X-Washington Huskies 13-0 (10-0)
In 2014 when Chris Petersen was hired to be the head football coach of the Washington Huskies, he was tasked with returning the program to national prominence which is what he has done. Over the last two years, the Huskies have won 25 games which includes a Pac-12 Conference Championship, and a berth a berth in the College Football Playoff. But as Washington heads into a new college football season, there is still plenty to improve on as they’ve come up short in a pair of New Year’s Six Bowl Games versus teams from other power conferences. And as the Huskies have what it takes to win the Pac-12 for the second time in the last three years, will they be able to get some respect for the conference in the process?
Over the years the Pac-12 Conference has been littered with quality quarterbacks, and the Huskies have another one on their hands in senior Jake Browning. After Browning threw 43 touchdowns in 2016, he was unable to follow it up in 2017 with another passing season; but he was able to improve his completion percentage as he completed 68.5% of his passes. Browning has several key intangibles with his strongest one being the fact that he is a smart football player. Browning knows how to protect the football as over the last two years he has only thrown 14 interceptions, and his ability as a signal caller will put him in the discussion to be the Pac-12’s Offensive Player of the Year.
Whether it was with the Boise State Broncos or currently with Washington, Petersen’s teams have always excelled at running the football. Last year the Huskies were able to average 5 yards per carry, and they’ll once again have one of the top rushing attacks in the Pac-12. Nobody would have batted an eye if running back Myles Gaskin had left school early to enter the National Football League Draft after his 2017 season. Over the past few years, Gaskin has proven himself to not only be one of the top ball carriers in the Pac-12, but the nation as well. Gaskin was able to crack the century mark in rushing in six games last year, and his elusiveness will once again be important for Washington in this his senior campaign.
And led by center Matt James, Gaskin will have one of the most experienced offensive lines in the Pac-12 to run behind as the Huskies will have three seniors up front.
Defensively Washington was eighth in the nation last year in total defense and they’ll once again be stingy under co-defensive coordinators Jimmy Lake and Pete Kwiatowski. The Huskies have plenty of returning talent on defense which includes senior inside linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven, sophomore outside linebacker Ryan Bowman, and cornerback Byron Murphy. The Huskies are strong in each faze of their defense which includes being able to rush the passer, play coverage, and their overall ability to frustrate opposing offenses.
Just like it was for Petersen at Boise, his Huskies don’t shy away from playing teams from the other power conferences. The Huskies will begin their season in Atlanta versus the Auburn Tigers of the Southeastern Conference. And when Pac-12 play begins, the Huskies will avoid having to face the USC Trojans, but road games versus the Utah Utes as well as the Oregon Ducks, along with their November 3rd showdown with the Stanford Cardinal will go a long way in determining whether or not that this team will be able to win the conference for the second time in the three years.
Z-Stanford Cardinal 9-3 (7-2)
On the heels of a strong campaign in 2017, the Stanford Cardinal know that things could have been better. The Cardinal went 9-5, but four of their losses came to ranked teams which included a pair of losses against the USC Trojans. Stanford’s second loss to USC in the Pac-12 Conference Championship Game denied the Cardinal a chance to play in a New Year’s Six Bowl Game. But under head football coach David Shaw, Stanford has developed one the class football programs in the Pac-12. Under Shaw, the Cardinal are 73-22 which includes three trips to the Rose Bowl. And another trip to Pasadena for the upcoming New Year’s Day could be in the cards if Stanford is able to put together another solid campaign.
The Stanford offense in 2018 will start and end with the ability of senior running back Bryce Love. Love surprised many people by deciding to return to Stanford for his senior campaign after he rushed for 2,118 yards last year. Love put up those incredible while missing one contest as consistency was the name of the game for him. Love rushed for at least 100 yards in all but one game last year, and for this season you can expect Shaw to once again give him as many touches as possible. Love finished second in the Heisman Trophy last year, but this time around the award is his to lose.
Stanford’s passing game was not a thing of beauty as they were 99th in the nation in the category. However quarterback K.J. Costello was able to improve as the year went along which should carry over into this his junior season. And with former Cardinal quarterback Tavita Pritchard set to begin his first year as Stanford’s offensive coordinator, Costello should be able to lean on him for guidance.
