The Pac-12 football season kicks off Thursday, Aug. 30 at 5 p.m. when Utah hosts Weber State and concludes with the Pac-12 Championship game on Friday, Nov. 30 in Santa Clara, Calif.
Here are some quick previews of the teams in the Pac-12.
2017: 7-6, 5-4.
Top returning players: QB Khalil Tate, RB J.J. Taylor; LB Colin Schooler
Outlook: After dismissing Rich Rodriguez in January, Arizona rebounded nicely with former Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, a significant catch for a school known more for its hoops. Helping Sumlin in Year 1: Tate, who’s among the nation’s top playmakers. Last season the explosive quarterback earned his first start Oct. 7 and needed just a few weeks to capture the nation’s attention. This season Tate will make the Wildcats a popular dark horse contender, but their fate likely depends on their defensive improvement. Forced to go young, Arizona last season had to outscore opponents nearly every week. It makes for difficult survival. If the Wildcats mature, they could challenge.
2017: 7-6, 6-3.
Top returning players: QB Manny Wilkins, WR N’Keal Harry, LB Koron Crump.
Outlook: One of five new coaches in the Pac-12, Herm Edwards was the biggest surprise. An ESPN pro football analyst, Edwards had not coached in nearly a decade. He had not coached in college in nearly three. He inherits a seasoned quarterback in Wilkins and among the nation’s top receivers in Harry, but the line – which last season was among the country’s worst in allowing sacks – is a concern. Defensively, coordinator Danny Gonzales brought his 3-3-5 scheme from San Diego State. The Sun Devils have to replace their entire defensive front, but could get a boost from Ohio State transfer Darius Slade. Crump – a second-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2016 – returns after missing all of last season with a knee injury. The secondary – Edwards’ specialty — looks thin.
2017: 5-7, 2-7.
Top returning players: LB Rick Gamboa, DB Evan Worthington, QB Steven Montez.
Outlook: A year after winning the South, Colorado slipped last season, winning five games. With the loss of several key offensive playmakers (including standout running back Phillip Lindsay and the unit’s top three receivers), the Buffaloes face another difficult challenge. Montez should be better in his second season, but it’s unknown if Colorado can protect him. The good news: Seven defensive starters return, including Worthington, who continues a recent run of solid defensive backs. In 2016, no one gave the Buffaloes a chance. That likely will be the case again.
2017: 6-7, 4-5.
Top returning players: TE Caleb Wilson, DL Jaelan Phillips, DL Osa Odighizuwa.
Outlook: UCLA arguably had the best off-season in the country, hiring Chip Kelly to replace Jim Mora. Although Kelly struggled in two NFL stops, his college record sparkles. In four seasons at Oregon, Kelly went 46-7, taking the Ducks to the 2011 BCS National Championship game. Having the offensive wiz back on the sideline is good for the Pac-12. That said, it might take time for Kelly to revive the Bruins. Josh Rosen is gone, leaving a significant hole at quarterback, and it’s not like UCLA can just turn to the run game because last season it finished 116 nationally in rushing. Defensively, the Bruins will switch to a 3-4 alignment, which could cause growing pains. Kelly will find some way to move the ball – he always does – but this reversal might take a year or two.
2017: 11-3, 8-1.
Top returning players: WR Tyler Vaughns, OL Toa Lobendahn, LB Cameron Smith.
Outlook: In most years, preseason predictions in this division default to the Trojans because – let’s be honest – they have the most talent. That may be the case again, even though they open without a proven quarterback. The Trojans have a seasoned line and playmakers in Vaughns and running back Stephen Carr. Defensively, USC last season battled injuries and it showed, particularly against the run. A key development: The return of linebacker Porter Gustin, limited last season for health reasons. Come fall, USC’s biggest storyline will center around who replaces Sam Darnold at quarterback. It’s a legitimate topic, but don’t be fooled. USC again will be in the hunt.
2017: 7-6, 3-6.
Top returning players: LB Chase Hansen, QB Tyler Huntley, RB Zack Moss.
Outlook: Despite their subpar conference record, the Utes last season were the only Pac-12 team to win a bowl game. In this conference, that qualifies as momentum. The big picture: Utah is the only South team never to win the division. That could change this season. The Utes return 18 players with starting experience, including Huntley and Moss, a 1,000-yard rusher last season. Kyle Whittingham is one of the Pac-12’s few defensive-minded coaches, but he has problems to solve, particularly on the defensive line, which normally is a Utah strength. Among the conference’s best safeties last season, Hansen has moved to linebacker. Navigating a difficult conference start — Washington, at Washington State and at Stanford – will be key.
2017: 5-7, 2-7.
Top returning players: RB Patrick Laird, WR Vic Wharton III, OL Patrick Mekari.
Outlook: For his first season in Berkeley, coach Justin Wilcox did better than expected last season. This year could be better. Nearly the entire offense returns, including Laird, a former walk-on who last season rushed for 1,127 yards. Quarterback Ross Bowers has a capable target in Wharton and the line is seasoned. Defensively, California returns seven starters but will have to overcome losses up front. The Golden Bears won’t be ready to challenge Washington and Stanford – that may require a few more years — but earning a bowl invitation isn’t out of the question.
2017: 7-6, 4-5.
Top returning players: QB Justin Herbert, DL Jalen Jelks, LB Troy Dye.
