is our preview of 2016 Pac-12 action, broken into the two divisions. Straight-up, pointspread, over/under marks and bowl results from the 2015 season are included with each team, presented in predicted order of finish. We begin with Senior Editor Chuck Sippl's preview of the North before analyzing the South half of the loop in our next installment--Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

                                                                     by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

STANFORD (SUR 12-2; PSR 10-4; O/U 8-6. Defeated Iowa 45-16 in the Rose Bowl)...Is Stanford more like USC these days than USC? Perhaps so, as the Cardinal have won three of the last four Pac-12 titles and have gone to the Rose Bowl in three of the last four years, winning two of the three trips. Also, Stanford boasts the top RB force in the league in stat-sheet stuffer Christian McCaffrey, who helped the team power for a robust 5.1 ypc. What’s more, the Cardinal have had 24 players drafted into the NFL in the last five years, more than any other Pac-12 team. That’s the type of stuff that used to be associated with Southern Cal when USC was the dominant team of the conference in the John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll eras.

Not so much anymore, with the overall champion of the league coming from the North in all five years (Stanford three crowns; Oregon two) since the conference expanded from the Pac-10 to the Pac-12 in 2011 and split into divisions. The Cardinal have much to prove this season, having said farewell to modestly-talented but clutch-performing QB Kevin Hogan, the team’s signal caller for the last 3½ seasons. The offense will also be missing its top LT, LG, C and TE, three of those in NFL camps.


However, when you ask HC David Shaw (who has had plenty of feelers from the NFL over the year) if he’s overly concerned, you don’t get much of a rise. That’s because Stanford’s recruiting has been elevated to a USC-like level that is described by one assistant as “these days we pick and choose.” In other words, Shaw and staff have recruited and planned for filling the holes left by 6-7 LT Kyle Murphy (to Green Bay), mashing 320-pound LG Joshua Garnett (49ers), two-year center Graham Shuler (has moved on from football), and TE Austin Hooper (Falcons).

However, with Stanford breaking in a new starting QB, the new left side of the line will need to jell quickly. Even the best QBs usually need a little time to get in tune with their teammates. But early work from The Farm indicates that either of 6-5, 237 redshirt soph Keller Chryst (5 of 9 as LY’s backup) or 6-5, 233 redshirt jr. Ryan Burns (six career appearances) is ready to assume the starting QB mantle. Both have strong arms, with Burns the better runner, which might prove useful early. Chryst is the son of son of long-time NFL offensive assistant Geep Chryst and the nephew of Wisconsin HC Paul Chryst. Plus, on the way is blue-chip true freshman K.J. Costello.

Stanford’s offensive emphasis early will be on the team’s outstanding corps of RBs, led by quadruple-threat Christian McCaffrey, who destroyed the respected Iowa defense in last January’s Rose Bowl. Much like Liam Neeson’s character in the Taken movie franchise, McCaffrey (a record 3,864 all-purpose yards LY) “has a very particular set of skills” that allows him to ruin opposing teams. All told last season, the 6-0, 202 dynamo rushed for 2019 yards and 8 TDs, caught 45 passes for 5 TDs, hit 2 of 3 passes thrown for 2 TDs, returned 37 kickoffs for 29 yards a pop and 1 TD, and took back 15 punts for 8.7 apiece and 1 TD. He could have easily scored more often on the ground than he did, but Shaw usually gave the red-zone, short-yardage duties to designated dog-pile back Remound Wright (only 239 YR, and but 13 TDR LY) in order to save wear-and-tear on his star.

Wright is now gone, but 6-1, 216 blue-chip redshirt freshman RB Cameron Scarlett is ready to move up to handle the straight-ahead, smashmouth stuff. Meanwhile, 5-10, 180 soph speedster Bryce Love (7.8 ypc LY) will give plenty of relief to McCaffrey (437 touches LY), as Shaw has been very careful not to over-expose his do-everything star. WRs Michael Rector and Trenton Irwin (48 combined recs.) bring speed to a receiving corps that was often bolstered LY when McCaffrey shifted into a slot position, creating an immediate mismatch.

