Thanks to offensive innovators such as Rich Rodriguez, Mike Leach and Chris Petersen, the Pac-12 has lived up to its reputation for producing exciting offensive performances in recent years. (There’s a reason that #Pac12AfterDark is a thing, after all.) This season, few (if any) teams appear on paper ready to pick up where they left off in 2015, as virtually every program on the West Coast has holes to fill and departures with which to contend. In today’s edition of the 30-Day Countdown, we examine which of the Pac-12’s programs are best positioned to rise to the top.
Say what you will about Oregon’s defense last season, but there’s little room to argue that they were not one of the best offensive teams in the nation when led by a healthy Vernon Adams. Bell cow running back Royce Freeman figures to challenge for the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s best running back after rushing for a program-record 1,836 yards last season, and sophomore Taj Griffin fit the De’Anthony Thomas mold by rushing for 7.4 yards per carry and three TDs while catching 10 passes for 162 yards and one score. The Ducks return six of their seven most productive pass-catchers from a year ago, with the group being highlighted by Darren Carrington, who caught 32 balls for 609 yards and six touchdowns last year (second on the team in all categories, trailing the departed Bralon Addison). Even more impressive is that Carrington did so in spite of missing the first six games of the year for a reported drug violation that also kept him out of the 2015 national championship game against Ohio State.
Of course, the elephant in the room is what Oregon will do at quarterback. For the second year in a row, Mark Helfrich has dipped into the FCS transfer pool by bringing in Dakota Prukop to compete for the starting role, though Helfrich has not yet announced him as the starter and redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen is still in consideration. If the Ducks can get serviceable play from their QB and distribute the ball well to the team’s talented playmakers, then they’ll again be one of the conference’s most dangerous offenses. If not ... well, we all saw what happens when Oregon’s wheels completely fall off.
The Pac-12’s proudest bastion of three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust, the Cardinal produced 6.6 yards per play and 37.8 points per game last year, both of which ranked third in the conference. Stanford boasts the conference’s most exciting offensive player in Christian McCaffrey, who broke Barry Sanders’ 1988 record by accounting for 3,864 all-purpose yards. For that, McCaffrey
was blatantly robbed finished as runner-up to Alabama’s Derrick Henry in the 2015 Heisman Trophy voting. In addition, Stanford features one of the conference’s most exciting backup running backs in Bryce Love, who ran for 226 yards on 29 rushes (7.8 yards per attempt) and two touchdowns. Love is also a talented asset in the receiving game, having hauled in 15 receptions for 250 yards and a score last season.
Despite some of the best talent in the country at running back, though, Stanford has serious questions it needs to answer. Departed quarterback Kevin Hogan led the Cardinal to a 37-10 record and three Rose Bowl berths as starting quarterback; the two prospects vying to replace him, Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns, were highly rated prospects, but haven’t yet had to live up to the expectations of being the starting quarterback for one of the nation’s most successful programs in recent memory. In addition, David Shaw must replace two first-team all-conference offensive linemen in left tackle Kyle Murphy and left guard Joshua Garnett, who won the 2015 Outland Trophy as the nation’s best interior lineman. (JoJo McIntosh won’t be sad to see him go, at least.) In addition, two-year starter at center Graham Shuler announced in January that he has decided to forgo his final year of eligibility. Finally, the Cardinal return Michael Rector (34 catches, 559 yards, seven touchdowns) at wide receiver, but must replace tight end Austin Hooper (34-438-6) and receiver Devin Cajuste (27-383-3).
Say what you will about sophomore Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen’s political statements and aquatic entertainment, you can’t deny that he looks like he was genetically engineered to sling pigskin between the numbers. Measuring in at 6-4 and 218 lbs., Rosen completed 60.0 percent of his passes in his true freshman season for 3,669 yards and 23 touchdowns against 11 interceptions, and is already being considered a candidate for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. At running back, UCLA loses its featured runner for the last three seasons in Paul Perkins, but the cupboards are stocked thanks to the presence of Soso Jamabo, a former five-star recruit who rushed for 403 yards (6.11 yards per attempt) and four touchdowns last season as a true freshman. And at offensive line, the team will likely feature four players with starting experience off of a unit that yielded just 14.0 sacks last season, best in the Pac-12 and 10th in the country.
UCLA’s biggest questions seem to be figuring out will be on the receiving end of Rosen’s passes. Last year’s top two targets, receiver Jordan Payton (78 receptions, 1,106 yards and five touchdowns) and tight end Thomas Duarte (53-872-10), have both joined the NFL ranks; so too has receiver Devin Fuller (24-259-3). Together, the trio accounted for 51.7 percent of the team’s receptions, 59.7 percent of its receiving yards, and a whopping 78.3 percent of its receiving touchdowns. This fall, the Bruins will look to junior Darren Andrews to step up as a potential No. 1 receiving option, as well as true freshman Theo Howard, whom three of the ESPN Pac-12 Blog’s five writers picked as their preseason freshman of the year.
Having a potential No. 1 NFL Draft pick at quarterback is an advantage that cannot be easily overstated, and it is that circumstance that pushes UCLA over the top in this ranking. Despite some shaky performances marking his true freshman campaign (UCLA’s losses to Stanford and USC immediately come to mind), Rosen showed enough as a first-year player last year to realistically project him becoming the conference’s next premier signal-caller at the next level. If UCLA’s receivers are able to step up and replace the production of the departed Jordan Payton, Thomas Duarte and Devin Fuller, Rosen could realistically end his 2016 campaign within striking distance of 4,000 passing yards and 40 touchdowns. Combined with UCLA returning significant pieces of the conference’s best offensive line in 2015 and a potential stud running back in Soso Jamabo, the Bruins have most, if not all, of the pieces of an elite defense; now, they and Jim Mora have to show that they can put it all together.