CONFERENCE PREVIEW: PAC 12
By Simon Carroll
A team-by-team analysis of the PAC 12, the season ahead and final standings predictions.
1. Oregon Ducks
2018: 9-4 (5-4)
Is this the year that Oregon return to relevance? The days of Chip Kelly and Marcus Mariota seem a long time ago, but finally the Ducks seem to be back on track under the watchful eye of Mario Cristobal.
The reason for such optimism in Eugene is of course Justin Herbert, one of the most talented Quarterbacks in the nation who eschewed the opportunity to head to the NFL and returns for his senior year. He’ll have a strong offensive line and stellar backfield tandem to help him out in CJ Verdell & Travis Dye.
On the other side of the ball it’s another Dye – Troy – who returns to lead the defense which has lost some talent this offseason but has a top tier recruiting class to fall back on. Keep your eye out for Kayvon Thabidoux who is set to take the Pac-12 by storm in 2019.
If Oregon are to win the North and get back to the summit of college football they’ll have to do it the hard way; they play Auburn in week 1 before a brutal road schedule of Washington, Stanford & USC with Washington State at home thrown in the middle of those trips for good measure. No easy feat, but Oregon are still the team to beat for me.
2. Washington Huskies
2018: 10-4 (7-2), PAC 12 Champions
Make no mistake – I’m not sleeping on Washington by projecting them second in the North. They are certainly in the mix for the division and have a roster as talented as Oregon’s in every way. The only way I could split these two programs is at Quarterback; Oregon know what they have in Herbert whereas The Huskies are handing the keys to Jacob Eason after Jake Browning left for the NFL.
Eason has a huge arm and possibly greater upside than Browning, but who knows how long it will take him to bed in after transferring to Washington from Georgia and sitting out 2018 as a result.
The list of defensive talent that moved on this offseason is daunting – Byron Murphy, Taylor Rapp, Greg Gaines, Ben Burr-Kirven – but The Huskies always seem to have the next man up ready to go and I’m convinced the learning curve will be smooth. They also have a relatively friendly schedule too. The Huskies will be there or thereabouts once more, and if they go unbeaten should be knocking on the door of the College Football Playoffs.
3. Stanford Cardinal
2018: 9-4 (6-3)
Stanford, by their own recent high standards, let themselves down last season. Losing at home to both Utah and Washington State were huge blows to their Pac-12 aspirations after starting the season 4-0 with big wins against Oregon & USC.
Things don’t get any easier for The Cardinal as they have possibly the toughest non-conference schedule out of any of their rivals with a home opener against Northwestern, hosting Notre Dame and travelling to UCF which is as unforgiving a game as you can imagine. They also have to contend with the loss of some serious talent – Nate Herbig, JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Bryce Love, Kaden Smith and Bobby Okereke all gone.
Having said all that they have one of the most underrated Quarterbacks in college football in KJ Costello and will have a potential breakout candidate in Colby Parkinson at Tight End to pass the ball too. This is Stanford – David Shaw’s Stanford – and they’ll be competitive. But the odds are stacked against them in a tough North Division in 2019.
4. Washington State Cougars
2018: 11-2 (7-2)
These are exciting times for football in Pullman. Mike Leach has transformed this program and installed his air raid offense for which he is famous for to great effect. After three years laying the foundations The Cougars have been perennial challengers in the North division, winning 37 games in the last four years and having a conference record of 26-10 in that period.
Last season was Leach’s best yet as he guided Wazzou to an 11-2 record and one Apple Cup win away from the Pac-12 championship game and maybe more. To continue that form will require some more of the Leach magic – Gardner Minshew came in from East Carolina and tore it up and the Cougars will be hoping for more of the same with their latest Quarterback. Gage Gubrud heads over from Eastern Washington and should be the next guy to explode in this offense.
