SportsPac12’s Week 1 Pac-12 Football Power Rankings

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This story was originally published at sportspac12.com. Syndicated with permission.

Every season begins like a freshly unboxed puzzle: The pieces are all there, but there’s no telling how they’re going to fit together. Assembling Week 1 Power Rankings presents a similar challenge.

Some have argued, and with good reason, that rankings (of all kinds) should be deferred until after the first few games. But where’s the fun in that? Knowing that much of our guessing here will prove wrong or inconclusive, we offer this speculative glimpse into the Pac-12 football season.

1. Washington (0-0, 0-0) — Previous Ranking: None

The returning Pac-12 champs may field a substantially different roster this season, but they’re still the team to beat. Washington’s new quarterback, Jacob Eason, is a physically gifted athlete whom many see as an improvement over Jake Browning. But with the departure of top backup signal caller Jake Haener, the Dawgs will need the Georgia transfer to stay healthy. He’ll have plenty of help in the running game from returning junior Salvon Ahmed, one of the fastest players in all of college football. On the offensive line, the Huskies return four starters, including All-Pac-12 center Nick Harris, the group’s anchor. Despite losing many key defensive pieces to the NFL, Washington’s “D” remains elite. Jimmy Lake, arguably the best defensive coordinator in the country, is known for developing talent, and he should be able to find a way to get it done with just two returning starters. U-Dub’s secondary, led by senior safety Myles Bryant, did not allow a pass of more than 40 yards last year. It won’t be easy to keep the Huskies from repeating as Pac-12 champs.

—Nicholas Bartlett, SportsPac12

2. Oregon (0-0, 0-0) — Previous Ranking: None

This is the most hyped Oregon team since the Chip Kelly Era, and perhaps the most talented, top to bottom, in decades. The Ducks are led by senior quarterback Justin Herbert, a Heisman frontrunner and potential No. 1 NFL draft pick. Though he has struggled with injuries throughout his career, he is a force to be reckoned with when healthy. Oregon’s offensive line is one of the best units in the nation, so if Herbert doesn’t hurt you, sophomore running backs C.J. Verdell and Travis Dye likely will. The Ducks have a talented receiving corps as well, though a rash of injuries during fall camp has left it thin. The Duck defense, which ranked 55th in the nation last season, remains a question mark, but head coach Mario Cristobal brought in Andy Avalos to shore it up. Linebacker Troy Dye is the general of the unit, having led the team in tackles the last three years. If the Ducks develop on both sides of the ball as expected, they could win the Pac-12, and perhaps even make the CFB Playoff. 

—Nicholas Bartlett, SportsPac12

3. Utah (0-0, 0-0) — Previous Ranking: None

The Utes are the obvious favorites to win the South this year with quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss returning. The pair present a formidable dual threat on the ground. Both missed the final five games of the season due to injuries; before then, Utah’s offense had scored 40 plus points in four straight games. The duo is likely to thrive all the more under new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who implements a run-first offensive scheme. The Utes perennially field a daunting defense, and this season should be no different. Lineman Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu lead the front line: Anae was the conference leader in sacks last year, and Fotu’s imposing 6-foot-5 and 335-pound frame puts a scare into any offense. Senior Francis Bernard pilots the linebackers in a group that is looking to replace two NFL players in Cody Barton and Chase Hansen. With a break here or there, Utah has all the pieces in place to win the Conference and make a run at the CFB Playoff.

—Nicholas Bartlett, SportsPac12

4. Stanford (0-0, 0-0) — Previous Ranking: None

Stanford has an outside shot to win the Pac-12 this year, but it all depends on how well senior quarterback K.J. Costello performs. If he can replicate the success of his junior campaign, the Cardinal will be hard to beat. Last season, Costello threw for 3,540 yards and 29 touchdowns. But having lost running back Bryce Love, as well as the top three pass catchers and four starting offensive linemen from 2018, it may be difficult for the offense to find a rhythm. New skill players will need to emerge for the Cardinal to be successful. Stanford’s defense took a step back last year, but head coach David Shaw should have the unit on track again. The “D” is led by Junior cornerback Paulson Adebo, one of the top corners in the nation last year, who broke up 20 passes and snagged four interceptions. Sophomore inside linebacker Ricky Miezan will need to be a presence for the Cardinal defense to return to dominance.

—Nicholas Bartlett, SportsPac12

5. USC (0-0, 0-0) — Previous Ranking: None

If the Trojans can improve on offense, they have a chance to compete for the South title. New offensive coordinator Graham Harrell brings an Air Raid scheme that should be extremely difficult to defend. Quarterback JT Daniels is back for his sophomore campaign after showing glimpses of stardom last year. The best example may have been his first-half performance against Notre Dame, in which he completed 26-of-31 passes. Daniels will have an abundance of talented targets to throw to, including Amon-Ra St. Brown, Michael Pittman Jr. and Tyler Vaughns. On defense, USC is led by a solid group up front, most notably, defensive end Christian Rector. The linebacker unit will be fueled by speedy Palaie Gaoteote IV, who needs to emerge as the leader of a group filled with new faces. The secondary is inexperienced and must play well to give the Trojans a chance to contend with Utah.

— Nicholas Bartlett, SportsPac12

6. Washington State (0-0, 0-0) — Previous Ranking: None

WSU is still riding high after recording their most wins in school history last season, and Mike Leach’s Cougars finally have enough depth to plug in talented players anywhere without losing a beat. On the offensive side, the greatest concern for the Cougars is Anthony Gordon’s ability to replace Gardner Minshew at quarterback. Gordon, a redshirt senior who beat out EWU transfer Gage Gubrud for the job, will have a loaded wide receiver corps, along with Max Borghi in the backfield, and four returning offensive linemen. On the defensive side, Washington State must fill in the gaps left in the secondary by the departure of  Jalen Thompson and Hunter Dale. WSU will also need to replace senior veteran leader Payton Pelluer, and keep opposing teams from dominating on the ground. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claey has brought in several junior college transfers to help. With All Pac-12 Honorable Mention selection Jahad Woods to build around, expect Claey to work his magic once again. If so, the Cougs could be in the mix for another run at a North Division title.

