The Obstructed PAC-12 Preview-2019

The season is almost here. Most years I start off with the conference the National Champion resides in (mostly SEC or ACC with Alabama and Clemson). So I figure I can give some love to start on the back end of the power 5, which is the PAC-12.

Earlier this summer, I posted about what was wrong with the PAC-12 as not only have they missed the College Football Playoff for the second consecutive year, but also not being close as a consideration for the playoff. While some PAC-12 fans scream that there’s an East Coast Bias (or more of a “Southeastern” Coast bias), they can’t really argue much as the conference has not been overly competitive as a whole in this time period.

Will that change in 2019? Anything is possible. And there is hope among that Washington will revamp and re-tool on offense with Jacob Eason replacing the inconsistent Jake Browning at QB. Oregon hopes Justin Hebert wins the Heisman and takes the Ducks back atop the division and get back to the Playoff. Stanford will always be a threat. However, the PAC-12 South will be do or die for a few programs, especially at USC where Clay Helton is probably in a “win or go home” bit. Chip Kelly suffered an embarrassing first year at UCLA. Kevin Sumlin will start to have some of his guys come in and run his style of play at Arizona while Herm Edwards tries to show last year was no fluke at Arizona State. So it should still be fun to watch the PAC-12, but will they get a Playoff spot?

PAC-12 NORTH

Jacob Eason took a long and winding road to play back in his home state in Washington

(1) WASHINGTON HUSKIES: Goodbye Jake, hello Jacob. The Huskies will not have the polarizing Jake Browning at quarterback (you either loved him or hated him in Seattle) and say hello to Georgia transfer Jacob Eason. Eason was considered the best quarterback coming out in 2015. However, injuries and falling out of favor with new coach Kirby Smart made him return home to Washington. Eason has an arm and is more of a pocket style quarterback than Browning ever was. And that to me will pay dividends for the Huskies. The offensive line returns four of five starters from last year (and the 5th starter started 32 games prior before an injury). They will be a problem for opposing defensive lines both for the pass and the run. The Huskies will miss Myles Gaskin but will have Salvon Ahmed if he can improve his running lanes. Defensively, the Huskies only return 2 starters. Washington has recruited strong up front and has been one of the strengths of the defense under Chris Peterson. If the likes up front can continue the trend, Washington will be very problematic. The linebacking corps may be a weakness as nobody returns and have questions there while the secondary returns only one starter there (Myles Bryant). However, hopes are high for that corps and many feel Kyler Gordon is going to be a stud. Washington’s schedule is VERY favorable to them and one that could have the potential to easily run the table in the PAC-12 which will net them that Playoff berth for the first time since 2016. Their toughest game away from Seattle is at Stanford and then will have to travel to Arizona the week after. So if the Huskies escape those, it could be a memorable season. BEST CASE RECORD: 12-0 WORST CASE RECORD: 8-4 MY PREDICTION: 11-1. I don’t know if they escape Stanford alive, but the rest of the schedule is manageable. Will it be enough for a Playoff?

Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello broke the school record for passing yards at Santa Margarita Catholic set by Carson Palmer, a Heisman Trophy and No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft out of USC. (Don Feria/isiphotos.com)

(2) STANFORD CARDINAL: Every time people shrug off Stanford that is where the Cardinal come up and make a big threat for the PAC-12. Last year however, a key reason why Stanford is not heavily considered to make noise for the upcoming year is simple: the defense. Needless to say they struggled (115th against the pass; 78th overall). The Cardinal return only 5 starters which is also a concern. But if the Cardinal’s front 7 can roll (the line should be excellent with Jovan Swann and Michael Williams), it could help the secondary which has potential though concerns at safety. However, Paulson Adebo could be another star cornerback in the making in the PAC-12. However, Stanford will have a solid quarterback leading the way in KJ Costello, who was probably only behind Justin Herbert in the conference as best quarterback. But what it will come down to is if they can keep healthy in the run game as Bryce Love is no longer there (and had a lot of injury plagued moments). Cameron Scarlett could have a big year and be more of a disciplined runner than Love was which I think is more beneficial for the Cardinal as well. Stanford’s schedule is an interesting one early on with a home tilt with Northwestern but then two road games at USC and UCF while coming back to home to face rival Oregon. If they go 3-1 in that span, keep an eye on the Cardinal the rest of the way especially hosting Washington October 5. BEST CASE SCENARIO: 11-1 WORST CASE SCENARIO: 5-7 MY PREDICTION: 10-2. I think the Cardinal stun Washington but will have a hiccup out at Washington State and they have historically struggled at USC.

