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Could 2016 be a Down Year for the Pac-12?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Pac-12 was left out of the second College Football Playoff. The Pac-12 finished a disappointing 6-4 in bowl games (including only a 2-4 record against Power 5 opponents). Only three Pac-12 teams finished ranked: No. 3 Stanford, No. 17 Utah, and No. 19 Oregon. All the Way Too Early Top 25s for 2016 also are not high on the Pac-12 or the chances of the Pac-12 champion making the College Football Playoff. Why does this matter since all the Way Too Early polls are usually not reflective of the final poll of the season? Well, it shed some light on conference perception. Most of the Way Too Early Top 25 polls have at least five Pac-12 teams in their rankings, and the list is far from definitive. Stanford, USC, Oregon, UCLA, and Washington appear in most if not all of the polls I have seen. Teams like Washington State and Utah all appear in some as well. No poll has a Pac-12 team in the top 5, and most have the top Pac-12 team (Stanford) outside the top 10. What this says is that most people think the Pac-12 will be deep and does not feature an elite team. Expect the Pac-12 to beat up on itself in 2016. Why do people feel this way about the Pac-12, and what does all this mean for Utah?

Coaching turnover

It is true that only one Pac-12 team changed head coaches this offseason (USC). There was however much turnover at the coordinator positions. Oregon and USC are replacing both coordinators. Arizona (DC), Arizona State (OC), Oregon State (DC), UCLA (OC), and Utah (DC) are all replacing one coordinator. Utah stayed in-house and promoted longtime assistant Morgan Scalley to the defensive coordinator position. USC also hired a familiar name, former defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who worked wonders with the Trojans in 2013 under former head coach Lane Kiffin. Oregon is switching to a 4-3 defense under new defensive coordinator and former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke. UCLA will be switching to more of a pro-style attack with tight ends and fullbacks under new offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu.

Loss of star players

The Pac-12's most heralded player from 2015, Stanford's Christian McCaffrey, will be back for another season on the Farm. After McCaffrey however, not many of the Pac-12's top players from 2015 will be back. 15 of the 29 players to make the first-team All-Pac-12 roster are gone. The biggest departures may be coming from the most important position on the field: quarterback. Seven Pac-12 teams will be breaking in a new starting quarterback. The Pac-12 loses players like Cal's Jared Goff, Stanford's Kevin Hogan, Oregon's Vernon Adams, USC's Cody Kessler, Arizona State's Mike Bercovici, Utah's Travis Wilson, and Oregon State's Nick Mitchell are all gone. Washington State quarterback Luke Falk is back, along with Arizona's Anu Solomon, Colorado's Sefo Liufau, UCLA's Josh Rosen, and Washington's Jake Browning. The two first-team All-Pac-12 running backs, McCaffrey and Oregon's Royce Freeman, are both back next year, but both of the second-team backs, Utah's Devontae Booker and UCLA's Paul Perkins, are both off to the NFL. The biggest name at wide receiver in the Pac-12, USC's JuJu Smith-Schuster, is back, but Cal's Kenny Lawler (first-team), Colorado's Nelson Spruce (second-team), and Oregon's Bralon Addison (second-team) are all gone. Both All-Pac-12 tight ends, Stanford's Austin Hooper (first-team) and UCLA's Thomas Duarte (second-team) are gone as well. Only USC's Zach Banner returns from the first-team All-Pac-12 offensive line. The biggest loss is Stanford guard Joshua Garnett, who won the 2015 Outland Trophy.

The Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year DeForest Buckner (Oregon DL) is gone. Other first-team All-Pac-12 defenders like Su'a Cravens (USC LB), Kenny Clark (UCLA DL), Blake Martinez (Stanford LB), Gionni Paul (Utah LB), Aziz Shittu (Stanford DL) and Antwaun Woods (USC DL) are also gone. The defensive front sevens are particularly taking a beating, with only two All-Pac-12 members returning: Utah defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei (first-team) and UCLA linebacker Deon Hollins (second-team). Players like Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright III (who won basically every award a linebacker can win in 2014) and UCLA linebacker Myles Jack (a former first-team All-Pac-12 selection) are both gone after spending much of 2015 sidelined with injuries. The top players from the secondary are almost all back and will face an inexperienced crop of Pac-12 quarterbacks.

With all of the talent drain on both sides of the ball, new names will have to emerge. Falk, Rosen, and Browning will likely grab most of the offseason headlines about West Coast quarterbacks and rightfully so, but there are several newcomers to watch, namely Oregon's Dakota Prukop (the transfer from Montana State), Utah's Troy Williams (the former Washington quarterback), and USC's Max Browne (the former five-star recruit). New names will need to carry the torch at tight end, along the offense and defensive lines, and at linebacker for the Pac-12 in 2016.

