Pac-12 Football: Preview and Predictions for 2018 Season

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistAugust 23, 2018

Pac-12 Football: Preview and Predictions for 2018 Season

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    "Transition" is the summary of Pac-12 football in 2018. Not only is the conference packed with new head coaches, but some of the league's biggest stars left for the NFL too.

    So we start anew on the West Coast this season. Yet how much has changed?

    Ever-present Stanford is geared for another top-20 campaign. USC needs a quarterback, but the talent for a Pac-12 championship run is there. Washington has established itself as a perennial contender, and Oregon will be competitiveif injuries don't strike.

    Oh, and Oregon State stinks.

    While the conference has a relatively clear hierarchy at the top, the Pac-12 is full of intrigue through its several first-year coaches and Heisman Trophy contenders.

Biggest Stars

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    Khalil Tate, Arizona

    In September 2017, hardly anyone outside of Arizona or recruiting circles knew Khalil Tate's name. That all changed when he dismantled Colorado for 481 yards and five touchdowns after replacing an injured Brandon Dawkins.

    From there, Tate went on a remarkable run and posted 137-plus rushing yards in six straight games. His surge guided Arizona to a bowl appearance, and he garnered a little bit of Heisman love en route to 3,002 dazzling yards of total offense.

                

    Justin Herbert, Oregon

    Despite a broken collarbone that limited him to eight games last year, Justin Herbert is highly regarded as an NFL prospect. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller lists the rising junior as the top draft-eligible signal-caller and No.  4 overall player in 2019.

    In 17 career appearances, Herbert has tossed 34 touchdowns to only nine interceptions and scampered for seven more scores. Oregon went 6-2 in his starts last season and 1-4 without Herbert.

                    

    Bryce Love, Stanford

    The runner-up to Baker Mayfield in 2017 Heisman Trophy voting is back for one final season. Bryce Love set a Stanford record with 2,118 yards and scored 19 touchdowns.

    However, the standout runner passed up the NFL because he felt there's more to accomplish in college, per Vytas Mazeika of the Mercury News. "More so than anything else, I want to go 1-0 each week, and I want to go win 13 games instead of nine," Love said.

                

    Jake Browning, Washington

    In his three years as Washington's starting quarterback, Jake Browning has experienced the end of a rebuild, a College Football Playoff berth and a frustrating season that fell painfully short of a division crown.

    Browning struggled in 2017, ending the year with tolerable numbers but performing poorly in tight games and against top competition. While there's hope for a resurgent campaign, Browning could be the difference between Washington winning a Pac-12 title or remembering 2018 as a what-if year.

Top Storylines

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    Bryce Love for Heisman?

    Calling a returning running back who eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark a Heisman contender is not a novel concept. The intrigue for Bryce Love, though, is the returning experience on Stanford's line.

    Yes, the Cardinal basically always excel in the trenches. But in 2018, they return four offensive linemen, another with starting experience and several more past contributors. Given all that talent, Loveif he stays healthyshould be a Heisman finalist again.

              

    Chip Is Here! Chip Is Here!

    One of five new coaches to the Pac-12, Chip Kelly is a familiar face. From 2009-2012, the offensive wizard guided Oregon to a 46-7 record that included a national runner-up finish and three other appearances in a top-level bowl.

    Following a roller coaster of an NFL tenure and one year in media, Kelly chose the Bruins over Florida. UCLA probably won't be especially competitive in 2018 as it replaces Josh Rosen, but the CFB world will be watching Kelly closely as he brings a new offense to town.

                

    Huh? So Is Herm Edwards

    Without a doubt, this hire caught plenty of media and fans off guard. Herm Edwards hasn't been a full-time head coach since 2008, and he last served on a college staff in 1989. For better or worse, Arizona State's level of success will be a huge storyline.

    In fairness, an ugly first season in conference play could be a product of poor scheduling luck. Arizona State's crossover games are against Oregon, Stanford and Washington. There's no way it could have been more challenging for Edwards in Year 1.

    But if the Sun Devils aren't even competitive in those showdowns, this experiment won't have much support.

