The Pac-12 is a league in transition on the gridiron for the 2018 college football season. The conference is set to feature five new head coaches, including Chip Kelly at UCLA and Herm Edwards at Arizona State. In addition to the turnover at the top, the league also loses quarterbacks Sam Darnold (USC), Josh Rosen (UCLA) and Luke Falk (Washington State). Washington returns most of its core from 2017 and is the early favorite to hoist the conference title next fall. The Huskies need to produce more big plays on offense, but this unit is led by the standout senior tandem of quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin. Additionally, the defense should be strong once again despite Vita Vea’s early departure to the NFL. Stanford and Oregon aren’t far behind Washington in the North Division pecking order. USC headlines the early South Division picks, but Utah and Arizona could close the gap in spring ball.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2018 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Pac-12 for 2018:
Early Pac-12 Predictions for 2018
Washington should be the Pac-12’s best hope for a playoff team in 2018. Coach Chris Petersen’s squad has won 22 games over the last two years and is 15-3 in conference action during that span. Quarterback Jake Browning is back for his fourth year under center, and he’s joined by running back Myles Gaskin after he decided to return for his senior season. New play-caller Bush Hamdan has to develop playmakers on the outside, as the offense missed John Ross in 2017 and top target Dante Pettis expired his eligibility after the Fiesta Bowl. The return of tackle Trey Adams from injury should bolster a line set to return three other starters, including right tackle Kaleb McGary. The Huskies will miss standout lineman Vita Vea and linebacker Keishawn Bierria, but the rest of the defense returns largely intact. Ben Burr-Kirven, Ryan Bowman and Tevis Bartlett should ensure the linebacking corps doesn’t miss a beat, while Greg Gaines is set to anchor the line in his final year on campus. The secondary returns two All-Pac-12 candidates in safety Taylor Rapp and cornerback Byron Murphy. Washington opens with a neutral site matchup against Auburn, with a game at Utah on Sept. 15. However, Stanford visits Husky Stadium on Nov. 3.
Stanford has the most appearances (four) of any team in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Can coach David Shaw’s team make it five appearances with another division crown in 2018? A run at the North Division title is likely to hinge on whether or not running back Bryce Love returns for his senior year. If Love leaves early, Cameron Scarlett and Trevor Speights would step into bigger roles. Regardless of how the backfield looks next fall, Shaw should be able to lean more on quarterback K.J. Costello. As a redshirt freshman, Costello threw for 1,573 yards and 14 touchdowns. Tight end Dalton Schultz declared early for the NFL, but the receiving corps is still in good shape with JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Connor Wedington returning, along with tight ends Kaden Smith and Colby Parkinson. Stanford should also have one of the nation’s top offensive lines next fall. The defense gave up 5.98 yards per play in 2017, which was the highest mark since 2009 (5.96). Coordinator Lance Anderson will be busy this spring, as he looks to find replacements for lineman Harrison Phillips, cornerback Quenton Meeks and safety Justin Reid.
Related: Way-Too-Early College Football Top 25 for 2018
New coach Mario Cristobal isn’t hurting for talent in his first full season on the job in Eugene. Quarterback Justin Herbert is poised to rank among college football’s top signal-callers in 2018 and is supported by a line with four returning starters. Running back Royce Freeman leaves big shoes to fill after finishing his career as the sixth all-time leading rusher in NCAA history. Tony Brooks-James (498 yards in 2017), Darrian Felix and a couple of freshmen are set to battle for carries this offseason. At receiver, Charles Nelson is the only significant departure, as Oregon is set to return three of its top four statistical options. Keeping coordinator Jim Leavitt in Eugene was a huge victory for Cristobal this offseason. Leavitt inherited a defense that gave up 41.4 points a game in 2016 but trimmed that total to 29 points a game last fall. More improvement out of this group is expected, especially with linebacker Troy Dye and lineman Jalen Jelks returning in 2018.
