If you’ve been following the Gekko Files in earnest this summer, you’ve no doubt come to a couple of germane observations:
- The amount of research is extensive, even in light of errors that get made.
- Writing 3000 words of contextual analysis without venturing into the worlds of the pedantic and overly analytical is a fool’s errand conducted with aplomb by an obvious fool.
- None of the team analyses actually has a firm prediction on the number of wins expected.
Congratulations. You’ve been paying attention.
This is my fifth year doing the Gekko Files series. All of the previous efforts have concluded in the same manner that this one will: with an in-depth, game-by-game analysis of how I predict each team will fare in its in-conference schedule.
Unlike other analysts who make their team by team prognostications outside of the context of their schedule (or even the expected performances of other teams in the same conference), I am not ready to make my predictions for actual records until I’ve had a chance to do the research that I do on every team. At that point, in assembling my forecast I take into account relative strengths and weaknesses, the flow of the schedule, the advanced stats and advice from my dog.
It’s worked out pretty well for me. While I didn’t quite reach my peak of 70% from 2014, I still picked 34 out of 54 games (63%) correctly. Keep in mind that those picks happened in the summertime with only reports from spring ball and my own assessments from the past season to work with. Nobody has even launched fall camp yet.
So, what does the Gekko have to say about 2016? Let’s open the files one last time.
Here is the grid tool that I use to make my picks. Home teams are listed along the horizontal axis while the visiting teams are listed along the vertical axis. Cells highlighted in yellow are obvious upset picks. You can see that there are only just a few of those this year, partly because I don’t see too many of them happening and partly because the parity in the league is so great that I don’t think there are all that many upset opportunities.
Previewing the South
UCLA looks to me as the best bet for winning the South Division in 2016. Josh Rosen is on a trajectory to become an elite level QB and he has a number of weapons to work with, in particular RB Soso Jamabo. While I don’t know yet how good the defense will be, they have enough proven pieces in the secondary and linebacking levels to compensate for any depth issues that may exist on the defensive line. I have them finishing with a PAC-12-best 7-2 record including a perfect 5-0 at home.
I see USC and Utah battling it out for a closely fought second place. By virtue of USC’s home-field advantage in their Utah matchup, I’m giving them the nod for the position. USC boasts what really ought to be one of the most explosive offenses in the conference behind what I consider to be the best offensive line and one of the brightest young QBs in Max Browne. However, this just doesn’t seem to be the year for a defense that is reloading, particularly along the defensive line.
Utah is probably the most physical team in the PAC-12 and does have one of those defensive lines that make you stop and say "whoa, Nellie…those are some big uglies." But in many ways they are the polar opposite of USC in that they have very significant questions in all of the offensive skill positions, despite boasting the biggest receiving corps that the PAC may have ever seen. I think Troy Williams will be a decent enough option at QB, but he doesn’t possess the natural skill to really elevate what looks like a pedestrian group of playmakers.
Arizona is my fourth-place pick. They are in a transition year both in terms of talent and personnel, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. In addition, RichRod finds himself in a peculiar position of not having all of the offensive pieces that he needs to run his offense. This is especially true at WR where there is talent, but just one major rotation player (senior Trey Griffey) over six feet tall.
I’m forecasting ASU and Colorado to battle it out for the division cellar. The Sun Devils are in a state of transition that I think will result in a depressed 2016 record. I don’t necessarily see this as a permanent situation, but I don’t like the status of their offensive line or the lack of a clear-cut leader at the QB position. If you consider that the defense is also rotating in new talent – much of it JUCO transfers – it isn’t hard to understand my skepticism. I might be totally off on ASU (as I was last year) because there are definitely some pockets of talent, but this just doesn’t seem like their year.
The Buffs again take the cellar in my prognostication. I make this with some hesitation because the one upset that I wanted to pick but just couldn't was Colorado over ASU, which would in essence have given the Buffs fifth place in this analysis. Colorado is definitely a team on the rise, but it isn’t clear that their pace of improvement is exceeding that of the teams around them. Still, Mike MacIntyre has been grooming much of his talent for many years and the fact that their senior QB, Sefo Liufau, seems ready to go after a devastating Lisfranc injury is a promising sign for a team that really needs to get to two conference wins.
Previewing the North
Writing the Gekko Files every summer affords me the opportunity to really dig in deep on every team. Sometimes that research leaves me in strong alignment with the perceptions of the general media. Such was the case last year. This year? Not so much. While there are certainly areas of overlap, I see the top of the North shaping up differently.
Stanford was picked by the media as the overwhelming favorite to win not just the North but the entire PAC-12. Much of this is rooted, I suspect, in their strong showing a year ago as well as the phenomenal campaign put up by RB Christian McCaffrey. I get it.
