- As the weather warms up out west, there will be high hopes at Oregon, Washington and Utah—and uneasiness at USC.
For the second-straight season, the Pac-12 endured a season defined by disappointment. For the second straight year, the conference missed out on the College Football Playoff, and while it wasn’t quite as bad as the 1–8 bowl record league members posted in the 2017 postseason, last year’s 3–4 showing in bowls didn’t win any new defenders for a conference at the bottom of the Power 5 totem pole.
Washington rebounded from two October losses to win the Pac-12 and reach the Rose Bowl, but the Huskies could not recover from an early hole in a 28–23 loss to Ohio State. Washington State, led by Mike Leach and mustachioed quarterback Gardner Minshew, surpassed all expectations with a 11–2 season that could have been so much more if the Cougars had beaten their in-state rivals. The Alamo Bowl is no fitting finale for a conference’s most interesting team.
Rounding out the top tier are Utah and Oregon, two popular picks to make an appearance in the Pac-12 title game next year. But as the league limps into another offseason, it’s time to wonder whether that upper tier of contenders can restore some of the conference’s lost respect. Sending a team to the playoff isn’t completely out of question, but it’s going to be a stretch.
State of the Spring Favorite: Oregon’s 2018 season didn’t exactly end with fireworks, but the Ducks will cherish their 7–6 Redbox Bowl victory to cap Mario Cristobal’s first season more than their 7–6 record in 2017, Willie Taggart’s lone season in Eugene.
Moving forward, the Ducks have plenty of reasons for optimism, especially after quarterback Justin Herbert announced his decision to return to Eugene for his final year of college eligibility. Herbert controls whether the Ducks blossom into a serious contender, but he won’t be alone on the offensive side of the ball.
Not only does Oregon return the C.J. Verdell–Travis Dye combo in the backfield, but they also bring back their entire starting offensive line, a position group that was one of Cristobal’s early points of emphasis. A greater spring concern is finding a go-to wideout to replace Dillon Mitchell, who set the program’s single-season record with 1,184 yards last season. It doesn’t take a tremendous amount of imagination to see the Ducks making a New Year’s Six appearance in 2019, but it’s tough to picture anything more than that for them or any of their leaguemates.
Most Interesting QB Competition: Replacing the quarterback who holds nearly every Washington passing record is never easy, but it sure doesn’t hurt to have Jacob Eason ready to be called into action right as Jake Browning heads out the door.
Eason started as a freshman at Georgia in 2016, throwing for 2,430 yards and 16 touchdowns. The next year, a Week 1 knee injury gave the starting job to Jake Fromm, who didn’t give it back. After Eason signed on to play in purple and gold and sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules, it’s safe to say the Lake Stevens, Wash., native and 2015 Gatorade Player of the Year will be the starter in the Huskies’ season opener.
There could be some intrigue behind Eason, where sophomore Jake Haener and redshirt freshmen Colson Yankoff and Jacob Sirmon are also waiting for their shot. Keep an eye on how this depth chart shakes out throughout the spring, even if No. 1 looks to be set.
Burning Non-QB Depth Chart Question: Perhaps the best news Utah has received this offseason was the return of running back Zack Moss, who rushed for 1,092 yards and 11 touchdowns before sustaining a season-ending knee injury in an early-November practice.
With quarterback Tyler Huntley back from injury and joined by the majority of his top 2018 targets, the largest concern for the Utes lies with the offensive line, which loses starters Jackson Barton, Lo Falemaka and Jordan Agasiva. Coach Kyle Whittingham’s ability to rebuild up front will determine if Utah can win a second-straight Pac-12 South title.
The pressure of rebuilding has already been somewhat alleviated after the Utes landed juco transfer Bamidele Olaseni, a 6'8", 330-pounder who spent last fall at Garden City Community College and had offers from Ohio State, Texas and Auburn.
Coach to Watch: While it will be interesting to see what Chip Kelly and Herm Edwards do in their second season on the job at UCLA and Arizona State, respectively, all eyes will be on Clay Helton and his updated coaching staff at USC.
After a disastrous 5–7 season, USC parted ways with offensive coordinator Tee Martin, defensive line coach Kenechi Udeze and defensive back coach Ronnie Bradford and—after a brief false start on the Kliff Kingsbury era—replaced them with offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Graham Harrell, Boise State’s defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a and Oregon State’s defensive backs coach Greg Burns.
With sophomore quarterback JT Daniels expected to develop into a star and a roster that isn’t short on talent, significant improvement is the only option if Clay Helton wants another season in Los Angeles.
Spring game viewing guide
Thursday, Feb. 28: Arizona State (9 p.m.)
Saturday, March 16: Cal (2 p.m.)
Saturday, April 6: USC (2 p.m.)
Saturday, April 13: Utah (1 p.m.), Stanford (4 p.m.), Arizona (8 p.m.)
Saturday, April 20: Oregon State (2 p.m.), Washington State (4 p.m.), Oregon (5 p.m.), UCLA (TBA)
Saturday, April 27: Colorado (3 p.m.), Washington (3 p.m.)
Herm Edwards and Arizona State are off to a quick start. No, really. The Sun Devils started spring practice on Feb. 5, their earliest start in program history. Arizona State is the only Power 5 program set to play its spring game in the month of February. The game was moved up to Feb. 28, over two weeks before the next Pac-12 spring game, in hopes of getting a head start on recruiting, allowing more healing time for players who are injured in spring ball and getting newcomers on the same page as quickly as possible.
This could prove to be valuable for players in the quarterback room—Dillon Sterling-Cole, Jayden Daniels, Joey Yellen and Ethan Long—as they compete for the starting quarterback job. The Sun Devils aren’t expected to be a real contender in the Pac-12 next season, but they get Oregon, USC and Washington at home. Traveling to Tempe as a ranked opponent could spell trouble for one or more of those teams, as Michigan State and Utah learned last year.