It’s been dark times for the Pac-12 as the conference continues to suffer from an ongoing identity crisis, poor league leadership, and the failure of standards missed as one of the country’s most fertile athletic regions struggles to establish itself as a dominant football conference.
Let’s go ahead and blame USC for a lot of these problems. The premier program in the west has been embroiled in a seemingly endless amount of university scandals and is coming off their worst season since 2000. Briefly, it seemed as if the Trojans would be turning the page in 2019 but they decided to bring back Todd Helton for his 4th full season after he took over in the middle of 2015.
Team – Overall – League – F/+ Rank
* Division Champion
$ Conference Champion
Washington State, 11-2, 7-2, #24
Washington, 10-4, 7-2, #8 * $
Stanford, 9-4, 6-3, #27
Oregon, 9-4, 5-4, #42
Utah, 9-5, 6-3, #18 *
Arizona State, 7-6, 5-4, #43
California, 7-6, 4-5, #61
USC, 5-7, 4-5, #52
Arizona, 5-7, 4-5, #70
Colorado, 5-7, 2-7, #79
UCLA, 3-9, 3-6, #86
Oregon State, 2-10, 1-8, #122
Washington State had one heck of a fun season setting their school record for most wins. They also didn’t win the conference or even their division while falling all the way to the Alamo Bowl despite finishing with the best record in the Pac-12 by seasons end. It was a massively bitter missed opportunity for greater hardware by Mike Leach.
Each of Washington, Stanford, Oregon, and Utah had good seasons but fell off the playoff radar by mid-season, especially the Huskies who struggled mightily on offense culminating in a 12-10 loss at California.
Mel Tucker – Colorado
Following 2016 Mike MacIntyre had won 10 games at Colorado for the first time since 2001 and was named Walter Camp Coach of the Year. After two more campaigns in which the Buffaloes only mustered 4 wins in league play, MacIntyre was jettisoned for Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. He was an interim head coach for 5 games in the NFL with the Jaguars but this will be Tucker’s first college head coaching position.
Due to all the turnover following 2017–half of the Pac-12 has coaches going into their second seasons this fall–there wasn’t expected to be much change for 2019 beyond the craziness swirling around USC.
Easiest Schedule: Washington
The Huskies opened up last year with a hard fought loss to Auburn and will be taking a much different route for 2019 featuring Eastern Washington, Hawaii, and a road trip to BYU on their non-conference slate. They also get USC, Utah, and both Washington and Oregon in their division as home games.
Toughest Schedule: Stanford
There’s virtually no breathing room for the Cardinal 2019 schedule. They open against Big Ten West champion Northwestern at home, visit USC, then travel all the way to UCF before welcoming Oregon all within their first 4 games. Modern Stanford seems to have a knock for managing this crazy start but that’s a legit 0-4 start if they aren’t careful. From there things are more manageable but Washington, a trip to Pullman, and the season-ending visit from Notre Dame still welcome the rest of the schedule.
Stock Up: Oregon
This is a risky pick because Oregon did win 9 games last year and I’m not sure there’s a ton more room for growth in 2019. They start with Auburn (ESPN Game Day location for week one) and a semi-decent Nevada program which is miles tougher than their schedule last year and they will also travel to Stanford, Washington, and USC. But man, with quarterback Justin Hebert coming back behind a veteran offensive line this Ducks offense should dominate the Pac-12.
Stock Down: Arizona
Let’s hope an injury is really what turned quarterback Khalil Tate from one of the game’s most entertaining runners in 2017 into a complete afterthought for 2018. Either way, it does feel like Arizona is cramming a square peg in a round hole at this position and will have to rebuild their receiving corps in the process. This isn’t great news for a program with a struggling defense and road trips to USC, Stanford, and Oregon, and Arizona State plus they catch Washington out of division, too.
Burning Question: Can a Playoff Contender or Two Emerge?
We’re now in the era where, like the Big Ten, the Pac-12 is suffering mightily for missing the playoffs for a whole 2 years. Washington made it for 2016 and was promptly squeezed to death by Alabama while Oregon made it in the inaugural 2014 playoff, destroyed Florida State, only to be blown out by Ohio State in the title game. More than any other conference, the Pac-12 really needs a couple teams squarely in the mix deep into November and hopefully get one team in the playoffs.
Top League Game: Oregon at Washington
A lot of folks thought this game last year ended the Pac-12’s chances at getting a team in the playoffs. Washington missed a 37-yard field goal as time expired only to lose in overtime in Autzen. That dropped the Huskies to 2 losses and many didn’t believe Oregon (1 loss to this point) would be good enough to win the league–they were right the Ducks lost 3 out of their next 4 games. Both of these programs are favored to win the whole league in 2019 and if it’s not deciding a playoff spot this game will surely decide the North Division.
Worst Team: Oregon State
Once upon a time, the Beavers had some mojo in college football. That is no longer the case as they continue to dwell in the Pac-12 basement. They have 6 straight years of horrible football and it somehow feels a lot longer than that. Even worse, Oregon State is 6-39 within league play since 2014. Of their 14 wins overall since 2014, a full 5 have come against FCS teams. Just dark, dark days right now for the Beavers who get to open with Oklahoma State and then a road trip to Hawaii.
Predicted 2019 Finish
Washington State 7-5
Oregon State 2-10
Arizona State 6-6
Presuming Oregon goes on to win the Pac-12 Championship Game would 11-2 be enough to get into the playoffs? Even if we assume two SEC teams plus Clemson are going to be taking up 3 of the spots there might be a strong case for the Ducks with 2 losses. As the season progresses though, it’ll be difficult to feel like they belong especially if both of those losses come against their top competition and the rest of the league falls apart around them.
What do we say about USC? Their budding quarterback and receiver development should keep them in a lot games. It’s possible the growth here outpaces just about everyone else in the league (save Oregon) and USC wins a lot more games than we think. Otherwise, this program feels on extremely shaky foundation where a couple early losses either bring a swift firing to Helton or a long, drawn-out sad march to the end of the year while fighting for bowl eligibility.
I like the stability at Washington but I’m selling the Jacob Eason hype at quarterback even if their schedule is friendly enough to be in the mix. A lot of places have UCLA being sneaky good–maybe finishing as high as 2nd in the South–and I just don’t see that type of improvement. They should be improved offensively in year two under Chip Kelly (they scored 104 points over their final 3 last year which has people excited but let’s settle down a bit) but haven’t recruited close to well enough (40th in 2019, 19th in 2018) to have a 5 or 6-win improvement.
Utah feels like a safe bet to repeat as South champions with a bunch of starters coming back.