In the past decade, the Pac-12 has had multiple opportunities to capture a national title, but always came up short. Oregon has made 2 appearances to the national title game, once in 2010 and again in 2014, and Washington got a spot the College Football Playoff in 2016. This year, some traditional powerhouses such as USC and UCLA look to return to national contention as others teams try to build upon recent success. The North division is defending a six game win streak in the conference championship game, as the South has yet to win its first since the creation of the game in 2011.
1. Washington Huskies: Chris Petersen’s team came out of the gate running last year and didn’t look back. They got off to a hot 9-0 start which included dominant wins over Stanford and Oregon. After a home loss to late in the season, the Huskies finished strong winning the conference championship and securing a spot in the College Football Playoff, ultimately losing to Alabama in the semifinal. This season, Washington fans still have a lot to look forward to. Junior quarterback and possible Heisman contender Jake Browning returns, who is coming off a 43-9 TD-INT and 3,400+ yard season. Outside of Browning, the offense still has a lot of talent going around. Junior running back Myles Gaskin comes back after a 1,300 yard, 10 touchdown season and is expected to improve from last year and senior Levin Coleman also returns to make one of the best RB duos in the conference. At receiver, there is little depth behind senior Dante Pettis, who compiled 822 yards and 15 scores last season, but there is young talent ready to step up to be a reliable second option. On defense, Vita Vea is the guy to watch out for. He started in just five games in 2016, but the junior still managed to put up 5 sacks and is primed for a breakout season this fall. The defense also returns 3 senior linebackers, Connor O’Brien, Azeem Victor, and Keishawn Bierria. Safeties Jojo McIntosh and Taylor Rapp both return after being good contributors last season. All in all, the Huskies return seven starters on offense as well as six on defense, and should be candidates to repeat success from last year. Prediction: 11-1 (8-1).
2. Stanford Cardinal: David Shaw’s Stanford team got off to a sluggish 4-3 start last season after very high hopes, but won out from then on to finish 10-3. This years squad again has high hopes as they return 16 starters from last years double-digit win squad. Junior quarterback Keller Chryst returns after starting in six games last year and throwing for 905 yards, 10 TDs and 2 INTs. Fellow junior and running back Bryce Love is going to have big shoes to fill following Christian McCaffrey, but many think he will live up to his potential. Last season as the second string, he rushed for 783 yards, 3 scores and boasted a whopping 7 yards per carry. The sky seems to be the limit for Love as he steps into a full time starting role for the first time in his collegiate career. The receiving corps seem to be a question mark, but the Cardinal return four lineman up front, which will likely help Keller Chryst and the passing game succeed. Defensively, they lose a big playmaker in Solomon Thomas, but they do return senior defensive tackle Harrison Phillips and his 6.5 sacks last season to keep the defensive line serviceable. Returning four of four, the linebackers are the core of this defense. The secondary is also highly touted, and many feel they can have up to eight contributors at defensive back, headlined by junior cornerback Quenton Meeks. Stanford looks to keep their recent success going, and possibly make a run towards the conference title game. Prediction: 10-2 (7-2)
3. Oregon Ducks: Last year, Oregon fell far short of expectations. Many had them near the top of the conference, but poor quarterback play early mixed with an atrocious defense spelled a lousy 4-8 season for the Ducks. This year though, Oregon fans have high hopes. Heading into his first season as head coach, Willie Taggart has a plethora of offensive weapons, Headlined by Royce Freeman. The senior running back returns to add onto his 4,100 career rushing yards and 44 touchdowns. Behind him sits junior Tony Brooks-James, another talented RB that will help take a load off of Freeman’s shoulders.Sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert returns after starting seven games last year as a true freshman and throwing for 1,900 yards, 19 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions. Senior receiver Charles Nelson will need to step up following Darren Carrington getting kicked off the team after DUI charges, and a pack of talented young receivers are looking to live up to potential. On defense, eight starters return, but the defense was ranked no better than 113th nationally in all of scoring, passing and rushing statistics. Sophomore safety Brendan Schooler is coming off a four interception season as a freshman. Along with Schooler, fellow sophomore and linebacker Troy Dye looks to build upon his 6.5 sacks last year. Oregon’s offense should be good as usual, but the defense will be the biggest concern, as well as the x-factor for the teams success in 2017. Prediction: 9-3 (6-3).
4. Washington State Cougars: Lead by Senior quarterback Luke Falk in Mike Leach’s successful air raid system, the Cougars passing attack should be about as good as anyone in the country statistically. The running back tandem for the Cougars is much more talented than the stats may indicate. The trio of Jamal Morrow, Gerald Wicks, and James Williams rushed for a combined 1,600 yards and 22 touchdowns, and is arguably the most dangerous in the conference. The receivers are also solid, as they return starters Robert Lewis and Taveres Martin Jr. On defense, the group has steadily improved under coordinator Alex Grinch. They returns nine starters from last year, and look to be ready to take the next step. The depth at defensive line seems to be the biggest question mark. Linebacker Peyton Pelluer returns for his senior season after a nice 93 tackle season last fall, and the secondary returns both starting corners and safeties. If the offense can find the right balance and the defense does its job, the Cougars may be a dark horse in this division. Prediction: 8-4 (5-4).
5. California Golden Bears: After finishing 5-7 last season, Cal decided to cut the cord on head coach Sonny Dykes. They brought in Justin Wilcox who spent 2016 as the defensive coordinator at Wisconsin where he had tremendous success. His defense ranked top 10 nationally in scoring, yards per game, and rush yards per game. However, his job at California may take a couple down years before having success. The team is in a rebuilding stage returning just ten total starters from last years five win team, and there is next to no one with experience at quarterback. Junior Chase Forrest and Sophomore Ross Bowers are battling for the starting position, and despite the inexperience, offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin has claimed that he will be comfortable with either. Sophomore WR Demetris Robertson returns after a 767 yard 7 TD campaign last year as a freshman, and will look to improve on those totals with more experience. I expect the defense will improve remarkably within the next few years, but last years team who failed to break the top 120 in terms of scoring, rushing, and yards per game last season will not exactly be a force to be reckoned with next year. Look for Cal to have more success when this rebuild job is over, but for now the Golden Bears shouldn’t expect a lot of wins. Prediction: 4-8 (2-7)
6. Oregon State Beavers: Head coach Gary Andersen may find himself on the hot seat if he doesn’t win soon. He has compiled a 6-18 record in his first two seasons at the helm, and only returns eleven total starters from last years 4-8 group. Of those returning, junior running back Ryan Nall looks to improve off of his impressive 951 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Also a junior, quarterback Jake Lutton looks to be the starter to begin the season and has high potential being 6″7′ and having a very strong arm. The Beavers also landed former 5 star recruit and Oregon RB Thomas Tyner, who will have a major impact when he is able to see the field. Oregon State’s defense took major strides defensively last year and look to improve again this year. Freshman All-American cornerback Xavier Crawford returns and has the tools to be a great player going forward. Another key defender is junior outside linebacker Bright Ugwoegbu, who had 5.5 sacks last season. There is potential for a bowl game, but too many unknowns and a tough stretch in the middle portion of their schedule keeps me from being too confident. Prediction: 3-9 (1-8)