A quick word on power rankings this year. Last season we mixed it up a bit, rotating the duties among four or five writers. This offered a fun perspective each week, but could also be a bit dizzying for the readers since all five of us have different perspectives. So to alleviate this problem, I will be your 2015 Power Rankings czar for the whole season, for better or worse (probably worse). Ted Miller will serve as my administrative assistant for complaints. File them here.
Without much to go off of beyond returning players and preseason hype, the “real” power ranking probably won’t reveal itself until after the first month of the season. So for now, we’ll project a little bit. Enjoy. And as always, if you don’t like where you’re ranked, play better.
1. Oregon Ducks: No surprises here. The defending conference champs are the league’s top team until proven otherwise. They don’t have much time to break in a new quarterback (I know, everyone is sad that Marcus Mariota is gone) because they go to Michigan State in Week 2. Trips to Seattle, Tempe and Palo Alto could prove challenging, but they do get USC at home. If the news that Thomas Tyner is out for the year is true, it will be interesting to see what role Byron Marshall plays moving forward alongside Royce Freeman.
2. USC Trojans: We’re going to find out by the end of September if USC is the real deal or just a lot of preseason hot air. Back-to-back games against Stanford and at Arizona State will provide an early-season test for the Trojans. The Stanford game is an annual nail-grinding manicure and the Sun Devils have had USC’s number the past couple of seasons. As the old saying goes, you can’t win the conference in September. But you can lose it.
3. Arizona Wildcats: Much like the Ducks, the Wildcats are the defending South Division champs and deserve the benefit of the doubt and the credit that goes with that. They probably won’t be tested the first three weeks of the season with nonconference matchups against UTSA, Nevada and Northern Arizona. But things ramp up after that with a critical showdown against UCLA and then Stanford. They close at USC, vs. Utah and at ASU -- and they’ll have to do it all without a bye week. If they’re able to repeat, Rich Rodriguez needs to give his strength and conditioning guys a hefty raise.
4. Arizona State Sun Devils: Like the Trojans, the Sun Devils are going to be tested almost immediately. First up is a date with Texas A&M before a couple of easier games against Cal Poly and New Mexico. But they’ll jump into the teeth of the conference schedule with back-to-back games against the L.A. schools to kick off league play. Having Oregon back on the schedule doesn’t make things easier as they try to get back to the top of the South.
5. Utah Utes: With a returning quarterback, an A-list running back and a pressure defense built to wreak havoc, the Utes have as good a chance as any South team to win the division. But Power Rankings don’t work when you have five teams tied for second. Want to make a splash? Beat Oregon -- at Oregon -- in Week 4 and then we’ll talk about one of the top couple of spots. Sweeping the L.A. schools again and finally getting over the ASU hump would help too.
6. UCLA Bruins: I promise to be fair and impartial with these rankings. I picked UCLA to win the division. But the fact remains that right now they don’t have a quarterback. The defense is stacked and the skill-position players are ready to go. And (we think) the offensive line is going to be the strongest it has been in the Jim Mora era. They open league play with back-to-back games against the Arizona schools and then a trip to Stanford for a Thursday night game in mid-October. Mora already has called that game high-noon. His teams have not done well against the Cardinal. If they are 5-0 heading into Palo Alto, that could be the swing game for the Bruins from a momentum standpoint.
7. Stanford Cardinal: A lot of folks are sleeping on Stanford this year. The issues on the defensive line are glaring, so the skepticism is warranted. What the Cardinal do have is a quarterback with more experience than any other starter in the league and a track record of success. Look for the tight ends to be more of a factor in the passing attack this year and we’ll finally see what Christian McCaffrey can do with the leash taken off. I still think Oregon is tops in the North. But I’m not completely ruling out the Cardinal.
8. California Golden Bears: If this is the push year many are expecting for the Bears, it’s not going to come on the arm of Jared Goff (though that will help). It will be from improved defense over a unit that yielded a league-worst 39.8 points per game last year. We all know by now about Goff, his stable of receivers and the underappreciated Daniel Lasco. But the Bears were last in the league or at the bottom of every defensive category. Marginal improvement on that side of the ball could be the difference between getting to a bowl game and staying home for another Christmas.
9. Washington Huskies: We’re not going to sugarcoat it. The Pac-12 blog thinks this is going to be a rough, rebuilding year for the Huskies. One or two seasons from now, they’ll likely come out better for it. But they open at Boise State, which is sure to be an emotional return for Chris Petersen. That’s a massive tone-setter for the season. The conference slate isn’t much easier with trips to USC and Stanford in the first half of the schedule. With four defensive players taken in the first two rounds of last year’s draft, the Huskies won’t be able to lean on their defense as much in 2015. Last year’s group tallied 52 sacks, second most in FBS.
10. Washington State Cougars: The good news for the Cougars is they have an experienced offensive line. That will give their new quarterback (Luke Falk or Peyton Bender) the time he’ll need to run this pass-heavy offense, which ranked first in FBS last year with 477.7 yards per game. There are lots of receivers who can make plays. But, similar to Cal, there’s work to do on defense. The Cougs were 10th in the league last year, surrendering 38.6 points per game. A 3-0 start should happen. Then it’s a matter of finding three more wins in conference play to get back to a bowl game, which is possible with this group.
11. Colorado Buffaloes: Does anyone else think that if the Buffs played in the North Division, they’d have a solid shot at a bowl game this year? Good quarterback, great receiver, a few veterans on defense -- the Buffs aren’t a team to be taken lightly. Unfortunately, they play in the South, which is likely to include five teams ranked in the top 25 at some point this season. Colorado seems poised to have a breakout upset. They need to get to seven wins to go bowling, but a 4-0 start seems possible.
12. Oregon State Beavers: The Beavers should, at a minimum, get out to a 2-1 record to start the year. But then, as is the case for every Pac-12 team, it doesn’t get easier. And it’s tougher still when starting a freshman quarterback (whoever that ends up being). Gary Andersen was a home run hire for the Beavers. But it’s going to take time for systems to get fully integrated and youngsters to mature.