The Stanford defense (22.6 ypc, 4.3 ypc, 34 sacks, only 8 ints.) doesn’t expect to slip much, and it might even be better than LY by the end of the season. 6-3, 275 DE Solomon Thomas (3½ sacks, 10½ TFL LY) has reportedly improved further and displayed freakish athleticism in spring. 6-7, 294 sr. DE Luke Kaumatule is a proven force. If former starting NT Harrison Phillips can return okay from LY’s season-opening ACL, the Stanford 3-4 should be formidable once again, with more depth expected in this year’s rotations up front. Pac-12 top tackler Blake Martinez has moved on to the Packers, but 6-3, 245 sr. OLB Peter Kalambayi (4½ sacks) is back to lead a deep LB group.

The secondary—a weakness for much of 2015—is now expected to be a Cardinal strength, thanks to the “arrival” LY of 6-2 jr. cover corner Alijah Hobler and 6-2 soph CB/nickel-back Quenton Meeks, who was forced into action early as a true freshman, but who collected three ints. and was an impact player by season’s end. Senior Zach Hoofpauir, a safety with a nose for the ball who did not play in 2015 while pursuing a baseball career, has decided to return for his final year of football eligibility.

Kicker Conrad Ukropina, a fifth-year sr. who hit 18 of 20 FGs LY (including a clutch last-second game-winner vs. Notre Dame), is back and might prove extra valuable in 2016, as the young Cardinal QBs are unlikely to lead as many drives for six-pointers as did the greatly-experienced Hogan last year.

Summary...Stanford takes a streak of 13 straight games having scored 30 or more points into this season. That’s the longest in the nation. But the skein might not last long, given the Cardinal’s inexperience at QB and the team’s extra-tough first six games (vs. K-State, vs. USC, at UCLA, at Washington, vs. Washington State, at Notre Dame). The rugged Pac-12 road also includes stops at Arizona, Oregon, and Cal. Should the wonderful, multi-gifted McCaffrey become injured, the pressure on the rest of the offense could grow exponentially. The Nov. 12 visit to Eugene might end up being the decider in the North. Even so, duplicating last year’s lofty 12 victories figures to be very difficult.

OREGON (SUR 9-4; PSR 7-6; O/U 9-4. Lost 47-41 to TCU in triple OT in Alamo Bowl)...Changes are in the offing this year in Eugene. Yes, the Ducks will still flood the field with offensive speed and talent, as has been the case for much of the last decade. But there will be a new look to the Oregon defense, which often has been the team’s Achilles heel in several recent big games. With something closer to an airtight defense, the Ducks might have been flying even higher in recent college title games, bowl games, and key contests in the Pac-12 North (which Oregon has won two times, but Stanford three times in the last five years).

Taking the challenge of putting the bite back into the Oregon defense and reviving his coaching career is former Ball State, San Diego State, and Michigan head man Brady Hoke, who is taking over as defensive coordinator of the Webfoots, with plenty of new concepts in mind. When Hoke assumed command at Michigan in 2011, he took over a 2010 defense that had finished 108th in scoring, giving up 35.2 ppg. Yes, Hoke had his problems developing the Wolverine offense. But when he left Ann Arbor after the 2014 season, he handed over a staunch defensive platoon that was 7th in total defense at 311 ypg and 27th in scoring defense at 22.4 ppg.

After UO gave up 37.5 ppg last season, including six episodes of 42 or more points, any similar such improvement by the Duck defense would be greatly appreciated. And 2016 seems like a good time to make the switch, as Oregon has said good-by to three senior starters in its defensive front (including major impact DE DeForest Buckner, top pick of the 49ers) and all four starting LBs. Although last year’s defense collected 39 sacks and 22 takeaways, it also gave up 485 ypg, 4.7 ypc, and 42% third-down conversions. Indeed, Oregon’s warp-speed tempo on offense often exposes its defensive unit by providing little in the form of Lombardi-style ball-control. But the Ducks’ defensive numbers last year were unsatisfactory for any major contender.

