio St. was able to do, so don't count on a regular repeat of that), and the well documented losses.
The secondary is less experienced, but the overall team speed the Ducks have hasn't diminished. Their lines didn't lose as much as some think, as the returnees are better than most wish. Their receiving corp will stretch and strain any and every secondary they sprint past.
And I don't anticipate problems with Vernon Adams integrating into the Oregon system. I do remember what he is capable of.
But more than anything, I know what Royce Freeman, above, is capable of. And I remember what Thomas Tyner is capable of. And I haven't forgotten what Byron Marshall is capable of. I suspect some others will have their memory refreshed this fall.
It's also been popular to predict Stanford slumping, given their losses on defense.
But they have a very experienced returning quarterback in Kevin Hogan, above, something only Cal can match in the Pac-12 North.
And more importantly, the Cardinal have already made the transition to a more wide open offense. The switch, which started with last year's beat down of the Beavers, has made full transition, and the results in the latter portion of last season were sound.
Everyone expects California to be Golden behind Jared Goff, above, now arguably the top NFL prospect in the conference, especially given the talent the Bears boast in his targets at wide receiver, and a better than you think rushing attack (which is an adjective that applies to most Pac-12 backfields this year).
And its a valid expectation, one I do think will result in a 3rd place finish.
But no more; Goff's quantum leap in accuracy last year still only moved a little above the 60% mark, and another nearly 10 point improvement that would get him to the truly elite level is going to be hard to accomplish. Particularly considering he will rarely be playing to protect a large lead.
Coach Sonny Dykes has a well established track record that doesn't include a defense, regardless of who he puts in charge of that side of the ball. Until evidence that he can turn that around appears, its impossible to see enough wins to challenge for the Pac-12 North title.
Washington St. is a popular pick to produce a hot seat for Coach Mike Leach, and all things that ail the Cougs most years likely will at some point this season too.
But this isn't Leach's first rodeo, and he's likely to pull off a couple of upsets. This possibility is helped by a schedule, and matchups, that will see the Cougars as underdogs in probably the majority of their games, but not so much so that they won't have a chance to pull the upset in most of them.
I think some predictions of gloom and doom in the post-Connor Halliday era will prove to be exaggerated, and Luke Falk, above, will prove to be more than adequate, with the experience he gained after Halliday's career ending injury in the latter part of last season a key factor.
Some people are also going to get reminded about how good Gabe Marks is.
The Cougs will "Coug It" at some point, but will also pull out some surprise wins. If they can get a couple early in the season, the momentum may just compound into a couple more.
Washington was wiped out more than any other team in the conference except Oregon St. by departures, and for that reason, combined with one of the tougher non-conference schedules that will likely produce a losing record heading into conference play, its going to be a difficult year on Montlake.
And the Huskies don't have Mike Riley to take advantage of anymore either. So just maybe the Beavers won't repeat the disasters of the last 3 years, and 4 of the last 5, against the Dawgs.
There are enough athletes on the defensive side of the ball to keep Washington in some games, and that might buy time to overcome the 1-2 punch of an inexperienced offensive line in front of an even more inexperienced quarterback, regardless of whether Coach Chris Petersen goes with Jeff Lindquist or freshman KJ Carta Samuels.
Its entirely possible that just like last year, the Beavers-Huskies game the weekend before Thanksgiving will be a bowl eligibility qualification/elimination game. And one that's a showdown between a pair of freshman QBs.
Oregon St. would normally be in position to take advantage of Washington's woes, but the Beavers are even more inexperienced on the defensive side of the ball.
Its also possible that the Beavers finish with a better overall record than either the Huskies or Cougars, and maybe both, in part because of the most favorable non-conference schedule of the 3 of them.
But getting out of the Pac-12 North will require wins that won't be easy to get out of some of the close games Oregon St. is going to be in with so much inexperience, especially at quarterback, where I expect both Seth Collins, above, and Nick Mitchell to be needed.
The Pac-12 South was the toughest division in the country last year, and I was way off, joining a lot of others who had someone other than Arizona winning it. Not everyone had the 'Cats as far down as 5th, though.
In truth, the South was such a battle that several hail-Mary's wound up impacting everyone in the top 5. If the season were played out again, no one in the top 5 would probably wind up in the same spot. They would all wind up in the top 25 again though.
