Today we turn our attention to the PAC 12 North division in the second part of my two-part look at how the conference may shake out in 2016.
I saved the North for Part II because, obviously, the Huskies are in the upper division and I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't do my part in building up a little suspense. Plus, my readers are somewhat lemming-like.
Not you, of course. Just everybody else. You know who I'm talking about.
The North emerged in 2016 as the superior division despite talk from the national media during most of the preseason (and into the season) that the South might be the "best division in college football." Going into 2016, one would have to think that the North again looks to be in favorable shape, though not by a wide margin.
With the turnover of QBs in four of the six schools and with young teams in the state of Washington becoming more competitive, the North division has its own share of questions to answer. How will the two best teams over the past decade reload at QB? Can Christian McCaffrey assume the face of college football behind a reworked offensive line? How far will Cal fall replacing a first-round QB and seven wide receivers? How high can the up-and-coming schools in Washington climb? Will anybody want to be the defensive coordinator for Oregon?
All good questions to be sure. Let's dive in.
Key Departures: QB Kevin Hogan, RB Remound Wright, LB Kevin Anderson, DL Aziz Shittu, OL Joshua Garnett, OT Kyle Murphy, OC Johnny Caspers, LB Blake Martinez, DL Brennan Scarlett
Analysis: Yes, I admit it. Stanford is losing a lot of pieces. From their four-year starting QB to a major chunk of their starting offensive line, to their two starting WRs all the way to two of the best LBs to have ever donned Cardinal jerseys. It's a talent drain of epic proportions.
The 2015 version of Stanford, however, should be viewed in hindsight as a transitional team that had to lean heavily on their offense to cover up for depth problems on defense. That RB Christian McCaffrey was able to have such a dramatic impact on that offense propelled Stanford to near-playoff team levels and established Stanford's brand of power football as the new "in thing" when it comes to offensive innovation.
Next season I expect Stanford to benefit from the reloading that they saw on defense with a unit that climbs back to top of the conference standing. Replacing Anderson and Martinez will be tough, but I expect Stanford to have a much deeper defensive line with players who have more upside than the seniors that the Cardinal leaned on (Shittu and Scarlett) in 2015. Even if there is a slight regression on the Stanford offense (I'm bullish on young QB Keller Chryst), the defense might more than make up for it. Stanford owns the perch until somebody knocks them off.
Predicted Record: 7-2
Key Departures: WR Jaydon Mickens, TE Joshua Perkins, LB Travis Feeney, DL Taniela Tupou, LB Cory Littleton, P Korey Durkee
Analysis: When I first drafted this, I had slotted UW in for third. I revised that thinking as I went to finalize the article. If you consider it, think about which team in the PAC has the fewest open questions surrounding it. It's not even close. We are talking about a team whose Punter is considered a "Key Departure."
Of course, just having a load of returning talent isn't enough to go on in projecting a divisional championship. The Huskies do have questions around their program, just not as much of the roster variety. Their questions are more specific to development trajectories. Can young players - guys who accomplished so much in 2015 like QB Jake Browning, DL Elijah Qualls, RB Myles Gaskin, and OT Trey Adams - continue on their remarkable growth trajectories?
That remains to be seen. We can safely say, however, that the Huskies have depth and experience in several key areas. The middle of the defense from the line back is probably the best in the conference, the defensive front seven is pretty much all upperclassmen and/or experienced players, the secondary, led by studs Budda Baker and Sidney Jones, is in its third year together, and the offensive line has finally arrived as a "strength" based on both experience AND depth.
The greatest challenge for the Huskies will be finding receivers who can replace the productivity of Jaydon Mickens and Josh Perkins. Browning can certainly elevate his receivers and John Ross will be a factor. But, the bottom line is that guys like Darrell Daniels, Dante Pettis and Isaiah Renfro are all question marks as to whether or not they can take a next step.
Predicted Record: 6-3
3. Oregon Ducks
Key Departures: DE Deforest Buckner, QB Vernon Adams, OC Scott Frost, OT Tyler Johnstone, WR Bralon Addison, WR Byron Marshall, DL Alex Balducci, LB Tyson Coleman
Analysis: Oregon has not been in as vulnerable a state in any offseason over the past decade as they are going into this one. The coaching staff turnover following a disappointing season which was capped off with a historic bowl game loss is a lot to absorb for a program that is used to being the bully of the PAC 12.
