1. USC Trojans (2016 Season: 10-3)
After a sluggish start to the 2016 season, USC found it’s groove under head coach Clay Helton and gradually became one of the best teams in the whole country. Quarterback Sam Darnold has now joined Washington’s Jake Browning and Washington State’s Luke Falk as the conference’s best Heisman hopefuls but he’ll need some help in finding some team success to match the individual accolades. USC has work to do on their offensive line, as well as on the defensive side of things, where playmaking defensive back Adoree’ Jackson is gone. However, there’s no doubt that from this early vantage point, the Trojans look to be the conference’s best bet.
2. Washington Huskies (2016 Season: 12-2)
The Huskies birth in the 2016 College Football Playoff was proof that head coach Chris Petersen’s “quasi-rebuild” in the Evergreen State has finally come to fruition. Now, it’ll be time to build off last year’s wild ride and turn this Washington program into a yearly contender. Petersen returns quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin, who together create arguably the best backfield in the conference. On defensive, Washington has some concerns with some key roster changes, but they should have enough stability in the culture of their program to keep things intact. Although they won’t see the likes of the Trojans during the regular season, it’s probably wise to pencil in a potential Washington-USC meeting in the Pac-12 Championship game.
3. Stanford Cardinal (2016 Season: 10-3)
Losing one of college football’s best players in running back Christian McCaffrey would be a monumental hurdle to overcome for most programs but Stanford will continue their slow churn of success in Palo Alto, even as McCaffrey departs for his NFL future. The Cardinal had essentially had three bad weeks a season ago, two of which they got railroaded by Washington and Washington State, before also ending up on the wrong side of a 10-5 thriller against Colorado. Looking past those three performances, head coach David Shaw seemed to show that culture will continuously win out for Stanford. So what could go wrong for the Cardinal? Hmmm...maybe it’s not our place to say but let’s see what the experts on all things Stanford believe could be the achilles heel for this group in 2017.
4. Washington State Cougars (2016 Season: 8-5)
Head coach Mike Leach usually doesn’t mind being forecasted in some sort of enigmatic role heading into any season but after last year’s up-and-down 8-5 campaign, there’s reasons to both love and to not trust Washington State heading into 2017. The Cougars lost their first two games of the season in 2016, to FCS opponent Eastern Washington and Boise State, pulled off eight straight wins to follow that and then dropped the last three games of the year, which includes their bowl game flop against Minnesota. Washington State needs to find some serious consistency and fast. Leach and company return quarterback Luke Falk, who will need to manage the weight of lofty expectations, as well as a dynamic mix of 16 starters from last year’s team on both sides of the ball. If the Cougars can become satisfactory-at-worst in slowing opposing offense’s down, Washington State can become of the conference’s more dangerous teams.
5. Utah Utes (2016 Season: 9-4)
The Pac-12 is abuzz with Utah’s impressive off-season additions, which not only include some talented junior college prospects poised to make immediate impacts, but also the insertion of former Eastern Washington offensive coordinator Troy Taylor, who will attempt to kick-start the Utes’ rollercoaster offense. The biggest concern for the-incoming Taylor will be to first rework an offensive line that takes some pretty severe losses, and find some stable footing for a program whose defensive carried them through too many portions of last season. Utah has finished the last three seasons in the final AP Top 25 Poll and they’ll be fighting to keep that streak alive in 2017.
6. Colorado Buffaloes (2016 Season: 10-4)
The feel-good team of the 2016 Pac-12 season, nobody foresaw Colorado’s rapid rise to the top of Pac-12 South Division and there’s few who believe it will continue on into 2017, where the Buffs may be a seriously defensively-challenged group. Colorado loses eight starters across the board on defense and new coordinator D.J. Eliot will start his stay in Boulder with the cards stacked against him, in similar fashion to the way he began his tenure at Kentucky. However, Eliot has assured the Buffs faithful that they will continue to build off their current “3-4 system that is built to apply pressure on the offense and confuse the quarterback”. Well said, coach. What may ease the transition for Colorado is their returning offensive talent, which includes quarterback Steven Montez, who many favored over last year’s starter Sefo Liufao after his gutsy performances in limited action.
