For the second straight year, the postseason fate of a Pac-12 front-runner — and possibly the league’s best chance at a College Football Playoff berth — will be greatly impacted by a non conference game against Auburn in the season opener.

Last year, Washington lost 21-16 to the Tigers, which torpedoed the Huskies’ hope of returning to the CFP for the second time in three years.

This year, No. 11 Oregon faces No. 16 Auburn at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in a game that carries postseason implications for the Ducks and the Pac-12.

An Oregon win would begin to change the narrative about a league that hasn’t won a national title in 15 seasons, which is the longest drought for a Power 5 conference.

And a loss provides further proof to the pundits who dismiss the Pac-12 as a junior-varsity league that falters against elite competition. (In the past two years, the Pac-12 is 4-12 in bowl games.)

This season, the Pac-12 has five teams ranked in the Associated Press preseason top-25 poll, including four in the North division while the ACC has two and Big 12 chimes in with three.

What all of this means is the North Division is a jumbled mess, while Utah could seemingly win another South Division and wrap up a second consecutive berth to the Pac-12 title game with a win Sept. 20 at USC.

Here’s a look at the Pac-12 based on our preseason projections.

 

1. Utah

Coach: Kyle Whittingham, 15th year

2018: 9-5 overall, 6-3 Pac-12

Starters returning: 14 (7 offense, 7 defense)

Players to watch

Tyler Huntley, QB, 6-1, 190, Sr.— In a league where the top QBs pass for more than 3,000 yards, the third-year starter doesn’t get many chances to air it out in Utah’s run-first attack. Missed final 4 games last year after suffering season-ending collarbone injury.

Zack Moss, RB, 215, Sr. — Ranks fourth in Utah history in rushing yards after amassing 1,096 last season. Also had 11 TDs and averaged 121.8 yards in nine games.

Julian Blackmon, FS, 6-1, 190, Sr.— The two-time All-Pac-12 defensive back, who moved from corner to free safety, capped an outstanding season last year with two interceptions in the Heart of Dallas Bowl for MVP honors.

The skinny

The top four tacklers are gone, but Utah should have one of the best defenses in the Pac-12 for the second consecutive year thanks to a front line that returns every starter, including senior defensive end Bradlee Anae (51 tackles and 8 sacks). The Utes have two NFL prospects in secondary in Blackmon and junior cornerback Jaylon Johnson. There hasn’t been much preseason optimism surrounding Utah since joining the Pac-12 and Whittingham admits that players will need to manage expectations. The schedule is favorable with just four Pac-12 road games and the Utes will likely to be heavy favorites in most games. If Utah can successfully navigate trips to BYU, USC and Washington, then it could finish 13-0 and stake a claim to a CFP berth.

 

2. Oregon

Coach: Mario Cristobal, second year

2018: 9-4 overall, 5-4 Pac-12

Starters returning: 18 (11 offense, 7 defense)

Players to watch

Justin Herbert, QB, 6-6, 233, Sr. — Big, strong-armed thrower spurned the NFL draft, in which he would have been a first-round pick. A storybook ending for the Eugene, Ore., native would be to win the Heisman Trophy, lead the Ducks to the national championship and head to the draft as the presumptive No. 1 pick.

CJ Verdell, RB, 5-9, 209, So. — Ran for 1,018 yards while replacing Oregon’s all-time leading rusher, Royce Freeman. Paired with sophomore Travis Dye (757 yards last year), Oregon has arguably the best running-back tandem in the Pac-12.

Troy Dye, LB, 6-4, 224, Jr. — The Ducks’ three-time defensive MVP has led the team in tackles the past three seasons. Last year he had 115 tackles, including two sacks and seven tackles for loss.

The skinny

Besides Herbert, the Ducks will be boosted by an offensive line that’s anchored by a pair of preseason All-Americans in left guard Shane Lemieux and right tackle Calvin Throckmorton. The passing game should also be improved with addition of 6-5 senior receiver Juwan Johnson, who transferred from Penn State, and true freshman Mycah Pittman. The X-factor is a defense that was susceptible to big plays and is led by its third coordinator in four years.

 

3. Washington

Coach: Chris Petersen, sixth year

2018: 10-4 overall, 7-2 Pac-12

Starters returning: 10 (7 offense, 2 defense, 1 special teams)

Players to watch

Salvon Ahmed, 5-11, 193, Jr. — The elusive speedster is a breakaway threat who averaged 5.8 per carry while running for 608 yards last year in a backup role. It remains to be seen if he can be as productive after moving the No. 1 role.

Nick Harris, C, 6-1, 302, Sr. — The Huskies boast two preseason first team all-conference linemen in Harris and left tackle Trey Adams, who anchor an offensive line that returns four starters and is one of the most experienced units in the Pac-12 with more than 100 combined starts.

