*Draft prospects and grades provided by Draft Analyst's Tony Pauline
Washington (11-1; 8-1 in conference)
Oregon (10-2; 7-2 in conference)
Washington State (8-4; 5-4 in conference)
Cal (7-5; 5-4 in conference)
Stanford (7-5; 4-5 in conference)
Oregon State (1-11; 0-9 in conference)
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NFL Draft prospect to watch: T Trey Adams (Round 1)
How should I think of this team? No one in conference has grander dreams than the Huskies.
The case for: Oh look, another program where the gang’s getting back together. A slew of Washington’s draft-eligible Huskies announced returns to Seattle over the winter, including QB Jake Browning, RB Myles Gaskin and a stud first-round tackle prospect in Trey Adams. We would have, frankly eaten our hats had Browning declared -- he’s coming off a rocky year, more on that below -- but Gaskin’s return did raise our eyebrow, in the most positive way possible for Washington. He’s our favorite kind of player. The consistent one. Gaskin has rushed for at least 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns in each of his three years in Seattle. Should Gaskin need a rest, backup Salvon Ahmed averaged 6.4 YPC last season while handing 61 carries for 388 yards rushing. This is a team set on the line, and set at running back. And oh boy, is it set at defense.
The Huskies did lose giant human/defensive tackle Vita Vea, but they’ve suffered little other notable attrition defensively. Washington boasted a top-five scoring defense last year, a top-five rushing defense, and a slightly more saggy pass defense which surrendered a touch under 200 yards through the air on average last season -- that placed them 32nd in the country. There’s not going to be any sag this year. Not with the likes of Byron Murphy (two interceptions, seven passes defensed) working at corner. Murphy’s just the edge of the spear on what has the potential to be the best pass defense in the country. Jordan Miller, Elijah Molden, Myles Bryant are all notable names to watch, here.
Not only do the Huskies bring back considerable talent, their schedule is favorable with one caveat -- it might be over after one game. The Huskies open against Auburn in a few weeks' time, in game that may well decide the Pac-12’s Playoff fate. If UW can eek out that one, they’ve mostly got a clean path the rest of the way. A few trouble spots to look out for include road games against Utah (Sept. 15), Oregon (Oct. 13) and Washington State (to close out the regular season). We have them losing to the Ducks for their lone defeat of the campaign, meaning that they will almost certainly be in the Playoff conversation come November. This is Chris Petersen’s most complete, well-stocked team to date.
The case against: While it’s easy to view Jake Browning as a potential Achilles heel for the Huskies, he’s not the biggest of our concerns. He’s actually a player we could see rebounding upcoming after throwing for 2,719 yards (a career-best 68.5-percent completions) with a 19/5 TD/INT ratio. Browning also averaged a career-worst 8.1 YPC. The takeaway? He was completing more passes, but fewer downfield, understandable given the loss of John Ross, but problematic this year. Not only is Ross long, long gone, last year’s dude, Dante Pettis is also out the door. And while TE Hunter Bryant remains on roster, he may well miss the season with a knee injury. That leaves Aaron Fuller (26-291-1) and Chico McClatcher -- now presumably healthy -- as the team's most experienced receivers which, yeah. We have legitimate concerns as to just how much upside this passing game might have. If Browning could lift the tide himself, that would be one thing. We don’t view him in that light.
Even with Washington’s potential cracks on the offensive side, they could still easily skip through the regular season. The real roadblock to what the program’s aiming for this season -- a national championship berth -- is that unless Washington has an emergent wideout or two among incoming freshmen Marquis Spiker, Austin Osborne and Trey Lowe, they would be entering the postseason facing off with the likes of defensive behemoths Clemson, Alabama or Michigan with almost literally just one trick up their sleeve in Myles Gaskin. That’s just not going to fly. Browning needs to level up if the Huskies are to be viewed as a legitimate contender to raise Larry Culpepper’s trophy. Ultimately, we have too many offensive questions to put this team in the Playoff.
