No story underscored the Pac-12’s Conference’s rapid ascent in the college football firmament than the one that came out of Oregon State following head coach Mike Riley’s sudden departure for Nebraska late last year. The Beavers didn’t replace Riley with a tenured assistant or an up-and-comer, but with the head coach of Big Ten powerhouse Wisconsin, Gary Andersen.
Given Oregon State’s largely dismal football history, such a development would have once been considered unthinkable. But for Andersen, the move made perfect sense.
“I absolutely have felt a huge swing in the last two years, and that’s me being in the Midwest for two years, that the Pac-12 has gained a ton of respect nationally,” Andersen said recently. “The Pac-12 has gotten better and better and better.”
The proof is in the numbers. Andersen, the Pac-12’s only new coach this season, will join a league coming off a year in which six teams won at least nine games (most of any conference), six made the final Associated Press Top 25 poll, and eight qualified for bowl games.
That wasn’t all. The Pac-12 dominated the postseason awards, snapping up 13 of 21 trophies, including the Heisman to Oregon’s Marcus Mariota. To top it off, an FBS-high nine players went in the first round of the NFL draft, including three from Washington.
Even with the losses of such marquee talents as Mariota and DT Leonard Williams (USC), the Pac-12 enters 2015 as the No. 2-ranked Power 5 Conference, trailing only the SEC – that due to the number of teams with playoff potential.
Minus a few stars, Andersen will see this season a Pac-12 much like last year’s. The Pac-12 hasn’t won a national championship in more than a decade, but Oregon and USC are strong candidates to do so this year. The conference also features several other clubs with the potential to make a run at a college football playoff berth.
Despite Mariota’s exit, and with the possibility of coach Mark Helfrich employing two quarterbacks, Oregon remains the top team in the North with only Stanford a strong contender. The South is a different story. In arguably the toughest division in college football, USC has the most talent, but four other schools are good enough to finish first.
This is how we forecast the North:
1. Oregon (13-2-0 last year)
Oregon faces a major transition after the graduation of a senior class that led the Ducks to four postseason victories, including two in the Rose Bowl. Head coach Mark Helfrich’s primary task will be replacing Mariota, who led the FBS with a rating of 181.75 while generating 9.01 yards per play in total offense.
Recently deemed eligible, Eastern Washington graduate transfer Vernon Adams doesn’t have Mariota’s overall skill set, but the numbers he produced last year were remarkably similar to Mariota’s. Adams led the FCS with a rating of 183.13 and averaged 9.0 yards per play.
Helfrich will buttress Adams, or junior holdover Jeff Lockie, with some exceptional skill players, the principal reason the Ducks are once again poised to roll through the Pac-12 North.
Given his 1,365 yards and 18 touchdowns last year, running back Royce Freeman has already generated Heisman talk and figures to be Oregon’s primary offensive weapon. The QB will also inherit Mariota’s two leading receivers, Byron Marshall (74 catches, 1,003 yards, 6 TDs) and Dwayne Stanford (43 catches, 639 yards, 6 TDs), as well as Bralon Addison, who returns following a knee injury.
In addition to losing Mariota to the Tennessee Titans (No. 2 overall pick), Oregon lost DE Arik Armstead (first round, San Francisco) and four-year starting center Hroniss Grasu to the Chicago Bears (third round). But the Ducks received a major boost when DE DeForest Buckner, the top player on Oregon’s front seven, elected to return for his senior season. One-time walk-on Matt Pierson will probably take Grasu’s spot.
Last year the Ducks introduced a freshman class that included Freeman, WR Devon Allen, WR Darren Carrington, OL Tyrell Crosby and DBs Charles Nelson, Tyree Robinson and Chris Seisay. All are expected to eventually blossom into stars good enough to keep the Ducks among the conference elite.
Also worth watching: freshman defensive end Canton Kaumatule, a five-star recruit and the highest-rated prospect to sign with the Ducks.
