Pac-12 Football: Preview and Predictions for 2019 Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystAugust 26, 2019

Pac-12 Football: Preview and Predictions for 2019 Season

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    Washington head coach Chris Petersen
    Washington head coach Chris PetersenMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    While the rest of the nation celebrates the 150th anniversary of college football, the Pac-12 is hoping for some magic for the 15th anniversary of its last national championship: USC in 2004, though it was later vacated.

    But in a conference where it feels like no one is a clear favorite and 11 of the 12 teams could potentially win their division (sorry, Oregon State), who will rise up and make a push to end the Pac-12's two-year College Football Playoff drought?

    In this preview of the 2019 Pac-12 season, we'll talk favorites, challengers, biggest stars, top storylines and one coach who enters the season sitting uncomfortably on the hot seat. We'll also have predictions for best offense and best defense, as well as a full rundown of the conference standings.

Biggest Stars

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    Oregon QB Justin Herbert
    Oregon QB Justin HerbertTony Avelar/Associated Press

    Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon

    Herbert turned down the opportunity to be a first-round draft pick in order to play one more season at Oregon. Now, it's time for him to show he still belongs at the top of draft boards, thus proving it wasn't a colossal financial mistake. If he can manage that in spite of losing star receiver Dillon Mitchell, the Ducks should be in the College Football Playoff conversation.


    Laviska Shenault Jr., WR, Colorado

    Shenault was averaging 149.8 yards from scrimmage and 2.0 touchdowns during Colorado's 5-0 start, but a toe injury limited him (and the Buffaloes) over the latter half of the season. Despite only playing in nine games, Shenault ranked in the top eight in the Pac-12 in receiving yards, yards from scrimmage and touchdowns. He could be No. 1 in all three if he can stay healthy this year.


    Salvon Ahmed, RB, Washington

    Remember when Christian McCaffrey went to the NFL and Bryce Love emerged from the shadows to become the best running back in the country? That just might happen again with Ahmed replacing four-year starter Myles Gaskin. Ahmed has averaged 6.0 yards per carry while rushing for 996 yards over the past two seasons. It's his time to shine.


    Bradlee Anae, DE, Utah

    Anae has been Utah's star pass-rusher for the past two seasons, accumulating 24 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks. He is the first line of defense for what should be an excellent unit once again.


    Various Offensive Linemen

    On Sports Illustrated's preseason All-America team, Stanford's Walker Little and Oregon's Shane Lemieux were both selected as first-team players. The second-team offense also featured Oregon's Calvin Throckmorton and Penei Sewell, as well as Washington's Nick Harris.

    As far as SI is concerned, 50 percent of the 10 best O-linemen reside in the Pac-12. It's hard to call them stars since the big boys rarely receive any fanfare until draft time, but it's worth noting here that this conference has a bunch of excellent blockers.

Top Storylines

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    Arizona QB Khalil Tate
    Arizona QB Khalil TateRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Will This Conference Matter?

    Not only has the Pac-12 been left out of the College Football Playoff each of the past two seasons, but it wasn't even close to the top four either year.

    Two-loss USC was the league's top team in 2017's final rankings at No. 8. Three-loss Washington was No. 9 at the end of last year. And both seasons, it was all but a foregone conclusion by the end of October that the Pac-12 wouldn't get a shot to play for the national championship.

    To be fair, the Big Ten hasn't sent a team to the playoff either of the past two years, nor has that conference scored a point in the playoff since 2015. But there's a difference between not quite making it and not even being relevant, and the Pac-12 needs to at least get from the latter to the former.

    Even if it falls short of this year's national semifinals, it would be a big step in the right direction if Halloween comes and goes and we're at least entertaining the possibility of a Pac-12 team (or two?) receiving an invitation.


    Can Chip Kelly Turn UCLA Around?

    UCLA had a solid run in Jim Mora's first four seasons (2012-15), going 37-16 overall and comfortably qualifying for a bowl game each year. The last three campaigns have been a much different story, bottoming out to the tune of a 3-9 record in Chip Kelly's first year at the helm.