Bovada win total over/under: 10.5
Projected record: 11-1 (8-1 in Pac-12)
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NFL Draft prospect to Watch: QB Justin Herbert (Round 1)
How should I think of this team? The sleeping giants of the Pac-12
The case for: The 2017 Ducks make for a great science experiment, as we saw two jarringly different squads depending on who was throwing the ball. The variable between them is easily enough to isolate. With a healthy Justin Herbert at the helm, they put up points in bunches (dropping 40 in four of their first five games) while looking very much like true -- and scary -- contenders in the Pac-12. But then Herbert fractured his collarbone. The drop-off to Braxton Burmeister proved precipitous. Thus the great hope for the Ducks this year, as Herbert not only will enter the campaign fully healthy (or so we presume), he also enters it in a peak developmental year as a junior.
Herbert will have the full arsenal to work with out wide as he preps for his NFL future, with the Ducks bringing a deep stable of receivers to the table. Not only in returning contributors such as Dillon Mitchell (42-517-4), but also in bringing in one of the more under-the-radar intriguing grad transfers of the offseason in former Wake Forest WR Tabari Hines. Hines is fresh off a career year in which he caught 53 passes for 683 yards and seven touchdowns. We’ll admit to having been somewhat nonplussed by Oregon’s receiving talent in recent years, but while it may lack a traditional lead wideout, there’s competency across the board.
Beyond the quarterback and receivers -- and strange to say -- we’re intrigued by Oregon’s defense. Very sneakily, they finished at an S&P+ rank of 61st in 2017. That might not seem like any great shakes, but given that the whole outfit was a burning raft of garbage under Mark Helfrich a few years back, 61st is downright respectable. They’re bringing back some fun talent, too, in linebackers Troy Dye and Justin Hollins, as well as defensive end Jalen Jelks, who proved imminently disruptive a year ago in racking up a healthy 15.5 tackles for loss. We’re not betting on Oregon to step it into the elite territory of the likes of Washington on the defensive side, but given their immense offensive upside, this is a unit which just needs to maintain respectability and the Ducks will have a chance for a big season.
The case against: Royce Freeman’s absence this season could potentially be a problematic one. All eyes will be on Herbert for the obvious reasons, but Freeman received 258 touches from scrimmage a year ago. To put it technically, that’s a ginormous amount of offensive production to replace. We don’t view Tony Brooks-James in the same kind of workhorse light -- though that’s not to count him out altogether -- and if Oregon’s crew of talented but largely unproven secondary back options such as CJ Verdell can’t shape up to form a usable rotation, that’s more pressure on Herbert and a receiving corps which we like for its depth even as we wonder on its top end.
The crack in the defensive armor that we might see exploited, here, will come in the secondary. We touched on the loaded linebacking corps earlier and view the front-seven as a clear strength, but there’s simply not as much solid ground to stand on with the cornerback and safety options in Eugene. The Ducks lagged behind with an S&P+ ranking against the pass of just 54th last season. We do view some of this as simple greenness, with freshman such as cornerback duo Thomas Graham and Deommodore Lenoir being put through their very early paces a year ago, but even so, possessing a somewhat soft pass defense -- even one with room for improvement -- is problematic in this conference.
Bovada win total over/under: 8.5
Projected record: 10-2 (7-2 in Pac-12)
Washington State Cougars
NFL Draft prospect to watch: T Andreas Dillard (Round 4)
How should I think of this team? A rollercoaster ride.
The case for: We’ll hit up the live wire that is Mike Leach later on, but even with his occasionally absurd antics his Air Raid remains a potent offensive system when run correctly. We’ll give them a C+ in execution for last year. The Cougs noticeably sloughed off on offense from 2016, dropping from 18th in scoring offense to 50th. For context’s sake, they went from scoring 38 a game to scoring 30 a game, At the end of the season, it was revealed that QB Luke Falk had played through a broken wrist. That would explain a lot, but it also raises so, so many questions. If Washington State had a relationship status, it would most definitely be “complicated, with everything.” Despite the many, many odd -- sometimes cloudy -- angles with Leach, though, that offense just works with the right signal-caller.
Enter Gardner Minshew, who nearly took his transfer from ECU down to Tuscaloosa -- he’d love to coach after he’s done with his collegiate career -- before instead opted for the currently smoke-filled skies of Pullman, Washington. Don’t worry, Mr. Minshew. It’ll be plenty nice in the fall. It’s early yet in camp, but Minshew’s been hitting the right notes in tuning up for the season. After throwing for 2,140 yards (57.2-percent completions) with a 16/7 TD/IN ratio, the big question is just how much those numbers might inflate now that he’s not, you know, playing for ECU.
