by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

We continue our TGS previews for the 2019 College Football season with a look at the North half of the Pac-12.  As usual, teams are listed in their predicted order of finish, with 2018 straight-up, spread, and over/under records included. 

Washington (SUR 10-4; PSR 5-9; O/U 3-11)...HC Chris Petersen has entrenched himself as one of the best hires in the Pac-12 in decades, overcoming a bit of a slow start in Seattle by going 32-9 in the past three seasons. As it turned out, Steve Sarkisian did the Husky faithful a service by bailing on his contract and jumping to Southern Cal in 2014. Petersen has been a perfect fit for Washington.

Most of the pundits are concerned about Washington’s defense this season. That unit returns only two starters, but we’re willing to look past that lack of starting experience. “Evil genius” Pete Kwiatkowski has done a tremendously efficient, consistent job in his nine seasons coordinating defenses under Petersen at Boise State and Washington. Petersen and Kwiatkowski also made a shrewd move in naming Jimmy Lake as the lead coordinator on “D” prior to last season, retaining his services and keeping him from jumping to another team in the conference, with Kwiatkowski taking the co-coordinator title.

The Huskies have yielded just 17.3 ppg over the past four seasons, and in 2015 the defense returned just four starters yet reduced their allowances from 24.8 ppg and 411 ypg in his first year on the job to 18.8 and 352 in his second despite the outflow of regulars. While it’s true the team loses six of its top seven tacklers, seven players return who had at least 28 tackles, and the Huskies have nine four-star defenders coming in on the defensive side this year, some of whom were in spring practices.

The offense was a disappointment last season, as the team scored 10 ppg fewer than in 2017, generating just 26.4 ppg. The losses of vet QB Jake Browning and star RB Myles Gaskin would normally be a problem, but close observers feel the offense will likely improve over last season. Replacing Browning is jr. Georgia transfer Jacob Eason, who made 13 starts and threw for 2458 yds. with a 16-8 TD-int. ratio with the Bulldogs. Last year Browning had a 16-10 ratio, and although his 3192 YP was impressive, he was held to fewer than 200 YP five times and didn’t throw a TD pass in his last three games of 2018. Gaskin had a lot of wear and tear on his body, carrying 945 times for 5323 yds. and scoring 62 TDs in his Husky career, and last year he fell to 4.9 ypc, a career low. His spot will be assumed by jr. Salvon Ahmed, who has shown he belongs on this level by rushing for 996 yds. with a 6.0 ypc mark and 10 TDs while catching 34 passes for another 247 yds. in the last two years playing behind Gaskin. Expect Ahmed’s fresh and lively legs and Eason’s bigtime talent (named the Gatorade National Player of the Year and the USA Today all-USA Offensive player of the Year as a prep) to raise the offense back to the levels of 2013-2017, when the Huskies scored 35.3 ppg over the five-year span. With four offensive line starters returning including former A-A LT Trey Adams and all-Pac-12 C Nick Harris and the top three receivers back, we anticipate more production for 2nd-year o.c. Bush Hamdan.

Petersen’s Huskies have been a great SU team over the past three seasons, but they were just 5-9 against the number in 2018, covering just one of six home victories and were only 2-8 as chalk a year ago. Washington is 19-1 SU at home the last three seasons, and they host key Pac-12 North rivals Oregon and Washington State this season, so have to favor Petersen’s crew to repeat.

Oregon (SUR 9-4; PSR 4-8-1; O/U 5-7-1)...HC Mario Cristobal enters his second season in charge at Eugene holding a loaded gun on offense that’s pointed at his Pac-12 rivals. Sr. QB Justin Herbert, potentially the first pick in the draft next spring, heads a star studded cast of characters returning on the attack. Herbert threw for 3151 yds. and owned a 29-8 TD-int. ratio last season, bringing him to 63 TD passes vs. 17 interceptions in his first three years on the job with the Ducks. A total of 10 offensive starters return for Oregon, including the entire OL led by A-A RT Calvin Throckmorton, ex-Alabama G Dallas Warmack and 2nd-team all-conference G Shane Lemieux. That group allowed only 22 sacks, a low figure at the school over the past five years. Returning RBs C.J. Verdell and Travis Dye combined for 1757 yds., 14 TDs and 5.1 ypc last season. The only negative on this side of the ball is the loss of WR Dillon Mitchell, who left early for the NFL after catching 75 passes in 2018 and ended up being drafted in the 7th round (239th overall) by Minnesota. The pros didn’t think all that highly of Mitchell, and the Ducks have their next five pass-catchers of 2018 returning, while adding grad transfer WR Juwan Johnson from Penn State, and adding potentially high-impact true frosh wideouts, so not to worry.

