With Pac-12 media days commencing Thursday in Hollywood, it’s time to share my preseason prediction for how the conference race will shake out ... except this isn’t actually the ballot I submitted for the preseason media poll, because I forgot to submit a ballot for the preseason media poll. Oh well. Sue me.
Anyway, here are my picks, followed by the schedule of events for Thursday and Friday. Washington doesn’t take the stage until 11 a.m. Friday, so you’ll have to wait to hear about how great the Huskies’ offseason was and how many weights they lifted and how many sprints they ran.
1. Stanford – I know, I know. The Cardinal lost its starting quarterback (Kevin Hogan) and its two best offensive lineman (Joshua Garnett and Kyle Murphy), so maybe it’s fair to assume that this pick is based, at least in part, on David Shaw’s ability to reload in the past. But it’s also based on the knowledge that Stanford has the best player in the conference (tailback Christian McCaffrey), a bunch of really talented pass-catchers, and, surely, another batch of offensive linemen ready to step in and knock dudes around just like their predecessors have for the better part of this decade. They also return several defensive starters. So I’ll pick the Cardinal to emerge from what I think will be a four-team race for the Pac-12 North title.
2. Washington – The Huskies will surely be a trendy pick to win the Pac-12 North, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if they’re playing for a Rose Bowl berth on Dec. 2. But their offense just isn’t quite seasoned enough for me to buy into that hype just yet. The defense? It should again be one of the best in the country. That alone should help the Huskies win seven or eight games. It’s the progression of Jake Browning, UW’s young offensive linemen and UW’s so-far-unproven receivers that will determine whether they can really be contenders. Won’t surprise me if it happens. But count me among the group that needs to see to believe.
3. Washington State – With Luke Falk at quarterback and Gabe Marks returning as WSU’s top receiver (as well as River Cracraft and every running back who played in 2015), the Cougars might be poised to again put up some record-setting offensive numbers. And like UW, I think WSU has as good of a chance as any team to come out on top of a tough Pac-12 North. What gives me pause: lack of a reliable backup quarterback behind Falk, who battled head injuries last season and missed the Apple Cup because of it.
4. Oregon – Can FCS transfer Dakota Prukop save the Ducks this season like Vernon Adams did last year? And can Oregon’s maligned defense take a step forward under first-year coordinator Brady Hoke? For the first time in what feels like quite a while, the Ducks seemingly face more questions than their Pac-12 North competition. But the presence of Royce Freeman, Taj Griffin, Darren Carrington and Dwayne Stanford still makes Oregon a reasonable contender for the division crown.
5. California – I don’t anticipate that the Golden Bears will be terrible following the loss of star quarterback Jared Goff (and their top six receivers), because Cal still has a few offensive weapons, particularly in the backfield. But this is the wrong year for Sonny Dykes and Co. to be reloading.
6. Oregon State – Not a lot to say at this point about the Beavers, other than the fact that it could again be a very long season. They host Idaho State on Sept. 17. Don’t know if I see any other particularly winnable games on OSU’s schedule.
1. UCLA – Sure, pick the one team with a returning starting quarterback to win the division, right? Josh Rosen is paired with a relatively experienced defense, particularly the secondary, and UCLA’s toughest Pac-12 road game is at Washington State.
2. USC – No more Cody Kessler, but the Trojans still have stud receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and a gaggle of other reliable receivers, so Max Browne – the presumed Trojans starter – will have plenty of quality targets around him. Questions remain on defense, where a new group of assistants have taken over.
3. Utah – Look out once again for the Utes, who lost their starting quarterback and their top offensive player, tailback Devontae Booker. But they return a lot of experience along the offensive line and may have found their new quarterback in UW transfer Troy Williams.
4. Arizona State – After massively underachieving in 2015, the Sun Devils enter this season as somewhat of an underdog. Maybe that will prevent coach Todd Graham from uttering the words “national championship” every 10 seconds at this year’s media days.
5. Arizona – After injuries and poor performance destroyed the Wildcats’ defense in 2015, Rich Rodriguez went out and hired a new defensive staff, so there might be a bit of an adjustment period there. Also: can quarterback Anu Solomon stay healthy? And can Nick Wilson build off an impressive 2015 season?
6. Colorado – Have to pick the Buffaloes last until they prove otherwise, right? Sefo Liufau’s recovery from a Lisfranc injury makes the picture even murkier.
Pac-12 title game prediction: Stanford over UCLA, in front of about 20,000 people.
Pac-12 media days schedule
Thursday, July 14
9 a.m. Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott
9:30 a.m. Arizona
10 a.m. California
10:30 a.m. USC
11 a.m. Oregon
11:30 a.m. Washington State
12 p.m. Utah
Friday, July 15
9 a.m. David Coleman, VP, Pac-12 officiating
9:30 a.m. Arizona State
10 a.m. Oregon State
10:30 a.m. UCLA
11 a.m. Washington
11:30 a.m. Stanford
12 p.m. Colorado
The main interview session will take place in the Ray Dolby Ballroom, Salons 4-6. Each coach will make an opening remark and introduce his student-athletes. Following the opening remarks, media will have the opportunity to gather around the head coach and the student-athletes for additional Q&A for approximately 25 minutes.