SportsPac12: Pac-12 Preseason Football Power Rankings & Preview for 2018
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Pac-12 Preseason Football Power Rankings & Preview for 2018

August 29, 2018

Pac-12 Football: Week One Power Rankings

Preseason power rankings are pure speculation: All we have to go on are last year's results and an incomplete survey of the new faces. And it doesn't help that everyone is undefeated. Wins and losses are the best corrective for flawed rankings. There will be plenty of those soon enough. Meanwhile, in this quick look at each team, I assess coaching, returning starters, known deficiencies, strength of schedule, and incoming recruits in unequal measures.

1. Washington
No Pac-12 team will field a better combination of new and returning players and assistants this season than Chris Petersen. The Huskies boast one of the nation's best running backs in Myles Gaskin, who is on pace to displace Oregon's Royce Freeman as the Pac-12's all-time rushing touchdown leader. Seasoned quarterback Jake Browning lost a prime target in tight end Hunter Bryant for the season due to injury, but Drew Sample appears capable of picking up the slack. Replacing Dante Pettis is another matter. Defensively, UW's Death Row returns with Greg Gaines looking to fill the huge hole left by DT Vita Vea. The D-line is backed by an outstanding linebacker unit led by Ben Burr-Kirven, and what could be the country's best secondary, headlined by junior Taylor Rapp. Whether the Dawgs have shored up the weaknesses exposed by Alabama and Penn State in the past two seasons will be clear enough in Week One against Auburn. If UW wins that one, and can survive two daunting road trips to Utah and Oregon, the remaining schedule could allow this 2018 team to rival Washington's 1991 National Championship squad.

2. USC
With 21 wins in two seasons, USC head coach Clay Helton has proven himself capable of overcoming the loss of a star quarterback and a dynamic running back. In freshman JT Daniels, the Trojans appear to have a plug-and-play replacement for Sam Darnold, while tailbacks Aca'Cedric Ware, Vavae Malepeai, and Stephen Carr seem ready to step in for Ronald Jones II. USC returns just 13 total starters, but having recruited a wealth of replacements, the Trojans should be as deep and talented as ever. On offense, Daniels is blessed with the leadership of veteran center Toa Lobendahn, and has a couple speedy, sure-handed receivers in wideouts Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman Jr., as well as tight end Tyler Petite. The defense suffered a short-term setback with an injury to linebacker Porter Gustin in fall camp, but he's expected to rejoin Cam Smith in a dominating linebacker unit early in the season. Christian Rector heads up a punishing front line, while a secondary led by Marvell Tell III should provide ample coverage.  In short, all the pieces are in place for the Trojans to repeat as champions of the South, provided they can withstand three menacing road games at Stanford, Arizona, and Utah in weeks Two, Five, and Eight.

3. Utah
Many believe the Utes have been overhyped this preseason, but with so much talent returning on both sides of the ball, it would be foolish to underestimate Kyle Whittingham's 2018 squad. Utah returns eight starters on a dynamic offense led by quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss, one of only six quarterback-running back tandems nationally that threw for more than 2,000 yards and ran for over 1,000. Both seem quietly poised for even bigger seasons. And when the touchdowns don't come, the Utes can rely on two of the country's best specialists in kicker Matt Gay and punter Mitch Wishnowsky, though that may have been the case too often last season. Utah's stout defense returns dynamic starters in end Bradlee Anae, cornerback Julian Blackmon, and safeties Chase Hansen and Corrion Ballard. Most of the Conference's best teams—Washington, Arizona, USC, and Oregon—must come to Salt Lake City, a double-edged challenge for the Utes. Consequently, the Pac-12 race figures to run directly through intimidating Rice-Eccles Stadium.

