Another year of regular-season Pac-12 football is complete, and what a long, strange trip it’s been.
The Pac-12 was particularly unpredictable, with unexpected stars emerging from multiple teams and powerhouse programs struggling early. Injuries to notable playmakers like Arizona’s Scooby Wright and UCLA’s Myles Jack may have limited the success of some programs. But when it was all said and done, the Pac-12 showcased an exciting brand of football.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Christian McCaffrey (Stanford)
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Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey is having a season for the ages.
The sophomore sensation ranks first in the country with 3,035 all-purpose yards and is closing in on Barry Sanders’ single-season all-purpose yardage record of 3,250. With a Pac-12 title game and a bowl game or two ahead, McCaffrey is a near-lock to set the all-time record.
McCaffrey also ranks No. 6 in the country in rushing yards and second in the conference, trailing Oregon’s Royce Freeman.
Quite simply, McCaffrey has been the most dynamic playmaker in the entire country. The fact that his team still has a shot to make the College Football Playoff only adds to his case as the conference’s most outstanding player.
PLAY OF THE YEAR: Owusu TD vs. UCLA (Stanford)
Leading 35-17 in the third quarter, Stanford decided it was time to pull a trick out of the bag. Setting up from the wildcat, McCaffrey took the snap, handed it to running back Bryce Love, who then flipped the ball to quarterback Kevin Hogan. Hogan launched a 41-yard pass over the middle to wide receiver Francis Owusu … and then it happened.
You can’t be serious! It wasn’t just a great catch, it was the catch of the year in the Pac-12. Contest over.
BEST COACHING JOB: Mike Leach (Washington State)
While Washington State’s season didn’t end as Mike Leach had hoped, the Cougars’ campaign has been nothing short of remarkable.
After a season-opening loss to Portland State at home, there were strong indications that this may be Leach’s final season in Pullman. However, Leach directed his Cougars to an 8-4 overall record, including a 6-3 record in Pac-12 play.
Most impressively, Leach led Washington State to road upsets over Oregon and UCLA and pushed a great Stanford team to its limits.
Leach’s offense was fantastic and ended the regular season as the top-rated passing offense in the nation. Sophomore QB Luke Falk led the nation in passing yards per game with 387.8 and threw 36 touchdowns.
BEST COMEBACK: Vernon Adams Jr. (Oregon)
When Oregon brought in Vernon Adams Jr. from Eastern Washington, the Pac-12 wasn’t exactly sure what to make of the graduate transfer. Sure, he had destroyed Oregon State and Washington as a member of EWU, but how would he fit at Oregon?
After a sublime opening act against his former team in the season opener, Adams fell victim to an injury to his right index finger. It forced the QB to miss most of the first half of the season and sent the Ducks into a tailspin.
However, when Adams returned from his injury, he proved to be among the nation’s best quarterbacks, and the Ducks took off.
Over the final six games of the season, Adams led the Ducks to a 6-0 record, threw 20 touchdown passes and guided the Oregon offense to 44.8 points per game.
Adams ended the season with a passer rating of 179.57, the best among Power 5 quarterbacks and second in the FBS.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: USC’s unpredictable season
Most college football analysts predicted USC to win the Pac-12 South before the season began; those experts were right, eventually.
But USC’s road to the conference title game was anything but conventional. USC began the season 3-3 and fired head coach Steve Sarkisian. Offensive coordinator Clay Helton was named interim head coach, then earned the nod for the full-time gig after defeating crosstown rival UCLA 40-21.
Behind the leadership of senior quarterback Cody Kessler and young stars like Adoree’ Jackson and JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC won five of its last six games (including a big victory over then-No. 3 Utah) and now stands just one win away from a possible Rose Bowl berth.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: 2014 Pac-12 South Champions (Arizona)
Arizona won the 2014 Pac-12 South title, led by redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon and true freshman running back Nick Wilson.
The Wildcats have an experienced head coach, Rich Rodriguez, and one of the most exciting defensive players in the nation: Scooby Wright. But Wright played just two games in 2015 because of injury.
Solomon failed to live up to expectations and was often benched in favor of Jerrard Randall. Wilson recorded 599 fewer yards and eight fewer touchdowns this season than he had in 2014.
Arizona struggled to remain above .500, ending the season 6-6. The Wildcats also dropped four of their last five, including a crushing 52-37 loss to Arizona State in the Territorial Cup.
SOCIAL MEDIA MOMENT: Utah misdirection punt
When the Utes arrived in Eugene for a game with then-No. 13 Oregon, they hadn’t won at Autzen since 1994. The Utes were 1-6 in their last seven attempts to defeat the Ducks.
This year, however, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham threw everything (including the kitchen sink) at the defending Pac-12 and Rose Bowl champions for a 62-20 victory — Oregon’s worst home loss ever.
The play everyone will remember is Utah’s fake “misdirection” punt return, which absolutely dismantled Oregon’s special teams unit with confusion. While Oregon defenders went one way, Utah returner Boobie Hobbs went the other for a 69-yard touchdown.
2016 PLAYER TO WATCH: Josh Rosen (UCLA)
True freshman quarterback Josh Rosen, before the season, was considered to be UCLA’s biggest question mark.
At season’s end, after a volatile year for injuries at UCLA, Rosen is the program’s most obvious certainty. Aside from BYU’s Tanner Mangum, Rosen was the only true freshman to record 3,000 yards. Rosen also threw 245 consecutive passes without recording an interception, which would be an impressive feat even for a seasoned veteran.
Rosen will continue to grow and develop for the Bruins under head coach Jim Mora, which should excite UCLA fans.