In 2015, the Pac-12 saw something old: Stanford bouncing back from a so-so 2014 to win its third conference title in four years. It saw something new: fifth-year Pac-12 member Utah rose as high as No. 3 in the national rankings at midseason before finishing off its first 10-win campaign as a conference member with a victory over BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl.
The conference saw something, perhaps, borrowed: Alabama’s Derrick Henry beating out Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey for the Heisman Trophy. In 2016, can McCaffrey win the award he earned last season? Finally, the conference did see something blue, as Cal quarterback Jared Goff traded the blue-and-gold of Berkeley for the blue-and-gold of Los Angeles as the NFL’s No. 1 draft pick of the newly returned Rams.
Much has changed in the first eight months of 2016 – not only is Goff gone, but Stanford lost 14-year – errrr, 3.5-year starter Kevin Hogan. USC’s Cody Kessler graduated and moved on to the Cleveland Browns, and Oregon has once again gone to the graduate transfer well to bridge its quarterback situation. In fact, only five of the conference’s teams return a starting quarterback – most notably Washington State junior Luke Falk and UCLA sophomore Josh Rosen.
While the South – which has sent four different schools to the Pac-12’s five championship games – remains its usual, wide-open self, much of the buzz heading into 2016 comes from the North. After years of dominance by Stanford and Oregon, many believe both Washington and Washington State have better than a puncher’s chance at seizing their first division title.
While incredible balance and brutal scheduling appear likely to keep a Pac-12 club out of the College Football Playoff, the 2016 conference season could be one of the most scintillating rides in years. As usual, figuring out which two teams will meet in the conference title game (Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif., Dec. 2) is likely to depend on schedule quirks and positional matchups.
In the North, Stanford’s early season slate appears especially fierce – a five-week stretch that reads: vs. USC; at UCLA; at Washington; vs. Washington State; at Notre Dame. Meanwhile, Oregon faces road tests at Nebraska, Washington State, USC, and Utah – but does get to host both Washington and Stanford. Washington State faces an October that includes home games vs. Oregon and UCLA and road trips to Stanford and Arizona State – but does catch a break in that its two other conference road games are at bottom-dwelling Colorado and Oregon State. And while the hype around Washington is likely deserved, it’s definitely amplified by the fact that the Huskies face Stanford, USC, and Arizona State in Seattle.
Down South, UCLA’s conference slate is rather friendly. After tough non-conference road trips to Texas A&M and BYU, the Bruins face Stanford, Arizona, USC, and Utah in Pasadena. Only October visits to Arizona State and Washington State seem potentially troubling. Utah, meanwhile, avoids Stanford completely and gets visits from USC, Arizona, Washington, and Oregon. Arizona welcomes Washington, USC, Stanford, and Arizona State – while skipping Oregon. At the other end of the spectrum, the Sun Devils face a daunting road slate of USC, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona. However, nothing matches the schedule that is widely ranked as the toughest in America. USC faces a four-game opening salvo that includes Alabama in Dallas and road games against Stanford and Utah. A similar four-game gauntlet closes the season, including visits from Oregon and Notre Dame and road games at Washington and UCLA.
As I tracked the progress of camps up and down the West Coast this month – and spent an ample amount of time with that college football bible known as Phil Steele’s College Football Preview – I began to wonder, once again, why I do what I’ve done for the past 15 seasons: sit down with the conference’s composite schedule and make preseason picks of each and every game. Then, when I sat down and started typing, I remembered: it’s for the hate mail.
Since 2001, I’ve been writing this piece – at first for PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com, then for more than a decade for USCFootball.com. My 2015 mark of 67-25 (.728) matched my 2014 record, but was slightly below average (15-year total: 896-310, .743). That result counts Stanford’s victory over USC in the Pac-12 championship game as a loss — I had the Trojans losing to Oregon in Santa Clara in my 2015 selections.
