Mandel’s Pac-12 picks: Oregon repeats & ruins everyone’s playoff shot

Another trip to the top of the Pac-12 could be bittersweet for the Ducks -- and everyone else in the league.

Gary Vasquez

This season’s Pac-12, much like last year’s, is incredibly deep. Everyone but rebuilding Oregon State is capable of winning at least seven games (yes, even Colorado.) Unfortunately, I don’t see any one of those teams being dominant enough to finish with a gaudy enough record to make the College Football Playoff.

Oregon is still the class of the conference. Anyone assuming the Ducks will implode post-Marcus Mariota must not remember them making a Rose Bowl with Jeremiah Masoli and a national title game with Darron Thomas. With running back Royce Freeman and a stacked receiving corps, whoever wins the job — Jeff Lockie or Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams — does not need to replicate Mariota’s near-flawless performance level. My colleague Bruce Feldman thinks Oregon will win the Pac-12, too, assuming Adams is the Ducks’ QB.

But that doesn’t mean the Ducks won’t suffer a couple of setbacks — starting with that game in East Lansing. One of their toughest tests figures to be a Thursday night game at Arizona State shortly before Halloween. The Sun Devils are my pick to win the South, though I found UCLA very tempting. Ultimately I trust veteran Sun Devils QB Mike Bercovici to string together victories more so than Bruins true freshman Josh Rosen. Both have myriad weapons around them and the benefit of good-but-not-great defenses, but ASU plays just two daunting road games, at UCLA and Utah, whereas the Bruins visit Arizona, Stanford, Utah and USC (the last two to end the year).

This could be a year where the Pac-12’s brutal scheduling model could work against it. If ASU played North Texas instead of Texas A&M and Oregon played Central Michigan instead of Michigan State, I’d have them both with playoff-worthy records. As it is, I have ASU winning the first matchup, the 9-3 Ducks topping the 10-2 Sun Devils in the league title game.

Alas, no playoff team.

A few other thoughts:

POWER 5 CONFERENCE PREDICTIONS

–Stanford should rebound from last year’s 7-5 regular season, with QB Kevin Hogan continuing his late-2014 momentum and explosive tailback Christian McCaffrey emerging as an every-down threat. An inexperienced defense, though, could keep the Cardinal from reaching double-digit wins.

–My hunch is one of these three North teams — Washington, Cal or Washington State — will finish with a much better record than I projected, but it’s hard to foresee which one. Chris Petersen’s Huskies are particularly difficult to read. He could be in for a rough year before taking off in 2016.

–I probably should stop doubting RichRod’s Wildcats after they won 10 games and a division title last season, but on paper they inspire less confidence than ASU, UCLA and USC. Even with superstar LB Scooby Wright, Arizona ranked just 75th nationally on defense (5.7 yards per play).

–I’m higher on Utah than its predicted 7-5 record reflects, but someone’s got to finish fifth. RB Devontae Booker is a special talent, but he’s the entire offense. And Colorado should be more competitive in Mike MacIntyre’s third season, but it needs seven wins to get bowl-eligible.

Predicted standings:

SOUTH

TEAM RECORD (LEAGUE)
Arizona State 10-2 (8-1)
UCLA 9-3 (6-3)
USC 8-4 (6-3)
Arizona 8-4 (5-4)
Utah 7-5 (4-5)
Colorado 6-7 (2-7)

NORTH

TEAM RECORD (LEAGUE)
Oregon 9-3 (7-2)
Stanford 9-3 (6-3)
Cal 6-6 (4-5)
Washington 5-7 (3-6)
Washington State 4-8 (2-7)
Oregon State 3-9 (1-8)

Championship: Oregon over Arizona State

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel and Facebook. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.