Stanford’s defense will be a work in progress as they lost their top four tacklers from last year’s time. But we’ve seen it time and time again that Shaw continues to plug guys into his system in order to keep the machine rolling, and thus 2018 will not be any different.
As usual Stanford won’t enter the new college football season with a ton of hoopla surrounding them, but at year’s end they’ll once again be one of the top teams in the Pac-12 Conference.
Z-Oregon Ducks 9-3 (6-3)
After nearly two decades of success, the Oregon Ducks find themselves at the crossroads. In 2014, Oregon won 13 games, but over the last two years they’ve only been able to win 11. The Ducks also have had a coaching carousel on their hands as after parting with Mark Helfrich in 2016, they thought that Willie Taggart was going to be their guy for years to come. But when the Florida State Seminoles had a head coaching vacancy this past winter, Taggart bolted Eugene in favor of Tallahassee. When Taggart left Oregon, the team’s offensive line coach Mario Cristobal was given the interim tag for a few days before school officials decided to make him the permanent head football coach. Cristobal’s main job is to provide this program with some consistency after consecutive turbulent years. And as winning in the Pac-12 Conference will not be an easy task, how will the Ducks match up with the rest of the conference in 2018?
After starting out 2017 with a record of 4-1, the Ducks began to struggle once they lost quarterback Justin Herbert to an injury. Herbert did return for Oregon’s final three games, and overall his record last year was 6-2. At 6’6″, 225 lbs., Herbert is a big quarterback, but he also has some athleticism to move around in the pocket, and if need be get down the field. Herbert is set to embark on his junior season, and if he’s able to remain healthy, Oregon could be a sleeper in the Pac-12 Conference Title race.
The Ducks have developed a reputation recently of having small and speedy running backs. In limited action last year, running back Tony Brooks-James averaged 5.4 yards per carry. At 5’9″, 185 lbs., Brooks-James is a burner who will be tough to stop in space, but is he ready to be the Ducks full-time ball carrier?
The Ducks will have nothing but juniors on their starting offensive line which includes left tackle George Moore and center Jake Hanson. Cristobal played on the offensive line for a pair of national championship teams with the Miami Hurricanes, and in his first go round with Oregon, I am sure that he will take some adding interest in regards to molding this unit.
Former South Florida Bulls head football coach Jim Leavitt is in his second year as Oregon’s defensive coordinator, and his unit could be ready to take some solid strides this year. Junior linebacker Tony Dye is a solid tackler who can provide a spark for the unit, while sophomore cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. could be one of the better players at his position in the Pac-12. Senior defensive end Jalen Jelks has shown the ability to rush the passer in spurts, but if he could put it altogether for a full season, the Ducks could have one of the better defenses in the Pac-12.
Oregon will have one the easiest schedules in the Pac-12 Conference which should allow them to make some hay in the conference standings.
Z-California Golden Bears 7-5 (5-4)
In year one of the Justin Wilcox era at Berkley, the California Golden Bears were able to compete much more than most people expected them to. The Golden Bears finished 5-7 as a pair of three-point losses in each of their last two games prevented them from going bowling. 2017 was Wilcox’s first go round as a head football coach and he showed that he has the ability to motivate his players which will be a strength for this team heading into a new college football season. The Bears will once again be competitive this season, but will they have enough to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2015?
Last year as a sophomore, quarterback Ross Bowers was able to hold his own as a starter. Bowers threw 18 touchdowns, but he was also picked off 12 times. Bowers was also able to throw for at least 300 yards in four games, and he should be able to build off of 2017 going into 2018.
Cal was able to enjoy solid balance on offense last year with their ability to pass and run which should once again be the case for 2018. Running back Patrick Laird has shown that he is durable as a runner as he carried the football 191 times last year, while also being the recipient of 45 passes. Laird will once again be a focal point of the Bears offense, and when it’s all said and done, he’ll be one of the best running backs in the Pac-12 Conference this year.
Another focal point of California’s offense will be senior wide receiver Vic Wharton III. Wharton enjoyed a breakout season last year for the Golden Bears as he proved to be Bowers’ go-to-guy in the passing game. I don’t expect Wharton to have a huge year receiving being that the Bears will focus on running the football, but he could be a home run threat off of the play-action pass.
