Leave it to the Pac-12 to wrap mystery in certainty.
As the 2018 season dawns, the Left Coast league possesses its share of givens.
- Washington, with a stout defense complemented by senior stars at quarterback (Jake Browning) and tailback (Myles Gaskin), is an obvious playoff contender.
- Stanford, with Heisman Trophy runner-up Bryce Love back after a monster 2,118-yard season, is going to live up to its offensive reputation as a wrecking ball.
- Southern Cal will find a way to be perceived both as overrated and as scary as anyone west of the Mississippi, a standard issue for the Trojans nearly every season.
But this is conference that spawned #Pac12AfterDark, and there will be some delightful surprises lurking. Will Mario Cristobal and Oregon build off Willie Taggart’s strong season in Eugene? How much better will California be? What sort of numbers will Arizona’s Khalil Tate put up over a full season? And just what is Chip Kelly going to do in his return to the college game? And then there’s Arizona State’s Herm Edwards experiment, which could unfold in an untold number of ways, nearly all of them interesting.
There might be just enough tumult to effectively eliminate every conference contender from playoff contention by early November, as was the case a year ago. But Washington and Stanford certainly look the most prepared to contend for the sport’s final four in December.
1. Washington (No. 7 nationally, 10-3 in 2017): The Huskies made the College Football Playoff in 2016 and were widely expected to peak last year, their fourth under Chris Petersen. Instead, they stumbled at Arizona State and Stanford last year on nights their offense didn’t get the job done.
Defensively, though, the Huskies were as stingy as they get. They finished in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense, and this season they return the bulk of that lineup, led by safety Taylor Rapp. With quarterback Jake Browning and tailback Myles Gaskin back on offense for a last run as seniors, the Huskies should be one of the nation’s steadiest teams.
2. Stanford (No. 11, 9-5): What a gantlet that awaits the Cardinal, which will play San Diego State, Southern California, Oregon and Notre Dame in September alone. Based on ability on both sides of the ball and the presence of exceptional tailback Bryce Love as the offensive centerpiece, Stanford can play with anyone. It could also be described as the nation’s best two-loss team after the season’s first month.
Coach David Shaw’s offense will be helped immensely by a more tested K.J. Costello, a sophomore who limited errors in the second half of last season while settling in as a starting quarterback. One surprising area of concern: a defense that kept only one opponent (Washington State) to less than 100 yards on the ground last season.
3. Oregon (No. 27, 7-6): Way back in 2012, one of the strangest postseason firings was Mario Cristobal, who led Florida International to its first two winning seasons before collapsing to 3-9. After some time on Nick Saban’s staff and then a year at Oregon last year, Cristobal was handed the Ducks’ big whistle when Willie Taggart bounced to Florida State.
Tempting as it is to point to a healthy Justin Herbert at quarterback, the root of Oregon’s improvement last year was a defense that progressed from horrid to solid enough. To be clear: “Solid” probably results in a third-place finish in the Pac-12 North in 2018. Some more improvement by linebacker Troy Dye and his teammates makes Oregon a sneaky division contender — especially in a year the Ducks get Washington (off a bye) and Stanford at home.
4. California (No. 50, 5-7): The Golden Bears are a bit of a puzzling team to project. They went just 2-7 in the Pac-12 last year but also played Arizona, Stanford and UCLA tough late in the year.
Justin Wilcox’s biggest influence in his first season was to take the defense from terrible to credible. The Golden Bears allowed their fewest points and yards per game since 2011, which probably shouldn’t be much of a surprise given how much Sonny Dykes’s teams in Berkeley tilted toward offense.
Nearly the entire starting lineup on offense is back, including tailback Patrick Laird (a 1,000-yard rusher) and all five offensive line regulars. With a manageable nonconference schedule and five league home games, a bowl appearance is a realistic goal for this team.
5. Washington State (No. 57, 9-4): The Cougars have won at least eight games in each of the last three years. The program’s done that only one other time; the 2001-03 Wazzu teams all won 10 games and helped vault Coach Mike Price (briefly) to the Alabama job.
Mike Leach and Co. will try to make it four in a row, and there are some things working in the Cougars’ favor. The nonconference schedule is tame, and they’ll play only four Pac-12 road games. But there are a lot of new starters on both sides of the ball, and superb defensive coordinator Alex Grinch left for Ohio State.
Washington State is counting on East Carolina graduate transfer Gardner Minshew to immediately step in and handle the quarterback job. If he thrives in the Air Raid (and he was recruited to East Carolina to play in such a system), the Cougars will probably do better than this projection. But the Pac-12 North is tough, and it’s plausible Washington State slips back a bit this season.
