The PAC-12 is a consistent conference with teams that are loaded with talent. Every season, one or two of the schools are in the national conversation. Yet, the league hasn’t won a championship in some time (USC in 2004 was the last to win it), even with the success of the perennial contender in the Oregon Ducks.
Speaking of Oregon, they won the conference last season and made it all the way to the national championship game, where they were destroyed by Ohio State. For the past several seasons, Oregon has been the favorite in the conference and have been generally successful. This season, they are once again highly rated, but with some obvious weaknesses on their roster, the Ducks could get overtaken in 2015.
Wondering who has the best shot at the PAC-12 title game and who can take Oregon down? Well, here we will break down each division of the conference and see who the real contenders are. We will also take a look at who will ultimately make the championship game and make a run at history this season:
The PAC-12 North is definitely the inferior division in the conference, but as the division where Oregon plays, you have to give it respect. The Ducks are still the top contender in the North and remain an offensively special team in 2015. Running back Royce Freeman leads a large group of capable runners who compiled over 480 rushing yards in their week one win. QB Vernon Adams Jr. has a big task in replacing Heisman winning QB Marcus Mariota, but he appears to have plenty of play making ability to make it work. Defensively, the Ducks have a lot of question marks, which could cost them in the division.
Despite losing in week 1, you have to rank the Stanford Cardinal as a contender in the north. Obviously, their performance against Northwestern was inexplicably unacceptable, but with a fairly weak field of competitors in the north, the Cardinal have a chance to turn it around. On defense, the team is capable and played well in week 1. When you only score 6 points on offense though, it’s going to be tough to win most weeks. QB Kevin Hogan has to step up and lead the offense on efficient scoring drives if the Cardinal want to win a majority of their remaining games. If he can do that and the defense stays at a solid level, the Cardinal can challenge Oregon (who they always play tough) in this division.
The other contender in the north at this point is the California Golden Bears. Led by an effective and experienced QB in Jared Goff, the Bears appear to have their best roster in several seasons. Only two short seasons ago, Cal finished the season 1-11 and was in cellar of the college football world. They upped their win total to 5 last season and are expected to take yet another step in 2015. It might be a year early for this team to compete, but with an experienced roster, Cal can surprise people and challenge the Ducks.
The southern division of the PAC-12 is loaded with talented teams ready to make a run at the College Football Playoff. Starting with the team that fell flat on its face in week 1, the Arizona State Sun Devils are still a contender in this division. The Sun Devils came into the season with a high ranking and expectations to win the PAC-12, but they got completely outplayed against the Texas A&M Aggies. The team must play better defensively if it wants to slow down the high powered offenses in their conference. They themselves need to step offensively as well. Things look bleak for Arizona State, but there is still time for them to turn it around.
Next up is the other team from Arizona, the Arizona Wildcats. This squad is loaded offensively with Anu Solomon at QB, Nick Wilson at running back, and Cayleb Jones at receiver. The Wildcats can keep up with the other teams in the conference on the scoreboard, but it’s still debatable if they can slow those teams down. Question marks are abound on that defense, which could hurt them. With the showcased ability to beat the best teams with a win against Oregon a season ago, however, Arizona belongs in the conversation.
The first team from Los Angeles that has to be seen as a contender is the UCLA Bruins. Freshman QB Josh Rosen played brilliantly in his first collegiate game in week 1 which alleviated any concerns that people may have had about that position for the Bruins. Rosen has plenty of weapons to keep this offense producing throughout the season. On defense, UCLA could be solid, which may separate them form the pack. Regardless, this is one of the best teams in the entire PAC-12.
The final contender in the south is the top contender. The USC Trojans are ready to make the leap back to national powerhouse status this season and it is in large part due to QB Cody Kessler. As good of a quarterback as there is in the nation, Kessler has to be among the Heisman contenders in 2015. The Trojans also appear to have several weapons at running back and receiver, so this should be a balanced offensive attack. They also look sneaky good on defense. This is the most talented team in (maybe) the entire conference and have a great shot at making the title game and the playoff.
So we have the contenders. Now the question is “who makes the championship game?” Well, starting in the north, while there are teams like Cal that could rise up and surprise people, the division is still Oregon’s to lose. They are still explosive on offense, which will be enough to overcome any defensive inefficiencies and win 9 or 10 games, which will likely be enough to win the north.
As for the south, it will be a battle all season and we won’t likely know the winner of the division until the final week of the regular season, but USC is primed to return to prominence this season. They have the best balance of offense and defense in the division which should propel them to the title game.
Oregon vs. USC would be a great game for the PAC-12 championship. With a better defense, the Trojans come out on top and put themselves in position for the playoff, dethroning the mighty Ducks.