Oregon’s defense returns seven starters, but lost a pair of stars in S Ugo Amadi (Seattle No. 132 overall) and LB Justin Hollins (Denver Broncos at No. 156). The leader on defense will be sr. LB Troy Dye, who has 313 tackles over the past three seasons and was named first-team all-Pac-12 last year. Still, there could be as many as three true frosh in the starting lineup on defense when the Ducks take the field in Arlington against Auburn Aug. 31. The defense ranked 48th in points allowed (25.4) and 55th in total defense, so it’s just above average and must replace some NFL talent. Eventually the defense will solidify, but it yielded 242 ypg passing last season, ranking just 82nd in that department and the Pac-12 has some high-quality QBs.

In the offseason, the Duck coaching staff went to observe spring practices at Georgia and Alabama. Cristobal wants to bring smashmouth, SEC-style football to the Pac-12. That’s the way conference members Utah, Stanford and Washington have had some recent success. That’s all well and good, but it wasn’t that long ago that the Ducks were on top, and everyone in the conference was chasing their style. Oregon won double-digit games and finished first or 2nd in the conference every year from 2008 to 2014, when they lost in the CFP Championship to Ohio State. Those teams were different, they had more pure speed and most of them had better defenses (and they were probably cheating more?). Cristobal has made a few steps in the right direction, but the Ducks are just 5-13 SU in the last three seasons playing away from Autzen Stadium. This year it’s not out of the question that they go 1-4 or 0-5 when not at home, as they have Auburn down at the “Jerry Dome” and then must face conference challengers Stanford, Washington, USC and an improved Arizona State on the road. That’s a lot of hurdles.

Washington State (SUR 11-2; PSR 9-4; O/U 7-6)...Much like Blackbeard pillaging the Caribbean a few centuries back, WSU pirate HC Mike Leach has shanghaied another valuable property this season, steering Eastern Washington graduate transfer QB Gage Gubrud to Pullman. Gubrud joins seven Cougar offensive regulars after throwing for 9984 yds. and 88 TDs for the Eagles, and his presence will go a long way toward the attack replacing graduated Gardner Minshew, who was himself a graduate transfer (from East Carolina). It appears the attack will have similar luck replacing RB James Williams, who is with the Kansas City Chiefs after catching an eye-popping 202 passes for 1437 yds. and 8 TDs, while rushing for 1539 yds. and 19 scores in the last three seasons. Replacement soph Max Borghi looked sharp in gaining 366 yds. (5.1 ypc), catching 53 passes and scoring 12 TDs from scrimmage in 2018. With four offensive line starters returning along with the top three WRs (combined for 182 catches and 21 TDs), WSU should have a typical season on offense, and the attack has averaged 33.4 ppg over the last six seasons, so that’s not too bad. This unit might not lead the nation in passing again, but they’ll likely equal the 381 ypg passing mark they’ve averaged in the first seven seasons under Leach.

The surprise for Cougar fans last season was an improved defense. The Wazzou “D” held foes to just 23.3 ppg, the fewest allowed for a Cougar side since 2006. Eight of the top 12 tacklers return and West Virginia transfer NT Lamonte McDougle and highly praised juco S Bryce Beekman come online to fill two of the holes. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys loves “extremely explosive” jr. DT Will Rodgers (4 sacks LY), and rush backer Willie Taylor came on at the second half of 2018 (also 4 sacks). LB Jahad Woods (82 Ts) garnered honorable mention on the all-conference team a year ago and helped the Cougar defense improve from 58th to 42nd in the country in points allowed. The loss of sr. S Jalen Thompson (ruled ineligible; selected by the Cardinals in the 5th round of the supplemental draft) was an unexpected blow, but jr. nickel Skyler Thomas (just 5-9, 185) had 76 tackles LY and could slide in at safety or RS soph Chad Davis, a former juco whois a better physical fit at 6-2, 200, can play

Leach took over a program that was 9-40 SU under his predecessor, Paul Wulff, rescuing the Cougs to the point that heading into last year’s regular-season finale against Washington WSU was ranked 7th in the country at 11-1 and in the discussion for the CFB Playoff. The schedule isn’t too bad, with a couple of well-placed byes at the beginning of October and November, so a return to a fifth straight bowl game seems likely. Leach is 25-11 against the points the last four years facing Pac-12 competition and 9-3 as a road dog against all comers in that span.

