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2017 Pac-12 Football Preview: North Division

Ryan Mayer

College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we'll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, bowl teams, and rebuilding. The tiers are fairly self-explanatory. Contenders means these teams will push for the division/conference title. Bowl bidders are expected to be in the conversation for a bowl bid. Rebuilding teams are in the process of attempting to get into contention. At the end, we'll give you our thoughts on the team's wins based on Bovada's Win Totals for the season.

The Pac-12 North has given us both of the conference's participants in the College Football Playoff since its inception in 2014. Oregon, led by Marcus Mariota made the championship game in the first year of the playoff and Washington, led by Jake Browning made the playoff before falling in the semifinal to Alabama last year. This season, Washington will be back once more alongside a Stanford team that looks for revenge on the Huskies following last year's pasting in Seattle.


Quarterback Jake Browning #3 of the Washington Huskies. Credit: Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Washington Huskies

The Huskies were tabbed by many before the season as a dark horse to make the College Football Playoff and they did just that putting together a 12-2 season including a Pac-12 championship and losing to Alabama in the semifinals. This season, Chris Petersen's squad has 13 starters back from last year and once again is a contender in the Pac-12.

QB Jake Browning returns for his junior season after a 3,400+ yard season with 43 TDs and 9 INTs. He loses speedy top wide receiver John Ross, but has both Dante Pettis and slot receiver Chico McClatcher back. Junior tailback Myles Gaskin, fresh off a 1,300+ yard season also returns along with backup Lavon Coleman who posted 852 yards rushing in his own right. The offensive line loses a pir of starter in Jake Eldrenkamp and Shane Brostek, but the rest of the group is back. Last year, the Huskies were 8th in the nation in scoring at 41.8 PPG and with this group they should be similarly explosive.

On defense, the biggest losses are DT Elijah Qualls, LB Psalm Wooching, S Budda Baker, and CBs Sidney Jones and Kevin King. As you can tell, the secondary is hit hardest by the departures and will probably take a step back from last season when they were one of the better groups in the country allowing opponents to complete 57.2 percent of their passes while picking off 19 passes. The run defense on the other hand, should be just as strong with DTs Greg Gaines and Vita Vea returning alongside Connor O'Brien and backed up by the linebacker duo of Keishawn Bierria (70 tackles 2 sacks 3 TFL) and Azeem Victor. That said, it will be difficult to match the 17.7 points and 317 yards per game that they allowed last year.

The Huskies draw road games against Colorado and Stanford and get UCLA, Oregon, Utah and the all important Apple Cup against Washington State at home. With a soft out of conference slate, there's a decent chance of the Huskies pushing for an undefeated mark, and at the least, they should be in double-digit win territory. The 10 win number doesn't leave much room for error, but I like the Huskies enough to take the over. Over 10 wins.

Bryce Love #20 of the Stanford Cardinal. Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Stanford Cardinal

David Shaw's group didn't get much production from the QB spot last year and they still racked up 10 wins. This season, both Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst are more experienced and, hopefully healthy. With 16 guys back from last year, this is a veteran group and should once again be in the hunt for the North title.

Along with Chryst and Burns returning, redshirt freshman KJ Costello is in the mix at QB. Whoever wins the starting job does have to deal with the loss of all-around threat Christian McCaffrey, who is now with the Carolina Panthers. No. 2 back Bryce Love returns and he will now get the lion share of the carries. Due to the inconsistent QB play, the wide receivers weren't particularly effective last year, but both Trenton Irwin and JJ Arcega-Whiteside return and should have better numbers with better health at the QB spot. The offensive line loses just one starter and the Cardinal have had a consistently dominant running game under David Shaw; with this veteran group I'd expect more of the same.

On defense, they do lose star DE Solomon Thomas, but most of the rest of the group is back. Shaw likes to rotate in fresh linebackers as much as possible and that unit will be deep once again this year. The secondary loses only safety Dallas Lloyd after allowing opponents to complete just 54.7% of their passes last year. Under Shaw, the defense has never allowed more than 22.6 PPG, and this season should be no different.

The schedule isn't exactly kind to the Cardinal as they face both San Diego State (away) and Notre Dame (home) in the out of conference slate. Then, in conference, they have USC and Utah on the road, with UCLA, Oregon and Washington at home. Over 8.5 wins.

Bowl Teams

Royce Freeman #21 of the Oregon Ducks. Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Oregon Ducks

The Ducks had a disastrous 4-8 season in 2016 in which they were one of the worst defenses in the country. Mark Helfrich was let go and Willie Taggart was brought in from USF to replace him. Taggart will have a veteran group at his disposal and his system should fit the talent nicely.

Sophomore QB Justin Herbert saw plenty of playing time last season after replacing Dakota Prukop as the starter. He started the final seven games and is the leader for the job heading into this season, but there's always the chance with a new coach that a change could be made and true freshman Braxton Burmeister is a Taggart recruit who could be in the mix. The rest of the offense returns basically intact. Top rusher Royce Freeman, both top receivers (Darren Carrington & Charles Nelson) and four of five starters on the offensive line return. Taggart's system made a star out of Marlon Mack at USF and Freeman should see a similar statistical leap this season. The Ducks put up a very respectable 35.4 PPG last year, but it was the first time in the last seven years that they averaged under 40 points. This year they should see a return to form.

