After an abysmal showing in 2017, the Pac-12 hopes to collectively regain momentum and become a threat to the top dogs of college football. Five schools (Arizona, Arizona St., Oregon, Oregon St., UCLA) have new coaches this season, while Washington, Stanford, and USC enter 2018 with dreams of reaching the College Football Playoff.
Let’s take a look at how the Pac-12 stands heading into Week 1:
12. Oregon State Beavers
Last year’s record: 1-11
Most important returning player: QB Jake Luton
Oregon State was atrocious a season ago. The Beavers surrendered 516 points in 2017, the fourth worst mark in Division 1. Jonathan Smith is the new man in charge in Corvallis, replacing Gary Anderson. OSU will rely on quarterback Jake Luton to lead an offense that scored a Pac-12 low 248 points a season ago. The defense returns eight starters from last year, but if the Beavers hope to make any noise in the North, the unit must put forth a greater effort. OSU has an opportunity to gain some respect nationally as they open the season in Columbus against the Buckeyes, but year one will be a rebuilding year for Smith and the Beavers.
11. Arizona State Sun Devils
Last year’s record: 7-6
Most important returning player: WR N’Keal Harry
ASU stunned (and confused) football fans when they hired Herm Edwards to be its new head coach. Edwards hasn’t coached since 2008, making his inaugural season with the Sun Devils one of the more interesting storylines of the season. ASU’s hopes reside with star receiver N’Keal Harry and quarterback Manny Wilkins. Harry is arguably the best wide-out in college football and Wilkins is a dynamic QB, giving ASU one of the best QB-WR combos in the nation. The offensive line will have to do a better job protecting Wilkins — allowed 41 sacks in 2017 — if the Sun Devils want to have a successful season. The Sun Devils have the potential to be a seven or eight win team, but their floor is also very low.
10. Colorado Buffaloes
Last year’s record: 5-7
Most important returning player: QB Steven Montez
The Buffaloes were one of college football’s darlings two seasons ago, surprising everyone by winning 10 games and reaching the Pac-12 Championship. Last season, Colorado fell back down to Earth. Montez will be crucial to Colorado’s hopes in the South this season, especially with the departure of Phillip Lindsey leaving a hole at running back. The Buffs return six defensive starters to a unit that surrendered over six yards per play last year. The Pac-12 did Colorado a favor this year as they avoid playing both Stanford and Oregon. Expect Mike MacIntyre’s squad to finish the season with six or seven wins.
9. Washington State Cougars
Last year’s record: 9-4
Most important returning player: S Jalen Thompson
It has been a rough offseason in Pullman. The tragic loss of Tyler Hilinski will weigh on the Cougars for a long time to come, and could potentially derail their season in the interim. Minshew, a grad transfer from East Carolina, will be the Cougars’ quarterback to start the year. Replacing defensive coordinator Alex Grinch will also be a tall task for Wazzu, as Grinch turned the Cougars defense into a good outfit over the past few seasons. Washington State has the talent to remain formidable, but it is likely they will take a small step back in 2018.
8. California Golden Bears
Last year’s record: 5-7
Most important returning player: QB Ross Bowers
Justin Wilcox and company may have only won five games last year, but the Golden Bears probably deserved more — they lost three games by three or fewer points. Bowers returns after throwing for more than 3,000 yards and he will have good support in the backfield. Patrick Laird broke out with 1,127 yards in 2017, providing Cal with a capable runner and hope for a potent attack. Their schedule, while still tough, is easier than last year’s. Returning 18 starters will help a young Cal team, as will another season under the watch of Wilcox. Cal may still be a few years away from challenging for the North, but they should be an improved group this year.
7. Arizona Wildcats
Last year’s record: 7-6
Most important returning player: QB Khalil Tate
The last time Kevin Sumlin had a quarterback this electrifying, he (Johnny Manziel) won the Heisman Trophy. Tate enters the 2018 season as one of the most exciting players in the nation. Tate accounted for over 3,000 yards of total offense and 26 touchdowns last season, including a ridiculous 1,411 yards on the ground. Arizona has 17 returning starters, nine of which are on the Wildcats’ defense. Arizona will be a trendy pick to win a lot of contests in the Pac-12, and with Tate leading the charge, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Zona push for eight or nine wins. Nine wins and a potential Pac-12 South title could go a long way in helping Tate’s Heisman case as well.
