Last week, we rolled through the ACC, AAC, Big 12 and Big 10. If you missed any of those previews, take a look links in the grid below. Today, we head West to the Pac-12, where, after missing the playoffs last year, the conference is hoping a champion can emerge from a tight group at the top. Once again, win totals are based on Vegas projections, provided by Covers.com.
(O/U 10.5 wins)
Somehow, QB Jake Browning and RB Myles Gaskin still have eligibility despite seemingly leading Washington for the last five years. All jokes aside, Chris Petersen has built a perennial power at UW and those two guys have been a big part of it. They will be once again this year and they’ve got a talented group around them. WR Chico McClatcher is back after struggling with injuries last year as is most of the offensive line. The loss of receiver Dante Pettis hurts, but there’s some talented young guys available to step up and help McClatcher.
Defensively, they lose the star power of nose tackle Vita Vea, but outside of him and inside LBs Keishawn Bierria and Azeem Victor, everybody else is back. The secondary should be even better this year assuming better health for their guys. The biggest difference this year is the schedule. Petersen’s caught some flak the past few years for his out of conference scheduling. That can’t be said this year as the Huskies open in Atlanta against Auburn. After that though, they’ll likely be favored in every game to finish the year. The toughest tests will come on the road against UCLA and Oregon in back-to-back weeks. Over 10.5
(O/U 8.5 wins)
Oregon’s 2017 season was a study in two different teams: with QB Justin Herbert and without. The Ducks were 6-2 and averaged 52 points per game with Herbert in the lineup. Without him, they were 1-4 and averaged just 15 points per game. Herbert’s back now for his junior year along with five of his top six receivers and Wake Forest transfer Tabari Hines. There’s a new head coach in Mario Cristobal but the Ducks are used to his style since he was the offensive coordinator last year under Willie Taggart. The running game is a bit more suspect with Royce Freeman and Kani Benoit gone, but Tony Brooks-James returns with three starters in front of him on the line.
Defensively, this mostly young group played well under coordinator Jim Leavitt cutting their points per game allowed by 12 from 41.4 to 29. With most of that unit back, another step forward is possible, though the Ducks will need to find some new pass rushers to create havoc up front. Both Stanford and Washington have to make the trip to Eugene which makes the Ducks the main threat to the Huskies in the North. Over 8.5
(O/U 8 wins)
Bryce Love. You already know his name from last year’s near-Heisman run, but he’s back again and will get his usual lion-share of the carries for the Cardinal. In addition to having their stud running back return, the Cardinal have eight other returning starters on offense, which should provide good support for sophomore QB K.J. Costello. Costello was hurt for spring practice but he looked good in the stretch run of last season and led the team to an upset of Washington. If he’s able to stay healthy, this team can absolutely challenge for the division and conference crown.
The defense is loaded with returnees as well with eight starters back but, they do lose stud safety Justin Reid along with DE Harrison Phillips. This is a largely senior-laden group that should make it difficult on opponents to move the ball.
The experience will be key because the schedule does this team no favors. Outside of hosting USC, most of their biggest games come on the road. They have to travel to Oregon, Notre Dame, Washington and UCLA this year. That makes it tough to put them down for the over here. Under 8
Washington State Cougars
(O/U 6.5 wins)
The Cougars could be in for a rough year. Gone are QB Luke Falk, receivers Tavares Martin Jr. and Isaiah Johnson-Mack, offensive lineman Cody O’Connell, defensive linemen Hercules Mata’afa and about half of Leach’s staff from last season. Now, with new faces all over the coaching tree and in the offense, the Cougars will look to try and sustain the success of the past three years that has seen them go 26-13.
The QB battle still rages on and the receiving corps may have lost its top two guys, but it’s hard to worry about a Mike Leach offense. Generally, his Air-Raid system is friendly to QBs and WRs alike so it’s likely a new group of names will emerge. What’s more concerning is how the defense will look under new coordinator Tracy Claeys. The Cougars lost a top talent in Mata’afa, but they return a lot of the linebackers and secondary guys from last year. How quickly Claeys finds a group of guys capable of replacing Mata’afa’s production will be key.
