This is my fourth year doing the Gekko Files series. It's always a big project for me to research all of the teams and then allocate the time required to prouduce about 3000 words per team. In doing this work every year, I try to be as impartial as I can possibly be without crossing over into a purely analytical and pedantic realm.
It's not always easy.
But it is a labor of love and, as is the case, my work on the team-by-team research always leaves me feeling like I have a pretty good handle on how things are going to go once PAC 12 play kicks off. Thus my yearning to conclude every Gekko Files series with a demonstration of my newly discovered yet entirely transient set of insights. As is my custom, this article will attempt to summarize all that we have covered over the past few months and conclude with a game-by-game prognostication of every PAC 12 game in the 2015 season.
A fool's errand you say? The first time I tried, I thought so too. But as my methods have sharpened, my accuracy has improved every year. In 2014 I set a personal record by picking just over 70% of PAC 12 contests correctly. When one can accurately prognosticate the outcome of 70% of a conference's games before fall camp even begins, then projecting standings becomes less of a "fool's errand" and more of a "shot in the dark".
Here are my picks for each game in 2015. Home teams are listed on the horizontal axis while the road teams are listed on the vertical access. The pick for the game occupies the square where each road and home team meet. If the pick has yellow shading, it is an obvious upset pick.
Analyzing the PAC 12 South
Here are my projected standings for the PAC 12 South:
The story in the South this year will be the sorting out of the parity that exists at the top of the conference. Based on my analysis, USC looks like the legit favorite. There is nobody in the division that matches USC on a "starting 22" basis and they have star power at QB, WR, CB, and LB. In addition, they may well have the best offensive line in the conference. This is not a perfect team, though. They still have 10 less scholarship players than everybody else and they have critical questions at both DL and TE. That will make them susceptible to an upset or two - including a certain Thursday night affair against UW. Still, I have them winning the South outright with a 7-2 conference record.
Despite my reservations about Mike Bercovici not living up to his hype and ASU's issues at WR and OT, I still like the Sun Devils to take second in the division. The strength of the interior of the offensive line and the emergence of young rushing studs in Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard should make that rushing attack much better. The aggressive defense - which returns most of its starters - should generate a fair number of plays and provide Todd Graham a legit opportunity to challenge USC for top of division honors.
I'm projecting a three-way tie for third between UCLA, Arizona and Utah. In my analysis, the Wildcats get the benefit of the tiebreaker by virtue of the fact that I'm projecting wins for them over by the Bruins and the Utes - both home games for 'Zona. The Wildcats have shown a proclivity for playing above their talent levels since RichRod's arrival. I'm bullish on their WR and RB situations, but I remain skeptical about their ability to stop an opponents rushing attack and to avoid turnovers on offense. These factors will hold them back.
The Bruins and the Utes look like very similar teams to me. Both look to have good defenses but with a lot of questions on offense. UCLA boasts the highest number of returning starters in the PAC this year. This is normally a good thing, but a lot of their projected success in 2015 is being tied to "star performances" expected to be turned in by players that have yet to really play consistently in this conference. I'm talking about guys like DL Eddie Vanderdoes (2 sacks), DT Kenny Clark (0 sacks), OL Caleb Benenoch, and CB Ishmael Adams. If these guys collectively take the next step, that would leave the only remaining question being how quickly true freshman Josh Rosen can adjust to the speed of the PAC.
Utah projects as the best team D in the PAC, but one of the worst offenses. While I know that Utah fans love Devontae Booker as a Heisman candidate, I see him as the only really established player that Utah returns on offense. The QB situation is manned by two players in Travis Wilson and Kendal Thompson that are both bottom-of-the conference types of guys while there are plenty of questions at WR after you get past Kenneth Scott. Even if Utah's D holds P12 opponents under 25 points a game, it won't be enough. Still, I do like Utah to pull off a few big wins along the way. I'm projecting them to knock off both UCLA and UW on their way to a 4-5 conference record.
Poor Colorado. While I do think that they are getting better - and I'm projecting them to pull off an upset against UCLA this year - their improvement trajectory is simply mimicking the rise of the rest of their division. While their passing game has a little kick to it, they are still too young in the trenches and across the overall defense to really project much success this season. If they happened to have had OSU in Boulder, I may have picked them with one more win. As it is, I'm projecting a 1-8 season for the Buffs.
Analyzing the PAC 12 North
I'm forecasting the PAC 12 North race to turn out as follows:
Marcus Mariota's departure to the NFL has many pundits questioning whether or not Oregon is queued up for a step back from their near ubiquitous run of dominance over the PAC. Maybe. While I agree that Oregon will almost certainly give up more points and score fewer points than they did a year ago, the reality is that their margin for error is so great that it may make little difference in the overall standings. "But Chris," I can hear you say, "what about their QB situation?" In truth, it almost doesn't matter who Oregon lines up at QB between Jeff Lockie and the pride of Oregon's graduate school, Vernon Adams. Oregon is ridiculously stocked with both RB and WR talent. I do expect Oregon to show weaknesses in pass protection, pass rush and pass defending bigger teams. As such, I have them registering two losses - USC and Stanford - this season. Still, they should cruise to another North title.
