1.Washington (Ranked #6 Nationally)
Time to delve into the first college football playoff contender of this series, as we take a look at the Washington Huskies. With almost everyone returning from a 10-3 year, Washington should be excellent once again. All three of those 2017 losses were by just a single possession, and the Huskies were a lot closer than you remember to making the college football playoff. QB Jake Browning is back for his senior year after over 6,000 yards passing in his two years as a starter, with a 62-13 touchdown to interception in that timeframe, one of the best in the country. Browning will be a Heisman contender, but he may not even be the most important player on his own team as RB Myles Gaskin is back after 4,000 combined rushing yards in his three years as the starter. NFL Draft picks Dante Pettis and Will Dissly are gone from the receiving core, and Chico McClatcher (out for the year with an injury in 2017) will have to carry the group, he average 18.5 ypc in the slot role back in 2016.
First rounder Vita Vea is a huge loss for this defense. Vea was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year last season, and while the line gets back both of their other starters and will still be the best in the conference, it will take a step back from their spot as one of the best in the nation. The linebacking group loses 1st team all-conference Keishawn Bierria as well as Azeem Victor, both of whom where drafted. The unit does return an All-American in Ben Burr-Kirvin (84 tackles), and should still be one of the best in the conference. The best unit on the defense though, is the secondary, which may be the best in the country as they return all four from an already extraordinary unit that will hopefully deal with many fewer injuries this year. Auburn is a tough opponent for week one, but the Huskies avoid USC and Arizona from the South and this team should win ten games in the regular season again.
Projected Regular Season Record: 10-2 (8-1 Pac-12)
T2.Stanford (Ranked #15 Nationally)
Fifteen years ago, Stanford was one of the sorriest programs in the power five, but Jim Harbaugh and current coach David Shaw absolutely transformed the program. In his seven years with the team, Shaw has gone an unbelievable 73-22. Last year was “dissapointing” even though Stanford still finished in the top 25 and won nine games in the regular season. Heisman contender Bryce Love was awesome in that run to the Pac-12 Championship Game, going off for 2,118 yards on the ground behind one of the best offensive lines in the nation. Pro-style QB KJ Costello will be the day one starter after 1,573 yards and a 14-4 touchdown to interception ratio in seven starts, but redshirt freshman Davis Mills may challenge him. Mills was the best player for his position group in the class of 2017, and fans are already clamoring for him to get a shot at the starting role.
The defense did not live up to expectations last season, and will lose about half of their starters, including multiple All-Americans this year, and I would expect an even further step back as two freshman will have to step into starting roles because of a lack of depth. The special teams unit is worth mentioning here as they have a couple all-conference players at kicker and kick returner, and punter Jake Bailey averaged 43.5 yards per punt. The schedule looks pretty rough, as the Cardinal will have to travel to Oregon and Washington, draw USC from the south, and have Notre Dame on the road in the non-conference. This is a dark horse playoff pick but the schedule is really rough.
Projected Regular Season Record: 8-4 (5-4 Pac-12)
T2.Oregon (Ranked #25 Nationally)
Oregon went 7-6 last year, but when QB Justin Herbert was healthy, the Ducks were 6-2. Herbert was excellent when he wasn’t injured, passing for nearly 2,000 yards and a 19-4 touchdown to interception ratio in his limited time, putting him on lots of NFL radars. Herbert will have to deal with another coaching change, as Willie Taggart leaves for Florida State. The hire of offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal should allow for some sense of normal, but even when you hire from within, a change at the top is jarring. The running back group looks surprisingly weak for an Oregon team. The Ducks lose their top two including NFL Draft pick Royce Freeman. The projected starter is last year’s #3, Tony Brooks-James (498 yards). As always, UO will add in a couple of speedy freshman that will see carries. On the other hand, the receiving group should be awesome as they return four of the top five and add one of the top receivers in the 2018 class, true freshman Jalen Hall.
The defense was… decent last year? Jim Leavitt took the Ducks from a below-average team for the power five to one that will potentially crack the top 50 in 2018. His aggressive, attacking mentality paid dividends last season, and this group should only improve with most of their starters back and added experience. Two players make my preseason All-Pac 12 team on this side of the ball with Troy Dye (107 tackles, 9.5 TFL, four sacks) at MLB and Jalen Jelks (59 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks) at DE. The out of conference schedule is super easy, as the Ducks avoid USC from the South, and will get Stanford and Washington at home. I see this team outperforming expectations.
