2019 NCAAF Preview: Pac-12 Conference

August 24, 2019
By K. Becks

Will this be the year that the Pac-12 finally steps up introduces itself as the Conference of Champions it claims to be?

It may not be smart to put money on that just yet, but there’s cautious optimism in many camps across the league that 2019 could be a special season. Plenty of big names return for some of the top teams in each division, and the addition of some key transfers for others appear bound to make an impact on title races.

While attrition and cannibalism has prevented the Pac-12 from breaking into the Playoff in two of the last three seasons, it isn’t as if there is a lack of talent throughout the league. But in today’s game, regionalism is almost a sinful word. For a Power 5 conference to feel like it succeeded, it must incite conversation on a national level.

College Football Playoff Contenders

Washington

Some have labeled the 2019 campaign a rebuilding year of sorts for the Huskies, but anyone doing so has forgotten about what Chris Petersen was able to do with true NFL talent at the quarterback position. Not since Kellen Moore was at Boise State has Petersen had someone as talented as Jacob Eason behind center, and although Eason is still battling with sophomore Jake Haener at the time this preview was published, ATC’s take is that the local product from Lake Stevens, Washington will get the nod. In front of whomever is taking snaps are five behemoths on the offensive line (all 300+ pounds), four of which are returning starters.

Washington’s teams under Petersen have always been characterized by strong defensive play, which is where the rebuilding label stems. A lot of new faces will be getting major playing time for the Huskies on that side of the ball, but a projected spark in the offense is likely to happen as a result of Eason’s skillset, taking some pressure off the defense. Chris Petersen is one of the sharpest minds in college football, and if anyone from the conference can break through to the CFP after a well-publicized absence from it two of the past three seasons, it’s his team.

Utah

The trendy pick as a dark horse CFP candidate is the Utes, who captured the Pac-12 South title last season and return a boatload of talent on both sides of the football. In total, 15 starters from last year return to the 2019 squad, including the entire defensive front which ranked fifth in the country at stopping the run. Utah plays an in-your-face brand of football under head coach Kyle Whittingham, a style that has worked surprisingly well amongst the many wide open, free-wheeling offensive approaches that inhabit the conference.

The goal for Utah is simple – expunge the demons of prior seasons in parallel with taking advantage of a favorable schedule. There is no Oregon or Stanford on the slate for the Utes this season. The only conference road game versus a likely Pac-12 title contender is against Washington, a team that Whittingham has lost to four times since 2016. However, the Utes have been close, only once in those four games losing by more than a touchdown. This is a disciplined football team that is strong in all areas – it just needs to take care of some unfinished business to be a real threat for a Playoff bid.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

UCLA

Year 1 of the Chip Kelly era in Los Angeles was marked by terrible defense, injuries to key personnel and a win total that matched the lowest at UCLA in almost 30 years. But there is hope that the Bruins will take a major step towards relevance in 2019. The defense, which allowed over 440 yards per contest last season, returns a lot of pieces that are now a year older and a year wiser. Expect at the very least a moderate improvement on that side of the ball, which will help immensely.

Kelly’s offense, which was wholly innovative when he was at Oregon a decade ago, still features nuances that can be very difficult to stop when executed effectively. If Dorian Thompson-Robinson can stay healthy and takes the next step at quarterback as believed he will, there is enough speed at the skill positions for UCLA to be a very competent squad offensively. That’s usually all Kelly requires to orchestrate a winning program.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player to Watch)

J.J. Taylor, Arizona junior running back

Arizona State’s Eno Benjamin garners a lot of the attention as the best back in the Grand Canyon State, but the title is far from undisputed and J.J. Taylor wants to prove that. The junior amassed over 1,400 rushing yards for the Wildcats last season, serving as a bright spot for an offense that didn’t quite reach its potential in 2018 due to the regression of quarterback Khalil Tate.

Taylor’s speed is his most deadly attribute, and at 5’6” and 185 pounds that is no surprise. But he possesses the ability to run between the tackles as well as catch the ball out of the backfield, a perfect complement to a mobile quarterback like Tate. Taylor is less than 1,700 yards from becoming Arizona’s all-time leading rusher, and he’s on a good track to reach that milestone with ease.

Out-of-Conference Games to Watch

Auburn vs. Oregon [game at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX] (August 31)

A primetime matchup takes place on the first full weekend of the season at Jerry’s World between two top 20 squads that both need a bit of a boost to fully immerse themselves into the Playoff conversation. A win here would do that for both teams, but there are questions on both sides that make this one difficult to predict.

Will Auburn’s offense flourish now that Gus Malzahn has retaken control of the offensive playcalling? And which Justin Herbert will we see in this game – one answering why he’ll likely the top quarterback taken in next year’s NFL Draft, or one that has a sub-50 percent completion percentage and struggles with consistent defensive pressure?

Oklahoma at UCLA (September 14)

What Lincoln Riley has been able to establish at Oklahoma, a program capable of reloading at the quarterback position on a yearly basis despite losing talent to the NFL, is a culture Chip Kelly can aspire to create at UCLA given the similarities in offensive style. The issue for Kelly in this game is that the Bruins aren’t quite there yet.

While the 2019 matchup between these two high profile programs will be played in Los Angeles, the Sooners could repeat its success scoring points against UCLA. Jalen Hurts takes over for Kyler Murray and is no stranger to hostile environments, playing on the biggest stage in college football just two seasons ago.

In-Conference Games to Watch

Oregon at Stanford (September 21)

Oregon’s epic fourth quarter collapse in last year’s edition of this Pac-12 North Division rivalry adds some fuel to the fire for the 2019 battle. While Stanford won’t be ranked inside the Top 10 heading into this year’s game, the Cardinal have still had a lot of recent success against the Ducks, winning five of the last seven games, including the last three.

Unless Stanford improves dramatically in the secondary this season, there’s going to be a push to let Justin Herbert slice and dice the Cardinal en route to a road victory in this one. However, this is a battle between two of the Pac-12’s best quarterbacks, so there is a chance it turns into a track meet.

Utah at Washington (November 2)

Although it won’t be spoken as plainly as this in Utah’s locker room, there’s a sense that if the Utes can beat Washington this season, they’ll finally reach the pinnacle of the Pac-12 mountain. Defense is important to the success of both teams, but while last year’s conference title game between these two programs was low scoring, it was a result of poor offensive play more than great defensive performances.

Expect better play by both offensive squads assuming Tyler Huntley is healthy and Jacob Eason lives up to his potential. This is a chess match on the sidelines as well, with Kyle Whittingham and Chris Petersen receiving the nod from ATC as the two best coaches in the conference.

Conference Predictions

North Division

1. Washington (10-2, [7-2])

2. Oregon (10-2, [7-2])

3. Washington State (8-4, [5-4])

4. Stanford (8-4, [5-4])

5. Cal (5-7, [4-5])

6. Oregon State (2-10, [1-8])

South Division

1. Utah (11-1, [8-1])

2. UCLA (8-4, [6-3])

3. Southern Cal (7-5, [4-5])

4. Arizona (6-6, [3-6])

5. Arizona State (4-8, [2-7])

6. Colorado (4-8, [2-7])

Championship Game: Washington vs. Utah

Winner: Washington

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