The USC Trojans were the preseason favorites to win the Pac-12 in 2017, and they delivered. The Trojans lost only one game in conference play all season, and beat Stanford twice, including in the conference title game, to earn the Pac-12 title.
But with the 2018 kickoff approaching, oddsmakers have their eyes a little farther North, where the Washington Huskies are -138 to win the conference championship this year. With plenty of talent left over from last year’s Fiesta Bowl team—and even the Playoff squad of two years ago—the Huskies are understandably a popular pick to conquer the conference.
Odds to win Pac-12:
Arizona State +6600
Washington State +8000
Oregon State +25000
(In order of predicted finish)
QB Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin are back as one of college football’s most talented and experienced backfields, and will look to push each other to new heights in 2018. Gaskin rushed for about the same amount of yards in 2017 as he did in 2016—with more than twice as many touchdowns—but Browning saw his statistical output drop significantly. He’ll look to rebound with help from a group of receivers that includes Chico McClatcher, who’s returning from injury. The defense loses a star in Vita Vea, but is still stacked at D-line and everywhere else. Browning and Gaskin are the big names, but it’s the defense that carries this team.
Mario Cristobal is Oregon’s third head coach in as many years, and he now begins the work of re-establishing consistency in Eugene. Fortunately for him, he has one of the nation’s best quarterbacks to help him do so in Justin Herbert. Herbert averaged 9.6 yards per passing attempt last year, but missed several weeks with an injury. The Ducks’ dismal performance during that stretch—and their rebound when he returned—made clear that he’s the foremost key to their success. In his first season in town as DC last year, Jim Leavitt immediately turned a horrific defense into a decent one. It should only get better this season.
While David Shaw has established a consistently excellent defense at Stanford, last year’s group performed beneath the program’s usual standards. Things ended on a low note, too, as the Cardinal surrendered 35.0 PPG in two losses to end the year. And with S Justin Reid and DT Harrison Phillips gone, each a third-round NFL draft pick, improvement won’t magically happen. The good news is this: Bryce Love is back. Love was electrifying last season with over 2,100 yards on the ground, and holds pole position in the Heisman race as the season kicks off. Stanford returns an experienced QB, as well, in K.J. Costello.
4. Washington State
It’s hard to say which departure will have a bigger impact on the Cougars: all-time WSU leading passer Luke Falk, now a Tennessee Titan, or brilliant defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, now at Ohio State. Leach has successfully transitioned from record-setting quarterbacks many times before, but whoever replaces Falk will be without the team’s two leading receivers from 2017. Incoming DC Tracy Claeys inherits a defense that retains plenty of pieces, including sixth-year linebacker Peyton Pelluer and now-sophomore LBs Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers.
Justin Wilcox had a promising first season at Cal, getting the Bears to 5-7 while battling through roster-wide injuries. A young offense returns almost everybody this year, including playmakers like 1,100-yard rusher Patrick Laird and wideouts Vic Wharton III and Kanawai Noa. The defense took big strides from 2016 to 2017, and while run D is a concern, a young (but now experienced) secondary could be among the conference’s best.
6. Oregon State
Oregon State is widely regarded as the clear worst team in the Pac-12, and a schedule that features Ohio State and USC, in addition to the already brutal divisional slate, won’t give it much of a chance to surpass those expectations record-wise. The Beavers should still expect to improve upon their single-win performance from 2017, and a brighter future is somewhere on the horizon for new head coach Jonathan Smith and this young squad.
Injured for most of 2017, Porter Gustin returns to the Trojans lineup this year to join fellow star linebacker Cameron Smith in trying to fix what was a struggling run defense for most of last year. With an already strong secondary brings back most of its talent, the entire unit will be dominant if it can succeed. Incoming freshman JT Daniels seems destined to take over the quarterback job sooner rather than later, and by all accounts he has shown poise beyond his years in early reps at the position. He’ll have two all-conference linemen blocking for him, and while there’s turnover at the skill positions, this is USC we’re talking about—there’s ridiculous talent at both running back and receiver. Keep an eye on freshman wideout Amon-Ra St. Brown, who was Daniels’s teammate in high school.
Given that they’re annual competitors in a Power Five conference, the Utes are among the nation’s most underappreciated programs. They’ll be contenders again this year, as they return a bunch of (still young) contributors from a 2017 team that went 7-6—with losses of three points or fewer to Pac-12 powers Stanford, USC and Washington. The running game figures to be potent once again, with RB Zack Moss and mobile QB Tyler Huntley (both juniors) back in the fold. The passing game remains a question mark with star wideout Darren Carrington II now in the NFL, but Huntley figures to improve as a thrower. The defense looks to be weaker than usual up front, but the pass defense will be strong.
College football players—athletes of any sport, really—don’t get more exciting than Khalil Tate. The Arizona quarterback rushed for 840 yards in the month of October alone last season. And when opponents adjusted, so did he: He ran for “only” 58 yards against Purdue in the Foster Farms Bowl, but threw for 302 yards and five touchdowns. The sky’s the limit for his 2018 season, with incoming head coach Kevin Sumlin having orchestrated a Heisman-winning season for dual-threat QB Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M in 2012. If the defense can hold it together—admittedly a big if—the Wildcats could make a run at the division.
It’s anyone’s guess as to what new tricks Chip Kelly has up his sleeve as he re-enters the college ranks as head coach of the Bruins. For decades, UCLA has sought a coach to allow them to reach (and sustain) a level of national relevance, and Kelly’s record at Oregon suggests he’s the most promising candidate in a while for that task. But his Year 1 offense will be almost entirely devoid of experience, minus running backs Bolu Olorunfunmi and Soso Jamabo. Long-time Kelly associate Jerry Azzinaro will take over a defense that struggled last season, but will at least be experienced and deep this time around.
5. Arizona State
While college football writers have made it clear that they don’t care for the bluster of new Sun Devils coach Herm Edwards, athletes seem to feel differently: Herm crushed it on signing day despite getting a late start on recruiting. Of course, actually coaching is another matter, and analysts are right to have questions about Herm’s ability to do so after a decade out of the game. Quarterback Manny Wilkins gets all his receiving weapons back including stud N’Keal Harry, but significant talent leaves at almost every other position—on both sides of the ball. Plus, the schedule is brutal.
The Buffaloes took a serious step back last season, regressing to 5-7 after a 10-4 record in 2016 that looked like a breakthrough at the time. But QB Steven Montez failed to impress last year despite having an experienced skill corps at his disposal, and now that entire group is gone—but Montez remains. At least Philip Lindsay, the third-leading rusher in program history, gets an experienced replacement in Virginia Tech grad transfer Travon McMillian. A number of playmakers are gone from a defense that got worse last season, so it’s natural to be pessimistic about this squad.
Pick to win the Pac-12: USC
If you believe in JT Daniels—and all reports suggest that you should—there’s no reason to believe USC can’t repeat as Pac-12 champs. The offense has more talent than it knows what to do with, and the defense is set to establish a consistency that it lacked last season.
Best value bet: Oregon +900
Jim Leavitt has been a godsend for a defense that fell off a cliff under Mark Helfrich, and QB Justin Herbert has all the tools to command an offense that could regain its spot among the country’s elite. A tough division indeed makes a conference title unlikely for the Ducks, but at +900 they’re flying a little too far under the radar.