In about two months, college football will kick off. Pac-12 football's great promise of 2017 ended with a resounding thud. The stench of the league's underachieving season was about as subtle as bad breath.
The league went 1-8, including 0-4 against the Big Ten. Thank goodness for Utah (beating West Virginia 30-14), right?
Projecting the Pac-12's rankings for this season's College Football Playoff is futile. Any coach's confidence in his team's future—Alabama head coach Nick Saban is the sole exception here—is just coach speak.
UCLA has an incredibly gifted head coach in Chip Kelly, but if the Bruins could not win with quarterback Josh Rosen, what are their prospects with a new everything?
USC is without the services of quarterback Sam Darnold and running back Ronald "Rojo" Jones (plus some other key weapons). Another concern is its terrifying nonconference schedule.
Oregon has its second coach in two years but will its cupcake schedule ease the growing pain?
Oregon State will also have growing pains under first-year head coach (and former Beaver quarterback) Jonathan Smith but some of his seniors are playing for a fourth head coach. A season opener at Ohio State is just brutal.
Utah has been on the verge of breaking out and taking the South. Is this the year of the Utes?
Arizona and Arizona State are entering new coaching eras. Kevin Sumlin and Herm Edwards are veterans but will they bring the desert heat?
Washington State is... well, Washington State. Wherever the Cougars are projected to finish will probably be the exact opposite of their final standings.
Stanford and Washington are both good bets but you cannot help but wonder if these two teams will help keep the league out of the title game again. (More on that later).
Here are my bold predictions for the Pac-12:
1- USC wins the South but will not have a winning nonconference record
I know, picking USC is not a big stretch but consider this: Darnold will be playing on Sundays and an already suspect secondary lost defensive back Jack Jones to the judicial system. The cornerback reserves did not exactly instill confidence in the Trojans' pass defense game.
USC will not post a winning non-conference record. Playing UNLV, at Texas and Notre Dame is not for the faint of heart. USC's schedule is the second-toughest in the country, according to ESPN's Chris Low.
Still, head coach Clay Helton is starting to get a better feel for this whole coaching thing and he has established chemistry with the players. This team is littered with enough talent to win its division but Washington State will expose the Trojans' secondary and Washington and/or Stanford will do the same in the Pac-12 Championship.
Bonus prediction: JT Daniels will start at quarterback.
2- UCLA goes 1-5 to start the season
The schedule is just awful. When you are starting with a new coach, a presumably new quarterback and presumably new schemes, opening with Cincinnati will trigger some powder blue sphincter reflexes. A date at Oklahoma the following week, despite the Bruins' incredible tendency to overachieve in the early season, will confirm a September epidemic of blue flu.
Fresno State is better than most think— former Cal head coach Jeff Tedford is the Bulldogs' coach and he has already made vast improvements. An ensuing date at Colorado is always a question mark. Hosting Washington the following week puts a nail in this coffin. Cal looks like the only "gimmee" at this point—if you follow Bruin football, then even this could be a victory for the Bears.
3- Oregon will be a big contender in the North
This prediction is not based on anything more than cupcake scheduling and quarterback Justin Herbert eventually injecting himself into the Heisman conversation.
The Ducks play Bowling Green, Portland State, San Jose State and Stanford at home. Stanford is a tough game but the Ducks could go 4-0. They play at Cal the following week. 5-0? Most likely.
The three games that could trip up their quest for a Duck Dynasty are Washington, at Washington State and at Utah. If they win two of those three then Oregon may be the surprise North champion.
4- Oregon State will be winless in the conference
The Beavers are about to get dammed again.
Southern Utah looks like a win, but the rest of their schedule looks like Niagara Falls for coach Smith. Your first test, Coach Smith? Playing the Ohio State Buckeyes at The Shoe.
Row that boat. Or sink.
5- Arizona will upset a big boy
New head coach Kevin Sumlin is an impressive hire but let us not forget that he never got the Texas A&M Aggies into the Big Boys conversation—quarterback Johnny Manziel did. Still, Sumlin should have some fun in the Wild, Wild West, but only if he finds some magic in the offense.
The Wildcats with upset either USC, Utah, Oregon or Washington State (if the Cougs are favored). Does that upset makes his first year a success? Probably not. But it is something to build on when it comes to quarterback recruiting.
6- Arizona State will go fishing, not bowling
Before you go all Sun Devil on me, hear me out. I heart Herm Edwards. But the schedule is absolutely awful.
Opening with UTSA is not a good thing when you play Michigan State the following week. This has T-R-A-P written all over it. So does playing at San Diego State before a date at Washington. A 2-2 record at this point would be incredible but I'm giving SDSU the nod so let's call it 1-3.
The schedule eases up for two weeks. Oregon State and at Colorado follow the Huskies debacle. If the Sun Devils split those games that gives them two wins (three,if they win back-to-back) before this nightmare: Stanford, at USC, Utah, UCLA, at Oregon, at Arizona. Two wins here are a possibility, but couple those with two other earlier wins and you've got a date with a bass fishing boat in December.
7- Mike Leach needs to step up or he will have to step down
I'm a big Leach fan but Washington State has improved enough to where great expectations should be... well, expected. Leach is 38-38 after six years in Pullman—three consecutive winning seasons is cause to celebrate, 1-3 in bowl games is not.
True, the Cougars have suffered bad luck with quarterback injuries. But despite a vastly improved defense, they still remain a season-opener enigma.
The Cougars' 2014 opener against Rutgers was a loss. So was 2015's opener against Portland State. And 2016's Eastern Washington. In 2017 they righted the pirate ship against Montana State but could not rid itself of absolute flakiness. After beating Boise State, USC and Oregon they lost 37-3 to Cal.
8- Stanford's Bryce Love will be in New York in December
The Cardinal's record will be a tale of two months. Five of the first six games are brutal: SDSU, USC, UC Davis, at Oregon, at Notre Dame, Utah. September will not be kind to Stanford. November is a bit kinder, with dates at Cal and UCLA. Stanford also plays Oregon State and at Washington.
Because Stanford quarterbacks K.J. Costello (hip) and Davis Mills (knee) are banged up, per SI.com's Bruce Feldman, Love will be the workhorse, despite dealing with his own ankle injury.
Love should have a lot of touches early on and as the schedule gets easier, his numbers should go up—right around when the Heisman race tightens up. If Love can stay healthy and Stanford survives September somewhat intact, Love will be attending the Heisman ceremony as an invitee.
9- If Washington beats Auburn, then the Huskies will be in the CFP. Maybe.
Yup, that is a big prediction but let's be honest here—nothing impresses pollsters more than a perceived title contender beating an SEC West team. Sure, Utah, Oregon, Stanford and Washington State stand in the way. Losing to one of those teams does not take Washington out of the playoffs. Losing to two does, especially if the Huskies avoid playing USC in the title game.
A two-loss Husky team did not go to the playoffs last season after losing to Arizona State and Stanford. USC missed going despite a two-loss season and winning the Pac-12. Both teams were soundly beat in their bowl games.
Pollsters do not forget.
10- If Stanford goes 5-1 in its first six games, it is a CFP contender. Maybe.
As previously mentioned, if the Cardinal can get through September relatively intact, it will be ranked highly. Having a Heisman contender in Love only adds polish to the package.
The problem for Stanford is that it has inexplicably lost games it should not have in the past few years. Last season it was San Diego State. In 2016 it was the Buffs. In 2015 it was Northwestern. And so it goes.
SEC teams get a hall pass. Pac-12 teams do not.