Jim Leavitt has a large task ahead of him in taking over the defense this season. The Ducks allowed 41.4 points and 518 yards per game last season. This year, they switch to a 3-4 and have nine guys back from last year's group. Sophomore LB Troy Dye led the team in tackles (91), sacks (6.5), and tackles for loss (6.5) as a true freshman last year and should continue to develop in his second year. Another true freshman, CB Brenden Schooler, was the No. 3 tackler on the team last year (74) and leads a secondary that brings back everybody. Even with the transition to a new system, the more experienced D should improve on last year's numbers.

The Ducks have to face both of their division foes in Stanford and Washington on the road, which is why I didn't bump them up to the contender category. The Ducks could very well win eight games and that's what I expect. Push 8 wins.

Quarterback Luke Falk #4 of the Washington State Cougars. Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Washington State Cougars

Mike Leach has led the Cougars to 9-4 and 8-5 records in the past two years with a pair of bowl appearances. This season, they have their prolific passer back and nine starters back from a defense that was solid last season. The Cougars could threaten some of the top teams and they will almost certainly be making another bowl appearance.

Luke Falk is back for his senior season and is poised to become the program's all-time leading passer within the first game or two (416 yards away). Last season, he completed 70 percent of his passes for over 4,000 yards and despite the loss of two of his top three receivers, I'd expect similar numbers this season. The main reason for that is that all three of last year's top rushers are back as are three starters along the offensive line. Last year, the running game was an effective change of pace averaging 120 yards per game, the highest since Leach came to the school six years ago. Last season's averages of 38.2 PPG and 483.7 YPG are well within reach.

The defense last season was the best of the Leach era, allowing opponents just 26.4 points and 406 yards per game. They were solid against the run, but struggled in rushing the passer with just 19 sacks. This season, they return three of four starters along the defensive line and should get a better rush from a more experienced group. With MLB Peyton Plueller and all four secondary members back, the second two levels of the defense are looking rock solid as well and the numbers could get even better.

The Cougars draw Boise State in the out of conference, with home games against USC, Colorado, and Stanford in conference play. The hit the road to face Oregon, Utah and the rival Huskies. Overall, this veteran laden roster should be very competitive with the top teams and at the least, they beat the over. Over 7.5 wins.

Non-Bowl Teams

Running back Ryan Nall #34 of the Oregon State Beavers. Credit: Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Oregon State Beavers

The Beavers improved last year in Gary Andersen's second year from 2-10 in 2015 to 4-8 last season. They still haven't found a starting QB, but they could see another improvement in the win total this year.

Last year, the Beavers used three different QBs with the main two being Utah State transfer Darrell Garretson and Marcus McMaryion. Freshman walk-on Conor Blount saw time as well, and all three are back this year along with JuCo transfer Jake Luton. If Andersen can find a QB who can be consistent, the rest of the offense is prepared to help. The top two running backs (Ryan Nall and Artavis Pierce) return as do three of the top four receivers. The offensive line takes a hit with just two returning starters, so the running game (192 YPG last year) may take a step back. Still, the veteran backs in Nall and Pierce will likely be heavily relied upon until the QB is comfortable in the offense. Last year, they averaged just 26.2 PPG. This season, that number should go up.

The defense cut nearly a touchdown off its PPG allowed last season going from 37 in 2015 to 30.5 last year. The majority of last year's group is back and another improvement could be coming. They lose a pair of secondary members in Treston Decoud and Devin Chappell, which could lead to a drop in their pass defense, which last season allowed just 56.7 percent of passes to be completed. That said, the return of most of the defensive line and LB corps should help the run defense improve.

Road games in conference are against Washington State, USC and Oregon, while they get Washington, Colorado, and Stanford at home. That's six games that they will likely be underdogs in. If they pull an upset in one of those games, they hit the over easily. If not, they have to go 6-0 in their other six games. I see them coming up just short. Under 5.5 wins.


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California Golden Bears

Former coach Sonny Dykes was rumored to be looking around at other jobs after an 8-5 season in 2015. He instead signed an extension with Cal and then proceeded to go 5-7 last year, which led to his firing. Wisconsin DC Justin Wilcox takes over and he's got a rebuilding project ahead of him.

The QB spot is up in the air following the departure of Davis Webb, who had a very good season last year. This season, sophomore Ross Bowers, junior Chase Forrest, redshirt freshman Victor Viramontes, and true freshman Chase Garbers will battle for the job. Top rusher Khalfani Muhammad also departs, but No. rusher Tre Watson (709 yards 4 TDs) is back. Three starters are gone from the offensive line and top receiver Chad Hansen also departs. The receiver group should be fine with Demetris Robertson and Melquise Stovall returning, but the inexperience at QB and along the offensive line likely puts a dent in last year's 37.1 PPG.

New DC Tim DeRuyter has a challenge on his hands as he looks to improve a defense that was one of the worst in FBS last season at stopping the run (273 YPG, 127th) and stopping opponents from scoring (42.6 PPG, 127th). There are eight guys back from that unit, which should be cause for improvement, but they're also transitioning to a 3-4 which can be tricky when the personnel wasn't recruited for that system. It seems impossible that the Bears defense could be worse than it was last year, so there's likely to be an uptick here, and with Wilcox in charge, there will be.

The Bears do face a tough schedule as they start off with 10 straight games before their bye. They open on the road against UNC, before drawing Weber State and a troubled Ole Miss program at home. Then it's into conference play where USC comes to Berkeley but the Bears have to hit the road for games against Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Stanford and UCLA. It's looking like a long year for the Bears. Under 3.5 wins.

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