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by jeffallen

Last year, after four games, USC HC Clay Helton sat at 1-3 and looking at the heart of his Pac-12 schedule. Helton switched QBs to an unknown freshman named Sam Darnold and the rest, as they say, is history. The Trojans ran off eight straight wins including knocking Washington from the ranks of the unbeaten. The damage had already been done so there was no Pac-12 championship game but USC did beat an equally white hot Penn State in the Rose Bowl and was generally considered the best if not the most dangerous team in college football at the end of 2016.

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The Trojans will have their chance again in 2017 with Darnold now a sophomore and a solid core nucleus of returning starters. USC will be a prohibitive favorite to win the South but will still have to deal with a challenging non conference schedule that includes Western Michigan, Texas, and of course Notre Dame. Utah will be the main threat out the South with the Utes now employing a more wide open run and gun offense behind the usual smash mouth defense. UCLA was decimated by injuries last year but supremely talented quarterback Josh Rosen will have the Bruins in the mix. Colorado will be good but a notch below last year’s break out squad. Both Arizona teams are also works in progress and will battle each other to avoid the Pac-12 basement.

Washington is loaded again and if the Huskies can take care of their own business, are almost a lock to run the table and cruise into the Pac-12 Championship game a perfect 12-0. Washington misses USC on the regular season and any revenge match up with the Trojans would come in the title game. The North is by far the more competitive of the two divisions with Stanford, Oregon and Washington State all capable of turning the tables on UWub. Stanford starts the year in Australia and has a brutal first four games that include USC, San Diego State, and UCLA. Oregon hired Willie Taggert away from South Florida to get the Quack Attack going. Mike Leach has won 17 games the last two years at Wazzou and returns gunslinger Luke Falk. Oregon State and Cal will both be rebuilding and don’t figure to contend in the top heavy North.

The PAC-12 South

1st: USC The Trojans will know if they are National Championship contenders by the 1st of October as they have tough home games against Texas and Stanford and then face Washington State on the road for a short week national television match up at Washington State. If USC can get through the gauntlet in one piece, the Trojan have only a home date with Utah as a roadblock to a title game showdown with Washington.

2: Utah The Utes will have a new look in 2017 and will be throwing the ball around in a new wide open offense. Cooper Bateman has won the job and will not have the luxury of stud RB Joe Williams (1400+) to hand off to. The solid group of wide out return to throw to but the Utes will still need to rely on their pressure run stopping defense to keep them in games.

3: UCLA The Bruins were devastated by injuries last year and crashed and

burned to a 4-8 season. Josh Rosen figures to be one of the top three quarterbacks taken in next year’s NFL draft but will need to stay healthy if UCLA is to enjoy and success in 2017. A tough non conference schedule of Texas A&M and Memphis plus conference road games at Stanford, Washington, Utah and USC will be tough to overcome.

4: Colorado The Buffalo’s were major overachievers last year and will be hard pressed to match last year’s 10 wins. Most of the offense returns intact and last year’s backup QB (this year’s starter) Steven Montez benefited from seeing significant action filling in for injured Sef Liufau. The Buffs are very inexperienced on defense where they return just three starters, not a good thing vs. an offensively gifted Pac-12.

5: Arizona State: After winning 28 games in his first three years at Tempe, B2B losing years have Todd Graham’s butt firmly in the hot seat. The Sun Devils will be exciting in scoring a lot of points and giving up a lot of points. In the end, it will all come down to an Arizona State defense that gave up 147 points in the final five games of 2016.

6: Arizona: Rich Rodriguez would be long gone if it were not for his $9 million dollar buyout and the Cats out-of nowhere demolition of Arizona State in the season finally. In fairness, Arizona was decimated by injuries but the players that were hurt were not very good, to begin with.

Last year’s 3-9 Wildcats were decimated with injuries but the program has been in a state of decline for years. The school is stuck with Rich Rodriguez another year as he makes so much that it would be pointless to buy him out or replace him. The Cats do figure to be improved and miss both Washington and Stanford out of the West. Zona should be improved and certainly more competitive.

The PAC-12 North

1: Washington The Huskies are once again set for a run at the Pac-12 title and spot in the FBS playoffs. Washington actually has no excuse if it takes acre of its own business and the only two real obstacles are a game at Stanford and the conference championship game where they would likely face USC in a revenge game. The non conference schedule is laughable so anything less than double-digits wins would be a failure for this team.

2: Stanford This is the year that The Tree and HC David Shaw find out what life is like without Christian McCaffrey. The prolific TB has moved on to the Carolina Panthers but eight offensive and eight defensive starters return. Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns split time last year with Chryst looking to have won the job this year. Stanford has double-digits wins in six of the last seven years but will have to overcome a tough road schedule in 2017 to get that this year.

3: Oregon The Ducks come off a rare 4-8 season and were able to pry away Willie Taggert from South Florida to jump start the Quack Attack. Taggert did an amazing job at South Florida and immediately made an impression by kicking Oregon’s best returning starting wide out off the team. Sixteen returning starters are back in Eugene and Taggert should be able to restore order pretty quickly.

4: Washington State Mike Leach doesn’t like reporters and might just have a little mad scientist in him but he wins. Leach has won 17 games the last two year with several upsets and with 17 returning starters including cannon armed Luke Falk (44 TD passes), the Cougars might just be the hunted this year rather than the hunter. Wazzou has a bad habit of slow starts that usually includes a loss to a FCS team and then a bad non conference loss. An early win over Boise State would go a long way in curing that.

5: Oregon State The Beavers have done a nice job rebuilding in two years under Gary Andersen. State went win less in Pac-12 play Andersen’s rookie year but won two games last year including an upset of Oregon. A tough non conference schedule and with the first five conference games coming at Washington State, Washington, at USC, Colorado, and Stanford has the Beavers finishing below .500 and missing a bowl fifth straight year.

6: California For the Bears, it was a Jekyll and Hyde type year in Berkley as Cal upset Texas in Week III, dropped a decision to Arizona State and then upset Utah at home six straight losses followed before an upset of UCLA in the school’s finale. Sonny Dykes was fired and Justin Wilcox inherits a team that has potential with eight back on defense that is now run by a former DC at Wisconsin. It will take a couple of years for the Bears to get the talent levels up enough to be competitive in the Pac-12.