Led by left tackle Patrick Mekari, the left side of California’s offensive line will be strong as they have three seniors. Wilcox loves to run the football and thus the big uglies will be en vogue this fall at Berkley.
Defensively Cal took it on the chin last year as they were 96th in the nation in total defense which included surrendering 40 points or more in three conference games. But one player to keep an eye on will be senior middle linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk. Kunaszyk led Cal in tackles last season, and that along with his leadership ability will be important for the Golden Bears to finish with a winning record.
Last year California was able to sneak up on some teams, but they won’t have that luxury this time around as Wilcox looks to get his program to a bowl game.
Z-Washington State Cougars 7-5 (4-5)
The Washington State Cougars will enter the 2018 college football season looking to do something that they’ve never done before which is to make a bowl game in four consecutive years. The fortunes of Washington State have changed since Mike Leach became the school’s head football coach in 2012, as the Cougars have become respectable within the Pac-12 Conference. Last year the Cougars barely missed out on winning the Pac-12 North as a 27-point loss to their arch rivals in the Washington Huskies in the regular season finale prevented them from going to the Pac-12 Title Game. Wazzu will once again be game, but is Leach’s team good enough to win the Pac-12?
It will be hard, but the Cougars must find a way to replace the accomplishments of former quarterback Luke Falk. The last four years saw Falk re-write the school’s record books as he became Washington State’s all-time leading passing with 14,481 yards and 119 touchdowns. Leach’s offensive system is quarterback friendly as he’ll be backing on junior quarterback Gardner Mishnew to fill the void of Falk’s graduation. Minshew spent the last two years playing for the East Carolina Pirates where he threw 24 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. Minshew also had a pair of 400-yard passing performances to his credit last year, and thus he should fit right into Leach’s wide open aerial assault.
Defensive football has not always been a staple of Leach’s teams, however last year Washington State was 16th in the nation in total defense which included recording a pair of shutouts. But the Cougars lost their defensive coordinator Alex Grinch to the Ohio State Buckeyes as he has now joined head football coach Urban Meyer’s staff there. Grinch has been replaced by former Minnesota Golden Gophers head football Tracy Claeys as he looks to build off of what Wazzu was able to do on defense last year. Claeys will inherit a pair of dynamic play makers for this unit in junior strong safety Jalen Thompson and sophomore outside linebacker Jahad Woods. Thompson led Washington State in tackles and interceptions in 2017 as he can sometimes act as an additional linebacker, while Woods is blessed with tremendous instincts. And this duo will allow the Cougars to not be pushovers defensively once again in the Pac-12.
Washington State won’t have to contend with a difficult non-conference schedule, but they’ll still be fighting an uphill battle if they expect to win the Pac-12 North in order to get to Santa Clara in December.
Oregon State Beavers 1-11 (0-9)
After the Oregon State Beavers enjoyed 15 years of being competitive, they’ve once again fallen on hard times. From 1999-2013, the Beavers made 11 bowl appearances, but over the last three years they’ve combined to win just seven games, while they failed to win a single contest in the Pac-12 last year. The bottom officially fell out for Oregon State midway through last season when head football coach Gary Anderson stepped down as the team was only able to muster a single victory for the entire campaign.
Now Oregon State has called upon Jonathan Smith to be the school’s new head football coach. And if the name sounds familiar, it is because Smith was Oregon State’s starting quarterback in 2000 when they won a school record 11 games, while also winning the Fiesta Bowl. Smith is now tasked with turning things around at his alma mater which will be easier said than done.
For Smith and Oregon State, they must find a way to compete this year. Last year the Beavers were 121st in the nation in total defense, and 113th in total offense as they were outscored by 21 points or more in seven games. But unfortunately the Beavers are lacking play makers on both sides of the football which means that they’ll once again have to battle in order to be relevant in the Pac-12 Conference.
Smith has to start over from scratch with the Oregon State team which means that it will be another long season in Corvallis.
