Analysis: Washington seeks to make return trip to College Football Playoff, but underrated Stanford may surprise them

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Rebecca Noble | The Daily Wildcat

Washington running back Myles Gaskin (9) is derailed by Arizona free safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles (6) during Arizona's overtime 35-28 loss to Washington in Arizona Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016.

In every major college football conference, one division usually stands above the rest. The SEC has the West, the ACC has the Atlantic and the Pac-12 has the North.

Last season was a great year for the Pac-12 North, as Washington advanced to the College Football Playoff and proved that the traditional powers in the South should be wary of the Huskies. The “Dawgs” are favored to repeat, but Stanford, Washington State and others may crash the party.

Washington

A revival took place last year in Seattle as the Huskies exploded onto the national scene and advanced to the College Football Playoff.

Washington rolled through the regular season with a loss to USC its only blemish. While the Huskies were unable to win it all, they set themselves up for a big 2017.

UW returns with 13 starters, including seven on the offensive side of the ball. The Huskies have one of the best backfields in the country with Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin.

Browning is an extremely efficient, accurate quarterback, achieving a 4.77:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio last season. Gaskin is a tailback that can do it all and is perfectly suited for Washington’s diverse offense.

While star receiver John Ross exhausted his NCAA eligibility, the Huskies still have some beasts on the perimeter.

Dante Pettis caught 15 touchdowns in 2016, and he may surpass that total this season. Though the Huskies are deep and talented offensively, they’re far from a one-dimensional team.

Defensively, Washington is athletic and capable of destroying opposing offenses. Safety Taylor Rapp leads a unit that returns a surplus of talent, especially in the secondary.

If the Huskies can navigate a somewhat favorable schedule, they will find themselves back in the playoff. This time they may be favored to win it all.

Stanford

When a 10-3 season is considered a disappointment, you know things are going well on “The Farm.”

David Shaw continues to do the impossible: win in Palo Alto. The Cardinal may have lost superstar Christian McCaffrey, but they’re just as potent as ever.

Keller Chryst may lack the physical tools of Stanford greats John Elway and Andrew Luck, but he has a firm grasp of the playbook and understands his role. He has to keep the physical, dominant Cardinal offense on track.

Tailback Bryce Love will be the focal point of the offense after rushing for 811 yards last season. Love has spent most of his career in McCaffrey’s shadow, but this season look for him to be a breakout performer.

Tight end Dalton Schultz will see more action this season as Chryst continues to develop at quarterback.

Eight starters return for a defense that appears ready to reclaim their mantle as the conference’s finest.

Justin Reid is a physical safety that is unafraid to unload on tailbacks and receivers alike.

Stanford will host Washington this season in a game that may determine who represents the Pac-12 in the College Football Playoff. The Cardinal is a dark horse, but they have the experience and talent to pull off an upset.


Tyler Baker | The Daily Wildcat

Former receiver Nate Phillips (6) runs the football down the field for a touchback during Arizona's loss to Washington State on Oct. 24, 2015.


Washington State

It took a while, but Mike Leach has found his groove on the Palouse. The Washington State Cougars have won a combined 17 games over the last two seasons — their largest total in over a decade.

As expected from a Leach team, the Cougars offense is an aerial circus. Luke Falk is the ringleader and will finish his career with every major school passing record.

Falk was one of the best quarterbacks in the country last year, passing for 4,468 yards and 38 touchdowns. While he won’t have Gabe Marks to collect his passes anymore, he still has a collection of receivers that will rack up yards and touchdowns at an astounding rate.

While the “Air Raid” offense gets all the credit for Wazzu’s recent success, defensive coordinator Alex Grinch should receive kudos, too. Grinch’s defensive wizardry has turned what was once the Cougars’ weakness into a strength.

Nine starters return and it is safe to say that they will continue to improve. Linebacker Peyton Pelluer is a tackling machine. He recorded 93 stops last season and should easily eclipse that total in 2017.