Happily, as fans, we get to see that replay this fall, and all 5 can realistically expect another top 25 campaign, and consider themselves in the hunt for the Pac-12 Championship, assuming they can even get through the South.
At least 4 of them, along with Oregon, can't even be counted out of the College Football Playoff chase, or at least a shot at a New Year's eve/day bowl game, which both Utah and Stanford can harbor hope for as well.
In the end, I expect the South to finish
3. Arizona St.
I expect USC to lose a game due to something that will be attributed to the still-growing as a head Coach Steve Sarkisian, and more importantly, the fact that the Trojans are still about 10 scholarship players short of full strength, the lingering effect of NCAA Sanctions that it will take 1-2 more years to fully recover from, will be a factor again this season, as it was last year.
But USC may have their best college quarterback this century (and yes, I realize that includes a couple of Heisman Trophy winners, and several others that are pulling down paychecks from pro teams) in Cody Kessler.
Kessler, above, isn't quite the pro prospect of some of his predecessors, but is insanely accurate, and as good a fit for his team an any Pac-12 quarterback has been in the -12 era (and yes, there have been some very good fits at qb, and the record book bears that out).
And the rest of the South are all subject to challenges of their own.
UCLA is, like last year, a popular pick to not only win the Pac-12 South, but contend for a berth in the College Football Playoffs. And for good reason.
This is the year that Jim Mora could break through into the class of elite coaches if he can pull all that off. And as the team that has the most returning experience in the conference, including the conference's leading rusher last year in Paul Perkins, starting experience across the offense, save one position, albeit the most important one, its a distinct possibility that he can do so.
UCLA has a non-conference schedule that is challenging, but manageable, the kind that will set them up for a playoff bid over most anyone else they find themselves in a beauty contest with. And the Bruins won't have to deal with Oregon unless its in the Pac-12 Championship game.
But its that one key position on offense that is the rub. Unless the Bruins go with Jerry Neuheisel, their quarterback will have no college experience when they start the season. In any case, UCLA will have by far the least experienced quarterback in the South. In a division that's likely to be decided by a tie-breaker or a "hail-mary", that's likely to make a difference.
Utah and Arizona St. also miss Stanford this season, and UCLA, who has lost 7 times in a row to the Cardinal, dating back to 2008, does not.
Arizona St. is the only other team in the South who lost a starting quarterback, but Mike Berovicci has made multiple starts, and played significant downs and minutes in other situations, and blunts the quarterback transition for the Sun Devils about as much as possible.
Especially with run and catch multi-threat DJ Foster, above, racking up yards and points from everywhere.
And Todd Graham has established that Arizona St. is no flash in the sky; the overall talent is there to be a consistent contender, even with the early loss of WR Jalen Strong.
Utah overcame their annual challenge of issues at quarterback to surge into contention last year, and despite losing Nate Orchard, who led the country in sacks. This year, senior quarterback Travis Wilson should go out with a bang, and if he goes down with a bang instead, for a change the Utes are prepared with Kendall Thompson.
That means there should be no way to botch up having Devontae Booker, above, have the best season in Utah history as a runner and a pass catcher.
If the Utes get off to a good start at home against Michigan, and coach Kyle Whittingham can avoid a melt-down game (see last year's collapse against Washington St.), Utah could be the surprise of the south in a very good year.
It's hard to pick a team that won the division to finish 5th, like I did last year, especially given that this is the first year since coach Rich Rodriguez has had a returning quarterback since he arrived in the Pac-12.
And Anu Solomon has a fleet of receivers to work with as well, plus Scooby Wright leading the 'Cats' defense.
But if Arizona snuck up on anyone last year, there's no chance of that happening in any game this season.
One has to almost feel sorry for Colorado; the Buffs have an improved roster, and still have Nelson Spruce, above, as the best possession receiver in the conference, and a shot at a half dozen wins this season. And it won't be enough to get to a bowl game, since they play 13 games, and will need 7 wins, or even out of the Pac-12 South.
Come December, the conference will conduct its Championship Game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara for the second time, and regardless of who emerges from the brutal battle in the South, I expect Oregon to prevail again.
(Photos by Andy Wooldridge)