The Favorites

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    Stanford

    Love and the offensive line will be the backbone of the team. Still, two questions will shape whether Stanford is its typical top-20 self or a true CFP challenger.

    Exactly how good is K.J. Costello? After swiping the starting job from since-transferred Keller Chryst, Costello showed legitimate promise but still went 3-3, losing to Washington State, USC and TCU. His progression following offseason hip surgery will be essential.

    Defensively, the Cardinal lost a ton of production at every leveland the 2017 unit ranked 90th in yards per play allowed anyway. Stanford won't be a national contender if that is repeated.

                 

    USC

    Although the Trojans must replace more than their quarterback, successors at running back and receiver are obvious. The question relates to which signal-caller Clay Helton and Co. will rely on.

    If that competition is settled early enoughmeaning the beginning of Pac-12 playUSC should be headed to its third conference championship game in four seasons. The South Division is decent, but the Trojans are easily the most talented outfit.

                   

    Washington

    Widely considered the Pac-12 favorite throughout the offseason, Washington won the league in 2016 but missed the conference championship in 2017 by virtue of a tiebreaker.

    Yes, Browning's performance is an unknown. But in Myles Gaskin, the Huskies have a consistent back running behind a respected offensive line, and their defense has elite potential. Throw in a friendly Pac-12 slate, and that's why UW is the team to beat.

The Challengers

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    Arizona

    Kevin Sumlin and Khalil Tate should be a wonderful football match. Is a high-powered offense enough for Arizona, though?

    Last season, the Wildcats ranked fifth nationally at 41.3 points per game yet finished 7-6. They surrendered 30-plus points in five contests and 40-plus three times. That's a great way to lose.

    But ifand it's a considerably large ifthe defense is even average, Arizona will be a threat to USC, which travels to Tucson this year. Additionally, the Wildcats avoid Stanford and Washington. If any program dethrones the Trojans in the South, it'll most likely be Arizona.

              

    Oregon

    Oregon's competitiveness is tied to Herbert's health. The Ducks flailed without their No. 1 quarterback healthy for about half of 2017.

    Another struggle for Oregon will be dealing with Stanford and Washington in the Pac-12 North. And road trips to Arizona and Utah are toss-ups. First-year head coach Mario Cristobal is working with a razor-thin margin for error.

    But if Herbert is healthy, the Ducks have a shot.

                        

    Utah

    "I want to like you, but..."

    Since the beginning of 2014, Kyle Whittingham's teams have compiled a 35-17 record, celebrated four bowl wins and earned a year-end top-25 ranking three times. There's a lot to like about Utah.

    But during that span, the Utes are only 19-17 in Pac-12 action. They lost a tiebreaker for the South crown to USC in 2016 yet otherwise haven't finished within two games of the division winner. Utah has a promising roster, but a season with Oregon, Stanford and Washington on the crossover docket is flat-out brutal.

Best Rivalry: USC vs. UCLA

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    The Victory Bell hasn't changed hands often during the past 30 years.

    Beginning in 1991, UCLA won eight straight games. USC took 12 of the next 13 before the alternating three-game streaks for UCLA and USC, which holds the trophy after last season's 28-23 victory at the Coliseum.

    No, this isn't the healthiest Pac-12 rivalry. There's an obvious argument Washington vs. Oregon is more compelling that and Stanford vs. USC is consistently more influential. But Chip Kelly's return to the league has injected life into the battle of Los Angeles.

    Set to be played Nov. 17 at the Rose Bowl, it's the 88th edition of the rivalry. Although UCLA has mustered only four victories in the series since 2006, three occurred at the Rose Bowl.

    Plus, by mid-November, USC could be hoping to clinch a division crown while the Bruinssurely looking to play spoilercould be committed to the future. That might mean prized 2018 recruit Dorian Thompson-Robinson is under center for UCLA too.

Coaches on the Hot Seat

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    Entering the season, the Pac-12 has a relatively tame outlook in terms of coaches on the hot seat. There's only one, Colorado's Mike MacIntyre, with a serious chance of being shown the doorand even then, it's not the most compelling case.

