It’d take a fool to be particularly confident in football projections for any one year: “I know it’s been a rough few years for me, but this is the time I go six-for-six.” But there’s still something peculiar about the Pac-12 North this year. Simply put, it feels suspiciously easy to rank. I’m not smart enough to try and put a specific record to each team, but I expect there to not be much variance among overall placement. The pecking order feels clearer than ever, so fully expect this table to be utterly wrong come December.
This projection is not a statement of opinion on new Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. I believe that Cal fans should be optimistic about the long-term future under Wilcox, but be pessimistic regarding the upcoming season. First of all, Wilcox’s hiring in January put him at a massive disadvantage, both in terms of recruiting and analyzing his current squad of players to figure out what he wants to change. Second, a quarterback competition that hasn’t seemed to move forward since the Spring Game and has no timeline attached to it bodes poorly. In previous seasons Bear fans could rely on scoring 40+ points at home once or twice a season to stay out of the Pac-12 basement. Without knowing much about how Wilcox’s scheme changes will play out, that no longer feels like a safe assumption.
- Oregon State
The Beavers have very little going for them — they were saved from finishing last because of Oregon’s shocking fall down the rankings, but I wouldn’t expect much movement from last year’s 3-6 conference record. You can’t even say that if one side of the ball catches up to the other they have a shot to jump up the rankings because both sides of the ball are in fairly bad shape. The one point in their favor, and what made me put them above Cal is that, with the exception of 47-6 loss to Colorado, they avoided being blown out in conference play last season, keeping things close with Washington State, Utah and Stanford in the latter half of the season, before ending the season with wins over Arizona and Oregon.
It’s hard to see Oregon finishing last in the North again, but that doesn’t mean a return to the dominance of the Chip Kelly era. New head coach Willie Taggart brings an uninspiring 40-45 record from his previous stints at Western Kentucky and Southern Florida. The offense still finished 15th in yards per game last season, so it should only take marginal gains on the defense to move the Ducks back toward a .500 record. I just don’t have much reason to put them over that threshold.
- Washington State
It was a wonky 2016 season for the Cougars, a 7-2 record in conference play meant an impressive second-place finish in the conference, but ugly losses early in the season eliminated them from any sort of national conversation early on, and the season ended on three straight unseemly losses. There’s a case to be made that the 7-2 record was a slight mirage — they could barely beat Oregon State or UCLA — but the Cougars return almost all of their starters on both sides of the ball, so I would expect them to stay above .500.
For me, this is a vote of confidence for head coach David Shaw. Put in the unenviable position of following Jim Harbaugh, a lot of his success has been overlooked or taken for granted. Losing Christian McCaffrey has a lot of people worried about where the Cardinal will find its offense, but because McCaffrey is essentially the only important player not returning on offense, I think Shaw can figure it out with an experienced squad.
What’s not to love? Coming off of an appearance in the College Football Playoff, there’s simply not much reason to think they’ll regress much. You’ve got to ride with the coaches you trust; everyone knew Chris Petersen would be a steal as a coaching hire and that’s indeed been the case. The Huskies and USC look like the titans of the Pac-12, hopefully the regular season is more than a warmup for those two squads.