Pacific 12 Conference

Previewing Pac-12 football: Stanford, UCLA at the top

Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey (5) runs the ball past the Oregon defensive line in Stanford, Calif. Last season, Oregon won the head-to-head meeting and probably spoiled Stanford’s playoff hopes, though the Cardinal still went on to win the conference.
Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey (5) runs the ball past the Oregon defensive line in Stanford, Calif. Last season, Oregon won the head-to-head meeting and probably spoiled Stanford’s playoff hopes, though the Cardinal still went on to win the conference. AP file, 2015

Teams in order of predicted finish:

PAC-12 NORTH

STANFORD CARDINAL

Coach: David Shaw, sixth year.

2015: 12-2 overall, 8-1 Pac-12

Starters returning: 11 (5 offense, 6 defense).

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Christian McCaffrey, RB, 6-0, 200, jr. — He finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting last season and is a frontrunner to contend for the award again this year after totaling 3,864 all-purpose yards and 15 touchdowns in 2015.

Michael Rector, WR, 6-1, 189, sr. — Only McCaffrey had more receiving yards for Stanford last season than Rector, who caught 34 passes for 559 yards and seven touchdowns.

Peter Kalambayi, OLB, 6-3, 243, jr. — A productive linebacker who finished last season with 4.5 sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss and 52 total tackles.

Ryan Burns, QB, 6-5, 232, jr. — Won the starting quarterback competition in fall camp. Has attempted exactly one pass in his college career, as a redshirt freshman in 2014.

Dallas Lloyd, SS, 6-3, 213, sr. — With Blake Martinez and Aziz Shittu gone, Lloyd is Stanford’s leading returning tackler (55 in 2015).

THE SKINNY

Stanford lost some key offensive lineman and needs to replace quarterback Kevin Hogan, who led the Cardinal to 36 victories — more than any Cardinal signalcaller before him. But with McCaffrey still in the backfield (and seemingly everywhere else), plus some decent weapons at receiver and some productive returners on the defensive side of the ball, Stanford again gets the benefit of the doubt when it comes to predicting Pac-12 supremacy. Shaw has proven time and again that his teams can make up for significant losses. Expect the Cardinal to do it again this year.

WASHINGTON HUSKIES

Coach: Chris Petersen, third year.

2015: 7-6 overall, 4-5 Pac-12

Starters returning: 16 (9 offense, 7 defense).

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Budda Baker, FS, 5-10, 192, jr. — The backbone of UW’s defense, Baker was named first-team All-Pac-12 last season after finishing with 49 tackles and two interceptions. He can play anywhere in the secondary.

Jake Browning, QB, 6-2, 209, so. — Won UW’s starting QB job as a true freshman last season, then threw for 2,955 yards, 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 12 games.

Azeem Victor, LB, 6-3, 230, jr. — Led the Huskies’ stout defense last season with 95 tackles, including 9.0 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception returned for a touchdown.

Myles Gaskin, RB, 5-10, 195, so. — Was a revelation last season as a freshman, rushing for 1,302 yards and 14 touchdowns and averaging 5.7 yards per carry.

Sidney Jones, CB, 6-0, 181, jr. — First-team All-Pac-12 selection last season after leading the team with four interceptions, 14 passes defended, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

THE SKINNY

The Huskies are a trendy pick to win the Pac-12 this season, and while their offense is still something of a work in progress, it’s their defense that earns those headlines. They return seven defensive starters from a group that led the league in scoring defense, and their secondary is one of the deepest and most talented in the country. If Browning and the young offense continue to improve, it is reasonable to think this could be one of the Huskies’ best seasons in recent memory.

WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS

Coach: Mike Leach, fifth year.

2015: 9-4 overall, 6-3 Pac-12

Starters returning: 14 (eight offense, six defense).

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Luke Falk, QB, 6-4, 216, jr. — Named first-team All-Pac-12 last season after throwing for 4,561 yards and school-record 38 touchdowns with just eight interceptions.

Gabe Marks, WR, 6-0, 190, sr. — Another first-team all-league performer last season, Marks is back for his final college season after catching 104 passes for 1,192 yards and 15 touchdowns as a junior.

Parker Henry, DB, 5-11, 206, sr. — Former walk-on found a niche playing nickel in defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s new scheme, and made the most of it last season with 71 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, a sack and an interception.

Peyton Pelluer, LB, 6-0, 235, jr. — WSU’s most productive defensive player a year ago. Finished the 2015 season with 101 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and an interception.

River Cracraft, WR, 6-0, 200, sr. — Battled injury last season to catch 53 passes for 615 yards and four touchdowns, but is capable of far more when healthy.