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The Golden Bears just missed out on a bowl in coach Justin Wilcox’s first season. California lost four of its seven games by 10 points or less, including a one-point to defeat to Arizona and a three-point loss to Stanford. Quarterback Ross Bowers returns after throwing for 3,039 yards and 18 touchdowns, but he could be pushed by South Carolina transfer Brandon McIlwain this spring. The ground game should be set with Patrick Laird (1,127 yards) and Tre Watson (back from injury) leading the way. Additionally, the offense is loaded at receiver with the return of Demetris Robertson from injury, along with Vic Wharton (67 catches) and Kanawai Noa (56). The line has room to improve after giving up 35 sacks in 2017, but all five starters are set to return. Wilcox and coordinator Tim DeRuyter worked wonders on the defense last season. After giving up 42.6 points a game in 2016, this unit cut that total to 28.4 in 2017. Leading tackler Jordan Kunaszyk (74) is back, but Devante Downs and Raymond Davison III are gone from the linebacker unit. Lineman James Looney (9.5 TFL) is another big loss from the front seven. California has to play at Washington State, USC and Arizona but Oregon, UCLA, Washington and Stanford come to Berkeley.
5. Washington State
As usual with a Mike Leach-coached team, expect the Cougars to have one of the Pac-12’s top offenses. Quarterback Luke Falk departs Pullman after a standout career, and the supporting cast needs to be retooled after receivers Tavares Martin and Isaiah Johnson-Mack departed Pullman and running backs Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks expired their eligibility. The line also loses standout guard Cody O’Connell and tackle Cole Madison. Washington State’s defense made considerable progress under coordinator Alex Grinch, but he left for Ohio State following the bowl loss to Michigan State. Can new coordinator Tracy Claeys continue to build on what Grinch started? The Cougars are set to lose standout tackle Hercules Mata’afa to the NFL, but a good foundation remains at linebacker and in the secondary.
6. Oregon State
Former Oregon State quarterback Jonathan Smith takes over as the program’s new head coach in 2018. As a first-time head coach, Smith needed a staff with some experience, and former Oregon State head coach Mike Riley should be a good sounding board for advice as an assistant. After a 1-11 record in 2017, Smith and his staff aren’t likely to lead this team to major improvement but small signs of progress should be noticeable. Quarterback Jake Luton returns after missing eight games due to injury, but standout running back Ryan Nall declared early for the NFL Draft. The line is set to return four starters, with right tackle Fred Lauina the only departure. New coordinator Tim Tibesar inherits a defense that finished last in the Pac-12 by giving up 43 points a game in 2017. Each level is set to lose a key contributor, but the biggest loss is linebacker Manase Hungalu (97 tackles). Smith has one of the toughest debuts of any new coach with a trip to Columbus to take on Ohio State on Sept. 1.
Sam Darnold’s early departure to the NFL has narrowed the gap between USC and the rest of the South Division for 2018. Sophomore Matt Fink, redshirt freshman Jack Sears and incoming freshman J.T. Daniels will compete to replace Darnold under center this offseason, but the battle could extend into the regular season. Running back Ronald Jones is off to the NFL, but Stephen Carr is poised for a big year after rushing for 363 yards as a backup in 2017. Top receiver Deontay Burnett is also leaving Los Angeles a year early, with Tyler Vaughns (57 catches), Michael Pittman, and Joseph Lewis returning to headline top targets for the new quarterback. After dealing with injuries and personnel turnover in 2017, the line should be a strength with four starters back, including Toa Lobendahn and Chuma Edoga. With the offense likely to take a step back without Darnold, USC could lean more on its defense in 2018. Coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s group should be one of the better units in the Pac-12, as lineman Christian Rector, linebacker Cameron Smith and cornerbacks Jack Jones and Iman Marshall headline the key returnees. Standout lineman Rasheem Green declared early for the NFL Draft.
Related: Way-Too-Early College Football Top 25 for 2018
Kyle Whittingham’s team could push USC for the South Division crown in 2018. Making the jump from second to division champ could hinge on how fast the defensive line reloads after losing three starters, along with the progression of the offense under second-year coordinator Troy Taylor. The offense is set to lose standout receiver Darren Carrington, but quarterback Tyler Huntley should continue to progress with another offseason to work as the starter. Huntley averaged 294.8 total yards a game and rushed for 537 yards and six touchdowns in 2017. The backfield is in good shape with the return of Zack Moss (1,173 yards), and Armand Shyne is back in the mix after missing 2017 due to injury. The line should take a step forward with four starters back, and center Lo Falemaka is applying for an additional year of eligibility. While the defense suffered some significant losses up front, the secondary should be a strength once again with the return of safety Chase Hansen, nickel back Javelin Guidry and cornerback Julian Blackmon. The schedule features crossover games against Washington, Stanford and Oregon, but USC visits Salt Lake City on Oct. 20.
