5 questions for the Pac-12: Can USC live up to the massive hype?
Last season was a solid one for the Pac-12 as Washington ensured the conference had a member in the College Football Playoff after a one-year absence.
Despite the fact the Huskies would fall to Alabama, the return to the biggest stage was important for the conference as a whole, and gives it momentum heading into 2017.
As the countdown to the 2017 campaign continues, here's five questions worth asking about the West Coast's Power 5 conference.
Can USC and Sam Darnold live up to the enormous amount of hype?
Unless USC wins the national title and Sam Darnold is taken No. 1 in the 2018 NFL Draft, there's no way the massive amount of hype on both team and quarterback is justified. The 6-foot-4, 225-pounder was an absolute stud since taking over as starter in Week Four, finishing the year on a nine-game winning streak and an epic comeback in the Rose Bowl. Darnold's prototypical NFL size and gaudy stat line of 3,086 yards for 31 touchdowns and just nine interceptions have most pundits locking him in as the No. 1 overall pick next year. While Darnold is certainly an impressive prospect, the average rank of the passing defense he faced during the nine-game winning streak was 63rd, so perhaps the hype train needs to be slowed a bit. The Trojans lost Adoree Jackson and JuJu Smith-Schuster to the NFL draft, and while they are certainly a talented club, the national title aspirations seem a bit lofty.
Was Colorado's 2016 success a one-hit wonder?
Let's take a quick look at Colorado's history since joining the Pac-12 prior to the 2011 season.
After glancing at those results, the obvious question is: What the heck happened in 2016? The Buffaloes matched the win total of the previous three seasons combined with an astonishing 10-4 campaign, earning Mike MacIntyre numerous Coach of the Year awards. Colorado loses eight starters on defense, along with coordinator extraordinaire Jim Leavitt, as well as starting quarterback Sefo Liufau. MacIntyre has likely built the program into something better than 2-10 and 4-9 seasons, but this is not a team that is built for double-digit win totals annually. Colorado will be hard-pressed to win eight games in 2017 and keep themselves from being hit with the dreaded "one-hit wonder" label.
Will Josh Rosen reassert himself as the man?
Entering last season, NFL teams were frothing at the mouth over Josh Rosen's potential as a franchise-saving quarterback. A year later it's Sam Darnold that is the new belle of the ball, and the injury-plagued UCLA quarterback is yesterday's news. Rosen's freshman season saw the highly touted pivot throw for 3,670 yards with 23 touchdowns. A shoulder injury ended his 2016 campaign after six games, and while he was sidelined, Darnold took the Pac-12 by storm. That development may end up helping Rosen, who can now fly under the radar while the bright lights are across town at USC. Expect the 6-foot-4, 218-pounder to put up an excellent season and reestablish himself at the top prospect for the 2018 draft.
Can Washington overcome NFL losses to remain the top team in the conference?
Washington took a massive leap in Chris Petersen's third season with the program, winning the Pac-12 and getting selected for the College Football Playoff. The secondary was hit hard by NFL draft declarations, but Jake Browning and the majority of the high-powered offense returns to wreak havoc yet again. The Huskies have a very favorable schedule, with trips to Colorado and Stanford representing their toughest challenge, and it won't be shocking to see them back in the Pac-12 championship game in early December.
Will Oregon actually play defense this year?
The last two seasons Oregon ranked 126th and 113th in the country in scoring defense. There's only 128 programs that play at the FBS level, so yeah, the Ducks have been abysmal on that side of the football. To fix the issue, new Oregon coach Willie Taggart pillaged fellow Pac-12 program Colorado to snag Jim Leavitt as defensive coordinator. Leavitt showed with the Buffaloes that he can quickly turn around a struggling defense, taking a unit that ranked 120th nationally the season before he got there, to 71st in his debut campaign. Colorado improved even further to 18th in the country last season, and Oregon is hoping that magic touch repeats itself in Eugene for the upcoming season. Best guess is that the Ducks improve marginally on the defensive side in 2017 before taking a big leap the following year.
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