Breaking down the key storylines heading into 2018 for the Pac-12
The 2017 season was a down year for the Pac-12. However, the league’s fortunes could change quickly in 2018. Washington is a contender for the College Football Playoff, Stanford returns a Heisman candidate in running back Bryce Love, and new coaches are set to take over at Oregon, Oregon State, Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA. In addition to the intrigue in the coaching ranks, the Pac-12 South features a wide-open battle between USC, Utah and Arizona.
What are the 10 biggest storylines surrounding the Pac-12 for 2018? Bryan Fischer examines Chip Kelly's return, new coaches at Arizona, Bryce Love's unfinished business, Washington's CFB Playoff hopes and more:
Pac-12's Top 10 Storylines to Watch in 2018
1. Welcome Back, Chip
It's been two decades since UCLA has had the kind of buzz around the program that the Bruins now enjoy, but that's what hiring Chip Kelly will do for you. After four seasons in the NFL, the head coach who led Oregon to the brink of the national title and was 46-7 during his time in Eugene is back in college football. Things are much different in Westwood these days, however; the college game has adapted to Kelly's spread and up-tempo offensive principles, and the conference is much more competitive top to bottom than it was when he was winning three straight Pac-12 titles.
What kind of impact can Kelly have on the Bruins in 2018? While folks may bet on him long term at UCLA, his first team may not quite live up to his mantra of competing every day. In addition to replacing a quarterback the caliber of Josh Rosen, UCLA will be adjusting to a fourth offensive system in four years and will also make the move to a 3-4 on defense. Veterans on the team have already noted how different things are under Kelly, citing everything from practice tempo to nutrition to the weightlifting routine, but it could be another year before their head coach is fully able to mold the program in his image.
Still, the Bruins invested heavily in landing the hottest name on the coaching market, and there's plenty of hope that Kelly can recreate the magic that made Oregon one of the hottest programs in the nation -- both on and off the field. For those pining for a "sleeping giant" to awaken and for the Pac-12 to have another name on the national stage on a year-in and year-out basis, Kelly's return is a certainly a welcome sight.
2. Bryce Love's unfinished business
Every year, there's at least one superstar who surprises the football world by spurning the NFL Draft and returning for his senior season. Out West, the biggest name in that category this year is Stanford's Bryce Love.
The Heisman Trophy runner-up may start 2018 as the favorite for the award -- which has eluded some worthy Cardinal players over the past decade -- after rushing for 2,118 yards as a junior and setting an FBS record at 8.1 yards per carry (min. 215 attempts). Love, a home-run hitter on the gridiron in every sense, has a chance to put up the same kind of gaudy numbers while running behind a veteran offensive line and playing alongside a more seasoned K.J. Costello at quarterback. If nothing else, simply being healthy -- he dealt with a nagging ankle injury last season -- makes Love among the most dangerous offensive weapons in the country. Whether that's enough to return David Shaw's team to the top of the Pac-12 standings remains to be seen, but there's no doubt that Stanford will feature one of the game's most compelling players in 2018.
3. Washington eyes another playoff run
Many said the Huskies were a year ahead of schedule in making the College Football Playoff in 2016 -- meaning that the 2017 team that failed to win the division was a bit behind. Chris Petersen has every intention of getting Washington back on track in 2018, and he has enough talent on hand to make another playoff trip.
Somewhat surprisingly, the biggest question regarding the Huskies' fortunes lies at quarterback: Namely, which version of Jake Browning will show up behind center? As a sophomore, Browning threw for 43 touchdowns and nearly 3,500 yards, but he regressed as a junior, ending the season with less than half the number of touchdown passes (19) and fewer yards per attempt than in 2016. With better health from his crop of wide receivers and some quality targets at the tight end position, Browning should rebound in his final season.
Running back Myles Gaskin is aiming for yet another season of 1,300-plus yards and 10-plus touchdowns, and the team's offensive line could be one of the best on the West Coast. Add in a stingy young secondary plus plenty of talent up front, and Petersen may have a team that is capable of competing for a national championship.
4. New (old) faces in the desert
It's not often that Arizona becomes interesting to the rest of the country in a football sense, but the level of intrigue in the Copper State might be at an all-time high. The reason is simple: Everybody is fascinated to see how Kevin Sumlin's hire at Arizona will play out and just what will become of Arizona State's "New Leadership Model" with Herm Edwards in charge.