As always, I invite you to grab an adult beverage and settle in. Please hold any applause – or jeers – until the final game is selected. Here it is, once again: odd scores, blowouts, nail-biters, upsets, and all: the 2016 Pac-12 game-by-game preview.
Week One: Aug. 26-Sept. 3
Game of the Week: USC vs. Alabama (at Arlington, Texas, Sept. 3)
Since Clay Helton accepted the full-time Trojan gig last November, he’s faced a 10-2 Stanford team and a 9-3 Wisconsin team, both on neutral fields. He opens 2016 with defending national champion and consensus preseason No. 1 Alabama on a neutral field. Junior Max Browne takes over at quarterback for USC and has plenty of weapons and protection, as the Trojans return starters at every other offensive position. The problem for USC is on the defensive side, where there are a lot of question marks along new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 front. The Crimson Tide are replacing their own QB, the aforementioned Heisman winner Henry at running back, a Rimington Award-winning center (Ryan Kelly), and various other All-Americans on both sides of the ball. However, Bama – which has won four of the past seven national titles – is in reload mode under Nick Saban. And the Tide will be used to the pomp and circumstance: this is the fifth consecutive season Alabama has opened its schedule against a Power-5 opponent in a neutral site game. Can the Trojans compete? With a few breaks, USC certainly has the talent to push this game deep into the third quarter. But it’s simply too much, too soon to expect the Trojans to win. Alabama 35, USC 23
Game of the Weak: Oregon vs. UC Davis (Sept. 3) (FCS opponent)
As in 2015, the number of conference schools facing a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS, formerly Division I-AA) is eight. In 2016, the winners of the Chris Rock “I Take Care of My Children” Award are California, Stanford, USC, and UCLA. Hold on, let me ask, just to make sure … “Siri, did any new reasons pop up in the past year that might make a Pac-12-vs.-FCS matchup acceptable?” … Nope, still isn’t one. This week’s most pathetic matchup comes in Eugene. UC Davis finished 2-9 in each of the past two seasons. Oregon 63, UC Davis 7
California 38, Hawaii 17 (at Sydney, Friday, Aug. 26)
Can you think of a better reason to start the season a week early than a trip to Australia? Neither Cal nor Hawaii could – hence the “Sydney Cup,” as they’re calling this one. It takes place on Saturday, Aug. 27 down under, which translates to Friday night, Aug. 26 here. Let’s hope the Aussies don’t think this is the best American college football can offer because – based on expectations for these two teams – it could actually end up being the worst the Pac-12 and Mountain West Conferences have.
BYU 34, Arizona 31 (at Glendale, Ariz., Sept. 3)
Looking for an early shootout on the schedule? This could be it, with Arizona’s defense trying to bounce back from a poor 2015, and BYU making changes on both sides of the ball under new head coach Kalani Sitake. On a neutral field, how will the Cats respond to the shocking death of offensive lineman Zach Hemmila? Oddsmakers are confounded by this one, as well, listing the Cougars as a 1.5-point favorite to open, with the Wildcats now favored by 2.
Texas A&M 31, UCLA 27
This will be a stern test for a team most believe will represent the Pac-12 South in the conference championship game. During his Kevin Sumlin’s four years at the helm, the Aggies have been hot starters, going 5-1, 5-1, 5-0, and 5-0. The losses: by three to No. 24 Florida in the 2012 season opener and by seven to No. 1 Alabama in September 2013. In each of the past two years, Texas A&M has throttled a ranked foe in its season opener (2014 at South Carolina and 2015 vs. Arizona State in Houston). A touted Bruin defense must be ready to ball out immediately, and the UCLA offensive line will be put to a big test by A&M’s stellar defensive ends.