Although they might not be in the thick of the College Football Playoff race like Stanford and Washington, the Cougars are still one of the better teams in the conference.

Look for Washington State to spoil someone’s season. Falk and company will likely find a way to steal a game over a superior opponent.

Oregon

Coach Mark Helfrich was unable to keep the Ducks program nationally relevant and consequently was relieved of his duties following a disastrous 4-8 season.

New head coach Willie Taggart arrives in Eugene with a clear mandate: return the Ducks to the ranks of the elite. He will have an outstanding talent base to work with as Oregon returns 17 starters, including a future first-round draft pick at tailback.

Royce Freeman is back, and he may be the best runner in the conference. A rare blend of athleticism and power, Freeman will have an opportunity to carry the Oregon offense.

The tailback will get that chance because the Ducks are still looking for a quarterback. Justin Herbert had an up-and-down freshman season and will have to hold off newcomer Braxton Burmeister for the signal-calling job.

Wide receiver Darren Carrington would have thrived in Taggart’s “Gulf Coast Offense,” but he was dismissed from the team following a DUI arrest.

Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt will have the toughest job in college football in rebuilding the Oregon defense. The Ducks’ defensive unit, which had been one of the nation’s finest just a couple of years previously, collapsed in a heap under Brady Hoke last season.

Oregon couldn’t stop anyone, allowing 41 points per game, the highest average in 25 years. The Ducks are hoping that a more aggressive play-caller will improve their fortunes.

Linebacker Troy Dye will have a field day in the new system. Look for him to have ten or more sacks this season as the defense should blitz more frequently.

Because Coach Taggart isn’t rebuilding completely from scratch, he’ll likely find success at Oregon sooner rather than later. The Ducks may improve drastically, but they’ll find it tough to climb over the division elites this year.


Rebecca Noble | The Daily Wildcat

An Arizona football player is tripped by former OSU cornerback Larry Scott (15) during Arizona's 44-7 win over OSU at Arizona Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015.


Oregon State

Hard times have come to Corvallis as the Beavers have struggled under third-year head coach Gary Andersen.

Oregon State finished 4-8 last season, with that record padded by late season victories over Arizona and Oregon. The Beavers may not be any better in 2017 as they are lacking in depth and talent across the board.

Tailback Ryan Nall, who averaged 6.5 yards per carry last year, is the lone bright spot on offense. Nall will have to deal with defenses keying on him since the Beaver passing game is just a rumor at this point.

Jake Luton is the latest stopgap at the quarterback position due to being a middling talent at the junior college level. There isn’t any good news on the defensive side either; the Beavers allowed 30 points per contest last season.

One positive for Oregon State is that the unit is experienced, with nine starters returning. This team will probably finish near the bottom in most statistical categories, and Andersen may be looking for a job at season’s end.

California

Few coaches have managed to win at Berkeley, and for good reason: It is a difficult place to build a successful program.

Not only does Cal live in the shadows of USC and UCLA, the university community has a fractious relationship with the football program and the athletic department.

Justin Wilcox is the latest coach to step into the maelstrom with hopes of building a winner by the bay. Wilcox, who served as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator last season, has a lot of building to do.

Former coach Sonny Dykes didn’t leave much in the way of experienced talent. The pass-heavy offense that got former Golden Bear Jared Goff drafted first overall has been scrapped in favor of a more traditional system, but it remains to be seen whether Ross Bowers can emerge as a consistent signal caller.

Bowers will look toward stable of tailbacks for assistance as he finds his way. Tre Watson, a workhorse in high school, will see a lot more action this season.

Unlike the offense, the defense features some experienced bodies. Devante Downs led the Golden Bears in tackles last season, and his productivity will likely increase under the defensive-minded Wilcox.

The Bears may struggle this year as their non-conference schedule is one of the most challenging in the nation: North Carolina and Ole Miss are both on the slate. Cal may not be anything more than a bottom-feeder this year.


Follow Nathan Skinner on Twitter.



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