2018 Pac-12 Power Rankings: Washington leads the way, but the North is loaded

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2018 conference previews. With the official start of the 2018 season just days away, we’re doing things a little differently this year. We’re power ranking the teams in each FBS conference. Like our preseason top 25, these rankings will undoubtedly be wrong.

Previously: Group of Five conferences, ACC

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12. Oregon State (2017 finish: 1-11, 6th North)

Following six seasons coaching under Chris Petersen, Jonathan Smith has a massive rebuild ahead of him at his alma mater. Oregon State has just seven wins combined over the past three seasons. There aren’t many reasons to be optimistic about many more in 2018.

After going 1-11 last fall, the Beavers are changing offenses from the spread run under Gary Andersen, who abruptly quit midseason, to a pro-style attack that Smith helped engineer in recent years at Washington. Jake Luton is back from injury to begin the season as OSU’s starting QB for a second year, but the offense’s top performer, RB Ryan Nall, left for the NFL.

Eight starters return on defense, but that might not be great news. OSU was No. 120 nationally in total defense in 2017. Smith might be best served getting plenty of young guys experience as the Beavers take their lumps against a rough schedule.

11. Arizona State (7-6, 2nd South)

Truthfully, it’s tough to know what to expect at Arizona State. Ray Anderson pushed out Todd Graham and hired Herm Edwards as the “CEO” and “central leader” of ASU football that is “similar to an NFL approach using a general manager structure.”

Innovative? Insane? Both? We’ll begin to find out soon.

What we do know is that ASU has two really exciting players on offense: QB Manny Wilkins and WR N’Keal Harry. Wilkins threw for nearly 3,300 yards while Harry, one of the best receivers in the Pac-12, caught 82 balls. Kyle Williams and his 66 catches are back as well. The Sun Devils should have a really solid offensive line, too. But there’s a lot of lost production at running back.

The defense, with new coordinator Danny Gonzales (he ran a 3-3-5 at San Diego State), returns just four starters, three of which are in the secondary. It’s natural to be skeptical about how Edwards’ first season will look, and we’re skeptical it will be improvement over the last year of Todd Graham.

10. UCLA (6-7, 4th South)

Like with Edwards at ASU, Chip Kelly’s return to college football at UCLA seems like a total wild card. It’s illogical to think Kelly will come back to the conference and just run the same stuff he did at Oregon. The fact that he brought in an immobile quarterback like Michigan transfer Wilton Speight shows he will adapt to his personnel much like he did (or tried to) with QBs like Nick Foles and Sam Bradford in the NFL.

The Bruins certainly have talent on offense, though the quarterback competition still seems pretty up in the air as we inch closer to the season-opener. If the offensive line can come together in some fashion, Kelly should be able to put some points on the board by getting the ball to running backs Bolu Olorunfunmi and Soso Jamabo, wideout Theo Howard and tight end Caleb Wilson.

The defense was just miserable in 2017, especially against the run. Seven starters return, so there has to be some improvement, right?

After four seasons in the NFL, Chip Kelly is back in college at UCLA. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
After four seasons in the NFL, Chip Kelly is back in college at UCLA. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

9. Colorado (5-7, 6th South)

Colorado finally broke through with 10 wins and a Pac-12 South title in 2016, but took a considerable step back in 2017 with just two conference wins and no bowl game. The Buffs have a decent shot to get back to a bowl in 2018.

Steven Montez, entering his second year as CU’s starting QB, is one of the best at extending plays in the conference. He needs to be more consistent and more accurate if the Buffs are going to be a surprise contender in the South, especially now that Phillip Lindsay and his 3,770 career rushing yards have moved on. His top three receivers are gone, too. While there’s some uncertainty at receiver, Virginia Tech transfer Travon McMillian should shoulder the load from Lindsay at running back.

On defense, the loss of coordinator Jim Leavitt was an adjustment. Expect the Buffs to be better on that side of the ball in 2018 with the return of six starters.

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8. Washington State (9-4, 3rd North)

It took three years of losing, but Mike Leach got the WSU program turned around to the tune of a 26-13 (19-8 Pac-12) record since 2015. To keep that going in 2018, he’ll have his work cut out for him. Leach’s calling card is always the pass offense, and the tragic death of Tyler Hilinski meant the Cougs had an opening at quarterback. That’s where East Carolina transfer Gardner Minshew comes in. He hasn’t officially been named the starter, but it seems foolish to think there will be too much of a drop off in the passing game, even with the prolific Luke Falk now in the NFL.

The other side of the ball is a little more concerning. DC Alex Grinch was a great hire for Leach, but now he’s on the staff at Ohio State. Ex-Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys is about as good of a replacement WSU fans could have hoped for. Claeys won’t have Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Hercules Mata’afa, but does inherit six starters, plus the return of LB Peyton Pelluer from injury.

The Cougs will likely take somewhat of a step back, but not a big one.

7. California (5-7, 5th North)

Even though it won only five games, Cal was much better than most expected in Justin Wilcox’s first season. The Golden Bears, against a difficult schedule, started 3-0, kept things really close with USC, dominated Washington State (then ranked No. 8) and later lost three other games by seven points combined en route to a 5-7 finish.

And now with 18 starters returning, the Golden Bears have the looks of a bowl team, especially if they can beat North Carolina and BYU early on. The team’s strength will be its offense, which returns 10 starters. Even though Demetris Robertson transferred to Georgia, QB Ross Bowers has weapons. WRs Vic Wharton and Kanawai Noa combined for 123 catches, 1,659 yards and 9 TDs while RB Patrick Laird rushed for 1,170 yards, caught 45 passes and had 9 total TDs.

