Big dawg Washington to lackluster Oregon State: Detailing Pac-12 North football’s strengths, weaknesses

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Lianne Frick/File

Let’s not kid ourselves — the Pac-12 wet the bed in 2017. For those who remember vividly, the “conference of champions” was the runt of the litter for three straight months last season, failing to produce a top-10 team by year’s end, let alone a legitimate contender for the annual College Football Playoff. Collectively, the conference predominantly known for fast-paced, high-scoring, late-into-the-night contests laid down an unsightly 1-8 record in bowl games.

But with 2017 in the rearview mirror, and the return of multiple stars who have fully embraced #Pac12AfterDark’s air-raid culture, 2018 does bring some promise. Last season may not have seen any particular program stand out from the rest, but the arc of elite playmakers coupled with aggressive coaching does bend toward good competition.

Big names such as Stanford’s Bryce Love, Washington’s Jake Browning and Arizona’s Khalil Tate are back in action and each gunning for a spot in the Heisman Trophy discussion. Perhaps most importantly, however, both Love and Browning return to programs with CFP aspirations, while Tate’s Arizona squad will attempt to edge the likes of USC, Utah and UCLA in the Pac-12 South.

With just about one month left before everyone’s favorite weekend of the year, here’s how many perceive the Pac-12 North lining up by season’s end:

1) Washington (2017: 10-3, 7-2)

It should surprise close to no one that the consensus top dogs (dawgs?) in the Pac-12 North are Chris Petersen’s Huskies, although they draw the task of facing SEC powerhouse Auburn during week one in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. The prolific senior duo of tailback Myles Gaskin and quarterback Jake Browning is back for its final go-round in purple, as the pair of undersized but capable program record holders are on schedule to declare for the NFL draft next spring. Gaskin is just 52 yards shy of eclipsing Napoleon Kaufman’s school record 4,106 career yards and is set to smash that mark, barring an early injury.

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A pair of letdowns under the bright lights throughout last season tripped Washington into a second-place finish in the north division, a far cry from early-season yearnings. But even with the departures of do-it-all playmaker Dante Pettis and defensive force Vita Vea, the dawgs are the safest pick to take home the Pac-12 North and the outright conference title. They have arguably the most consistent arm, with Browning leading the charge on offense, and arguably the top corner in redshirt sophomore Byron Murphy lurking on the other side.

A win against Auburn would be an early, first-rate warning to Pac-12 skeptics everywhere, but a loss wouldn’t drop Washington too far back either. The winning culture has been intact for the past couple of seasons; now it’s time for the Huskies to stand tall and deliver.

2) Stanford (2017: 9-5, 7-2)

If there’s one team that defies West Coast offense more than any other, it’s the Bryce Love-powered Stanford Cardinal. A bum ankle limited the human biology major and aspiring pediatrician down the stretch of his Heisman-worthy campaign, but “Dr.” Love still blew away defenses with 19 house calls and an eye-popping 8.1 yards per carry. The rising senior’s three scores and 178 yards from scrimmage put a dent in Washington’s Pac-12 title hopes during their head-to-head last season, and Stanford’s success was, for better or worse, leaning on his health.

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Unlike the Oregons and UCLAs of the Pac-12, Stanford prides itself on ball control. Combined with an experienced defense headed by fifth-year linebacker Joey Alfieri, the Cardinal will arguably be the most frustrating team to grind out a game against — Cal fans know all too well. It’s safe to say that even without the likes of Harrison Phillips and Justin Reid manning their spots in David Shaw’s defensive scheme, it’s difficult to anticipate Stanford struggling mightily to defend its Pac-12 North title.

With junior quarterback K.J. Costello firmly entrenched as the starter after a year in limbo, and two of his favorite targets in Trenton Irwin and JJ Arcega-Whiteside around for their senior seasons, Stanford could very well be the favorite just two weekends in.

3) Oregon (2017: 7-6, 4-5)

The Ducks certainly looked better on paper last season than their 7-6, 4-5 record would indicate. With Willie Taggart gone after his one season at the helm, offensive maestro Mario Cristobal inherits a Royce Freeman-less team that is more dependent on incumbent junior quarterback Justin Herbert than ever.

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The native of Eugene is dripping with talent and poised to keep Oregon as an above-average program against this year’s Pac-12 competition, but like Love, his future prospects are clouded by an injury-ridden past. Herbert missed five consecutive contests in the thick of last year’s schedule, as the Ducks won just one of those games. For now, his career 34:9 touchdown-interception ratio sparkles with his NFL first-round ambitions, but perhaps more is in store for his third collegiate season.