Most of Gubrud’s weapons return but there’s some flux on his offensive line with Left Tackle Andre Dillard gone. The defense has gone from strength to strength and second year Co-Ordinator Tracy Claeys will be hoping for them to kick on even further in 2019. If the Cougars can work out how to beat Washington in week 14 they could once again be the dark horses of the division.
5. California Golden Bears
2018: 7-6 (4-5)
It is testament to just how loaded the Pac-12 North is that Cal are being ranked fifth in this division. This conference is being lauded for it’s offensive talent but The Bears may have the best defense – they held teams to an average of 20 points last season and with the whole cast returning they should be even better in 2019.
Despite the strides this program has made under Justin Wilcox there are some question marks that could hinder their ability to compete with the likes of Washington and Oregon this year; A Quarterback battle is brewing between UCLA transfer Devon Modster and last year’s eventual starter Chase Garbers, and the O-Line has been a problem area for the offense for the past couple of seasons.
Add to that a pretty tough schedule which includes a tough week 2 match against Washington, a three game streak of at Ole Miss, home to Arizona State and at Oregon, then finishing with USC, Stanford and UCLA. That is brutal, and maybe just too much for this resurgent program to overcome.
6. Oregon State Beavers
2018: 2-10 (1-8)
It’s been a long time since Oregon State was relevant in the Pac-12, and despite signs of life under new head coach Jonathan Smith in 2018, they are still a fair distance behind the rest of their division when it comes to talent.
The one thing they do have is one of the best running backs in the nation in Jermar Jefferson who they will be hoping to ride to a few more wins than the two they managed last term. My concern is where they are going to get a win from in their conference in 2019. Their best bet may be in week 12 when they host Arizona State in a battle between two elite running backs but it’s a hard sell.
On the positive side there is a nice collection of weapons for whichever Quarterback makes it out of camp as the starter, and the defense adds some transfers to a unit that has most of it’s starters returning in 2019. More improvement for Smith? Maybe. Seeing that improvement translate to a better record? Probably not.
1. Utah Utes
2018: 9-5 (6-3)
The stars may have aligned for Utah in 2019 after reaching the Pac-12 championship game for the first time in their history in November. That tight game against Washington in Santa Clara didn’t go their way but there’s every reason to be optimistic about the Utes getting back there this season.
They have a dual-threat Quarterback set to be dominant in Tyler Huntley providing he can avoid more injury, and an underrated running back returning for his senior year in Zack Moss. There’s some turnover in both trenches but this Defense was dominant last year and with dominant edge rusher Bradlee Anae returning they should be able to maintain the level that saw them match Cal’s average of just 20 points conceded per game.
Schedule-wise they have a big conference opener at USC which will go a long way to determining the South, and a tough game (possibly a Championship game preview) at Washington but avoid Oregon & Stanford. Their non-conference schedule is reasonable and allow them another tilt at the Pac-12, but probably not strong enough for them to make any playoff noise. Expect them to be there or thereabouts this year.
2. USC Trojans
2018: 5-7 (4-5)
Last year was one to quickly forget for the Trojans, who won no big game of note but lost plenty including at Stanford, Texas, Utah & home to Notre Dame. They also ended the season on a three-game losing streak that saw them beaten by both their in-state rivals. I think it’s fair to say that another losing season for Clay Helton and his tenure as USC Head Coach will be over.
A shakeup of his staff has been less than smooth following the appointment then subsequent departure of Kliff Kingsbury as Offensive Co-Ordinator. Graham Harrell was promoted and is tasked with getting the most out of JT Daniels, who as a freshman in a dysfunctional team had the expected ups and downs but showed enough promise to get Trojan fans excited.
Daniels will be helped by a receiving corps that on it’s day can be deadly with Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns both set to shine. Defensively this team has a long way to go to compete with Utah and it’s a young group after a lot of experienced talent hit the NFL this offseason. The week 4 tilt against The Utes is a must-win for Helton, who has been given a schedule that demands he hit the ground running.
