Looking only at the smaller picture, this sets up as a potentially banner year for competition in the Pac-12, particularly in the North division.
Stanford is the defending champion and preseason favorite. Washington is on the rise. Washington State won nine games last season and returns its offensive stars. Oregon, defensive flaws be damned, is still Oregon. And it should be fun to watch UCLA, USC and Utah battle for the South division title.
Which brings us to the bigger picture. And that doesn’t seem to bode quite as well for the Pac-12.
The league is stocked with decent to better-than-decent teams, the kind that could finish the season ranked in the Top 25 and play competitive football against every team on the schedule. A legitimate argument could be made for Stanford, UW, WSU and Oregon as a potential North division champ, which is not something that could have been said in any year since the conference expanded to 12 teams.
But in this era of the four-team College Football Playoff, it appears the Pac-12 might again lack a dominant, powerhouse program capable of running the table — or finishing with only one loss — and for that reason might again get shut out of the CFP.
It happened last year because Stanford, the Pac-12 champion, lost its season opener at Northwestern and needed to be perfect after that to have a shot at playing in the CFP. But the Cardinal lost at home to a quality Oregon team, finished No. 6 in the final CFP rankings, and settled for a 45-16 pasting of Iowa in the Rose Bowl and a 12-2 final record.
Stanford’s schedule appears far more difficult this season. It opens against Kansas State, then hosts 20th-ranked USC, then travels to 16th-ranked UCLA – the media’s pick to win the Pac-12 South – then travels to No. 14 Washington before hosting Washington State and traveling to No. 10 Notre Dame.
So if the Cardinal really is a playoff-caliber team, it won’t take long for that truth to emerge. Stanford coach David Shaw said in July at Pac-12 media days that he views his team as being “in flux” due to the loss of players like quarterback Kevin Hogan and star linebacker Blake Martinez, and in standard coach fashion, balked at the idea of Stanford as the favorite.
“You take it with a grain of salt,” Shaw said of preseason expectations. “It’s a sign of respect, and I think it has a lot to do with the guy that’s in the back left corner of the building there in (2015 Heisman runner-up) Christian McCaffrey. Once we start practicing, once we start playing games, all that stuff goes away.”
UCLA might actually have an easier road to the CFP. The Bruins open at Texas A&M and play at Brigham Young, but three of their four most difficult Pac-12 games — Stanford, Utah and USC — are at home, with Washington State the only daunting road challenge. And they don’t have to play Oregon or Washington.
The Bruins are also coming off an 8-5 finish in 2015 and a loss to Nebraska in the Foster Farms Bowl after being picked to place second in the South last season.
“We’re very excited about our opportunities this year,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said. “We look forward to an exciting season in a very difficult conference. We understand the challenges that face us. We’re coming off a season that was, in our estimation, a little bit disappointing to us, especially the way that it ended, and we’d like to make amends for that.”
The state schools are also in the mix.
Washington, ranked No. 14 in the Associated Press preseason poll, returns one of the strongest defenses around, not to mention key offensive players in quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin. It’s the highest preseason ranking for the Huskies since 2002.
For Washington State, it’s all about the offense. The Cougars have 2015 All-Pac-12 quarterback Luke Falk returning as well as the guys he likes to target: Gabe Marks and River Cracraft.
WSU coach Mike Leach said getting a Pac-12 team into the playoffs would be simple … under a different system, one that had 16 teams vying for the national championship.
“I think that would mitigate that (problem of not getting Pac-12 teams into the playoff),” Leach said at Pac-12 media days. “Then, rather than speculation and selective and projecting and rankings and all this, it would be settled on the field.”