2017 Pac-12 preview: Does USC have a challenger in the Pac-12 South?

Other previews: Big 12, ACCGroup of 5/Independents

The Pac-12 looks a little lopsided to us this year.

USC quarterback Sam Darnold is the league’s preseason darling. But after the Trojans in the South division, it’s a bit of a toss-up. Colorado won the division a year ago and returns a hefty amount of its offense. Utah is one of those teams that is always better than people expect. But is this a look to the future year for the Utes?

And there’s UCLA. The Bruins went 4-8 in 2016. Is a bounce-back season in the cards?

Meanwhile, the North is stacked. Four of the five best teams in the conference may reside there. Let’s take a look at how the conference could play out.

Teams listed in predicted order of finish. 

NORTH

Washington (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12)

The Huskies return 13 starters on a team that made the College Football Playoff a year ago. The offense shouldn’t miss a beat despite the departure of wide receiver John Ross to the NFL. With quarterback Jake Browning, running back Myles Gaskin and wide receiver Dante Pettis back, UW should average around 40 points per game again.

The defense needs to replace S Budda Baker and CBs Kevin King and Sidney Jones, but there’s no reason to think there will be a step back in 2017. After allowing 25 points per game in coach Chris Petersen’s first season, Washington has allowed fewer points in each of the last two seasons.

After trouncing Stanford at home a year ago, the Huskies travel to Palo Alto on Nov. 10. That Friday night should determine who wins the Pac-12 North. With Browning back, we give the edge to UW.

For more on Washington, No. 9 in our top 25, read our in-depth preview

Stanford (10-2, 7-2)

Poor Australians. The fine folks down under who came out Saturday night to see the spectacle known as American college football were treated to a blowout as Stanford absolutely destroyed Rice 62-7. Not all Stanford games are going to be like that, but expect the Cardinal to be trouncing a lot of opponents this year.

Stanford rushed 36 times for 287 yards — eight yards a pop — and RB Bryce Love ran for 180 yards and a touchdown while running back Cameron Scarlett scored four touchdowns. Meanwhile, QB Keller Chryst was efficient, throwing for 253 yards and two scores. It’s going to be a familiar recipe.

The Cardinal is off in the official Week 1 after the Rice game and travels to USC in Week 2 in game that will (temporarily) knock the loser down a few spots in the rankings. We have Stanford lower than Washington because the Cardinal draws USC and also has to travel to Utah on Oct. 7.

For more on Stanford, No. 13 in our top 25, read our in-depth preview

Washington State (9-3, 6-3)

As we noted in the intro, Washington State is probably the fourth-best team in the conference. The defense returns nine starters including cornerback Darrien Molton and linebacker Peyton Pelluer.

The offense is loaded too, with quarterback Luke Falk back. Most importantly, the running game is incredibly good. Washington State returns its top three running backs and while coach Mike Leach will still throw the ball over 600 times, this is an offense that is going to be far from one-dimensional.

Watch out for a potential upset of USC on Sept. 29. The Trojans travel to Pullman for a Friday night game after playing at Cal the weekend before. If Washington State beats Boise State in Week 2 and USC in Week 5, the Cougars are going to be in the top 15 when the calendar hits October.

For more on Washington State, No. 24 in our top 25, read our in-depth preview

Oregon (8-4, 6-3)

How much can coach Willie Taggart and new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt improve the Ducks’ defense?

Oregon allowed 41 points per game and 6.4 yards per play last year in a disastrous season that led to the firing of coach Mark Helfrich. Enter Taggart, the former South Florida coach who brought the Colorado defensive coordinator with him.

Quarterback Justin Herbert is back and he showed promise as a freshman in 2016. He completed over 63 percent of his passes and threw 19 touchdowns to just four interceptions. Running back Royce Freeman is back and healthy too. He ran for 945 yards and nine scores despite missing time with an injury in 2016.

The schedule draw from the Pac-12 South is about as favorable as it can be. Oregon gets Arizona and Arizona State, two of the worst teams in the league. The third team is UCLA, which is a potential loss on Oct. 21. With games at Stanford and Washington, Oregon may not challenge for the North title. But it’s not going to be a disaster like it was in 2016.

Oregon State (3-9, 2-7)

Oregon State played with Mountain West favorite Colorado State for a half on Saturday. And then it all fell apart in the second half. The Beavers were outscored by 27 points in the final 30 minutes.

There are a few things to like as coach Gary Andersen enters his third season with the Beavers. Quarterback Jake Luton was inconsistent in his first start but showed at times why he won the starting quarterback job in fall camp. Running back Ryan Nall is still good too. He’s going to break the 1,000-yard mark this season and there’s depth behind him with Artavis Pierce and Thomas Tyner.

But given Oregon State’s lack of competitiveness in the second half at CSU, it’s hard to envision a scenario where the Beavers get to a bowl game. Minnesota visits on Sept. 9 and Oregon State could be 1-2 before conference play even begins.

Once it does, the schedule is brutal. Oregon State visits Washington State, USC and Oregon and gets defending Pac-12 South champions Colorado at home. If you see more than five wins, you’re being very optimistic.