    But that should have been expected, right? UCLA lost more than half its starters from a 6-7 squad, including first-round quarterback Josh Rosen. The Bruins were transitioning to a new system with a ton of inexperience, and it never came together thanks in large part to a brutal nonconference schedule and one of the worst defenses in the country.

    Kelly gets a mulligan for that one.

    But after losing a staggering 19 players as transfers this offseason, the Bruins need to at least start showing signs of life in Year 2 of the Kelly regime. If not, this could turn into an unsalvageable mess.


    Will We See a Healthy Khalil Tate?

    Two years ago, Khalil Tate was the biggest midseason breakout star I can ever remember. He replaced an injured Brandon Dawkins in the first quarter of Arizona's fifth game and set the college football world ablaze for the next six weeks.

    While he wasn't the preseason favorite for the 2018 Heisman, it was feasible that he would have a Lamar Jackson type of season, leading Arizona to the Pac-12 South title and perhaps the program's best season in two decades.

    Instead, the dual-threat superstar suffered an early ankle injury and became much less dominant as a one-trick pony.

    Early returns from Week 0 action indicate Tate is up to his old tricks, though. He threw for 361 yards and three touchdowns and also rushed for 108 yards, more than doubling his 2018 season high of 46 rushing yards.

    If he can maintain a clean bill of health, Arizona is going to score a ton of points. As exhibited in the 45-38 loss to Hawaii, however, porous defense will likely keep the Wildcats from vying for the Pac-12 South title.

The Favorites

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    Utah RB Zack Moss
    Utah RB Zack MossRick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Washington Huskies

    Given all the Huskies lost from last season, it's a testament to Chris Petersen's reputation as a head coach that Washington is expected to be one of the best teams in this league.

    Only Alabama (10) and Ohio State (nine)—schools that always reload with monster recruiting classes—had more players selected in the 2019 NFL draft than Washington's eight, and four-year starting quarterback Jake Browning wasn't even among that list of draftees.

    Among the key departures, the Huskies lost a running back (Myles Gaskin) who finished 13th on the FBS career rushing leaderboard, a linebacker (Ben Burr-Kirven) who led the nation in tackles last year, a cornerback (Byron Murphy) and a safety (Taylor Rapp) who each earned second-team All-America honors from the Associated Press and an offensive tackle (Kaleb McGary) who went in the first round of the draft.

    Aside from a handful of players—Georgia transfer quarterback Jacob Eason, left tackle Trey Adams, wide receiver Aaron Fuller and free safety Myles Bryant—this depth chart is made up of names and faces that 99 percent of folks outside Seattle couldn't pick out of a lineup.

    But the Huskies have gone 32-9 over the past three seasons, and they have a nonconference schedule (Eastern Washington, Hawaii, at BYU) that shouldn't give them much trouble. That first month of the season will ease Eason back into game action and pave the way for Washington to win at least 10 games for the fourth consecutive year.


    Oregon Ducks

    Oregon has the best quarterback in the conference in Justin Herbert, it has arguably the best offensive line in the nation, and it has a pair of defenders (linebacker Troy Dye and cornerback Thomas Graham Jr.) who deserve to be household names. The Ducks also have what should be a two-headed backfield monster in sophomores CJ Verdell and Travis Dye.

    The two big questions are wide receiver and the schedule.

    Oregon lost Dillon Mitchell (75 receptions, 1,184 yards, 10 TD) to the NFL, and projected starter Brenden Schooler suffered a foot injury in fall camp that may keep him off the field until October. Even if Penn State transfer Juwan Johnson hits the ground running, there's almost no depth at the position.

    The bigger issue is that Oregon opens the season against Auburn and has to play road games against Stanford, USC and Washington. The Ducks have considerably more established talent than Washington, but getting back to 10 wins for the first time since 2014 will be tough with that schedule.


    Utah Utes

    The Utes stumbled to the 2018 finish line after losing starting quarterback Tyler Huntley and starting running back Zack Moss to injury, but they should be back in business with maybe the best defense (and definitely the easiest schedule) in the Pac-12.

