By Flint Wheeler

Most preseason predictions and rankings have the Pac-12 on the outside of the playoff picture for 2016, but there’s no shortage of intrigue or potential surrounding this league. The battle to win the South Division is likely to come down to one of the league’s top rivalry games – UCLA vs. USC. Clay Helton had the interim tag removed at the end of 2015 and the coaching stability should help the Trojans. Utah is a step behind USC and UCLA in the South Division, but the Utes will be a tough out for the rest of the league. And if junior college recruit Troy Williams is the answer at quarterback, Utah will inch closer to the Bruins and Trojans in the South. Arizona State and Arizona have significant question marks to answer, but both programs should reach the postseason in 2016.

Key Questions That Will Shape the Pac-12 in 2016:

How Fast Will Stanford Reload? Stanford has claimed three out of the last four Pac-12 titles, but coach David Shaw has his work cut out for him in 2016. The Cardinal have to retool on both sides of the ball with only nine returning starters, and the schedule won’t do Shaw’s team any favors. Running back Christian McCaffrey is one of the frontrunners to win the Heisman Trophy, but the junior’s supporting cast is surrounded in uncertainty. Can Keller Chryst replace Kevin Hogan at quarterback? And how quickly will the Cardinal find the right mix on a rebuilt offensive line? While all of those areas are a concern for Shaw, the top contenders in the North – Oregon, Washington and Washington State – each have their own set of concerns. Simply, there’s not going to be one dominant team in this division. Over the last five years, Stanford has averaged a 22.2 finish nationally in recruiting ranks – just a few spots behind Oregon. The Cardinal may not match last year’s 12 wins, but this program is better equipped to handle personnel losses than in previous seasons. Don’t expect a huge drop off for Shaw’s team in 2016.

Washington is Poised for a Breakout Season Choosing the projected champion of the North Division was easily the longest discussion of Athlon’s Pac-12 prediction meeting. Washington State and Oregon were considered, but Stanford and Washington eventually emerged as the favorites. The Cardinal has won three out of the last four Pac-12 titles, but a changing of the guard could be in order for 2016. The Huskies have made steady progress under coach Chris Petersen and capped a seven-win season in 2015 with an impressive victory over Southern Miss in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. While the overall win total (seven) has room to improve, advanced metrics were a big believer in Washington last year. In Football Outsiders’ F+ rankings, the Huskies ranked as the No. 13 team in 2015. And with 17 starters returning, Washington should take a big step forward in the win column. Quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin lead the way for the offense, while the defense should be the best in the Pac-12 after limiting opponents to 18.8 points a game in 2015. The Huskies have road trips to Utah, Oregon and Washington State to navigate, but Stanford visits Seattle on Sept. 30 in a game that could decide the North Division winner.

USC vs. UCLA in the Pac-12 South USC has the edge over its crosstown rival in overall roster talent, but the Bruins have some big advantages in their favor this season. UCLA has a clear edge at quarterback with sophomore Josh Rosen, and the schedule – including a home date against the Trojans – is significantly in favor of the Bruins. Additionally, the coaching element favors UCLA. Clay Helton guided USC to the South Division title last season, but there’s a better track record of success for Jim Mora. Despite the advantages in UCLA’s favor, the Bruins do have a few question marks to address. UCLA has to get tougher against the run after surrendering 198.5 yards a game in 2015. Provided Max Browne provides steady play at quarterback, USC’s offense should be dynamic. But even if the offense ranks near the top of the Pac-12, a thin defensive line and brutal schedule could be too much to overcome

My pick? Watch Utah and UCLA battle it out for supremacy. However, unfortunately the Pac -12 cannibalizes itself into everyone having at least 2 losses. Translation; As long as the current system stays at 4 teams, no playoff for your Pac 12 this year.

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