—Jace McKinney, SportsPac12

7. Arizona State (0-0, 0-0) — Previous Ranking: None

Arizona State surprised many pundits last year by competing for a South title after falling a game short of divisional champs Utah. This season, the Sun Devils could be an outside favorite to win the division. To do that, they will need reliable play from True freshman Jayden Daniels at quarterback, the clear choice to replace graduating senior Manny Wilkins. The rest of the offense remains loaded and dangerous, even without star wideout N’Keal Harry. Bolstered by outstanding running back Eno Benjamin and an experienced offensive line, Daniels should have plenty of weapons. Defensively, ASU returns eight of eleven starters, making them a solid and cohesive group. The unit is led by two playmaker linebackers in Darien Butler and Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year Merlin Robertson. Kobe Williams was tough to beat down the field last season, and he will pace the Sun Devil secondary. If ASU can find the right combination in the trenches, it might just have one of the best and most consistent defenses in the Conference.

—Nicholas Bartlett, SportsPac12

8. UCLA (0-0, 0-0) — Previous Ranking: None

The Bruins finished Year One of the Chip Kelly Era with their worst record since 1989, going 3-9 overall and 3-6 in Pac-12 play. With a school-record 21 true freshmen on the roster, it was easy to see why. Last season was a rebuilding project, but there were signs of steady progress throughout. This year, the Bruins return 20 starters, 10 each on offense and defense, including athletic dual-threat quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Senior running back Joshua Kelley, who rushed for 1,243 yards in 2018, is one of the best in the Conference, as is wideout Theo Howard, who caught at least one pass in 28-straight games. It remains to be seen if the Bruins can replace All-American Caleb Wilson at tight end, however. UCLA figures to be better on the defensive side of the ball, provided it can generate a consistent pass rush. In any case, the unit should benefit from more familiarity with defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro’s system.

— Andrew Corbett, SportsPac12

9. Cal (0-0, 0-0) — Previous Ranking: None

No one doubts that Cal will once again field one of the nation’s best defenses. Not with eight returning starters, including All-Everything linebacker Evan Weaver spearheading defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter’s scheme. The question is: Will the Bears be able to move the ball consistently on offense? Sophomore quarterback Chase Garbers should benefit from a year of experience, but versatile running back Patrick Laird is gone, as is popular target Kanawai Noa. Several new faces, including JUCO transfer DeShawn Collins, will have to emerge to keep Cal from finishing last in yards and scoring in the Conference as it did last season. With so much defensive prowess, even a little offensive development would go a long way. Offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin will have to do a brilliant job of developing players to make it happen. Realistically, the Bears face too many brutal road games to be a factor in the North without a breakthrough performance by his beleaguered unit.

—Kamron Azemika, SportsPac12

10. Arizona (0-0, 0-1) — Previous Ranking: None

Arizona has enough playmakers on both sides of the ball to beat anyone it plays, but mistakes can negate that talent, as they did against Hawaii on Saturday. Khalil Tate remains the key, and he seems fully recovered from the ankle injury that hampered him last year, rushing for 108 yards against the Warriors. But Tate can’t be expected to carry the team on his own. He’ll need more help from J.J. Taylor, one of the nation’s best running backs, who was held to just 67 yards in Honolulu. While Arizona’s success will depend largely on Tate staying healthy, the defense must do its part as well. The unit returns several key starters, including scrappy AP All-Pac-12 junior linebacker Colin Schooler. The Wildcats struggled to rush the passer in Week 0, and the secondary gave up too many uncontested passes. While Arizona isn’t likely to compete with Utah and USC in the South, it has the potential to influence the outcome of the Conference race with better execution.

—Dane Miller, SportsPac12

11. Colorado (0-0, 0-0) — Previous Ranking: None

After finishing last season on a seven-game losing streak and firing former coach Mike Macintyre, the Buffs are looking to instill a new culture. New coach Mel Tucker has ample returning talent from which to rebuild, but with a difficult schedule and a lack of depth on the defensive side of the ball, it may be difficult for his first team to become bowl eligible. On the bright side, the Buffs will have one of the best players on the field in every game with stellar wideout Laviska Shenault Jr. avoiding tacklers on routes and out of the backfield. Pac-12 honorable mention defensive players Mustafa Johnson and Nate Landman are exceptional impact performers as well. Colorado’s identity this year is difficult to fathom, but it’s safe to assume the Buffs will finish in the lower half of the South Division.

—Ian McCollam, SportsPac12

12. Oregon State (0-0, 0-0) — Previous Ranking: None

Oregon State continues to fight through tough times, and Beaver fans hope this is the year their fortune begins to change. Barring a shocking turnaround, OSU will not be a bowl contender this season, but it could be vastly improved. Sixth-year senior quarterback Jake Luton will run the offense, and he has played well when healthy. In 2018, he threw ten touchdowns to go with four interceptions, leading an unlikely comeback victory on the road against Colorado. Jermar Jefferson, one of the premiere running backs in the Conference, ran for over 1,000 yards and ten touchdowns last year, giving the Beavers offensive firepower. On the defensive side, OSU must do better than the 45.7 points and 536. 8 yards it gave up per game. Safety Jalen Moore, who led the unit last season with 102 tackles, is an intimidator across the middle. He will need to inspire the rest of the group for OSU to make enough stops to keep the Beavs in games.

—Nicholas Bartlett, SportsPac12

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