Pac-12 North Preview: Can Washington Build On Last Year’s Success?

Last season, the Pac-12 North proved to be one of the best divisions in all of College Football. This development was largely due to Washington’s emergence as a potential power within the sport.

Heading into the upcoming year, the Huskies appear primed to yet again be the class of the division. With that said, there are a few teams chomping at the heels of Chris Petersen’s squad.

California


There’s no other way to say it: Cal is in the midst of a rebuilding project.

The defensive-minded Justin Wilcox takes over a program which had been utterly allergic to the defensive side of the football over the last four seasons. Last year, the Golden Bears finished No. 125 in total defense – good for the fourth-worst mark in all of Division 1 (ahead of only Oregon, Arizona State, and Texas Tech).

Former head coach Sonny Dykes had a penchant for inexplicably loading up on receivers and running backs as opposed to defensive players. There are some very good skill players (Tre Watson, Demetris Robertson, Melquise Stovall), but both lines remain major question marks. Though the new staff is loaded with experience, it’ll need some time in order to recruit and build this team into a physically-bigger squad.

Cal also has to determine whether it’ll be Ross Bowers or Chase Forrest settling into the quarterback spot. To make matters worse, Cal’s schedule is absolutely brutal. The Golden Bears begin the season on the road versus North Carolina. A cupcake versus Weber State will come next, followed by a ridiculously tough five-game chunk (Ole Miss, Southern Cal, at Oregon, at Washington, Washington State). The last two games are also on the road – against in-state rivals Stanford and UCLA. With the lack of experience and defensive prowess, this will be a very arduous year for those in Berkeley.

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Oregon


The Willie Taggart regime has taken over in Eugene. When compared to former head coach Mark Helfrich, one can expect the Ducks to place far more importance on the defensive side of the ball. Oregon was atrocious last season – finishing as one of the nation’s worst defenses.

Taggart’s main priority throughout the last recruiting cycle included signing dudes with speed. He also targeted the state of Florida – signing seven players from the region. It will take some time for his staff to incorporate their “feel” into place. With that said, there’s still a boatload of talent he’s inheriting on the roster. Royce Freeman figures to be the best running back in the Pac-12. Charles Nelson is a handful on the perimeter – as is Tony Brooks-James.

Defensively, the unit will be enhanced by Clemson graduate transfer Scott Pagano. Rising sophomore LB Troy Dye figures to be an All-Conference selection as well. Oregon will be hosting Nebraska during the second week of the season – followed by a contest at Wyoming. While this game doesn’t appear to be very difficult on the surface, the Cowboys feature arguably the best NFL QB prospect in Josh Allen. The rest of the schedule isn’t easy – as the Ducks have road games against Stanford, UCLA, and Washington.

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Oregon State


Gary Andersen inherited a team lacking in both depth and playable talent. While he’s made strides as it pertains to recruiting (particularly in the state of Florida), the Beavs are likely one year away from contending for a bowl appearance.

Oregon State can point to a very deep backfield – featuring last year’s leading rusher Ryan Nall , TCU transfer Trevorris Johnson, and former Oregon running back Thomas Tyner. The Beavs will have to figure out who will be behind center – whether it’s last year’s starter Darell Garretson or Idaho transfer Jake Luton. Defensively, OSU ranked No. 79 nationally in total defense – allowing nearly 429.2 yards per contest.

This number will have to improve if the team is to surprise in a loaded North Division. Oregon State will begin the season on the road versus Colorado State – followed by a non-conference contest against Minnesota. The team then faces a tough consecutive three-game stretch when it travels to Washington State, followed by a home affair with Washington and then a road game in Los Angeles versus Southern Cal.

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Stanford


Though Stanford returns 16 starters from last year’s 10-3 team, there are some huge holes to fill. Christian McCaffrey left for the NFL – leaving a gaping absence in the backfield. Yes, Bryce Love is a speedster with good ability…but he’s not McCaffrey. Drafted No. 8 Overall in this year’s NFL Draft, McCaffrey was the unquestioned straw that stirred the proverbial drink for the Cardinal. Not only did he run the football and catch passes out of the backfield, but he was also lethal in the return game. Stanford relied very heavily on his services.

Additionally, projected starting quarterback Keller Chryst suffered a serious knee injury during the Sun Bowl victory over UNC. His availability for the start of fall camp is up in the air. Lastly, the team has to replace 14.0 tackles-for-loss and 8.5 sacks in the way of Solomon Thomas. The all-everything defensive lineman was drafted No. 2 Overall by the San Francisco 49ers this past April. It wouldn’t be a shock to see Stanford end up anywhere from No. 2-4 in the North.

It will largely depend on how the offense develops. Fortunately for David Shaw’s team, it’ll get Notre Dame, Oregon, Washington, and UCLA all at home.

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Washington


We knew Washington was going to be good, but we didn’t know they’d be so good so quickly. The Huskies were a year ahead of schedule in 2016 — going 12-2 and making an appearance versus Alabama in the College Football Playoff. Petersen’s fingerprints are all over this program. He’s recruited players with both versatility and aggression. Per his reputation at Boise State, he’s also helped to develop these athletes into surefire NFL prospects.

Washington returns the dynamic QB-RB combination of Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin. Both figure to be shoe-ins (barring injury) for All-Conference honors. Browning will have a deep collection of skill players to utilize on the perimeter (most notably Dante Pettis and Chico McClatcher).

Defensively, the projected starting lineup is huge. Middle linebacker Azeem Victor is one of the best players in the conference — regardless of position. Defensive tackle Vita Vae — a 6’5″, 344-pound monster — is exceptionally gifted. Simply put, all of the ingredients are there for Washington to make another great run in 2017.

From a schedule standpoint, it’s very manageable. The Huskies miss out on having to play USC during the regular season. Aside from a road contest at Stanford, the supposed-tougher games on the slate (UCLA, Washington State, Oregon, Utah) will all be played at home in Seattle.

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Washington State


The Cougs were the surprise of the conference last season. Mike Leach engineered an 8-5 season – which included a second-place finish (7-2) in the vaunted North Division.

While Leach’s offenses have been pegged as explosive and fast-paced (rightfully so), it’s his defensive unit making the biggest strides. Washington State has made an ardent effort in recruiting Polynesian players. Duly, it targets recruits with a bit of an edge and aggression to them. Defensive end Hercules Mata’afa is a perfect example of this premise.

The defensive end out of Hawaii led the team ago in sacks with 13.5. Offensively, quarterback Luke Falk returned for his senior season. He will undoubtedly be one of the nation’s best at his position – considering he’s coming off of a year in which he threw for 4,468 yards and 38 touchdowns (with a 70.0 completion percentage). Everything is set up for another nice season on the Palouse. Falk will be buoyed by an experienced crop of skill players (Jamal Morrow, Robert Lewis, Kyle Sweet) and a very good offensive line led by All-America candidate Cody O’Connell.

The schedule is also favorable – with home games versus USC, Boise State, and Stanford. The toughest stretch will occur at the end of the season, with the last two contest both on the road against Utah and then in the Apple Cup against hated rival Washington.

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Projected Order Of Finish

1. Washington

2. Washington State

3. Stanford

4. Oregon

5. Oregon State

6. Cal

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