Pac-12 football preview: USC in the lead with Stanford, Washington right behind

The league previously referred to dismissively as “Southern California plus nine” is now Southern California plus Washington plus Stanford plus Utah plus Washington State plus Colorado plus Oregon …

You get the idea. The Pac-12 Conference used to be a one-horse town: USC was the clear top dog for the better part of the decade, both inside its conference and nationally, and while the Trojans carried the flag with composure and ease, the league as a whole suffered for its predictability.

That’s no longer the case. Outside of California — which is going to gift so many wins this year it should apply for non-profit status — and maybe Arizona, the Pac-12 is loaded with obvious bowl teams, programs clearly on the rise and a number of legitimate College Football Playoff contenders.

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Washington will compete for national titles on an annual basis for as long as Chris Petersen stalks the sidelines. Stanford’s consistency is nearly unmatched. Oregon is rejuvenated by Willie Taggart’s arrival. Washington State is ranked in the preseason (AP poll) for the first time since 2002.

Colorado has regained its momentum. Utah has set its baseline at eight wins. UCLA is talented enough — if seemingly mismanaged — to at least double last season’s win total.

PAC-12 SCHEDULE

Week 1

Saturday results

Stanford 62, Rice 7
Colorado State 58, Oregon State 27

Thursday's games

North Dakota at Utah, 4:30 p.m., Pac12
New Mexico State at Arizona State, 7:30 p.m., Pac12

Friday's games

Washington at Rutgers, 5 p.m., FS1
Colorado State at Colorado, 5 p.m., Pac12

Saturday's games

California at North Carolina, 9:20 a.m., ACCN
Portland State at Oregon State, 11 a.m., Pac12
Western Michigan at USC, 2:15 p.m., Pac12
Southern Utah at Oregon, 5:15 p.m., Pac12
Montana State at Washington State, 7:30 p.m., FS1
Northern Arizona at Arizona, 8 p.m., Pac12

Sunday's game

Texas A&M at UCLA, 4:30 p.m., Fox

VIDEO: USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg previews the 2017 Pac-12 football conference

There is parity here; it’s no longer USC, a wide gap, and then everyone else. But here’s an important point: USC is back. What does that mean for the Pac-12?

On paper, at least, the league hasn’t had this level of depth and parity since adding Colorado and Utah to its ranks. That the Trojans are in the thick of the Playoff chase only adds to the conference’s overall quality.

Pac-12 record projections

Overall champion: USC

North (overall, conference)

Stanford 10-2, 7-2
Washington 10-2, 7-2
Oregon 8-4, 5-4
Washington State 7-5, 4-5
Oregon State 5-7, 3-6
California 2-10, 1-8

South (overall, conference)

USC 11-1, 8-1
UCLA 9-3, 6-3
Utah 8-4, 5-4
Colorado 7-5, 4-5
Arizona State 6-6, 3-6
Arizona 4-8, 1-8

Preseason all-conference

OFFENSE

QB: Sam Darnold, USC

RB: Royce Freeman, Oregon

RB: Myles Gaskin, Washington

WR: Shay Fields, Colorado

WR: Dante Pettis, Washington

TE: Dalton Schultz, Stanford

OL: Coleman Shelton, Washington

OL: Cody O’Connell, Washington State

OL: Scott Quessenberry, UCLA

OL: Jeromy Irwin, Colorado

OL: Trey Adams, Washington

DEFENSE

DL: Hercules Mata’afa, Washington State

DL: Harrison Phillips, Stanford

DL: Lowell Lotulelei, Utah

DL: Vita Vea, Washington

LB: Kenny Young, UCLA

LB: Cameron Smith, USC

LB: Azeem Victor, Washington

CB: Quenton Meeks, Stanford

CB: Iman Marshall, USC

S: Justin Reid, Stanford

S: Taylor Rapp, Washington

SPECIALISTS

K: Matt Anderson, California

P: Mitch Wishnowsky, Utah

RET: Charles Nelson, Oregon

Best units

Quarterback: USC. Not since Tebow has a young quarterback taken college football by storm quite like Sam Darnold.

Running back: USC. Oregon’s backfield is strong, but the Trojans’ group of Ronald Jones and several very impressive freshmen is tough to beat.

Wide receivers and tight ends: Colorado. The Pac-12 is sorely lacking in star power at receiver, so the Buffaloes and their top target, Shay Fields, get the nod.

Offensive line: Washington. The Huskies’ tone-setting offensive front will be even better in 2017.

Defensive line: Utah. Once again, Utah touts the best starting four in the Pac-12.

Linebacker: Stanford. If you’re looking for one reason why this Stanford defense is going to be nasty, check out one of the deepest linebacker groups in the country.

Secondary: Stanford. Looking for another reason to fear this defense? The Cardinal’s secondary is loaded and experienced.

Special teams: Oregon. The Ducks probably will have a true freshman handling punts and will need all-conference kicker Aidan Schneider to handle kickoffs as well as field goals, but the package of Schneider kicking and Charles Nelson returning is the league’s best.

VIDEO: USA TODAY Sports' George Schroeder breaks down the five quarterbacks you should be watching this season

Ranking the starting quarterbacks

1. Sam Darnold, USC. Every positive thing you’ve heard about Darnold — his vision, athleticism, drive, potential — is, well, true.

2. Jake Browning, Washington. Only Darnold could knock Browning out of the top spot — he did throw for 3,430 yards and 43 touchdowns last year, in case all you remember is that one game against Alabama.

3. Josh Rosen, UCLA. He’s the most talented quarterback prospect I’ve seen come through the Elite 11 workouts, but injuries and a rotating cast of offensive coordinators have slowed Rosen’s development as he heads into his junior year.

