Pac-12 is deep, but may again lack na­tional power

The league is stocked with good teams and should be com­pet­i­tive, but doesn’t ap­pear to have a team ca­pa­ble of mak­ing the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off.

The Daily Herald - - SPORTS - By Chris­tian Caple

Look­ing only at the smaller pic­ture, this sets up as a potentially ban­ner year for com­pe­ti­tion in the Pac-12, par­tic­u­larly in the North di­vi­sion.

Stan­ford is the de­fend­ing cham­pion and pre­sea­son fa­vorite. Wash­ing­ton is on the rise. Wash­ing­ton State won nine games last sea­son and re­turns its of­fen­sive stars. Ore­gon, de­fen­sive flaws be damned, is still Ore­gon. And it should be fun to watch UCLA, USC and Utah bat­tle for the South di­vi­sion ti­tle.

Which brings us to the big­ger pic­ture. Which doesn’t seem to bode quite as well for the Pac-12.

The league is stocked with de­cent to bet­ter-than-de­cent teams, the kind that could fin­ish the sea­son ranked in the top 25 and play com­pet­i­tive foot­ball against ev­ery team on the sched­ule. In fact, a le­git­i­mate ar­gu­ment could be made for Stan­ford, UW, WSU and Ore­gon as a po­ten­tial North di­vi­sion champ, which is not some­thing that could have been said in any year since the con­fer­ence ex­panded to 12 teams.

But in this era of the four-team Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off, it ap­pears the Pac-12 might again lack a dom­i­nant, pow­er­house pro­gram ca­pa­ble of run­ning the ta­ble — or fin­ish­ing with only one loss — and for that rea­son might again get shut out of the CFP.

It hap­pened last year be­cause Stan­ford, the Pac-12 cham­pion, lost its sea­son opener at North­west­ern and needed to be per­fect af­ter that to have a shot at play­ing in the CFP. But the Car­di­nal lost at home to a qual­ity Ore­gon team, fin­ished No. 6 in the fi­nal CFP rank­ings, and set­tled for a 45-16 past­ing of North­west­ern in the Rose Bowl and a 12-2 fi­nal record.

Stan­ford’s sched­ule ap­pears far more dif­fi­cult this sea­son. It opens against Kansas State, then hosts 20th-ranked USC, then trav­els to 16th-ranked UCLA — the me­dia’s pick to win the Pac-12 South — then trav­els to No. 14 Wash­ing­ton be­fore host­ing Wash­ing­ton State and trav­el­ing to No. 10 Notre Dame.

So if the Car­di­nal re­ally is a play­off-cal­iber team, it won’t take long for that truth to emerge. Stan­ford coach David Shaw said in July at Pac-12 me­dia days that he views his team as be­ing “in flux” due to the loss of play­ers like quar­ter­back Kevin Ho­gan and star line­backer Blake Martinez, and, in stan­dard coach fashion, balked at the idea of Stan­ford as the fa­vorite.

“You take it with a grain of salt,” Stan­ford coach David Shaw said of pre­sea­son ex­pec­ta­tions. “It’s a sign of re­spect, and I think it has a lot to do with the guy that’s in the back left cor­ner of the build­ing there in (2015 Heis­man run­ner-up) Chris­tian McCaf­frey. Once we start prac­tic­ing, once we start play­ing games, all that stuff goes away.”

UCLA might ac­tu­ally have an eas­ier road to the CFP. The Bru­ins open at Texas A&M and play at Brigham Young, but three of their four most dif­fi­cult Pac-12 games — against Stan­ford, Utah and USC — are at home, with Wash­ing­ton State the only daunt­ing road chal­lenge. And they don’t have to play Ore­gon or Wash­ing­ton.

The Bru­ins are also com­ing off an 8-5 fin­ish in 2015 and a loss to Ne­braska in the Fos­ter Farms Bowl af­ter be­ing picked to place sec­ond in the South last sea­son.

“We’re very ex­cited about our op­por­tu­ni­ties this year,” UCLA coach Jim L. Mora said. “We look for­ward to an ex­cit­ing sea­son in a very dif­fi­cult con­fer­ence. We un­der­stand the chal­lenges that face us. We’re com­ing off a sea­son that was, in our es­ti­ma­tion, a lit­tle bit dis­ap­point­ing to us, es­pe­cially the way that it ended, and we’d like to make amends for that.”

MARK J. TERRILL / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS Stan­ford run­ning back Chris­tian McCaf­frey (left) runs past Iowa de­fen­sive back Jor­dan Lo­max dur­ing the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 in Pasadena, Calif. McCaf­frey and the Car­di­nal have a dif­fi­cult sched­ule this sea­son.

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