Myles Bryant, DB, 5-9, 184, Sr. — The only starter returning to a star-studded secondary that sent four defensive backs to the NFL. UW’s top returning tackler (61) who had six pass breakups and 3.5 sacks last year.

The skinny

Let the Jacob Eason era begin. The Georgia transfer won a hotly contested quarterback battle, which prompted Jake Haener to leave the program and elevated redshirt freshman Jacob Sirmon to the backup role. Eason (6-6, 227 pounds) has the physical gifts, pedigree and an experienced receiving corps (nine of UW’s top 10 pass catchers return) to elevate a passing attack that ranked eighth in the Pac-12 last year. The Huskies must revamp a defense that led the league in points allowed (16.4) while finding some game-changers at all three levels. The schedule is favorable with home games against Oregon, Utah and Washington State, but a Sept. 21 trip to BYU could be tricky.

 

4. Washington State

Coach: Mike Leach, eighth year

2018: 11-2 overall, 7-2 Pac-12

Starters returning: 15 (7 offense, 6 defense, 2 special teams)

Players to watch

Anthony Gordon, QB, 6-3, 205, Sr. — What a story. The City College of San Francisco transfer, who spent the past three years behind Luke Falk and Gardner Minshew, beat out record-setting Eastern Washington transfer Gage Gubrud for the starting job. Gordon has big shoes to fill considering he’s replacing Minshew, who set a Pac-12 record with 4,779 passing yards last year.

Jahad Woods, LB, 6-0, 225, Jr. — High-octane defender isn’t physically imposing but makes plays at all three levels. Racked up 82 tackles, three sacks while forcing four fumbles and intercepting a pass last year.

Abraham Lucas, RT, 6-7, 320, So. — The preseason All-Pac-12 right tackle is one of four starters returning to an offensive line that allowed just one sack per 52 attempts last season.

The skinny

Are we done overlooking coach Mike Leach and the Cougars? Sure, they can’t beat Washington and have lost six consecutive Apple Cups. But WSU can beat everybody else, including four wins in a row against Oregon and three consecutive vs. Stanford. Leach is an offensive savant whose plug-and-play scheme will be tested with Gordon, who attempted just five passes in the past three years. Still, Gordon will have plenty of help. WSU returns seven receivers who figure into Leach’s eight-man rotation. Collectively, they caught 297 passes and had 30 touchdowns last year. Since allowing 38.6 points per game in 2014, the Cougars have improved in each of the past four years and were fifth in the Pac-12 at 23.3 last year. Second-year defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has enough pieces to continue the streak.

 

5. Stanford

Coach: David Shaw, ninth year

2018: 9-4 overall, 6-3 Pac-12

Starters returning: 9 (3 offense, 5 defense)

Players to watch

K.J. Costello, QB, 6-5, 215, Jr. — The Pac-12 leading returner in passing yards who threw for 3,540 yards, 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last year.

Colby Parkinson, TE, 6-5, 250, Jr. — A NFL-caliber player with good size and soft hands. He’s Stanford’s leading returning receiver who had 29 catches for 485 yards and 7 TDs last year.

Paulson Adebo, CB, 6-1, 189, So. — Opposing quarterbacks continually attacked the first-team All-Pac-12 defender last season, and the lockdown corner finished with 20 passes defensed, 4 INTs and 64 tackles.

The skinny

After the running game stalled, Stanford switched to a pass-happy attack that elevated Costello among the nation’s best. Still, Shaw wants to run the ball, control the clock and punish opponents defensively. However, the Cardinal may not have the personnel to win that way. Furthermore, the first half of the schedule is brutal, with a six-game stretch that includes home matchups against Northwestern, Oregon and Washington and trips to USC and Central Florida.

 

6. USC

Coach: Clay Helton, fifth year

2018: 5-7 overall, 4-5 Pac-12

Starters returning: 10 (five offense, four defense, 1 special teams)

Players to watch

JT Daniels, QB, 6-3, 210, So. — Tough first year for the standout recruit who skipped his senior of high school and won the starting job as a true freshman. Finished with 2,672 passing yards, 14 TDs and 10 INTs.

Michael Pittman, WR, 6-4, 215, Sr. — One of the most explosive players in the Pac-12 who averaged 18.5 yards per catch last year. Finished with 41 receptions, 758 yards and 6 TDs.

Christian Rector, DE, 6-4, 275, Sr. — Disruptive edge rusher broke out as a sophomore with 7.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss, but was held in check last year and finished with 4.5 sacks and 9 TFL.

The skinny

New offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, who was hired to install the Air Raid attack, has a cache of weapons in Daniels and a receiving corps that returns six of the top seven pass catchers.