7. Oregon State Beavers (2016 Season: 4-8)
Head coach Gary Andersen has continued the rebuild in Corvallis, which saw 2015’s two-win total double in 2016, as the Beavers clawed their way to three conference victories. In 2017, the potential for Oregon State to take the next step in their improving process is very much there in the waiting. Andersen will likely have more consistency at the quarterback position, the main spot that the Beavers struggled with a season ago, which could kick-start an offense that had a tendency to stall out against tougher defenses. On the ball-stopping side of things, Oregon State has some questions to answer but overall, their depth and talent may have been upgraded by Andersen’s last two recruiting hauls. As long as they can plug the holes left on the offensive line, where they’ll need to replace Sean Harlow, Dustin Stanton and Gavin Andrews, Oregon State has a fighting chance to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2013.
8. UCLA Bruins (2016 Season: 4-8)
UCLA chose to hold-fast on head coach Jim Mora this off-season, sticking with the coach that led them to back-to-back 10 win seasons in 2013 and 2014, but the Bruins did shake things up offensively quite a bit, as former offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu (and most of the offensive coaching staff) has left town. Into the mix will come Michigan’s Jedd Fisch, the Wolverines’ former passing-game coordinator, who will attempt to get things going in Westwood with quarterback Josh Rosen (hopefully) healthy for once. The Bruins had a very surprising 2016 campaign, that saw a tight-early loss effort at Texas A&M look like an absolute fluke when UCLA eventually dropped six of their last seven games. A tough 2017 schedule, that begins the same way against the Aggies, won’t give this new group much time to get things together. They’ll have to be ready in the City of Angels from the get-go.
9. Oregon Ducks (2016 Season: 4-8)
Oregon thought they made the right off-season move by letting go of head coach Mark Helfrich after a brutal 4-8 season and moving on with former South Florida head coach Willie Taggart, but since Taggart’s arrival in Eugene, the program has been in nothing but a sort of organized chaos. First, multiple players were hospitalized after a severe off-season conditioning workout and then, co-offensive coordinator David Reaves was fired after a DUI arrest. Not the impression Taggart was hoping to make from day one on this Oregon program. The Ducks have since rebounded by having a solid National Signing Day and early indications are that this team could be an improvement on last year’s group with pieces like quarterback Justin Herbert and running back Royce Freeman both back in the fold. The biggest change for Oregon may come on the defensive side of things, where an emphasis is expected to be made under new defensive coordinator, Jim Leavitt.
10. Arizona State Sun Devils (2016 Season: 5-7)
The Sun Devils enter the 2017 season in an odd place, after falling apart down the stretch in 2016, losing their last six games as the program suddenly went from “dangerous and prodding” to “painful and failing”. It’ll be interesting to see how these Arizona State players react to head coach Todd Graham in now his sixth season at the helm. Graham went 28-12 over his first three seasons with the school but is coming off back-to-back losing campaigns and will likely be on the hot-seat in 2017, if he doesn’t right this ship from the start. Starting with a non-conference slate that includes the likes of San Diego State and Texas Tech only adds to the Sun Devils’ up-hill battle but a wealth of returners on defense could help ease some of the transition to new defensive coordinator, Phil Bennett. All-season long, this will be the Pac-12 program balancing on the edge breakthrough success or total breakdown.
11. Arizona Wildcats (2016 Season: 3-9)
Like his in-state counterpart in Arizona State’s Todd Graham, Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez will need to “beardown” and turn the Wildcats program in the right direction, as last year’s 3-9 campaign rubbed even the most loyal of supporters in a bit of the wrong way. After starting the season 2-1 (which including a comeback win against Grambling State), Arizona dropped 8 games straight before their season-closing victory over rival Arizona State, many on which were of the ruthless beatdown variety. You can talk about personnel upgrades or scheme changes or anything else surrounding this team but it comes down to simply playing hard for their program, which is something that these Arizona players struggled to do on a game-by-game basis last season. The Wildcats will return 16 starters but some of those who will struggle to hold their positions, if they don’t approach 2017 with a renewed effort.
12. California Golden Bears (2016 Season: 5-7)
California made the biggest surprise move of the off-season when they sacked head coach Sonny Dykes, leaving their program in a state of total flux, until they plugged the dam by hiring defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox away from Wisconsin. The move was a clear signal from the school athletic department that the sheer lack of defense played under Dykes would be tolerated no more and that the Golden Bears’ focus heading into 2017 would be on the defensive side of things. However, that could come at a bad time, as Cal is graduating quarterback Davis Webb and star receiver Chad Hansen, two talented pieces who would likely have held down the “bear-raid” offense during this transition. If offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin (Eastern Washington) and defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter (Fresno State) help make the transition seamless under Wilcox, than Cal has a chance this season. Otherwise, the Golden Bears will have too many voids to fill across the board to keep up a fighting pace in the Pac-12.