2018 Pac-12 Preview
August 6, 2018
By Marc Lawrence
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2018 PAC-12 PREVIEW
According to the Pac-12, a total of 178 starters, who started at least half of his team’s games or a majority of games at a specific position, return to Pac-12 football squads in 2018. That’s out of a possible 288 (including placekickers and punters) for an average of 14.8 starters returning per team.
Among those 178 returning starters are a number of key players, including 10 first-team and 12 second-team All-Pac-12 performers. Arizona, California, and Washington each return the most with 18 starters, followed by Oregon State with 16. Washington State returns the fewest starters with 10.
Five new coaches enter the league this season. It’s the highest number of new coaches on the sidelines in one season for the Pac-12.
UCLA’s Chip Kelly returns for his second stint in the Pac-12. Kelly posted a 46-7 record in four seasons at Oregon (2009-12) and led the Ducks to the 2010 BCS title game. Other new coaches include Arizona’s Kevin Sumlin (averaged 8.7 wins over 10 seasons), Arizona State’s Herm Edwards (last coached in the NFL from 2001-08), Oregon’s Mario Cristobal (won three national titles as a player and an assistant coach), Oregon State’s Jonathan Smith (returns to his alma mater making his head coaching debut).
Note: The numbers following each team name represents the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.
ARIZONA (Offense – *7/2, Defense – 9/1, 51 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: A NEW TATE OF MIND
As is the undoing of many a successful man, it appears Rich’s rod likely sealed his fate. Such was the case when Arizona canned Rich Rodriguez, and his ghastly $6M salary, for sexual misconduct. Enter Kevin Sumlin and his in-your-face spread playbook, custom-designed for new phenom QB Khalil Tate, who burst on the scene in October last season. After being inserted into the starting lineup, Tate recorded a run of 70 more yards in each of his first four starts while earning an unprecedented four straight Pac-12 Player of the Week awards. Safe to say, Sumlin figures to utilize Tate to the max – much like he did with dual-threat QB Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M – to operate the Cats’ potent 3rd ranked rushing attack. “He’s moving from being an athlete that is a quarterback, to being a quarterback that's an athlete,” said Kevin Sumlin.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Freshmen started 25.2% of all Wildcats’ games last season, the 3rd most in the nation.
PLAY AGAINST: at Washington State (11/17)
ARIZONA STATE (Offense – *8/3, Defense – 4/1, 42 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: IN-AND-OUT BURGER
The release of contentious head coach Todd Graham was considered a stunner. However, it was surpassed in magnitude when ASU brought in long-retired and longtime NFL head coach Herm Edwards, who hasn’t coached in college in 30 years – and owned a 54-74 record as an NFL mentor. Yeah, head scratching, to say the least. So as we see it, a 46-game winner over the past six years was replaced with a zero-game coach over the last nine years. Smells like a lobbyist struck that deal. Meanwhile, heavy attrition hit a soft front seven. Against the backdrop of a new staff, new schemes and revamped lines of scrimmage, is a schedule laced with nine bowlers. Sorry, but we don’t see this experiment lasting long.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Arizona State ranked No. 120 in passing yards allowed in 2017 after ranking dead last (No. 128) the previous two seasons.
PLAY AGAINST: at Arizona (11/24)
CALIFORNIA (Offense – *10/3, Defense – 7/1, 56 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: GOOD NEWS BEARS
New coach Justin Wilcox’s defense lived up to its hype as the former DC guru improved the Bears’ stop-unit by 88 YPG, its best overall effort since 2011. The offense, though, slipped mightily. Through it all, Cal came up one game shy of bowl eligibility despite the fact that freshmen accounted for 20.2% of all starts last season (only six teams started more). QB Ross Bowers is the Pac-12’s leading returner in passing yardage after throwing for 3,039 yards in 2017 (flash: he’s being pushed by South Carolina transfer QB Brandon McIlwain), and the running backs are deep and talented. Operating behind all five starters returning to the offensive line should help them blossom. Two other positives: Cal finished 37th nationally in turnover margin behind all the young talent, and the Bears will take on the 5th easiest schedule of all Power 5 schools in 2018 with foes going 76-77 (.497) last season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Cal held Stanford, USC, Washington and Washington State below its season average in points and total yards last season.
