While we still have to get through LOI Day, winter workouts, spring football and the summer sessions not to mention August, what the heck: It's never too early to pick the Pac.
Which is what we're going to do here. In some ways, things are much clearer now than they were last year with the implosion of UCLA and Oregon and the three-game mini-implosions of USC and Stanford.
The Trojans and the Cardinal should be past those kinds of petite-mal moments but we're not so sure it's that simple for the Bruins and the Ducks. This may take a while for them.
Not that any of this is all that simple. How far off would most of us have been if we'd have tried to prognosticate the finish 1 through 6 in either division at the end of last September?
But what the heck, here we go:
1) USC: Probably the easiest pick of the lot. As close as the South has been for in so many recent seasons, that's simply no longer the case. USC is back. The sanctions are gone. The recruiting is kicking in. The talent may be young in places but the numbers are getting there starting with the best player in the Pac-12 at the most important position in football -- redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold, who makes USC the best team in the South going away. Getting Utah and UCLA at the Coliseum -- not to mention Stanford from the North -- is another edge for a USC team that in the second year of Clancy Pendergast's defense probably doesn't figure to give away two long TDs on 56-yard defensive breakdowns out of the four Stanford scored last September. On offense, Ronald Jones and Deontay Burnett along with USC's trio of tight ends will be as good as anyone in the league. On defense, you could say the same for Iman Marshall, Rasheem Green and a fully healthy Cam Smith not to mention the edge pairing of Uhenna Nwosu and Porter Gustin. Now it's up to the rest of the young guys to show what they can do.
2) UTAH: Not sure why we're picking the Utes here other than it just seems like the place for Kyle Whittingham's guys no matter who they feature each year. Close but no cigar. They'll be tough, solid, sound, not a lot of names you remember other than senior D-lineman Lowell Lotuleilei who stayed in school and USC-slaying QB Troy Williams. Expect the Utes to have a misstep at just the wrong time -- again. As we said, they have to come to the Coliseum where USC will not have forgotten last season in Salt Lake City. And there is a talent deficit here. As there's always been.
3) COLORADO: Last year was Coach of the Year Mike Macintyre's season with the seniors he'd brought along the last four years. And then there is that matter of how they finished -- or really didn't. We're probably not the only people who liked then-freshman QB Steven Montez when he stepped in last year and who doesn't like versatile running back Phillip Lindsay but the Buffs didn't have enough talent on defense last year as improved as they were and surely won't do so next season with a number of them gone and USC gets CU on a Saturday in Boulder, not another Friday night.
4) UCLA: Seems like it's going to be nearly an all-new cast of characters coaching the Bruins so that you'll need a scorecard -- Jim Mora might need one, too -- to know who's who. They'd better hope that works out better for them than last year's all-new offensive staff who are now mostly all gone, if we're reading this right. Quarterback Josh Rosen's shoulder should be better so that's a necessary first step. But Bruin football is operating under a black cloud these days -- which is where you are in football when your offensive line can't block anybody -- and your QB gets killed and your running backs can't find a hole anywhere to run it. No wonder UCLA fans aren't all that hopeful that they can reverse that 4-8 record to 8-4. We're saying they can expect 6-6 with a trip to the Coliseum before Thanksgiving.
5) ARIZONA: Flip a coin for which one survives among the desert duo. We'll give this one to RichRod since things can't possibly go as wrong for the guys from Tucson as they did last season when their games, like when USC came to town, were virtual quarterback-free zones thanks to injuries. Wish we had some names for you but there really aren't any, especially on defense. And this year, the Wildcats also have to come to LA to play USC. Not good for them going against Sammy D.
6) ARIZONA STATE: Don't much like Arizona State. Don't like their uniforms. Don't like their school colors. Don't like playing in Tempe the first two months of the season. Not crazy about Todd Graham, although probably won't have to worry about him all that much more with the direction this Sun Devils program is headed. But you never know when you go there. Crazy things can happen. USC must make sure they don't -- or that when they do, the crazy stuff happens to ASU.
1) STANFORD: We liked the look of the bounce-back Cardinal in winning the Sun Bowl over North Carolina. And may like them a bit better than the more touted Washington, despite the way they were battered in Seattle last season, That all depends, however, on the healthy return of QB Keller Chryst from ACL surgery. Not sure redshirt freshman K.J. Costello gets it done for them. But David Shaw has proved he can and he gets the Huskies at home. Also liked the way Christian McCaffrey successor, the speedy Bryce Love, lugged it in the Sun Bowl. The bad news for Stanford is that with the four California schools playing one another every year, the Cardinal have to come to the Coliseum while Washington misses USC completely.