THE SKINNY

The Cougars finally broke out in Leach’s fourth year as coach, beating Miami in the Sun Bowl to finish a season with nine victories for the first time since 2003. With Falk and Marks back on offense behind some experienced linemen, WSU will be expected to continue putting up staggering offensive statistics. Its defense is something of a question mark — Pelluer and Henry are nice pieces, and they have some promising young talent in the secondary, but the defensive line isn’t as experienced or stout as it was a year ago. Still could be an exciting year in Pullman.

OREGON DUCKS

Coach: Mark Helfrich, fourth year.

2015: 9-4 overall, 7-2 Pac-12

Starters returning: 11 (7 offense, 4 defense).

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Dakota Prukop, QB, 6-2, 195, sr. — After Vernon Adams transferred from Eastern Washington to bail the Ducks out last season, Prukop, a Montana State transfer, will try to do it this year.

Royce Freeman, RB, 5-11, 230, jr. — Maybe one of the most underrated backs in the country, Freeman put up some insane numbers last season: 1,836 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns on 283 carries.

Tyree Robinson, DB, 6-4, 205, jr. — Led the team last season with three interceptions, and was also fourth on the team in tackles with 64.

Arrion Springs, CB, 5-11, 205, jr. — Another returning starter from last season’s defensive backfield. Springs had 53 tackles and an interception in 2015.

Darren Carrington, WR, 6-2, 195, jr. — Prukop’s top target. Carrington finished second on the team in receiving last season with 609 yards and six touchdowns on just 32 receptions. Was also second-team All-Pac-12.

THE SKINNY

Once again, the Ducks had to bring in a fifth-year transfer to play quarterback. And while Prukop put up outstanding numbers at Montana State — he had 3,822 yards of total offense and 37 touchdowns last season — he probably isn’t on the same level as Adams. Plus, the Ducks are trying to sort out the defensive issues that plagued them throughout last season, and it remains to be seen whether first-year defensive coordinator Brady Hoke can iron that all out. Oregon still has a lot of talent, but faces more questions this year than any in recent memory.

CALIFORNIA GOLDEN BEARS

Coach: Sonny Dykes, fourth year.

2015: 8-5 overall, 4-5 Pac-12

Starters returning: 10 (4 offense, 6 defense).

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Davis Webb, QB, 6-5, 230, sr. — Transfer from Texas Tech is Cal’s replacement for Jared Goff, who was the No. 1 pick in this year’s NFL draft. Webb threw for 441 yards and four touchdowns in Cal’s season-opening win over Hawaii in Australia.

Khalfani Muhammad, RB, 5-9, 175, sr. — Tough runner finished last season as Bears’ leading rusher with 586 yards on 87 carries, and had 10 carries for 96 yards in Cal’s opener.

Chad Hansen, WR, 6-2, 205, jr. — Cal’s leading returning receiver caught 19 passes for 249 yards last season, but had 14 catches for 160 yards and two touchdowns in this year’s opener.

Khari Vanderbilt, S, 6-1, 195, sr. — Led Cal with seven tackles in the season opener, and finished last season with 17 in 11 games.

Devante Downs, LB, 6-3, 250, jr. — Mountlake Terrace High School product played in 21 games in first two college seasons, and had six tackles in Cal’s 2016 season opener.

THE SKINNY

This is supposed to be something of a rebuilding year at Cal, but the Bears still have enough firepower to make some noise within Sonny Dykes’ Air Raid offense. Webb looks like a capable passer, and Cal has a stable of running backs who should be pretty productive, too. The question, as always with Cal, is on defense. The Bears simply don’t return a lot of production on that side of the ball, even if they do have a handful of players who have seen the field a decent amount.

OREGON STATE BEAVERS

Coach: Gary Andersen, second year.

2015: 2-10 overall, 0-9 Pac-12

Starters returning: 12 (8 offense, 4 defense).

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Darrell Garretson, QB, 6-0, 209, jr. — Former Utah State transfer sat out last season and now gives the Beavers a legitimate option at quarterback. Threw for 1,140 yards, eight touchdowns and three interceptions in five games for Utah State in 2014 before getting hurt.

Victor Bolden Jr., WR, 5-9, 183, sr. — Caught 46 passes for 461 yards and three touchdowns last season in an offense that, uh, usually struggled.

Jordan Villamin, WR, 6-5, 220, jr. — Led the team with 660 yards receiving and five touchdowns last season, and should be more productive this year with Garretson throwing the ball.

Caleb Saulo, LB, 6-1, 235, sr. — The team’s leading returning tackler, Saulo finished last season with 69 tackles and an interception in 11 games.

Treston Decoud, CB, 6-3, 208, sr. — Had 50 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack last season.