Y-USC Trojans 10-3 (8-2)
The USC Trojans enter the 2018 college football season in a very familiar position as the defending Pac-12 Conference Champions. The Men of Troy won the Pac-12 last year for the 39th time which is a conference record. In two-plus years as the head football coach at USC, Clay Helton has once again made the Trojans the team to beat in the Pac-12, and his squad has what it takes to head to Santa Clara this December for the conference title game.
USC will be breaking in a new starting quarterback this year with either sophomore Matt Fink of true freshman JT Daniels under center. Fink saw limited action last year behind Sam Darnold at quarterback, but with Darnold now in the National Football League, Fink will look to have his chance to add his name to the long list of quality quarterbacks to play at ‘SC; however Daniels has been impressing coaches in camp.
Darnold is not the only impact player at the skills positions that Helton must replace as both running back Ronald Jones and wide receiver Deontay Burnett are now in the National Football League. And just like it is at quarterback for USC, there is always someone waiting in the wings at “Tailback U.”, as well as eager pass catchers on the West Coast.
Two players to keep an eye on will be sophomore running back Stephen Carr and sophomore wide receivers Stephen Vaughns. Last year as a backup to Jones, Carr averaged 5.6 yards per carry, while Vaughns will look to build off his 6 reception, 119 yard performance in USC’s Cotton Bowl loss to the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Led by left tackle Toa Lobendahn, ‘SC will have an experienced offensive line that’ll feature three seniors. And that experience will be very important for USC as they break in a new starting quarterback.
Defensively USC had their ups and downs under defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast last year, but this unit has the potential to be special this time around. The Trojans possess two of the best middle linebackers in the Pac-12 Conference in senior Cameron Smith and junior John Houston Jr. Smith and Houston Jr. are each good tacklers, but they are also smart football players who bring a wealth of leadership to the table which will go a long way for USC as they look to win the Pac-12 for a second consecutive year.
Junior defensive end Christian Rector could have a big season coming off of the edge as a pass rusher, while the ‘SC secondary is once again loaded with play makers as they group includes senior free safety Marvell Tell and senior cornerback Ajene Harris.
It’s always good to win the special teams battle and the Men of Troy have someone who can help win games in that category. Last year as a freshman, kicker Chase McGrath connected on 75% of his field goals beyond 40 yards, and the strong leg of his will be vital for USC as they look to take home another conference crown.
It won’t be easy for USC right out of the chute as they’ll have consecutive road games in September versus the Stanford Cardinal and Texas Longhorns, but this squad still has the goods to win the Pac-12 South and once again get to Santa Clara for the conference title game.
Z-Colorado Buffaloes 8-4 (5-4)
The Colorado Buffaloes entered the 2017 college football season with a wealth of expectations that were attached to them, but they were unfortunately unable to live up to them. In 2016, the Buffaloes made their first appearance in the Pac-12 Conference Championship Game, and they were once again expected to be on the top teams in the Pac-12 South in 2017. But things never came to fruition for the Buffs and they went 5-7, while finishing in the basement of the Pac-12 South. In 2016, the plan of Colorado head football coach Mike MacIntyre came together as his first recruiting class at Boulder were at the forefront of the Buffaloes turnaround. But without good leadership in the 2017, it was a struggle for Colorado. Now after taking a step back last year, Colorado must go back to the drawing board in order to once again attain that winning formula.
The Buffs are going to have get back to the basics here in 2018 which begins with competing. Last year four of Colorado’s seven conference losses were by 14 points or more. In the sophomore campaign of quarterback Steven Montez, he didn’t have a bad performance, but it wasn’t a great one either. Montez threw 18 touchdowns to 9 interceptions, but he also had three games where his completion percentage was at 50% or less. The Buffaloes are going to need Montez to be more assertive in this his junior season which he is more than capable of doing. And if Montez is able to put together a very strong season, the Buffaloes will once again be one of the top teams in the Pac-12 Conference.
2017 was not a good year defensively for Colorado as they were 110th in the nation in total defense. And as defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot enters his second year at Colorado, his unit must play with more aggression. Two players to keep an eye will senior linebackers Rick Gamboa and Drew Lewis. Lewis and Gamboa were Colorado’s two leading tacklers last season, and they must help this unit improve on third down as the Buffaloes allowed opponents to convert on more than 42% of their attempts.