Hoke intends to shake things up by changing from Oregon’s familiar 3-4 scheme to an aggressive 4-3 hybrid. With the front seven rebuilding anyway after graduation, Hoke in spring moved at least five LBs to the front four, which has been instructed to play a penetrating, up-the-field, pressuring style, with mostly one-gap responsibility Although the unit was still in a state of flux after spring, 6-5, 285 jr. Henry Mondeaux (4½ sacks LY; big upside) seems to be headed for a starting DT spot, while 6-6 soph former OLB Justin Hollins seems a natural for one of the new DE jobs. And rest assured Hoke will find a place for 6-7, 295 soph Canton Kaumatule. Sr. LB Torrodney Prevot (48 Ts and 2½ sacks LY) will like anchor the new LB crew.

Last year, the Duck secondary was laden with youth and was the biggest concern going into the season. And then it was torched early and often, especially during Oregon’s 3-3 start, which included a 62-20 loss to Utah and a 45-38 OT setback to Washington State, both at UO’s Autzen Stadium fortress. (Starting QB Vernon Adams played briefly in the first of those two and missed all of the second due to a finger fracture). Now, however, that secondary unit returns four starters, including jr. S Tyree Robinson (64 Ts, 3 ints.) and jr. CBs Arrion Springs and Chris Seisay. Recruiting hauls have brought in plenty of speedy DBs in recent years. Last year’s shuffling and agony should bear fruit in terms of more experience and tighter coverage this year.

There’s also a new coordinator on offense, as Scott Frost is now the head coach at UCF. But the big-play Oregon spread should look mostly the same, as QB coach Matt Lubick has been promoted to take over. The big question on offense surrounds the starting QB spot following the one-year tour of Eastern Washington import Vernon Adams. Once Adams’ finger injury healed LY, he sparked the Ducks to 6-1 finish, the only loss coming in triple OT to TCU in the Alamo Bowl, where Adams had led Oregon to a 28-0 lead before being knocked out of the game late in the first half.

Oregon has a different FCS graduate QB TY in 6-2 Dakota Prukop from Montana State, where he had 28 TDP vs. 10 ints. while rushing for 797 yards and 11 TDs LY. Prukop is more of a dual threat than was Adams, and Prukop enrolled early to take part in spring practice. But there was a surprise when Prukop got there, as 6-3 redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen, a dual-threat type sidelined by injuries LY, exhibited a knack for making big plays in spring. Competition to the No. 1 job will resume in August, but look for both to play.

The OL must fill in at three spots, with jr. T Tyler Crosby ticketed for a move from the right side of last year to the left in 2016. But when it comes to the RB and WR spots, HC Mark Helfrich has lined up a cast that is the equal of virtually any spread team in the country. 5-11, 230 A-A RB Royce Freeman does the heavy lifting at in the backfield, bursting for 1836 YR and 6.5 ypc LY. And there’s a battle for carries behind him between gifted Taj Griffin (364, 7.0), Kani Benoit (364, 7.0) and Tony Brooks-James (288, 9.0). All told, UO ran for 280 ypg and 5.9 ypc in putting up LY’s 43 ppg.

The talent runs just as deep at WR, where 6-2 jr. Darren Carrington (32 recs., 19 ypr) and 6-5 sr. Dwayne Stanford (30 recs. and 5 TDs LY) are well established. However, electric 6-1 true freshman Dillon Mitchell shone brightly in spring. And sprinter Devon Allen (41 recs., 7 TDs in 2014) hopes to return to form after a 2015 beset by injuries. 5-8 jr. Charles Nelson (17 recs. LY) is expected to be kept on offense this season after also contributing 47 Ts and 2 ints. in 2014 to help the struggling secondary. 2015 TE Johnny Mundt returns, as does 2014 TE Pharaoh Brown, who had already collected six TDC before suffering a major leg injury half way through the season, with the injury nearly resulting in amputation and costing him all of 2015.

Topping off the offensive arsenal is jr. PKAidan Schneider, who converted all 67 PATs and hit 22 of 24 FG tries LY, including 6 of 6 of 40 or more yards.

Summary...With team inexperience at starting QB, the Ducks figure to have a few hiccups early. But their deep talent will flow through in opening games vs. UC Davis and Virginia. The ensuing test at Nebraska (vs. former Oregon State coach Mile Riley) might be a different matter. By the time the Pac-12 schedule rolls around, we’ll find out for sure whether Hoke’s “demanding, old-school, drill sergeant-esque type of characteristics” (Helfrich’s words) on defense will be making a difference. Count on the Duck defense to be much more stubborn and for back-to-back November games at USC and vs. Stanford to decide whether Oregon dethrones Stanford as the North’s king of the hill.

