2018 Pac-12 North Preview

1. Washington Huskies– They probably will have the best chance out of any other team in the conference to compete for the playoffs in 2018. I’ve really admired Chris Petersen as a coach and over the last two seasons, his football team has won 22 games including a 15-3 record in conference play. Two big positives for this team this year will be the returns of quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin, both decided to return for their senior seasons. The biggest challenge for their offense will be to develop a go-to guy for Browning on the outside. Last season, this team missed John Ross tremendously and they will be without Dante Pettis this year as his eligibility expired. On defense, the Huskies will miss the presence of standout defensive tackle, Vita Vea, and linebacker Keishawn Bierria, but the rest of the defense returns largely intact. Ben Burr-Kirven, Ryan Bowman, and Tevis Bartlett should ensure the linebacking corps doesn’t miss a beat, while Greg Gaines is set to anchor the line in his final year on campus. The secondary returns two All-Pac-12 candidates in safety Taylor Rapp and cornerback Byron Murphy. They begin their season with a showdown in Atlanta against the Auburn Tigers of the SEC West.

2. Stanford Cardinal– This is the other team to really keep an eye on in the conference. After all, they are the favorites to win this division after winning it last year and making a fourth appearance in the conference championship game, the most of any team in the Pac-12. Can David Shaw and company make it a fifth? They have a really good shot to accomplish that, especially with Bryce Love returning for another season. Shaw should be able to learn more about quarterback K.J. Costello. As a redshirt freshman, Costello threw for 1,573 yards and 14 touchdowns. Tight end Dalton Schultz declared early for the NFL, but the receiving corps is still in good shape with JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Connor Wedington returning, along with tight ends Kaden Smith and Colby Parkinson. Stanford should also have one of the nation’s top offensive lines next fall. The defense struggled last year and that side of the football is normally a strength. They gave up 6 yards per play, their highest mark since 2009 when they gave up 5.96. Coordinator Lance Anderson will be busy this spring, as he looks to find replacements for lineman Harrison Phillips, cornerback Quenton Meeks, and safety Justin Reid.

3. Oregon Ducks– I remember at one time when they were one of the best teams in the country. It’s been some rough years in Eugene as of late and they are now on their third head coach in five years. Willie Taggart left and took the Florida State job and now, the Ducks have turned to Mario Cristobal to turn around their program. As an offense, they enter the season in good shape with quarterback Justin Herbert returning under center and four offensive linemen will also be back. Running back Royce Freeman is gone and anyone replacing him will have big shoes to fill. Tony Brooks-James (498 yards in 2017), Darrian Felix and a couple of freshmen are set to battle for carries this offseason. Keeping defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt in Eugene was a huge victory for Cristobal this offseason as Leavitt inherited a defense that gave up 41.4 points a game in 2016 but trimmed that total to 29 points a game last fall. More improvement out of this group is expected, especially with linebacker Troy Dye and lineman Jalen Jelks returning in 2018.

4. California Golden Bears– The Golden Bears just missed out on a bowl in coach Justin Wilcox’s first season. California lost four of its seven games by 10 points or less, including a one-point to defeat to Arizona and a three-point loss to Stanford. Quarterback Ross Bowers returns after throwing for 3,039 yards and 18 touchdowns, but he could be pushed by South Carolina transfer Brandon McIlwain this spring. The ground game should be set with Patrick Laird (1,127 yards) and Tre Watson (back from injury) leading the way. Additionally, the offense is loaded at receiver with the return of Demetris Robertson from injury, along with Vic Wharton (67 catches) and Kanawai Noa (56). The line has room to improve after giving up 35 sacks in 2017, but all five starters are set to return. Wilcox and coordinator Tim DeRuyter worked wonders on the defense last season. After giving up 42.6 points a game in 2016, this unit cut that total to 28.4 in 2017. Leading tackler Jordan Kunaszyk (74) is back, but Devante Downs and Raymond Davison III are gone from the linebacker unit. Lineman James Looney (9.5 TFL) is another big loss from the front seven. California has to play at Washington State, USC, and Arizona but Oregon, UCLA, Washington, and Stanford come to Berkeley.

5. Washington State Cougars– You can always expect one thing to remain consistent under Mike Leach and that’s the offense which will always be one of the Pac-12’s top offenses. Quarterback Luke Falk departs Pullman after a standout career, and the supporting cast needs to be retooled after receivers Tavares Martin and Isaiah Johnson-Mack departed Pullman and running backs Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks expired their eligibility. The line also loses standout guard Cody O’Connell and tackle Cole Madison. The defense handled their business and made improvements under coordinator Alex Grinch. Grinch is now in Columbus working for Urban Meyer and Tracy Claeys is his replacement in Pullman. Can he continue to fix up what Grinch started?

6. Oregon State Beavers– Former Oregon State quarterback Jonathan Smith takes over as the program’s new head coach in 2018. As a first-time head coach, Smith needed a staff with some experience, and former Oregon State head coach Mike Riley should be a good sounding board for advice as an assistant. After a 1-11 record in 2017, Smith and his staff aren’t likely to lead this team to major improvement but small signs of progress should be noticeable. Quarterback Jake Luton returns after missing eight games due to injury, but standout running back Ryan Nall declared early for the NFL Draft. The line is set to return four starters, with right tackle Fred Lauina the only departure. New coordinator Tim Tibesar inherits a defense that finished last in the Pac-12 by giving up 43 points a game in 2017. Each level is set to lose a key contributor, but the biggest loss is linebacker Manase Hungalu (97 tackles). Smith has one of the toughest debuts of any new coach with a trip to Columbus to take on Ohio State on Sept. 1.

Prediction: I like the Washington Huskies to win the North for the second time in three seasons. With Jake Browning back under center for his final season, I see him having a big year and along with Myles Gaskin carrying this offense until they can get that consistent receiving threat on the outside. If they play how they did in 2016, the conference is theirs and they will be a playoff team once again.