Herbert is a Heisman front-runner in 2019

(3) OREGON DUCKS: Justin Herbert is without question the best quarterback Oregon had since Marcus Mariota and also hopes of a Heisman resides with him also like Mariota. If history repeats itself, Oregon will find themselves in either Atlanta or Tempe for a Playoff game. Do they have enough talent to do it? Yes. The Ducks bring back their entire offense from last year which should not go unnoticed with a great balanced running attack with CJ Verdell and Travis Dye getting the bulk of the carries. Dillon Mitchell may be gone but the receivers will be good if not better than last year with Herbert throwing it around. Defensively, while the Ducks have never been mistaken for Alabama’s defense or Clemson’s defense, will be better than what it has been over the last few years. The line will be a question outside Jordon Scott but high hopes are with freshman Kayvon Thibodoeaux who if he can show he is a monster in his first year, watch out. The secondary will be improved from last year (which returns three starters and if the Ducks can get a strong pass rush) and with new defensive coordinator Andy Avalos bringing different attacking packages could give teams fits. Oregon’s schedule out of the gate starts in Dallas against Auburn. If the Ducks win that game, you have to think they are going to be talked about as a contender. If not, there is no margin of error (there may not be one even if they do win against the Tigers) the rest of the way and a loss at Stanford may actually deflate the sails and chances of Herbert at a Heisman. BEST CASE RECORD: 12-0 WORST CASE RECORD: 7-5 MY PREDICTION: 9-3. Oregon gets the short end where they have to run around to face Auburn, Stanford, and Washington. Road games at USC and Arizona State will be intriguing but I think Herbert will win those games to still keep him in the Heisman consideration.

Davontavean Martin will provide Gage Gubrud a major target at Washington State

(4) WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS: You always wonder when that year at Washington State the shoe will drop for Mike Leach, but he’s a quarterback whisperer. Gardner Minshew went from “who is this guy?” to a cult icon in Pullman and was figured in the Heisman race until that blizzard in the Apple Cup where he was just unable to throw. As always, Leach’s offense will rely on the quarterback play in the Air Raid. And the defense does “just enough” to hold teams at bay (most of the time). So the question will beg if Eastern Washington transfer Gage Gubrud will be that guy. From all looks of it he can, but let’s see what he has on paper. He has receivers who can catch like Davontavean Martin and playmaker Dezmon Partmon. So as a person who thinks Mike Leach is a quality head coach, I wouldn’t doubt the Cougars offense to roll, well the passing game is. On defense the Cougars will need more of a pass rush but are high on West Virginia transfer Lamonte McDougle at nose tackle. And they have a quality safety in Jalen Thompson so if the Cougars can the front on defense rolling, this could be a major sleeper not just in the PAC-12, but in college football (much like last year). Washington State has a schedule that thankfully in the PAC-12 can be very manageable including having a nice run against Stanford and Oregon. But the road games are going to test the Cougars (Houston, Utah, Arizona State, Oregon, California, and at Washington). I think Washington State is strong enough to compete with all of those teams away from Pullman, but Washington is the obvious albatross here. BEST CASE RECORD: 9-3 WORST CASE RECORD: 6-6 MY PREDICTION: 8-4. That road schedule is not going to be fun and with Oregon making strides and Utah being that physical monster, I don’t see the Cougars enjoying that same success as they had last year.