THE SKINNY

Will the Beavers actually win a Pac-12 game this season? They could, but they’re also the easy pick to finish in the North division basement. Garretson is an upgrade over last season’s quarterback situation, and Bolden and Villamin provide nice targets, if the offensive line can give Garretson some time to throw. But there just isn’t a whole lot to be optimistic about on the defensive side of the ball, and Andersen’s second year in Corvallis might not be a whole lot easier than his first.

PAC-12 SOUTH

UCLA BRUINS

Coach: Jim Mora, fifth year.

2015: 8-5 overall, 5-4 Pac-12

Starters returning: 12 (4 offense, 8 defense).

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Josh Rosen, QB, 6-4, 218, so. — Was first true freshman to start at quarterback in UCLA history, and threw for 3,670 yards, 23 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Expected to be one of Pac-12’s best this year.

Eddie Vanderdoes, DL, 6-3, 325, jr. — Had to sit out last season after injuring his knee the first week of September, but is back healthy and could be one of the Pac-12’s most disruptive linemen.

Soso Jamabo, RB, 6-3, 216, so. — Played second fiddle to star Paul Perkins last season, but still rushed for 403 yards and four touchdowns on 66 carries — an average of 6.1 yards per rush.

Jayon Brown, LB, 6-0, 230, sr. — After star linebacker Myles Jack went down with a knee injury last season, Brown stepped up and led the team with 93 tackles, plus two tackles for loss and a half-sack.

Jaleel Wadood, DB, 5-10, 175, jr. — Part of a talented secondary. Wadood had 72 tackles, four tackles for loss and two interceptions in 2015.

THE SKINNY

It’s not hard to see why UCLA was the media’s pick to win the Pac-12 South this season. It all starts with Rosen, the former 5-star recruit who won the starting QB job as a freshman and is thought to be one of the most talented passers in the country. But the Bruins also appear to be well-stocked at tailback despite the loss of Perkins, and have a ton of talent on defense — including those eight returning starters. Star left tackle Conor McDermott anchors the Bruins’ offensive line.

USC TROJANS

Coach: Clay Helton, first year.

2015: 8-6 overall, 6-3 Pac-12

Starters returning: 14 (9 offense, 5 defense).

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Max Browne, QB, 6-5, 220, jr. — The former Skyline High School star won the starting quarterback competition over Sam Darnold this fall. He saw limited duty last season behind Cody Kessler, completing 8 of 12 passes for 113 yards in three games.

Ronald Jones II, RB, 6-1, 195, so. — Despite splitting carries last season with Justin Davis, Jones still rumbled for 987 yards and eight touchdowns. He averaged 6.5 yards per rush.

Adoree Jackson, WR/DB, 5-11, 185, jr. — Jackson did it all for the Trojans last season, catching 27 passes for 414 yards and two touchdowns, returning two punts for touchdowns, and totaling 35 tackles and an interception on defense.

Zach Banner, OT, 6-9, 360, sr. — One of the top returning linemen in the country, the Lakes High School graduate was a first-team All-Pac-12 selection last season.

Cameron Smith, LB, 6-2, 245, so. — Wound up one of the Trojans’ most productive defensive players as a true freshman, finishing 2015 with 78 tackles and three interceptions.

THE SKINNY

It is not difficult to envision a scenario in which USC wins the Pac-12 and competes for a national championship — the Trojans just need Browne to play like a veteran in his first year as a starter. They’re loaded with talent everywhere else, particularly at the offensive skill positions, and they have a big, experienced offensive line. And with the way they’re recruited recently, even their inexperienced players are talented. This could be a really good team, if it meshes right away. Their season opener against No. 1 Alabama will tell plenty.

UTAH UTES

Coach: Kyle Whittingham, 12th year.

2015: 10-3 overall, 6-3 Pac-12

Starters returning: 13 (6 offense, 7 defense).

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Troy Williams, QB, 6-2, 200, jr. — Williams transferred from UW after the 2014 season, tore it up last year at Santa Monica Junior College, then won Utah’s starting job this fall.

Joe Williams, RB, 5-11, 205, sr. — Played behind star back Devontae Booker last season, rushing for 477 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games. Is now the team’s starting tailback.

Tyrone Smith, WR, 6-4, 205, so. — Played in every game last season as a true freshman and finished with 18 catches for 193 yards. Now listed as a starter.

Marcus Williams, FS, 6-1, 195, jr. — First-team All-Pac-12 last season after intercepting five passes and totaling 66 tackles with two tackles for loss.

Lowell Lotulelei, DT, 6-2, 310, jr. — First-team All-Pac-12 last season after finishing with 26 tackles, five tackles for loss and a sack. Considered an All-America candidate this year.

