If you are reading this when I do the big post at the end this will mean nothing, but to those of you who have been keeping up with each division as it is posted, you made it to the power five! Congrats!
1.USC (Ranked #12 Nationally)
USC is the first true blue blood program that I have wrote about this year. The Trojans haven’t had a losing season since 2000, have won multiple national titles since then, and are almost always the best or one of the best recruiting teams on the west coast. After a bit of a slump after dealing with NCAA violations, new head coach Clay Helton was brought in and has helped the Trojans rebound, firing off back to back seasons of ten wins or more (10-3 in 2016, 11-3 in 2017) en route to a Pac-12 Championship last year. The offense returns a lot from last year’s group that ranked #4 in the conference in points per game… except for it’s quarterback, New York Jets first-round pick Sam Darnold. Darnold will be replaced by either last year’s backup, sophomore Matt Fink, or potentially highly touted true freshman JT Daniels, but it is safe to say that the offense may take a step back without their leader.
The defense was pretty average last year, but outside of the defensive line, they get almost everybody back. The unit to watch on defense would be the linebacking group, which returns three of four starters (Uchenna Nwosu off to the NFL), including potential first-team All-American Cameron Smith (112 tackles, 10.5 for loss last season) and adds two of the best incoming linebackers in the country in Palaie Gaoteote and Solomon Tuliaupupu. Games @ Texas, and vs Notre Dame give USC one of the tougher non-conference schedules in the country, and they will have to travel to face the #2, #3, and #4 highest rated teams in the South: Arizona, Utah, and UCLA. The Trojans will also draw @ Stanford from the North, and therefore will have to put together a lot of wins on the road if they want to be a believable College Football Playoff team.
Projected Regular Season Record: 9-3 (7-2 Pac-12)
Arizona’s win totals the past four seasons are as follows: ten, seven, three, seven. The Wildcats were already one of the most unpredictable teams in the country, and that is before they went through a coaching change late in the 2017 cycle. Kevin Sumlin is the new man in Tuscon, and he will fit right in with an offense that returns most of their starters, including QB Khalil Tate, who started just eight games and amassed over 3,000 total yards and 26 total touchdowns. Former UCLA offensive coordinator and an assistant to Sumlin at A&M, Noel Mazzone, was hired to take care of this offense. Mazzone has plenty of experience with spread systems and running quarterbacks, and he should fit right in here. JJ Taylor is back after leading running backs with 847 yards on the ground last year, and Nathan Tilford is back after averaging 9.3 (!) yards per carry in limited action. The receiving group for Tate looks great, with seven of the top eight back, including seniors Shun Brown and Tony Ellison, who combined for nearly 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. The tight end, Bryce Wolma, is also back. My questions start to come on the offensive line as the Wildcats will lose three of five and despite the additions of JUCO transfer Steven Bailey and Michigan State transfer Thiro Lukusa, I expect a step back from this part of the offense, although the group as a whole should be improved.
The defense was pretty bad last year, and a lot of freshmen saw playing time. The good news is that those freshmen are now sophomores, but the bad thing is that the Wildcats will need to rely on five of those sophomores to start, with 13 underclassmen in the two-deep altogether (over half!). The defense should improve a little, but will still be one of the worst in the conference. The schedule is an interesting one, and a game at Houston in week two will provide an interesting test out of conference, and the Wildcats will have to travel to UCLA and Utah. On the bright side, Arizona will draw the bottom four from the North, and both projected top 25 teams they will have to face (Oregon, USC) will be at home. A division championship isn’t a crazy thought.
Projected Regular Season Record: 7-5 (5-4 Pac-12)
Chip Kelly is back in college football, not only that, but Chip Kelly is back as the head coach of a Pac-12 team, only this time it isn’t Oregon, it is the UCLA Bruins. The quarterback situation is a bit murky, but like their cross-division rivals, UCLA has two excellent options to choose between in last year’s backup, Devon Modster (671 yards, four touchdowns, zero interceptions, 64.6% completion rate in limited time) and again like the Trojans, a very highly touted incoming true freshman. In the Bruins’ case, this is four-star Dorian Thompson-Robinson. While the case of who will replace Josh Rosen isn’t settled, whoever the starter will be will have to worry about playing behind a rebuilding offensive line that loses half of it’s starters, including two NFL Draft picks at center and tackle (Scott Quessenberry – Chargers and Kolton Miller – Raiders). Converted D-Lineman Boss Tagaloa and Texas Tech transfer Justin Murphy will likely have to fill into starting roles to plug those holes, but while the rushing numbers may go up thanks to Kelly’s system, I expect worse play.