4. Luke Falk, Washington State. The most productive passer in Washington State history is a division title away from being a realistic Heisman Trophy contender.

5. Justin Herbert, Oregon. He’ll be even better in 2017 than during a very nice freshman campaign — one largely ignored amid Oregon’s swoon — but Herbert’s best days might lie a year down the road.

6. Steven Montez, Colorado. Getting his feet wet against some major competition and in some crucial games will pay enormous dividends as Montez transitions into the full-time starting role.

7. Keller Chryst, Stanford. While his rebuilt right knee gives slight cause for concern, a healthy Chryst will put together significantly stronger numbers in 2017.

8. Brandon Dawkins, Arizona. Dawkins’ ability to make plays with his legs gives Arizona’s attack another dimension and gives defensive coordinator another headache to consider.

9. Tyler Huntley, Utah. In a surprise decision, Kyle Whittingham elected to go with Huntley, a sophomore, over incumbent starter Troy Williams.

10. Manny Wilkins, Arizona State. There are no questions at all about Wilkins’ ability to handle this offense, but he’ll need to produce to fend off Alabama transfer Blake Barnett.

11. Jake Luton, Oregon State. To me, that Gary Andersen named Luton the starter very early into fall camp speaks to the faith OSU has in its junior-college transfer.

12. Ross Bowers, Cal. He’s not the only option — Justin Wilcox could also use South Carolina transfer Brandon McIlwain, for example, if he becomes eligible — Bowers seems the safest bet to start the opener.

Top newcomers

UCLA CB Darnay Holmes. The five-star freshman may start at cornerback for the Bruins and make a big impact on special teams.

USC WR Velus Jones. A recent bout of foot soreness has slowed Jones’ progression in recent weeks, but the redshirt freshman still seems destined to provide a spark on in the passing game and as a returner.

Oregon CB Thomas Graham. Enrolling early helped the true freshman grab a key spot in the backfield, which needs to take two major steps forward just to reach mediocrity.

Utah OL Jordan Agasiva. The Utes have already slid the junior-college transfer into the starting job at right guard.

Washington CB Byron Murphy. UW’s rebuilding project in the secondary features Murphy starting on the outside as a redshirt freshman.

Washington State WR Jamire Calvin. He’s made a name for himself during fall camp.

Games of the year

Texas A&M at UCLA, Sept. 3. A clear show-me-something game for Jim Mora and the Bruins.

Stanford at USC, Sept. 9. While other title contenders are sleepwalking against cupcakes, the Trojans and the Cardinal meet with enormous down-the-line implications.

Utah at Brigham Young, Sept. 9. This is such a nice, cuddly rivalry.

Nebraska at Oregon, Sept. 9. Getting this one at home is huge for Willie Taggart and the Ducks, but beware Tanner Lee and the Cornhuskers’ new looks on offense and defense.

Texas at USC, Sept. 16. Ah, the memories. Freshmen on the Trojans’ roster were in grade school the last time these two bluebloods met.

USC at Notre Dame, Oct. 21. If both teams perform as expected — and don’t sleep on a torrid start for the Irish — this will be another special game in a special series.

UCLA at Washington, Oct. 28. Even if the Bruins lag in the South Division, this one is interesting for its quarterback matchup: Josh Rosen on one side, Jake Browning the other.

Oregon at Washington, Nov. 4. Washington has designs on a long, long, long winning streak of its own in this bitter rivalry.

Washington at Stanford, Nov. 10. A short week to prepare for a road trip to Stanford isn’t great for UW.

UCLA at USC, Nov. 18. Let’s see if UCLA has made up some ground on the Trojans.

Washington State at Washington, Nov. 25. The Apple Cup was great when these two programs were laughingstocks — and it’s even better now.

Notre Dame at Stanford, Nov. 25. If the Irish return to the title picture, this could end up being another feather in the Cardinal’s cap in the push for a major bowl.

Best chance at the playoff

I count nine bowl teams in the Pac-12. The three out of picture: Cal, which is going to be bad; Arizona, which has exhausted almost all of the goodwill following its recent Fiesta Bowl berth; and Oregon State, which is going places under Gary Andersen but doesn’t seem quite ready to hit six wins.

Then there are a few teams destined for the postseason but little more. Arizona State looks mediocre. Colorado won’t repeat atop the South Division. Oregon should be ecstatic with eight wins, which would double last year’s total.

Then there’s the group just below the top. Utah’s here, though the Utes always are a threat to exceed expectations. Washington State could easily get back to nine wins.

There’s also a wild card in UCLA, which has the overall talent level and the quarterback to be a surprise factor in the Playoff race. The issues remain the same, however. The Bruins’ running game is an embarrassment that needs mending, for one; Rosen’s health remains a concern; and there’s no track record nor great reason to have faith in Jim Mora and his coaching staff. Still, the Bruins are more than intriguing.

But three teams lead the way. First is the defending champ, Washington, which in some ways seems stronger — if only as a result of experience — but does have a few potential weak links: no game-changing threat at receiver, a clearly diminished secondary and a questionable kicking game.

Stanford’s ready to fill the void if UW takes even the slightest step back. There’s something vintage about this team. Quarterback play will be immensely improved. Likewise with the offensive line. The back seven is the league’s best. Still, there’s no overlooking Christian McCaffrey’s departure for the NFL and the lack of major weapons in the passing game.

USC has the most potential. At the same time, don’t the Trojans also have the best chance at being a bust? Yeah, no question. But you can’t ignore the talent, the confidence stemming from last year’s surge, the potential dominance of this defense and — last but certainly not least — the quarterback.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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