    Utah has three defensive linemen (Bradlee Anae, Leki Fotu and John Penisini) with NFL talent and a secondary anchored by Julian Blackmon, Jaylon Johnson and Javelin Guidry that should rival California for best in the league. Linebacker is a big unknown after losing Cody Barton and Chase Hansen, but Utah should be strong enough both up front and in the back to make up for it.

    Coupled with an intact offense that scored at least 40 points in all four October contests last season, the Utes are the clear favorite in the Pac-12 South. They may well lose their Nov. 2 game at Washington, but they might be 11-1 and on the fringe of the College Football Playoff picture in advance of the conference championship.

The Challengers

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    Stanford TE Colby Parkinson
    Stanford TE Colby ParkinsonJason O. Watson/Getty Images

    Washington State Cougars

    As far as individual star power is concerned, Washington State has none. The only Cougar voted to the preseason All-Pac-12 first team was punter Oscar Draguicevich III, and the only second-team selections were linebacker Jahad Woods and offensive lineman Abe Lucas.

    But team success in spite of individual anonymity is just sort of Mike Leach's thing. Well, calling passing plays as often as possible and saying ridiculous things in press conferences are actually his things, but you get the point.

    The Cougars bring back five players who each made at least 42 receptions last season and should have one of the most unstoppable offenses, per usual, even though their projected starting quarterback (Gage Gubrud) is an FCS transfer. Were it not for road games against Oregon, Washington and Utah, they would be more legitimately in the mix for a conference title.


    USC Trojans

    As was the case at the end of 2018, the Pac-12 South looks like it'll be Utah and five mediocre teams who take turns putting each other in danger of not qualifying for a bowl game. But if any team is going to emerge from that traffic jam and make a run at the Utes, it will probably be the Trojans.

    Last season was a huge disappointment for USC, especially on offense. But a lot of that can be attributed to the inconsistent play of true freshman quarterback JT Daniels. If he and running back Stephen Carr are able to tap into their immense potential, the Trojans might have the best offense in the league thanks to the returns of last year's primary receiving threats.

    The schedule is downright brutal, though. In nonconference play, the Trojans have road games against Notre Dame and BYU. Even the home opener against Fresno State won't be easy. And cross-divisional games against Oregon, Washington and Stanford will make it difficult to reach even six wins.


    Stanford Cardinal

    Stanford has won at least eight games in 10 consecutive seasons and spent at least one week in the top 15 of the AP poll each of those years. Only a fool would write off David Shaw and the Cardinal, especially when they boast returning stars like quarterback K.J. Costello, tight end Colby Parkinson, offensive tackle Walker Little and cornerback Paulson Adebo.

    The Cardinal did lose a lot from last season, including leading rusher Bryce Love and all three of their top receivers: JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Trenton Irwin and Kaden Smith. But if they're able to have better injury luck along the offensive line and get back to doing their usual thing in the running game, they'll be better than fine.

    As is the case for USC, the difficulty of the schedule is probably the biggest concern here. Stanford hosts Northwestern and Notre Dame and travels to UCF in nonconference play, and it has a difficult Pac-12 slate. Per ESPN's FPI projections, it has between a 32.4 and 75.4 percent chance of winning each game in what will be one coin flip after another for three months.

Best Rivalry Matchup: Oregon at Washington (Oct. 19)

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    Oregon celebrates its 2018 victory over Washington
    Oregon celebrates its 2018 victory over WashingtonThomas Boyd/Associated Press

    With the exceptions of last year's overtime affair and Oregon's 26-20 victory in 2015, this has been one of the least entertaining rivalries of the past two decades. From 2004-14, Oregon had an 11-game streak in which each victory came by at least a 17-point margin. Washington's four wins in 2002, 2003, 2016 and 2017 were each decided by at least 28 points.

    But this should be what determines the winner of the Pac-12 North, making it one of the more important games of the entire 2019 regular season.

