The Pac-12’s struggles with national recognition were not assisted in 2015 with the conference being left out of the second College Football Playoff. Despite its games being some of the most exciting in the nation and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey having a case for being snubbed for the Heisman Trophy, parity got the better of the league last season.
McCaffrey and Stanford are back and looking to remain in the driver’s seat. UCLA and USC both believe they have a chance for a breakout season. Washington has hype to live up to. Oregon wants to prove it has made enough strides on defense to be a contender. And those are just some of this season’s top storylines.
With the Pac-12 technically opening football on Friday when Cal faces Hawaii in Australia, our college football team takes a closer look at those that make up the Pac-12 both on the field and watching from the sideline.
Best offensive player
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford: What more is there to say about the human highlight reel that is Christian McCaffrey? He’s a joy to watch carrying the ball or returning kicks. Let’s see how he handles 2016 after opposing coaches had all offseason thinking about how to defend him. — Jon Solomon (In agreement: Dennis Dodd, Jerry Palm, Robby Kalland, Ben Kercheval)
Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon: Freeman’s been great the last two years but was overshadowed by Marcus Mariota in 2014 and Stanford’s Christian McCaffery last season. I believe 2016 will be the season Freeman grabs the spotlight, and I’m predicting he goes for 2,000 yards. — Tom Fornelli (In agreement: Chip Patterson)
Best defensive player
Budda Baker, S, Washington: Baker is an All-America candidate after a strong 2015 season. He’s a sure tackler with athleticism and he put on weight this offseason. He’s such a good football player that there’s the possibility he could play some snaps at wide receiver. — Jon Solomon (In agreement: Tom Fornelli, Robby Kalland, Ben Kercheval)
Adoree Jackson, DB, USC: Arguably the most exciting player in college football with the ball in his hands, Jackson makes his impact in all three phases of the game. But here, where we’re picking the best defensive player in the league, what’s important is that he had 35 tackles and a pick six in 2015 and appears poised to continue his development at an important position for the Trojans. (In agreement: Dennis Dodd)
Eddie Vanderdoes, DT, UCLA: Vanderdoes was supposed to have a dominant year in 2015 but tore his ACL in the first game and missed the rest of the season. Vanderdoes is a big and athletic run stuffer that makes it hard for opposing offenses to get anything done up the middle. He already had eight tackles, two for loss, in the season opener against Virginia last year before the injury, so he was ready to prove something last year. He figures to be even more motivated this year. — Jerry Palm
Solomon Thomas, DL, Stanford: The former five-star prospect from Texas has turned into a budding superstar set to break out as a full-time starter. It’s a big year for Thomas, now a redshirt sophomore, as NFL eyes will be watching with 2017 in mind. Thomas’ size may impact his pro projections, but his speed, quickness and versatility on the line are exactly what the Cardinal need to establish dominance up front on defense. — Chip Patterson
Troy Williams, transfer QB, Utah: Oregon’s Dakota Prukop could be a breakout candidate, but Williams could transform Utah’s offense. The juco transfer and one-time Washington Huskies quarterback has been voted captain in his eight months on campus, and he will bring stability to an offense that’s always trying to help out a dominating defense at Utah. Accuracy and ball security from Williams could mean a huge season for the Utes. — Barton Simmons, 247Sports director of recruiting
David Shaw, Stanford: Shaw’s willingness to open up the offense and let McCaffrey cook changed Stanford’s season. When the system wasn’t working, Shaw took the restrictor plates off and suddenly the Cardinal offense was no longer winning low-scoring possession battles but lighting up the scoreboard with 30-40 points per game. Kevin Hogan’s absence presents yet another interesting shift in the dynamic, but after watching the midseason turnaround in 2015, there’s nothing but confidence in Shaw’s ability to adapt. — Chip Patterson (In agreement: Dennis Dodd, Jon Solomon, Jerry Palm, Tom Fornelli, Robby Kalland)