Projected Regular Season Record: 8-4 (5-4 Pac-12)
Washington State dealt with a lot of off-the-field issues over the 2018 offseason as Tyler Hilinski, expected to be the new starter at quarterback to replace NFL Draft selection Luke Falk, tragically lost his life in January. East Carolina transfer Gardner Mishnew (2,140 yards, 16 touchdowns, seven interceptions in five starts with the Pirates last year) will be thrown into a fiery situation with all the emotion surrounding that position. Mike Leach is one of the best coaches in the country when it comes to developing quarterbacks, but while Air Raid systems are always likely to produce a productive quarterback, I still expect a drop down in quality for the 2018 year.
Mike Leach will bring in somebody new to lead the defense in former Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys. Hercules Mata’afa, an All-American in 2017, is a huge loss, and the defensive line as a whole will take a step back as both Mata’afa and NT Daniel Ekuale will be gone. However, this team should be able to put up sacks like we know Washington State likes to do. Wazzu has one of the easier nonconference schedules in the power five, as they will face zero P5 teams out of conference. However, the Cougars draw all of my three highest rated teams from the South. This team should be pretty good, but because of the schedule, the coaching change on defense, and the emotion surrounding Tyler Hilinski’s death, I certainly wouldn’t call a bowl a guarantee.
Projected Regular Season Record: 6-6 (4-5 Pac-12)
Cal started off last season with a bang, traveling to North Carolina as double-digit underdogs and coming away with a win. The Golden Bears went on to beat Weber State in week two, and Ole Miss in week three before injuries in the receiving and linebacking groups really caught up with them. Cal finished the year one win short of a bowl at 5-7. Ross Bowers (3,039 yards, 18 touchdowns, 12 interceptions) is back at quarterback, and with eight of the top nine back in the receiving group (and hopefully fewer injuries), Cal’s passing game will only improve in 2017. Patrick Laird returns after rushing for over 1,100 yards in 2017, and the Golden Bears add in an interesting freshman to back him up in Biaggio Ali Walsh. Pretty much everybody is back from this offense, and their numbers were already under inflated last year due to injuries. This should be one of the most improved groups in the nation.
The defense is a different story altogether. Both inside linebackers are gone including Cameron Saffle who had to retire due to injury. However, multiple players went out for the year last season, so with Jordan Kunaszyk back (74 tackles) and better injury luck, this may actually be an improved unit despite the losses on the inside. The defensive line is a bigger question mark, as two of three starters are gone with the only one back being end Luc Bequete (27 tackles, two sacks). This feels like a team ready to make a bowl, but the schedule is tough. North Carolina will be much improved, the Bears draw UCLA, USC, and Arizona from the South and get the top three in this division all at home, meaning winnable games against Oregon State and Washington State will be on the road. This is pretty much a tossup but I am leaning no.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (3-6 Pac-12)
If I were to ask you who the worst power five team for 2018 will be, you would probably say Kansas. Well, you would be very wrong. Oregon State was atrocious last year, going 1-11, with the only win being a three point scratch and claw victory against FCS Portland State. It was pretty clear that the Beavers needed a coaching change, and they brought on a former player and most recently offensive coordinator at Washington, Jonathan Smith. I love the hire, but there is nothing Smith is going to be able to do in year one to turn this team around. On offense the biggest positive would be…the offensive line I guess, given that they return four of five from the group. The passing game will be pretty terrible though. Projected starter, senior Jake Luton, started four games last year before being injured, and he didn’t light the world on fire (853 yards, four touchdowns, four interceptions).
On defense, I would expect Oregon State to struggle again. The defensive line returns just one starter, Kalani Vakameilalo (20 tackles, two sacks), and I would expect the pass rush to take a step back. The bright spot of this team is probably the secondary, and because of injuries last year, the Beavers will return four players with starting experience and may crack the top half of the conference in opponent passing yards per game. The schedule is certainly less than ideal, as the Beavers will have to travel to Columbus in the nonconference and draw USC and Arizona from the South. Anything over three wins would be shocking.
Projected Regular Season Record: 3-9 (1-8 Pac-12)