Bequette is becoming the face of Cal’s resurgence on defense

(5) CALIFORNIA GOLDEN BEARS: The script was flipped last year. California went from all Air Raid with the defense optional approach to a defensive, grind it out approach. The Golden Bears were tough as nails against the pass and that really helps them out in their conference (especially with Herbert and Eason there) and solid agianst the run, but the offense tanked. Chase Gerbers was turnover prone and inconsistent. Devon Modster is a UCLA transfer who could really push Gerbers. If Gerbers starts, he needs to make sure his play improves tremendously. If not, the Bears will have to rely way too much on defense. Thankfully the defense brings back 7 starters including the secondary that helped them have a top 10 defense against the pass. The linebacking corps is also another bonus with Cameron Goode coming back from injury which really helps them out more. The Bears defensive line is headlined by Luc Bequette (5 sacks last year) and if they can continue to improve against the run, they could really spoil some teams in their division. But it will all come down to the quarterback play. We’ve seen great defenses go to waste because the offense isn’t as strong. California has the unfortunate deal of a schedule of facing Oregon, Stanford, and Washington away from Berkeley as well as having to travel to Ole Miss and UCLA. If they could muster two or three wins on the road, you have to think it would be a great season for the Bears. BEST CASE RECORD: 8-4 WORST CASE RECORD: 4-8 MY PREDICTION: 6-6 Road schedule is just too tough for the Bears.

Jefferson was one of the few bright spots the Beavers had in 2018

(6) OREGON STATE BEAVERS: Poor Oregon State. They have to get footing somewhere, but right now the PAC-12 North is not the most ideal place to get that footing. The good news last year was they ended a nice road losing streak with a win in Colorado and one that was pretty dramatic. Aside from that the Beavers defense was woeful at best allowing 35 or more points in 10 losses and was the second worst in the nation in most major defensive categories (scoring, rushing yards allowed, and total defense). They return seven starters (is it a good thing?) and having two transfers from Nebraska (Avery Roberts) and Oklahoma (Addison Gumbs). The secondary will be upper-classmen and safety David Morris could be underrated if Oregon State establishes any kind of pass rush. Offensively the bright spot is Jermar Jefferson, who rushed for 1,380 yards last year. The question will be who hands off to him, Jake Luton or another Nebraska transfer Tristan Gebbia. Seems like it will be Luton as the Beavers passing game wasn’t too shabby though Luton was injured at times. To keep Luton or Gebbia upright may be a problem as the Oregon State line allowed a lot of sacks last year which could repeat with only two starters returning. Oregon State’s schedule isn’t fun especially for a program trying to establish anything. They start the year hosting Oklahoma State and then a road trip at Hawaii before getting their home game against Cal Poly. And there is no Colorado either on the PAC-12 schedule so it may be another long year for Jonathan Smith. BEST CASE RECORD: 4-8 WORST CASE RECORD: 1-11 MY PREDICTION: 1-11 I could see the Beavers sting Arizona State or even UCLA, but it is very doubtful for either one.

PAC-12 SOUTH

Moss will be a big factor in Utah’s chances in 2019

(1) UTAH UTES: Utah has replaced Stanford as the PAC-12’s physical squad and have been that way for a while now. They are one of the top teams in the nation defensively and return 7 starters. They bring back two of their top linemen in Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu. Anae recorded 8 sacks and could have a monster year so those numbers can go up. The line itself could be the best in the nation which is something to be said. They are deep as is and will create plenty of havoc. If Penn State transfer Manny Bowen comes in and does his thing, the Utes could just be a national terror on defense which could be comparable to the likes of Clemson, Alabama, and Georgia. The secondary is pretty stout and could just only get better so that 53rd ranked passing defense will be higher in 2019. The question will be can Utah get an offense to at least stand toe to toe with Washington as both games last year the Utes had numerous problems with the Huskies only scoring a total of 10 points in two games against them. The guy under the spotlight will be Tyler Huntley. He started off shaky but started to roll in October before getting injured to end his season. If Huntley can be that dual threat and remain consistent, to add on with Zack Moss, the Utes could be knocking on the door of a playoff spot themselves. But it will all depend on the passing game of Utah. Utah’s schedule is pretty manageable with two major road games at USC and Washington. If they can split those and find a way going to the PAC-12 Championship at 11-1, they have to be considered for a Playoff spot. BEST CASE RECORD: 11-1 WORST CASE RECORD: 8-4 MY PREDICTION: 9-3 I just don’t trust Utah’s offense enough to think the Utes will take down Washington at all and I do worry on that USC game too.