It must be mentioned again...the Ducks have won and covered 12 straight games vs. Pacific Northwest rival Washington.

WASHINGTON (SUR 7-6; PSR 8-5; O/U 5-8. Defeated Southern Miss 44-31 in the Dallas Bowl)...Could this be the year? Oregon, Washington’s bitter northwest rival to its south, has defeated the Huskies 12 straight times. And it usually hasn’t been close, with the Ducks covering all of those meetings with a cumulative score of 507-202! Needless to say, Washington is unlikely to win the Pac-12 North and advance to the conference title game until it can upend Oregon.

2015 appeared as if it might be the year, as the Ducks were visiting Seattle last year after being ripped for 641 yards in 45-38 double-OT loss in Eugene to Washington State. Moreover, projected Oregon QB star Vernon Adams had missed virtually all of the previous four games with a finger fracture. Even Las Vegas oddsmakers and the betting public believed the streak was in trouble, as the Ducks were 2½-point underdogs at Husky Stadium. Sure enough, Adams returned to action and passed for 272 yards and two TDs in a wire-to-wire 26-20 Oregon victory.

Now, with proven winner Chris Petersen beginning his third year as coach and with U-Dub set at the QB spot, plus the guts of a veteran, proven defense (tops in the Pac-12 and total defense and points against LY), the Huskies have bad intentions when it comes to the Ducks. While UO goes into August with a lack of clarity at QB, such is not the case at U-Dub, with quick-study 6-2 soph Jake Browning at the reigns of the Husky attack, which produced 30.6 ppg LY.

Browning, as a true freshman, quickly took over the UW offense last season, completing 63.3% for 2955 yards and 16 TDs, with only 10 ints. and giving every impression he is one of the top young QBs in league. Browning got surprising help from 5-9 scatback Myles Gaskin, who quickly established himself as one of the best in the Pac-12, becoming the first Washington freshman to run for 1000 yards, accumulating 1302 along with a frosh record 14 rush TDs. He’ll get power support TY from 5-11, 220 jr. Lavon Coleman and perhaps from 5-7 blue-chip true freshman Sean McGrew, a product of Petersen’s improved recruiting.

UW also received some good news in the spring at WR, where jr. speedster John Ross appeared to be substantially recovered from last spring’s knee re-injury, which caused him to miss all of 2015. Two years ago—as a WR, KR and part-time DB—Ross struck for six TDs of 55 or more yards. He is the big-play element of the attack, and his varied talents figure to fit in nicely with Petersen’s penchant for using players in multiple positions for competitive advantage. Also back is soph WR Dante Pettis, third on the team LY with 30 receptions.

The Huskies’ OL was mostly in rebuilding mode last year, but now returns three solid starters, including 6-8, 306 soph LT Trey Adams and sr. LG Jake Eldrenkamp. Sophs Darrell Daniels and Drew Semple are returning TEs now versed in Petersen’s fast-paced offense.

It is U-Dub’s proven defense that could make a big difference TY in a league that might have as many as eight teams breaking in new starting QBs. When including their frequently-used nickel-back (jr., Darren Gardenhire; 2 ints. LY), the Huskies return 9 of 12 starters. The secondary, so burnable a couple years ago that it had to carry fire extinguishers, now returns 4 of 5, including NFL prospects CB Sidney Jones (4 ints. LY) and S Budda Baker (2 ints.). Still-growing DTs jr. Elijah Qualls (321 pounds; 4½ sacks LY) & soph Greg Gaines (318) control matters up front, while jr. Keishawn Bierria (77 Ts, 3½ sacks) and sr. Azeem Victor (95 Ts, 9 TFL) lead an aggressive and seasoned LB group that also boasts some depth. That unit helped the UW defense allow only 3.3 ypc LY while collecting 34 sacks and 15 picks. With a favorable non-conference schedule and with less QB experience in TY’s Pac-12, it’s no surprise if the Huskies’ defensive numbers improve.

Sr. PK Cameron Van Winkle (16 of 20 FGs LY) is back, but HC Petersen hopes 2016's more-experienced offense will produce more TD drives than 2015's.

