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2015 Preview: Picking the Pac-12

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The Pac-12 has come on strong in recent years and has climbed the conference totem poll as a result. Not only has Oregon become a national force, but Stanford has developed quite the reputation and the Pac-12 South is emerging as one of the top divisions in the sport of college football. With USC on the rise, UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State all legitimate Pac-12 contenders in their own right and Utah showing it belongs in the conference, there is plenty to like about the Pac-12 this fall. But can it avoid beating itself up to the point where it costs the conference a spot in the College Football Playoff? The Pac-12 South alone could pick itself apart, leaving the conference’s best playoff hopes potentially coming out of the north once again. But Oregon could take a step back without Marcus Mariota and an early trip to Michigan State and Stanford could get tripped along the way as well.

The Pac-12 is good, but is it possible it just might be too good? Oh what a fun season it shall be on the west coast, especially after dark.

Below you will find my Pac-12 predictions for the upcoming season, including records that will surely be held against me the instant one is wrong. It’s all a part of the fun though, so let’s be bold and put the predictions on the record. Also be sure to go back and listen to my podcast with Kyle Kensing from earlier this summer, in which we previewed some of the main storylines around the Pac-12 in 2015 just before media days. You can also catch up on my other preseason predictions to date:

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PAC-12 NORTH

1. Oregon (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12)

First thing’s first, replacing Marcus Mariota is not exactly easy for Mark Helfrich. The Heisman Trophy winner from a year ago leaves big shoes to fill. Fortunately, Oregon added one of the top quarterbacks in the nation to transfer schools this offseason with Vernon Adams leaving FCS powerhouse Eastern Washington to join the Ducks. I suspect the transition will go well enough for Oregon’s offense to continue making big things happen, especially with Royce Freeman looking to join the young crop of running backs expected to have a big season. The good news is Adams has a pretty solid offensive line back with starting experience, but road trips to Michigan State and Arizona State I believe will be tough to return home with wins. So I have Oregon finishing the season with two wins, which puts last year’s national runner-up on the fringe of the playoff conversation at the end of the season.

2. Stanford (10-2, 7-2 Pac-12)

Kevin-HoganStanford will once again be Oregon’s biggest threat in the Pac-12 North this season, while Washington takes some time to rebound and Cal’s defense a major work in progress. Defense will once again be the consistent key to the Cardinal this season even though it returns just a small handful of starters from last season. The biggest concern for Stanford last season was a slow-starting offense. The offense finally started to click at the end of the year and must get off to a better start this year. Kevin Hogan has nearly his entire starting offensive line back this fall, and Stanford should have a decent running game to work with. Stanford gets Oregon at home, although I’m picking the Ducks right now in that one, and an early road trip to USC could be a toss-up.

3. Washington (5-7, 4-5 Pac-12)

I still believe good things are coming to Washington under Chris Petersen. I just think this is a step back before the Huskies start stepping forward. There are just too many holes on the roster right now after losing a load of talent to the NFL. Give Petersen some time though and Washington should be an improved team in 2016. This season could get off to a rough start on the road against Boise State and a home game against Utah State. Good for the Mountain West Conference. Not so good for the Pac-12. Washington also gets USC, Oregon and Stanford in consecutive weeks in the middle of the year. Ouch.

4. California (3-9, 2-7 Pac-12)

While my win total for Cal may seem low, I believe I am going through a worst-case scenario here for the Bears. Three wins would not justify how fun this team will be to watch this season. The offense is there with Jared Goff leading the offense. The defense is a different story, as it will struggle to slow down anybody. Cal suffered some close calls last season. Getting to six wins is not impossible at all, if the Bears can get off to a fast start. I’m just not sure if they will do that. A 1-3 record before hosting Washington State is what I’m seeing in the cards, and that cannot happen if Cal is to go bowling this season.

5. Oregon State (3-9, 1-8 Pac-12)

Mike Riley left for Nebraska, and he may have taken the good vibes with him this season. In steps Gary Andersen, fresh off a 59-0 beatdown at the hands of Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game last year. Andersen is a good enough coach to make Oregon State do some good things, but his defense returns just two starters and he inherits an unstable quarterback situation lacking in experience. They may be up and down in the first half of the season but I think they run into a wall starting with, believe it or not, Colorado.

6. Washington State (2-10, 0-9 Pac-12)

The Mike Leach experiment at Washington State may come to a close soon if things do not show promise and progress this season in Pullman. After winning just three games last season, the Cougars added some junior college experience to the roster this season. If Leach can channel his inner Bill Snyder (whom Leach once called a sorcerer), maybe the Cougars can scratch together enough wins to reach the postseason. I’m not sure I see enough of those wins though, especially in Pac-12 play.

PAC-12 SOUTH

1. Arizona State (10-2, 7-2 Pac-12)

I do not know what it is about Arizona State that has me liking them to come out fo the Pac-12 South. The Sun Devils do few things extraordinarily well, and getting out of the Pac-12 South unscathed will be difficult for every team in the division. So it must be the schedule, right? I actually like Arizona State’s chances in the opener against Texas A&M in Houston, and they get USC at home a few weeks later. Tough road tests at UCLA and Utah before the bye week are not automatic losses, although I think those games spell trouble. Fortunately for Arizona State, I’m calling an upset at home on a Thursday night after a bye week against Oregon (setting up an eventual rematch in the Pac-12 championship game) and I do not see them losing again in the regular season. While all that is happening, cannibalism within the division will help place Arizona State on top of the pile.