Oregon opens Saturday against Eastern Washington, meaning that Adams, even if he doesn’t start, will probably play in his first game for the Ducks against his former school. Oregon’s first big test comes Sept. 12 when the Ducks travel to Michigan State, which went 11-2 last year and throttled Baylor in the Cotton Bowl.
The Ducks face another major hurdle early (Sept. 26) against Utah, still smarting from the loss to the Ducks last year. If it’s a low-scoring game, this one could go to the Utes.
Only after these two games can the loss of Mariota, the greatest player in Oregon history, be accurately measured.
2. Stanford (8-5-0)
Stanford experienced an odd season in 2014 under head coach David Shaw, failing to win at least 11 games for the first time. The Cardinal dropped three contests by three points, wound up second to Oregon in the Pac-12 North, and will enter 2015 with wholesale changes on defense (for the second consecutive year) while pegging its offensive hopes on the progression of quarterback Kevin Hogan, a three-year veteran still seeking consistency.
Shaw has enough returning talent to push for double-digit victories and perhaps challenge for division supremacy, especially if the Cardinal start the year the way they finished the last one, with blowout wins over California (38-17), UCLA (31-10) and, finally, Maryland (45-21) in the Foster Farms Bowl.
Stanford’s success under Shaw stemmed from a power run game and physical defense. The Cardinal last year failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time since 2007, placing a great deal of strain on Hogan. This year, Shaw will count on sophomore Christian McCaffrey, who averaged 10.9 yards per touch a year ago, to make a major impact in the run and return games.
Stanford not only topped the Pac-12 in total defense (282.4 yards per game), it allowed more than 100 fewer yards than the league’s No. 2 defensive team, Utah. But eight starters are gone, including Henry Anderson, David Parry and Blake Lueders, It will be difficult for the Cardinal to match the 4.2 yards per play it allowed last year.
The next rotation will lack experience, but ends Solomon Thomas and Harrison Phillips had outstanding springs and Brennan Scarlett, a transfer from Cal, has flashed potential to step in alongside LB Blake Martinez, Stanford’s best defensive player. Scarlett, in fact, could make a huge impact.
In contrast to the defense, Stanford returns all but two offensive starters. Shaw needs Hogan to be the catalyst. He tossed for 2,792 yards and 19 touchdowns last year and was especially effective in the final three games, when he completed 76.2 percent of his throws with only one interception. When Hogan performs like that, the Cardinal can play with any team. If McCaffrey is as good as billed, Hogan could have a huge year.
Stanford opens at Northwestern and the remainder of its schedule shakes out favorably as five of the Cardinal’s most important games – the exception is USC in week 3 — will be played on The Farm. Key matchup: Nov. 14 visit by the Ducks.
3. California (5-7-0)
Cal produced a massive turnaround last year, improving from 1-11-0 in 2013 to 5-7-0. The Golden Bears got off to an explosive 4-1 start, their lone loss coming to eventual South champion Arizona on a Hail Mary. Cal lost six of its final seven.
The Golden Bears can take the next step toward a postseason berth for the first time since 2011 by improving defensively and closing out tight games.
After finishing No. 10 nationally in scoring last year (38.2 per game), Cal has all the offense it needs. Junior quarterback Jared Goff, an honorable mention All-Pac-12 performer, has tossed for 7,481 yards, 53 touchdowns and only 17 interceptions in his career and will probably go down as the most prolific quarterback in Cal history (owns 19 school records).
With Oregon’s Mariota and USC’s Brett Hundley having moved to the NFL, Goff will challenge Southern Cal’s Cody Kessler as the Pac-12’s top quarterback. But Goff, a potential first-round NFL draft pick, is no solo act.
Senior RB Daniel Lasco returns after a 1,115-yard season with 12 touchdowns. There isn’t much depth behind him but sophomores Vic Enwere and Tre Watson will compete for carries with junior Khalfani Muhammad.
