Pac-12 must meet challenges big, and small, to get a team back to the College Football Playoff

Pac-12 Conference preview
Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey ran away from Iowa defenders in the Rose Bowl, but will he run away with the Heisman Trophy?
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Pac-12 Conference Commissioner Larry Scott recently ticked off a list of national powers, including Alabama, Texas A&M and Notre Dame, as evidence that his conference constituents would take on all comers in an effort to get back into the College Football Playoff.

Sometimes it’s Northwestern that you need to worry about.

A season-opening loss to the unranked Wildcats probably cost Stanford a spot in the four-team playoff last season despite being the Pac-12 champion.

It’s an excellent reminder to every Pac-12 team making refundable reservations in Glendale, Ariz. — site of one national semifinal on Dec. 31 — that title aspirations are every bit as much on the line in Provo, Utah (where UCLA plays Brigham Young on Sept. 17) as they are in Arlington, Texas (where USC meets Alabama on Sept. 3).


One early misstep and a playoff contender like Stanford might be out of luck long before facing Notre Dame in mid-October.

Here’s a look at how the Pac-12 might shake out now that California has already said “G’day!” to the season with its opening win over Hawaii on Friday in Sydney:

Top story lines

♦ Will a new champion emerge?


The Pac-12 hasn’t exactly been a variety show in recent years.

The conference champions have been stuck on repeat since 2009, with the list of title winners going Oregon-Oregon-Oregon-Stanford-Stanford-Oregon-Stanford. The media expects the monotony to continue because it picked Stanford to win the conference this season — the first time the media tapped the Cardinal to prevail in the 56-year history of the conference preseason poll.

Maybe there’s a reason distrust of the media seems to be at an all-time high. Stanford and Oregon enter the season with quarterback quandaries and the Ducks lost their top tackler and sack leader from a defense that surrendered 37.5 points per game last season.

Those issues could provide an opening for challengers UCLA, Washington and USC to break through.

♦ Is there any justice for Christian McCaffrey?

Anyone who watched the Rose Bowl remembers the fan in the Stanford hat shouting “Heisman!” five times in two minutes during McCaffrey’s on-field television interview after the game.

He wasn’t being repetitive so much as stating (and re-stating) the obvious: McCaffrey should have won the award instead of being relegated to runner-up, a point underlined when his 368 all-purpose yards in the Rose Bowl led the Cardinal to a resounding 45-16 victory over Iowa.


McCaffrey can run, catch, throw — he completed two passes last season, both for touchdowns — and return kicks unlike anyone else in college football. The only skill left to master is winning votes.

♦ Will Josh Rosen embarrass UCLA?

He’s put a hot tub in his dorm room, worn a hat disparaging Donald Trump while playing a round of golf on one of the presidential candidate’s courses and ripped the NCAA for making millions off amateurs.

What’s next for the outspoken quarterback? The Bruins hope just football.

Rosen could be a dark horse Heisman candidate after leading all true freshmen in passing yardage last season. He also could be a distraction if he continues the juvenile antics.

“As a friend, I have to laugh sometimes, but I also have to talk to him,” UCLA offensive tackle Conor McDermott said at Pac-12 media days. “Some things you just can’t say.”

Top players

♦ Offense


McCaffrey, running back, Stanford: David Shaw recently joked that he would shift some of his coaching responsibilities to his star running back’s workload because of his ability to multitask. Might as well have him perform as the Stanford tree at halftime, too, before returning to lay waste to opposing defenses.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, wide receiver, USC: He stiff-armed a cornerback out of bounds, caught passes with one hand while the other was in a soft cast and made so many slippery moves you wondered if he should go by JukeJuke. The conference’s best receiver could pass Trojans greats Keyshawn Johnson, Mike Williams and Steve Smith on the school’s career reception list before the end of his junior season.

Luke Falk, quarterback, Washington State: He piled up the yards (4,561), touchdowns (38) and even a healthy chunk of victories (nine) as a sophomore. He’s capable of doing a number on Oregon, Stanford and Washington to put the Cougars into the Pac-12 North title mix.

♦ Defense

Budda Baker, safety, Washington: There’s a reason Baker was selected first team All-Pac-12 last season despite making only two interceptions: Opposing quarterbacks avoid throwing the ball into his area code. Those who do often regret it.

Eddie Vanderdoes, end, UCLA: His return from a season-ending torn knee ligament in the 2015 opener could spell the end of the Bruins’ problems stopping the run. No UCLA defensive lineman has made more tackles in a game than Vanderdoes since 1992.

Lowell Lotulelei, tackle, Utah: If it feels like you’ve watched a Lotulelei flying around the field making plays for the Utes for five years now, it’s not your imagination. Lotuelelei’s older brother, Star, starred for Utah for three seasons before becoming a first-round draft pick in the NFL, a career trajectory his sibling could very well emulate.

♦ Newcomer

Oluwole Betiku, defensive end, USC: He’s already pleased Trojans faithful by reneging on a commitment to UCLA and will make them giddy if he becomes the team’s next impact freshman out of Gardena Serra High.

The games

♦ Best during nonconference 

USC vs. Alabama, at Arlington, Texas, Sept. 3: Will it be the revenge of Lane Kiffin or the first monumental victory of the Clay Helton era?

UCLA at Texas A&M, Sept. 3: The Bruins should have more than a little familiarity with the Aggies’ offense under new coordinator Noel Mazzone.

Stanford at Notre Dame, Oct. 15: The pluck of the Irish will be tested against McCaffrey and the always physical Cardinal.

♦ Best during conference 

Stanford at UCLA, Sept. 24: Is eight enough? The Bruins have lost that many games in a row to their Pac-12 nemesis, last beating the Cardinal in 2008.

Stanford at Washington, Sept. 30: It could be a jolt of a conference opener after the Huskies begin their schedule with Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State.

Oregon at USC, Nov. 5: The Ducks must get quacking on defense against the Trojans’ bevy of playmakers to win a third consecutive game at the Coliseum.

You read it here

The Pac-12 will put a team in the College Football Playoff for the second time in its three-year existence, but it won’t be Stanford or Oregon. It will be the winner of the conference title game featuring — dramatic pause, please — Washington and UCLA.

Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch

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