Senior strong safety Evan Worthington can be an enforcer in the Colorado secondary due to his ability to play the run and the pass alike. And Worthington will need to have a big 2018 as it all about changing the tenor of defense for the Buffs.
It’ll be all about renewing rivalries for Colorado in their non-conference as aside from taking on the Colorado State Rams of the Mountain West Conference to begin the season, they’ll also face the Nebraska Cornhuskers for the first time since both schools left the Big 12 Conference. But when Pac-12 play begins it will come down to whether or not that these Buffs will be more competitive that they were last year.
Z-Utah Utes 8-4 (5-4)
The 2017 college football season saw the Utah Utes earn their fourth consecutive winning with a mark of 7-6, but a break here or there could have changed the dynamics. Utah had three losses in the Pac-12 Conference by three points or less as their 3-6 league mark could have easily been 6-3. However Utah was able to finish the season on positive note as they knocked off the West Virginia Mountaineers of the Big 12 Conference in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. And for Utah head football coach Kyle Whittingham, he will look for his team to carry that momentum over into a new college football campaign.
During Whittingham’s time at Utah, it has always been all about having a solid dual-threat quarterback, and he has another one in junior Tyler Huntley. At 6’1″, 200 lbs., Huntley is built like a basketball point guard as he operates in that same role for Whittingham on offense, and as he goes, so do the fortunes of Utah.
Aside from the athletic ability of Huntley, Utah’s offense will also be fueled by the running ability of junior tailback Zack Moss. As previously mentioned, Whittingham loves to focus on running the football, and after Moss had 214 carries in 2017, he will once again be afforded every opportunity to make an impact with the rock in his hands.
Utah will be thin at linebacker this year due to the fact that their two top tacklers from last season graduated. However two players to keep an eye on will be a pair of juniors in defensive end Bradlee Anae, and Julian Blackmon as their ability to make plays for the Utes is necessary if they intend to push for the top spot in the Pac-12 South.
For Utah, they will be faced with one of the tougher schedules in the Pac-12 as they’ll welcome the Washington Huskies, USC Trojans, and Oregon Ducks to Rice-Eccles Stadium, while a road game versus the Stanford Cardinal will be daunting as well.
Z-Arizona Wildcats 6-6 (4-5)
For the first time in seven years, the Arizona Wildcats will enter the college football season with a new head coach. After six years with Arizona, Rich Rodriguez was relieved of his duties as the school’s head football coach. Under Rodriguez, the Wildcats made an appearance in the Pac-12 Championship Game in 2014, but they were never able to replicate, or build off of that success. Following 2014, the Wildcats were never able to win more than seven games in a season which included going 3-9 in 2016. And after the Cats lost four of their final games last season which took them out of contention for the Pac-12 Title, the writing was on the wall that Rodriguez would be gone.
Rodriguez was replaced by Kevin Sumlin who prior to joining Arizona had stints as the head football coach for the Houston Cougars and Texas A&M Aggies. Sumlin has always been known to have teams that can light up the scoreboard. But here in 2018, will ‘Zona do enough scoring to be a threat in the Pac-12?
Sumlin will inherit a dual-threat quarterback at Arizona in junior Khalil Tate who can do everything. Last year Tate was also the Wildcats leading rusher as he gained 1,411 on the ground. As a whole Arizona was third in the nation last season in rushing as along with Tate, sophomore running back J.J. Taylor is another impact player to keep an eye on for Arizona.
But as good as Tate was in regards to using his legs, he will need to be more of a passer this time around as he only threw for 1,591 yards last season. And if Arizona is unable to improve their passing game, it could be a long year for them in the Pac-12.
However as good as the running game was for Arizona, the same cannot be said about their defense. Last year the Cats were 119th in the nation in total defense which included giving up at 40 points in a game five times. Under defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, Arizona has struggled mightily on that side of the football, but Sumlin decided to retain him. However the upside for Arizona’s defense is that all of their top players last year were freshman.
A pair of sophomores in middle linebacker Colin Schooler and Tony Fields II will be vital if Arizona’s defense is going to improve, while sophomore defensive end Kylan Wilborn and sophomore defensive back Lorenzo Burns will also continue to grow as players.