PLAY ON: at USC (11/10)
COLORADO (Offense – *5/3, Defense – 7/2, 47 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: THIRSTING FOR MORE
Like a mirage to a water-starved victim crossing the desert, the Buffaloes’ 8-2 conference effort in 2016 surely looked like the real deal. After all, they had gone a measly 3-33 in conference play the previous four seasons. And then lo and behold, a 2-7 record in Pac-12 frays last year found them free falling again, ending the season with a losing record for the 11th time in the last 12 years. Things went so sideways that Colorado had forced a turnover in each of its previous 30 home games – the longest skein in the nation – until they hosted USC in their final game at Boulder last year. QB Steven Montez is one of only fours starters back on offense. Pass the canteen.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Colorado is 10-2 ATS in Last Home Games, including 7-0 ATS versus sub .700 opponents.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Oregon St (10/27) – *KEY as a favorite
OREGON (Offense – *7/3, Defense – 7/2, 43 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: CRYSTAL BALL DIGS CRISTOBAL
Now with its third coach in as many seasons, the Ducks will soldier on under another new head coach in Mario Cristobal, an Oregon assistant last year and former boss at Florida International. The good news is that Oregon is 37-14 since 1995 the first season under a new head coach, including 24-3 at home. Better news is the Ducks will face the easiest Power 5 schedule in 2018 according to the NCAA, as foes this season were just 65-87 (.428) last year. Aside from a strong initial recruiting class, Cristobal welcomes back junior QB Justin Herbert. The 6’ 6” 225-lb future NFL signal-caller went 6-2 last season before being shut down with a shoulder injury. It’s no coincidence OU led the nation in scoring (49 PPG) when Herbert was in the lineup. It’s important to note that Cristobal is extremely well liked by the players, who campaigned for his hire after Willie Taggart bolted for Florida State.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The straight-up winner ‘in the stats’ is 24-1 in Oregon games the last two years, including 13-0 last season.
OREGON STATE (Offense – 7/4, Defense – 8/1, 45 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: MAPPING OUT A NEW PLAN
After two-and-a-half years the Gary Andersen experiment is over following a 7-23 record, including a paltry 3-18 mark in Pac-12 games. Mike Riley is returning to Oregon State – only he will be joining Jonathan Smith’s staff as assistant head coach. Riley previously was the Oregon State head coach from 2003 to 2014, and also 1997 to ’98. Riley was fired Nov. 25 as head coach at Nebraska after going 19-19 over three seasons. Smith, a former Beavers quarterback, was a graduate assistant at Oregon State under Riley in 2003. If it sounds like a well-knit Beaver connection, it is. The key to getting back on the map will be finding a way to win conference games as OSU has dropped 26 of its last 29 Pac-12 performances.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Beavers have been out-yarded in each of their last 19 away games.
STANFORD (Offense – *9/5, Defense – 6/1, 63 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: DOWN ON THE FARM
While Stanford returns 9 starters on offense, the fact of the matter is they lost players to 4 NFL defections, plus 16 players from the 2-deep are gone. Only seven FBS schools lost more starters from last year’s depth charts, and only four schools saw more players leave early for the NFL. Nonetheless, the Cardinal have captured four Pac-12 championship games since 2012 under David Shaw. The big story is star RB Bryce Love’s decision to return to Stanford rather than leaving early for the NFL. The Heisman Trophy hopeful fuels a resurgence of offensive starters back for the Cardinal – sans OC Mike Bloomgren, who leaves to take over the head coaching duties at Rice. QB K.J. Costello also returns after a strong second half last year.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The 405 YPG allowed by Stanford last season was the most ever under HC David Shaw.
PLAY ON: vs. USC (9/8)
UCLA (Offense – 5/2, Defense – 7/2, 38 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: NEXT MAN UP
On the 20th anniversary of its last Pac-12 conference championship, the UCLA brass has turned its football fortunes over to Chip Kelly, the former NFL and Oregon head coach, where he went 46-7 with three conference titles and an appearance in the BCS championship game with the Ducks. The biggest task at hand is filling the shoes set by record-setting QB Josh Rosen. Rest assured, Kelly will find his man. The other concern is patching a rush defense that was the worst for a Power 5 program in nearly 20 years. Remember this on your way out: since 1965 UCLA has had six consecutive non-winning seasons. They are 50-22-1 SU the following year while producing a winning record every season. Just sayin’.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Chip Kelly is 28-1 SU against sub .800 college football opponents.
