Early Pac-12 Preview
This is a big season for the Pac-12 coming off a disastrous bowl campaign with only one win from nine postseason squads. That win came from Utah in a minor game as marquee game defeats from Stanford, Washington, USC, Washington State, and UCLA led to an ugly national storyline out West. The poor results led to a number of coaching changes with five of 12 programs making moves in the off-season.
Despite a few transition seasons underway the Pac-12 has a few teams that could make a run in the national picture. The balance of power is tilted north with Oregon, Washington, and Stanford considered threats for a championship but the depth in that division might make it difficult for a clear cut national playoff contender to emerge. The conference has just one touchdown over the past three College Football Playoffs but getting a team through this conference 10-0 might prove to be a challenge.
Washington: Following an appearance in the College Football Playoffs expectations remained sky high last season as Washington went through a mildly disappointing 10-3 season, falling short of the North division title and ending the season with a Fiesta Bowl loss to Penn State. For a program that went winless a decade ago a third straight double-digit win season looks possible in 2018. Washington returns Jake Browning at quarterback and Myles Gaskin at running back while a defense that allowed just 16.1 points per game last season returns nine starters. The schedule gets a major upgrade this season with an opener in Atlanta against Auburn that will determine whether or not the Huskies are a national threat. USC and Arizona are absent from the South draw and Stanford visits Seattle as the Pac-12 slate lines up favorably for the Huskies to finish on top.
Stanford: Stanford lost five times last season but David Shaw is now 73-22 in seven seasons with last season’s 9-5 mark the second worst record for the Cardinal in that span. The Cardinal has not cracked the College Football Playoff yet but this year’s team has that potential. K.J. Costello and an elite receiving corps will surround Heisman candidate Bryce Love as this should be a very effective offense even if not among the nation’s most prolific offensive teams. Stanford actually had its worst defensive numbers under Shaw last season and that unit has question marks for 2018 as well. The biggest hurdle for Stanford is the schedule however with two very tough non-conference games plus road games vs. the two chief division threats while drawing South division favorite USC. Stanford has a team capable of beating anyone but running the table looks unlikely with the path ahead.
Oregon: Oregon rebounded to win seven games last season after the stunning 4-8 2016 season but after just one season Willie Taggert left the program for Florida State. Offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal steps in as it won’t be a complete transition and Cristobal has head coaching experience. The Ducks have decent returning experience and if Justin Herbert can stay healthy they have the makings of a high quality offensive team. Oregon actually had its best defensive numbers in several years last season but a down Pac-12 was a factor. Oregon will play an extremely light non-conference schedule as a strong start should be expected and this is a sleeper in the North as both Stanford and Washington visit Eugene while Oregon avoids USC from the South. If things break right Oregon could be back in the national spotlight again.
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California: A 5-7 season doesn’t generally earn a lot of praise but first year head coach Justin Wilcox inherited an inexperienced team and turned in a pair of prominent non-conference wins last September. A 3-0 start fizzled with a 2-7 Pac-12 mark but the Bears were very competitive in most games and this team could take a big stride forward in 2018. 18 starters are back to top the conference in experience but the statistics from last season offer some concern as the Bears were ultimately out-gained by 45 yards per game on average. The challenge for Cal will be that the three North powers all visit Berkeley as a tough home slate is waiting and this team won just once on the road last season.
Washington State: Mike Leach has revitalized his career at Washington State with the Cougars going from being one of the nation’s worst power conference teams to three straight bowl bids while Washington State has often been in the Pac-12 North race into November. The 2018 season presents an impossible challenge however with Luke Falk graduating and the sad death of Tyler Hilinski leaving the team with inexperience at quarterback and only 10 returning starters. Washington State has one of the most difficult South draws and while they nab five home games in Pac-12 play it is a difficult set of games. Making a fourth straight bowl game would be a great accomplishment for Leach and the Cougars given the circumstances.