Benjamin may be the best kept secret in college football

(2) ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS: Herm Edwards sent a few messages last year to critics. 1. He can coach in the college level. 2. The Todd Graham Era is long gone. What you got last year was an offense that emphasized heavy on the run (second in the PAC-12) thanks to Eno Benjamin who rushed for 1,642 yards and an improvement on the defense as the Sun Devils were traditionally ranked 100th or lower in most defensive categories under Graham. The defense was young on top of it and are bringing back 6 starters. If Merlin Robertson builds off his freshmen year (five sacks, 77 tackles) and Darien Butler does the same, the Sun Devils defense will only get stronger. But the question is going to be the line which struggled a lot (the rushing defense did improve under Edwards and defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales, but they were 10th in the conference against the run) and probably need George Lea and Jermayne Lole to have big years to really have a formidable defense. Offense is where the questions will rise notably in the passing game as Manny Wilkins is gone as is top receiver N’Keal Harry. Kyle Williams is a monster deep threat but who will be throwing it to him, Dillon Sterling-Cole or freshman Jayden Daniels? So for early on you will probably see plenty of Eno Benjamin running the ball before we know who the play-caller is. Whoever it is, they will have a good running game and a solid offensive line. Arizona State’s schedule will have some speed-bumps for Edwards to build off his first year with a early road trip at Michigan State who wants revenge from last season and then a stretch of 3 road games in four (at Cal, Utah, UCLA) and then two big home games to end it with Oregon and Arizona. It’s very difficult to figure out what the Sun Devils will be with questions at quarterback, but if Benjamin is healthy, that only helps the cause. BEST CASE RECORD: 10-2 WORST CASE RECORD: 4-8 MY PREDICTION: 7-5. They could have a really good year or a really rough year. Or somewhere in between. Once the quarterback is figured out the Sun Devils should be okay.

Tate struggled under Sumlin’s system in 2018.

(3) ARIZONA WILDCATS: Kevin Sumlin’s first year was as up and down as you could get. Khalil Tate struggled in Sumlin’s system and that also played into the Wildcats struggles. The running game however, with or without Tate is still pretty strong with JJ Taylor (1,434 yards). But the focus will be on Tate if he can stay disciplined and be that dual threat a la Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M when Sumlin was there. But he will have an all new set of receivers as the top three guys are no longer at Arizona. The other issue that Arizona has and that has plagued Sumlin at Texas A&M was defense. The Wildcats surrendered yards both in the air (121st overall and last in the PAC-12) and on the ground (64th overall and 8th in the conference). They are undersized and not deep so we could see more of the 41-38 games in order for the Wildcats to compete. The one positive will be the linebacking group as they return all three starters led by Colin Schooler (119 tackles and 21 for loss). The issue is aside from depth is can they develop a pass rush when they see the likes of Herbert, Eason, Huntley, and others? Arizona’s schedule is tough despite an easy non-conference schedule (at Hawaii, Northern Arizona, and Texas Tech). Back to back road games at USC and Stanford right after a home game against Washington could really decide the fate of this team while ending with Oregon, Utah, and rival Arizona State (Oregon and Arizona State being road games) so getting to a bowl game will be huge in Sumlin’s second year before people start to get antsy in Tucson. BEST CASE RECORD: 8-4 WORST CASE RECORD: 4-8 MY PREDICTION: 6-6 Arizona will get off to a nice start but after their road trip to Colorado will be just murder the rest of the way save Oregon State.