Helton, who has been on the hot seat since taking over and barely survived a 1-3 start in 2016, won’t be able to weather a slow start. It’s a good chance he could be coaching for his job when USC plays at Washington on Sept. 28. If the Trojans make a change, the Urban Meyers rumor mill will churn nonstop.

7. California

Coach: Justin Wilcox, third year

2018: 7-6 overall, 4-5 Pac-12

Starters returning: 13 (4 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams)

Players to watch

Chase Garbers, QB, 6-2, 205, So. — Simply put, he wasn’t very good during his first year as a starter last season, and his poor play contributed greatly in two losses at the end of the season. In 10 starts, Garbers never threw for more than 234 yards and finished with 1,506 yards, 14 TDs and 10 INTs.

Evan Weaver, LB, 6-3, 245, Sr. — UW fans remember the defensive standout who scored Cal’s only TD on a 37-yard interception return in a 12-10 win last year. The all-conference performer had 159 tackles last season, which is the most for a returning FBS player.

Ashtyn Davis, FS, 6-1, 195, Sr. — Former high-hurdle star had four interceptions, including a pick-6, and five pass breakups last year. Also a standout kick returner who averaged 26.2 yards per attempt and had an 89-yard kickoff return for a TD.

The skinny

It’s difficult to say whether it’s good or bad that Cal’s top three receivers and five of the top six pass catchers are gone from an offense that was the worst passing attack in the Pac-12. Either way, the Bears will need to find somebody to catch the ball, and they have to do a better job of protecting Garbers, who was sacked 26 times. The defense is rock solid, particularly a secondary that returns all four starters. Another seven-win season and a finish in the top half of the Pac-12 North would be a great accomplishment for Wilcox.

 

8. Arizona State

Coach: Herm Edwards, second year

2018: 7-6 overall, 5-4 Pac-12

Starters returning: 14 (7 offense, 6 defense, 1 special teams)

Players to watch

Eno Benjamin, RB, 5-10, 201, Jr. — Spurned the NFL draft and surprisingly returned to school after setting an ASU record with 1,642 rushing yards last year. Durable runner who had 300 carries and averaged 5.5 yards per attempt.

Jayden Daniels, QB, 6-3, 190, Fr. — Edwards wasted little time naming the freshman as the starter ahead of junior Dillon Cole-Sterling. Daniels was the second-ranked dual-threat QBs nationally in the 2019 recruiting class.

Merlin Robertson, LB, 6-3, 248, So. — Won the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year award after collecting 77 tackles and five sacks — both team highs — last year.

The skinny

Edwards bought himself some goodwill among Sun Devils fans with a surprising first year that included a thrilling, 41-40 win over rival Arizona. It’s a great time to start a freshman QB, who’ll likely take some lumps this season that will pay dividends next year. The Sun Devils won four of their final five regular-season games to generate momentum for 2019 and have a favorable schedule that skips Washington and Stanford in cross-division games.

 

9. UCLA

Coach: Chip Kelly, second year

2018: 3-9 overall, 3-6 Pac-12

Starters returning: 18 (8 offense, 9 defense, 1 special teams).

Players to watch

Joshua Kelley, 5-11, 215, Sr. — The UC Davis transfer started slowly before running for six 100-yard games in the final nine games, including a 289-yard performance against USC. He finished with 1,243 yards and 12 TDs while averaging 5.5 yards per carry.

Darnay Holmes, CB, 5-10, 199, Jr. — A three-year starter who has led UCLA in interceptions in the past two seasons with three picks in 2017 and ’18, respectively.

Dorian Thompson-Robinson, QB, 6-1, 196, So. — Last year was mostly forgettable for the heralded dual-threat newcomer who was 2-5 as a starter before a shoulder injury forced him to the bench. He tallied 1,311 passing yards, 7 TDs and 4 INTs.

The skinny

Kelly lost more games in his first season with UCLA than he did during his dominant four-year tenure in Oregon where he was 46-7 and 33-3 against Pac-12 teams. Thompson-Robinson has speedy playmakers at the skill positions, but the Bruins will flounder once again if they don’t fix an offensive line that gave up 32 sacks and 75 tackles for loss last season. Additionally, the defense surrendered at least 30 points in nine games and ranked next to last in the Pac-12 against the run.

10. Arizona

Coach: Kevin Sumlin, second season

2018: 5-7 overall, 4-5 Pac-12

Starters returning: 14 (8 offense, 6 defense)

Players to watch

J.J. Taylor, RB, 5-6, 184, Jr. — Despite being undersized, the elusive speedster was a surprisingly tough workhorse who carried 255 times for 1,434 yards and 6 TDs last year. He averaged 5.5 yards per attempt.

