Oregon is the early favorite to win the Pac-12 next season
The Pac-12 hasn’t had a playoff team in each of the last two seasons and has been relatively quiet on a national level, but there’s no shortage of intrigue for this conference going into 2019. Oregon heads into spring practice as the early Pac-12 football favorite, but Washington and Washington State aren’t far behind in the early predictions in the North. Utah headlines the race to win the South Division once again, with USC and Arizona bringing up the next tier of early Pac-12 projections for 2019.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2019 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Pac-12 for 2019:
With quarterback Justin Herbert returning for his senior year, the Ducks begin the offseason as the favorite to win the 2019 Pac-12 title. The offense also returns its top two running backs in CJ Verdell and Travis Dye, while the line should be among the best in college football next fall. The big question on offense rests at receiver after Dillon Mitchell departed for the NFL. Coordinator Jim Leavitt’s defense has a few key players leaving, including safety Ugo Amadi, linebacker Justin Hollins and end Jalen Jelks. However, linebacker Troy Dye could return for his senior year, and there’s a handful of promising players poised to make a jump, including nose guard Jordon Scott, cornerback Thomas Graham and safeties Nick Pickett and Jevon Holland. Leavitt’s group will also have help from a standout recruiting class, including five-star lineman Kayvon Thibodeaux and top 100 prospects in Mykael Wright (CB) and Mase Funa (LB). Coach Mario Cristobal’s team has a tough schedule to navigate in 2019. The Ducks play Auburn in Arlington to open the season and take on Stanford, Washington, USC and Arizona State on the road.
Chris Petersen and his staff will be busy this offseason. Washington has won 32 games over the last three years but loses a good chunk of talent from the team that won the Pac-12 in 2018. Quarterback Jake Browning closed out his career by throwing for 313 yards in the Rose Bowl, but former Georgia starter Jacob Eason is eligible after sitting out 2018 due to transfer rules. Eason has a big-time arm, which should help an offense that managed only nine passing plays of 40 yards or more this season. Aaron Fuller, Andre Baccellia and Ty Jones are back at receiver, while a healthy Hunter Bryant at tight end should be a huge boost to the passing game. Myles Gaskin leaves big shoes to fill at running back, but Salvon Ahmed is primed for a breakout year with a full workload. The return of Trey Adams for a full season at left tackle bolsters a line that only loses right tackle Kaleb McGary. Each level of the defense loses talent, but it’s hard to doubt Jimmy Lake’s ability to reload. Up front, Levi Onwuzurike will be tasked with helping to replace Greg Gaines, while the Huskies have to find a new standout at linebacker after Ben Burr-Kirven finished his eligibility with 176 tackles in 2018. Top cornerback Byron Murphy could leave for the NFL, adding concerns to a secondary losing a ton of talent, including safety Taylor Rapp and cornerback Jordan Miller. The Huskies have recruited well on this side of the ball, so the overall drop off could be minimal. Petersen’s team might have the easiest path to a North title. Washington hosts USC, Oregon, Utah and Washington State next fall.
3. Washington State
The Cougars are coming off their best season (11-2) under Mike Leach’s direction. Replicating 11 wins in 2019 will hinge on finding a replacement for quarterback Gardner Minshew and standout left tackle Andre Dillard. Anthony Gordon, Trey Tinsley and Cammon Cooper are the frontrunners to replace Minshew. While Dillard will be missed, the rest of the line returns intact. Running back James Williams left early for the NFL, but Max Borghi is primed for a breakout year next fall. Whoever wins the quarterback job will have a loaded receiving corps to work with, as the Cougars return their top four statistical options at the position. Leach’s defense has showed marked improvement in recent years and didn’t miss a beat under new coordinator Tracy Claeys in 2018. This unit has to replace linebacker Peyton Pelluer and end Logan Tago up front, while the secondary is slated to lose Hunter Dale, Darrien Molton and Sean Harper. Instant help is coming for the defensive backfield in the form of a couple of junior college transfers, and linebacker Jahad Thomas and safety Jalen Thompson should challenge for All-Pac-12 honors. The 2019 schedule features a matchup against Houston in non-conference play, along with road trips to Utah, Arizona State, Oregon and Washington
Quarterback K.J. Costello threw for 3,540 yards and 29 touchdowns en route to winning All-Pac-12 second-team honors in 2018, and coach David Shaw will have to lean even more on his signal-caller in 2019. Running back Bryce Love expired his eligibility, and the Cardinal are losing receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside, tight end Kaden Smith and guard Nate Herbig early to the NFL. The cupboard isn’t completely bare at the skill positions, especially with Colby Parkinson stepping into more of a featured role at tight end, Connor Wedington’s return from injury, and the development of Osiris St. Brown and Michael Wilson at receiver. In addition to Herbig, Stanford must replace three other starters up front. However, left tackle Walker Little is a good place to start the rebuilding effort. Stanford’s defense held teams to just 22.9 points a game but ranked seventh in the Pac-12 versus the run and eighth in pass efficiency defense. Linebacker Bobby Okereke is the biggest loss for coordinator Lance Anderson, while cornerback Alijah Holder and linebacker Joey Alfieri also must be replaced. Cornerback Paulson Adebo is one of the Pac-12’s rising stars on defense, while Jordan Fox and Gabe Reid will be counted upon in bigger roles at linebacker after combining for 17 tackles for a loss in 2018. Stanford faces a brutal start to ’19, as Shaw’s team takes on Northwestern in the opener, followed by road trips to USC and UCF and a home matchup versus Oregon on Sept. 21. The Cardinal play at Washington and Washington State next fall but host Notre Dame in November.
