Feldman’s Pac-12 picks: Oregon the one to beat if Adams can play

Jared Goff (Cal), Kevin Hogan (Stanford) and Vernon Adams (Oregon, via Eastern Washington) are among quarterbacks to watch in the Pac-12 this season.

Thearon W. Henderson

The key to the Pac-12 race is a few days away from finding out whether he can pass his final class Thursday afternoon at the University of Oregon to get cleared to play for the Ducks in 2015. If so, Mark Helfrich will have his best hope at replacing the great Marcus Mariota. My colleague Stewart Mandel thinks the Ducks can win the conference, too.

Former Eastern Washington star Vernon Adams doesn’t have Mariota’s size — he’s about 5-foot-11, 185 pounds — or his speed, but he’s proved to be very accurate and very slippery for defenses to corral. And he has the experience that he wouldn’t be rattled in pressure situations. The feeling here is that with Adams, a two-time runner-up for the FCS national player of the year award, the Ducks are a strong contender for a playoff spot. Without him, Oregon is probably not a top-10 team. 

The Ducks still have plenty of firepower (even with the news that second-string tailback Thomas Tyner is out for the year.) But Oregon’s schedule doesn’t set up great for a title run. It plays at Michigan State in Week 2, which doesn’t give the Ducks much time to get their new QB acclimated. There are also road trips to ASU and Stanford.

I think any one of four teams have a good shot to win the South. The hunch here is that it’ll come down to the Nov. 28 game when UCLA visits USC. The Bruins have owned the Trojans of late, but I think the Trojans — with the more experienced QB in Cody Kessler and the more dynamic collection of receivers — are due. 

That said, I still feel like USC is a being a bit overhyped by many of my colleagues who cover college football. Yeah, Kessler’s very solid and a good leader, and Adoree’ Jackson, Su’a Cravens and JuJu Smith would be stars in any conference. But USC is going to miss star DL Leonard Williams, and this program hasn’t shown it can be consistent enough. USC’s dropped five games to unranked opponents in the past two seasons.

A few other thoughts: 

–UCLA has all but one starter returning on offense. The one hole? At QB. But touted freshman Josh Rosen is the most talented quarterback the Bruins have had since Troy Aikman. Rosen has good size and a terrific arm, but it’s his intelligence that will really enable him to overtake Jerry Neuheisel. Can he be consistent enough, as a true freshman, to lead the Bruins to their first conference title in 17 seasons? I’m not so sure. 

–Devontae Booker is a big long-shot for the Heisman, but if the Utah star has a big game against Michigan on opening night, he might be able to create some momentum to at least get in the discussion. The 5-11, 210-pound RB ran for more than 1,500 yards last season and is about as good as any back in the country catching the ball out of the backfield.

POWER 5 CONFERENCE PREDICTIONS

–Stanford’s had a lot of good RBs over the years, and it’s a good bet that sophomore Christian McCaffrey is the next star back in Palo Alto. McCaffrey has great burst, is elusive and also has packed on 15 pounds since last season.

–Cal’s Jared Goff, a 6-4, 215-pound junior with good feet and superb accuracy, is one of the best QBs in the country. He also would be one of my first picks if I were drafting college players in a Fantasy League format. Goff (35 TDs, 7 INTs in 2014) plays in a wide-open system with a good crew of wideouts, and the Bears’ D is still really, really shaky, so expect a lot of shootouts — and some very gaudy stat lines.

–Goff and USC’s Cody Kessler are the two most heralded Pac-12 QBs coming into this season, but there are some other established guys who figure to have big seasons (ASU’s Mike Bercovici and Zona’s Anu Solomon) come to mind. The guy perhaps most overlooked in a strong group is Stanford’s Kevin Hogan, a good athlete with lots of big-game experience. Keep in mind Hogan completed 76 percent of his passes over the final three games (two road games and a bowl game).

–Sleeper QB prospect to blossom into a star down the road: Colorado freshman Steven Montez. He is big, agile, smart and has a terrific arm.

–After getting to a bowl game in his second season, Mike Leach’s Wazzu team took a step back in Year Three. Don’t be surprised if they get back to the postseason again this winter. This is the best O-line Leach has had, although that’s not saying that much. His secondary got a lot of experience last season, and his corners are more athletic than they’ve been in previous seasons. Also, fiery WR Gabe Marks, who sat out the 2014 season, is back and should prove to be the go-to target for a prolific attack.

Predicted standings:

SOUTH

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

NORTH

TEAM RECORD (LEAGUE)
Oregon 11-1 (9-0)
Stanford 10-2 (8-1)
Washington State 6-6 (4-5)
Cal 5-7 (3-6)
Washington 3-9 (1-8)
Oregon State 2-10 (0-9)

Championship: Oregon over USC