Complete Pac-12 preview for the 2018 season.
The Pac-12 never lacks for intrigue, but the conference heads into 2018 looking to rebound after a disappointing 2017 slate. The league did not produce a playoff team, had only two programs reach double-digit victories and went 1-8 in bowl games. But there’s reason for optimism on the West Coast for 2018. Washington takes the top spot in Pac-12 predictions, as coach Chris Petersen’s team should be in the mix for a playoff spot this fall. The Huskies are loaded on both sides of the ball and are a clear favorite to win the conference title. Stanford and Oregon are both top 25 teams and will battle Washington for the top spots in the North. The other side of the conference features three teams vying for the division title. USC is the favorite in the South, but there’s little separation between the Trojans, Arizona and Utah.
The arc of the Cal program is headed in a positive direction, but second-year coach Justin Wilcox knows the Bears aren’t where they need to be. “It’s not good enough. We can say we have all these returnees, but we were 5-7,” he says. “Every one of us has got to show improvement.”
A year ago, the Bears dramatically improved the Pac-12’s worst defense and inched close to bowl eligibility. But the stretch run was a study in frustrating close calls, a 1-4 finish that included three losses by a combined seven points. “Those are the margins that are toughest to overcome,” Wilcox says. That will remain Cal’s challenge in the tough Pac-12 North.
The schedule sets up for a return to contention in the Pac-12 North. After three bland non-conference matchups — the Ducks can thank Texas A&M for backing out of a contracted series — Oregon hosts Washington and Stanford in conference play. With Justin Herbert and Tony Brooks-James in the backfield, and experience up front, the offense should be able to put up points. History says the defense in its second year under defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt will take another step forward. But will it be enough to get Oregon back to double-digit wins and Pac-12 title contention? The Ducks haven’t won a bowl game since the 2014 CFB Playoff semifinal, a streak fans badly want to see end.
The Beavers aren’t trying to snap a streak of 28 consecutive losing seasons like in 1999, but the gap between them and the rest of the Pac-12 felt as wide as ever last year. Still, if OSU can buy into what Jonathan Smith is selling and move past a disastrous 2017, his first season as a head coach will be considered a success.
For years, Stanford has led with its defense, which it backed up with a rugged, run-first offensive attack. That could change this year The Stanford offense hasn’t eclipsed 40 points per game since 2011, when Andrew Luck lined up behind center. It could in 2018. And it might need to, thanks to a defense in transition.
Stanford visits Pac-12 North favorite Washington on Nov. 3, but we’ll get a good picture of the Cardinal before September is over, with games vs. USC, at Oregon and at Notre Dame.
In Year 5 of the Chris Petersen era, the meticulous Washington coach will trot out a rarefied group that boasts 16 returning starters from a team that won 10 games. The Huskies take a backseat to no team when it comes to game experience. They’re positioned to run with college football’s elite again this season, and expectations are through the roof in Seattle. All Petersen’s club needs to do now is stay relatively healthy — and win.
In each of the past two seasons, Washington State fell four quarters shy of its first Pac-12 Championship Game appearance. It’s unlikely that the race for the Pac-12 North will come down to the Apple Cup again, and fans may need to temper their expectations after WSU followed an eight-win season in 2016 with nine wins in ’17. That doesn’t mean that the Cougars will backslide too much. They may just have to find some middle ground: Competing for a title in the rugged Pac-12 North seems unrealistic, but a bowl game is within reach.
With a forgiving schedule – Arizona does not play Washington or Stanford – the Wildcats are positioned to contend for the Pac-12 South title. Arizona is thin on defense, but its starters are of Pac-12 quality. Khalil Tate will attempt to be the school’s first All-Pac-12 first-team quarterback since Arizona joined the league in 1978. But much like on defense, Arizona is not deep and has no game-ready backup should Tate go down. Still, this is Arizona’s most anticipated season since 2010.
The presence a handful of top-shelf Pac-12 players may mask to some degree the scope of ASU’s overhaul, but at least it’ll give the staff a boost in the transitional phase. While the Sun Devils likely won’t challenge for the Pac-12 South division title, they have potential to remain relevant into November. All eyes will be on coach Herm Edwards, one of the most intriguing hires in college football in years.
After a South Division title in 2016, Colorado entered last season eager to prove it was more than a one-hit wonder. Instead, the Buffs settled into their familiar spot at the bottom of the division. Mike MacIntyre is only one year removed from winning National Coach of the Year honors and signing a contract extension (through 2021), but there’s pressure to get the Buffs back to the postseason. There’s enough talent and hunger to get them there, but not much margin for error.
Coach Chip Kelly is inheriting a full rebuilding job and not a top-25 team like he had when he embarked on his magical run at Oregon. The Bruins do have talent on campus from all those top recruiting classes signed by the previous staff, but there are significant issues on both sides of the ball.
It may not be long before Kelly has the Bruins contending for titles like they did with regularity two decades ago, but there are bound to be a few growing pains in 2018. Even in a wide-open Pac-12 South, this UCLA squad may prove to be more pesky than good as it builds toward a brighter future.
Clay Helton is the first coach in the program’s history to guide the Trojans to 10 wins in each of his first two seasons, but it is going to be a challenge to continue that level of success with significant roster turnover.
The Trojans should remain the favorites in the Pac-12 South race, considering the talent remaining on their roster and coaching changes that occurred at three of their division rivals. The challenge to repeat as Pac-12 champions gets off to a difficult start with a tough September slate that includes trips to Stanford and Arizona, plus a matchup with Washington State on a Friday night. It won’t be an easy road to navigate.
Utah is entering its eighth season in the Pac-12, and Kyle Whittingham now has been a head coach in this conference longer than he filled that role in the Mountain West. So the Utes are feeling some pressure to win their first Pac-12 South championship. “We are getting closer and closer to where we want to be, but no one cares about being close,” Whittingham says. “We have to get over that hump.”
The schedule is difficult – the Utes miss Oregon State and California in the rotation – but the pieces are in place for Utah to threaten USC for supremacy in the South.