Sean and I now pick the northern division in the conference. I talked more about these teams on the podcast but now are my written picks with some more detail.
California - 3.5 - UNDER
A first-year head coach, no QB experience, a brutal non-conference schedule (at UNC, Old Miss), and two tough road games to finish the year (at Stanford, at UCLA), things are trending down for the Bears. They should be better defensively, but I think their offense, which has been the only thing keeping them in games recently, will take a significant step back.
Oregon - 8 - OVER
Oregon should be better. We really should. I think we would need to be about 60 spots better defensively to be an 8-4 team. I'm especially worried about trips to high-altitude Wyoming early in the year (vs. their excellent QB, Josh Allen), and then a tough 4 game stretch in October and early November: Wazzu, at Stanford, at UCLA, Utah, at Washington.
But this is a Ducks blog, and I am anything if not a huuuuuuge homer. So give me the mother-flipping over.
In all seriousness, if the Ducks play better defensively, and with more confidence on offense, they can go 9-3. I just want to watch some guldarned defense after what I've watched on the field the last two seasons. I'm pretty confident in Leavitt to get those dudes going in the right direction. And if we lean on Royce, and get just-as-steady play from Herbert, we ought to be fine. Let's. Go. Ducks.
Oregon State - 5.5 - UNDER
By all metrics, the Beavers are improving. And I think Gary Andersen will get them back to bowl eligibility. But not this year. With Washington, Colorado, Stanford, and Arizona State all coming to Corvallis, their most winnable Pac-12 games are all on the road. Not a good formula. 5-7 feels about right.
Stanford - 8.5 - OVER
Stanford won 9 regular season games last year, and gets more experienced this year. Two of their losses in 2016 were inexplicable: blown out by WSU, lost 10-5 to Colorado. I think they're a 9 or 10-win team. Why? Because they always are. They've reloaded with an elite OL and a well-balanced defense, and you know they'll find a way to grind clock on offense. 9-3 seems right to me, because I think 8-4 would be a disappointment for this squad.
Washington - 10 - UNDER
Yes, everyone is back. Yes, their non-conference schedule is annoyingly easy (Rutgers, Montana, Fresno State). Yes, Chris Peterson is the literal Savior. But I can't pick any team to go 11-1. That's especially true when they face a rough last five games: UCLA, Oregon, at Stanford, Utah, Washington State. Some of those games will go awry. I very much think they're a 10-win team, and should challenge again for the Pac-12 title and the CFP. But I'm not picking any team in the Pac to win 11 games.
Washington State - 7.5 - OVER
By all accounts, this will be the best OL, QB, LB, DL, and DB groups that Leach has had at Wazzu. But they would have to win four out of their six toughest games to get to 8 wins: Boise State, USC, at Oregon, Stanford, at Utah, at Washington. I think Wazzu does some damage in the Pac-12 North, and I think they have enough to get a third-straight 8-win season.
California - 3.5 UNDER
Justin Wilcox replaces Sonny Dykes as the head coach at Cal. Sonny Dykes left after a 5-7 season, possibly because of some disagreements with the administration on the direction he should take.
On offense the Bears have been a juggernaut, averaging 12th in S&P+ over the last three seasons. Former Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin is the new offensive coordinator. Baldwin ran a form of an air raid at EWU and it will be interesting to see the balance between Wilcox’s abilities to have a top defense while also keeping pace with an offensive pace that can really push the defense. The new quarterback is going to be starting without throwing a single pass last year as Webb threw every single one. It’s hard to see how this offense will be bad. At worse they’ll be good and well above average. They have solid returning players at every skill position and the line will benefit from the quick passes.
Cal’s defense has been just as bad, maybe slightly better, than Oregon’s the last few years. Wilcox made his name coaching defenses at Boise State, Tennessee, Washington, USC, and then Wisconsin before making his way back to Cal, where he began his coaching career as a linebackers coach under Jeff Tedford. They will be moving from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and Oregon fans know how tough a defensive transition can be.
The schedule isn’t going to be friendly for a defense that won’t be able to make a stop because of fit, players, and size. The only guaranteed win is Weber State. I think they’ll get a competitive win over Arizona. I think they’ll drop close games to Washington State and Oregon State, which are the two real swing games.
Oregon – 8 UNDER
There are a lot of questions marks but a lot of signs for optimism. The defense was literally only a couple spots from being the worst in the country last season. The entire coaching staff has turned over and the defense is switching back to a 3-4. Even if these coaches turn out to be the best ones in the world there are going to be some pains involved with the transition.
The positives are that the schedule goes well for the Ducks. The likely losses are on the road. Let a bad game be a bad game. But the Ducks could start off 1-2 with a bad game against Nebraska and then a road trip to Wyoming to take on a quarterback who some have going in the first round. Oregon misses USC and Colorado out of the south and I think six wins is a bare minimum for the coaching staff this year. Finding a ninth game for the Ducks to win though is tough. We can put Stanford and washington in the loss column now and it is tough to find a where nine wins can come from. Best-case scenario the Ducks get eight wins, it’s a push, and you get your money back.