California checks in at No. 5 in Athlon’s early predictions for the Pac-12 North, but that’s largely a result of a deep division. This program has made considerable progress under coach Justin Wilcox’s watch and should take another step forward in 2019. The defense is expected to be the strength of California once again next fall. The Golden Bears held teams to 20.4 points a game and led the Pac-12 in fewest yards per play (4.6) allowed. This unit won’t lose much, as linebacker Evan Weaver is among the top returning defenders in the conference, and the secondary should be one of the best in the nation. However, as evidenced in 2018, California needs more out of its offense to finish higher in the division. The Golden Bears averaged only 21.5 points a game, 4.9 yards a play and generated six plays of 40 yards or more. Running back Patrick Laird will be missed, but the line returns largely intact. Will quarterback Chase Garbers improve with a full offseason to work as the starter? Or will former UCLA starter Devon Modster win the job? California opens 2019 with tough road trips to Washington and Ole Miss and also plays Oregon, Utah, Stanford and UCLA away from Berkeley.
6. Oregon State
Year two of Jonathan Smith’s rebuilding process at his alma mater will continue in 2019. The Beavers are 3-21 over the last two seasons, but Smith’s debut in 2018 brought some good news to Corvallis. Oregon State knocked off Colorado in overtime to win its first Pac-12 game since Nov. 26, 2016. Also, a few bright spots emerged to build around in 2019. Running back Jermar Jefferson rushed for 1,380 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman in ’18, and the receiving corps features Nebraska transfer Tyjon Lindsey, Isaiah Hodgins (59 catches for 876 yards) and Trevon Bradford (56). A healthy year out of Noah Togiai would be a boost to the passing attack. Jake Luton could get an extra season for 2019, but Nebraska transfer Tristan Gebbia could be the answer under center. If Oregon State wants to escape the cellar of the Pac-12 North next fall, improvement on defense is a must. This unit has allowed over 40 points a game in back-to-back years and surrendered 7.4 yards a play in ’18. However, transfers Addison Gumbs (Oklahoma) and Avery Roberts (Nebraska) will provide instant help for a defense that doesn’t lose a ton of key seniors.
After winning the Pac-12 South for the first time in program history, Utah should be the early favorite to repeat as division champs. The Utes will have a new offensive coordinator after Troy Taylor left to be the coach at Sacramento State. However, the new play-caller inherits dynamic quarterback Tyler Huntley, along with a receiving corps that’s slated to return seven players who caught at least 15 passes, including Jaylen Dixon (18.4 ypc) and tight end Brant Kuithe (20 receptions). An x-factor to watch on offense is how quickly leading receiver Britain Covey (60 catches) recovers after a knee injury suffered in the Pac-12 title game. Utah’s offensive line will be undergoing renovation this offseason, as three starters departed Salt Lake City. Running back Zack Moss was among the Pac-12’s top playmakers in 2018, but a knee injury sidelined him for the final five games. Assuming Moss returns to campus for his senior year, the Utes should rank among the best in the Pac-12 in rushing offense. Utah’s defense held opponents to 19.4 points a game, led the conference in rush defense and limited teams to 4.6 yards a play. Despite losing the top four tacklers from 2018, this unit will be strong once again. End Bradlee Anae (eight sacks) and tackles Leki Fotu and John Penisini anchor the trenches, with BYU transfer Francis Bernard poised to step into one of the starting jobs at linebacker. Both safeties – Marquise Blair and Corrion Ballard – must be replaced, but the Utes return three proven options at cornerback in Javelin Guidry, Julian Blackmon and Jaylon Johnson.
It’s a tough call after Utah in the Pac-12 South. For now, the nod goes to USC. Coach Clay Helton overhauled his staff after a disappointing 5-7 mark in 2018, with former Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury set to call the plays for the offense. The addition of Kingsbury is a huge boost to a unit that features quarterback JT Daniels and a handful of talented playmakers outside, including Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns. However, the Trojans need more out of their ground game and must retool their offensive line with three starters set to depart. There’s also plenty of room to improve on defense. USC gave up 164.8 rushing yards a game and finished eighth in the Pac-12 by allowing 27 points a contest. Five of the unit’s top tacklers are set to depart, including linebacker Cameron Smith, top cornerback Iman Marshall and safety Marvell Tell. Depth in the secondary is a concern for coordinator Clancy Pendergast, and the defense needs a big year from promising sophomores Talanoa Hufanga, Palaie Gaoteote and Marlon Tuipulotu next fall. Christian Rector (nine tackles for a loss) needs to create more havoc off the edge. Helton sits squarely on the hot seat going into 2019, and the schedule isn’t going to provide much time for this team to find its footing. USC opens with Fresno State and Stanford at home, followed by a road trip to BYU on Sept. 14. The Trojans play Utah on Sept. 20, followed by road dates to Washington and Notre Dame before the midpoint of the season.