Stanford (SUR 9-4; PSR 7-5-1; O/U 7-6)...Stanford HC David Shaw has elicited fairly consistent results in his eight years at Stanford. His teams have played excellent defense, made it to bowl games and averaged more than 10 wins per season since he took over for Jim Harbaugh in 2011. The offense has usually had a rock ‘em, sock ‘em line and generally solid QBing. There has been some erosion in the last two seasons, however. The Cardinal suffered nine SU losses in 2017 and 2018 after previously averaging 2.8 losses per season in the previous six years. The defense has given up 405 and 410 ypg the last two seasons, the only two seasons Shaw’s defenses haven’t held foes below 400 ypg, and the points allowed (22.7 in 2017 and 22.9 in 2018) are also the highest figures in his tenure. The stop unit might continue to struggle with only five starters returning for a group that must replace eight of its top 13 tacklers, including the top two.

On offense, only four starters return, and last season the smashmouth running game that had served the Cardinal so well over the past several years deserted them. The formerly imperious running game, after averaging more than 5.0 ypc over the previous seven seasons, gained just 3.7 ypc and 108 ypg after exceeding 200 ypg on the ground five times in that span. Some of the pieces returning offensively are valuable, however. QB K.J. Costello was 2nd-team all-Pac-12 after throwing for 3940 yds. and 29 TDs while completing 65% of his throws. LT Walker Little was named first team all-Pac-12, but there will be three new starters up front on an offense that must replace RB Bryce Love (3865 YR, 32 TDs career), WR J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (top receiver in 2018 with 63 catches, 1059 yds. and 14 TDs) and TE Kaden Smith (47 recs. LY, 2nd-team all-conference).

Costello will lean on TE Colby Parkinson, who caught 27 passes and was second on the team with 7 TD catches. Second-year WRs Simi Fehoko and Osiris St. Brown were highly-rated preps, and sr. RB Cameron Scarlett has rushed for 836 career yards and had 8 rushing TDs in 2018, so the offense won’t fall off the table.

In total, five Stanford players were drafted into the pros and a dozen are on NFL rosters in training camp. With just nine starters returning, there will be a learning curve with an anticipated infusion of 9-11 second-year players into the starting lineup. The schedule is difficult, with Notre Dame, Northwestern and UCF on the non-conference slate. Stanford has generally been a go-with pointspread team, as the Cardinal haven’t had a losing spread mark since 2007. Shaw is also 10-5 SU in his last 15 matchups with ranked teams, including a 5-3 mark against top ten units. Stanford, once a consistent “bully” on the road has cooled to 13-11 as a road favorite in the last six seasons.

California (SUR 7-6; PSR 6-7; O/U 3-10)...Cal HC Justin Wilcox enters his third season in Berkeley with definite progress to show. The Bears finished 2018 with a winning record for just the 2nd time in seven years and collected upsets at BYU and Southern Cal as well as at home against then 15th-ranked Washington (the team’s first win over a top-15 team since 2009.

The Cal defense, which ranked third in the conference last season, should once again be formidable, with eight of the top 10 tacklers (seven starters) returning, including all-Pac-12 LB Evan Weaver, who had 159 stops in 2018 and is the second-leading returning tackler in the country. The Bears allowed only 20.4 ppg, ranking 22nd in scoring defense, and the fewest a Bear team has allowed since 2008. Jr. CB Camryn Bynum (48 Ts, 10 passes broken up) is being touted by NFL scouts as a future pro. Only two players in the country had more interceptions than the six that sr. S Jaylinn Hawkins grabbed a year ago (BC’s Hamp Cheevers and youngster Andre Cisco of Syracuse). The Bears collected more sacks (31) than they had since 2011, helping them rank 9th in passing yards allowed and 11th in pass efficiency defense. Returnees Hawkins, sr. S Ashtyn Davis and nickel Traveon Beck combined for 13 interceptions, and form one of the toughest secondary groups in the Pac-12.

The offense isn’t in such rosy shape, with just four returning starters from a team that scored only 21.5 ppg, an 18-year low at the school. There is some hope, however, as three jr. offensive linemen return, with both new regulars having starting experience. Jr. C Michael Saffell, who moved over from G in the offseason after recovering from a midseason injury LY, is on the Rimington watch list. This unit simply must improve its pass protection, as Bear QBs have been sacked 71 times over the past two seasons.