While senior Tony Brooks-James will seek to fill the gap left by Freeman behind Herbert, the Oregon defense still has plenty of holes to plug and questions to answer after struggling against high-flying offenses last fall. During a three-game skid against Washington State, Stanford and UCLA, the Herbert-less offense wasn’t churning out its normal output, and the Ducks’ defense surrendered nearly 38 points apiece in contests that should have been competitive — but weren’t.

4) California (2017: 5-7, 2-7)

The Bears should slide in around the middle of the pack this season — at least that’s how things appear heading into August. It’s difficult to tell when the blue and gold will finally have a breakthrough season after years of mediocrity, but the Bears’ place in the north division caps their ceiling pretty firmly.

“I really want to be a part of a team that wins a postseason game,” said redshirt senior tailback Patrick Laird. “But I don’t think we’re settling for a bowl game. I think our idea is that we want to win the Pac-12 North, go to the Pac-12 championship game.”

Despite a handful of hiccups in big games, redshirt junior quarterback Ross Bowers is the second-leading Pac-12 passer returning from last season with 3,039 yards, accentuated of course by the notable departures of Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Luke Falk.

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The return to a balanced offensive attack under then-rookie head coach Justin Wilcox took flight last season — quite literally — and is in good hands once again, with Laird in prime position to build off his career year in 2017. While the late transfer of receiver Demetris Robertson will limit Cal’s big-play opportunities, a much-improved defense guided by veteran pass rushers redshirt senior Jordan Kunaszyk and senior Alex Funches should keep opposing offenses at bay, especially in the early going.

“We’re really excited about the shift in mindset on our team, Laird said. “I feel like we have this ‘just winning’ mentality; I think it’s going to translate into a winning culture this season.”

Don’t be surprised if the Bears rattle off early wins and generate discussion with a favorable home schedule. Similarly, don’t be surprised when the going gets tougher in the second half of the year, when Washington, USC and Stanford loom large down the stretch. All in all, a bowl game is within reach and should be considered a huge step in the right direction for Wilcox’s developing program.

“The expectation is that we are going to be able to go to a bowl this year,” Laird said. “I think we’re really confident we’ll be able to do that.”

5) Washington State (2017: 9-4, 6-3)

It’s difficult to find a place to begin when previewing this Washington State team, one that everyone ought to root for at least partially after what the Cougars have already endured this offseason. With Luke Falk shipped to the NFL, Tyler Hilinski was in position to take over the starting quarterback job, but his tragic death by suicide in January reminded communities everywhere that football is just a game.

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The Cougars’ past 12 months can really be summarized by “what if?” What if Falk’s shot-in-the-dark Heisman campaign hadn’t taken a turn for the worse against Cal’s defense on Oct. 13, during a game that saw the nation’s then-No. 8 squad tumble from CFP contenders to being called out publicly by their own head coach, the great Mike Leach. What if the Cougars’ defense hadn’t crumbled to the tune of four losses by 21 or more points in the second half of the year, capped off by Michigan State’s pounding of Washington State in the Holiday Bowl?

After Hilinski’s passing, the focus shifts to “what now?” Washington State peaked midway through the 2017 season, captivating the college football world with a storming-the-field-worthy win over USC on national television. But the team has moved into a transition stretch without some of its bigger names, such as consensus All-American defensive end Hercules Mata’afa. Some things are clear — redshirt junior James Williams is the clear-cut featured back, while senior receiver-punter maestro Kyle Sweet leads a young but talented receivers corps. Yet it remains to be seen how tragedy will affect a program that was already expected to take a step back this season in the first place.

6) Oregon State (2017: 1-11, 0-9)

It’s safe to say that the Mike Riley days are long gone in Corvallis. Former quarterback and OSU alumnus Jonathan Smith got the call late last fall for his first head coaching position after spending the past few years mentoring Browning and Gaskin up north under Petersen’s regime. He’ll be tasked with righting a ship that hasn’t had smooth sailing for quite some time, along with redshirt senior quarterback Jake Luton, who is fully recovered from a scary spine injury sustained partway through 2017.

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There isn’t a ton of promise for either Smith or Luton early on, as a date in Columbus against Ohio State during week one awaits them Sept. 1, weeks before the teeth of the conference schedule arrives. Former workhorse Ryan Nall is no longer a designated fallback option for an offense that took steps in the right direction near the end of last season, but still stands out as the weakest link on a coast abundant with prolific talent.

As for the defense? Keeping teams within four or five touchdowns will be a plus against marquee programs such as the Buckeyes, and a single conference win against anybody would already be an improvement from last year’s disaster. The trip back to relevance isn’t a one- or two-year process for the men in orange and black, and baby steps will have to do for now.

Josh Yuen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020
Christie Aguilar is the sports editor. Contact her at [email protected].