    Yes, that could change if USC implodes or Arizona State fails in embarrassing fashion. Otherwise, coaches are either secure or new enough to the position that it would take a scandal for a firing.

                   

    Mike MacIntyre, Colorado

    While the seat isn't blazing, MacIntyre shouldn't feel comfortable. After the breakout 10-4 campaign two years ago, the Buffs dropped to 5-7 last season. Not horrible, not great.

    MacIntyre's job should be safe if Colorado reaches a bowl. The school must be realistic considering the program has only appeared in one postseason game (2016) during the past decade.

    But if 2018 turns into a two-win disaster, MacIntyre might be feeling some nervousness in late November.

Best Offense: Oregon

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    Stanford is a tempting pick. In terms of efficiency (yards per play), the Cardinal should be among the Pac-12's best. But when Herbert was healthy last season, defenses could hardly contain the Ducks.

    During his eight starts, Oregon averaged 516.5 yards and 49.1 points while posting a 6-2 record. With him sidelined, the Ducks managed only 320.0 yards and 15.0 points in a 1-4 stretch.

    Granted, there are concerns.

    Oregon struggled in coordinator Marcus Arroyo's play-calling debut, a 38-28 Las Vegas Bowl loss to Boise State. Running backs Royce Freeman and Kani Benoit graduated, and the pass-catching group is promisingyou know, the kind way of saying unproven.

    Nevertheless, the Ducks return four offensive linemen and a veteran runner in Tony Brooks-James. Dillon Mitchell excelled after Herbert's return from injury, and Wake Forest grad transfer Tabari Hines will bolster an otherwise young receiving corps that has a standout tight end in Jacob Breeland.

    Arroyo must prove himself as a coordinator, but Herbert's throwing behind a seasoned blocking unit will be dangerous to Pac-12 defenses.

Best Defense: Washington

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    Vita Vea was dominant in the middle. Losing him hurts.

    However, Washington is built to withstand the departures of inside linebackers Keishawn Bierria and Azeem Victorand basically returns everyone else. Ben Burr-Kirvin, the leading tackler in 2017, and Tevis Bartlett are well-prepared to hold down the middle.

    Vea's successor cannot match him, but Greg Gaines is effectively a three-year starter. The Dawgs could hardly ask for more. The rotation surrounding him will include Levi Onwuzurike, Jaylen Johnson, Ryan Bowman and Benning Potoa'e, a quartet that notched 22 tackles for loss last season.

    But the strength of this defense is the secondary.

    Taylor Rapp and JoJo McIntosh are returning All-Pac-12 safeties, and Myles Bryant earned an honorable mention nod. Jordan Miller and Byron Murphy likely would have garnered the same had injuries not limited them. They had 12 pass breakups and five interceptions in only 13 combined appearances.

    Austin Joyner and rising sophomores Keith Taylor and Elijah Molden give Washington outstanding depth in the back.

    Offensive coaches will lose sleep preparing for this defense.

Projected Regular-Season Standings

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    North Division

    1. Washington

    2. Stanford

    3. Oregon

    4. Washington State

    5. Cal

    6. Oregon State

                     

    South Division

    1. USC

    2. Arizona

    3. Utah

    4. Colorado

    5. UCLA

    6. Arizona State

Projected Conference Championship Matchup: Washington vs. USC

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    Unless Oregon manages to defeat both programs earlier in the year, the Pac-12 North Division should be at stake Nov. 3 when Stanford heads to Washington. The Huskies own a home-field advantage given their 13-1 record in Seattle since 2016.

    In the South, USC is the team to beat despite losing Darnold. Arizona's defense is unreliable, Arizona State and Utah have dreadful Pac-12 schedules and neither Colorado nor UCLA can be trusted.

    The Trojans would likely enter the matchup as underdogs to Washington considering the strength of that defense. However, the inconsistency of Browning's performance against top competition leaves the Dawgs vulnerable to an upset.

    But again, that defense.

    Pending the season-opening result against Auburn, a victory in Santa Clara, California, could send Washington to the College Football Playoff.

    Winner: Washington

                  

    All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats from NCAA.comcfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.