High expectations surrounded Kevin Sumlin’s debut in Tucson, but Arizona slipped to 5-7 in 2018. However, the news wasn’t all bad this year for the Wildcats. Despite being hampered by an ankle injury for most of 2018, quarterback Khalil Tate threw for 26 touchdowns to only eight interceptions. With Tate returning for his senior year, Arizona could be one of the most improved teams in the conference. Running back J.J. Taylor accounted for 2,107 total yards in 2018 and is back to anchor the ground game. Tate loses his top three receivers, but left tackle Layth Friekh is the only senior departure from a line that allowed only 20 sacks. The Wildcats have made some progress on defense over the last two years but allowed 32.6 points a game in 2018. However, under the direction of coordinator Marcel Yates, this unit could be poised for a big step forward. Only three seniors ranked among the top 15 tacklers, and standout linebacker Colin Schooler is back after recording 21.5 tackles for a loss. Arizona has to play at rival Arizona State and takes on USC, Stanford and Oregon away from Tucson. However, swing matchups against Texas Tech and UCLA are at home.
The Bruins started 0-5 in Chip Kelly’s first year but improved over the final seven contests. UCLA knocked off California, Arizona and USC and lost two other games by seven points or less in that span. With a full year to adapt to Kelly and his staff, how much better will the Bruins be in 2019? Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and running back Joshua Kelley are back to lead the way on offense, while Theo Howard (51 catches) will need an even bigger 2019 season to replace the production lost by Caleb Wilson (965 receiving yards. If UCLA’s offense is going to make major improvement on the stat sheet, this unit has to get better play out of its line. Left tackle Andre James is leaving early for the NFL, but the rest of a line that allowed 32 sacks in 2018 returns intact. The Bruins also have a lot of room to grow on defense. This unit surrendered 34.1 points a game, gave up nearly 200 yards a contest against the run, generated only 15 sacks and allowed 5.9 yards a play. The good news: Most of the depth chart is back for 2019. Safety Adarius Pickett is the biggest loss for coordinator Jerry Azzinaro. The non-conference schedule is brutal. UCLA takes on Cincinnati, San Diego State and Oklahoma before playing Washington State and Arizona in September. The Bruins do catch Oregon State, California, Arizona State and Colorado at home and won’t have to play Oregon or Washington in the regular season.
5. Arizona State
Herm Edwards’ team exceeded preseason expectations in 2018, but the Sun Devils have a few big personnel losses to overcome next fall. Quarterback Manny Wilkins and receiver N’Keal Harry depart Tempe after prolific careers and their production and leadership won’t be easily replaced. Dillon Sterling-Cole is the early favorite to replace Wilkins, but Edwards inked three talented quarterbacks who are expected to compete for the job right away. The progression of quarterbacks Jayden Daniels and Joey Yellen (four-star recruits) and Ethan Long (three-star) will be a storyline to watch throughout the offseason. Until an answer emerges at quarterback, the Sun Devils can lean heavily on running back Eno Benjamin and a line that’s slated to return three starters, including center Cohl Cabral. Arizona State’s defense took a step forward under coordinator Danny Gonzales in 2018 and could be better next fall. This unit is anchored by rising stars at linebacker in Merlin Robertson and Darien Butler, and while nose tackle Renell Wren will be missed, the rest of the front returns largely intact. Safeties Jalen Harvey and Demonte King must be replaced, but Aashari Crosswell and Chase Lucas are back to anchor the secondary. The Sun Devils catch Arizona, Oregon, USC, Washington State at home but travel to Utah, UCLA, California and Michigan State next season.
Colorado is a program in transition for 2019. New coach Mel Tucker arrives after a successful stint as Georgia’s defensive coordinator and inherits a team that finished 2018 by losing seven in a row. Quarterback Steven Montez returns after throwing for 2,849 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. Receiver Laviska Shenault was one of college football’s top breakout stars from 2018, and despite missing three games due to injury, still caught 86 passes for 1,011 yards and six touchdowns. Leading rusher Travon McMillian must be replaced, while more consistency (and better play) is needed out of a line that allowed 34 sacks last fall. Tucker’s defense has to replace five of its top 10 tacklers from a unit that held teams to 28.2 points a game and 5.24 yards a play in 2018. Linebacker Nate Landman is one of the Pac-12’s top returning defenders, and end Mustafa Johnson (15.5 TFL) should thrive under the new staff. The Buffaloes catch the projected top four teams (Washington, Washington State, Stanford and Oregon) from the North in crossover play. Swing games against Arizona State and UCLA take place away from Boulder.