The out of conference slate offers three easy wins and they’ll need all of them plus a few upsets in conference to hit the over. With so much uncertainty though, it’s hard to pick that. Bowl-eligible sure, seven or eight wins? Tougher. Under 6.5
California Golden Bears
(O/U 5.5 wins)
Cal started great (3-0) but finished poorly (2-7) in 2017. With a lot of guys back and in the second year of Justin Wilcox’s reign, the Golden Bears could make it back to a bowl game if they can navigate a tough schedule.
Starting running back Patrick Laird is back along with many of the top receiving targets minus one big loss, Demetris Robertson, who transferred to Georgia. Still, the skill corps is solid and the offensive line, which was young last year, returns virtually everybody. As for the QB spot there’s good news with Ross Bowers returning and better news with a lot of competition to push him. In particular, South Carolina transfer Brandon McIlwain who is a former highly rated recruit. So the offense should be solid, if lacking explosion without Robertson.
Defensively, the Bears were much better, cutting their points per game allowed by two touchdowns (42.6 to 28.4), but there’s still work to be done. With much of last year’s unit back, improvement could continue. The problem for the Bears is really not their own making. They play in the North division, home to potentially the three best teams in the conference. Under 5.5
Oregon State Beavers
(O/U 2.5 wins)
The Beavers are starting over….again. Jonathan Smith is the new man in charge and it’s his turn to try and build something in Corvallis. As Bill Connelly at SB Nation is fond of saying with new coaches in these spots, this looks like a Year Zero for Smith as the roster is largely young and could be younger if Smith decides to fully commit to a tear down before building back up.
Three of last year’s top four running backs departed, with the lone returnee, Artavis Pierce, carried for only 323 yards last season as the 2nd-leading rusher. He’ll have an experienced line in front of him with everyone back. In the passing game, the top three receivers are back. QB is more uncertain as Jake Luton is returning from a spine fracture, as the lone returnee from last year, with Conor Blount and JUCO transfer Jack Colletto battling him.
Defensively, the secondary should be fine with seven players who saw time returning, but the front has some questions at the pass rusher spots on the edge. Overall though, the defense can’t be much worse than it was last year (43 PPG, 128th FBS) so there should (key word) be some improvement this year.
That is, if they can survive the schedule. It opens at Ohio State and doesn’t get much better from there as they’ll likely only be favored against Southern Utah. Maybe the defense improves enough to help, but it more likely feels like a long year before Smith can start to put his vision in place. Under 2.5
(O/U 8.5 wins)
The Trojans are starting over at QB after Sam Darnold went No. 3 overall in April’s NFL Draft (New York Jets). Outside of Darnold, the offense also loses top back Ronald Jones II and two of the top three receivers but the offensive line is solid with two all-conference performers back. That should help whichever of the trio of sophomore Matt Fink, red-shirt freshman Jack Sears or true freshman J.T. Daniels takes over the signal caller duties. To replace Jones, Clay Helton will likely turn to Stephen Carr who, though injured in the spring, was cleared to work out in fall camp. At receiver, in steps stud recruit Amon-Ra St. Brown who was ranked as the 11th-best recruit in the country. The offense is talented, it just may take a few weeks to come together breaking in new skill guys and a new QB.
On defense, LB Cameron Smith is back along with Porter Gustin, though Gustin just tore his meniscus and will miss some time. That hurts because of the loss of Uchenna Nwosu and Rasheem Green. Most of the secondary is back outside of corner Jack Jones who was ruled academically ineligible for this season. The schedule is tough with trips to Stanford, Texas, Arizona, Utah and UCLA along with a visit from Notre Dame which makes 9 wins tough to come by. Under 8.5
(O/U 7.5 wins)
The Wildcats brought in Kevin Sumlin following last year’s 7-6 finish and Sumlin’s going to have plenty to work with on offense. QB Khalil Tate was a revelation in 2017, racking up 1,500 yards passing and 1,400 yards rushing with 26 total TDs despite not starting until Week 3. Tate will have all of his top three targets back, along with stud running back J.J. Taylor. This unit should once again put up points in a hurry after averaging over 40 per game last year.
