It’s crazy to think about, but there is only a mere 52 days remaining until college football returns. The season kicks off on Thursday, September 3rd and features numerous games of intrigue including Minnesota hosting TCU, and the Wolverines of Michigan heading out to Rice-Eccles Stadium to take on DeVontae Booker and the Utah Utes. In this article though, the focus will be on the Pac-12 North lead by the mighty Oregon Ducks. But will the Ducks be so mighty without Mariota? Let’s take a look.
The answer is yes. The Ducks will still be quite mighty even without Marcus Mariota. While the Ducks do lose their Heisman Trophy winning quarterback, they return leading rushers Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman who nearly gained 2000 yards on the ground combined last season and also add top recruit Taj Griffin. Top two receivers Byron Marshall and Darren Carrington also return for the Ducks, along with top tacklers Reggie Daniels and Joe Walker. The Ducks defense does take a pretty sizable hit though with the losses of Tony Washington, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Erick Dargan and Arik Armstead, but they all can be replaced with time. Mariota won’t be as easy to replace, but they certainly have a good chance to do it with Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams Jr. who threw for over 3000 yards last year and 35 touchdowns, including a total annihilation of the UW defense early on in the season. There is some concern currently about whether or not he’ll be academically cleared, but it is likely to be resolved meaning Oregon will be just as dangerous as ever this season. They should have no trouble taking the North yet again.
Player to Watch: Vernon Adams Jr. Quarterback
While Stanford will finish 2nd in the North, it’s gonna be a fairly distant 2nd. Stanford took a heavy hit with graduating seniors, and juniors declaring early. Offensively, the Cardinal lost top two rushers Remound Wright and Kelsey Young, along with receiver Devon Cajuste and their all-purpose phenom Ty Mongtomery. Defensively, Stanford does return leading tackler Blake Martinez, but lose a long list of names led by A.J. Tarpley, Jordan Richards and Alex Carter. To add insult to injury, Zach Hoffpauir was drafted and signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks of the MLB. Now, there is still a reason why Stanford is listed above the other 4 teams in the division. Starting quarterback Kevin Hogan is back, as is the aforementioned Martinez, tight end Austin Hooper and wunderkind Christian McCaffrey who showed numerous flashes of brilliance last year. Stanford is still likely to be a bowl team, and certainly won’t have a poor season, but it’s unlikely they give Oregon their yearly run for their money.
Player to Watch: Christian McCaffrey, Running Back
I’ll admit this is a bold prediction, but Cal has a lot going for them in the upcoming season. Their losses are incredibly minimal with the only notable one being defensive back Michael Lowe. Offensively, Cal lost no one, returning quarterback Jared Goff, running back Daniel Lasco, and their entire receiving corps headed by Kenny Lawler, Chris Harper and Stephen Anderson. California’s defense was pourous last season, but that will likely be improved with a group of returning starters led by Hardy Nickerson, Michael Barton and Jalen Jefferson, the Golden Bears are bound to get better in that department. They have a lot of experience on the team, and will definitely be helped by a weak North division so it shouldn’t come as a total shocker if Cal makes a run at a bowl this year.
Player to Watch: Daniel Lasco, Running Back
4. Washington State
Once you get past the top three, you reach three teams with very little hope of success this season in Washington State, Washington and Oregon State. Looking at the three teams in comparison though, WSU gets the slight nod over the Dawgs and Beavs because of the tremendous strength of their air attack. Quarterback Connor Halliday and top two receivers Vince Mayle and Isaiah Myers graduated, but Luke Falk filled in nicely when Halliday was on the shelf, and the Cougs are certainly never short on receivers, as River Cracraft, Dom Williams, and late bloomer Tyler Baker are still around along with Gabe Marks who missed all of 2014 for undisclosed reasons. WSU also has a pair of fairly decent running backs in Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks even though they’ll only use them about three times a game. Of course, anyone who watched WSU knows that offense was hardly the problem, and their defense didn’t get any better. Xavier Cooper left for the NFL, Cyrus Coen graduated Darryl Monroe transferred to Akron and Daquawn Brown was kicked off the team. The only real hope defensively for the Cougs is returning lineman Destiny Vaeao and linebackers Jeremiah Allison and Kache Palacio. Wazzu’s defense was abysmal last year, and it isn’t going to be much different this year. The offense will excite, and there’ll be a lot of Cougar touchdowns scored at Martin Stadium this fall. But there will also be a lot of touchdowns scored against the Cougs, hindering their ability to win.
Player to Watch: Gabe Marks, Wide Receiver
To say the least, it was a forgettable offseason for the Huskies. The losses of Shaq Thompson, Danny Shelton Hau’oli Kikaha and Marcus Peters to the NFL sting in their own right. But that wasn’t all the departures for the UW defense. 4 year starter John Timu, Andrew and Evan Hudson all graduated leaving numerous gaping holes in the Husky defense. Offensively things aren’t much better if not worse. Losing Thompson also hurts offensively as he played often at running back. On top of that, quarterback Cyler Miles retired leaving uncertainty at the position, and lightning fast John Ross III was lost for the entire season. UW picked up a solid recruiting class, but no one who is going to be ready to go this year. It’s also going to be interesting to watch Chris Petersen this year. Petersen didn’t adjust particularly well to Pac-12 football last season, making several coaching mistakes such as not kneeling against Arizona leading to a Dwayne Washington fumble and a Wildcat win. The Huskies do have talent, but there is too much uncertainty, and too many voids to fill.
Player to Watch: Budda Baker, Safety
6. Oregon State
The Beavers outlook isn’t too promising this season. The loss of quarterback Sean Mannion is going to appear in a big, big way as his replacement appears to be true freshman Seth Collins from San Diego. While some of Mannion’s top targets in Victor Bolden and Jordan Villamin do return, they aren’t particularly useful with an incompetent QB. Not to write off the young Collins, but it’s awful hard to make the leap from high school to a major conference and achieve success. It’s likely Storm Woods will net a lot of carries this year, which isn’t a bad thing. But it’s also not hard to stop a one-dimensional offense. The defensive outlook isn’t any better. The Beavers lost their top 6 tacklers including hard-hitting safety Ryan Murphy. As a matter of fact, no one on the current Beaver defense had an interception last year, and while they do return sack leader Lavonte Barnett, they lost speed rusher Obum Gwacham to the Seahawks. It’s safe to call this a rebuilding season for new head coach Gary Andersen, and not much should be expected from OSU this season.
Player to Watch: Lavonte Barnett, Defensive End