Playing for the Pirates does come with its benefits, though, and WSU has no immaculate receiving talent on-hand at the level of a Trevon Brown. They do, however, offer up a far deeper roster of skill-position options than Minshew’s going to be accustomed to. Dontavean Martin is the most notable of those and the most obvious successor to the wideout rollout at WSU, but the team also boasts Dezmon Patton, Jamire Calvin and the list goes on and on. It’s a stacked receiving corps, supplemented by one of the best receiving backs in the nation in the ever-dependable James Williams (395 yards rushing; 71-482-3 last season). He’s going to have a chance to shine to the brightest degree without Jamal Morrow around to swipe touches. This is an offense that is ready to rock. Assuming Minshew can smoothly take over as starter, we’re expecting a notable uptick from last year in terms of per-game scoring average.
The case against: This is like The Leftovers (we’re pretty sure we reached our quota on Infinity War references several conferences ago), with half of the Cougs just up and vanishing. We’re talking about a number of key cogs ranging from QB Luke Falk to the aforementioned Morrow to wideouts Tavares Martin and Isaiah Johnson-Mack, both of whom left the team under less than amicable circumstance. Also OL Cody O’Connell and DE Hercules Mata’afa. And DC Alex Grinch. Even with the steadiest hand guiding the ship, this would be a tough overhaul. Instead, they’re being guided by Mike Leach, who got into an offseason war with venerated USA Today reporter Dan Wolken after he posted a laughably-edited video of former President Barack Obama to Twitter, not his first brush with making political headlines. It very much feels like he is reaching the end of his leash in Pullman, even as WSU continues to win games on a year-in, year-out basis.
Hanging over all of this is the suicide of QB Tyler Hilinski, who would have likely taken over for Falk had events passed differently in January. Few football programs have to navigate the choppy waters of grief that the Cougs are still making their way through in the wake of the quarterback's suicide. We hope that the football field offers some level of comfort for Hilinski’s teammates -- and it’s even possible to believe that his passing will galvanize the team in a way that few things could -- but at the same time, it’s completely understandable that there might be something beyond just receivers and defensive coordinators missing with Wazzu this year.
Bovada win total over/under: 6.5
Projected record: 8-4 (5-4 in Pac-12)
Cal Golden Bears
NFL Draft prospect to watch: C Addion Oomes (Round 6)
How should I think of this team? The guy at the bar who you don’t want to fight, but you don’t realize it until after he’s begun to fight you.
The case for: Frisky. All kinds of friskiness from the Golden Bears last season. They started out 3-0 with wins over North Carolina and Ole Miss, then lost three straight to USC, Oregon and Washington (no shame in losing to any of those outfits) before bouncing back in high style with a 37-3 thrashing of Washington State. They would run out of gas with a 1-3 finish, but given the expectations for the season, it was a fantastic first year for Wisconsin transplant Justin Wilcox. The Golden Bears fell one game short of bowl eligibility last year. That’ll be amended this time around.
Cal OC Beau Baldwin has been downright effusive about QB Ross Bowers’ development this offseason, specifically this summer, saying that he’s taken huge steps since the end of the season. That’s just beginning to build on itself. Remember, Baldwin’s offenses with Eastern Washington were among the highest-scoring in the FCS prior to his taking the gig with the Golden Bears in 2017. If Bowers is truly comfortable in this spot, there’s considerable room for improvement in terms of both his accuracy -- he completed just 59% of his passes last season -- and his turnover rates -- he posted an 18/14 TD/INT ratio last year.
If Bowers can rev the offensive engine, we trust Wilcox to keep on keepin’ on with his miracle worker stuff on the defensive side. He inherited a mess -- only Nevada was more porous in preventing the run in the FBS last season -- and almost immediately turned the sails toward the sunny shores of respectability. Cal ranked 64th in rushing yards surrendered last year, giving up a perfectly cromulent 164.08 ground yards in 2017. Advanced statistics also like Wilcox’s passing defense, with S&P+ pacing the young, now-battle-tested secondary as the 60th in the country against the pass, which belies their low standing (113th) on the per-average board. If Wilcox can continue his extended pull of the defensive rabbit out of the metaphorical hat and Bowers is ready to take on some of Baldwin’s more advanced concepts, this is a team that could rattle some of the conference big boys. A few high-profile games to circle for possible upsets -- at home against Oregon to end September, at home against Washington to close out October and at home against Stanford on November 17.