4. Oregon
Duck fans were unhappy—to say the least—when Willie Taggart left after one year, but he may have reset the table with enough elite payers and coaches for Mario Cristobal to make the current FSU coach wish he never left. Future NFL quarterback Justin Herbert directs a speedy and talented group of running backs and receivers, led by Tony Brooks-James and Dillon Mitchell, along with a big and experienced line, anchored by junior center Jake Hanson. Don't be surprised if the Oregon offense hums along like it has in recent years. The defense improved dramatically last year under magic-worker Jim Leavitt, shaving a whopping 149.2 yards and 12.4 points per game off the previous year's totals. The defense figures to be even better this season, with stopper linebacker Troy Dye and gifted end Jalen Jelks leading the way. The late addition of former UCLA recruit Bryan Addison, a talented wideout and defensive back expected to play both ways, was an unexpected boon to an already stellar recruiting class. Oregon's favorable schedule all but guarantees eight wins, with Stanford and Washington bringing huge opportunities to Autzen.

5. Stanford
Picking such a talented Cardinal team this low in a preseason Power Ranking runs counter to conventional wisdom, but this may not be your typical Stanford. Defense has been the mainstay in Palo Alto over the past several years, and that's not a certainty this season. The offense will be high-octane, with Bryce Love chasing Barry Sanders records and a potential Heisman. Quarterback K.J. Costello should make the best of his 2017 experience, distributing the ball to a host of talented receivers, including wideouts JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Trent Irwin, along with tough tight end Kaden Smith. The O-line is a bit banged up, with starting center Jesse Burkett out for a game or two, but there's good depth there. Defensively, however, the Tree will rely heavily on its linebackers and cornerbacks—headlined by Bobby Okereke and Alijah Holder—while seeking answers to questions looming on the line and at safety. Those answers need to come quickly, with San Diego State and USC in town in weeks One and Two, respectively, and a dangerous trip to Oregon soon after, in Week Four. If Stanford's defense jells as it has so often under David Shaw, the Cardinal could catapult to the top of this list.

6. Arizona
The Wildcats may be poised to emerge as a national power with new coach Kevin Sumlin inheriting the explosive Khalil Tate at quarterback, some veteran receivers, and an underrated running back group led by J.J. Taylor. That's what Kevin Sumlin did for the Aggies his first year at Texas A&M, going 11-2 with Johnny Manziel in 2012. But there are a few potential problems to sort out in Tucson before shopping for rings, most notably, the uncertainty on the offensive line, which appears to have lost starting center Nathan Eldridge for the season, and Layth Friekh for two games. Limiting opponents' rushing output was a big problem last season, with four true freshman starters thrown into the fire. But the experience they gained should help holdover DC Marcel Yates shape his nine solid returning starters—spearheaded by sophomore linebackers Tony Fields II and Colin Schooler—into a defense that could spare the Cats from having to put up so many points to win. Arizona can't afford to overlook BYU or Houston in the first two weeks, but will get a much bigger test in Week Five game with USC at home. An upset of JT Daniels and Company could be the start of something big.

7. California
The Bears return more starters on both sides of the ball than any other Pac-12 team, including 11 on offense, where, like Utah, Cal returns a quarterback-running back tandem that threw for more 2,000 yards and ran for more than 1,000 in Ross Bowers (3,039) and Patrick Laird (1,127). Add to that the combined 123 receptions of returning wideout Vic Wharton III and slot receiver Kanawai Noa, and its easy to see the Bears putting up even more yards this season. But will enough points come with those yards, and when they're needed most? Last year, Cal lost three games by three points or fewer, leaving Bear fans to wonder what might have been. Defensively, Cal made great strides in 2017, allowing 14.2 points less per game than last season, and the unit appears poised to build on that success. With 10 returning starters, including senior inside linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk and sophomore cornerback Camryn Bynum, Cal's defense could prove as stingy as some in the Jeff Tedford era. The Bears should be 3-0 with a bye to prepare for Oregon in Strawberry Canyon in Week Five. Win that one, and expectations soar.