Outlook: For the third time in three seasons, Oregon has a new football coach. Normally, that means a difficult transition, but don’t write off the Ducks just yet. Mario Cristobal has strong pieces, starting with Herbert. If healthy, Herbert could blossom into one of the country’s top quarterbacks. NFL draft analysts already project him as a first-round draft pick so the offense starts with an exclamation point. Defensively, coordinator Jim Leavitt is among the best in the biz and Jelks are Dye among the best at their positions. Perhaps best of all, the schedule is favorable. Five of the Ducks’ first six are in Eugene, including showdowns against division heavyweights Washington and Stanford.
2017: 1-11, 0-9.
Top returning players: QB Jake Luton, DB David Morris, TE Noah Togiai.
Outlook: After winning three conference games the past three years, Oregon State is starting over — again. In November, the Beavers named former QB Jonathan Smith as head coach. At 39, Smith is the youngest head coach in the Pac-12, but with seven starters returning on each side, he’s not in the worst situation. Oregon State spent the spring switching from a spread offense to more of a pro-style attack, which will operate behind an experienced line. Defensively, the Beavers have a rising talent in Morris but not much else. This rebuild will take time.
2017: 9-5, 7-2.
Top returning players: RB Bryce Love, OL Nate Herbig, OL A.T. Hall.
Outlook: Last season’s Heisman Trophy runner-up, Love was nearly unstoppable, rushing for 1,973 yards and 17 touchdowns. His decision to return for his final season was a boost not only for Stanford, but for the entire Pac-12. It gives the conference star power, a reason for the East Coast to stay up for all those late-night kick-offs. But Love is just one piece. Stanford also features a strong line (as usual) and K.J. Costello, an efficient quarterback who makes few mistakes. Biggest concern comes on defense, where the Cardinal last season underwhelmed, finishing 68th in rushing defense. An upgrade could vault Stanford back to the conference championship.
2017: 10-3, 7-2.
Top returning players: RB Myles Gaskin, QB Jake Browning, OT Trey Adams.
Outlook: Since starting 15-12 at Washington, coach Chris Petersen has authored 12-2 and 10-3 seasons. The Huskies made the 2016 playoff and could be in the running again this year as well. Browning is a seasoned quarterback who has played on the sport’s biggest stage. Gaskin has rushed for at least 1,200 yards in each of his three college seasons, and Adams is a projected top 10 NFL draft pick. Defensively, Washington returns nine starters, including standout nose tackle Greg Gaines and a secondary that shapes up as the Pac-12’s best. Opening against Auburn won’t be easy, but don’t be surprised if Washington is in the playoff mix come Thanksgiving.
2017: 9-4, 6-3.
Top returning players: OL Andre Dillard, DL Nnamdi Oguayo, DB Jalen Thompson.
Outlook: Give Mike Leach credit. It’s not easy to win in Pullman, yet he has won nine, eight and nine games the past three seasons. Keeping that momentum going, however, likely will be a challenge. The Cougars have to replace Luke Falk, who threw 119 touchdown passes over his college career. They also suffered major losses on both lines, as well as talented defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who left for Ohio State. That’s a lot to replace, but Leach often has a trick or two up his sleeve, and this season may be no different.
Players to watch
RB Bryce Love, Sr., Stanford. The shifty tailback will open this season as a Heisman Trophy frontrunner. If he duplicates last season’s production, he might have a chance. Despite missing one game because of injury, Love last season rushed for 1,973 yards and 17 touchdowns. He rushed for 100-plus yards in every game but one. Perhaps more impressive: He had 13 rushes of 50-plus yards.
QB Khalil Tate, Jr., Arizona. Last year at this time, few knew of Tate, a second-team quarterback buried on the bench. That changed Oct. 7. Tate started at Colorado and rushed for 327 yards on 14 carries. The rest of the way, he was among the country’s best playmakers, a threat to score nearly every time he darted past the line of scrimmage. With a year of experience, Tate could be better this season.
LT Trey Adams, Sr., Washington. Quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin get all the headlines, but the 6-8, 327-pound Adams might be Washington’s most important player. The nation’s top NFL draft experts already have him penciled in as a first-round pick. Limited last season because of an ACL injury, Adams could play a big role in getting Washington back atop the North.
LB Cameron Smith, Sr., USC. A favorite for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, the physical Smith has led the Trojans in tackles for two consecutive seasons. Last season he was an All-Pac-12 selection and a third-team All-American.
Can’t miss games
Auburn vs. Washington, Sept. 1. The Huskies’ quest to return to the College Football Playoff begins Week 1 in Atlanta. A win here – in the heart of SEC territory — could set the tone for the season.
USC at Utah, Oct. 20. The Utes are the only South team not to win the division. If they’re to pull it off this season, they almost certainly have to defeat preseason favorite USC in Salt Lake City. It’s not far-fetched – Utah has beaten the Trojans the last two times at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Stanford at Washington, Nov. 3. Since the Pac-12 expanded to 12 teams in 2011, Stanford has won the North four times. To reach the Pac-12 championship this season, the Cardinal likely will to take out Washington in Seattle – no easy task.
UCLA at Oregon, Nov. 3. Chip Kelly returns to Autzen Stadium, where he went 33-3 in Pac-12 action before bolting for the NFL. A big question: Do Oregon fans applaud in appreciation or boo in disgust? A bigger question: Will the always-serious Kelly show emotion?