In truth, Oregon is still a tremendous threat in the PAC. If Thomas Tyner returns to join Royce Freeman and Taj Griffin, they will boast the best running back rotation in the league bar none. Darren Carrington and Charles Nelson are uber-weapons in the passing game, to be sure. The problem is that we have no idea what Oregon will have available at QB, and the replacements tagged to replace three starting offensive linemen simply don't have the kinds of upside that Oregon fans are used to seeing.
Defensively, a very bad Oregon defense has to replace essentially its entire front seven. There is a bit of a numbers issue relative to what Oregon is used to and it will result in a number of young players getting into their rotation. That said, there is talent. The secondary should be MUCH better and guys who've been waiting their turn - such as LB Danny Mattingly, DL Henry Mondeaux and LB Torrodney Prevot could make big jumps into leadership roles. That said, there isn't a lot to hang your hat on here and I expect a rough year ahead for the Ducks.
Predicted Record: 5-4
Key Departures: OL Joe Dahl, OL, Gunnar Eklund, WR Dom Williams, LB Kache Palacio, DL Destiny Vaeao, LB Jeremiah Allison
Analysis: I like what the Cougars have going on in Pullman. Let's just make that perfectly clear. Luke Falk is a solid QB who should have some good receivers available to run that Air Raid, including one of the PAC's best in Gabe Marks. But how good that offense can be really depends on the state of the Coug offensive line. The Cougs were fortunate to have all five starters return a year ago. Next season, they will be replacing their two best. Theoretically, the Air Raid should take pressure off of the O-Line. However, poor O-Line play significantly reduces the efficiency of that offense.
Defensively, the Cougs will be changing out a lot of the pieces that made the front seven so effective, including their Rush End Kache Palacio and interior lineman Destiny Vaeao. There are some pieces to work with on the D-Line - big Hercules Mata'afa for one - and some leadership emerging with guys like LB Peyton Pelluer and S Shalom Luani. But its not clear to me that this unit will be able to take any kind of step forward beyond the production they had in 2015.
Predicted Record: 5-4
5. Cal Bears
Key Departures: QB Jared Goff, all of their top seven receivers, LB Jalen Jefferson, DB Stefan McClure, OL Jordan Rigsbee, pretty much their entire Defensive Line (including Kyle Kragen), DB Darius White
Analysis: No team is reloading more than the Cal Bears will in 2016 which, given their good-not-great results, portends a significant step back. The obvious storyline is the passing attack, which will not only lose stud QB Jared Goff but his entire receivers rotation including Kenny Lawler, Bryce Treggs, and Stephen Anderson. Cal fans don't seem overly concerned, but trust me, Ross Bowers to Kanawai Noa isn't quite as compelling.
On the other side of the ball, Cal has a lot of work to do. LB Hardy Nickerson is a stud and will be the natural leader on a pretty good linebacking corps. Beyond that, the Bears are going to have to hope that guys like DT James Looney and DB Darius Allensworth can take big steps forward in their production to help solidify front and back lines that, as of right now, don't look all that competitive.
Predicted Record: 3-6
Key Departures: OL Isaac Seumalo, DL Jashwa James, CB Larry Scott, RB Storm Woods, DL Lavante Burnett
Analysis: It looks like another long year for the Beavers. There are not many ways around it. Gary Andersen has his hands full in restocking a very bad defense that is losing its two best players, figuring out who is going to play QB between freshman athlete Seth Collins and incoming transfer Darrell Garretson, and deciding on how he is going to straighten out an offensive line that was bad a year ago and is losing its best player.
Other than that, things look fine, right?
There are assets here. The receiving corps is pretty good, there are some good young offensive linemen coming back, Ryan Nall is a very exciting young player, and Chris Brown may still become a quality RB. It's just not clear to me that 2016 is when all of those pieces come together to turn this ship around. I'm not optimistic.
Predicted Record: 1-8