Pac-12 Conference Preview: North Division
The Pac-12 Conference features a few bona fide contenders every season. In 2016, those came mainly from the North Division but in previous years the South was the division to watch. Here, I’ll offer a preview of the Pac-12 North. The South will follow in the next few days, with both receiving their fair share of the spotlight.
(Spoiler alert: Once the lights go on for real in a month, it looks as if the North Division will remain the cream of the crop for another year.)
With head coach Chris Petersen back for another season, the Huskies look primed to repeat as Pac-12 North champions. Quarterback Jake Browning returns, albeit carrying injury concerns following January 2017 shoulder surgery. Tailback Myles Gaskin figures to again be the Huskies primary ball carrier, sights set on rushing for over 1,000 yards three years in a row.
Defensively, the Huskies have a multitude of young players. That could be an issue down the stretch, as this team faces both Stanford and Washington State late in the season.
Their schedule is favorable in the early going, with Rutgers, Montana and Fresno State not expected to make much noise. Colorado will be a big test pitting the 2016 Pac-12 Champion and runner-up against one another. The Huskies should eke out a win here, but it won’t come easily. Not on the road, in hostile territory with everyone rooting against you. In the luck column, you can mark down the fact that these guys managed to get away with not facing USC in the regular season.
A team that surpassed all expectations last season, the Washington State Cougars look primed for another good year. Quarterback Luke Falk returns under center, strapped with expectations for a change. The senior should be able to handle the pressure though, especially with his offensive line remaining relatively intact.
The Cougars also return a good chunk of their defensive starters. That’s always a good sign for teams looking to become elite, something these guys have a legitimate chance at being.
Unfortunately for the Cougars, the schedule doesn’t appear friendly. Montana State should be an easy win but Boise State has the ability to challenge any team not named Clemson or Alabama. A few games later USC comes calling. Win both of those games and the famed Apple Cup matchup with Washington takes on a whole new meaning. It could not only decide who receives state bragging rights but also the Pac-12 North Division winner.
Another elite team, the Stanford Cardinal seem to always be a threat in the Pac-12. 2017 should be no different, as they have a head coach who routinely gets the most out of his players. Without running back Christian McCaffrey, coach David Shaw will look to junior Bryce Love to carry the bulk of the weight both literally and figuratively. Love has the talent, teaming with McCaffrey to set the Cardinal single-season record for a rushing tandem in 2016.
On the defensive front, the Cardinal must replace Solomon Thomas. That won’t be an easy task, but the Cardinal always find a way. Fifth year senior Eric Cotton is the logical choice to take Thomas’ spot. In saying that, there’s no way one player can completely replace an NFL first rounder.
Glancing at the schedule, Stanford was afforded zero breaks early on. While Washington faces three teams not predicted to finish in the Associated Press Top 25 to start 2017, the Cardinal must travel out of the country to play Rice. They then return home and, after a bye week, host USC in a huge conference matchup. They then receive a bit of a break before traveling to Washington State and then hosting Washington in back-to-back weeks to begin November. If they survive such a brutal schedule and win the Pac-12, it would be foolish not to include them in the college football playoff debate.
For a team coming off an underwhelming 2016 campaign, the California Golden Bears have made some changes for 2017. Justin Wilcox takes over as head coach, but the team is still filled with gaping holes. Chase Forrest is the most experienced option under center as a redshirt junior, but there’s no telling whether he’s the answer or not. Part of that has to do with the offensive line. Littered with underclassmen, mainly freshman and redshirt freshman, this team might be learning on the fly in 2017.
If you take a peek at their schedule, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Wilcox ready to jump ship come midseason. The Golden Bears open by traveling to North Carolina, a team many predict could finish in the top half of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). Weber State follows which, if you’re a respectable team, should equal a win. Next comes Ole Miss. A team in shambles themselves after losing their head coach over a scandal. Not an easy win, but with the turmoil surrounding the 2017 Rebels I have to think this is Cal’s chance to prove they’re not as bad as people might think. Win this game and go into that first Pac-12 game against USC with some amount of confidence. That doesn’t mean they’ll win, yet keeping things close against the Pac-12 favorites would be a big confidence boost moving forward.
The Oregon State Beavers were a mess in 2016, but there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Junior college transfer Jake Luton might be the savior at quarterback, while University of South Florida transfer Austin Hudson could help the defense come around. Both played a role in their previous schools successful 2016 campaigns, though Hudson didn’t see as much time on the field being an underclassmen.
Schedule-wise, the Beavers were handed no favors. Colorado State on the road is no pushover, especially when you consider the 2017 Rams have more experience than the 2016 team that went .500 or close to it. Portland State should be a win, along with a rebuilding Minnesota squad that struggled to make a bowl game last season. Then comes the late September and October gauntlet of Washington State, Washington, USC, Colorado and Stanford. Going 3-2 during this daunting stretch might be enough to secure a bowl berth. Anything 2-3 or below could be disastrous, as there’s no gimme games to fall back on.
If you ask anyone, 2016 was a disaster of epic proportions for the Oregon Ducks. That brought about change, with the team releasing head coach Mark Helfrich days after their first loss to Oregon State in a long time. Not long afterward, the Ducks hired Willie Taggart to take over as the coach in the hopes he could turn them around like he did his previous two teams.
Justin Herbert should be the Ducks starting quarterback. A duel threat guy, he would likely thrive in Taggart’s “Gulf Coast Offense” because there’s ample opportunities to create on the fly.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Ducks will have to hope former University of South Florida Bulls head coach and new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt can turn one of the nations worst defenses around. He does have a good track record there, producing a number of high round NFL draft picks over the years.
The Ducks schedule is favorable in the early going. Southern Utah, Nebraska and Wyoming should all be relatively easy. Even Arizona State and California shouldn’t pose much of a challenge, especially if the 2017 Ducks offense produces at the rate Taggart’s previous teams did. The biggest test will come in early October when they face Washington State and Stanford back-to-back. 1-1 would be a step back into relevancy, while 0-2 could be a sign of the growing pains that come with a new coaching regime. For the optimists, 2-0 might set up a huge game at Washington on November 4th. The winner of that game would have the inside track to the Pac-12 North Division crown and playing in the championship game.
What are your thoughts on the Pac-12 North Division? How do you think it will stack up? Do you see any surprises from this division? Feel free to leave any thoughts you might have in the comment section.