How will 2016 play out?

2014 saw the start of the Pac-12 After Dark slogan due to many crazy finishes happening late at night. 2016 could experience more of this craziness. It would not shock me to see the Pac-12 miss the College Football Playoff again in 2016 due to the conference cannibalizing itself. There is a good chance that each division champion could have more than one conference loss in 2016.

Stanford, the Pac-12's top in 2015, is the early favorite again in 2016, but the Cardinal are losing a lot of talent, including Hogan, Garnett, Martinez, Shittu, offensive tackle Kyle Murphy, and safety Kodi Whitfield. Hogan was a four-year starter and truly commanded the Stanford offense, making key adjustments before the play and delivering clutch throws.

Oregon struggled defensively to stop teams and loses talented defenders like Buckner, linebacker Joe Walker, and linebacker Rodney Hardrick. The Ducks will also be switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 base defense. In spring, the quarterback battle proved tighter than most thought between Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop and Travis Jonsen. The Ducks showed last season how important having a quality quarterback is for their offense (this was perfectly illustrated in the Alamo Bowl when they had Vernon Adams Jr. in the first half and did not in the second half and overtime). Even with all of the talent Oregon has at the offensive skill positions, they need a quality quarterback if they want to challenge for a Pac-12 title in 2016. Replacing both coordinators will likely include some growing pains for the Ducks as well.

Utah loses their starting quarterback, backup quarterback, starting running back, three key wide receivers, starting center, two defensive line starters, all three starting linebackers, and starting strong safety. As is usually the case, the Utah defense should reload (especially with players like first-team All-Pac-12 defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei and first-team All-Pac-12 safety Marcus Williams returning). It is the offense however that will need to progress if Utah wants to move up in the Pac-12. As we touched on here, Utah may be relying heavily on JUCO transfers in 2016. The Utes could have the best offensive line in the Pac-12 in 2016, especially if offensive tackle Garett Bolles lives up to the hype. The Utes return four starters, including second-team All-Pac-12 offensive tackle J.J. Dielman and All-Pac-12 honorable mention guard Isaac Asiata. Utah rotated offensive linemen in 2015, so there are six players with extensive playing experience along the offensive line. The only departed offensive lineman from 2015 is center Siaosi Aiono. Aiono missed time in both 2014 and 2015, allowing backup Hiva Lutui to gain meaningful reps.

USC is the early favorite to repeat as Pac-12 South champions. The Trojans lose most of their starting front seven on defense, but there is talent for Pendergast to work with. Three-year starter at quarterback Cody Kessler is gone as well. The new quarterback will have talent around him with Banner and others returning on the offensive line, Smith-Schuster to throw to, and a stable of talented running backs to hand the ball off to, including I believe a star in the making, Ronald Jones. Things have not gone as planned so far for new head coach Clay Helton. He is 0-2 since removing interim from his title, falling to Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship game and Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl. If you think things will get easier for Helton in 2016, you would be wrong. The Trojans open 2016 against defending national champions the Alabama Crimson Tide in Texas. USC also has September games at Stanford and at Utah.

Another question mark in 2016: the Washington State Cougars. Was 2015's 9-4 record a one-hit wonder or a sign of things to come? WSU returns the best quarterback in the conference (Falk) and one of the best wide receivers (Gabe Marks). They made huge strides defensively in 2015, but can they sustain that success under second-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch? The Cougars are losing a lot up front defensively, including second-team All-Pac-12 DE Darryl Paulo, second-team All-Pac-12 DT Destiny Vaeao, DE Ivan McLennan, and LB Jeremiah Allison. First-team All-Pac-12 offensive tackle Joe Dahl and guard Gunnar Eklund are also gone.

The hot name early this preseason is the Washington Huskies. Many did not think UW would make a bowl in 2015. The team was young and players like Danny Shelton, Shaq Thompson, Marcus Peters, and Hau'oli Kikaha were all in the NFL. UW was starting a true freshman at both quarterback (Jake Browning) and running back (Myles Gaskin). Browning steadily improved at quarterback and Myles Gaskin became a force as the season progressed at running back. UW had the best defense in the Pac-12 in 2015, even after losing four players in the first two rounds of the 2015 NFL Draft. Much of that defense is back in 2016, including first-team All-Pac-12 safety Budda Baker and first-team All-Pac-12 cornerback Sidney Jones. The offense will be a year older and returns four starting offensive linemen. UW is a team to watch in 2016 and could very likely start and finish the season ranked.