Of course, the most important offensive piece is soph QB Chase Garbers, who threw for 1506 yds. and 14 TDs while rushing for 420 more in his freshman year. Garbers will improve his numbers, and the presence of once highly-touted UCLA transfer Devon Modster waiting in the wings, you can bet the QB production will improve. Jr. Brandon McIlwain, who ran for 403 yds. and threw for 763 yds. as a QB last year moved to WR in spring and appeared to nail down one of the receiving jobs in what will be a very young crew. Sr. Jordan Duncan had 20 catches LY for 267 yds. with 4 TDs (with zero drops), jr. Jeremiah Hawkins grabbed 16 and soph Nikko Remigio 11, so there is at least a bit of holdover talent. Hawkins made strides in spring, flashing his speed, as did RS frosh Monroe Young and true frosh Makai Polk. RS frosh TE McCallan Castles (6-5) makes a big target and should attract a lot of attention, and coaches feel he’s a real impact player. Soph Taariq Johnson and Michigan transfer Kekoa Crawford (4.45/40 as a prep; 21 recs. in 2Ys in Ann Arbor) will fight over another of those slots, and coaches are anticipating 6-4 juco Trevon Clark becoming a prime target. With the graduation of Patrick Laird, soph RB Christopher Brown will have to step up his production or move aside for Marcel Dancy, who was breaking tackles in what was the best spring performance by a Bear RB. Juco DeShawn Collins was slowed by injuries in spring but appeared faster than advertised.

Wilcox has the Bears back on track. This season there will be heavy reliance on second-year players...in short, his recruits will be on the firing line. The 2ndary and MLB Weaver make the defense look capable to duplicating last season’s top 15 numbers. The pendulum should swing in favor of Bear Backers this season with a solid offensive line and improved QB situation. Getting to a 6-6 regular season will be a challenge, but doable.

Oregon State (SUR 2-10; PSR 4-8; O/U 8-3-1)...Oregon State HC Jonathan Smith inherited a team that was 9-36 SU in its last 45 games when he took the job. Last season’s 2-10 finish was a step sideways, and the fact remains the Beavers are just 21-39 against the umber since 2014, a solid go-against proposition from our viewpoint.

The defense was historically bad last season, as the Beavers returned seven starters and ranked 128th in total defense (537 ypg), points allowed (45.7) and rushing “D” (282 ypg; 6.8 ypc). After giving up 43 ppg and 473 ypg in 2017 when they returned eight starters, why would one believe just because they have nine starters returning the defense will improve. Granted there’s not much room in the rankings to go down (what, to 129th or 130th?), and 11 of the top 12 tacklers from last season return, but this unit isn’t suddenly going to revert to the level of Mike Riley’s 2012 edition (20.6 ppg) or Dennis Erickson’s 11-1 bunch from 2000 (17.7). Smith has recruited DE Addison Gumbs away from Oklahoma and LB Avery Roberts from Nebraska, and he’s recruited a handful of jucos that might contribute on the defensive side, but even if he can cut 100 ypg and 10 ppg from last year’s allowances, it might still be the worst defense in the Pac-12.

The offense was improved last season, scoring 26 ppg and generating more than 400 ypg for the first time since 2013. Sr. QB Jake Luton was reduced to just five starts due to injuries, but he threw for 1660 yds. on 62.5% completions with a 10-4 TD-int. ratio on the season. The injury-prone Luton will be backed by Tristan Gebbia, a former four-star prep who transferred from Nebraska and sat out last season after the writing was on the wall in Lincoln when Adrian Martinez got the starting job. Eight of the top nine pass-catchers return, along with star RB Jermar Jefferson, who was the conference frosh offensive player of the year in 2018 after rushing for 1380 yds. (5.8 ypc) and scoring 12 TDs. Have to mention another talented RB, sr. Artavis Pierce, who made six starts and gained 1254 yds. the past two seasons. WR Isaiah Hodgins is a big target (6-4) who pulled down 59 balls and was named honorable mention all-Pac-12. The OL will have three new starters, and OL coach Jim Michalczik has to do something about the pass protection. Last year Beaver QBs went down 48 times, the most sacks allowed in the FBS (no wonder Luton couldn’t stay healthy). Arizona transfer C Nathan Eldridge had 25 starts for the Wildcats in 2016-17 and should be an improvement in the starting role, while G Gus Lavaka was a 3rd-team all-Pac-12 last year and LT Blake Brandel has started every game the last three years.

Smith is a bright offensive mind and the fact he was a record-setting Beaver QB makes him a perfect fit for this job. That being said, a few transfers and a couple of jucos aren’t going to fix the horrible defense, and the offense might be improved, but it’s not going to score 35 ppg. If the administration remains patient for a few more years, Smith will eventually make some progress, but recruiting defenders is the name of the game right now, and with Gebbia and Jefferson around for a few more seasons on attack, there’s time for the “D” to catch up...next year.

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