Cal (2-10, 1-8)

Much like Oregon and Taggart, how much improvement can Cal’s defense make in 2017? Former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox takes over for the fired Sonny Dykes and is tasked with fixing a defense that gave up nearly 43 points per game and 6.7 yards a play in 2016. Yes, it was somehow worse than Brady Hoke’s Oregon defense.

QB Davis Webb is now with the New York Giants, so Cal is looking for a new quarterback. Either Chase Forrest or Ross Bowers will be the team’s starter and both could see playing time on Sept. 2 vs. North Carolina. With UNC and Ole Miss on the non-conference schedule and its existence in one of the better divisions in college football, Cal is in for a rough season.

SOUTH

USC (11-1, 8-1)

USC could have the most fun opening three weeks of any team in college football. The Trojans open the season against Western Michigan, a team that went 13-0 in the regular season and had a Cotton Bowl appearance last season. In Week 2 USC plays its annual rivalry game with Stanford and then plays Texas and new coach Tom Herman in Week 3. All of the games are at home too.

If USC goes 3-0 in those games — and it could and probably should — then expect the love for the Trojans and QB Sam Darnold to get even bigger.

The biggest question for USC is Darnold’s chemistry with a generally unproven group of receivers. WRs JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers, who combined for 126 catches and 14 touchdowns a year ago, are both in the NFL. If Deontay Burnett, Michael Pittman or someone else from a talented group of young pass-catchers steps up to be Darnold’s go-to target, USC has a legitimate chance to live up to the preseason hype.

For more on USC, No. 4 in our top 25, read our in-depth preview

UCLA (8-4, 5-4)

The Bruins got some bad news last week with the loss of right tackle Kenny Lacy, who will miss the entire season because of hip surgery.

Lacy was one of four returning starters on one of the most vital offensive lines in college football. Quarterback Josh Rosen missed the end of the 2016 season after suffering a shoulder injury and he needs to stay upright and healthy in 2017 for UCLA to flip its 4-8 record around.

The run game has to be a lot better too. UCLA averaged 2.9 yards a carry last season and coach Jim Mora hired Michigan assistant Jedd Fisch to run the offense and fix the run game. Fisch is the third offensive coordinator in three seasons for Rosen.

UCLA opens the season Sunday against Texas A&M and the hot take chatter about either Mora or A&M coach Kevin Sumlin being on the hot seat after the game will undoubtedly commence.

Colorado (8-4, 5-4)

How does Colorado follow up a surprise Pac-12 South title? The Buffaloes’ offense will be even better in 2017. QB Steven Montez will step in seamlessly for Sefo Liufau and running back Phillip Lindsay is back. He ran for 1,252 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2016. Including Lindsay, the top five pass-catchers from 2016 are back too. Colorado should average over 30 points a game for the second-straight season.

The Colorado defense was a big reason for the Buffs’ success last season and there’s a lot of work to be done rebuilding it. Defensive coordinator D.J. Elliot takes over for Leavitt and inherits a unit that returns three starters. His biggest task is finding a pass rush. Literally, no one who had more than a single sack in 2016 returns in 2017.

Colorado hosts Washington on Sept. 23 in a rematch of last season’s Pac-12 title game. If CU wins that game, then maybe a second-straight South crown is possible.

Utah (6-6, 3-6)

The most surprising quarterback decision of the summer may be at Utah, where sophomore Tyler Huntley won the job over senior Troy Williams.

Williams was the team’s starter a year ago and completed 53 percent of his passes for 2,757 yards. Those stats are a tad pedestrian and came with running back Joe Williams averaging 6.7 yards a carry. The running back Williams is gone in 2017 and Utah will ostensibly need more production from whoever ends up as the full-time starting quarterback.

The defense returns five starters, though star safety Chase Hansen and linebacker Cody Barton return. With nine returning starters — eight when you add Huntley at QB — this may be a bit of a rebuilding year for the Utes. A bowl will still happen though.

Arizona State (4-8, 2-7)

Here’s another Pac-12 team that made a change at defensive coordinator in the hopes of improving a moribund unit. ASU gave up 40 points per game last year, so former Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett takes over. The Sun Devils have a new offensive coordinator as well. Former Alabama assistant Billy Napier takes over the offense and a lot of us thought that former Alabama quarterback Blake Barnett would be his starting quarterback in Week 1. Instead, Manny Wilkins won the job. Wilkins was the team’s primary quarterback in 2016.

Running back Kalen Ballage is back, though he scored just seven touchdowns the rest of 2016 after scoring eight against Texas Tech in the second week of the season. ASU plays Tech in Week 3 this season. First one to 65 may win that game again.

Arizona (3-9, 1-8)

It’s a make-or-break year for Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez. After a 10-4 season in 2014, Arizona has gone 7-6 and 3-9 in the last two seasons. In 2017, 3-9 seems much more likely than 7-6 does.

Junior quarterback Brandon Dawkins took over for Anu Solomon and led the team in both passing and rushing in 2016. He’ll likely start at QB again ahead of former baseball player Donavan Tate and last year’s backup Khalil Tate.

The Wildcats’ defense returns seven starters and must improve from a year ago when it gave up 6.1 yards per play and nearly 470 yards per game.

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Nick Bromberg is the editor of Dr. Saturday and From the Marbles on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at nickbromberg@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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