Both teams have a chance to make noise in a wide-open Pac-12 South division, but the Wildcats are certainly a little better positioned with the return of superstar quarterback Khalil Tate. The elusive dual threat was a revelation when he took over the job for Arizona midway through last season, and there's plenty of hope that Sumlin can bring his signal caller along just like he did at Texas A&M with a certain dual-threat Heisman Trophy winner named Johnny Manziel. Sixteen other starters are expected to return for the opener, and a manageable schedule could mean that a trip to Santa Clara for the Pac-12 title game is not out of reach for the Wildcats.
Further north in Tempe, nobody knows what exactly is going to happen when the season rolls around and Edwards has to shift from winning press conferences to actually winning football games for the first time since 2008 (and the first time ever as a college head coach). Quarterback Manny Wilkins and assistants such as offensive coordinator Rob Likens provide some continuity for a squad that finished second in the division, but there will still be plenty of questions about what the Devils will look like and how well they perform with so many inexperienced faces -- both between the lines and on the sideline.
One thing is for certain: Few states will have two programs sporting this level of national intrigue.
5. USC's new cast
The Trojans won the conference title for the first time in nearly a decade last year, but Clay Helton will enter 2018 facing as much on-field uncertainty as the program has seen in ages. Gone are first-round quarterback and face of the program Sam Darnold, Rose Bowl hero Deontay Burnett and a good share of the defense's impact players. Of course, this being USC, another wave of four- and five-star recruits has been added to the roster, and while the players are not necessarily household names around Los Angeles just yet, depth is better than it has been in a while, and the team should have a chance to repeat in the South.
Still, identifying the new stars in cardinal and gold will be difficult until the opener. Linebackers like Cam Smith and Porter Gustin are players to build around on defense, but coordinator Clancy Pendergast will still need several youngsters to step up for a unit that was good but not great a year ago. Of particular interest both nationally and locally is who succeeds Darnold at quarterback. Sophomore Matt Fink was last year's backup, and redshirt freshman Jack Sears competed with him in the spring, but all eyes will be on JT Daniels, a five-star recruit who skipped his senior season in high school to enroll in the fall. The former National Gatorade Football Player of the Year has the highest upside of the bunch, but it remains to be seen if the youngster can win the job outright in what amounts to a relative rebuilding year for the Trojans.
6. Cristobal's big opportunity in Eugene
Mario Cristobal will be the third head coach in three seasons at Oregon, and from the offices in the Star Wars-looking Hatfield-Dowlin Complex to the fans in the stands at Autzen Stadium, there's hope that the former Miami Hurricane will be the guy for the Ducks both now and for years to come. Cristobal, a South Florida native, is a bit of a fish out of water -- the 2017 season at Oregon was his first as a coach west of Alabama -- but he's well respected around the program and did some quality work guiding FIU to a couple of bowl games during his previous stint as a head coach.
While a disastrous Las Vegas Bowl performance following Willie Taggart's departure for Florida State spoiled his debut, Cristobal can make everybody forget about it by getting off to a strong start in 2018. If you're looking for a reason to buy in to this year's team, look no further than the Ducks' backfield, as quarterback Justin Herbert will be a trendy dark horse in the Heisman Trophy conversation after a stellar campaign a year ago that was derailed by injury. Electrifying tailback Tony Brooks-James should see even more touches as one of the primary ball carriers, and a host of youngsters such as Darrian Felix will keep the team well stocked at running back. Mix in a few talented recruits from the most recent cycle, and the offense could be as threatening as it has been in a while.
On the other side of the ball, Cristobal pulled off a coup in keeping defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, whose impact in Year 1 of his tenure jumped off the film for a team that has struggled to stop Pac-12 offenses. Year 2 in a system typically brings significant improvement, and that could be the case at Oregon with key players such as Jalen Jelks and Troy Dye to build around.
Cristobal provides stability for a program that has lacked it the past few years. It remains to be seen if that will be enough to keep the squad in contention for the division title, but sticking around in the top 25 isn't out of the question as the head coach forges ahead in a big new job.