Kelly brought in a big name at coordinator on the defensive side of the ball in Jerry Azzinatio, who was Kelly’s defensive line coach at Oregon and in the NFL. Azzinatio will have to rebuild the defensive line, his specialty, but this defense will be improved elsewhere, with over half of the starters returning and a lot fewer underclassmen in starting roles (although there will still be some). The schedule is maybe the toughest in the country, as Cincinnati and Fresno State are really tough opponents for G5s, and the Bruins will probably get clobbered when they go play @ Oklahoma, meaning they may start conference play at 1-2. When they get there, things don’t get much better, as they draw each of the top three from the North and have their three most winnable games in conference (Colorado, Arizona State, Cal) on the road. Because of that absolutely brutal schedule, a bowl appearance in year one is far from a sure thing, in fact, I may call it unlikely.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (4-5 Pac-12)
Utah has been one of the most consistent programs in the country over the past decade, with a ten year total of 86-42, and only two losing seasons, both of which were one game away from continuing with the trend. Kyle Whittingham, who has been with the Utes for 13 seasons, has turned Utah from a fun to watch group of five team to a program recruiting in the top half of the Pac-12. With a roster loaded with sophomores and juniors, this team will be a Pac-12 title contender next year. As for this year, junior QB Tyler Huntley returns after ten starts last season. The dual-threat QB threw for 2,411 yards (15-10 touchdown to interception ratio) and rushed for 537 more. Utah also has no seniors in the running back group or in the two-deep for the receiving core, which may spell trouble because of a lack of leadership this year, but will lead to an ultra-talented team in 2019.
On the defensive side of the ball, Utah ranked 3rd in the conference in rushing defense and 4th in passing defense. The defensive line takes a hit and loses Lowell Lotulelei, Filipo Mokofisi, and NFL Draft pick Kylie Fitts. Bradlee Anar (seven sacks last year) is the only returning starter, and I expect a step back in the run defense, although the secondary should be solid once again. Utah is always exciting to watch, and in the past two years have had 15 (!) games decided by one possesion. This year the schedule looks pretty manageable out of conference, but they do draw the top three from the North and will get UCLA on the road (but USC at home). Another winning season should be expected, but I wouldn’t get title hopes.
Projected Regular Season Record: 7-5 (4-5 Pac-12)
Oh dear, Herm Edwards. Honestly, I am tired of hearing about Herm Edwards as the new coach of Arizona State, I actually don’t hate the hire as much as most (as long he doesn’t do a lot of head coaching), because it will be a massive boost to State’s recruiting. Manny Wilkins is back at quarterback after 3,720 yards passing last season and a 12-9 touchdown to interception ratio. His receiving group should be really good, as each of the top six return, although the #5 may be out for the year with an injury. This group includes potential All-Pac 12 player N’Keal Harry (1,142 yards and eight touchdowns). The running game, on the other hand, will take a big step back as the top two are both gone including fourth-round pick Kalen Ballage. Eno Benjamin is the projected starter, but he had just 142 yards as a true freshman and will need to step into a big role if the Sun Devils want to match last year’s 175 rushing yards per game mark.
On defense, the secondary will be the group to watch as three of five starters return (compared to just one in the front six) and the rest of the defense will take a step back even though I love any team that runs a 3-3-5 like the Sun Devils will try out this season. The schedule may be one of the toughest in the country, with Michigan State and @ San Diego State in the non-conference, USC and Arizona on the road, and the tough draw of getting each of the big three from the North. This may be a bowl-caliber team, but not with this schedule.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (3-6 Pac-12)
After Mike MacIntyre won ten games in 2016, he went back to his losing ways (10-27 in 2013-15) and went 5-7 in the 2017 season. He will try to get back to 2016 levels with a new offensive coordinator, actually two. Former Colorado star WR in the late 90s and most recently a Texas Tech receivers coach, Darrin Chiaverini will join the staff in a co-offensive coordinator role. He will share the role with Kalyton Adams, who has been a position group coach with the Buffaloes for five years. QB Steven Montez returns after throwing for nearly 3,000 yards last year and an 18-9 touchdown-interception ratio. He should only improve in his junior season. Around him are a whole lot of questions as Colorado will lose their top three receivers and their only running back with over 100 yards last year (Phillip Lindsay). I expect some regression.
The defense is a mixed bag, it returns more than the offense, but not by much. Two starters return in each position group, highlighted by NT Javier Edwards (28 tackles, 1.5 TFL), ILB Drew Lewis (94 tackles, 3.5 TFL, two sacks), and SS Evan Worthington (87 tackles, 5.5 TFL, three interceptions). The cornerback situation is the biggest question mark, as freshman Chris Miller may have to step into a starting role. The schedule shapes up pretty nicely for the Buffaloes, as they get their three toughest games in conference on the road, meaning most of their winnable games are at home, and while they probably won’t deserve it, they may make a bowl.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (3-6 Pac-12)