The case against: It’s hard to talk about Cal without addressing what’s not there, because it’s easy to envision the team hitting depth snags at multiple positions, including running back, wide receiver, and along the defensive line. The Bears are set at running back with starter Patrick Laird, but the transfer of Tre Watson to Texas essentially erases any sort of established depth at the position. And along the defensive line, leading DE James Looney is not longer on roster, which hurts both in taking away one of the team’s top pass-rushing specialists from a year ago (Looney recorded 9.5 tackles for loss on just 41 total tackles) and leaving the Bears with limited experience coming back. While we may be smitten with Wilcox’s abilities to rapidly shore up a sinking ship, these are the kinds of chips to the depth chart which can cause a degree of stagnation.
We’ll wrap on WR Demetris Robertson who decided on a surprise transfer to Georgia this summer. It’s small solace to the Golden Bears that they’re losing something that really never existed, as Robertson played in just two games a year ago before being sidelined for the campaign by a lower body injury. He’s still a next-to-impossible talent to replace. There’s nothing on the offensive roster which remotely comes close to possessing Robertson’s upside. We would like Vic Wharton (67-871-5) and Kanawai Noa (57-788-4) as complimentary pieces and we would love them working alongside Robertson. It’s going to take a little more elbow grease to make the offense work, now.
Bovada win total over/under: 6.5
Projected record: 7-5 (5-4 in Pac-12)
NFL Draft prospect to watch: RB Bryce Love (Round 1)
How should I think of this team? A potentially perfect vehicle for David Shaw’s offensive philosophies, undone by a lacking defense.
The case for: 32 points a game. 26.3 points per game. 37.8 points per game. These are the Cardinal scoring averages, beginning with 2017’s output and stretching back to the 2015 season. The drop-off, here, comes with QB Kevin Hogan exiting stage left and opening up a world of trouble for the Cardinal. The bounceback? Credit that to Heisman contender Bryce Love and upstart QB K.J. Costello. Costello came on after Keller Chryst -- recently transferred to Tennessee -- failed to provide any sort of an offensive spark, taking over as starter for good at the beginning of November. He proceeded to throw 10 touchdown passes over the final four games.
Costello provides perhaps the greatest reason for optimism with Stanford, whose offense is billed on the marquee for its run-heavy ways but is utterly dependent on fielding a consistent quarterback. They failed to put up more than 30 points in eight contests a year ago, and that was with Bryce Love ripping it up in Heisman-worthy fashion. Speaking of Love, he’s back! The explosive runner opted in for one more run in Palo Alto over the winter, an obvious godsend for the Cardinal after he bolted out for 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. Not only that, but the team boasts several intriguing receiving options for Costello to draw plays up with in the sandbox, headlined by JJ Arcega-Whiteside, whom you might last remember hauling in three touchdown passes in an entertaining bowl victory over TCU just before New Year’s. The Cardinal are also getting the band back together on the offensive line, with four of five starters from a year ago set to return.
Stanford’s offense tends to get overlooked in favor of the defense -- at least outside of megawatt star power from Christian McCaffrey previously and Bryce Love currently -- but this will not be the year for that. This team will sink or swim based on how the offense operates. That’s because we’re not projecting a dominant defense. A year ago, the team surrendered 22.7 points per game while ranking 59th in S&P+ defense on the whole. That’s fine, but because we don’t view the Cardinals as having much defensive potential above “fine,” we’re putting a lot of faith in this offense as one that can become emergent.
The case against: We played the “hot Stanford quarterback down the stretch” game two years ago, when Chryst shredded with an 8/0 TD/INT ratio over Stanford’s final four contests of the 2016 campaign. This time a year ago, we were also spouting optimism over the Cardinal’s offensive upside, only for Chryst to fall on his face out of the gate. Costello will be facing the gauntlet almost immediately thanks to Stanford’s typically brilliant/masochistic scheduling. Before HC David Shaw’s team is even out of the month of September, they’ll have played San Diego State, USC, Oregon and Notre Dame, with the latter two contests coming back-to-back, on the road. Matters ease out after that, but the schedule never truly settles completely, with three of Stanford’s final four games coming on the road, including a potentially pivotal showdown with Washington in Seattle set for Nov. 3.
