USC has a clear advantage when it comes to talent but that didn't translate to on-field success last season
The 2017 and '18 seasons were not particularly kind to Pac-12 football. The conference endured a historically woeful postseason to cap the 2017 campaign, then faced a variety of off-field concerns amid a turbulent '18 regular season.
Pac-12 football isn't lacking for talent. The conference sent the third-most invitees to the NFL Scouting Combine among the Power 5 conferences, ahead of both the Big Ten and Big 12. However, roster strength's most accurately reflected in the teams' records.
Some of the Pac-12's uncertainty — which has admittedly resulted in as much entertaining parity as it has disappointing national performance — is owed to the combination of some programs overachieving based on recruiting rankings, while others underachieved. That's worth bearing in mind heading into a pivotal 2019 for the conference.
Below are the national recruiting ranking averages for Pac-12 schools over the last five (2015-19) classes according to 247Sports' Composite Team Rankings and each team's record over the last five (2014-18) seasons. Obviously, this doesn't take into account attrition but, over time, this should be considered relatively even across the conference.
Ranking the Pac-12's College Football Rosters in 2019
Talented USC must deliver in 2019
Speculation surrounding coach Clay Helton's job security ran rampant over the final month of USC's dismal 2018 campaign — to such an extent, Helton himself had to address his future multiple times. Athletic director Lynn Swann implicitly deemed firing a coach with a Rose Bowl championship and Pac-12 title in two of the last three seasons hasty, but the pressure will be on USC to deliver in the coming campaign. The Trojans' repeated recruiting success, particularly since NCAA scholarship-reduction sanctions expired, have packed the roster with potential.
Worthy favorites in Eugene
Very early indicators point to Oregon being a runaway favorite to win the Pac-12's 2019 title. Inherent with such designation, the Ducks will be deemed the conference's best bet for ending a two-year College Football Playoff drought. Oregon's 2019 roster boasts the most impressive mix of established veterans and promising youngsters. Head coach Mario Cristobal's previous tenure as an assistant at Alabama seems to have had immediate influence, evident in Oregon bringing in the conference's top-rated recruiting class.
The start of a worrying trend at UCLA?
No one could accuse former UCLA head coaches Rick Neuheisel and Jim Mora of not recruiting well. The Bruins were routinely fixtures near the top of the Pac-12's annual recruiting rankings. Their success on the recruiting made the on-field misfires all the more confounding. Underachieving on gameday may not be as perplexing as UCLA's poor finish on National Signing Day to start coach Chip Kelly's second year, though. The incoming group ranks No. 44 nationally, marking the first time since 2011 when the Bruins failed to finish in the top 20. The low-rated class set a fittingly bad tone for Neuheisel's fateful final season.
Pete picking up steam
Living up to his reputation coming into Washington from Boise State, Washington head coach Chris Petersen's teams have outperformed their star ratings. The Huskies now boast two conference championships in the past three seasons, and the recruiting successes are beginning to match up with the on-field production. That should terrify opposing Pac-12 coaches. Petersen and his staff landed their first two top-20 classes since arriving at UW in 2014 during the past two recruiting cycles. That translates to a lot of blue-chippers who will be freshmen and sophomores on the defending conference champion's roster in 2019.
What's next for the overachievers?
Although the Pac-12 collectively took its licks from national pundits and commentators, 2018 marked a banner season for Utah and Washington State. Both have routinely exceeded expectations based on star ratings, particularly in the past half-decade, but each reached new milestones in the past campaign. Utah won its first-ever divisional championship, and reaching the program's first Rose Bowl had quarterback Jason Shelley and running back Zack Moss not both been injured is a lingering what-if. Likewise, Washington State came a win (and possibly a missed targeting call at USC) away from its first Pac-12 Championship Game appearance. All the same, the Cougars won a program-record 11 games. Utah and Washington State must continue to buck trends heading into 2019 still ranked on the lower half of the conference's star ratings. With Utah a likely favorite in the South and Washington State again poised to contend in the North, both should continue to be the standard-bearers for overachievement.
The Pac-12 has its examples of overachievement, but reigning two-time last-place divisional finishers Colorado and Oregon State have each lived up to expectations based on recruiting rankings. This is a longstanding issue for both programs, vexing Colorado dating back to its latter days in the Big 12; while Oregon State's success under Mike Riley is something of a historical aberration that defies conventional wisdom. Buffaloes first-year head coach Mel Tucker and second-year Beavers head man Jonathan Smith won't reverse these trends immediately. Both Colorado and Oregon State head into 2019 with the lowest-rated rosters, and by extension, will presumably both be picked last in their divisions. In order to gain ground on the recruiting trail, Tucker and Smith must first outpace projections on gameday.