Cal was notoriously poor defensively under Sonny Dykes. Wilcox is a defensive coach. We project an improved unit that returns eight starters.

6. Arizona (7-6, 3rd South)

Kevin Sumlin inherits a situation where he can win right away with dynamic quarterback in Khalil Tate leading his offense.

Tate went from backup to household name in seemingly an instant last year. He came off the bench against Colorado and set a single-game FBS record for rushing yards by a QB (327). From there, the highlights kept coming — but mostly on the ground. Tate has room to improve as a passer. Sumlin, who developed Johnny Manziel, can help Tate become an all-around QB.

“He’s moving from being an athlete that is a quarterback, to being a quarterback that’s an athlete,” Sumlin said at Pac-12 Media Days.

The offense will be exciting, but the Wildcats won’t contend in the South without an improved defense.

Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate rushed for 1,411 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2017. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate rushed for 1,411 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2017. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

5. Utah (7-6, 5th South)

Could this be the year Utah finally wins its division? The Utes are the only team in the South never to do so. But with the talent back on offense, the Utes could make that leap. Dual-threat Tyler Huntley is back, as is 1,200-yard rusher Zack Moss and a nice crew of receivers, including Britain Covey’s return from a two-year LDS mission.

Utah is usually stout on the defensive line, but that’s actually one of the team’s question marks entering 2018. If that position solidifies like it usually does, the defense could be really good — especially in the secondary. On top of that, the Utes boast the best kicker/punter combination in the country.

So this team is solid in all three phases, but that schedule could prove to be a major roadblock. Utah plays the three best teams out of the North, but two (Washington, Oregon) are at home.

Read our full Utah preview here.

4. USC (11-3, 1st South)

The ceiling of this USC team is ultimately going to come down to the replacement for Sam Darnold. Most seem to think it will be 5-star true freshman J.T. Daniels over redshirt sophomore Matt Fink (Darnold’s backup last year) and redshirt freshman Jack Sears. The hype for Daniels has been emanating since even before Darnold declared for the draft. Will he live up to the hype?

No matter the QB, there’s plenty of talent on offense. If Stephen Carr stays healthy, he can quickly establish himself as an upper echelon back in the league. The Trojans, the defending Pac-12 champs, have recruited well at receiver, too, and four starters return on the line. But the defense might end up being the team’s strength — especially with Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin at linebacker.

If the Trojans can avoid the slow starts they’ve had in recent years, a return trip to the Pac-12 title game should be in order.

Read our full USC preview here.

3. Oregon (7-6, 4th North)

Oregon was a really good team (6-2) with Justin Herbert at quarterback and a not-so-good team (1-4) without him. With Herbert back fully healthy and taking the necessary steps in his development under Mario Cristobal, the Ducks look primed to compete for a Pac-12 North title. Herbert will play behind one of the better lines in the conference, with an array of skill position talent to boot.

The defense has a chance to be excellent, too. Jim Leavitt gets the most out of his talent, and he’s got a lot of it as seven starters return. Troy Dye, a middle linebacker who had 107 tackles and end Jalen Jelks (15.5 TFLs and seven sacks) are two of the standouts. The key will be giving up fewer big plays.

From a schedule perspective, the Ducks get their toughest divisional games — Stanford and Washington — at Autzen Stadium in Eugene.

Read our full Oregon preview here.

Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert attempts a pass against Boise State during the first half of the Las Vegas Bowl NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert attempts a pass against Boise State during the first half of the Las Vegas Bowl NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

2. Stanford (9-5, 1st North)

Bryce Love is back for his senior year. You may have heard of him. Love, in his first year replacing Christian McCaffrey, rushed for 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns and was the Heisman runner-up. Now he’s back on a Cardinal offense that returns eight other starters, including four offensive linemen, two stud receivers and an excellent tight end. That makes for a really good season, right? Well, it should as long as QB K.J. Costello holds up his end of the bargain. He doesn’t have to do anything spectacular, but he can’t hurt his team with mistakes if they want to win the Pac-12.

On the other side, an improved defense needs to start up front. The Cardinal’s biggest flaw was a flimsy front, even with Harrison Phillips wreaking havoc. Now he’s out of the picture, and the position is again a question mark entering 2018. If the line comes together, the defense should be a nasty one.

Read our full Stanford preview here.

1. Washington (10-3, 2nd North)

Washington was a good offensive team last fall, and QB Jake Browning and RB Myles Gaskin, two of the better players at their positions in the conference, return for the senior seasons. But there was one element missing compared to the 2016 team that advanced to the CFP: a downfield threat. That’s the piece of the offense that could ultimately vault the Huskies from simply Pac-12 favorite to a serious national title suitor with the Alabamas and Clemsons of the world.

But from a Pac-12 perspective, UW has been hyped as the best team for good reason. Beyond the talent-rich offense, the defense is completely stacked, too. Greg Gaines should anchor the line while Vita Vea plays on NFL Sundays. At linebacker, leading tackler Ben Burr-Kirven (84 tackles) and disruptive outside backers Tevis Bartlett (12 TFL, 4 sacks) and Ryan Bowman (8.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks) are back in the mix. But above all else, the secondary is the strength of the defense and could be one of the best in the country.

It won’t be easy to emerge from the loaded Pac-12 North, but the Huskies have the firepower to win the conference for the second time in three years.

Read our full Washington preview here.

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