Bryce Love also worries us, at least so much as a Heisman candidate can worry. It has nothing to do with his overall talent level (obviously immense) and far more to do with his health. Specifically, what happens if Love’s nagging injuries from a year ago -- an ankle injury infamously plagued him in 2017 -- actually start to prevent him from seeing the field? That wasn’t the case last season, as the 5-foot-10, 196-pounder simply powered through his ailments, limping off the field and resting when the Cardinal could afford it before gingerly trotting back out there to grind out a few more big plays. Should Love’s durability issues prove more considerable this year, we don’t love what’s behind him. Cameron Scarlett had opportunities in spelling the star back a year ago, but managed just 4.3 YPC on his 91 totes of the rock. That’s a large enough sample size to feel uncomfortable projecting out toward a larger role if Love is forced out of action. The formula for Stanford to falter this year is a simple enough one to understand -- Costello’s not quite the player he showed himself to be a year ago, Love finds himself missing some real amount of time, and Shaw’s defense just isn’t up to its past levels. That’s how the promise might get muddled, here.
Bovada win total over/under: 8.5
Projected record: 7-5 (4-5 in Pac-12)
Oregon State Beavers
NFL Draft prospect to watch: T Blake Brandel (Round 5)
How should I think of this team? Survivors of a shipwreck clinging to driftwood.
The case for: Keep Corvallis weird? OSU was certainly that a year ago. Going rapid fire, HC Gary Anderson left in awkward fashion midway through the past season, longtime mistress Mike Riley took and then abandoned an assistant job with the Beavers for the head-coaching gig at Alliance San Antonio -- in the Alliance of American Football, a pro league in embryonic form which will begin its first season in early February -- and they inadvertently (?) sent recruiting materials to current Hawaii players. Despite the dysfunctional nature of their existence, they still managed to hire a rock-solid head coach in Jonathan Smith, who has spent the past three years serving as offensive coordinator at Washington and has a long history with Huskies HC Chris Petersen dating back to their joint Boise State days. Smith doesn’t have much to work with on roster, but he’s learned under the best.
As for what he does have, Artavis Pierce. He’s got Artavis Pierce. That is one sure thing. Pierce rushed for 323 yards last year, and that while fighting for carries with Thomas Tyner and Trevorris Johnson behind Ryan Nall. All three are gone now. He’s also got TE Noah Togiai and T Blake Brandel, who along with Pierce represent the most certain factors on this offense. That might not seem like much -- OK, it’s not much -- but we’ve seen Smith adjust to circumstance in the past, notably a year ago, working with a limited passing game with Jake Browning, who posted a monster statistical drop from his sophomore to junior years, following up a brilliant 2016 campaign of 43 touchdown passes to just 19 last season.
So he can make something out of nothing. And we like QB Jake Luton more than nothing. Luton played in just four games last season before sustaining a broken back -- football scares us sometimes -- which sidelined him for the remainder of the campaign. In his limited time, he threw for 853 yards and a 4/4 TD/INT ratio, with three of those picks coming in the opener against Colorado State. Luton has come roaring back from the serious injury to enter camp a healthy combatant. It’s his job until he stumbles. We think Smith gets out the best of him.
The case against: So, so much is going against the Beavers. Not just in terms of their roster deficits -- especially on defense, where they ranked as a bottom-five unit on S&P+ -- but also in terms of the mere schedule. They’ll travel to Columbus to take on Ohio State, and even in what could be a dark carnival atmosphere depending on what happens with HC Urban Meyer, that’s an impossible feat. It’s not their only impossible feat, though. They finish with as brutal a stretch as any program in the country, with games against USC, Stanford, Washington and Oregon. Those Stanford and Washington games will come on the road, within a week of each other. Mercy.
As much as we love the Smith hire (and we do), this is realistically going to be a lost season, especially if Oregon State is forced to play ping-pong at quarterback, either due to Luton’s health or his ineffectiveness. We just don’t know who he is yet, and while we can read between the lines, realistically, he’s a quarterback coming off a severe back injury who played -- at best -- very up-and-down in his trial run a year ago. Former JUCO transfer Conor Blount will try to push him in camp, but this was an offense which barely managed to score more than 21 points a game last year, while giving up an even 43 on average. That alone is indicative of just how far OSU has to go. Baby steps.
Bovada win total over/under: 2.5
Projected record: 1-11 (0-9 in Pac-12)