Pac-12 North preview: 3-headed race takes center stage

Karen Chow/Senior Staff
Karen Chow/Senior Staff

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In the eight seasons since the Pac-12 was established, all six teams from the South have earned the right to play in the title game at least once, setting a standard of parity. The North, however, has only had three programs represent the division, setting a standard of dominance.

Those three teams — Oregon, Stanford and Washington — once again carry favorable betting odds heading into the 2019 season, while Cal, Oregon State and Washington State are eager to rewrite that script. After all, sports are rarely as easy as 1-2-3, or in this case, 1-2-3-4-5-6. 

As things stand now, a three-team race for glory appears to be in the works again. With less than three weeks left until kickoff weekend, here’s where the division’s heavy hitters line up currently. 

 

1) Oregon (2018: 9-4, 5-4)

Justin Herbert and Sabrina Ionescu, Oregon’s starting quarterback and point guard, respectively, could very well be playing in the NFL and WNBA this year. Instead, two of the most decorated stars in school history decided to return to Eugene for their senior years, ready to take care of unfinished business.

Many folks around the country have pegged Washington, a deeper, more complete program, to repeat as champion in the North and ultimately represent the Pac-12 in the 106th Rose Bowl Game.

But almost everyone will agree that a fourth-year quarterback — and a very, very good one, at that — is a safer bet than a new face to a program, even if that “rookie” is Jacob Eason.

While considered a consensus top draft pick, Herbert still has plenty of room for growth — specifically in accuracy and decision-making. Even if the Ducks and Huskies are a toss-up for the top spot, Oregon is the less likely of the pair to drop out of the top two.

It certainly helps that the Ducks have arguably the top offensive line in the country and two tailbacks in CJ Verdell and Travis Dye, both of whom could start on just about any other team. That alone should plug the hole stemming from the big departure of wideout Dillon Mitchell, Herbert’s top target in 2018.

Oregon’s defense has a few things to say, too. While not the flashiest of the bunch, the Ducks’ linebackers corps is as experienced as they come in the Pac-12, spearheaded by senior Troy Dye, a legitimate candidate for the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.

 

2) Washington (2018: 10-4, 7-2)

Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin rode off into the sunset after one final year in purple, one which culminated in a Rose Bowl bid. While the Huskies may not have overcome Ohio State in last January’s “Granddaddy of Them All,” Washington’s senior group accumulated a healthy sum of accolades during its tenure in Seattle.

So what’s it going to take for the new-look Huskies, in all areas of the field, to make another run at the Rose Bowl?

For starters, there are big shoes to fill for Eason, the former five-star transfer from Georgia, and the running back committee led by junior Salvon Ahmed.

But last season, where Washington excelled most was defensively, where the departures of Ben Burr-Kirven, Greg Gaines, Taylor Rapp and Byron Murphy will hurt Chris Petersen’s squad the most. The Huskies surrendered just 17.4 points per game, leading the Pac-12 last fall, and will need to double up their efforts this time around to come close to that production in 2019. How close they come to outdoing Oregon will test Petersen’s status as one of the nation’s most masterful minds.

 

3) Stanford (2018: 9-4, 6-3) 

Like Washington, Stanford has significantly less firepower heading into the new year. JJ Arcega-Whiteside is a Philadelphia Eagle. Bobby Okereke is an Indianapolis Colt. Kaden Smith is down the street from his alma mater with the San Francisco 49ers.

But no departure is bigger than that of tailback Bryce Love, the former heart and soul of Stanford’s program on and off the field, who’s now in Washington, D.C., as a member of the Redskins.

The two constants who will keep the Cardinal in the mix? Quarterback K.J. Costello and defensive back Paulson Adebo, the mayors of the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, respectively.

Adebo’s place among the nation’s top shutdown cornerbacks cannot be understated, while Costello’s growth under head coach David Shaw’s system has soared since he won the quarterback battle in 2017.

Many analysts have ruled Stanford out as a top contender for the Pac-12 title this season. About half have gone so far as to place Wazzu (see below) above Stanford. Expect Love’s heir to the throne, tailback Cameron Scarlett, to exceed early expectations and complement Costello in the early going, giving Stanford at least a shot to defy preseason rankings. 

 

4) Washington State (2018: 11-2, 7-2) 

From Gardner Minshew’s world-famous ‘stache to College GameDay’s first visit to Pullman to a school-record 11 wins after being pegged by many writers (myself included) to finish well behind several programs in 2018, last season was nothing short of special for Wazzu.

This fall, the Mike Leach School of Quarterbacking will have a new starter under center for the second year in a row. But with three weekends until Wazzu’s season opener, things remain a toss-up regarding who that might be.

As of the team’s first scrimmages, graduate transfer Gage Gubrud is the leading candidate to inherit Minshew’s job. Should Gubrud, who tossed 87 (!) touchdowns over three years at Eastern Washington, win the job, he’ll be starting beside shifty tailback Max Borghi, one of the more underrated backs on the West Coast.

Expect plenty of 45-42 games once again for Washington State. Unfortunately, road contests against Oregon, Utah and Washington may deter the Cougars from making the most noise in the division. 

 

5) California (2018: 7-6, 4-5) 

All right, Cal fans, don’t all come calling for my head just yet. The Bears’ placement in the North’s No. 5 slot is a byproduct of several factors, not just the obvious ones. 

Yes, the defense hasn’t lost any of its edge and tenacity. And yes, the offense has provided small glimpses into a return to past Cal schemes, which routinely eclipsed 35 points on a nightly basis. 

But the program’s well-documented road struggles are likely to play a factor in keeping expectations intact ahead of head coach Justin Wilcox’s third year. A week two matchup at Washington and a nonconference visit at Ole Miss followed by road battles with Oregon, Utah, Stanford and UCLA make for one of the Pac-12’s toughest schedules in recent memory.

Nearly everyone on the offensive side of the ball, from incumbent starting quarterback Chase Garbers to projected starting running back Christopher Brown Jr. — is an unproven player. The exact opposite can be said about Cal’s defense — where 99 percent of roles are all but set in stone.

Add those two up, and you get a program that will keep air-raid offenses under 24 points — but may not scratch 14 on any given day. 

 

6) Oregon State (2018: 2-10, 1-8) 

It may sound cruel to call a two-win season a step in the right direction, but that was just the case in Jonathan Smith’s first year coaching his alma mater.

A stunning, come-from-behind win over Colorado secured that statement, alleviating at least some of the pressure on what could be called the closest thing to a “rebuild” that a collegiate program can face.

If you like explosiveness out of the backfield, Jermar Jefferson is your guy. As a true freshman, Jefferson immediately injected life into the struggling Beavers, compiling 1,380 yards and 12 touchdowns. That alone screams excitement for a program that hasn’t been able to get up and get loud for quite some time.

Quarterback Jake Luton — who spearheaded Oregon State’s win against Colorado — was granted a sixth year of eligibility and is poised to remain locked in as Smith’s starter should he stay healthy.

There simply isn’t enough talent or experience around the orange and black to generate any significant movement toward the top. But don’t be surprised if the Beavers snag an upset late in the year, as teams tend to overlook this matchup, just as the Buffaloes did last fall.

Josh Yuen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020.

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