Minnesota 35, Oregon State 17 (Thursday, Sept. 1)
Utah 45, Southern Utah 3 (Thursday, Sept. 1) (FCS opponent)
Colorado 34, Colorado State 24 (at Denver, Friday, Sept. 2)
Stanford 31, Kansas State 13 (Friday, Sept. 2)
Arizona State 49, Northern Arizona 14 (Sept. 3) (FCS opponent)
Washington 42, Rutgers 10 (Sept. 3)
Washington State 44, Eastern Washington 20 (Sept. 3) (FCS opponent)
Week Two: September 10
Game of the Week: Washington State @ Boise State
Is Boise State poised to return to its BCS-busting ways and seize a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl? Many think so. Is Mike Leach’s Wazzu squad ready to launch a broadside on the Pac-12 North – a sort of Cougar Cannonade? Shiver me timbers! Though this game likely won’t answer those questions completely, it should be a fun tussle on the blue turf. Boise State 34, Washington State 31
Game of the Weak: Colorado vs. Idaho State (FCS opponent)
Like Oregon’s fauxponent UC Davis a week before, CU faces an FCS team that finished 2-9 in 2015, including a mind-blowing 80-8 loss to – wait for it – UNLV. I know it’s been nine years since the Buffs played in a bowl, and they’ll take wins wherever they can get them but … damn. Colorado 62, Idaho State 6
Oregon 52, Virginia 17
Not an exact replay of last year’s destruction in Charlottesville – but close.
Utah 28, BYU 24
A two-year break in the Holy War ended with the Utes’ 35-28 win last December in Las Vegas. It’s a rivalry game that’s been played more than 90 times – and few are as heated and bitter. With the game at Rice-Eccles Stadium, expect the state schoolers to topple the parochial schoolers once again.
Arizona 44, Grambling State 16 (FCS opponent)
Arizona State 41, Texas Tech 31
San Diego State 31, California 24
UCLA 42, UNLV 14
USC 45, Utah State 21
Washington 59, Idaho 13
Week Three: September 16-17
Game of the Week: USC @ Stanford
If you think you’re sensing a pattern here, you are: for the fourth time in five years, the Pac-12 conference schedule kicks off with this traditional matchup – and a rematch of the 2015 conference championship game. There have been some big changes for both since last December, but there’s one constant: McCaffrey. While this should be another tight battle between the schools, the Stanford running back remains the difference. Stanford 27, USC 20
Game of the Weak: Oregon State vs. Idaho State (FCS opponent)
The Bengals round out the Pac-12 portion of their schedule, facing another conference squad in dire need of any victory.
Oregon State 42, Idaho State 14
Texas 38, California 28
Last year, in this space, I called for a shootout resulting in one-point Longhorns win in Austin — instead, it was Cal prevailing 45-44. This year, with Cal backsliding a bit and Texas in a make-or-break season under Charlie Strong, the Horns exact some revenge in Berkeley.
Nebraska 37, Oregon 35
The Huskers are expected to be one of America’s most improved teams. After all, with five losses in the waning seconds of games in 2015, they were truly one play away from an 11-2 season. Are the Ducks ready to regain their pre-2015 form and challenge for a Pac-12 title and more? While we already know that ducks do, in fact, love snacking on cracked corn, this game may begin to answer a number of questions more germane to the topic of college football.
BYU 27, UCLA 24
A year ago, the Bruins barely held off a game Cougar team in Pasadena. In Sitake’s home debut, Taysom Hill helps BYU get over the hump.