    Put it this way: The loser of this game won't be making the College Football Playoff and is probably a stretch to even reach a New Year's Six bowl. The winner at least has a shot.

    We're projecting the Huskies to get that win, even though this will be their eighth consecutive Saturday on the gridiron—an atypical test of endurance during a season in which every team gets at least two weeks off. (Arizona actually has three bye weeks thanks to its early season opener against Hawaii.)

    Washington running back Salvon Ahmed has run the ball well against this Oregon defense over the past two seasons, even though he was in a backup role both years. He's tallied 17 carries for 145 yards and three touchdowns against the Ducks, and he's going to be an even bigger problem for that front seven now that he's the featured back.

    Washington also figures to have an edge in the passing game. Oregon's Justin Herbert might be the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL draft, but Washington has better, more experienced receivers and has consistently had one of the best secondaries in the Pac-12 over the past four seasons.

    Even though the Huskies lost three starters in the defensive backfield, it has gotten to the point where we just have to assume they'll be stout until further notice. They lost three second-round picks in the 2017 NFL draft and came back as good as new the following year. Meanwhile, Oregon has allowed at least 240 passing yards per game and more than 20 passing touchdowns in five consecutive seasons.

    Factor in the location of the game and Washington has the advantage.

    Prediction: Washington 31-21

Coaches on the Hot Seat

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    USC head coach Clay Helton
    USC head coach Clay HeltonMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Clay Helton, USC

    Chris Petersen (Washington), Mike Leach (Washington State), David Shaw (Stanford) and Kyle Whittingham (Utah) are in absolutely no danger of getting fired. 

    For Chip Kelly (UCLA), Kevin Sumlin (Arizona), Herm Edwards (Arizona State), Mario Cristobal (Oregon) and Jonathan Smith (Oregon State), 2019 is only their second season in their current position, which is too soon to put someone on the hot seat. Mel Tucker is in his first year at Colorado, so that goes doubly for him.

    California probably wouldn't consider getting rid of Justin Wilcox regardless of how this season goes, given his impressive feat of taking that defense from a laughingstock to a legitimate force in just two years.

    And yet, the Pac-12 features prominently on this year's various preseason hot seat rankings, as Clay Helton is perilously positioned on a throne of flames at USC.

    Helton was successful early on, leading USC to a Rose Bowl victory in his first full season as the head coach and following that up with an 11-win campaign. But last year's 5-7 disaster—coupled with a 2019 recruiting class that was by far the program's worst in more than a decade—undid any and all goodwill he may have initially generated.

    A lot of people thought Lynn Swann would (or at least should) fire Helton within hours of the season-ending loss to Notre Dame, but the athletic director decided to stick with his man for at least one more season. 

    Well, at least for the first few weeks of one more season.

    USC's first six games are Fresno State, Stanford, at BYU, Utah, at Washington and at Notre Dame. It's hardly a stretch to think the Trojans could finish that gauntlet at 2-4, teetering on the brink of another bowl-less year. If that's the case, USC may fire him then and hope his replacement is able to rally the troops for the easier half of the schedule.

Best Offense: Oregon

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    Oregon RB Travis Dye
    Oregon RB Travis DyeThomas Boyd/Associated Press

    It's a tough call on this one.

    Arizona has an incredible quarterback-running back combo in Khalil Tate and J.J. Taylor, but the Wildcats lost all three of their top passing targets from last season. They'll be solid on offense, but best in the conference might be pushing it.

    Washington State has averaged at least 30 points per game each of the past six seasons and led the Pac-12 with 37.5 in 2018, but the Cougars lost their mustachioed quarterback (Gardner Minshew II), as well as the starting running back who scored 16 times and led the team with 83 receptions (James Williams). Like Arizona, we trust Washington State will score a ton, but probably not as much as Oregon.

    The Ducks put up at least 43 points per game in six straight years from 2010-15, and this bunch might flirt with that level of offensive dominance.