THE SKINNY

Utah competed for the Pac-12 South title last season, but was thwarted by its lack of a reliable passing game. But maybe the addition of Troy Williams, the UW transfer who was once a coveted recruit, can help fix that problem. Utah does need to find a way to replace the production of Booker, and the Utes don’t return much experience at receiver. But if Williams can spark the offense, Utah should be able to ride its experienced defense toward contention for the division title.

ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS

Coach: Todd Graham, fifth year.

2015: 6-7 overall, 4-5 Pac-12

Starters returning: 10 (4 offense, 6 defense).

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Manny Wilkins, QB, 6-3, 197, so. — Former four-star recruit has never attempted a pass in a college football game but appears in line to start the season opener.

Demario Richard, RB, 5-10, 219, jr. — ASU’s most accomplished offensive player rushed for 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns last season.

Tim White, WR, 5-11, 175, sr. — Was the team’s second-leading receiver last season with 57 receptions for 633 yards and eight touchdowns.

Salamo Fiso, LB, 6-0, 240, sr. — Was honorable mention All-Pac-12 after finishing last season with 99 total tackles, 20 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.

Christian Sam, LB, 6-1, 241, jr. — Back atop the depth chart at weakside linebacker after totaling 98 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks last season.

THE SKINNY

It’s hard to know exactly what to make of the Sun Devils, who appeared poised for a Pac-12 title run last season before faltering and winning only six games. They’re breaking in a new quarterback in Wilkins, though he was a touted prospect and could succeed within Graham’s fast-paced offensive scheme, and Richard gives them a solid option at tailback. The defense has some experience, too, though it did lose some punch in the secondary. A Sept. 10 game against Texas Tech will be a nice test before Pac-12 play.

ARIZONA WILDCATS

Coach: Rich Rodriguez, fifth year.

2015: 7-6 overall, 3-6 Pac-12

Starters returning: 15 (7 offense, 8 defense).

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Anu Solomon, QB, 6-2, 206, jr. — Battled head injuries last season but threw for 2,667 yards and 20 touchdowns with just five interceptions in 11 games.

Nick Wilson, RB, 5-10, 208, jr. — One of three Arizona players to net 700 or more yards rushing last season, Wilson totaled 729 yards and eight touchdowns in nine games.

DaVonte’ Neal, CB, 5-10, 178, sr. — Had 63 tackles, two tackles for loss and an interception last season.

Paul Magloire Jr., LB, 6-1, 227, sr. — He’s the team’s returning leading tackler after finishing second in that category last season with 72, including four for loss.

Nate Phillips, WR, 5-7, 186, sr. — Leading returning receiver caught 44 passes for 564 yards and four touchdowns in 2015.

THE SKINNY

Coming off their Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2014, the Wildcats seemed to be headed in the right direction going into the 2015 season. But injuries ravaged their defense, Solomon struggled to stay healthy, and things kind of fell apart. Expectations aren’t as high this season, though with Solomon, Wilson and a few experienced receivers back in the mix, the Wildcats should at least be able to move the ball. And if they can stay healthier on defense than they were a year ago — they do return eight starters on that side of the ball — a better finish is possible.

COLORADO BUFFALOES

Coach: Mike MacIntyre, fourth year.

2015: 4-9 overall, 1-8 Pac-12

Starters returning: 18 (9 offense, 9 defense).

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Sefo Liufau, QB, 6-4, 230, sr. — Tacoma native sustained a season-ending foot injury last season, but is back for his senior year and is again at the helm of Colorado’s offense.

Chidobe Awuzie, CB, 6-0, 205, sr. — Not only was he the team’s second-leading tackler last season with 90, but he also finished with a team-high 13 tackles for loss and four sacks, and was named second-team All-Pac-12.

Phillip Lindsay, RB, 5-8, 190, jr. — Led the team in rushing last season with 653 yards and six touchdowns on 140 carries.

Rick Gamboa, LB, 6-0, 230, so. — Was the team’s top tackler a year ago with 96.

Derek McCartney, LB, 6-3, 250, jr. — Finished last season second on the team in sacks with five, and he had 70 total tackles and 10 total tackles for loss.

THE SKINNY

Sure, Colorado is going to be the popular pick to finish last in the Pac-12 South division until the Buffaloes prove they’re better than that. But maybe this is the year they do that. They’ve got as much returning talent on hand as they have since they joined the league, and that includes a senior quarterback, last year’s top rusher and nine defensive starters. The Pac-12 is still the Pac-12, and the Buffs do have to make trips to Oregon, USC and Stanford. But if you said this is the year Colorado makes it back to a bowl game, you have some evidence to support your case.

Christian Caple: ccaple@thenewstribune.com

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