New coach Kevin Sumlin could make some noise in his first season on the job in Tucson. Sumlin inherits an Arizona team that went 7-6 in 2017 and returns most of its core for 2018. The returning cast includes dynamic quarterback Khalil Tate. As a sophomore last year, Tate averaged 272.9 total yards a game and scored 26 overall scores. Nick Wilson departs after rushing for 614 yards in 2017, but the ground game is in good shape with J.J. Taylor (847 yards) set to lead the backfield. The biggest concern for Sumlin is up front. Arizona’s offensive line was one of the best groups in the Pac-12 last fall but loses three starters. While the defense gave up 34.4 points a game in 2017, there’s optimism surrounding this group for 2018. Coordinator Marcel Yates is expected to remain on staff under Sumlin, and five of the team’s top tacklers from last season were freshmen.
With Chip Kelly at the controls, it won’t be long before the Bruins climb the ranks in the Pac-12 South. However, Kelly’s debut in 2018 is likely to be a transition year, as the team looks to replace quarterback Josh Rosen and a handful of key players on defense. Devon Modster played well in relief of Rosen this year but could face competition from true freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson. In addition to the uncertainty at quarterback, the Bruins need to jumpstart a ground game that averaged 113.4 rushing yards a game and find replacements on the outside for receivers Jordan Lasley and Darren Andrews. The return of tight end Caleb Wilson from injury, along with the addition of freshman receiver Bryan Addison, will provide weapons on the outside for the quarterback. The line lost three starters after tackle Kolton Miller declared early for the NFL. New coordinator Jerry Azzinaro inherits a defense that gave up 36.6 points a game and ranked last in the Pac-12 against the run. Linebacker Kenny Young, safety Jaleel Wadood and lineman Jacob Tuioti-Mariner have expired their eligibility, but safety Adarius Pickett decided against an early departure to the NFL, and cornerback Darnay Holmes led the team with three interceptions as a freshman in 2017. A full season from Jaelan Phillips would provide a huge boost up front.
The Buffaloes slipped to 5-7 a year after winning the Pac-12 South. A bowl game is a reasonable expectation for 2018, especially if Colorado finds a spark on offense. Coach Mike MacIntyre is hoping a few staff changes help a unit that averaged only 26.4 points a game in 2017. The Buffaloes need more consistency out of quarterback Steven Montez, and new play-caller Darrin Chiaverini has to replace standout running back Phillip Lindsay, along with the team’s top three receivers last year. The line also needs to be retooled after the departure of three starters, including left tackle Jeromy Irwin. Despite returning just three starters in 2017, the Buffaloes finished sixth in the Pac-12 in scoring defense. The good news? The team’s top three tacklers are back for 2018. The bad news? Top cornerback Isaiah Oliver departed for the NFL, and defensive backs Afolabi Laguda and Ryan Moeller, linebacker Derek McCartney and end Leo Jackson III have expired their eligibility.
6. Arizona State
The Sun Devils will be an interesting team in 2018, as the Herm Edwards era begins this offseason. Edwards inherits a team that went 7-6 last year but is set to lose key pieces on both sides of the ball. Additionally, in addition to the transition from Todd Graham to Edwards, the staff features new coordinators on offense and defense. Edwards should build his first offense around quarterback Manny Wilkins, running back Eno Benjamin and receiver N’Keal Harry. The biggest concern on offense remains a line that surrendered 41 sacks last year. This unit must replace two starters after guard Sam Jones declared early for the NFL Draft. Edwards’ background on defense could help a unit that surrendered 32.8 points a game in 2017. Lineman JoJo Wicker and standout linebacker Christian Sam declared early for the NFL, but edge rusher Koron Crump was granted an extra year of eligibility. Arizona State won’t catch many breaks in the first half of the season, as Edwards’ team takes on UTSA, Michigan State and San Diego State in non-conference play, followed by a road date at Washington to open Pac-12 action.