6. Oregon State (No. 106, 1-11): The most daunting Power Five job outside of Kansas might be the one former Oregon State quarterback Jonathan Smith accepted in December: the one at his alma mater. (Other contenders for this “honor,” for a variety of reasons: Illinois, Maryland, Rutgers and — to an omnipresent but lesser extent — Vanderbilt.)
The Beavers limped through a good chunk of last season with an interim coach, but 2017 was the culmination of struggles that stretch back to the early stages of this decade. Oregon State needed a careful turnaround under Mike Riley’s first stewardship to set up a largely successful 15-year stretch in Corvallis. It’s going to take time for Smith to replicate that process in the next few seasons.
1. Southern Cal (No. 15, 11-3): Few programs get the benefit of the doubt more than the Trojans, who are annually highly touted and have often fallen short of expectations. But after the program’s first consecutive 10-win seasons since 2002 through 2008, maybe a little faith is warranted even with the likes of Sam Darnold and Ronald Jones II moving on.
The defending Pac-12 champions will avoid both Oregon and Washington in the regular season, but they’ll break in a new starting quarterback in September, which includes trips to Stanford, Texas and Arizona.
This season could have echoes of 2016, when the Trojans started 1-3, eventually turned to Darnold and closed the year on a nine-game winning streak. There’s plenty of talent in place, and Coach Clay Helton has achieved a kind of quiet consistency that eluded his two predecessors. USC will likely figure things out eventually this season. The question is whether it happens in September or later.
2. Utah (No. 37, 7-6): Only three Pac-12 teams have finished the season ranked in three of the last four seasons: USC, Stanford and Utah. Last year was the outlier for the Utes, who followed a 4-0 start with six losses in seven games before dispatching Colorado and West Virginia to finish at 7-6.
Even with that, Utah stuck to a well-established identity. Its defense, which allowed fewer than 28 points per game and 400 yards per game each year since entering the Pac-12 in 2011, gave up 400 yards just four times. The offense, with a new starting quarterback and a rebuilt offensive line, was decidedly middle of the pack. With greater continuity — especially up front and with second-year starting quarterback Tyler Huntley — the Utes are a good bet to improve in the win column.
3. Arizona (No. 47, 7-6): One of three Pac-12 South schools with a new coach this season, the Wildcats are the most immediately intriguing of the bunch. Some of it stems from a fresh start for Coach Kevin Sumlin, who established an indisputable track record at Texas A&M: The Aggies weren’t going to be a conference title contender, but they’d always be in line for eight- or nine-win seasons.
That straight-line consistency will work better in the desert, and there’s a chance the Wildcats fare even better if quarterback Khalil Tate crisply runs Sumlin’s offense. Tate, of course, was the best player in the nation last October, and the Tate-Sumlin partnership should be a fun one to watch. The Pac-12 South isn’t exactly loaded, and there might be enough in place to claim a division title.
4. UCLA (No. 53, 6-7): Chip Kelly’s back in the college game after stints with the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers. For UCLA’s purposes, the only relevant issue is whether he can do for it what he did for Oregon. That would mean turning the Bruins into a national title contender.
Kelly found immediate success when he followed Mike Bellotti, but he also had the benefit of serving as Oregon’s offensive coordinator before taking over. There’s no such luxury at UCLA, which means this offseason’s splashiest hire is probably going to need a couple years before he has the Bruins in division title contention.
5. Arizona State (No. 64, 7-6): Let’s ignore the news releases littered with business jargon and state the basics about the Herm Edwards hire: He’s a 64-year-old who hasn’t coached anywhere since 2008 and hasn’t worked in the college game since 1989. “Innovative” is the upbeat spin for the hire. (Okay, the business jargon couldn’t be completely avoided.) “Unconventional” probably is the fairest assessment.
That said, the Sun Devils are 67-60 over the past decade, and they regressed after back-to-back 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014. Sure, it’s a risk. But sometimes risk is necessary for a program that probably needs to be a little different to achieve sustained high-end success.
Arizona State went 6-7, 5-7 and 7-6 over the last three seasons. It would be amusing — and plausible — if the Sun Devils ended up in that neighborhood again in Edwards’s first season.
6. Colorado (No. 75, 5-7): Well, that fizzled fast. A year after an out-of-nowhere division title, Colorado lost five games by double figures. A step back was to be expected after serious graduation hits on defense, but that much?
This year, it’s the offense (outside of quarterback Steven Montez) that loses much of its continuity. Coach Mike MacIntyre’s team does get some schedule help (five conference home games and no sign of Oregon or Stanford), but there’s still some basic math to get over. The Buffaloes allowed at least 27 points in every Pac-12 game last year and scored that many only four times. They need improvement everywhere if they’re to get much past .500.