With four Saturdays to go until the first college football Saturday of the year, this seems as good a time as any to decide who is the conference’s best player.
In some ways — maybe even most — this is an exercise in insanity. If Chris Petersen ever hears that I took a stab at figuring out who the Pac-12 player of the year is when most teams haven’t even completed their first week of fall camp, I’m convinced a single tear would roll down his cheek as if he were a Native American at whose feet I just threw a bag of garbage. With that being said, hey, it’s the offseason, and I need to bring in the page views, dignity be damned.
Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
Anyone who watched the Ducks play for more than five minutes last year knew how deadly they were with a healthy Vernon Adams at quarterback, and how hapless they became when he was held out due to injury. Enter Royce Freeman, who in many cases put the team on his back and willed them to victory by hitting the century mark in all but two contests last year. Freeman’s 1,836 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns ranked fourth and 12th in America, respectively, and his yardage total represents a single-season school record, eclipsing other luminaries such as LaMichael James (1,805 yards in 2011), Kenjon Barner (1,767 in 2012), and Jonathan Stewart (1,722 in 2007). Just think, without Freeman at tailback, Oregon never would have been in a position to blow the biggest lead in bowl game history. For that, we salute you, sir.
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
When considering the all-time Heisman trophy snubs, McCaffrey’s first-runner-up finish in 2015 is right up there with what should have been Peyton Manning’s 1997 trophy residing instead on Charles Woodson’s mantelpiece. After all, the dynamic do-everything Stanford running back only broke a 27-year-old single-season all-purpose yards record belonging to Barry Freaking Sanders by amassing 3,864 yards in 2015. Last season, McCaffrey averaged 144 rushing yards, 46 receiving yards, 9.3 yards on punt returns and 76 yards on kick returns EVERY. SINGLE. GAME. He remains the most versatile and indispensable offensive player in college football until someone comes along to dethrone him.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, USC
Despite up-and-down play from quarterback Cody Kessler last season, JuJu Smith-Schuster nonetheless led the Pac-12 in receiving yards (1,454, No. 4 nationally) and averaged 16.34 yards per reception while scoring 10 touchdowns. With the Trojans breaking in a new quarterback this year, there’s no guarantee he’ll have a repeat performance, though it certainly doesn’t hurt his case that the quarterbacks contending for the starting job are former five-star recruit Max Browne and former four-star recruit Sam Darnold. Standing 6-2 and 220 lbs., Smith-Schuster boasts prototypical size for a wide receiver, and it doesn’t hurt that he delivered the most bad-ass stiff-arm of 2015, either.
Lowell Lotulelei, DT, Utah
Standing at an imposing 6-2 and 310 lbs., Lowell is the younger brother of former Utah defensive lineman and first-round draft pick Star Lotulelei. As is typical for a defensive lineman, his impact on the field goes beyond what is conveyed on the stat sheet, and Lotulelei is perhaps the largest (no pun intended) reason why the Utes boasted the conference’s best defense against rushing attacks, allowing just 109 yards per game. Kyle Whittingham has proven himself to be nothing if not an architect of imposing defenses, and if that trend holds, Lotulelei could be in for an All-American-type season.
Adoree’ Jackson, CB, USC
Not content to allow McCaffrey to take away the title of Most Versatile Player in the Pac-12 without a fight, Adoree’ Jackson scored touchdowns in all three phases last season by hauling in two receiving touchdowns, scoring twice on punt returns, and snagging one pick-six as a cornerback. USC’s own media guide touts Jackson as the program’s first true three-way player in 20 years, and he was named to this year’s watch lists for the Jim Thorpe and Paul Hornung Awards, given to the nation’s best defensive back and most versatile player, respectively. He will look to repeat as a first-team all-conference cornerback this fall as a third-year starter for the Trojans.
Budda Baker, S, Washington
Readers of this blog need no introduction to Bishard Baker, whose ability to wreak havoc on his opponents’ passing games earned him first-team all-conference recognition in 2015. Baker’s stats don’t jump off the page, but he’s arguably the most impactful player on the squad that figures to repeat as the conference’s best defense. After playing last year at 174 lbs., Budda reportedly showed up to fall camp this week weighing in at 192 lbs. While this will only help him withstand the physical rigors of Pac-12 play, it remains to be seen how it affects the junior’s closing speed, which has been absolutely terrific in his first two seasons.