Pac-12 football preview: USC, Washington the favorites
LOS ANGELES - The Pac-12 divisional races will be short on drama if preseason projections actually translate into regular-season results on the West Coast.
Washington and USC are major favorites to earn a showdown in the conference title game in Santa Clara in December, and both are considered national title contenders.
In a conference crowded with untested young teams and perennial powers in search of bounce-back seasons, the Huskies and Trojans are built around talented starting quarterbacks who have already shown the mettle to win big games. Defending Pac-12 winner Washington made the College Football Playoff while USC won the Rose Bowl last season, and large portions of those championship teams are back in uniform this fall.
Washington is coming off its best season in a quarter-century. Quarterback Jake Browning led the Huskies to an 8-1 record in Pac-12 play last year, but coach Chris Petersen isn't assuming his Huskies are guaranteed a spot atop the North.
“I don't think you reload,” Petersen said. “That's not our mentality at all. At all. We rebuild. That's just the mindset. We're not even kind of the same team we were last year. So that's always our process. We start from ground zero. We take nothing for granted.”
The Huskies' only regular-season loss came at home to USC and quarterback Sam Darnold , who led the Trojans to nine consecutive victories to end the season. USC returns with its usual array of NFL-bound playmakers, but coach Clay Helton isn't taking anything for granted, either.
Helton said he opened his training camp with a brief reminiscence about the epic Rose Bowl triumph over Penn State.
“But then I asked the next question: ‘Are you satisfied?'?” Helton said. “And to a man, not one hand rose. Because we understand what USC is about. It's about winning Pac-12 titles, and it's about winning national championships. And the fact of the matter is we did not accomplish that. That's always our goal and always our expectation.”
The rest of the league is fighting to catch up to the preseason favorites.
The Colorado Buffaloes are out to prove their rapid ascent wasn't a fluke. Stanford and Oregon are eager to chase Washington for the top spot they shared for years, while Washington State and UCLA could prove to be threats with their own standout quarterbacks.
North: Washington. Nobody is betting against Petersen's machine yet, but the Cardinal and Ducks have the rosters to make it interesting if the Huskies have the injury problems they avoided last season.
South: USC. The Trojans' usual stratospheric expectations aside, they're the only program in the division without serious rebuilding questions. Utah is perennially solid, while Colorado has ample motivation.
Luke Falk, QB, Washington State. The Cougars' big-armed passer needs 27 touchdown passes to match the conference record set in 2012 by USC's Matt Barkley. There's little doubt he'll get them in Mike Leach's high-octane offense.
Ryan Nall, RB Oregon State. The Beavers don't get much national attention, but the speedy tailback is primed for a breakout year.
Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA. The touted passer missed half of his sophomore season with injuries. With Jedd Fisch becoming his third offensive coordinator in three years, he could swiftly return his NFL draft stock to its former heights.
Lowell Lotulelei, DT, Utah. Star Lotulelei's 320-pound little brother is the heir to the Utes' tradition of vaunted defensive line play.
Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon. The star returned for another season, and the Ducks are a prime candidate for a quick rebound.
Iman Marshall, CB, USC. The junior better known as “Biggie” is the latest in the Trojans' lineage of big-hitting defensive backs.
Willie Taggart moves back to the West Coast to take on the third rebuilding project of his head coaching career at Oregon, where Mark Helfrich was fired two years after reaching the national title game. He pulled Jim Leavitt away from Colorado as defensive coordinator. Justin Wilcox got a slightly late start to his first head coaching job at Cal, which has one winning season since 2011. Wilcox hired former Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin as his offensive coordinator.
ON THE HOT SEAT
Both schools in the Grand Canyon State are at crossroads. Arizona's Rich Rodriguez finished last in the South with his first losing record after five years in charge, while Arizona State's Todd Graham is coming off two straight losing seasons. Jim Mora's seat has no real heat at UCLA, but the Bruins want a bounce-back year as well.