Arizona State 38, UTSA 20 (Friday, Sept. 16)
Arizona 45, Hawaii 10
Michigan 37, Colorado 13
Utah 24, San Jose State 10
Washington 63, Portland State 14 (FCS opponent)
Washington State 55, Idaho 9
Week Four: September 23-24
Game of the Week: Stanford @ UCLA
Jim Mora’s talked a lot about how the Bruins need to get tougher on both sides of the ball this year. Much of that talk stems from Stanford’s eight-game winning streak over UCLA. No matter the expectations coming in, the Cardinal have manhandled the Bruins in most of those eight wins (the average score: 35-16). UCLA is in prove-it mode in this matchup. Once the Bruins show they can win one, I’ll consider picking them. Stanford 30, UCLA 24
Game of the Weak: Colorado @ Oregon
While the Buffs are hopeful they can cobble together enough wins to secure their first bowl bid as a Pac-12er, their chances of getting off on the right foot are just about zero-point-zero, Mr. Blutarsky. Oregon 41, Colorado 20
USC 24, Utah 21 (Friday, Sept. 23)
The Trojans have to wonder who among Pac-12 schedule makers has it in for them. A Friday night game in Salt Lake, less than a week after playing at Stanford – and less than three weeks after opening against Alabama? USC will be desperate for a big win to keep them in the conference race early. With the Utes’ offensive question marks, the Trojans will have just enough – and move into what, comparatively, looks like a luxurious October.
Washington 38, Arizona 28
The Huskies’ first real test comes on the road in Tucson. The home team has won the last eight in this series, but the Wildcats questions on defense might be too much to overcome as Myles Gaskin runs wild.
Arizona State 38, California 24
Boise State 36, Oregon State 19
Week Five: Sept. 30-Oct. 1
Game of the Week: Oregon @ Washington State
Tough call this week, what with this one and Stanford-Washington. This game earns the nod mainly due to two things: Wazzu’s upset in Eugene in 2015 and Stanford’s appearance in the past two “Games of the Week.” There are so many exciting matchups in this evenly balanced conference in 2016. Injuries, breakout stars, and positional matchups that will become clearer as the season goes definitely could wreak havoc on my picks this year. But … enough about me. If the Ducks haven’t found answers to what was troubling them on defense last year – or if new coordinator Brady Hoke’s 4-3 set hasn’t taken hold by this time, Oregon will be in trouble on the Palouse. Washington State 41, Oregon 35
Game of the Weak: Oregon State @ Colorado
What a difference a week (and adding the word “State” after Oregon) makes for CU. Colorado 42, Oregon State 17
Washington 28, Stanford 24 (Friday, Sept. 30)
Before last season’s 17-point Cardinal victory, the prior three games in this series were decided by seven points or fewer – including the Huskies’ last win over Stanford, 17-13, in 2012. If Washington is to challenge for the Pac-12 North in 2016, this is a must win. (A brief aside: what’s with these brutal Friday games for the road team – first USC, leaving Stanford and going to Utah; now Stanford heading from Pasadena to Seattle?) With a raucous crowd behind them, the UW defense keeps McCaffrey in check and hassles young Stanford QB Ryan Burns into two key second-half INTs.
USC 38, Arizona State 18
After riding a cushy schedule to 4-0, the Sun Devils meet a battle-tested Trojan team that’s happy to be home.
UCLA 45, Arizona 21
Utah 26, California 23
Week Six: October 8
Game of the Week: Washington @ Oregon
Much to Huskies’ fans chagrin, the Ducks – once the poor stepbrother in this ugly regional rivalry – have won 12 consecutive games in this series. Until last season’s 26-20 win in Seattle, the previous 11 were by 17 points or more. Many think this is the Huskies’ year to break through. That might be true in the division standings at season’s end, but – much like my thoughts above on UCLA-Stanford – the Huskies are going to have to prove it before I pick it. Oregon 34, Washington 27
Game of the Weak: California @ Oregon State
This may be the worst matchup of the season in the Pac-12. Alas, it may also be Oregon State’s best chance for a conference win. California 31, Oregon State 24
Utah 30, Arizona 20
The Utes have dropped four in a row to the Wildcats, perhaps none with a greater sting than last November’s double-overtime loss in Tucson that turned the South race into muck. Kyle Whittingham finally gets over on Rich Rodriguez in this one.
Stanford 34, Washington State 24
One comes down, the other bounces back. I imagine we’ll see that a lot in the Pac-12 this year.