Stanford will finish with six wins this season thanks in large part to their offense. Kevin Hogan is not getting talked about nearly enough - note Kevin Gemmel's article focusing on Cal QB Jared Goff and USC QB Cody Kessler - but, in my mind, is in a great situation. He's accurate, heady and strong-armed. He also happens to have access to the best TE unit in the country, one of the two best offensive lines in the PAC and the biggest receiving corps in conference. I also LOVE Christian McCaffrey as the breakout player of the PAC 12 this year. While Stanford's D has some questions - particularly at D-Line - there is enough talent and depth spread around the rest of the team to remain optimistic.
Speaking of optimism, I like the Cal Bears as my overall "most improved" team in 2015. Everybody will go right to Cal's D and wonder if I slipped some LSD in my morning coffee. While I agree that Cal's D has a LONNNGGGG way to go (they may have the worst secondary in the country), there is some talent there - particularly at linebacker. In addition, Cal's offense projects really well. The offensive line is experienced, if not spectacular. The receiving corps is deep and Goff may well post the biggest stats of all P12 QBs. I also happen to love the running back group that has been assembled between Daniel Lasco, Tre Watson and Vic Enwere. It's a diverse group that should make Cal's offense one of the most potent - if not the most potent - in the conference.
I have UW and WSU down as tying for fourth place with the Huskies getting the tie-breaker by virtue of an Apple Cup victory in Seattle. The Huskies will likely have one of the least effective offenses in the PAC this season. However, they should be pretty good at keeping games close thanks to what projects to be a good pass defense, a ball control philosophy and what I expect will be a low-risk, low-turnover game plan each week. A few breaks and UW could end up bowl eligible.
WSU is the hardest team to project for me. I think that they have four wins in the conference schedule out there and that they'll get there with - what else? - an aggressive passing attack. I think Luke Falk is a capable enough guy and that the talent at wideout should amplify his strengths. I also like the experience of the Cougs' offensive line which I think will give them the opportunity to cash in on a few upset opportunities against teams with questionable front lines. I'm projecting them to beat both Stanford and Arizona this season.
Oregon State will be going through a difficult rebuild this year. While the talents of Storm Woods and Chris Brown will finally get the chance to be featured at running back, OSU's defense is a total rebuild. In addition, there are precious few examples anywhere in college football where true freshmen excel in year 1. Seth Collins was a lightly recruited, run-first style QB who will attempt to take advantage of the weapons that he has in WR Victor Bolden, WR Jordan Villamin and TE Caleb Smith but will struggle mightily against PAC 12 defenses.
Wrapping Up the Gekko Files 2015
I admit that I'm a bit disappointed that my projections match so closely those that were put forth in the media votes during last week's PAC 12 Media Day. The media members often register those votes with very little analysis of each program outside of who the head coach is and who he has playing QB. Sometimes guys will look at returning starters, but few will go so far as to actually attempt to project every single game and add up the results as I have done here. So be it.
In the end, I do like USC against Oregon in the PAC 12 Championship. Who wins that game will be a toss of coin. If each team gets there fully healthy, then I would give a slight nod to Oregon based solely on the respect that they deserve for having done it so many times already. However, if you put a gun to my head, I'd tell you that the advantages that USC has at QB, Offensive Line, Linebacker, Placekicking and Defensive Secondary would give them an excellent chance to pull out a close one.
As for the breakout players in the PAC, I like the Offensive Player of the Year award to come down to one of Jared Goff, Christian McCaffrey, Royce Freeman, or Devontae Booker (based on sheer workload). The Defensive Player of the Year will probably go to Myles Jack or Scooby Wright just because the voters are a little too lazy to actually look beyond some obvious stats or name-brand recognition. However, the best candidates will likely come from some mix of Stanford LB Blake Martinez, Stanford LB Kevin Anderson, USC LB Su'a Cravens, Oregon DE DeForest Buckner, or Utah DE Hunter Dimick.
It's an exciting year for the PAC 12, one in which the conference should take a big step in overall competitiveness. While they may lack the star power at quarterback that they've had the past few years, it is impossible to overlook the overall improvement in upperclassmen talent that is emerging in the trenches and at key skill positions. The PAC 12 should be all grown up in 2015. I expect that the debate between the PAC and the SEC for bragging rights to the title of "the best" will heat up and that many people will look back when it is all over and view this as the year the PAC 12 made its move up the CFB hierarchy.
Let's all hope that the Huskies take a few bites out of their opponents along the way.