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MVP • RB Christian McCaffrey, jr., Stanford
I mean, come on. Could it be anyone else? The nifty-footed running back took the league by storm last year as a rusher, receiver and returner. WildCaff torched the competition to smash a hallowed record: Barry Sanders' yards from scrimmage, which he bested by more than 600 yards (3,864). The only thing he couldn't manage was to snag was the Heisman Trophy, which West Coast observers will tell you is thanks in part to SEC bias. No one affected a game in more ways than McCaffrey, who made kick and punt returns must-see TV. His line will be weaker this year. His quarterback will be new. But the son of an NFL receiver and a college soccer star is still fast, still shifty in the open field, and still sure-handed. He has arguably the best coach in the Pac-12, who trusts him explicitly to handle whatever he gets thrown at him. While Stanford may depend more on McCaffrey this year to produce wins on the field, it's hard to see him not being ready for it.
Coach of the Year • Chris Petersen, Washington
Despite losing several NFL first- and second-round draft picks in 2015, the Huskies still had one of the league's best defenses and a winning record. They had a prolific freshman quarterback, and a 1,000-yard freshman running back. They bring back most of their playmakers. The fact that many football observers expect a 7-6 team to step into contending for the league title is a sign of how Coach Pete has groomed this program.
Coach on the hot seat • Mike MacIntyre, Colorado
Most agree that Colorado is much better than it was after the disastrous Jon Embree era, and the program has taken forward leaps in talent and facilities. But at the end of the day, Coach Mac is 2-25 in Pac-12 games, which isn't good enough.
Team to beat • Stanford
OK. They've graduated their starting quarterback, their offensive line, some key receivers and defenders. And yet: Stanford has won three of the last four conference championships, going on a run of dominance in the league that rivals only USC. There's a reason for that, and not just that they have a Heisman runner-up. David Shaw consistently gets his team reloaded and ready to compete at the highest level. The Cardinal have some tough games early on against USC, UCLA and Washington. If they finish 3-0 in that stretch, watch out.
Don't sleep on • Washington State
With their passing attack alone, the Cougars are a threat. Logan native Luke Falk returns after throwing for over 4,500 yards and connecting on 38 touchdowns against eight interceptions. He's got a candidate for best receiver in the country in Gabe Marks, as well as numerous other weapons. But the real improvement here may be on defense, where there are several key returning starters in the secondary and newcomers who will bolster the front.
Team you don't want to play • UCLA
Next to USC, no team has better athletic talent than the Bruins, who are consistently in the upper tier of the conference but just shy of winning it. While they lost a ton of receiving weapons, Josh Rosen is viewed as probably the best sophomore quarterback prospect in the country, and showed brilliance in flashes last season. The defense returns some hard-hitting players like DL Eddie Vanderdoes and LB Jayon Brown. There are holes to fill, sure, but UCLA can battle with anyone.
Team with no chance • Oregon State
Gary Andersen had a rough first year, and here's a guess that the second will be tough, too. He replaced both coordinators (Kalani Sitake left for BYU, and Dave Baldwin got demoted). He probably has a better starting quarterback with Utah State transfer Darell Garretson, but he's got to replace some key players in both trenches. From a talent perspective, the Beavers are still a long way from competing even with other low-end Pac-12 teams. Maybe he didn't have it so bad in Madison.
Most underrated player • Hunter Dimick, Utah
While Lowell Lotulelei and Kylie Fitts have dotted Pac-12 and even All-America preseason lists, has the world forgotten about Snacks? When he last played a full season, he had 10 sacks. He has 15.0 for his career, as well as 24.0 tackles for a loss, and he also does his share in the run game. While it helped in 2014 that he was paired with Nate Orchard on one side, does he not have a chance to thrive with Lotulelei, Fitts and Pita Taumoepenu rushing the passer as well? A team captain and a senior leader, expect a bounce-back season from Dimick, assuming he can stay healthy.
Most overrated player • Dakota Prukop, Oregon
Can lightning strike twice with an FCS transfer coming in at quarterback? The Ducks are about to find out. They'll be stacked on offense, built around Royce Freeman and a couple ridiculously fast weapons (Devon Allen literally just ran in the Olympics). They'll put up some points for sure. But it's hard to see Prukop replicating what Vernon Adams did at his best (and healthiest) last year. It's the second straight riverboat gamble for Oregon, which needs to start developing quarterbacks within its own program. Wasn't there a guy named Mariota there just a few years back?
Future household name • QB Max Browne, USC.
Once best known as Jake Heaps' successor at Sammamish, Wash., the top-graded prospect finally beat out freshman Sam Darnold for the Trojans' starting job. Browne has always had arm talent and an ability to find open receivers. Now he'll be working with weapons that include JuJu Smith- Schuster and Darreus Rogers. He'll have a backfield with stellar runners Justin Davis and Ronald Jones III. He'll be playing behind a line seen as the best in the league, and with a head coach who helped groom him. The environment is completely right for him to be a star all he must do is perform.
NORTH DIVISION ORDER OF FINISH
1. Stanford • The best player, the best coach, and the best recent history of winning the league.
2. Washington • The hype is not without merit: The secondary might be the best in the country.
3. Washington State • Luke Falk will lead a prolific Cougar offense, brimming with confidence after last year.
4. Oregon • Always an explosive threat, but have the Ducks improved defensively after losing DeForest Buckner?
5. Cal • Replacing the No. 1 NFL draft pick, but also receivers, coaches and still lackluster on defense.
6. Oregon State • Rebuilding in Corvallis will take more than one season.
SOUTH DIVISION ORDER OF FINISH
1. UCLA • If Rosen matures in Year 2, he could help the Bruins break through their recent ceiling.
2. Utah • As long as passing improves, Utah is built to win in the trenches and the secondary.
3. USC • Always a threat with the conference's top talent, but still rebuilding at key positions.
4. Arizona State • Sun Devils' fiery preseason rhetoric has been toned down considerably this year.
5. Colorado • The Buffs have a lot of veterans and might finally start winning some close ones.
6. Arizona • They've got a lot to iron out after turning over a lot of defensive staff.
Pac-12 Championship Game: Stanford over UCLA