LOS ANGELES -- It's that time, again. Coaches and players from the Pac-12 will convene in Hollywood for the next two days for the conference's media days.
From quarterbacks to coaches to season-long predictions, here are five storylines that figure to be worth keeping an eye on as the season draws closer:
1. The Conference of quarterbacks: A year ago at this time, UCLA’s Josh Rosen was considered a Heisman Trophy contender and looking ahead -- too far, really -- a potential No. 1 overall selection in the 2018 NFL draft. Across town at USC, Sam Darnold was the underdog in a quarterback competition he lost coming out of training camp. Now it’s Darnold whose name tops the mock drafts and Heisman lists, while Rosen is in need of a bounce-back season following an underwhelming sophomore campaign that was cut short by injury.
The Los Angeles quarterbacks are two of college football’s biggest stars, but they’re not even the most productive quarterbacks at rival schools. That distinction, of course, is in Washington, where reigning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year Jake Browning (Washington) and Washington State’s Luke Falk are coming off a season in which they combined for 81 touchdowns passes. Falk needs 28 touchdown passes to break the Pac-12 career record (116) owned by USC’s Matt Barkley. Both Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Colorado’s Steven Montez showed signs last season that they have bright futures, while intriguing battles loom elsewhere in the conference. Most notably, perhaps, at Arizona State and Utah where a pair of Alabama transfers -- Blake Barnett at ASU and Cooper Bateman at Utah -- are in the mix.
2. Kings of the North: In his third year in Seattle, Chris Petersen guided Washington to the Pac-12 title and the College Football Playoff, which on their own are significant achievements. However, the way he did makes it that much more impressive because in no way did the season feel like the culmination of something in the works. No, the Huskies’ rise was more of a rapid ascent. When Alabama eliminated them from the playoff, it simply wrapped up their re-introduction as a program that truly matters. The expectation now is that Petersen will build off last season’s success and regularly compete for conference titles and playoff appearances. College football is better for it. The combination of city, stadium and coach is rivaled by few programs in the country.
3. Willie Taggart’s arrival: As Washington re-emerged as a national power, nearly 300 miles to the south, rival Oregon saw its run with that status come to an abrupt end and made an outside hire for the first time since 1977. In steps Taggart, who is fresh off resurrecting South Florida from a team that won three games in 2012 to one that finished ranked No. 19 in last year’s final AP poll. Taggart spent time as an assistant at Stanford under Jim Harbaugh and is one of two new head coaches in the conference this season. If the Ducks are able to turn their 4-8 record from 2016 into an outlier, it will require a solution to -- surprise! -- their defensive woes. Only two teams in the country allowed more points per game than Oregon (41.4) last year, but new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt’s track record is encouraging. He was hired at Colorado after the 2014 season in which the Buffaloes allowed 39 points per game and by last season, their defense was the primary reason they finished atop the Pac-12 South standings.
4. Can the South (USC) finally break through? In the six years the Pac-12 championship game has existed, the North remains unbeaten. In fact, it has hardly been challenged. Take away Stanford’s 27-24 win against UCLA in 2012 and North teams have won by an average of 26 points per game and each contest was decided by three scores or more. This year, however, the preseason favorite resides in the South. USC, fresh off its Rose Bowl victory and No. 3 finish in the AP poll, enters the season as the clear favorite, thanks largely to its previously mentioned Heisman Trophy candidate. And as good as Darnold is, the Trojans’ lofty expectations wouldn’t exist in their current state without the surrounding cast. Gone are receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, but the receiving corps and secondary are arguably in better shape thanks to improved depth. Running back Ronald Jones II is an All-American candidate and the front seven should be among the best in the conference. Health on the offensive line is a concern, but what program is immune from that?
5. Slow clap for the mountain schools: For a few years, the additions of Colorado and Utah to the conference didn’t amount to much. In football, at least. As we know, these things are cyclical and now the mountain region is home to two of the conference’s healthiest programs. Consider this: During the past three seasons, there are just five programs in college football to appear in every College Football Playoff rankings and Utah is one of them. The Utes are still waiting for a true breakthrough, however, one like Colorado experienced last year when it went 8-1 to win the Pac-12 South. Neither team is expected to be at USC’s level this season, but it shouldn’t be a surprise if they finish 2-3.