Thompson-Robinson could be a massive threat for UCLA

(4) UCLA BRUINS: If Kevin Sumlin’s run in 2018 at Arizona was a nightmare, then Chip Kelly’s run at UCLA was an absolute disaster. UCLA started off 0-5 including home losses to Cincinnati and Fresno State and went 3-9 overall. Is there hope? Yes. UCLA returns 8 starters on offense and 9 on defense. Dorian Thompson-Robinson is that quarterback that is a dual threat and with seasoning he could be a major threat in the conference. Joshua Kelly at running back will provide a strong rushing game while Demetric Felton and Theo Howard will have bigger roles in the passing game. On defense, where they really struggled, they will have an improved secondary with Darnay Holmes at corner. The linebacker group is going to be solid with Keisean Lucier-South showing promise and Krys Barnes leading the way, but the problem is the line. They struggled tremendously and doesn’t seem like it will get better as the other units will probably have too much pressure to make big plays. UCLA’s schedule isn’t easier than last year with a road trip to Cincinnati and then home to San Diego State and then the Sooners roll into town another 0-3 start is possible before they take their conference schedule on the road to Washington State. Speaking of, road trips there, Arizona, Stanford, Utah, and rival USC won’t be fun (at least Oregon or Washington isn’t on the schedule) so again, Kelly and UCLA will have their work cut out for them. BEST CASE RECORD: 9-3 WORST CASE RECORD: 4-8 MY PREDICTION: 5-7 I fear that Kelly’s style on offense is just not going to cut it in the PAC-12 where they seem to be more reliant on defense and getting beaten on the D-line could be a major issue.

Daniels is the next great hope at USC

(5) USC TROJANS: My guess is that in Clay Helton’s first two years that needed two PAC-12 championships and a Rose Bowl win was enough to keep his job for 2019. However, Helton will start out 2019 as the head coach on the hottest seat in the PAC-12 and maybe the nation (a debate can be made for Gus Malzahn at Auburn). But maybe it wasn’t the Trojans that declined as much as it was some of the teams started catching up to them. Even in Sam Darnold’s last year in Los Angeles you noticed some cracks to the team as they were just not as strong and got obliterated by Ohio State. With the likes of Utah, Arizona State, and Cal getting better, the Trojans had no answers. JT Daniels was a true freshman last year so you could expect improvement especially with a solid group in Michael Pittman Jr and Tyler Vaughns. However, what has decimated the Trojans the last couple of years has been the offensive line. If they can’t get that going, the growth for Daniels is stunted. On defense, the Trojans weren’t bad, but weren’t good. That’s not great when the offense is “middle of the road” at best. But there are some bright spots especially up front with Christian Rector at end and Jay Tufele at tackle. The linebacking corps also seems solid with Jordan Iosefa, Palaie Gaoteote IV, and John Houston all expecting to have big years. However, the secondary was beat badly and the majority of the defensive backs are very inexperienced. So, the pass rush needs to be very strong to take pressure off the younger players. USC has a not-so-fun schedule as they have road games against Washington and Notre Dame in consecutive games while seeing Oregon and Stanford at home and a late road trip to Arizona State and Cal. Its schedule could be the one that dooms Helton’s tenure. BEST CASE RECORD: 8-4 WORST CASE RECORD: 4-8 MY PREDICTION: 5-7 I can see USC upsetting the likes of a Utah and/or Stanford but I think they are just going to have issues stopping anybody on the run and keeping Daniels upright.