The coaching carousel took several interesting turns in the Pac-12. Five of the league's 12 schools ended up changing head coaches, and while there are some familiar faces (UCLA's Chip Kelly is back in the league and Oregon's Mario Cristobal was elevated from interim head coach), there's a decidedly new flavor on the sidelines. The changes hearken back to 2012, when four new head coaches brought a jolt of energy to the Pac-12 and found early success. The jury is certainly out on the Class of 2018 until live action starts.
None of the new coaches faces more of an uphill climb than Oregon State's Jonathan Smith, however. The former Beavers quarterback learned plenty from mentors such as Mike Riley, Dennis Erickson and, recently, Chris Petersen, but he'll have to do more than provide a solid base for the program if he's to return OSU to the postseason with any regularity. It certainly helps to have Riley -- his former head coach -- on his staff, but it could take Smith several years to make his alma mater relevant on the national scene.
8. The Cradle of Quarterbacks faces a reboot
For years now, the Pac-12 has seen some incredible names come through the league at the quarterback position, and the number of quality signal callers who take the field on any given Saturday has played a big role in the conference's impressive depth. It was a banner year for the position in 2017, but Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen bolted for the NFL with one season of eligibility remaining, and Luke Falk, who threw for almost 15,000 yards during his time at Washington State, has also moved on.
Though it will be hard to match the quality and quantity of last season's crop of QBs, this year's group has potential. Arizona's Khalil Tate and Oregon's Justin Herbert will be on the fringes of the early Heisman conversation, and Washington's Jake Browning is aiming to recapture the form that saw him toss 43 touchdowns as a sophomore two years ago. Manny Wilkins has developed nicely at Arizona State, and K.J. Costello proved to be a difference maker at Stanford. Utah's Tyler Huntley and Colorado's Steven Montez both have starting experience and have shown flashes but will also be pushed by younger players. Add in some wide-open battles at places such as USC and Washington State, and it's clear that while the names may change, the Pac-12 is still plenty capable of reloading and replacing signal-callers at an impressive rate.
9. Utah aiming for Santa Clara
This will be the Utes' eighth season in the Pac-12, and while the team has come close in the past to winning the South Division and making that elusive trip to the conference title game, hope is running high in Salt Lake City that this just might be the year for a breakthrough despite an uncharacteristic dip in 2017.
The bulk of the starting lineup is back for an encore, providing the biggest reason for optimism, and few teams in the league can claim such proven firepower in the backfield as Utah. Quarterback Tyler Huntley hopes that his second year running the offense will result in a more potent passing game, and running back Zack Moss is a favorite for All-Pac-12 honors after a torrid finish to last year's campaign helped him crack the 1,000-yard mark. Finding a new go-to receiver will be a priority, but the group does have five players returning who have put up some big numbers in the past. There's also a veteran offensive line, meaning that the one aspect of the game that has tripped up the Utes in the past could be a strength in 2017.
Kyle Whittingham's defense will once again be among the best in the Pac-12 and particularly stout in the middle of the field. There will be a few new names in the trenches, but there's plenty of experience back along the front, and end Bradlee Anae has the potential to put together some monster numbers after a strong close to his sophomore campaign. Few teams can match the depth of the secondary, which is paced by senior Chase Hansen and has a chance to be one of the best at the school in recent memory.
Though the schedule does Utah no favors with a rough slate of crossover opponents -- the Utes play Washington, Stanford and Oregon -- this team just might be the favorite in the wide open Pac-12 South Division and a candidate to make a big jump in the win column in 2018.
10. Mike Leach retools on the Palouse
To say it's been a trying offseason at Washington State is quite the understatement. Following two straight blowout losses to end the 2017 campaign, the school was rocked by the tragic death of quarterback Tyler Hilinski and then saw Mike Leach consider leaving for another job not long after. Highly respected defensive coordinator Alex Grinch was the first of many departures on the coaching staff, and it seemed like the turnover was so high that a former player suing the head coach was barely a blip on the radar on the Palouse.
The Cougars are not to be overlooked, however, especially not after the consistency they've shown the past few years. Linebacker Peyton Pelluer was granted a sixth year of eligibility and returns as a leader on defense, while the running back and wide receiver positions are still stocked with playmakers.
The Cougars may well take a step back in terms of the number of wins, but Leach's quirky personality and Air Raid offense still make them one of the more intriguing teams in the Pac-12.