2. USC (9-3, 7-2 Pac-12)

The Trojans were tabbed the media preseason favorite at Pac-12 media days, to which I scratch my head. Sure, USC looks attractive, but I would like to see some more consistency out of Cody Kessler and to see Steve Sarkisian win a big game before I start buying into the hype. Throw in the fact this is a tough division, I am not sure USC gets out of it without a couple of losses along the way. That said, I do think they are in the running for the Pac-12 South crown, but I do not see them getting by Arizona State on the road the week after hosting Stanford. I have USC splitting those two games, but it could just as well end up being an 0-2 setback heading into the bye week (sure, I suppose it could also be 2-0). I also think USC comes back from South Bend with a loss to Notre Dame and a road game at Oregon is a probable loss as well.

3. Utah (9-3, 6-3 Pac-12)

Utah is my wild card team in the Pac-12 South this season because they play what may be the best defense in the division, if not the conference. Utah will be extremely difficult to beat at home, but three tough road games ultimately hold Utah back from reaching the Pac-12 championship game (Oregon, USC, Arizona). I do think things get off to a good start at home against Michigan, spoiling Jim Harbaugh’s debut as head coach of the Wolverines, and the next week against Chuckie Keeton and Utah State. They even get a chance to knock off Arizona State at home in the middle of the season. Potential is there, but the offense needs to keep its foot on the gas to make any run.

4. Arizona (8-4, 5-4 Pac-12)

After coming up small against Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl last season, the Wildcats still look to be moving forward. Anu Solomon is one of the top quarterbacks in the conference and should be ready for a big season with Caleb Jones back as his go-to receiver. The offensive and defensive lines have some holes to plug, but the Wildcats have linebacker Scooby Wright III at linebacker to pick up the slack in the middle of the defense. What I do not like about Arizona is the schedule. Arizona plays 12 straight games without a bye week. It will be a grind, but Arizona is capable of being in the hunt in this crazy division and may be welcoming that bye week at the end of the season if things fall into place again this fall. I think the final four games could be hitting a wall for Arizona though, as I have them losing three of the final four games (three of the final four on the road).

5. UCLA (8-4, 5-4 Pac-12)

The Bruins were the trendy pick last summer. Now it seems we are taking a much more scaled-backstance on UCLA. But why? UCLA returns a ton of starters from a year ago and has added a new defensive coordinator in Tom Bradley that should help. The talent is there with just one key position to address; quarterback. If Josh Rosen can step right in and have an impact, UCLA will be a contender in this competitive division. But freshmen, even the great ones, can make mistakes. Rosen has the hype, and there is a good chance to get comfortable early on with home games against Virginia and BYU and a road game at UNLV. UCLA can play itself into controlling the fate of the Pac-12 South coming down the stretch, but back-to-back road games at Utah and USC to end the season is not an easy draw.

6. Colorado (5-7, 2-7 Pac-12)

Colorado is not going to return to its 1990s powerhouse form in 2015, but we should see some signs of continued progress with the program under Mike MacIntyre. Colorado has a chance to enter October with a winning record, which would be a promising start. The Buffs return nine starters on defense and six on offense, so the hope is experience helps develop some talent to continue being competitive. Colorado lost some close calls last season. If they can turn a couple of those close games the other way, Colorado and a bowl trip is not out of the mix.

PAC-12 CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

Oregon over Arizona State

Oregon remains my team to beat, and they could be hitting a stride just at the right time by the time the conference championship game comes around. Oregon would be playing in the title game for the third time in five seasons while Arizona State would be in the game for the second time in three years. Oregon’s offense once again leads the way, but Arizona State gives them a run.

Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year: Cody Kessler, USC QB

Cody Kessler had big numbers last season that flew under the radar. Inconsistency was an issue for the Trojans quarterback, and I expect that to improve this season. As a result, more big numbers and perhaps a couple of noteworthy wins will help improve his standing in the college football landscape.

Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year: Scooby Wright III, Arizona DE

Scooby Wright III, Arizona

This is hardly a reach and almost an easy out picking Scooby Wright III for this award, but there is also little reason to dispute it. Wright should have another monster season that some suggest may be worthy of an invite to New York at the end fo the season. I won’t go that far though.

Pac-12 Coach of the Year: Todd Graham, Arizona State

This one is hard to pick, but if the Sun Devils reach the Pac-12 championship game as I predict, I think Graham has a good chance to win this award. I only have Arizona State losing twice in the regular season, and he would have coached Arizona State out of the highly respected and competitive Pac-12 South. That would deserve some recognition.

So that is how I have things playing out in the Pac-12. Be sure to see what Athlon Sports is predicting, and check to see what The Student Section has to say about the Pac-12 this fall.

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About the Author

Kevin McGuire
Contributor to College Football Talk on NBCSports.com. Also a contributor to Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Member of Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. Follow on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.
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