Oregon State - 5.5 UNDER
Oregon State was a year ahead of schedule last year. They finished off their season with a big win over Oregon and showed a lot of signs that they would improve. Gary Andersen is in his third year as head coach so most of his players are on the roster now.
Jake Luton was recently named the starting quarterback for the Beavers, causing Marcus McMaryion to transfer. Luton will benefit from a strong rushing attack led by bruising running back Ryan Nall. Nall runs more like a fullback, with a low center of gravity, running through holes like a steamroller. He doesn’t have breakaway speed but he will always fall forward for a few yards. Thomas Tyner will take the role of slasher and faster back. There’s a lot of experience back at receiver like Seth Collins and Noah Togiai who missed most of 2016 due to injuries.
The defense is what could really do the Beavers in this year. Their rush defense was terrible and they were really inefficient. The pass defense was average to above average but why would opposing teams throw the ball when they can run it so easily? The Beavers now have linemen that rival washington’s in terms of just straight pounds between the tackles. The run defense is in the territory of “it can’t get much worse.”
Oregon State is my second favorite team in the conference so don’t consider this analysis as something very biased. The schedule is brutal for this team. They draw USC out of the South. They get the least likely wins, Washington and Stanford, at home and the easiest wins for them will be away from the friendly confines of Reser Stadium. The Beavers will get a lot better this year, even if their record doesn’t show it.
Stanford - 8.5 OVER
Every year there are signs of a decline. This year the signs are that they will be losing Christian McCaffrey and lose their top two tacklers on defense. But every year the beat expectations. They have had ten wins or more four out of the last five years. In 2014 their five losses came to top-25 teams.
Stanford is such a boring team. On offense they take the air out of the ball and play plodding, methodical football. Keller Chryst is not an exciting player and has to improve upon last year’s pedestrian numbers. I don’t think losing McCaffrey will be missed too much by the team. Running back numbers are the easiest to replace because they are largely dependent on the offensive line. Don’t get me wrong, McCaffrey is a great player, but the four starters back on the offensive line are going to make it very easy for the guys filling his shoes.
On defense there are eight starters back, just like the offensive side of the ball. Both defensive ends need to be replaced, as does their strong safety. They might have the best linebackers and secondary in the conference with loads of experience. They play at USC in week 2 after a bye. The Cardinal open against Rice in Australia during pre-week 1. They get Washington at home and the schedule works out in such a way that there is no real challenging stretch for them to drop a couple games in a row. Any predictions of Stanford’s downfall are premature at this point.
washington – 10 OVER
This really pains me to say, but I’m a straight shooter, and washington is going to be a great team again this year. They have seven starters back on offense, including Jake Browning, the junior quarterback who is a Heisman contender.
The Huskies return three linemen on offense, the two tackles and the center. All the flash with John Ross and Jake Browning covered up what was really outstanding play on the offensive line. The line bullied everyone in their wins. The lone losses came against teams whose lines were simply better and more dominant. Star wide receiver John Ross is replaced by Dante Pettis at the top of the depth chart. Pettis is a great receiver on his own. He had 53 receptions to Ross’ 81, but averaged a yard more per reception and only two fewer touchdowns.
On defense they have two buffet busters at the front who weigh over 320 pounds. Vita Vea weighs in at 344 pounds. They lose Budda Baker and Kevin King but they have lost NFL talent the last few years and improved.
Chris Peterson is a great coach, gameplans well, and recruits well. Unfortunately, he’s done a great job. The Huskies get the benefit of one of the easiest schedules in the country. They play at Rutgers, who is maybe the worst team in a Power 5 conference, before hosting Montana and Fresno State. They miss USC in the south. The only stretch where they could realistically lose two games is when they play UCLA, Oregon, Stanford on a short week on the Farm, and then host Utah and Washington State. They are not favored based on S&P+ to beat Stanford but are safe winners against the others. Something will have to go very wrong for them to not get 10 or more wins.
Washington State - 7.5 UNDER
We have a Cougar squad that is now full Mike Leach. Luke Falk is back for what feels like his eighth year as the starter where he’ll keep throwing the shortest passes down field while having the best completion rate in the country and one of the most efficient offenses in the country.
On offense the biggest improvement has been in the rushing attack. Last year the three running backs averaged 5.8 yards a carry. The rushing game is dependent on a successful passing attack but now Leach’s willingness to routinely go to the run when it is available has made it very difficult on opposing defensive coordinators.
Last year the Washington State defense was predicated on stopping the run. They stuffed the run and tried to put the opposing teams in to long third down attempts. The other offense may burn them a lot but the defense tried to create enough turnovers in big plays to give their offense a few extra possessions. The front seven returns almost everyone for a very experienced unit. The problem is that the secondary is going to be weaker than last year and there is only so much a dominant line can make up for.
Their schedule opens with Montana State, which could continue their streak of losing to FCS teams. A lot of the most likely wins are on the road. They get Oregon State, Boise State, and Nevada at home, but the rest of the schedule they are underdogs or on the road.