USC 45, Colorado 17
UCLA 35, Arizona State 21
Week Seven: October 15
Game of the Week: UCLA @ Washington State
This is a huge turning point game for both of these teams. Last season, the Cougs pulled off a stunning victory in the Rose Bowl on a Falk-to-Gabe-Marks TD toss with three seconds to play. For the Bruins to stay in touch with USC and Utah in the South, they must exact revenge. For Wazzu to hang around in the North, it must duplicate last year’s success. Washington State 34, UCLA 30
Game of the Weak: Utah @ Oregon State
Perhaps more beneficial to the Utes than all of those big home matchups I mentioned is that the road schedule is littered with some of the Pac-12’s worst. Utah 37, Oregon State 13
Notre Dame 35, Stanford 31
Another rematch from a late-2015 thriller. In South Bend, the Irish’s athletic offense causes fits for the Stanford defense and just does enough to slow the Cardinal offense to tip the scales. A little luck of the Irish could make an appearance, as well.
Arizona State 35, Colorado 34
USC 37, Arizona 24
Week Eight: October 21-22
Game of the Week: Utah @ UCLA
The near-consensus South favorite faces a must-win in late October. The Bruins respond, throttling Utah’s up-and-down offense. UCLA 31, Utah 13
Game of the Weak: Colorado @ Stanford
The Buffs arrive, seeking that first big Pac-12 upset. The Buffs depart, seeking that first big Pac-12 upset. Stanford 42, Colorado 16
Arizona State 37, Washington State 27
The Cougars broke a three-game skid against the Sun Devils in Pullman a season ago. The winner of this one remains a big player in their divisional race. ASU has won 10 of the past 12, also losing on the Palouse in 2011. At home, I like the Devils’ pass rush to hassle Falk and ASU’s run game to take control late.
Oregon 41, California 30 (Friday, Oct. 21)
Washington 54, Oregon State 14
Week Nine: October 27-29
Game of the Week: Washington @ Utah
The Huskies haven’t visited Salt Lake City since the Utes’ first season in the Pac-12 (2011). And though I am sure Chris Petersen will do his best to have them ready for the maelstrom of sound and energy awaiting them, that first time through Rice-Eccles can be a little bit unnerving. UW has more firepower and the defenses are a push – but can the Huskies avoid the big game-turning mistake that so often befalls Utah’s visitors? Utah 25, Washington 24
Game of the Weak: California @ USC (Thursday, Oct. 27)
It’s so fun that the leaders of the Pac-12 enjoy the idea of Thursday evening football games in the middle of the nation’s second biggest city – so very fun. Unless you actually want to attend those games. But that’s not the main reason why this matchup earns the “Weak” nod this week – it’s because this will be the Trojans’ 13th consecutive victory over the Golden Bears. USC 42, California 20
Stanford 28, Arizona 17
It seems that every year, RichRod’s Wildcats pull a big upset on an unsuspecting visitor in Tucson. This is not that game.
Oregon 45, Arizona State 35
Washington State 48, Oregon State 20
Week 10: November 3-5
Game of the Week: Oregon @ USC
The Ducks have won their past two Coliseum visits (2010, 2012) and four of the past five overall against USC. Justin Davis and Ronald Jones are bound and determined to stop that. And, for fun, the Trojan secondary decides not to perform a Keystone Kops skit as compelling as its 2015 effort in Eugene. USC 38, Oregon 30
Game of the Weak: Oregon State @ Stanford
It’s gonna get better, Beavs. Just probably not this season. Stanford 40, Oregon State 7
UCLA 35, Colorado 28 (Thursday, Nov. 3)
The Buffs come up just short against the Bruins … again.
