This one really shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. With junior running back Christian McCaffrey coming back for what will most likely be his final season as a Cardinal and looking to win the Heisman Trophy, there seems to be little reason why the offense can’t be better than it was last year. The AP preseason Top 25 Poll has Stanford ranked No. 8, the highest of any Pac-12 team. The Cardinal finished last season with a 12-2 record and were just outside of a playoff spot. Only one Pac-12 team, Oregon, defeated Stanford, but even that was only by a two-point margin. There just aren’t many teams in the conference that can beat Stanford.
The Bruins are part of one of the only teams in the Pac-12 that came into the offseason with a predetermined quarterback — and Josh Rosen should only improve in his sophomore campaign. Without some of the injury concerns defensively that UCLA faced last year, the Tom Bradley-coached unit should only grow to better complement the offense. If the No. 16 Bruins can come away with more conference victories than the five they had last year, this could be a team that makes an appearance in the Pac-12 Championship game. But first, let’s see if Rosen can live up to the hype (we think he can).
For some reason, the Trojans are starting their season with a game in Arlington, Texas against No. 1 Alabama. But despite what potentially appears to be a rocky opening to the season, this campaign could actually be an improvement on the prior year. Now, with head coach Clay Helton firmly absorbing the role, the team will be facing less turmoil and more consistency.
USC ends up behind UCLA in these rankings partly because of the fact that the Trojans are another Pac-12 team with a new quarterback. USC is this high in the rankings, however, because of players like junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is guaranteed to see success this season. If more players can surprise, this team has a real chance of taking the South Division from the Bruins.
While the Huskies are ranked No. 14 in the AP poll, they just don’t seem primed to make the same jump in record as their southern Pac-12 counterparts. But this team could prove these rankings incorrect by taking advantage of an easier schedule — its opening three games are against Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State — and what seems to be a very strong offense. With weapons like John Ross III and Myles Gaskin supporting returning quarterback Jake Browning, this group could really put some points on the board. This team should at least match its 7-6 record from last season, and it is the group with the biggest upside.
5 and 6. Utah and Oregon
These two teams are pretty even in that they are both solid, but in an average sort of way. So, they could fit interchangeably in either slot. Both teams are good, but really not great. Neither will have bad seasons, but they are also both teams that weren’t quite able to live up to the talent on the squad last season. Utah went 6-0 to start last year, and that included a nationally televised victory over Cal that was highlighted by Jared Goff getting intercepted five times.
Being ranked No. 24 in the preseason poll seems to be a nod to Oregon’s offense more than some form of optimism about what this team can actually do. Oregon also saw flashes of strength, including a glimpse of offensive brilliance against the Bears’ defense amassing 777 yards. But because of a less-than-satisfactory defense, the Ducks allowed more points and yards per game last year than any other Pac-12 team; the offense could only propel the team so much. Whether or not the unit can improve this season is still to be determined.
- Washington State
Luke Falk. Those two words propel the Cougars to the top of the less-than-average teams. Falk had a strong season last year, leading the conference in total offense. The redshirt junior should do even better this season. Without him, this team would probably not be ranked as high as it is, seeing as it certainly boasts some concerns defensively. However, after a tough stretch of games to start the year, the end of the Cougars’ season is the easiest stretch of games possible in the Pac-12, which should give Washington State a chance to make up some ground in the conference.
Arizona should be an OK team. The Wildcats have a returning quarterback in junior Anu Solomon, who will lead an experienced Arizona offense with nine returning starters. The defense has been totally revamped after allowing 30 points or more in nine of the last 10 games in 2015. This should be an OK team that will most likely mirror last year’s 7-6 overall record.
- Arizona State
The Sun Devils are pretty much starting over this year. None of their quarterbacks have ever thrown a pass in a college game, and Arizona State only has a few returning starters on the offense that were able to make much of an impact last season. The defense overall needs a lot of improvement as well, especially concerning the defensive backs. After a 6-7 season, there seems to be little reason to expect a significant improvement, and, if anything, there’s a chance that things could get worse based on the progress of other teams in the south.
Sorry, Bears fans. There just seems to be little reason to expect this team to improve, or even do somewhat near what it did last year. Think about it: Cal is without the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Well, they got Texas Tech graduate-transfer Davis Webb, who snubbed Colorado — even lower on this list — and was ranked as the No. 1 senior quarterback prospect by ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. in advance of next year’s NFL Draft. Things are not so bad at quarterback then, compared to what the situation would have been with the Bears’ other options, none of which had played any significant time in a college football game.
But Cal also lost its six best pass catchers, all of which made it on an NFL roster for some length of time. And then, in the offseason, it was revealed that safety Damariay Drew suffered a knee injury, ending his college career. Drew was the team’s only bright spot on an at-best spotty defense.
There are silver linings. The offense could be OK with freshman receiver Melquise Stovall and redshirt freshman receiver Brandon Singleton looking primed to make some noise. Running backs Vic Enwere and Khalfani Muhammad appear ready to improve on last year’s production. But last year, this team underperformed. It’s hard to believe that the Bears could do the same this year because it seems that if they play at the level that these players have shown, Cal won’t quite make it to a winning record.
So, the Buffalo offense has 10 returning starters. That has to be a good sign, right? Well, yes — this team should theoretically be better than last year’s group 4-9 record and avoid a season-ending five-game losing streak like it had last season. But in order for improvement to actually be made, senior quarterback Sefo Liufau needs to step up and hopefully be fully healthy after missing spring practices due to injury. Losing Webb to Cal was a big blow for the program, which was desperate to find any sort of spark offensively. There is little reason to expect much progress this season.
- Oregon State
The Beavers have 17 returning starters. That’s just a crazy amount. And while it’s nice to think that Oregon State can actually make its presence felt in the Pac-12, there is just too much rebuilding to be done to expect anything too exciting. It’s just going to take some time. But there is a chance that the Beavers could end up being annoying to some of the better teams late in the season. And right now, that would be a successful season for this team.