2017 Pac-12 North Preview

1. Washington Huskies– They really grabbed my attention after their dominating win against the Stanford Cardinal and then they would go on to win the Pac-12 North. They have another good shot at not only reclaiming the division title, but a potential repeat shot at the CFB Playoffs in 2017. Quarterback Jake Browning had a Heisman Trophy-esqe year in 2016. He threw for 3,430 yards and 43 touchdown passes and returns to lead the way for the Huskies next year. Running back Myles Gaskin is also back. There is no question that the offense will miss the big-play making ability of receiver John Ross. The offensive line remains intact. The defense will enter the year without Safety Budda Baker and cornerback Sidney Jones. However, the defense should get a boost from the return of linebacker Azeem Victor, who missed the rest of last season due to injury. Coach Chris Pedersen has this program headed in the right direction. It could be another fun year to be a Washington Huskies fan.

2. Stanford Cardinal– Right now, they could be the toughest team to really get a feel for not just in the division, but in the entire conference because there are so many question marks surrounding them. The quarterback spot is up in the air after Keller Chryst injured his knee in the Sun Bowl. Regardless of what quarterback starts, expect to see plenty of running back Bryce Love, the replacement for Christian McCaffrey. The defense has been a very consistent force under David Shaw for years and they will still be considered one of the best units in the country despite the departure of Solomon Thomas. The secondary will be the biggest strength of the Cardinal defense in 2017.

3. Oregon Ducks– They could be the most intriguing team entering the 2017 season. The Ducks hired Willie Taggert to be their new head coach and it was one of the best hires this offseason. He’s a player’s coach that everyone truly respects and I see this Oregon team getting back to being relevant once again. Let’s not forget this is a team that played for a national championship just two years ago. A bounce back into the top 25 is definitely obtainable for them. Justin Herbert is the favorite to win the starting quarterback job and running back Royce Freeman has decided to return for his senior season. After giving up 6.4 yards per play last year, there’s only one way for Oregon’s defense to go in 2017. And helping lead the way for improvement will be coordinator Jim Leavitt, who was hired by Taggart after turning around Colorado’s defense the last couple of seasons. Linebacker Troy Dye is a promising player for Leavitt to build around this spring.

4. Washington State Cougars– They ended the 2016 season on a sour note as they lost their final three games including a loss to the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the Holiday Bowl. As a new year approaches, Mike Leach can lead his team to a potential top 25 appearance. Quarterback Luke Falk passed on the NFL for one more season in Pullman, and the offensive line returns standout guard Cody O’Connell and tackle Cole Madison. The Cougars also return three running backs who rushed for at least 475 yards in 2016. The biggest question mark on offense is at receiver. Gabe Marks (89 catches) and River Cracraft (53) will be missed. Can Tavares Martin (64), Robert Lewis (33) and Isaiah Johnson-Mack (35) step up their performance to fill the void left behind by Marks and Cracraft?

5. Oregon State Beavers– The Beavers improved their win total by two games from 2015 to 2016. Coach Gary Andersen enters his third year in Corvallis with a team capable of pushing for a bowl bid. The biggest question mark on offense revolves around the quarterback position. Can junior college recruit Jake Luton beat Marcus McMaryion, Darell Garretson or Conor Blount for the starting job? Regardless of which quarterback starts, expect to see running back Ryan Nall (951 yards) increase his workload in 2017. Top receiver Victor Bolden (46 catches), and three key linemen – Dustin Stanton, Gavin Andrews and Sean Harlow – have also expired their eligibility. After giving up 37 points per game in 2015, the Beavers cut that total to 30.5 in 2016. However, it’s clear more improvement is needed for this team to hit six wins. Cornerback Treston Decoud and linebacker Caleb Saulo are the biggest losses for coordinator Kevin Clune.

6. California Golden Bears– A coaching change in January came as a surprise, as Sonny Dykes was dismissed after four seasons in Berkeley. While the move came late in the coaching carousel offseason, California deserves high marks for its hire of Justin Wilcox as the program’s new leader. The Oregon native worked as an assistant under Jeff Tedford from 2003-05 and also has stops as a defensive coordinator in the Pac-12 at Washington and USC. Wilcox also assembled a standout staff for his offense, headlined by former Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin. The top priority for Baldwin this spring will be to break in a new quarterback after Davis Webb expired his eligibility. Leading rusher Khalfani Muhammad (827 yards) also departs, but Baldwin has talented options in the backfield with the return of Tre Watson and Vic Enwere. Demetris Robertson and Melquise Stovall headline the receiving corps and must take on a bigger role after Chad Hansen (92 catches) left early for the NFL. Wilcox’s background should immediately help a defense that surrendered 42.6 points per game in 2016.

Prediction: The Washington Huskies will be victorious once again and win the Pac-12 North. The pieces are in place and as long as Jake Browning is under center, this team will have a chance to win each and every week. I also see Myles Gaskin having a big year out the backfield. Expect this team to be playing for another conference championship in December. With their defense getting Azeem Victor back on the field, they will have an immediate boost on that side of the football. It sometimes takes just one guy to make all the difference.