Summary...Petersen’s brand of team discipline, attention to detail, and quick-hitting offense—which was so highly productive at Boise State—began to pay dividends in Seattle last year. Now, the Washington program is catching up to that of Oregon on several dimensions, including speed and explosiveness. And, this year’s schedule (opening games vs. Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State...all at UW) lends itself to a fast start. But there are major hurdles on Sept. 30 and Oct. 8, when the Huskies must play Pac-12 North powers Stanford (in Seattle) and Oregon (in Eugene) back to back. Washington must at least split in that pair in order to remain in the running for the Pac-12 title game during the closing weeks of the season.

WASHINGTON STATE (SUR 9-4; PSR 10-3; O/U 5-8. Defeated Miami-Fla. 20-14 in the Sun Bowl)...Improved Washington State was one of the pointspread wonders of 2015, going 10-3 vs. the spread, with eight straight covers at one point. The pass-happy Cougars were 6-1 when getting points, failing to cover as an underdog only in their 45-10 shellacking at rival Washington. WSU was an impressive 6-1 vs. the spread away from home, including high-quality upsets at Oregon and UCLA.

Now, more is expected of the Cougars, especially with four of Wazzu’s six rivals in the Pac-12 North breaking in new starting QBs. WSU certainly is not, as stringy 6-4 Luke Falk was fifth in the nation in passing yards with 4566. Moreover, a solid core of the offense returns, including 3 of 5 starting OLmen, the Cougars’ top three RBs (led by 6-0, 226 jr. Gerard Wicks), and seven proven WRs, led by 6-0 sr. Gabe Marks, who was one of the best in the nation with 104 recs. for 1192 yards and 14 scores.

HC Mike Leach, beginning his fifth year in Pullman and with an extension through 2020, believes each of his four WR positions must be at least two deep. That’s because of the constant route-running and because most teams defend the dangerous Leach Air Raid by playing deep enough to cut off the long throws, then having their DBs and LBs close quickly on the underneath passes, pounding the receivers, while seeking overthrows, interceptions, tipped passes, and fumbles in order to slow or stop the onslaught of the throws of Falk (38 TDP, only 8 ints.) and the counter runs of Wicks (610 YR LY, 5.7 ypc) and backup Jammal Morrow (347 YR, 6.5 ypc).

Although a major proponent of attacking nearly exclusively through the air for three decades, there is no doubt that Leach has observed during the last couple of years how some spread teams (e.g., Baylor, Oregon, Oklahoma, Clemson, etc.) have capitalized on spread-out defenses that have been utilizing extra DBs by striking with quick, straight-ahead runs. The development of RBs Wicks and Morrow gives WSU the chance to do more damage on the ground TY.

But make no mistake, balance is not a great concern for Leach and his shotgun spread. The Cougars had 5059 YP last season; only 1046 YR. WSU had 41 TDs through the air; only 8 TDs on the ground. Leach gives lots of freedom to his QBs when they are performing well. And Falk, who has done a good job of protecting the ball, will have lots of flexibility in the offense this season.

And Cougars’ lack of balance occurs elsewhere, as well. Leach’s potent offense was No. 1 in passing (390 ypg) LY and No. 25 in total offense (470 ypg), but a relatively inefficient 49th in scoring (31.5 ppg) and 127th and last in rushing offense (80.1 ypg). The Cougars gave up 41 sacks (only four teams gave up more) and were -1 in TO margin, thanks largely to Falk’s noted care with the ball.

Defense was a different animal for Washington State last year, as the Cougars gave up 27.7 ppg, were 92nd vs. the run, and yielded 44.5% on third down (106th). Four of the team’s top five sack men from last year have graduated, taking 22½ of the defense’s 33 sacks of 2015 with them. Six starters from that hustling, but sometimes overwhelmed, defensive unit return—one in the front three, two of the four LBs, and three of the four DBs.

Still, observers of spring ball in the Palouse say this year’s defense—and the team overall—is bigger and stronger than recent Cougar squads. As one of the more remote outposts in the conference, Washington State usually has to scramble for quality Pac-12-caliber recruits, often having to settle for smaller and sometimes slower athletes. That’s why Leach and previous WSU coaches have tried to redshirt the vast majority of their incoming players. Leach’s program in that regard is now paying some dividends, and the administration has been helpful in improving the athletic facilties in Pullman.