Khalil Tate, QB, 6-2, 215, Sr. — His rushing yards dipped dramatically from 2017 (1,411 yards and 153 carries) to 2018 (224 and 74) during an attempt to make him a pocket passer. Tate threw for more yards (he had 2,530 last year and 1,591 as a freshman), but he became an inconsistent passer who completed 56.3 percent of his attempts.

Colin Schooler, LB, 6-0, 236, Jr. — A potential Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year candidate who tallied 119 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 INTs and 18 tackles for the loss — the fifth-most in UA history — in 2018.

The skinny

Arizona had the Pac-12’s No. 1 rushing attack that averaged 202.4 yards last year, but the Wildcats were just 1-5 in games when they failed to gain 200 yards on the ground. If Sumlin removes the running restraints from Tate and allows him to return to 2017 form, then Arizona potentially becomes a challenger for the Pac-12 South crown. Due to a soft early schedule, Arizona could start 4-1 before hosting Washington on Oct. 12. The Wildcats lost 45-38 to Hawaii in their opener. The Wildcats finish with four of their final six games on the road, including trips to USC, Stanford, Oregon and ASU. Arizona is 3-15 in conference road games the last four years, losing by a cumulative 344 points. During the same span, the Wildcats are 8-16 during the second half of the Pac-12 season.

 

11. Colorado

Coach: Mel Tucker, first season

2018: 5-7 overall, 2-7 Pac-12

Starters returning: 13 (7 offense, 4 defense, 2 special teams)

Players to watch

Steven Montez, QB, 6-5, 230, Sr. — The three-year starter is a physically gifted athlete who has increased his passing percentage every season from 59.3 percent as a freshman to 64.7 percent as junior. He’s thrown for nearly 3,000 yards in each of the past two seasons and has twice as many TDs (37) than INTs (18). During that same period, Montez has been sacked 65 times.

Laviska Shenault, WR, 6-2, 225, Jr. — Arguably the Pac-12’s best pro prospect at receiver who accumulated 1,011 receiving yards and 86 catches in nine games before suffering a foot injury last year. Also scored five times as a runner.

Mustafa Johnson, DT, 6-2, 290, Jr. — After spending a year at Modesto Junior College, Johnson made an immediate impact last year with the Buffaloes while racking up a team-high 7.5 sacks.

The skinny

Colorado made the only coaching change in the Pac-12 and replaced Mike McIntyre after a six-year stint with Tucker. The former Georgia defensive coordinator takes over a team that lost its last seven games in 2018. Tucker, who was a part of national championship teams at Ohio State (2002) and Alabama (2015), will need to change the culture at Colorado, which has been to just one bowl game (2016) in 11 years. Defensively, the Buffaloes will lean heavily on Johnson and junior linebacker Nate Landman, who finished fourth in the Pac-12 with 104 tackles. Offensively, Shenault has big-play potential. Still, he will be only as good as Montez, who has struggled with consistency and is 12-15 as a starter.

 

12. Oregon State

Coach: Jonathan Smith, second year

2018: 2-10 overall, 1-8 Pac-12

Starters returning: 15 (6 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams)

Players to watch

Jemar Jefferson, RB, 5-10, 216, So. — The consensus freshman All-American finished ninth in the nation with 1,380 rushing yards and averaging 5.8 yards per carry. He’ll share the workload with senior Artavis Pierce.

Isaiah Hodgins, WR, 6-4, 203, Jr. — The former four-star recruit has NFL size had a breakout season in 2018 while accumulating 876 receiving yards, 59 receptions and 5 TDs.

Jake Luton, QB, 6-7, 225, Sr. — Granted a sixth year of eligibility after displaying glimpses of potential during two injury-plagued years with the Beavers. He threw for 1,660 passing yards, 10 TDs and 4 INTs in eight games last year while directing a passing attack that surprisingly ranked fifth in the Pac-12.

The skinny

After winning one game in 2017 and two in 2018, notching three victories would be a step in the right direction for a team that hasn’t finished above .500 since 2013. Oregon State, which has lost its opener the past three years, would certainly turn heads if it could capture a win at home against Oklahoma State Aug. 30. Otherwise, the Beavers should be able to collect nonconference victories at Hawaii and against Cal Poly. However, Colorado isn’t on the schedule this year and Oregon State is going to be the heavy underdogs in every conference game. There’s talent at the skill positions, but OSU is lacking on the offensive line, which allowed a nation-high 48 sacks and 99 tackles for loss last season. And the defense, which finished 129th among 130 FBS teams in scoring (45.7 ppg.) and total defense (536.8 yards per game) should be improved while returning the top 10 tacklers.

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