Chris Petersen & Washington - I was one of the many pessimistic people about Petersen at Washington when he was hired and in his first season. The trail of Boise State coaches who had failed at the power conference level was legit and his approach was a little more reserved and old fashioned than what was dominating college football at the time.
All those doubts are obliterated now. Petersen has built a monster at Washington and if you look at the recruiting classes he is putting together now that he has them winning, it looks like they are going to be a force to be reckoned with in the Pac-12 for a long time.
Washington’s defense - As we just saw in the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Husky defense was lights out in 2016. They gave up just 17 points per-game, caused 30 turnovers, gave up less than 330 yards per-game and finished with 36 sacks in an era of offense. Plus, that was without one of their best players for the tougher half of the season and their leader and arguably best player for the final quarter of the season or so.
John Ross - The Huskies have about a dozen players who deserve to be singled out and highlighted so I am going to just stick with the one who was the most wholly impressive and fun to watch. Ross put together one of the best seasons every by a Pac-12 receiver and was simply one of the most-electric players to watch play in and play out.
Mike MacIntyre & Colorado - For someone like me who has watched the Pac-12 week-after-week for the past few years the Colorado breakthrough this year was a thing of beauty. The Buffs were way closer to breaking out the past couple of seasons the past couple of years than their record suggested, so I was thrilled to see MacIntyre and the Buffs finally get over the edge and ultimately win the South.
Sefo Liufau - Liufau was was right there for all of Colorado’s struggles and near breakthroughs so it was awesome to see him lead them through the fire. He was a warrior for four years and was a symbolic leader for the Buffs all season.
Colorado’s defense - Colorado’s defense is right there with Washington’s defense. The back of the defense was almost impossible to throw against (see Pac-12 Championship Game) and they held opponents to just 18 points.
Pac-12 defensive backs - Go look at the All-Pac-12 defensive backs on the second team. Those guys could be first-team All-Americans on any given year. This was the best year for Pac-12 defensive backs I can ever remember.
Pac-12 refs - The Pac-12 officials were legitimately garbage the past couple of years. While they had their struggles this year, they were so much better and less embarrassing this year.
Power balance - Unless you are an Oregon or Stanford fan, seeing new teams at the top of the conference and in the national conversation was pretty refreshing. Nothing against Oregon and Stanford, but after nearly 10 years of only seeing the Ducks and Cardinal up top, it was time to see someone else up there.
USC’s rise - The Trojan carcass was like one of those Decepticons from Transformers (I think I’m thinking about this right), laying at the bottom of the Pacific coast, sleeping and waiting to come to life and cause chaos up and down the coast. It looks like they may have finally woken up in early-October and are ready to do battle for at least the near future.
Clay Helton - That was one of the most-impressive turnarounds I have ever seen. The Trojans seemed like a program on fire just a couple of months ago, but Helton managed to do what Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian weren’t able to do and righted the ship in LA towards Rose Bowls.
Sam Darnold - I just don’t see how this guy wasn’t the starter from day one this season, but I trust the coaches whose jobs were on the line at USC in that it must have not been clear in practice. He might be ready to make a Heisman run as soon as next season.
Luke Falk, Mike Leach, Washington State and proving it back-to-back - Falk was great again for the Cougars and they showed last year was not a fluke by putting together another great season where the Rose Bowl was still in play by the time the Apple Cup rolled along. Leach and Falk have turned the Cougars back into a really good Pac-12 program after years of looking like a Mountain West program playing in the Pac-12.
Christian McCaffrey - His injuries and Stanford’s struggles early in conference play buried him in media attention, but the guy was amazing again with more than 1,600 yards rushing and receiving with 16 touchdowns. Plus, he kept ripping off highlight reel plays all through October and November with the entire opposing defense keying on no one but him.
Joe Williams - Probably the craziest story of the year. Williams ran like a man possessed once he came back to the Utes and carried their offense on his back for pretty much the second half of the season.
Oregon State’s improvement - Gary Andersen and the Beavers took a step forward in 2016. They look like a program which should go from the very bottom to maybe a bowl in just two seasons.
Justin Herbert - The sky may have fell in Eugene. Mark Helfrich may have been fired, but at least the Ducks look like they have a future star at quarterback in true freshman Herbert. The Ducks will likely be back in a couple of years and their big, accurate, athletic quarterback will be a big part of why.
