What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and what happens in the Pac-12 is never a sure thing. A lot can happen in three months’ time, but as they stand now, here are the programs and student-athletes seeking to turn the tables at the casinos:
Oregon State climbs out of the basement
Is head coach Jonathan Smith the next Mike Riley? The former Oregon State quarterback, who was mentored by both Riley and Dennis Erickson in Corvallis and was a past graduate assistant under Washington’s Chris Petersen, inherited the true definition of a rebuilding phase at the collegiate level last season. But as a walk-on in black and orange several years ago who not only won a spot on the team but also led the Beavers to an 11-win season in 2000, Smith is the perfect guy to lead the “rebuild.”
A 2-10 showing in 2018 wasn’t exactly the most prestigious start to Smith’s coaching tenure. But it was one more win than the year prior, and it included a memorable, come-from-behind road win against Colorado to deny the Buffaloes bowl eligibility.
Heading into this campaign, the growth of starting tailback Jermar Jefferson will dictate whether Oregon State can officially leapfrog into the thick of the crowded Pac-12 North. Don’t be surprised if Smith’s Beavers give teams a scare late in the year.
UCLA wins more games than USC
Clay Helton is back to lead the Trojans and nurture JT Daniels’ growth as a true sophomore, but his popularity among the USC community is at an all-time low on the heels of a five-win 2018 campaign. Meanwhile, after Chip Kelly looked like the coach’s version of a bust in the early stages of his UCLA debut season, the Bruins discovered a rhythm late in the year that has them dripping with newfound confidence.
With dual-threat quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson as its undisputed vocal leader, UCLA has found a heartbeat as valuable as any for a collegiate roster. And if DTR is the Draymond Green of the 2019 Bruins, then UC Davis transfer-turned-starting tailback Joshua Kelley is their Steph Curry — the silent assassin who lit the California Memorial Stadium turf on fire with three scores on homecoming weekend in Berkeley.
Expect vast changes in performance from both the Trojans and Bruins this year, especially from the latter.
Stanford’s K.J. Costello leads the Cardinal to Pac-12 North title
When it comes to dialogue swirling around the quarterback position in the Pac-12, all arrows and cameras point to Oregon’s golden boy, true senior Justin Herbert, and deservedly so. But if he is to follow in the footsteps of Marcus Mariota’s captivating presence in Eugene just a handful of seasons ago, Herbert’s final collegiate season must match the scrutiny that comes with the spotlight.
Three other programs (Washington, Washington State and Stanford) have rosters good enough to top the heavily favored Ducks in 2019. But the Cardinal in particular possess a veteran’s confidence, even with the departures of major offensive weapons.
That’s because their own man under center, redshirt junior K.J. Costello, is back to give Herbert and Oregon a run for the headlines. Stanford coach David Shaw went away from the Cardinal’s tradition of downhill football last fall, opting for more screens to his receivers outside and jump balls to his tight ends throughout the 2018 campaign.
With Colby Parkinson back to snag Costello’s passes and a defense that returns All-Pac-12 nominees in all three facets of its scheme, Stanford is the program ready to spoil Oregon’s dreams of a College Football Playoff run.
Utah claims the Pac-12 South title — and ultimately becomes conference champion
With all due respect to Petersen, Shaw and Wazzu’s Mike Leach, it’s hard to bet against Utah’s Kyle Whittingham when a football game transforms late into a chess match. In 2018, Whittingham and company suffered blows with the early loss of starting quarterback Tyler Huntley and a late injury to veteran tailback Zack Moss.
The Utes still won the Pac-12 South and were a play or two from stealing the Huskies’ Rose Bowl bid last December. Not only are Huntley and Moss back for their final year of eligibility, but Utah will also retain the rights of several defensive and special teams all-stars.
Such playmakers include seniors Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu up front and one of the best one-two punches in Utah’s safety package: senior Julian Blackmon and junior Javelin Guidry.
It’s tough to mention Utah’s full potential without mentioning Britain Covey, the No. 1 return man the conference has to offer. The north division may sport the best player (Herbert) and coach (Petersen), but it shouldn’t come as a shocker if Utah seizes the Pac-12 throne.
The Pac-12 has a representative at the Heisman Trophy ceremony in December
Herbert, Costello, Huntley and new Washington quarterback Jacob Eason are the only players who have realistic shots at generating any sort of run at college football’s top individual honor. Whichever one has the most wins to his name in early December will ultimately have bragging rights over the rest.