6. UCLA Bruins
Last year’s record: 6-7
Most important returning player: TE Caleb Wilson
Usually when a program loses a talent like Josh Rosen, there can be a sense of doom surrounding the program — that is not the case with the 2018 Bruins. Chip Kelly choosing UCLA over Florida has re-energized the fan base and made people across the country take notice of the Bruins. TE Caleb Wilson should become a national name under Kelly. Wilson was one of the best offensive players in the country last year before an injury ended his season. The Bruins have one of the toughest schedules in the country this year, including road games against Oklahoma and Oregon. It may take a season or two for Kelly’s program to take off, but an eight-win season would be a tremendous result for Kelly’s Bruins.
5. Utah Utes
Last year’s record: 7-6
Most important returning player: QB Tyler Huntley
This Utah team has the potential to win the South for the first time since joining the Pac-12. Kyle Whittingham’s Utes are one of the most experienced teams in the conference and are led by a dynamic QB-RB combination in Huntley and Zack Moss. Utah has a daunting schedule in 2018, but with three teams in the South under new leadership, the division is theirs for the taking. Utah’s floor is relatively high, as I don’t see the Utes finishing any worse than 7-5.
4. USC Trojans
Last year’s record: 11-3
Most important returning player: OL Toa Lobendahn
Just like their crosstown rivals, USC is faced with replacing its superstar quarterback from last year. With Sam Darnold now playing for the New York Jets, look for freshman J.T. Daniels to seize the starting role. RB Stephen Carr is an elusive back who has the potential to be the next great SC back. USC’s defense has the capability to be one of the best in the conference, but the team’s success will likely come down to quarterback play. Toa Lobendahn will be instrumental in solidifying the offensive line for the Trojans. USC is lucky to avoid both Washington and Oregon in the regular season, giving SC the easiest path to the Pac-12 South crown.
3. Oregon Ducks
Last year’s record: 7-6
Most important returning player: QB Justin Herbert
Everything is lining up for Oregon to have a great season. Star quarterback Justin Herbert is set to return to the lineup after missing the last half of 2017. The Ducks have one of the easier schedules in the conference, avoiding USC and playing Stanford, Washington, and UCLA at home. With a healthy Herbert last year, the Ducks averaged 52.1 points per game. Herbert will be a trendy Heisman pick if the Ducks start the year strong — three cupcakes precede a showdown with Stanford in Week 4. Herbert will have plenty of help on offense, so the Ducks’ success will ultimately come down to their defense. If the defense continues to improve under Jim Leavitt, Oregon has the ability to challenge Stanford and Washington for Pac-12 supremacy.
2. Stanford Cardinal
Last year’s record: 9-5
Most important returning player: RB Bryce Love
The two biggest hurdles for Stanford this season will be the Washington Huskies and their unbalanced schedule. Love’s decision to return to The Farm is huge for the Cardinal. Love will be in the mix for the Heisman Trophy should Stanford have a successful season. K.J. Costello has the potential to be Stanford’s best quarterback since Andrew Luck. He gives the Cardinal the added dimension of being able to throw the ball downfield. Four of the five losses Stanford suffered last season were by three points or fewer. Road games against Oregon, Notre Dame, Washington and UCLA will be challenging. However, this team possesses the talent to win 10+ games in 2018.
1. Washington Huskies
Last year’s record: 10-3
Most important returning player: RB Myles Gaskin
Ever since Chris Petersen made the jump from Boise to Seattle, the Huskies have been on the fast-track to the top of college football. Two seasons removed from an appearance in the College Football Playoff, Washington is primed for another shot at the final quartet. Gaskin returns as one of the best running backs in the Pac-12. Former Heisman hopeful Jake Browning is back for another crack at glory. The Huskies have one of the best defensive backfields in the nation, and should once again have the best unit in the conference. The one hole in Washington’s attack may be the lack of a deep threat. If the Huskies can get past Auburn in their Week 1 tilt, UW could see itself running the table all the way to the College Football Playoff.
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