Last season could be considered a down year for Pac-12 football. The conference did send nine of its 12 teams to a bowl game. However, only three teams ended up being ranked in the top-25 and every team finished the season with at least three losses.
The conference as a whole will look to bounce back in 2018, despite losing some major talent at the quarterback position (i.e. Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen). On the bright side, there are a few Heisman hopefuls in the league, some big-name coaches who are new to the conference, and a general sense of optimism that the west coast can get back in the national spotlight this year.
Let’s take an in-depth look at the Pac-12 for the 2018 season, including a prediction of each team’s record, where they stand in either the North or South Division, and what you should know about each team heading into the season.
Washington is the best team in the Pac-12 and it’s not all that close. Jake Browning is about the enter his fourth season as the starting quarterback while running back Myles Gaskin has rushed for over 1,300 yards in each of the past three seasons, totaling 45 rushing touchdowns along the way. That duo is poised to do some serious damage in 2018. The rest of the team is in good shape too, as you’d have to look really hard to find a weakness. Opening the season against Auburn in Atlanta will be tough, so could road games against Utah and Oregon. But anything less than 10 wins for the Huskies would be a shock.
The Ducks will once again be adjusting to a new coach, as Mario Cristobal will take the reigns from Willie Taggart, who was in Eugene for just one season. However, if quarterback Justin Herbert lives up to expectations, the Oregon offense could be among the best in the country. The Ducks also return impact players on defense and will actually have some continuity with defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt staying with the new staff. It’ll be tough keeping up with Washington, as Oregon has some tough crossover games with the South Division, but the Ducks have a chance to win 10 games after going 4-5 in Pac-12 play last year.
It’s all about Heisman favorite Bryce Love as far as Stanford is concerned. As long as he stays healthy, the Cardinal should have no problem taking care of business against most Pac-12 teams. However, uncertainty about K.J. Costello at the quarterback position and the team’s secondary in the pass-happy Pac-12 will keep Stanford from getting back to the Pac-12 Championship Game.
The Bears fell short of a bowl game last year after losing three games by three points or less. The silver lining is they have 18 starters coming back, most notably quarterback Ross Bowers and running back Patrick Laird. Bowers should take a step forward in 2018, especially with a steady running game. The Cal defense remains a huge concern, but an inexperienced unit last season should improve enough to get the Bears to six wins despite a tough conference schedule.
Mike Leach doesn’t have too many down years, but this could be one of them. The Cougars have to replace quarterback Luke Falk and are still reeling from the tragic death of backup Tyler Hilinski over the offseason. As a result, Wazzu may not have the same vaunted passing attack they typically unleash on opponents. If the Cougars have to rely too much on their defense to win games, they could find it difficult to win games in the Pac-12.
New Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith has quite a project in front of him. Senior quarterback Jake Luton will provide some experience, as he started the first four games of last season. The Beavers also have a decent offensive line in place. But depth is a serious issue and the overall talent on the team doesn’t measure up to the rest of the league. Also, opening the season with a road trip to Ohio State isn’t going to help the Beavers get off to a good start.
Kevin Sumlin takes over at Arizona and has inherited one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the country in Khalil Tate. Sumlin should help Tate become a better passer. Meanwhile, there’s little doubt that he’ll give opposing defenses headaches as a runner. Defensively, the Wildcats have a lot of room for improvement. But with nine starters returning, there’s a good chance Arizona makes enough strides on that side of the football to win what looks to be a wide-open South Division.
No one is going to question USC’s defense, which should be among the best in the Pac-12 this year. But there are some questions about the Trojans on the offensive side of the ball. For starters, true freshman J.T. Daniels is poised to start at quarterback. Daniels reclassified so he could go to college a year early and is now taking the reigns at USC. No matter how talented he may be, that’s not exactly a slam dunk. In fact, the entire USC offense is short on upperclassmen, which is why a few losses along the way is likely. Keep in mind the Trojans travel to Stanford, Texas, Arizona, and Utah and also have Notre Dame on their schedule. That’s a tough slate for such a young team.
The Utes are in good shape heading into 2018. Quarterback Tyler Huntley returns after an up and down 2017 campaign that included some injury issues. If he’s healthy, he’ll be able to do some serious damage. The Utah defense also has a chance to be one of the best in the Pac-12. Unfortunately for the Utes, they play arguably the toughest schedule in the Pac-12. They’ll have crossover games with Washington, Oregon, and Stanford, not to mention their Holy War battle with BYU at season’s end. Based on that schedule, expectations should be tempered a little, although eight wins would be a great season for Utah.
Unlike Utah, Colorado should benefit some from a favorable league schedule that has them playing the bottom half of the North Division. On the field, the Buffaloes return quarterback Steven Montez, who won’t receive much publicity nationally but is a reliable and experienced passer. Colorado won’t get back to the 10-win plateau they reached two years ago, but they’ll gladly settle for a bowl game.
No one quite knows what to expect from Herm Edwards coaching Arizona State, but we’re excited to watch. He doesn’t inherit a ton of talent, but quarterback Manny Wilkins is solid and has two years of experience as a starter. The Sun Devils are likely to have some growing pains on defense as they move to a 3-3-5 scheme. But if nothing else, Edwards will have his team motivated and playing hard, so they may steal a win or two against more talented teams. That being said, a bowl game could be just a little out of reach.
Chip Kelly is back in the Pac-12, although it could take him a year to get acclimated back to the college game. Finding a quarterback to replace Josh Rosen won’t be easy, nor will the transition to the spread offense. The UCLA defense isn’t in good shape either after a disastrous 2017 campaign on that side of the ball. In short, Kelly and the Bruins may have to take their lumps this season before things start to turn around.