3. UCLA Bruins
2018: 3-9 (3-6)
Any team coached by Chip Kelly is going to get attention, and The Bruins are one of the more intriguing teams in the Pac-12 this year.
It wasn’t a smooth start for Kelly in his first season back in the college game as UCLA lost their first 5 matches, but you could see the growth towards the end of the year that saw them beat Cal, Arizona, USC and push Arizona State and Stanford very close. You really can see them getting off to a fast start this year and despite having Oklahoma and a trip to Washington State in September they could conceivably have more wins after six games than they had in the whole of 2018.
Offensively they look to bring back most of their pieces outside of Tight End Caleb Wilson; Dorian Thompson-Robinson returns at Quarterback and Joshua Kelly should keep the ground game rolling. It’s the Defense that needs to step it up after struggling to get to the opposition’s QB and being porous on the back end pretty much all of last year. But the outlook is bright for The Bruins as they head into year two of the Chip Kelly era.
4. Arizona Wildcats
2018: 5-7 (4-5)
Whilst most people would fancy the Sun Devils to be the team to beat in the Copper State, I project The Wildcats to have the better year out of the two heading into 2019. The reason for this is their two-pronged attack of do-it-all Quarterback Khalil Tate and explosive Running Back JJ Taylor.
This unit struggled to hit it’s breathless peak under first year Head Coach Kevin Sumlin, but we know what it is capable of from the Rich Rodriguez days and Sumlin has shown with Johnny Manziel that he is capable of orchestrating a multi-faceted offense. Another year building cohesion should see it back up to speed.
Defensively big things are expected of Co-Ordinator Marcel Yates as they look to improve on a season where they shipped more than 30 points a games, and they will be relying on Linebacker Colin Schooler to pick up where he left off from last year. The schedule is a mixed bag but it’s not out of the question to suggest that Arizona has the talent to be ‘the best of the rest’ in the Pac-12.
5. Arizona State Sun Devils
2018: 7-6 (5-4)
Call me a nay-sayer, call me a non-believer, but I just don’t trust Herm Edwards to maintain the success he surprisingly brought to Tempe in his first season back on the sideline in ten years. And whilst everyone is getting excited about what they achieved in 2018, it was ultimately only a 7-6 season with a roster stacked with offensive talent.
Most of that talent has gone; N’Keal Harry being the major loss but also QB Manny Wilkins, who leaves behind him the untested Dillon Sterling-Cole and three baby faced freshmen competing for the job. One saving grace for this offense is Eno Benjamin, who could be a spectacular year away from Heisman honours if this offensive line can hold up.
Defensively the bulk of the starters return but losing Renell Wren to the NFL could be a killer blow to a defense that already struggled against the run last season. Despite an easy non-conference start the schedule is unforgiving. An uphill battle awaits the Sun Devils in their bid for another bowl game.
6. Colorado Buffaloes
2018: 5-7 (2-7)
It seems crazy to suggest that a team who, in mid October last year last year was ranked #19, could be propping up the Pac-12 the next season. Particularly when you consider they have a very stable situation at Quarterback in Steven Montez and one of the best receivers in the nation in Laviska Shenault. But a seven game losing stretch to end 2018 destroyed the Buffaloes hopes of post-season football and Mike MacIntyre was fired as a result.
The onus falls on new Head Coach Mel Tucker to pick up the pieces, and the Colorado fans will be hoping his experience as Georgia’s Defensive Co-Ordinator will help them shore up a unit that surrendered 28 points per game last year. It will be a tough ask as the Buffaloes face Oregon, Stanford and both Washington Teams from the North as well as hosting the resurgent Nebraska in their usual rivalry game.
Despite their offensive firepower it is hard to see where Colorado will be competitive in the Pac-12 this year. Tucker is going to need more than one year to turn things around in Boulder.
previously the founder of nfl draft uk, simon has been covering college football and the nfl draft since 2009. based in manchester, simon is also co-creator & weekly guest of the collapsing pocket podcast.