So there is reasonable hope that 2016's defense will show improvement. NTs Robert Barber & Daniel Ekuale both have size and experience. 6-4 soph DE Hercules Mata’afa racked up 7 sacks as a freshman. Returning LBs jr. Peyton Pelluer (101) and sr. Parker Henry (71) combined for 172 Ts LY, but still need to add some muscle. Not so for 6-2, 239 new starter Frankie Luvu, who provides valuable size.

Sr. S Shalom Luani recorded four ints. LY, and jr. CB Marcellus Pipkins 3. But the secondary overall needs to add strength and make more big plays if Wazzu is to make a solid run at a spot in the title game in a league that annually features dozens of offensive shootouts.

Summary...Leach clearly has his program on track, with less talk this offseason about pirates (a Leach “hobby”) and less public criticism of his team (sometimes a Leach habit). As long as the WSU’s OL can keep slender QB Luke Falk upright, the Cougar offense will continue to be a threat in every game. This year’s key contest against physical Stanford is on the road. But Wazzu will host fellow North challengers Oregon and Washington in the Palouse. Keep a close watch on the Cougars if the still-developing defense starts showing improvement!

CALIFORNIA (SUR 8-5; PSR 6-7; O/U 5-8. Defeated Air Force 55-36 in the Armed Forces Bowl)...Who will be the next gunslingling QB for Cal? That was the burning question in Berkeley going into spring ball after the Bears proudly watched three-year starting QB Jared Goff be selected first overall in this spring’s NFL draft. Goff has been the passer for all three of Sonny Dykes’ seasons in Berkeley, with 2015 being their only winning campaign. It seemed highly unlikely that the next man tabbed to run Dykes’ “Bear Raid” spread passing game would be able to duplicate Goff’s outstanding 43/13 TD int./ratio of last season. Over his three years, Goff had 96 TDs vs. only 30 interceptions.

Then the Bears received what could be a big break after spring practice, when 6-5 Texas Tech graduate QB Davis Webb announced in May he would be enrolling at Cal after previously giving strong indications that Colorado would be his landing spot. Webb, a starter for most of two seasons in Lubbock, was coming off a shoulder injury in the 2014 season and lost his starting gig to the bright talents of Patrick Mahomes in 2015. Over parts of three seasons, Webb passed for 5557 yards and 46 TDs vs. 22 interceptions. Despite his considerable experience, Webb did not participate in spring practice and will still have to win the starting job in August.

Leading the field coming out of spring was 6-2 redshirt soph Chase Forrest, who was 10 of 18 in brief relief work last season. Forrest is from Orange County athletic powerhouse Mater Dei High (Heisman Trophy winners John Huarte & Matt Leinart, and also recent QB stars Colt Brennan of Hawaii and Matt Barkley of USC). His top challenger in spring was 6-2 redshirt freshman Ross Bowers, a four-star recruit who has now been through two springs. Also available are 6-2 early enrollee true freshman Max Gilliam, who tossed 91 TDs in his last two years in high school, and 6-2 sr. Zach Kline, who shone brightly in the spring “game.” Even without Webb in tow, Dykes said he was pleased by his QBs’ performances in spring.

Meanwhile, it seems as if Goff took all of the Bears’ best receivers with him. And, in a way, he did, as last year’s top five WRs at Cal will all be vying for jobs in NFL camps this fall! The top returning wideout is 6-2 jr. Chad Hansen, who had only 19 recs. and one TD last season. So Dykes must rebuild his receiving corps in terms of both starters and backups. 5-9 early enrollee Melquise Stovall repeatedly flashed speed and big-play potential in spring, while blue-chip freshman Demetris Robertson arrives in fall. 6-3, 230 sr. Raymond Hudson (10 recs. LY) will fill the big receiver/TE role. However, QB/WR rapport in Dykes’ many option passing routes will take time to develop regardless of who is the starting QB.

Therefore, Dykes’ will likely be counting upon the Bears’ OL and ground game more than usual in the team’s early games. And Cal appears to have the “horses” in that respect. The OL returns 4 of 5 starters, including 6-8, 350 jr. human roadblock LT Aaron Cochran.