Kyle Whittingham, Utah: I don’t know who’s going to win the Pac-12 South, but I feel confident in one thing: Utah is at least going to be in the conversation. That’s a tribute to coach Whittingham, who probably doesn’t get as many accolades nationally as he should. The Utes were one of college football’s hottest teams last season before “cooling” to a 10-3 finish. There are some key pieces that need to be replaced on offense — quarterback Travis Wilson and running back Devontae Booker chiefly among them — but a veteran defense makes this a tough team again for anyone on its schedule. — Ben Kercheval
Brady Hoke, defensive coordinator, Oregon: I’m going out on a limb here and predicting that Hoke has the biggest impact of any assistant in the Pac-12. Hoke rightly lost his job after failing to take Michigan to a higher level but that doesn’t mean he can’t coach. Hoke cut his teeth as a defensive assistant, and he’ll have to lean on those experiences to rejuvenate an Oregon defense that was horrid in 2015. With a unit that lacks star power, Hoke doesn’t have the most to work with, which means even a moderate improvement is enough to warrant recognition. — Ben Kercheval (In agreement: Tom Fornelli, Chip Patterson)
Tom Bradley, defensive coordinator, UCLA: No DC in the Pac-12 can match the credentials of Bradley, the architect of the great Penn State defenses of the first decade of the 2000s. He left coaching for a couple of years after not landing a head coaching job and went to the TV booth. Now he’s back and working with some pretty good talent, led by Vanderdoes. — Jerry Palm (In agreement: Dennis Dodd)
Pete Kwiatkowski, defensive coordinator, Washington: Oregon tried to hire Kwiatkowski, but the Huskies were able to keep him. Washington’s defense led the Pac-12 in scoring last season for the first time since 1991 and led the conference in fewest yards allowed. If the Huskies do that again, you’ll be hearing Kwiatkowski’s name soon for head coaching jobs. — Jon Solomon
Lance Anderson, defensive coordinator, Stanford: The Cardinal defense led by Anderson has yet to allow more than 22.6 points per game in the three seasons under his guidance. While McCaffrey and the offense get the most attention (for good reason, he’s fantastic), Stanford’s D has been great since Anderson took the reins and has been the driving force in their Pac-12 title run. — Robby Kalland
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford: If we’re talking strictly on-field performance, how can it be anyone other than McCaffrey? The Stanford running back not only does it all, he does it all well. He’s fast and shifty, but he still has some power to his running style. He’s a solid route runner and an electrifying return man. He enters the season in the Heisman Trophy conversation, but can he overcome Stanford’s second-place curse to take home college football’s highest individual honor? — Ben Kercheval (In agreement: Jerry Palm)
Adoree Jackson, DB/WR/KR, USC: I like players that aren’t only extremely athletic but can do multiple things. Jackson will be focusing on defense this year, but I still expect him to be used a bit on offense, and he can be special in the return game. He’s one of those players that you just stop to watch every time he has a football in his hands. — Tom Fornelli (In agreement: Robby Kalland)
Rich Rodriguez, coach, Arizona: Rodriguez isn’t afraid to speak his mind, and that’s refreshing in a button-up profession. RichRod became more guarded after he left home at West Virginia, through his struggles at Michigan. Less pressure at Arizona seems to have awakened Rodriguez’s humorous side publicly. — Jon Solomon
Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA: Uniquely gifted, acutely aware of his Hollywood potential and still living the life of a frat boy, Rosen is our first self-aware star in the social media era. While other college football players have caused drama with deleted tweets, Rosen enjoys stirring stuff up and offering some social commentary. As long as he’s not jeopardizing his ability to suit up and sling that bean on Saturdays, I’m here for all of it. — Chip Patterson
JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, USC: Already an All-American, the sky’s the limit for JJSS. He’s on record as saying he wants to be one of USC’s all-time great receivers. Smith-Schuster just might get there, especially if he starts the season torching Alabama. No matter what happens offensively this season for the Trojans, USC’s amazing receiver will be right in the middle of it. — Dennis Dodd
Source: CBS Sports / 2016 Pac-12 preseason superlatives and awards: Rating players and coaches