Oregon State: There is nowhere to go but up for Oregon State with Jonathan Smith taking over a Beavers team that didn’t win a FBS game last season. After an awkward coaching departure the Beavers did produce a few competitive games down the stretch and improving on awful turnover luck from last season could lead to improvement. The Beavers are likely still the clear bottom team in the conference and they have to open the season at Ohio State but there are a few decent opportunities ahead in Corvallis as signs of progress look possible. With a couple of legacy pieces back on the staff there should be renewed enthusiasm for the program and in a Pac-12 that wasn’t very good last season and has several programs in transition, the opportunity to close the gap may be there.
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USC: USC has 21 wins the past two seasons under Clay Helton but a playoff invitation was expected of this powerhouse program that featured one of the top quarterbacks in the nation. Sam Darnold is off to the NFL and while a few other key players also depart from last season’s 11-win squad, there is solid returning experience to make the Trojans the clear favorite in the Pac-12 South. USC has taken on a daunting schedule in recent years and two heavyweight non-conference games are again ahead while the conference slate features five road games including playing at Stanford. Avoiding Washington is a plus however and the Trojans won’t likely need to be perfect to win this division.
Arizona: Off the field allegations opened the door for Arizona to make a coaching change after last season even with a comeback bowl season for Rich Rodriguez. The Wildcats nabbed Kevin Sumlin to provide credibility in the transition and this is a team that can compete immediately. Khalil Tate was one of the most exciting players in the conference last season and Arizona draws an ideal conference schedule with five home dates while avoiding both Washington and Stanford. The defense has nine returning starters even if it was a unit that allowed 471 yards per game last season as Arizona is likely to be back in the postseason and lurks as a serious threat in this division should USC falter.
Colorado: After the 10-win breakthrough in 2016 Colorado fell to just 5-7 last season needing to replace most of the key players from the South division championship team. This year’s team again is light on experience but the Buffaloes have a fairly attractive conference slate ahead as getting back to postseason eligibility is within reach. Colorado won just twice in a down season for the Pac-12 last year but most defeats were in tight games and the defense is likely to post improved numbers in 2018 after taking a big step back last season. Mike MacIntyre has the opportunity to stabilize the Buffaloes into a steady bowl performer in the years to come.
Utah: Utah has declined in win count the past two seasons but last year’s squad was likely better than the 7-6 record indicated. The Utes shuffled through two quarterbacks and had much better statistics that the record suggests, out-gaining foes by 75 yards per game but losing four single-score results in Pac-12 play. Utah will play five conference road games while pulling all three of the North contenders as Utah has a difficult path ahead. This was a bowl team and the lone bowl victor from the Pac-12 last season even with a 3-6 conference record and Kyle Whittingham has provided consistent success in Salt Lake City in now his 14th season.
Arizona State: Arizona State made one of the more curious coaching hires in recent years luring former NFL head coach Herm Edwards out of the TV studio. While Edwards hasn’t been on the sidelines in a decade he is a well known football mind that will resonate with players in a talent rich recruiting base. Unlike most new head coaches Edwards takes over a team that was pretty successful with Todd Graham leading the Sun Devils to a bowl game in five of the past six seasons and the Sun Devils won six Pac-12 games last season. The offense should remain productive but Edwards will have work to do rebuilding the Sun Devils on defense. Relative to its South division peers Arizona State has a more difficult schedule pulling the top three North teams and featuring five Pac-12 road games.
UCLA: Chip Kelly returns to the college coaching ranks at UCLA but instant success seems unlikely with a dramatic scheme change and the loss of quarterback Josh Rosen. The Bruins couldn’t maintain Jim Mora’s early success with back-to-back losing seasons but injuries played a significant role in the failure to meet expectations. UCLA has a tough non-conference schedule to open the season and while the Bruins get five Pac-12 home games they are all difficult games as there are not many sure-wins ahead on this schedule particularly for a program that has gone 1-11 on the road the past two years. The first year for Kelly might be a challenge resembling his failed season up the coast with the 49ers.
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