Senior Kenny Lawler leads a stacked wide receiver unit after topping the Bears with 54 catches for 701 yards and nine touchdowns in 11 games as a sophomore. In fact, Cal returns 328 of its 329 receptions from 2014.
Cal’s defense sucks. The Golden Bears allowed 39.8 points per game last year, virtually negating all the good things Cal did on offense. Only five FBS teams allowed more. Cal gave up 61 touchdowns, allowing each of its final 10 opponents to score at least 31.
Head coach Sonny Dykes is counting on within-program improvement by his best returning defensive players, including DE Kyle Kragen, who missed last year with an illness. Sykes will also count on contributions from transfer DeVante Wilson, a former USC defensive lineman. But the Cal secondary, scorched for 42 TD passes last year, remains a major concern. Given the program’s defensive talent, or lack of, a huge turnaround seems unlikely.
That’s one of two factors working against Cal. The other is an absurd schedule with road games at Texas, Washington, Utah, UCLA, Oregon and Stanford. The Bears will need to win at least two to become bowl eligible – and that’s if they handle their home slate, which includes Grambling State, San Diego State, Washington State, USC, Oregon State and Arizona State.
Expect Cal to play a lot of shootouts, replete with 48-45 wins and 52-49 losses.
4. Washington (8-6-0)
Unless second-year head coach Chris Petersen produces a miracle on Montlake, the Huskies’ streak of consecutive bowl appearances will snap at five. Washington faces a nightmarish schedule, does not have an established quarterback and returns only nine starters from a team that struggled to finish 8-6 in 2014, including 4-5 in conference play.
Washington opens Friday at Fiesta Bowl champion Boise State (12-2-0), Petersen’s former haunt, then runs a gauntlet of seven bowl teams in eight weeks. With two or three upsets, the Huskies could go 6-6. But a 3-7 start would not be a surprise, nor would 2-9, before the Huskies close with Oregon State and Washington State.
With Cyler Miles retired due to a chronic hip injury and junior college transfer Tony Rodriguez seemingly destined to red shirt, the Huskies have shaky options at quarterback: Junior Jeff Lindquist, redshirt freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels and freshman Jake Browning.
Lindquist saw sporadic action in 12 games last fall, made one start (at Hawaii), and is probably the safest bet to open the season due to his experience. But Browning, a Granite Bay, CA., product and one of the most prolific prep passers in history, has more upside. Petersen won’t announce his QB choice until game day.
Whoever wins the job will benefit from two impressive targets in Jaydon Mickens (60 catches, 617 yards, four TDs) and Dante Pettis, who had 17 catches for 259 yards as a freshman and will need to step up as the replacement for big-play specialist John Ross, lost for the season with a knee injury. Josh Perkins could rank among the Pac-12’s top tight ends after catching 25 passes for 325 yards and three scores last year as a junior.
The Huskies lost one of their top offensive linemen after camp opened when Dexter Charles retired with a chronic knee injury. UW also suffered a massive talent drain on defense as DT Danny Shelton, CB Marcus Peters and LB Shaq Thompson all went to the NFL as No. 1 draft picks.
Petersen must rebuild Washington’s front seven. In the secondary, the Huskies return Pac-12 honors candidates DB Budda Baker, but the Huskies won’t be nearly as good without Shelton, Peters, Thompson and Hau’oli Kikaha, a second-round NFL draft pick and their best pass rusher.
Given that Washington’s schedule is ranked as the nation’s sixth-toughest by CBS Sports, if Petersen goes 6-6, he can call it an outstanding year.
5. Washington State (3-9-0)
Eight Pac-12 teams earned bowl invitations last year. Washington State, among the league’s all-time leaders in avoiding the postseason, wasn’t one of them with a 3-9 record. Although the Cougars had a few problems offensively, notably too many interceptions (18), they scored 31.8 points per game. Trouble was, they allowed 38.6, four times getting torched for 52 or more.
