Leading up to the kickoff of the 2018 college football season, The Game Haus will be previewing each FBS conference and those independent teams. As we continue today with the Pac-12, we’ll offer league predictions and look at the top performers while also highlighting key games from each conference.
Here we go.
A total of 16 starters are back from last season’s squad that lost in the Fiesta Bowl to Penn State. Quarterback Jake Browning wasn’t as dominant as he was in 2016, but threw just five interceptions and posted a passer rating of 152.1. The Huskies return some familiar faces from a defense that allowed 16.1 points per game.
Running back Bryce Love should keep the Cardinal offense motoring, assuming he stays healthy. The issue is on defense where Stanford must replace some key members from a unit that was solid for the most part in 2017, but allowed 70 points in the final two games against USC and TCU.
Justin Herbert threw for more than 1,900 yards in each of his first two seasons, the last under new coach Mario Cristobal, who was Oregon’s co-offensive coordinator in ’17. Jim Leavitt stays on as defensive coordinator for an improving unit. The Ducks also host Stanford, Washington and UCLA.
Following another 5-7 record in coach Justin Wilcox’s first season as coach, the Bears must figure out a way to get over the hump. Returning running back Patrick Laird rushed for 1,127 yards last season, but a defense that yielded 44 or more points three times in 2017 needs to be better.
5. Washington State
The Cougars won nine games last season, but many felt they had the talent to do better. The suicide death of quarterback Tyler Hilinski in January has left Mike Leach’s program grieving while also rebuilding. The quarterback position remains a question mark, but new defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys provides some veteran guidance.
6. Oregon State
The Beavers have won seven games over the past three seasons and didn’t win any last year against an FBS squad while going 1-11. Former Oregon State star quarterback Jonathan Smith takes over as coach and must find a way to improve an offense that averaged 20.7 points per game and allowed 43.
Sam Darnold is no longer under center for the reigning Pac-12 champions, but there is plenty of talent left. Linebacker Cameron Smith is one of eight defensive starters back and the offensive line will be experienced. The Trojans travel to Stanford and Texas in September, so the tests come right off the bat for Clay Helton’s group.
Quarterback Tyler Huntley (2,411 passing yards) and running back Zack Moss (1,173 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns) return to give the Utes a solid offensive foundation. However, the key to Utah’s success this season likely rides on how well it does against Washington, Stanford and at UCLA.
Rich Rodriguez is out, Kevin Sumlin is in as coach. Remember, Sumlin helped Johnny Manziel win a Heisman trophy, now he has Khalil Tate to work with. Tate threw for 1,591 yards and ran for 1,411 and 12 touchdowns last season – including 327 on the ground vs. Colorado.
All eyes will be on Chip Kelly’s return to coaching in the Pac-12. He won 46 games and reached the BCS title game during four seasons with Oregon. Now, after a 28-35 mark in the NFL, Kelly is hoping to turn things around in Westwood where the Bruins have been sub-par the last two seasons. UCLA returns 10 starters, but must replace quarter Josh Rosen.
The Buffaloes ended an eight-year bowl drought in 2016, but slipped to a 5-7 mark last season. Returning to prominence might not be easy without talented runner Phillip Lindsay. Colorado also must improve defensively, where it gave up an average of 37.7 points in losing the last three games of ’17.
6. Arizona State
Herm Edwards is the new coach in town, which, if anything, should be interesting to watch. Edwards hasn’t coached since 2008 with Kansas City Chiefs, and is known mostly for his pro background. He’s expected to take a no-nonsense approach with the Sun Devils, who bring back 11 starters but haven’t won more than seven games in each of the last three years.
Players to watch
Bryce Love, RB, Stanford: Despite being banged up last season, Love ran for 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns to finish a distant second to Baker Mayfield in the Heisman race. Just imagine what a healthy Love can do?
Cameron Smith, LB, USC: The versatile Trojan has the making of a top-10 selection in next year’s NFL Draft. Smith totaled 112 tackles as a junior in 2017, 11 of which went for loss. He’s the complete package that should be a hit at the next level, especially if things go well in 2018.
Sept. 8: USC at Stanford. A rematch of last year’s Pac-12 Championship game should be a fun way to kick off the league slate. If this matchup goes anything like last year’s title-game thriller won by the Trojans, than the fans are the real winners.
Oct. 6: Washington at UCLA. Kelly’s Bruins go to Oklahoma in September, but this Pac-12 contest against the Huskies should offer insight into how successful UCLA will be within the league.
Oct. 12: Arizona at Utah. If anybody is to catch USC in the South, it could be one of these two teams. Utah has high expectations while Kevin Sumlin is trying to guide the Wildcats to more than seven wins.