UCLA's Chip Kelly returns to the Pac-12, a conference he dominated and revolutionized in four seasons as head coach at Oregon. Arizona's Kevin Sumlin coached a Heisman Trophy winner in the first season at his last stop, Texas A&M, and could realistically do so again in 2018. Oregon's Mario Cristobal is a Nick Saban disciple. Arizona State's Herm Edwards is an endlessly quotable ball of energy with a lengthy NFL resume.
And then there's Oregon State's Jonathan Smith.
Smith returns to his alma mater, which he quarterbacked to the greatest season of the modern era. His 2000 Beavers finished 11-1 with a Fiesta Bowl rout of Notre Dame, putting an exclamation point on a turnaround from nearly four decades languishing in the basement of college football.
Oregon State's present-day downturn has not persisted nearly as long. However, coming off a 1-11 finish in 2017 — with the sole victory coming in the final moments against FCS opponent Portland State — Oregon State is clearly the biggest rebuilding project in the Pac-12. It's a job that requires patience and a willingness for one to check his ego.
Fortunately for the Beavers, that's how one former pupil describes Smith.
"You go through the lows of lows and the highs of highs with somebody, and he was steady," said Washington quarterback Jake Browning. "That's what I always told recruits, that coach Smith isn't a super outspoken guy; he's more of an introvert. He may not be the flashiest guy, [but] he's not going to sell you on something that's not true."
Smith oversaw the Huskies' offense each of Browning's first three seasons, which was a veritable lifetime in terms of the program's maturation. Washington finished 7-6 in 2015 with a freshman Browning, but won the Pac-12 championship the following season en route to the College Football Playoff.
Before a shoulder injury slowed his output, Browning was a leading contender for the Heisman Trophy. And according to the quarterback, Smith was one of the greatest influences on his growth.
"I remember throwing four picks against Cal my freshman year, just being in the dumps," Browning said. "And [Smith] was just like, 'You're going to remember this when you play them next.'"
Browning tossed six touchdown passes against the Golden Bears the next season.
Such positive energy is a good starting point for the Beavers. Previous Oregon State head coach Gary Andersen — a winner in previous stops at Utah State and, briefly, Wisconsin — oversaw improvement from Year 1 to Year 2. But with a veteran lineup returning last season, the Beavers' outlook soured early in a Week 0 loss at Colorado State.
A palpable malaise lingered in the visiting team media tent at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum following a 38-10 loss to USC.
"It's disappointing," Andersen said following the contest. "The kids battled and played hard, kept in the game. But we still didn't play good enough to make it a closer ball game."
That same week, Andersen stepped down, per The Oregonian columnist John Canzano suggesting that Oregon State "deserved better."
Oregon State was in an unusual situation with an uncertain future, perhaps reminiscent of a time well before any current players were born when Dee Andros and Craig Fertig and Joe Avezzano and Dave Kraghtrope and Jerry Pettibone all failed to win more than five games for a stretch lasting a quarter-century.
Then came two years of Mike Riley and four of Dennis Erickson, when Jonathan Smith-quarterbacked teams won 18 games in 1999 and 2000 and reached consecutive bowl games. The Beavers proceeded to play in nine more bowl games over the next 11 years.
In Smith's mere presence there's a positive energy for Oregon State; a reminder of what the program can be.
"It's been real easy to hop on the bandwagon with him," said Beavers linebacker Kee Whetzel. "He's a guy who really has a way with his words; genuine and down-to-earth. You want to be on the same page as him.
"And if he believes," Whetzel asked rhetorically, "Why shouldn't we believe?"
The Smith era kicks off Saturday at Ohio State, where a tumultuous month precedes the season for a Buckeyes team with realistic playoff aspirations. Even without coach Urban Meyer on the sideline, serving the first of a three-game suspension, Ohio State is expected to overpower the Beavers.
But no matter if Oregon State loses in a rout, or shocks the college football world, the Beavers can anticipate their coach to, as Jake Browning put it, "always have [their] back."
— Arizona State's N'Keal Harry may very well be the best wide receiver in college football. Harry comes off a 2017 in which he caught 82 passes for 1,172 yards and eight touchdowns, flourishing on a variety of routes.
He has a unique ability to beat speedy cornerbacks deep; at 6-foot-4, he can go over the top of just about any defender dropping into coverage; and also possesses sure, steady hands. It's almost as if Harry was destined for football. But with a different turn of events, the best wide receiver in college football might have instead been a college 2-guard.
"I miss basketball dearly. Basketball was my first love," Harry said.
At Chandler High School, the eponymous school of a Phoenix suburb, Harry averaged a double-double: 21 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. One highlight of his hardwood exploits sticks with new Sun Devils head coach Herm Edwards.
"I saw his highlight film where he broke the [backboard] and glass shattered all on the court," Edwards said.
One part Terrell Owens, one part Shaquille O'Neal.
With such devastating moves, might Arizona State basketball coach Bobby Hurley come calling at football season's end? Edwards laughed.
"We haven't discussed it yet," he said.
It's unlikely that conversation ever happens; at the end of 2018, Harry will have the option of pursuing a dream he began working toward once his star rose on the high school gridiron.
"Once I got ranked, I thought, 'This is crazy? Why not me?'" Harry said. "Once I realized my senior year [of high school] I might have a chance to go to the NFL, I started doing everything extra [toward football]."
It certainly appears Harry made the right decision.
— UCLA head coach Chip Kelly announced the suspension of six players for Saturday's Week 1 matchup with Cincinnati. Among those scratched are running back Soso Jamabo and Boss Tagaloa, a former defensive lineman who converted to the offensive line in the offseason.
Their absences impact an offense that ranked at or near the bottom of the Pac-12 in rushing production each of the last two seasons.
"We've got to move on and they understand what the punishment is and they’ve got to hopefully learn from it," Kelly told the Los Angeles Times. "It’s a teachable point for them to understand how their actions can impact other things."
— Saturday against UNLV, USC will start a true freshman at quarterback for the first time since Matt Barkley in 2009. JT Daniels was named the starter on Sunday night, beating out 2017 reserve quarterback Matt Fink.
Trojans head coach Clay Helton cited Daniels' ability to "move the football" during scrimmages in fall camp as a determining factor. Daniels comes to USC from Mater Dei, the same Santa Ana, California-based prep football powerhouse that produced Barkley and USC's last (officially recognized) Heisman Trophy winner, Matt Leinart.
While Daniels faces what UNLV head coach Tony Sanchez described as a "learning curve" inherent for freshmen, he gets support in the form of an outstanding wide receiving corps — which includes his top Mater Dei target, Amon-Ra St. Brown.