PLAY AGAINST: at Arizona State (11/10)
USC (Offense – 7/4, Defense – 7/1, 52 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: GREEN EGGS AND SAM
True freshman QB J.T. Daniels is expected to be behind center for the defending Pac-12 champion Trojans this season, replacing redshirt sophomore Sam Darnold, who left for the NFL. The only other true freshman signal-caller to start for USC was Matt Barkley who, like Daniels, hailed from Mater Dei High School in California. Note: Daniels carried a 4.16 Grade Average and graduated after only three years in high school. Last year’s 11-win campaign was especially impressive considering USC did not have a bye week. The Trojans can thank a Red Zone Defense that ranked No. 4 in the nation, but they were also the 5th worst team the nation in Most Penalties last season. It’s a good thing that head coach Clay Helton has out-recruited every team in the conference. He loses a 4,000-yard passer, a 1,500-yard rusher and a 1,100-yard receiver. Ouch.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: USC is 16-0 SU in the Coliseum under head coach Clay Helton.
PLAY AGAINST: at UCLA (11/17)
UTAH (Offense – *8/4, Defense – 6/1, 55 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: WINNINGHAM U
After appearing in every College Football Playoff ranking since its inception in 2014, the Utes extended the streak through the first three weeks in 2017 before finally bowing out. It’s a testament to head coach Kyle Whittingham, the holder of the highest bowl winning percentage (.917, 11-1) of any coach in NCAA history. It was confirmed in the NFL draft this season when Utah led the Pac-12 with eight selections, tying for the third-most in the country. QB Tyler Huntley and a handful of receiving targets are back in 2018, as well as four of last year’s five starting offensive linemen. They make up 18 full-or-part time starters from last season’s bowl-winning squad. Finally, former head coach Gary Andersen is also back as a DL coach.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Head coach Kyle Whittingham is 17-4 SU against the other four Power Five conferences.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Arizona (10/12)
WASHINGTON (Offense – *8/4, Defense – 9/1, 55 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: LOCKED AND LOADED
Chris Petersen planted the seeds for what may the most talented squad he’ll have in his tenure at Washington. It all started in 2015 when his “young as hell” Huskies were force-fed with plenty of playing time. All of those underclassmen are now upper classmen and as a result, U-Dub welcomes a bevy of returning starters for the 2018 season. At the helm is 4th-year senior starting QB Jake Browning, who has tossed for a school record 9,104 yards while completing over 64% of his pass attempts and accounting for 90 touchdowns. In addition, 3-years starting RB Myles Gaskin is back with 4,055 rushing yards and 49 TDs. Add a fearsome front seven on defense and the Huskies appear headed to the playoffs once again this season – especially going up against the 4th easiest schedule of all Power 5 schools in 2018 with foes going 73-80 (.477) last season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Chris Petersen’s .816 winning percentage is the 2nd highest among all active head coaches with at least 13 years of experience.
PLAY ON: vs. Arizona State (9/22)
WASHINGTON STATE (Offense – 4/2, Defense – 6/1, 41 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: MAKING THE BEST OF A LOUSY SITUATION
The tragic suicide of heir-apparent backup QB Tyler Hilinski in January left fractured hearts and souls in the Washington State program. He was scheduled to fill the shoes of 4-year starting QB Luke Falk, who left with a jaw-dropping 14,881 passing yards on 68.3% completions and 119 TDs. In addition WSU’s top two WRs have transferred out of the program. On the defensive side of the ball, the Cougars lose Hercules Mata’afa, who led the Pac-12 in sacks and tackles for a loss last season. Making matters worse, the OL ranked No. 126 in sacks allowed last season. Meanwhile, former Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys is the new defensive coordinator. He reunites with Cougar defensive line coach Jeff Phelps, who coached alongside Claeys at Minnesota from 2011-16.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Cougars are 10-1 ATS as conference road dogs under Mike Leach vs. winning foes off a SUATS win.
PLAY ON: vs. California (11/3)
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