The returning RB corps is deep, talented, and experienced, led by 6-1, 235 sr. Vic Enwere (505 YR and 4.8 ypc LY; 8 TDR), who was a chiseled, nearly unstoppable force in spring. Also getting plenty of carries will be 5-9 big-play sr. Khalfani Muhammad (6 ypc in his 3 years). Plus, there’s jr. Tre Watson (504 yards LY, 5.7 ypc). Of course, without the threat of Goff and the nation’s third-ranked passing attack (376 ypg), the going figures to be a little tougher on the ground this season.

Last year, the Bears were No. 17 in scoring with 37.9 ppg, producing 493 total points. But those numbers might be a bit deceptive, as 73 came in the opener vs. defenseless Grambling, 54 vs. troubled Oregon State, and another 55 in the team’s bowl victory vs. overmatched Air Force. In the team’s ten other games, Cal’s output was a more modest 31.3 ppg, and in those other ten contests the Bears allowed 32.5 ppg. Seven times UC gave up 30 or more.

That is not a good sign for the rebuilding Bear defense, which lost top tackler Hardy Nickerson, Jr. (112 Ts) after spring when Nickerson decided to transfer to Illinois, where his father—former Cal and NFL star Hardy Sr.—is the defensive coordinator under new Illini HC Lovie Smith. That means the Bears will have a new starting trio at LB for a run defense that ranked 105th nationally last season and gave up 4.8 ypc.

Cal also is seeking to develop new DEs after losing top pass rushers Kyle Kragen (7 sacks) and Todd Barr (4) to graduation. On the plus side, DTs James Looney, Tony Mekari, and Marcus Manley (the trio had only three combined sacks LY) should provide a decent interior rotation. Three of five (counting nickel-back Cameron Walker) return to the starting secondary. Walker, S Damariay Drew, and S Luke Rubenzer each had two ints. LY and offer prospects for improved coverage in 2016. Rubenzer began his career as a change-of-pace QB two years ago and briefly was among the many early contenders to replace Goff. But when spring revealed enough QB talent on hand, it became clear that Rubenzer (43 Ts in the secondary) would see more action this season and be more valuable on defense.

Summary...Dykes, from his days as an assistant at Texas Tech and Arizona and then as a HC at La Tech and Cal, has always demonstrated a creative offensive mind. Defense has not been his strength in either recruiting or teaching. But he’s going to need defense more than ever in 2016 with much of his talented receiving corps gone and a new starting QB on the way. The 2016 schedule is not exactly friendly. The opener vs. Hawaii is in Sydney, Australia! Then three straight games (San Diego State, Texas, Arizona State) that are all looking to avenge losses to the Bears LY. There is also a Friday home game against Oregon (which totaled 777 yards against Cal last year), followed by a Thursday-night, short-week road game at USC. Then four straight contests against Pac-12 contenders Washington, Washington State, Stanford and UCLA. That’s a very tough row to hoe for any team, especially one that was only 1-4 as a dog LY.

OREGON STATE (SUR 2-10; PSR 3-9; O/U 6-6)...Oregon State is seeking to recover from its worst season in 20 years. The 2015 Beavers defeated only Weber State and San Jose State. They dropped all nine of their Pac-12 games, and have now lost 11 straight in conference play, becoming the whipping boy of the Pac-12 North. In their first season under former Utah State and Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen, the team’s offensive statistics were terrible. With long-time starting QB Sean Marrion having moved on to the NFL, the OSU offense—piloted at the outset by true freshman run/pass type Seth Collins—plummeted to 115th in the nation in scoring (only 19.5 ppg), 115th in passing, and 120th in pass efficiency offense (only seven teams were worse. In these days of 70% passers and 700-yard games of offense, Oregon State completed only 47% of its throws and had only 10 TD passes for the entire season!

With little help from its nearly-impotent attack, the defense frequently caved. The Beavers were 114th against the rush, 98th against the pass, and allowed 26 TDP while collecting only 17 sacks and a way-too-few 8 interceptions. But perhaps the most telling statistic of all was depicted by the scoreboard. OSU trailed by an aggregated of 117-38 after the first quarter, and 286-101 at the half. Over the last two seasons, the Beavers are 7-17 SU and 5-19 vs. the spread!