But the reality of the situation does not seem to match the media perception. Stanford has a major rebuild of the offensive line underway and the pieces being identified to step in for the three departing multi-year starters are not the high-level recruits that you have heard so much about the last few years. In addition, there may not be a defensive line in more disarray than Stanford’s. Add to that the need to find a new QB, replace two star LBs, and rebuild a RB rotation to spare McCaffrey a weekly pounding and you can see why I’m not all in. In fact, I have Stanford going 5-4 in the conference and dropping both of their road matchups against Oregon and Washington.
Oregon is (again) my pick to win the North. I get that their QB is a big question mark and that the defense projects poorly again this year. I am making a presumption that they will get something resembling competent play behind center and that the rest of the collection of explosive playmakers – Darren Carrington, Royce Freeman, Charles Nelson and Evan Bayliss – will carry out the rest of it. This isn’t the best Oregon team you’ll see; in fact, I think they are worse than last year's iteration. But in a division that is going to bloody itself every week, I think that a 6-3 record including a tie-breaking home win over UW gets them the title.
I know Husky fans will be disappointed that I didn’t project UW to win the North. I almost did. There are not many teams in the entire conference that return as much talent and upside along both lines of scrimmage as UW. In addition, the trajectories for both QB Jake Browning and RB Myles Gaskin are breathtaking. But we simply can’t ignore the fact that the offensive line is still young or that the wide receiver group is not yet a PAC-12-grade unit. The defense is good enough to make sure that UW won’t often let a score get too far away from the offense. However, Jonathan Smith’s offense is not good enough to reliably predict that they can put good teams away nor come back when the score gets beyond a couple of TDs. Don’t get me wrong; I’m projecting 9 wins and a significant step forward for the program. Just not quite good enough to win the North.
WSU is my fourth place pick with the same record as Stanford, but having dropped the tie-breaker. I’m not totally sold on the Cougs as I think that they have holes on defense. I also shudder to think what will happen if Luke Falk has to miss any time (as he did a season ago) given the lack of depth at QB. Still, it is a good-looking offense and one that should be able to outscore enough teams to post a winning conference record. They are just one game away in this analysis, and that is with me going out on a ledge and picking UW to win the Apple Cup. The Cougs are close.
Cal and OSU will battle it out for the cellar of the North. I expect OSU to be a bit more offensive (in a good way) this year, while the transition of Cal’s QB and two-deeps at WR leave them in a position to take a step back. The Bears should still have enough juice to hang on for fifth place. But don’t just assume the Beavers are going to be rudderless in 2016. They have more potential than you think with Darrel Garretson at QB and the duo of Victor Bolden and Jordan Villamin returning at receiver. I expect us to be talking about OSU as a team on the rise by this time next year.
The Season After the Season
I expect that UCLA will be in a pretty good groove by the time the PAC-12 championship game rolls around. If Soso and Rosen are clicking like I think they will be, the Bruins' D should be stout enough to be able to dispatch the Ducks and to win the PAC-12 outright. Unfortunately, their resume will probably not be good enough to secure a playoff spot.
Because the Rose Bowl is a playoff venue this year, this will wreak havoc with the PAC-12 bowl assignments.
Most people already have McCaffrey penciled in as the Offensive Player of the Year. I think that is a pretty good pick, though I do not expect that he’ll have the same kind of season as he had a year ago. In seriousness, it is completely unfair to expect any player to rack up 3,000+ all purpose yards in any season. Look for Freeman, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Falk, Rosen, and Jamabo all to push McCaffrey for the title.
The Defensive Player of the Year award has been a point of disdain for me over the last few years. The league continues to honor stat-driven brands more so than production with guys such as Scooby Wright and DeForest Buckner getting more love than players who actually produced more on the field. The best defenders in the league will likely end up being guys like Lowell Lotuleilei, Azeem Victor, Cameron Smith, and Sidney Jones. But, if tradition holds to form, someone with a "name" like Adoree' Jackson or Ishmael Adams or an interesting comeback story like Eddie Vanderdoes or Zach Hoffpauir will end up winning it.
Regardless, the parity in the PAC is such that I wouldn’t expect any serious Heisman contenders to surface. In a similar way, the exclusion of the PAC from the playoffs for the second straight year will undoubtedly intensify the debate around both playoff expansion and conference realignment. Commissioner Larry Scott will also see his seat get a little toasty, along with a couple of coaches (you might be able to guess who), as scrutiny over the playoff situation, the DirecTV deal and the PAC's unfavorable national exposure all intensify.
Just another year in the PAC.