Memorable games - Overall, outside of a few of those 59-56 games I don’t love, it was a very weak year for memorable close games that mattered.
Pac-12 Championship Game - Speaking of…the championship game was another snoozer with the South not being able to compete. A lot of build up for a game that was kind of boring even when it was close.
The South in the Championship Game - The South lost its sixth-straight in the title game and has kept the game closer than 18 points just one time.
Oregon’s collapse - I was one of many who thought the Ducks might take another step back this year, but I didn’t think it could be as big as the one they took this year which got Helfrich fired. They likely bottomed-out in a big way.
Oregon’s defense - Not shocking, but Brady Hoke did nothing to save Oregon’s defense. The Ducks were epically bad at stopping anyone all season.
UCLA’s collapse - The Bruins went the way of the Ducks once Josh Rosen went down, staggering to 4-8 with a rash of embarrassing losses.
USC’s start - The schedule was brutal, but it doesn’t take away from the Trojans starting 1-3 and seeming on the verge of mutiny. That awful start and Max Browne mistake ended up likely costing them at the very least, a shot at the Pac-12 title.
Stanford’s bad patch - David Shaw and the Cardinal quietly coasted to 9-3 with a very soft second half Pac-12 schedule, but it didn’t clean away the stench of that bad stretch where they got obliterated by Washington and then got dusted by Washington State at home and scored just five points against Colorado at home. The Cardinal were banged up, but some of the issues which have slowly crept into the program showed their ugly heads for a few weeks and sunk their season.
Stanford’s offense other than McCaffrey - Shaw and the Cardinal have a serious, serious problem on offense as they had almost no production outside of what they could do with Christian McCaffrey. They didn’t have a single even honorable mention All-Pac-12 offensive lineman, were incredibly limited at receiver and got terrible play at quarterback almost all season. They are in big trouble if McCaffrey leaves for the NFL like he should and they don’t make massive strides this offseason.
Utah’s finish - Once again, the Utes put themselves in the driver’s seat in the South only to stumble down the stretch. Losing a close game to Colorado in Boulder was one thing, but that home loss to Oregon which knocked them out of the South race a week early was ugly, ugly.
Sefo Liufau’s health - It’s too bad Liufau couldn’t stay healthy. It would have been very fun to see what he could have done against Michigan and USC had he not been injured in Colorado’s only two regular season losses.
The state of Arizona - The Arizona schools didn’t win a game not against each other after October 8.
Washington’s non-conference schedule - I’m sure the Huskies never could have imagined their non-conference schedule would almost cost them a Playoff trip when they scheduled it, but it almost did. When Idaho ends up being your best non-conference opponent, something is very, very wrong.
Can Washington go full Don James era? The Huskies not only went 12-1 and won the Pac-12. They did it with an incredibly young team which wasn’t supposed to arrive on this level till next year. The table looks set for the Huskies to make a run like the ones they made under Don James no matter what happens against Alabama on New Year’s Eve. Will they make it happen?
Is USC back again? The Trojans didn’t quite get to fully finish their 2016 run, but they look ready for a major preseason hype tour all offseason in 2017. However, we saw this before after USC’s big late run in 2011 only to have them flounder again despite all world talent. Is this the true return of USC or are we in for another let down despite guaranteed 2017 preseason hype?
How long will Oregon be down? We still don’t know who the coach will be, but not matter who it is, it will likely be a little while before Oregon is back at the top of the conference. How long will the Ducks be down? And is it a guarantee they will be back at all anytime soon?
Is Stanford officially fading? The Cardinal went back to the step they were on in 2014 and don’t have the kind of proven talent returning they had in 2015 to take a step right back forward. The Stanford fade back to the middle and bottom of the conference has long been foreseen. Was 2016 the official start of it after the preview in 2014?
Where does Colorado go from here? The Buffs won the Pac-12 South with great coaching, but they graduate almost every single player of note from their roster after the season and could lose a couple key players in Phillip Lindsay and Shay Fields early to the NFL. Will the Buffs be able to rebuild on the fly and stay a player in the Pac-12 or will they have a rebuilding year or two?
Where does UCLA go from here? The Bruins were a disaster in 2016, but they get Rosen back next year and some nice pieces on both sides of the ball. Do the Bruins prove that 2016 was a mulligan due to Rosen’s injury in 2017, or do they continue the trend of underachieving frustration in Westwood?