8. Washington State
Only Stanford and USC have won more conference games than the Cougars over the last three years, in large part due to WSU's explosive offenses. Wazzu should field another good one in 2018, despite the loss of Luke Falk, one of most prolific quarterbacks in school history. As of this writing, Mike Leach hasn't named his replacement, but all signs point to graduate transfer quarterback Gardner Minshew, who chose the Cougars over Alabama. Whoever starts will have the usual bevy of talented WSU receivers at his disposal, led this year by senior Kyle Sweet, who pulled in 58 receptions last season. The defense has some depth issues up front after the loss of Hercules Mata'afa, but the linebacking corps and secondary should remain solid with the return of Jahad Woods and Jalen Thompson. The big question is how this team responds emotionally, not only after the tragic loss of Tyler Helsinki, but also to the replacement of several key assistants.

9. Arizona State
In all the hullaballoo of the Sun Devils hiring Herm Edwards, a former television commentator with no previous college coaching experience, many seem to have lost sight of the talent and experience ASU returns from a team that finished second in the South last season. Underrated senior quarterback Manny Wilkins has two excellent junior receivers in future NFL star N'Keal Harry and reliable Kyle Williams, and a promising running back in Eno Benjamin. The senior passer also has the luxury of operating behind three returning linemen, augmented by graduate transfer Casey Tucker. Four starters return on defense, where the front line is deep, though not star-studded, and Chase Lucus grounds the secondary. It remains to be seen if the Devils' challenging schedule will allow the defense to work through its expected growing pains. Its development could be the difference between a surprising and disappointing season. We should have a much better sense of where things stand after Michigan State ignites renovated Sun Devil Stadium in Week Two.

10. Colorado
Buffs coach Mike MacIntyre and his players are anxious to prove their 2016 breakout season was more than just a mystical alignment of the planets after their tumble back into the cellar last season. Colorado coaches can take some comfort in the experience gained by returning quarterback Steven Montez, but there's no such certainty in his untested offensive line. Blocking issues could lesson the opportunity for Virginia Tech graduate transfer Travon McMillian and senior Kyle Evans to step in for CU's all-time best all-purpose back, Phillip Lindsay. Questions surround the defensive line as well, placing additional pressure on linebackers Rick Gamboa and Drew Lewis to make up the difference, along with veteran safety Evan Worthington. On the flip side, teams that fall as far as the Buffs did last year, after such a stellar season prior, often get overlooked, giving Colorado a chance to surprise a few teams. A road contest against Scott Frost's hyped Nebraska team in Week Two is a golden opportunity to do just that.

11. UCLA
The Bruins aren't likely to look like Chip Kelly's former Duck teams his first season in Westwood, especially in the face of one of the nation's most difficult schedules. But while UCLA's rebuilding project could take a couple years, Kelly appears to already have some of the key players he needs. Freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson hasn't been named the starter yet, but he seems custom-built for the spread-option. The Bruin running game fared so poorly last year, it can only get better with Bolu Olorunfunmi and Joshua Kelley benefitting from run-first coaches in a rush-centric system. New DC Jerry Azzinaro takes over a strong secondary that should be much-improved in his 3-4 defense with the services of defensive backs Adarius Pickett, Nate Meadors, and Darnay Holmes, and outside linebacker Jaelan Phillips, who seems ready to realize his potential. This much is certain: Chip Kelly is establishing a new culture, and he has laid down the law early with six short-term suspensions. Don't expect Pac-12 schools to be kind to him on his Welcome Back Tour—except, perhaps, at Autzen—as too many fans and coaches remember the thrashing he dealt them while at Oregon.

12. Oregon State
After last year's 1-11 season, improvement seems inevitable under new Beavers coach Jonathan Smith. The question is, How much improvement? The offensive line is a solid unit, with 80 combined starts between them, but beyond that, depth issues abound. As expected, Jake Luton emerged as the starting quarterback, and he should benefit from the switch from the spread to a more pro-style offense. But whatever the scheme, he won't have a running back named Ryan Nall behind him. OSU will lean on its solid linebacking and secondary units, led by veterans Jalen Moore and Dwayne Williams, along with eight other returning starters to shore up a defense that ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in points allowed, rushing yards, and total defense last season. Winning a conference game in 2018 would be worthy of celebration.