Which team will be the class of the Pac-12 this season? Here’s a look at the preseason Power Rankings for the conference. (Due to an editing error, some rankings originally appeared out of order.)
1. Washington Huskies
The Huskies are the early favorite to win the Pac-12 because they own one of the nation’s most talented defensive backfields and one of the country’s most experienced offensive backfields. Quarterback Jake Browning should finish the season owning just about every Washington passing record, and running back Myles Gaskin should become the school’s all-time leading rusher with more than 4,000 yards. Washington must find reliable receivers, but the Huskies should have no problem leaning on a tough, turnover-thirsty defense.
2. USC Trojans
The Trojans could challenge Washington for the league’s best defense in 2018, but USC will live and die by its quarterback play. While there’s solid talent at receiver and running back, starting with the elusive Stephen Carr, USC must replace Sam Darnold under center. There’s not much experience there, but reclassified freshman J.T. Daniels has a chance to be a special player. The Trojans avoid Washington and Oregon in the regular season for the second straight year.
3. Stanford Cardinal
The return of Bryce Love gives the Cardinal one of the best overall players in the country. Even with what should be improved quarterback play from returning starter K.J. Costello or former top recruit Davis Mills, no one would be shocked if Love crosses 2,000 yards in consecutive seasons. Stanford’s defense is still a big question, especially in the secondary, but the Cardinal have the potential to score plenty of points this fall.
4. Oregon Ducks
Mario Cristobal is Oregon’s third head coach in as many years. His installation of the pistol this spring also marks a third different offense for the Ducks. Justin Herbert could be the first quarterback taken in next year’s NFL draft, and he’ll be behind four linemen with significant experience. The defense, which returns DC Jim Leavitt, is poised to break out with seven starters back, including two of the Pac-12’s best in end Jalen Jelks and linebacker Troy Dye.
5. Arizona Wildcats
It should be exciting to watch Kevin Sumlin work his quarterback magic with the incredibly elusive Khalil Tate, who was fifth in the conference with 1,411 rushing yards last season. Sumlin, who will keep Tate’s legs moving, will be tasked with getting more out of his quarterback’s right arm. Arizona’s new coaching staff benefits from 17 returning starters, including nine on a defense that is poised to be one of the most improved in the conference.
6. Utah Utes
After being the least-experienced team in the Pac-12 last year, the Utes will now play arguably the toughest schedule of any Pac-12 South squad. Utah returns 14 total starters, including quarterback Tyler Huntley, who should improve on a 2017 season that was limited by injury. Utah’s top two receivers are gone, but its returning offensive linemen have 54 career starts and the defense should be back to its usual stingy ways with six starters back.
7. California Golden Bears
Despite winning just five games last year, the Bears played better than they did in 2016. Cal just missed out on the postseason in Justin Wilcox’s first year, losing three games by three or fewer points with one of the nation’s most inexperienced teams. The Bears return 18 starters, including 3,000-yard passer Ross Bowers and 1,100-yard back Patrick Laird. The defense is a work in progress, but having eight starters back calls for marked improvement.
8. UCLA Bruins
Will Chip Kelly be more Oregon Chip or NFL Chip or both? It’s exciting to have Kelly back in college football, but it’s quite the challenge in Westwood. Top tasks are fixing one of the country’s worst running games and finding the right quarterback. Freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson is best suited to run more of an Oregon style. Seven starters are back on a defense that was atrocious last season, surrendering 287.4 rushing yards per game and 36.6 PPG.
9. Colorado Buffaloes
Two years removed from a 10-win season, this team lacks the experience of that championship-level team, but Mike MacIntyre still has enough talent for a rebound from last season’s five-win flop. Having six defensive starters and getting quarterback Steven Montez (2,975 yards and 18 touchdowns last year) back helps, but so does not playing Washington, Stanford or Oregon. Colorado does have to replace 1,500-yard back Phillip Lindsey, and the offensive line loses four guys with quality starting experience.
10. Washington State Cougars
Not only did the Cougars lose the Pac-12’s career passing leader in Luke Falk but Wazzu has also had a tumultuous offseason, resulting in massive changes on both sides of the ball. The Cougars lost a handful of assistants, including DC Alex Grinch — who left for Ohio State after totally revamping the defense. Mike Leach loves a pass-happy offense, but the quarterback position remains unsettled and two all-conference offensive linemen must be replaced.
11. Arizona State Sun Devils
No one really knows what to expect from ASU’s marriage with Herm Edwards. He hasn’t coached in nine years and has no collegiate head-coaching experience. It’s also an uphill climb with the lack of overall talent on this roster. Manny Wilkins is back at quarterback, as is one of the nation’s best receivers in N’Keal Harry. Danny Gonzales is one of the best young defensive minds, but it’ll take a while for him to fully run his tricky 3-3-5 scheme.
12. Oregon State Beavers
New coach Jonathan Smith takes over a 1-11 team that saw former coach Gary Anderson quit midseason. Depth is an issue all around, and the Pac-12’s weakest offense in 2017 is moving from a spread offense to a more pro style. The search for a quarterback continues, but the offensive line has more than 80 combined starts. Eight defensive starters return, but this group was 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring, rushing and total defense in 2017.
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