Washington State 38, Arizona 26
Washington 34, California 13
Week 11: November 10-12
Game of the Week: Stanford @ Oregon
When the owners of the past seven conference championships get together, that’s the definition of “Game of the Week.” Oregon claims the inside track to the North crown (for now), as Royce Freeman outduels McCaffrey. Oregon 37, Stanford 31
Game of the Weak: California @ Washington State
The Cougars keep hope alive in the North. The Bears’ hope 2017 is better. Washington State 41, California 21
Washington 27, USC 17
The Trojans’ last true road trip of 2016 goes to the Dawgs. (#dadjoke)
Arizona State 27, Utah 23 (Thursday, Nov. 10)
Arizona 41, Colorado 30
UCLA 51, Oregon State 10
Week 12: November 19
Game of the Week: USC @ UCLA
In a less than surprising turn, the only two teams in the South with two conference losses this late in the season are the Trojans and Bruins. I’ve read more than a few conference previews that, at some point, say that – schedules being equal – USC would be the pick over UCLA in the South Division. From that, I’d imagine most of those prognosticators might select the Trojans head-to-head should the two schools meet with nearly identical conference marks. This one’s going to do so (to almost no one’s surprise, I’d guess). USC 28, UCLA 23
Game of the Weak: Arizona @ Oregon State
That’s two in a row for the Wildcats. Thanks schedule makers! Arizona 31, Oregon State 19
Utah 34, Oregon 31
After last year’s mind-blowing destruction in Eugene, the Utes find a way to hold off the Ducks in Salt Lake City.
Stanford 42, California 20
The Cardinal win their seventh consecutive Big Game and bring the Axe home from Berkeley.
Washington 34, Arizona State 16
Colorado 33, Washington State 30
Week 13: November 25-26
Game of the Week: Washington @ Washington State (Friday, Nov. 25)
Last year, without Falk, the Cougars got whipped in Seattle. This year, with a healthy Falk, Wazzu knocks the Huskies out of a shot at the North title. Washington State 30, Washington 27
Game of the Weak: Stanford vs. Rice
Arizona 35, Arizona State 31 (Friday, Nov. 25)
With no bowl to look forward to, the Wildcats put everything they have into this Territorial Cup. And, in Tucson, it’s enough to get it done.
UCLA 34, California 24
The Bruins notch their fourth consecutive win over Papa Bear.
Colorado 28, Utah 24
This manufactured rivalry – necessitated by the schools’ tandem arrival in 2011 – has actually turned into quite a matchup. None of the five Pac-12 meetings have been decided by more than seven points. Utah’s won the past four, as you might imagine – but something tells me the Buffs close out 2017 with a pair of big home wins.
Oregon 44, Oregon State 31
The Ducks end the Beavers’ misery again.
USC 27, Notre Dame 25
Will the Irish be playing for a playoff spot? Will USC have anything left in the tank after conquering their schedule to win the South? My answers: no and yes.
Week 14: Dec. 2
Pac-12 Championship Game
USC (9-3, 7-2) vs. Stanford (9-3, 7-2) – Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.
As predicted, no spot in the College Football Playoff is on the line in this year’s conference title tilt. However, another rematch between these two teams battling for a spot in Pasadena is a pretty good story line. USC overcame some big obstacles in November to get here, while Stanford – aside from a loss to Oregon – had a pretty cushy set up for the season’s final month. Can USC stop a three-game slide against the Cardinal and exact some revenge? If you’ve been paying attention throughout the preview, you’ll know my thoughts right away in these situations — I’ll have to see it to believe it. Stanford 31, USC 24
Predicted Pac-12 Standings 2016North Division
1. Stanford (10-3, 7-2)
2. Washington State (8-4, 6-3)
3. Washington (9-3, 6-3)
4. Oregon (8-4, 6-3)
5. California (2-10, 1-8)
6. Oregon State (1-11, 0-9)South Division
1. USC (9-4, 7-2)
2. UCLA (7-5, 6-3)
3. Utah (8-4, 5-4)
4. Arizona State (7-5, 4-5)
5. Arizona (5-7, 3-6)
6. Colorado (5-7, 3-6)
Going Bowling: Oregon, USC, Stanford, Washington, Washington State, UCLA, Arizona State, Utah
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 16 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry and graduated with a journalism degree from USC in 1994. He’s traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10/12 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants).