COLLEGE FOOTBALL IS HERE! IT'S FINALLY HERE! We have waited long enough, and now we are blessed with the best sport on Earth coming back again. In traditional zany fashion, the first game isn't even on this continent, or this hemisphere! What a perfect way for the season to start. With a Pac-12 team being involved in the earliest of games (Cal), I thought it appropriate to look at the conference as a whole and see what changed, who beats who, and most importantly, throw some insults around. Let's start with the top tier in the conference, which coincidentally is occupied by just one team.
Tier 1: The Stanfords
They sit alone at the top of the power rankings this year. A proverbial Ivory Tower. Y'know, the more I think about it, the more comparisons I can draw between Stanford and Isengard. Saruman largely relies on a huge ground game to crush his opponents, while his Orb of Palantir (in Stanford's case, superior intelligence and great coaching) allows him to truly learn his opponent's strengths and weaknesses. Plus, we all know David Shaw has a deathly fear of living trees (that mascot is truly terrifying, after all).
Anyways, Stanford has a weapon no one else in the world has in Christian McCaffrey, they have a stout defense and a great offensive line. As is tradition. The real question mark with this team is quarterback play, but worst case scenario, they hand the ball off 40 times and grind out another win.
Tier 2: The Top-25 teams
The most likely Pac-12 South champs are just a step below Stanford, but they should be lethal. Stop me if you heard this about UCLA before, but they have the talent to be the best team in the league, but like always, they'll probably find a way to step on their own foot. It's not like the coaching is terrible, but the players just never seem to gel and communication errors can get the best of them. Well, now I forgot whether we were talking about the Bruins' football or basketball team. Oh well. Josh Rosen should be the best quarterback in the conference and one of the best in the country. He is part of a small group of returning QB's in the Conference of Champions and is probably the most talented of the bunch. Tom Bradley is a good defensive coordinator who returns some great pieces, but the impact of Myles Jack will be missed. On offense, they have a good stable of running backs led by Soso Jamabo. He should break out this year after his freshman was just... so-so. YEAHHHHHHHHH
I put these two teams next to each other just to make them mad. There's no numbers next to their names, so technically there are on equal footing on this tier. But we all know which one's the better team. It's the one with gold as a color. USC would be the best team in the conference if they could just borrow some L.A. Rams player on a Saturday, but I have a feeling that would be against the rules. And besides, they have their own Todd Gurley stand-in with Ronald Jones. The backfield for the Trojans is one of the best in the country, and their offensive line is filled with giants that could fall down and open holes. The offense is also breaking in a new quarterback, so I expect the offense to be pretty ground-heavy. But, then what do you do with JuJu Smith on the outside? Oh, the problems USC has. Which 5-stars to use more often. Their schedule is absolutely brutal this year, so while their record may not indicate greatness, they will probably be a fantastic team. Defensively, their secondary is amazing, but the defensive line has questions.
HYPE TRAIN COMING IN HOT. Washington has been perhaps the most hyped team in the country this offseason, pushing through the obvious shortcomings that comes with SEC-SPN. Why are publications ranking them as high as 7th (!!!!) this year? Probably the color scheme, but other than that, they have a lot of ingredients that make a great stew. Promising quarterback play, a *salty* defense, and a great coach. Chris Peterson has his Dawgs ready to make a big jump. A lot of this optimism rests on Jake Browning's shoulders, the quarterback of the present and future. His true freshman year was up and down, but enough up that he gives their fans tons of hope for the next year. And on the other side, y'know how much CU fans love Chidobe Awuzie? Imagine having two. That's what Budda Baker and Sidney Jones bring to the table. I'm just glad we don't play them this year.
Oregon might be the most overlooked team in the Pac-12, and that's given how much their uniforms scream for attention. It seems as if the nation just got collectively tired of talking about the Ducks, so they moved to Washington and Stanford. But Oregon has weapons like they always do. Royce Freeman is still a top-5 running back in the country, they still go faster than almost everybody, and they made an interesting DC hire in Brady Hoke (former Michigan head coach and serial clapper). CU opens their conference play with Oregon, right after traveling to Ann Arbor to play Michigan, which is probably the most brutal two weeks for the Buffs. That game will be one of the fastest in the country, with Oregon and CU kicking into overdrive this year. Mark Helfrich stays as steward of the House that Phil Built, and he has done well maintaining the success that the Ducks are used to in the last ten years. However, as we get chronologically further and further from the Kelly era, it may be hard for the Ducks to keep up their level of success. Can they keep relying on FCS grad transfers at QB? Will their defense ever become stingy enough to compete for a title? How many colors can they put on a uniform? We'll find out.
Tier 2.5: Washington State
For the sake of open honesty, this ranking probably isn't fair to WSU. They've been a consistent top-25 presence in the preseason polls, and they flirted all year last year with the top-20. But darn it if I can't get over the mental block that doesn't let me put them on the same pedestal as Oregon or USC. Mike Leach is still their coach, and they can still #CougIt at any point in time. They have their best defense in the Leach era this year, and they still have Air Raid savant Luke Falk, but they will give up a lot of points this year. What makes this WSU team different is how well they can run the ball and defend the run. Their lines have been well stocked and now the depth should make a difference, especially on the DL. Hercules Mata'afa will be one of the most disruptive forces in the conference from the interior of the line. On the other side, Jamal Morrow leads a stable of running backs that should do well catching out of the backfield and running between the tackles, a first in Pullman. The Dread Pirate is building a nice galleon in Middle of Nowhere, Washington. But I just can't get over the fact that it's a Mike Leach Team based at Washington State. Perception meets reality, I guess.