Things seemed to get even worse after the season when top two QBs Seth Collins (started the first six games) and Nick Mitchell transferred. More on that in a moment.

But, happily for the always-hopeful Beaver Nation, the bad juju in Corvallis appears to be relenting just a bit. That’s because work in the spring seemed to offer the promise of a much improved attack in 2016. First of all, QB Darell Garretson, a junior with considerable starting experience at Utah State, is now due to come on line after sitting his transfer season LY. And he should have plenty of support from a maturing OSU offense. Andersen, at both Utah State and Wisconsin, has tended to favor a physical ground attack with ball-control passing. The ground punch is expected to be provided by RB Ryan Nall (455 YR, 6.2 ypc LY), a 6-2, 235 soph power guy with just enough make-you-miss in his style. 5-11 soph Paul Lucas (171 YR, 7.8 ypc), also a receiver, is among those who will provide a RB change of pace. Three of five return on an OL that is expected to be improved...if seasoned sr. LT Sean Harlow (off two surgeries) is fully recovered from an ankle injury that ended his season last October.

QB Garretson (6-0, 196) is not the biggest, nor does he have the strongest arm. But he knows how to run a Utah State-type ball-control offense (18 TDP, 10 ints. in 2013-14 when filling in for the injured Chuckie Keeton), and he inherits an useful, experienced set of receivers. Among the most formidable are 6-5, 232 power WR Jordan Villamin (43 recs., 5 TDs LY), while promising 6-4, 237 soph H-back Noah Togiai (10 LY) was a star of the spring game. RB Nall, WR Villamin, and H-back/TE Togiai represent the essence of Andersen’s new physicality on the attack.

WR speed will be proved by 5-9 sr. WR Victor Bolden (46 recs. LY), 5-11 jr. Hunter Jarmon (16 recs.), and perhaps even by LY’s option QB, Seth Collins. He has had second thoughts about transferring to Northern Illinois for a chance to play QB and plans to begin his soph year as a WR and “slash-man” in Corvallis, where his sister is a member of the track team.

2015 fellow Beaver QB Mitchell will not be back, having moved on to Division II Dixie State. Providing depth behind Garretson TY will be 6-1 soph QB Marcus McMaryion (403 YP LY), 6-3 true freshman early enrollee Mason Moran, and incoming juco Daniel Prieto. All told, however, the QB situation in Corvallis ranks behind most of the Pac-12.

The defense will have a new coordinator after up-and-coming Kalani Sitake left to assume command at BYU following the unexpected departure of Bronco Mendenhall to Virginia. Taking over will be Kevin Clune, who has worked on and off with Andersen in stops at Utah, Southern Utah, and Utah State. Clune will be getting lots of help in OSU’s stunting 3-4 from the team’s DL coach, who will be Andersen himself! With the Beaver front three rebuilding and with most of the team’s big defenders very young, Andersen has assumed the burden of guiding and developing the Beaver defensive linemen.

There is more experience at the LB and DB spots, even though top tackler and top OLB Rommel Mageo (87 Ts, 2 sacks, 2 ints. LY) has taken his talents to Ole Miss for the final year of his eligibility. But undersized jr. DE Titus Failauga (29 Ts LY at DE) is now a burly 6-3, 248 OLB. Two other LB starters in Caleb Saulo (69 Ts) and Manase Hungalu (43) return.

With three of four starters back from LY’s secondary, plus nickel-back Devin Chappell, Andersen is hoping that improved pass-rush pressure from his 2016 front seven will help produce more takeaways this season. Sr. CB Treston Decoud, with his useful 6-3, 210 frame, will be expected to make more impact vs. Pac-12 passers after collecting 50 tackles, but no ints. LY.

Summary...Unless Garretson or one of the other QBs becomes an immediate sensation, victories will still be few in Corvallis. But with Andersen directly involved with the defense TY, and with the offense more experienced, the Beavers will be a “tougher out.” A bowl still seems highly unlikely. But the first one-third of the conference schedule (at Colorado, vs. Cal, vs. Utah) offers opportunities, as those teams concluded spring with their own QB issues.


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