At season’s end, fourth-year head coach Mike Leach fired defensive coordinator Mike Breske and hired Alex Grinch. The former safeties coach at Missouri must turn around a WSU defense that ranked 97th nationally in total yards allowed and was universally blamed for the 3-9 record — not what Leach envisioned with an offense that ranked No. 1 nationally in passing yards (477.7) and seventh in total offense.
Connor Halliday, the leader of that offense (3,873 yards, 32 TDs), went down with a broken leg in the USC game, ending his college career. But WSU never missed a step. Freshman Luke Falk came off the bench and threw for 346 yards and two touchdowns against the Trojans.
Falk won his first start by tossing five touchdowns at Oregon State and finished with 1,859 yards and 13 touchdowns in six games.
WSU lost to graduation two of the most productive receivers in school annals in Isiah Myers (78 catches, 12 TDs) and Vince Mayle (106 catches, 1,483 yards), a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist. But the Cougars get back Gabe Marks, who used a redshirt year last season after leading the team in receptions (74), yards (807) and touchdowns (7) in 2013.
WSU has scored a ton of points in Leach’s tenure, averaging 26.2 in 37 games. But the Cougars have never been able to stop anyone (they lost to Cal last year 60-59 in Pullman), yielding 34.9 points per game over the same span.
The Cougars are likely to put up big offensive numbers again, but are also likely to scrape the barrel defensively, just as they did a year ago when they did not have a defensive touchdown, recorded three interceptions and forced seven fumbles.
That won’t get it done in the Pac-12. But that is Leach’s legacy. At any other school in the conference, Leach would be a prime ouster candidate.
6. Oregon State (5-7-0)
Twelve seasons into his second stint with the Beavers, Mike Riley had the look of a Corvallis lifer. But then, without warning, he bolted for Nebraska. Why the Cornhuskers looked to Oregon State for a head coach remains a head-scratcher. The bigger surprise was that Oregon State connived to pull Gary Andersen out of Wisconsin to replace Riley.
Andersen went 10-3 last year and won the Big Ten West championship. He was also a commendable 19-7 in two seasons with the Badgers. But their 59-0 thumping by eventual national champion Ohio State in the Big Ten title game apparently convinced Andersen the time had come to amble down the road, even if the road ended in Corvallis.
Andersen inherits an unstable situation. Only two defensive starters return. Andersen will also have to replace veteran quarterback Sean Mannion.
Anderson’s new offensive coordinator, Dave Baldwin, is introducing an up-tempo spread system, but none of Mannion’s three potential replacements — redshirt freshmen Nick Mitchell and Marcus McMaryion and true freshman Seth Collins – has a whit of experience. Based on the results of fall camp so far, Collins has a slight edge.
The good news, such as it is, is that Oregon State has nice players surrounding the eventual winner of the quarterback job. Speedster Victor Bolden (72 catches, two TDs last year) and Jordan Williams (35 catches, six TDs) headline the receiving corps. Caleb Smith is a gifted tight end and Storm Woods sports the look of a 1,000-yard rusher.
In addition to installing the spread, Oregon State will move to a 3-4 base defense under new coordinator Kalani Sitake, who had been assistant head coach and defensive coordinator at Utah, where he once worked under Andersen.
Since hiring Andersen, Oregon State has been trumpeting “a new era,” a good thing since most old eras in Corvallis are eminently forgettable. Andersen has a solid reputation as a rebuilder of programs and liked what he saw in Oregon State, its record last year and its prospects for this year notwithstanding.
Since 1999, the Beavers have played in 11 bowl games, winning seven, including the Fiesta once and Sun twice. Andersen’s record at his previous two stops (Utah State and Wisconsin) inspires confidence, since he led both those schools to big seasons.
It took Andersen four seasons to revitalize Utah State, but it shouldn’t take nearly as long to make Oregon State a contender. The Beavers earned bowl invites in 2012 and 2013, going a combined 16-10 under Riley. The talent is there for Andersen to mold and make better, and recruiting should improve long-term, too.
Still, with so many holes to fill, Oregon State is at least a year away from making serious progress in the win/loss column.