Ladies and gentleman, pick your fighter.
OK, so this isn’t Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, but the 2019 Pac-12 football season is poised to be one of those seasons that could produce a dramatic and surprising race.
Some things have changed since last season while others have remained the same as the teams aim for the 2019 conference title game Dec. 6 in Santa Clara, California.
Looking at the conference a pyramid is one way to handicap the race. The 12 programs are at different levels. So what does the pyramid look like entering 2019? The first stop isn’t much of a surprise.
Start from the bottom
...Hello, Oregon State.
For the fifth time in four seasons, expect the Oregon State Beavers to sit at the bottom of the conference. Coach Jonathan Smith is headed into his second season with 16 returning starters. The Beavers might have gotten better, but the North Division is still a battle they just aren’t ready for.
If Oregon State wants to contend for a shot at a bowl game, they’ve gotta pick up six wins on their schedule. When you take a look at the schedule, though, the Beavers will most likely be the underdog in 11 out of the 12 games, the exception being the Sept. 14 game against Cal Poly. If Smith can lead the Beavers out of the conference cellar in 2019, it might be the biggest surprise of all.
Give them another year
This trio of teams are what I’d call project teams. Colorado, UCLA, and Arizona are still in some minor building stages. Chip Kelly at UCLA and Kevin Sumlin at Arizona are headed into their second seasons, and the Mel Tucker era begins at Colorado. While these teams aren’t as bad as the Oregon State, they’re still in a mode of “wait and see”.
Of this group, it is Arizona that might seem the most worrisome at this point. The Wildcats were in the thick of the Pac-12 South race last season till back to back losses knocked them out of bowl contention. Add in the season opening loss to Hawaii on Saturday and a difficult conference schedule still ahead and rumblings about the length of Sumlin’s stay in Arizona might start up.
Everything has to go right
The higher you climb, the more difficult it is.
USC, California, Stanford, Washington State and Arizona State are close to the top conference contenders, but one thing or another has to go right for each of them.
Arizona State is starting a freshman quarterback after coming just short of reaching the Pac-12 title game a year ago. If Freshman QB Jayden Daniels can play to lofty standards and the defense continues to improve with seven starters back, a ticket to the conference title game is possible.
Stanford, Wazzu, and Cal find themselves closer to Oregon and Washington than most expect.
Cal needs to set the tone early and can do so with wins in two of their first three games, against Oregon and Washington, both on the road. Oh, and they also see Utah, Stanford, and UCLA on the road. Good luck.
The road is also rough for the Washington State. The Cougars have to replace Gardner Minshew under center. Unlike 2018, they really aren’t going to sneak up on anybody. They’ll have to take on all comers, including a trip to Seattle to face the Huskies at the end of the season.
A 9-4 record is a success for most programs, but for Stanford you could consider it a step back. A mid-season stretch saw the Cardinal lose four out of five games and get knocked out of the race in the North Division. An improved Stanford in a division that looks winnable? The Cardinal have a chance, but there’s no Bryce Love to carry the load this time.
Then you’ve got the USC Trojans. They’re playing the role of the most fascinating team entering the 2019 season. It is pretty easy to tag this team as one of the best in the conference and at the same time it could be one of the biggest disappointments. After the controversial move to keep coach Clay Helton, the Trojans are moving toward an air-raid offense attack developed by new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell. If all goes according to plan, USC makes itself a player in the conference race deep into the season.
If not, we may be looking for a new USC coach sooner rather than later.
The leading contenders
That leaves us with the three teams who start out the season at the top of the pyramid as the leading contenders for the Rose Bowl, and possibly even more.
Most experts are picking the Oregon Ducks to win the Pac-12, and it’s pretty easy to see why. The Ducks return standout quarterback Justin Herbert, who could very well be the top draft pick in next spring’s NFL Draft. Add in depth on the offensive line and receivers who have impressed coming out of the spring, and it’s easy to see why the Ducks are a trendy pick.
If you were to pick a leading contender in the Pac-12’s South Division, it’s the Utah Utes. The South is kinda, sorta on the verge of chaos, or at least that is what it feels like each year. The one team keeping things stable is Utah. Last season it worked through its traditional November woes to reach the Pac-12 title game. Can they do it again? Quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss return for their senior seasons, and the defensive line and secondary return seven players. All signs seem to be pointed toward another shot at the Pac-12 title game.
Lastly, you’ve got the reigning champs, the Washington Huskies. The Jacob Eason era begins at UW and with an offensive line led by Nick Harris and Trey Adams. Whether the Huskies stay atop Pac-12 heap could depend on a defense that returns just two starters, but Jimmy Lake remains the defensive coordinator so there really is no need to worry.
One thing the Huskies do have going for them is a favorable home schedule that brings both Oregon and Utah to Husky Stadium. For a team looking to keep it’s crown and go to a second straight Rose Bowl, or even further, the Huskies can use all the help they can get.