Defense has been the Achilles heel for the past several years for this program and, while it can’t get much worse than last year (473 YPGA, 34.4 PPGA), it will largely be a young group. Eight players expected to either start or routinely be in the rotation are sophomores. They did get experience last year, but still, this unit is likely a year away from really taking a leap. Out of conference games against BYU and Houston aren’t easy, but they do get USC and Oregon at home while avoiding Washington and Stanford. Sumlin could surpass last year’s win total, but it will likely be in a lot of shootouts once more. Over 7.5
(O/U 7 wins)
Utah isn’t loved by Vegas based on the win total, but there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about this team. Kyle Whittingham’s group returns its starting QB, top two running backs and four linemen on offense with a defense that brings back most of the line and secondary. If everyone stays healthy, this team is a contender in the conference.
QB Tyler Huntley, RB Zack Moss, and four of the top six receivers return from last year’s group that averaged just under 30 points per game (29.5). With an offensive line that brings back essentially everybody, this group should see an increase in that number. Defensively, they Utes lose a pair of tackles on the interior of the line along with a pair of linebackers, but that’s about it. Tackle Leki Fotu, who piled up 22 tackles and 3.5 TFL in rotational action behind the starters last year, should be ready to fill the void in the middle. Combined with an experienced secondary and solid pass rushers outside, the defense should once again be stingy.
The Utes do get Washington, USC and Oregon at home while they have to travel to Stanford. The experience and home field advantage could see them sneak out a couple of close wins. Over 7
(O/U 5 wins)
Chip Kelly has arrived to try and return the Bruins to prominence after the largely disappointing final three years of Jim Mora. The last time we saw Kelly in college, his Oregon teams were at the cutting edge of up-tempo, no-huddle style that’s now prevalent in today’s game. What innovations does he bring after a year away from the game? We’re excited to find out.
What Kelly can do with this group will be interesting. The offense loses its star QB, Josh Rosen, who’s now with the Cardinals, along with the top two receivers and five offensive linemen. There’s a LOT of names in the running to be the starting QB, but Kelly will have the top two rushers from last year (Bolo Olorunfunmi and Soso Jamabo) to lean on while the QB gets up to speed.
On defense, things are a little more defined as, thanks to injuries last year, plenty of guys got starting experience and most of them are back. Kelly’s teams have never enjoyed particularly high levels of success on defense, but if this group can hold the line while the offense figures things out, the Bruins could make some noise. A road trip to Oklahoma in addition to all three of the North division powers makes for a rough schedule though. Having Kelly back is fun, just not enough to produce a ton of wins early. Under 5
Arizona State Sun Devils
(O/U 5 wins)
The Herm Edwards era will provide fascinating press conferences if nothing else. Edwards hasn’t coached at the college level since he was a DB coach at San Jose State from 1987-1989. The good news is, he has some toys to work with on offense particularly in the passing game. QB Manny Wilkins is back along with three of his top four receivers (by yardage) from last season. With both starting tackles back and a transfer from Stanford filling in on the line, the passing game should be quite good. The running game? Work to do with both Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage departed.
Defensively, new coordinator Danny Gonzales has an experienced secondary to run his 3-3-5 style with, but the front six is more of a question mark. Five of the six guys from the front are gone from last year, and the unit could be quite young in those spots. If it is, some early struggles would be expected, with better play later in the year.
Games against Michigan State and @San Diego State don’t leave much room for error in conference play. The key games will be @Colorado (10/6) and back-to-back home dates with Utah and UCLA. Win those three with UTSA and Oregon State and we’re one upset away from the number. But winning those three games seems unlikely to me. Under 5
(O/U 4 wins)
2017 was disappointing for the Buffs after the wonder campaign of 2016, and this year could be tough as well for Mike MacIntyre and company. QB Steve Montez returns, but he’ll be breaking in new guys at receiver (top three gone) and running back (Phillip Lindsay). MacIntyre did bring in Virginia Tech transfer Travon McMillian, who rushed for over 2,000 yards in his three years with the Hokies. Combined with an offensive line that returns two veteran starters, the running game could be okay until Montez and his receivers get on track.
On defense, the pair of stud safeties, Evan Worthington and Nick Fisher, are back, along with inside linebackers Drew Lewis and Rick Gamboa. Three starters return on the defensive line as well, meaning the biggest question mark is outside at corner. The Buffs have produced several draft picks at that spot over the past couple years, it will be interesting to see who steps up into the starting role.
The problem comes when looking at the schedule. With so little proven production returning on offense outside of Montez, the Buffs face rival Colorado State, travel to Nebraska and then have conference trips to USC, Washington, Arizona and Cal. Still, there are enough winnable games to believe they can at least push. Push 4.