Johnson is a quarterback’s nightmare fo opposing teams

(6) COLORADO BUFFALOES: How things have gone south for the Buffaloes since their 2016 run to the PAC-12 championship. Mike MacIntyre is gone and in comes Mel Tucker, a Nick Saban/Kirby Smart disciple that Buffaloes fans hope to bring that Alabama/Georgia attitude to Boulder. It maybe a rough start. Tucker will have a quality starting quarterback in Steven Montez. Montez will have a solid group of receivers headed by Laviska Shenault (1,011 receiving yards), and KD Nixon (636 yards). But if Tucker follows the styles of Saban and Smart, expect more of a running game, which was anemic and moreso now that Travon McMillian is gone. Alex Fontenot is going to be the featured back, but expect others to carry the load. But the question may end up being is if the Buffaloes line open up holes for those backs and that isn’t a certainty. On defense is where Tucker may have more of his fingerprints on given his strength. However, five starter return and the ones who are new are very new. He could mold them into monsters or it may take a year of adjustments. Nate Landman will anchor the defense at linebacker while Mustafa Johnson is a monster for opposing quarterbacks. However, the secondary has to make strides which they fell off after a nice run in 2016. The line will give them so much to do but it is the secondary who will need to step up big time. Colorado’s schedule has a rough non-conference run with their rivals in Colorado State, their old Big 12 foe in Nebraska, and Air Force, which runs options and has always given Tucker fits. The road trips aren’t fun seeing Oregon and Washington State in back-to-back weeks while seeing Utah in Salt Lake City to end their season. The home schedule won’t be fun either especially near the end with Stanford and Washington coming to Boulder. It may be a rough first year for Tucker in Colorado. BEST CASE RECORD: 6-6 WORST CASE RECORD: 2-10 MY PREDICTION: 3-9 Too many questions on both sides of the ball for Tucker to answer and teams are far more talented than the Buffaloes right now in the PAC-12

Hopefully if there is a PAC-12 Championship rematch it will be better than last year.

PAC-12 CHAMPIONSHIP: UTAH VS WASHINGTON: This would be a rematch of last year’s title game which was exciting as watching paint dry. However, if it is that game again, I think it will be a little more fun to see with Utah’s offense being a little more polished and if Washington’s defense takes a step back. My take is that the Huskies will be playing for a playoff spot and after a second tilt, will have an improved defense when they see Utah. But I think you will see another relatively low scoring game but I think Eason makes some plays down field to set the Huskies up for scores and it will be enough to edge the Utes. But will it be enough for the committee to put them in the Playoff? WASHINGTON 24, UTAH 17

TOP 3 QUESTIONS

Oregon’s match against Auburn is a statement game for the Ducks and the PAC-12

(1) IF OREGON WINS WEEK 1 AGAINST AUBURN, WILL THAT CHANGE THE DYNAMIC THAT THE PAC-12 CAN HANG WITH THE SEC? It will be a boost for the PAC-12 if Oregon wins that match-up. However, many fans in the SEC will say Auburn is a maligned program with a coach that can be fired midway through the season. To me, Auburn should always be considered a massive threat to any team as they’ve showed by beating Georgia and Alabama. So it will help out. It also could give Oregon that boost they haven’t seen since 2014 when they made the playoff.

Sumlin struggled at Arizona in his first year with the Wildcats

(2) IF UCLA OR ARIZONA DOESN’T IMPROVE IN THE SECOND YEARS OF THE CHIP KELLY OR KEVIN SUMLIN ERAS RESPECTIVELY, COULD EITHER ONE BE FIRED? Not for Sumlin as the buyout is too high and maybe Kelly too. However, Kelly cannot afford anything worse than 4-8 in year two of his run. People project the upward trend on the Trojans. I’m not too high on that but Kelly has won in the past so there is something to be said. I just don’t think that his offense is as flashy largely because other teams especially in the PAC-12 run a similar style to his now.

Helton is definitely in a “win now” mode

(3) WHAT DOES CLAY HELTON DO TO KEEP HIS JOB AT USC? Win the PAC-12 South. A debate can be made that the PAC-12 South is the worst division among the Power 5 (between them or the ACC Coastal Division). If USC cannot overtake a division that is weak and given the talent they have over the years then a change must be needed in a big way.

That’s it for the PAC-12.

-Fan in the Obstructed Seat

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