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2018 Pac-12 Preview & Predictions

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NCAA Football: Foster Farms Bowl-Arizona vs Purdue Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

The last time we saw the Pac-12 in action, they went 1-8 in bowl games with their only win coming over West Virginia playing without their star player, QB Will Grier. USC was beaten in the trenches and couldn’t establish the run against Ohio State. Washington lost to Penn State and Stanford couldn’t beat TCU. It was a disaster, but you can’t take too much from bowl games. With coaching changes, the long-layoff, and questionable motivation they can be a bit of a crap shoot. Still, it was an exclamation mark on the season long statement that the Pac-12 was the weakest Power Five conference in 2017. Will they be again in 2018? Maybe not, as the Pac-12 North looks quite strong. We’ll start out discussion there:

Washington: The Washington Huskies are the consensus pick to win the Pac-12 North. After a 10-3 season, they return 7 starters on offense including QB Jake Browning and RB Myles Gaskin. They will have six seniors in their starting offense. The defense returns even more, with nine starters coming back. The secondary should be their strength.

They avoid USC and Arizona from the South Division, but have to travel to UCLA and Utah. They get Stanford at home, which could be the difference maker. If they can beat Auburn in the season opening battle in Atlanta, they will be very well situated for a playoff run. They’re pre-season #4 in the S&P+ (Auburn is #5).

Stanford: In 2017, the Cardinal started 1-2 only to go on an 8-1 run and beat Washington to win the North. They finished with two losses (USC and TCU) to end 9-5. Now, they return eight starters on offense including one of the top players in the country, RB Bryce Love, who played through injury much of last season.

The challenge arises on defense where they have to replace most of their defensive line. Their schedule also makes their path a little tricky. They play USC from the South and must go to both Oregon and Washington for road games. Their three game non-conference schedule presents hurdles too. They start with San Diego State, who beat them last season, and later travel to Notre Dame.

The Cardinal should be one of the top two teams in the Pac-12, but given their unfavorable schedule, uncertainty on defense, and particularly strong team up in Seattle, they’re likely to finish second in their division.

Valero Alamo Bowl - Stanford v TCU Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images
Valero Alamo Bowl - Stanford v TCU Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Oregon: Losing Willie Taggart after just one year has to sting, but QB Justin Herbert is back and he was the common denominator in the Duck’s success last season. He’s one of three elite QB’s the Pac-12 boasts (along with the aforementioned Jake Browning and Arizona’s Khalil Tate). They return seven starters on each side of the ball and have literally the weakest schedule in all of P5 football with three non-conference cupcakes to start the season: Bowling Green, Portland State, and San Jose State. They also get both Stanford and Washington at home, but after losing to them by a combined 77 points last season, I’m still not considering moving them above third in the North.

California: Despite my strong preference for Wazzou and the goofy Mike Leach, I am going against my fellow writers and our readers by putting the Cal Bears above them. Cal returns 10 starters on offense and should improve there after regressing offensively in year one under Justin Wilcox. Their defense returns seven starters as well.

Washington State: Mike Leach nearly went to Tennessee. Instead, Tennessee has a far less entertaining coach and Leach returns to a squad that loses the all-time Pac-12 leader in passing yards, Luke Falk. The man who was expected to replace him, Tyler Hilinski, tragically committed suicide this offseason. He was found to have CTE, the degenerative brain condition caused by concussive and subconcussive hits to the head.

Washington State went 9-4 last season, but finished just 3-4, including a loss to Cal. They may take a temporary step back this season.

(Given Coach Larry Fedora’s comments denying the link between football and CTE, I’d like to briefly touch on the importance of this. We love football and we love it in part because it’s uniquely American and particularly tough. It’s unlike soccer and other popular sports in those ways and we don’t want that to change or it to become unrecognizable. While the science is not yet conclusive, preventing these tragedies is the right thing to do and necessary for the long-term health of the sport. Reasonable tweaks to the rules and advances in technology are key and deserve our support.)

Oregon State: The Beavers went 0-9 in Pac-12 play and only return five starters on defense from a unit that finished last in the conference in scoring defense. They have a few more years left in their rebuild, but at least they’re the NCAA baseball National Champions.

Arizona: Of all the P5 divisions, USC in the Pac-12 South is the most vulnerable division favorite (Ohio State/Wisconsin; Clemson/Miami; Washington/USC). While USC undoubtedly has the most recruited talent in the division, Arizona has a great shot to knock them off. The Wildcats have several big factors in their favor:

1) They have an elite QB, Khalil Tate, who averaged 172 passing yards and 148 rushing over the last nine games of the year.

2) They have a forgiving schedule that sees them avoid both Stanford and Washington while getting USC in Tuscon.

3) They return eight starters on offense and nine on defense. Five of those returning starters on defense are only sophomores, underscoring how young they were last season.

When they host USC in week 5, it’ll be a must win as they can’t expect the Trojans to lose two other conference games. The Wildcats need some injury luck at QB and on defense, as they’re a bit thin. For that reason, it’s fortunate that the matchup with USC comes early. Kevin Sumlin’s best season at Texas A&M was his first. Now we comes to Tuscon with a solid roster and a chance to compete immediately.

USC: The Trojans are the most talented team in the division and possibly the conference, but they face significant roster turnover including replacing Sam Darnold, who was selected #3 overall in the NFL draft after throwing for 4,143 yards. They return four starters on their offensive line, but allowed 30 sacks last season. If the line remains porous, it will allow defenses to get pressure on an inexperienced QB as they will start either a freshman or sophomore with little to no game experience.

They return seven starters on defense, an area that figures to be the team’s strength. They tied Clemson in sacks last season (46) and should rank highly again. They have a difficult schedule though with a week 2 trip to Stanford and a week 3 trip to Texas before the big divisional clash in Tuscon in week 5.

Utah: The Utes continue to progress as a program and enter 2018 projected 28th in the S&P+. Unfortunately, they draw the top three teams for the North (Washington, Stanford, and Oregon), putting them at a big disadvantage to division-mate Arizona.

QB Tyler Hunter and RB Zack Moss return, but WR Darren Carrington II departs. Utah will have an exciting schedule and likely many close games, but this doesn’t line up as an advantageous year for the Utes to break through. Their starting lineup is full of juniors. 2019 could be their year.

UCLA: Welcome back Chip Kelly. The offensive mind who changed the college game returns to it, and brings some excitement to a school best known for high SAT scores and former basketball.

UCLA is the Pac-12 team where I differ the most from our other writers and our readers. Maybe the Chip Kelly hire has them excited, but there’s reason for pause. They lose QB Josh Rosen from a mediocre team that went 6-7 last year. They return just 10 starters in total. While their defense should improve, the offense has a lot to replace. Coach Kelly may have his work cut out for him early on.

Colorado: In 2016, the Buffaloes played for the conference championship. In 2017, they went just 5-7. Now they return only nine total starters. Fortunately one of them is QB Steven Montez who will be in his third year starting. Should he makes strides Colorado could be competitive.

Arizona State: They’re under a new coaching staff that’s installing a unique 3-3-5 defense. They return just four starters on defense. They play the top three teams from the north: Washington, Stanford, and Oregon. They also play at USC. The tie-breaker for this ranking was the fact that the game against the Buffaloes is in Boulder.