2) WASHINGTON: No sneaking up on anyone this year for the Huskies. And not all of the stars, like wide receiver John Ross who led a quartet of Huskies out the door early for the NFL after getting the Pac-12 champs into the College Football Playoffs despite getting dominated at home by USC late in the season. Still, the Huskies have lots of buzz. Just saw Athlon Sports' Top 50 national players coming back for next season and UW has four of them -- RB Myles Gaskin, OL Trey Adams, LB Azeem Victor and QB Jake Browning, to just one for USC -- Sam Darnold. We don't see it. But that's why they play the games. We'll know soon enough -- in 10 months.
3) WASHINGTON STATE: No free early Pac-12 ride for Washington State this season. The Cougars get USC visiting the Palouse in September. Not that Mike Leach's guys have no chance. In that same Athlon Top 50 ranking, the Cougs have two players -- QB Luke Falk and OL Cody O'Connell, a first-team Athlon All-American. Again that's twice the number of Top 50 players Athhon says USC will be bringing to town. Don't see the WSU defense having any answer for Sam & Co. but is there ever a trip to Pullman when something a bit goofy doesn't happen?
4) OREGON: New coach, new staff, new screwup every week for Willie Taggart & Co. who've lost three players to the hospital for a weekend after one of those Bear Bryant "Junction Boys" workouts. Then they had to suspend the strength and conditioning coach for a month without pay who conducted the workout. And finally, one assistant coach -- Lane Kiffin's ex-brother-in-law David Reaves -- is about to be fired after a DUI arrest his first week in Eugene on the staff's first big recruiting weekend. RB Royce Freeman, when healthy, is a stud and sophomore QB Justin Herbert, showed some skills as a rookie. But things have gone very badly wrong at Nike U. and for now, the shoe is on the wrong foot for the Ducks.
5) OREGON STATE: Not sure the Beavs belong behind the Ducks, their neighbors 44 miles away. This pick for the two Oregon teams was pretty much a flip-a-coin deal for us as Gary Andersen has his act together and is a serious coach who is figuring out how Mike Riley did it on occasion in Corvallis. OSU has a solid run game led by big, tough Ryan Nall but are there ever going to be enough players to make the Beavs a contender when teams show up ready to play? Probably not. That won't be a problem for USC this season as Oregon State must come to the Coliseum.
6) CALIFORNIA: Nice way for Justin Wilcox to start without a transfer quarterback this season -- or anyone who can play defense. And Sonny Dykes still got fired despite how well grad transfer QB Davis Webb, now gone, played, We'll give Wilcox, the inscrutable former USC defensive coordinator coming in from Wisconsin, credit for luring USC's No. 2 strength and conditioning guy, Torre Becton, to Berkeley as the top man. He's a good one. But otherwise, Cal's program is in a state of disrepair as bad as Memorial Stadium was five years back before Cal spent $320 million restoring it, effectively bankrupting the program.
*** USC: We've already said the Trojans will be there after a bye week on Thanksgiving weekend to finish the season while everybody else is playing a rivalry game. Advantage USC. And the other team will be either Stanford, if healthy, or Washington. The Stanford game will be a rematch and with a sound Trojan defense not breaking down the way USC did in Game 3 last season so we don't see Stanford scoring enough to have a chance against Sam and his guys. Even last year, Stanford scored just two TDs that they weren't given by USC busts. Don't look for that to happen this time around.
But if it's Washington, it's hard to see the Huskies better equipped to handle USC's athletes than they were last season. The Darnold-Browning head-to-head is a mismatch in USC's favor and that's where it starts -- and maybe ends. UW loses a lot in the secondary and that will be the place they come up short. unless it's in the run game, where USC should have a better chance to run it on the Huskies than UW will have to do the same against USC.
We know here are folks like San Jose's Jon WIlner who think that in the one-on-one matchup between Clay Helton's Trojans and Chris Petersen's Huskies, the odds are more likely that something will go wrong for the Trojans. Just because . . . USC, we guess. Even though the exact opposite happened last season on USC's nine straight wins to finish in 2016. We think last season tells us where this season is going.
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