It will be an interesting year for Arizona as they look to transition from Rodriguez to Sumlin.
Z-Arizona State Sun Devils 6-6 (4-5)
In Todd Graham’s first three years as the head football coach of the Arizona State Sun Devils, they were one of the better teams in the Pac-12 Conference which included them making their only appearance in the conference title game back in 2013. But Graham’s last three years at Arizona State were not that great as the Sun Devils finished with two consecutive losing seasons, and after a mediocre campaign in 2017, he was let go.
In a very surprising move, Arizona State decided to hire Herman Edwards as their next head football coach. The 64-year old Edwards last coached in 2008 with the Kansas City Chiefs of the National Football League, while he has not been around the collegiate game since 1989 when he was the defensive backs coach for the San Jose State Spartans. The powers that be at Arizona State are hopeful that Edwards’ recent time as a studio analyst on ESPN will be able to make him appeal to recruits, but how much can a man who has not been around the collegiate game for close to 30 years do?
However Edwards will inherit a veteran quarterback to work with in senior Manny Wilkins. Wilkins started all 13 games for the Sun Devils as he threw 20 touchdowns to 8 interceptions. Wilkins is also accurate as he completed nearly 63.5% of his passes in 2017, and as Edwards will be preaching “discipline” to his Arizona State team, the process begins with having a smart quarterback.
Led by junior wide receiver N’Keal Harry, Arizona State will be returning their top three pass catchers from last season. At 6’4″, 213 lbs., Harry is a matchup nightmare for most secondaries in the Pac-12 Conference, and his ability as a pass catcher will keep him in the conversation to win the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver.
Edwards’ specialty throughout his coaching career has been defensive football, and he inherits a defense at Arizona State which was 109th in the nation last year in total defense. The Sun Devils surrendered at least 30 points in a contest 10 times in 2017 which is not going to cut it once again. And with a lack of talent on that side of the football for Arizona State, Edwards will definitely have his hands full during his first year in Tempe.
Edwards will attempt to light a fire under his Arizona State squad, but road games in the Pac-12 Conference versus the likes of the Washington Huskies, Colorado Buffaloes, and USC Trojans will bring them back down to Earth.
UCLA Bruins 4-8 (2-7)
In the first four years of the Jim Mora era as the head football coach of the UCLA Bruins, the team wore the hat of a contender in the Pac-12 Conference. In 2012, UCLA made the Pac-12 Title Game for the second consecutive year, and appeared ready to build off of that success. However since then it has been a steady slide backwards for the Bruins as they only won 10 games over the last two seasons and thus a change had to be made.
Mora was replaced by Chip Kelly which immediately provided some excitement to the Bruins fan base in Los Angeles. From 2009-2012, Kelly was the head football coach of the Oregon Ducks as he compiled a record of 46-7 which included three consecutive Pac-12 Titles, and an appearance in the national title game. Kelly would leave Oregon in 2013 to try his hand at being a head coach in the National Football League. Kelly would have some limited success in the NFL as he made one playoff appearance as the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. However Kelly’s stint with the Eagles as well as his one year with the San Francisco 49ers would see him have a mutiny on his hands in the locker room.
But the powers to be at UCLA feel that Kelly is the right guy to turn their program around in order to not only contend in the Pac-12 Conference, but to also win the recruiting battle with the USC Trojans in the Greater Los Angeles area. Kelly is known to be an innovator on offense, but how long will it take for him to turn things around for UCLA?
Kelly is taking over a UCLA offense which does not have the personnel which will initially fit into his uptempo spread offense, while he gets a defense that was 123rd in the nation last year in total defense. However one building block for UCLA’s defense will be sophomore cornerback Darnay Holmes who after leading the team in interceptions last year with 3 should be able to build off of that in order to be one of the top defensive backs in the Pac-12.
The Bruins will take it on the chin in Kelly’s first year, but as he installs his program, UCLA will once again be a team to be reckoned with soon.
Pac-12 Championship Game-Levi’s Stadium-Santa Clara, California-USC Trojans vs. Washington Huskies
X-College Football Playoff
Y-New Year’s Six
Sources: Cfbstats.com, Ourlads.com, Sports-reference.com