    They have the most experienced offensive line in the country, a quarterback who would have been a first-round pick this past April if he had declared and a running back duo in which both halves averaged better than 5.0 yards per carry as freshmen. If Penn State graduate transfer Juwan Johnson can make the type of impact he did as a sophomore in 2017 (54 receptions for 701 yards), Oregon will be almost unstoppable.

Best Defense: California

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    California LB Evan Weaver
    California LB Evan WeaverJeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Again, this is a tough call between several good options.

    Washington has led the Pac-12 in both points and yards allowed per game for four consecutive seasons, but the Huskies lost seven of their nine leading tacklers and every player who got an interception last year. We're not expecting this defense to go up in flames, though a slight step backward does appear to be coming.

    Utah has held its competition below 24 points per game for four straight years and gets back its entire defensive line and most of its secondary. The Utes lost their four leading tacklers, though, including star linebackers Cody Barton and Chase Hansen. Maybe they're able to keep the status quo without those guys, but it's unlikely they'll be improving on defense with question marks in the middle.

    That means our pick for top defense in the Pac-12 is California.

    The Golden Bears were sensational on D last year, leading the league in yards allowed per play while giving up just 20.4 points per game. And while Washington and Utah are forced to replace a lot of key players, Cal brings back eight of its 10 leading tacklers and all of the starters from its strongest unit: the secondary.

    By far, the biggest loss from this roster is linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk. He was in on 143 tackles last season, good for the fifth-best mark in the nation. Fortunately, Evan Weaver was No. 2 on that list, and he's back for one more year with the Golden Bears. If they're able to find him a sufficient second fiddle, they should have the best defense.

    That said, a brutal schedule—road games against Washington, Ole Miss, Oregon, Utah, Stanford and UCLA—may well keep Cal from putting up the best per-game defensive averages. Metrics that account for difficulty of opponent should peg the Golden Bears as the Pac-12's best D, though.

Projected Standings

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    Colorado WR Laviska Shenault Jr.
    Colorado WR Laviska Shenault Jr.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    North Division

    1. Washington (11-1, 8-1 in Pac-12)
    2. Oregon (9-3, 7-2 in Pac-12)
    3. Washington State (9-3, 6-3 in Pac-12)
    4. Stanford (8-4, 6-3 in Pac-12)
    5. California (5-7, 3-6 in Pac-12)
    6. Oregon State (2-10, 0-9 in Pac-12)

    South Division

    1. Utah (11-1, 8-1 in Pac-12)
    2. USC (7-5, 5-4 in Pac-12)
    3. UCLA (5-7, 4-5 in Pac-12)
    4. Arizona (6-6, 3-6 in Pac-12)
    5. Arizona State (5-7, 3-6 in Pac-12)
    6. Colorado (3-9, 1-8 in Pac-12)

Projected Pac-12 Championship Pairing: Washington vs. Utah

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    Washington Huskies
    Washington HuskiesMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Washington and Utah met in last year's Pac-12 championship game, which probably makes this a foolish prediction.

    Repeats of Power Five championships have been few and far between. It has never happened in the Big Ten or the Pac-12, and it hasn't happened in the ACC or the Big 12 since 2008. Were it not for Alabama beating Florida in 2015 and 2016, it would be a full decade since the last time a Power Five league ran one back to crown its champ.

    However, Utah is the heavy favorite to win the South, and Washington gets top challengers Oregon and Washington State at home, making it hard to pick against the Huskies. Either of those rivals could pull off a road upset, but we've got to play the odds here.

    If this game does happen again, it's a series in which Washington has held a clear—albeit not overwhelming—upper hand.

    The Huskies are 6-1 against the Utes since the latter joined the conference in 2011, but three of Washington's last four wins were by a single possession. Even the "less competitive" game in that bunch—Washington's 21-7 victory during the 2018 regular season—was a close one in which Utah couldn't stop turning the ball over.

    Expect more of the same.

    Led by Jacob Eason, Salvon Ahmed and a revamped secondary, Washington will win the Pac-12 title game for the third time in four years.

    Prediction: Washington 24, Utah 17