1 Big Question for every team in the Pac-12 North*
Every Pac-12 team—heck, every team in the country—has at least one big question mark heading into the 2022 campaign.
While, yes, the conference has done away with divisions for the first time since expanding to 12 teams in 2011, for our purposes, we’ll break down our Big Questions into the previous divisions. Last time around, I wrote about the Pac-12 South.
Here’s a look at the big questions in the Pac-12 North:
Cal: Can the Bears establish an offensive identity?
Cal was just pedestrian offensively last year, a disparate collection of pieces—some of them pretty decent—that never came together.
Take Chase Garbers. The Bears QB ranked second in the conference in total offense, just a hair shy of league-leader Dorian Thompson-Robinson of UCLA. And Garbers’ passing yards per game was good enough for fourth in the conference. Yet, confoundingly, Cal ranked ninth in the conference in passing yards (221.8 per game).
Similarly, the Bears ranked a respectable sixth in the conference in rushing yards, yet had no one in the top 10 in the conference in rushing yards.
It wasn’t turnovers—Cal had just 10 last year, eight Garbers picks and two fumbles—and the third-down conversion percentage wasn’t terrible.
But this year, Justin Wilcox is going to have to establish an offensive identity with clear roles and responsibilities. The team’s two top rushers, Christopher Brooks and Damien Moore, return, and Wilcox needs to get both of them the ball more often; they each averaged 5.2 yards per carry. The Bears lose four of their top five receivers from a year ago—only Jeremiah Hunter returns—but they’ve got some young targets moving through the system, plus 3-star freshmen Mason Starling and Jaiven Plummer.
It’s another Plummer, former Purdue quarterback Jack Plummer, who is the big question mark, however. Plummer started 13 games in his final three years with the Boilermakers, throwing for 3,405 yards and 26 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. If he can put up those numbers this year, preferably by finding a go-to guy, the Bears should edge over .500.
Oregon: Can Bo Nix recapture the magic?
In 2019, Bo Nix burst onto the scene with Auburn as a true freshman, beating Justin Herbert and the Ducks, 27-21, with a game-winning touchdown pass. That’s how it started. How’d it end? With Nix winning SEC Freshman of the Year honors after leading the Tigers to a 9-3 record in the regular season.
With his trajectory almost straight up, anything less than perfection would’ve been a disappointment, and Nix did indeed underwhelm his last two years at Auburn. In 2020, Nix threw 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions in a 6-5 sophomore year. Last year he had just 11 scoring tosses, though only three interceptions, before being sidelined with an ankle injury in Game 10 against Mississippi State.
A change of scenery will likely do Nix good, but a familiar face will make the transition particularly easy. Offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham, who served as Auburn offensive coordinator in Nix’s freshman season before taking the role at Florida State, is the new Oregon offensive coordinator.
If Nix can pick up where he left under Dillingham, the Ducks have found their man.
Oregon State: Can the Beavers back it up?
The Beavers are one of the most fascinating stories in the Pac-12. At one point an absolute doormat for decades in the conference, Oregon State started building some momentum in the late 1990s and had a great run in the 2000s, going to eight bowl games in 10 years. Then came another valley, as the Beavers went to just two bowl games in the 2010s (2012 and 2013), bottoming out at 1-11 in 2017.
Former OSU quarterback Jonathan Smith took the helm in 2018 and in four years, he’s turned the Beavers back into a bowl team. Oregon State was arguably the conference’s surprise team from a year ago, finishing 7-5 with wins including USC, Washington, and Pac-12 champion Utah.
Now that all eyes are on Corvallis once more, can the Beavers build off a big season and return to the postseason?
Stanford: Can David Shaw button up the offensive line?
There was a time when the Stanford Cardinal boasted the big, baddest and brightest offensive line this side of the Mississippi. It was one thing when the Cardinal were just tough up front, but getting intelligent offensive linemen who bought into David Shaw’s system, ones who gave him flexibility up front, was the key.
Where have they gone?
Stanford ranked last in the conference in rushing attempts and yards and second-to-last in yards per carry. Truly unforgivable numbers, really: 86.9 rushing yards per game last year as a team, just 1,043 rushing yards on the year. For the team! That’s a decent enough season for one player, but for a team?
This is Stanford! Christian McCaffrey! Toby Gerhart! What has happened?
When the Cardinal were averaging more than 11 wins per season from 2010-2016, Stanford just mashed opponents.
Now they’re the potato.
Washington: Will the skill starters stand out?
The Huskies have solid talent on both lines, including maybe the conference’s best lineman in Jaxson Kirkland. Between two-year starter Dylan Morris and Indiana transfer Michael Penix, they have depth at quarterback. That’s a good start.
But can they get big production from skill position starters?
Last year, the Huskies had no one in the top 10 in rushing yards, receiving yards, or scoring, and Morris finished 10th in pass efficiency.
Former New Mexico running back Aaron Dumas shined brightly for the Lobos last season; he’ll take over for a backfield that had no rusher over 434 yards a year ago. On the perimeter, former Nevada Gatorade Player of the Year Rome Odunze should get plenty of looks. The Huskies will need another receiver to emerge if they are really going to make noise.
Washington State: Is Cameron Ward as advertised?
When you lose your Pac-12 Freshman of the Year quarterback, that can be a cause for concern.
But the Cougars made up for the loss of Jayden de Laura in a hurry.
On January 10, just a couple days after de Laura announced his transfer to Arizona, Ward announced he was following his Incarnate Word coach Eric Morris to Washington State. Morris, who moves to the Palouse as offensive coordinator, brings his star pupil after Ward threw for 4,648 yards and 47 touchdowns with 10 interceptions, guiding UIW to the second round of the FCS playoffs.
Ward, overlooked out of high school because he quarterbacked in a Wing-T offense, is getting dark horse Heisman buzz and some people are calling him one of the biggest transfers in the country.
If he lives up to the billing, the Cougars are sitting pretty.