Tier 3: The Tough Outs
Utah is another team I may be discounting, maybe because of the FIERCE rivalry that exists between the Utes and the Buffs. But hear me out. It is very hard to replace the production that they lost in one year. Devonta Booker was an absolute bull for their offense, and Travis Wilson was a four year starter than won a lot of games. But that's not all. They also lost Kenneth Scott to scholarship and Brittain Covey to a Mormon mission, two of their top wideouts. Given that it is the Beehive State, it seems as if this year will be dedicated to replenishing the honey. But this still a dumb Utah team that will still be dumb and hard to beat. The defense will be salty (though I have my doubts about the secondary) and they have a great QB replacement in former Udub athlete Troy Williams. He's fast, has a cannon, and a year of JuCo under his belt. On the other side, Kylie Fitts will be hard to stop as a pass rusher. He will give offensive lines... fits. SECOND NAME PUN, I'M ON FIRE!
Man, Arizona is a weird team, huh? They were tops in the Pac-12 South two years ago, finishing with ten regular season wins, and on top of the world. Last year, they regressed back to the middle of the division, almost losing to CU in Boulder before they switched QB's. This year, who knows? No Scooby Dooby Wright hurts, but I can't point to another player that will be hard to replace. The biggest upheaval will probably the brand new defensive staff they brought in. Marcel Yates from Boise State plays aggressive and fast, but it's still in a 3-3-5 formation because Rich Rodriguez likes the fact that it adds up to negative 5. That's how many yards he wants to give up. Anu Solomon is still their quarterback, and the escape artists looks to get more consistent throwing the ball. One of my favorite running backs in the conference, Nick Wilson, looks to destroy some linebackers again, and he should be given the ball as many times as possible. Arizona will probably do what is has been doing for the past four or five years. Lose ones they shouldn't, win ones they shouldn't, and end up about even.
Yes, that's right, your friendly neighborhood Buffaloes are moving on up. I'm not going to go into a lot of detail here, because if you want to read up on the Buffs, there's a wonderful slew of articles on this site. But I keep coming back to one fact: the team makeup is exactly what you don't want to face with superior talent. The Buffs are a very experienced team with an opportunistic defense and a fast offense. Let's hope it pays off.
ASU is finally without an established quarterback. After a five year reign of Taylor Kelly (ugh) and Mike Bercovicci, there is instability at the quarterback position. And as CU fans know all too well, that can destroy a season if you let it. The money seems to be on redshirt frosh Manny Wilkins, which I'm sure the Pac-12 is fine with. He may be very talented, but any freshman QB can be taken advantage of at times. Their best weapon left on offense is probably Colorado product Kalen Ballage, a tank of an RB that has fleet feet and soft hands. Todd Graham is known as a defensive coach (well, among other things), and he'll have his hands full with this inexperienced group. There will be blitzes, it is Todd Graham, but he may need to play it safer than usual due to the secondary not having much backbone. The man to watch on defense is probably Joe Wicker, who comes from the JuCo ranks and crushes souls. He will wreak havoc in the backfield. Arizona State has a lot of questions to answer, but with an unknown at quarterback too, can they answer all of them? Stay tuned to find out.
Technically, Cal should be at the top of this list at the time of publication. They have the best record in the conference at 1-0. But no matter. Cal stays here for now, because DID YOU WATCH THAT GAME? Against Hawaii (I know, CU fans can't talk about Hawaii without cringing), their defense was cut like butter and then some. But, in typical Sonny Dykes fashion, they just scored more points to win. Often on the arm of, *gulp*, Davis Webb. His first half looked a bit off, and all the WR screens they threw certainly helped, but once he got to the second half, it was a different player. He had touch, poise, and great athletes to throw to. His stat line was impressive, over 400 yards and 4 TDs, but in this offense, that's kind of a ho hum day. Once they get to conference play, they will need their defense to step up if they want to win more than they lose. But given how much they graduated/lost, I don't know if they'll step up in time. Hardy Nickerson, their leading tackler and middle linebacker with the best name on the team, left to play for his dad at Illinois, and that left a pretty big hole. Their defensive front has some experience, but we'll see if the defense can keep up with the pace that the offense is setting.
Tier 4: Sorry, Beavers :(
Oh man, we feel you, Oregon State. CU fans for the past four years have read these power ranking lists, knowing what they were getting into. They knew that scrolling to the bottom would inevitably lead them to read about their Buffs, but they read anyway, especially on the best site in the world, Ralphie Report. This is the position Oregon State fans find themselves in. A roster made for Mike Riley, tailored to a totally different style by Gary Anderson, and trimming the fat from the old program. An unenviable position. Last year was the beginning of the cull, but they still have a ways to go if they want to get back to where they were. It doesn't help that their luck this offseason has been positively awful, with 15 unplanned departures from the program. Some of the losses were expected to be key contributors, but they no longer can count on that production. Their quarterback situation has improved though, with Darrell Garretson transferring from Utah State and immediately taking the starting job. He has played in Gary Anderson's system before and has the arm to make the necessary throws. The Beavers still have some interesting weapons in Victor Bolden and Jordan Villlamin, two very different receivers that have had some success. But this will be a long year for the Beavers. Think of it this way, you're still not the 2012 Colorado Buffaloes!