2018 preview: Pac-12 Conference



1.   Washington

Every PAC-12 coach needs to be at the Huskys’ commencement ceremonies next June.  To congratulate the Husky seniors?   No.  To make sure that Jake Browning finally leaves.

Sometimes it feels like he’s been here forever and like he should have walked the stage already.  I mean, he’s been something of a preeminent menace since he became the starting quarterback as a freshman.  And, he’s done nothing but get better with time.

In just the past two seasons, JB has led the Huskies to 23 wins, a spot in the national playoff, and his own performance has improved as evidenced by his interception rate which has dropped from 2.7% to 2.3% to 1.5%.  Over all, he’s passed for over 9000 yards, 78 touchdowns, and he’s never missed taking the team to a bowl game.

One can only imagine what he will do this year and the relief opponents will feel when he is finally gone.

His understudy, K.J. Carta-Samuels, transferred to Colorado State leaving Washington with possibly two freshmen as backups and others who have not separated themselves from the pack.  And, that brings us to what might be the most important Browning stat of all:  Jake hasn’t missed a game in over two-and-a-half years.

If Browning goes down, another Jake is likely to take his place because UW’s quarterback roster includes Jacob Eason, Jacob Sirmon, and Jake Haener.   (Eason is a transfer from Georgia and probably the next big thing but is not yet eligible at Washington.)

There is plenty of protection up front since the offensive line returns size, experience, and talent especially now that right tackle Kaleb McGary declined the opportunity to go to the NFL.  If left tackle Trey Adams is fully recovered from an ACL, this could become the best offensive line in America.

Dante Pettis caught three times as many passes as any other receiver before grabbing his diploma and signing with the NFL before the ink dried.

Replacing him will be a group effort.  The question is:  Who will step into the Pettis gap?  Wide out Aaron Fuller is ready but UW will need production from Andre Bacellia and Chico McClatcher.

We’re also going to watch unheralded Jordan Chin who was a last-minute add to the 2016 recruiting class and came off a mediocre redshirt to suddenly burst into spring stardom.

Sophomore tIght end Hunter Bryant was second in receiving yardage and will split time with senior Drew Sample who may become the starter.

Myles Gaskin is going to set the West on fire from his tailback position.  The 5’10”, 190 pound senior punished defenders to the tune of 1380 yards and more than six yards per carry.  He also caught 19 passes and scored 24 touchdowns.  Expect Gaskin to carry the ball 23 times per game and surpass 1600 yards for the season.

In all, seven starters return on offense.

Only three starters graduated from the defense but PAC-12 defensive player of the year Vita Vea was one of them and his loss up front will be felt.  Greg Gaines played in all 13 games and will apply his 321 pounds at nose tackle while Jaylen Johnson takes over at one defensive end.  Jared Pulu was spectacular at tackle in the spring game.  However, none of them finished in UW’s top ten for total tackles.

The linebacking group lost two stars but actually looks ahead of last year at this time.  Ryan Bowman and Tevis Bartlett were 1-2 in bringing pressure and Ben Burr-Kirven led the Huskies with 84 tackles.   Myles Rice, Shane Bowman, and Amandre Williams are expected to challenge for starting spots.  Rs-freshman Joe Tryon looked better than expected in spring workouts and if Brandon Wellington heals fully, this will be the deepest pool of excellent talent in the West.

Injuries have also limited the secondary as corners Austin Joyner and  Jordan Miller were held out of several workouts.  There has been some shuffling in this group but Byron Murphy returns to corner after leading the team in interceptions.  Safeties are rock solid with the return of JoJo McIntosh and impressive Taylor Rapp who was third in team tackles as a sophomore.

Although the defensive line will show some decline, the other units appear stronger.  Savvy is not showing much change from last year’s 8th-ranking nationally in total defense although is is projecting 127 ypg against the rush; up from 100.8.

The Huskies start the season on the road at Auburn and open the PAC-12 season two weeks later at Utah.  After that, it should be smooth sailing for Puget Sounders because USC is not on the cross-Conference schedule and neither Stanford nor Oregon is ready to compete at Washington’s level.

Savvy foresees 12-1 in the regular season plus the PAC-12 championship game.  Seattelites will likely stump for a spot in the playoff but it might be a good idea to defer those ambitions to a time when the Huskies are better at that post season stuff.

In Petersen’s time at Washington, he is 1-3 in bowl games and 0-and-not-even-close in the national playoff.

2.   Oregon


Oregon second in the PAC-12?

The Ducks weren’t even second in the North Division.

Besides, in the past two years, this outfit lost more games than it won.

Second?  Really?

I can’t say that I personally agree, but after digging through some metrics, I admit I would not be too surprised.  Here are a few examples:

1.  Rush Defense

Under Jim Leavitt and with a much stronger defensive front, Oregon rose nearly 100 (yes–one hundred!) ranking spots in rush defense.  That is an incredible feat and now, with an even stronger front end, this defense is approaching the level of those national champions.  Except for Washington, Oregon had the best rush defense in all of the PAC-12.  The importance of that almost cannot be emphasized enough.

2.  Elite Quarterback

When quarterback Justin Herbert was in the game, Oregon averaged 49 points and scored  35 in the first half of its first two—-one against Nebraska.  When he was out, Oregon averaged 15 points.  Herbert is an early Heisman candidate and projected as a high NFL draft prospect.  And now, because coaches have focused on backups, Tyler Shough and Braxton Burmeister, the world won’t come to an end if Just-in suddenly becomes Just-out.

3.  Mario Cristobal

He’s taken Eugene by storm.  Fans love him; so do players who petitioned for him to become head coach; he produced the best recruiting class in history; he retained Jim Leavitt as defensive coordinator; he pledged to beef the defensive front to a national championship scale; he brought in Jordon Scott and Clemson transfer Scott Pagano to beef the defensive front to a national scale; he’s demanded discipline to cease the rash of senseless penalties that made Oregon dead-last in the FBS;  he’s committed to backup quarterbacks that, for a change, will have game-readiness; and, he’s ingratiated himself by calling this the dream job of his lifetime.

But, there’s more to this neon lemon-and-lime group.

The Quackers have four starters returning to the offensive line plus at least as many who have played significantly or started more than two games.  That group became even better when highly-coveted 6’5″, 350 lb. Penei Sewell  signed as one of the top prep guard prospects in the nation.  Expect this group to compete with the best.

Everyone in Eugene knows that Tony Brooks-James is the next big thing out of the Oregon backfield. The nation probably doesn’t know, but Autzenites do.  They know he’s been hidden under the shadow of Royce and that his abilities have all-American implications.

Now with Freeman gone, Brooks-James will hit the national radar and become a regular highlight.  He has speed to be on Oregon’s elite track and field team and, with his deft cuts, he’s always one step from taking it all the way.

However, while Brooks-James is the “next big thing”, he’s actually not big at all.  TBJ weighs in at 175 pounds so Duckites can’t expect him to have the 25-carry durability of Freeman and that means Oregon needs a dynamic support running back more than before.

Finding another running back at Oregon is easier than finding a parking place at Bi-Mart.  When you say “UofO”, locals hear it as “RBU” because they hoard running backs and won’t blush when telling you they see no reason to share.

There’s not even a bashful grin when they tell you about sophomore Darrian Felix and how frightening he is to opposing defenses with his elite speed and elusive footwork.  For 178 pounds, Felix has a surprising amount of safety-flattening power.

And they see no reason to hide wry smiles behind “well-I-do-declare” fans when they nod about the credentials of true freshman C.J. Verdell who was a two-time all-California first teamer, posted back-to-back 2000 yard seasons, and scored 64 touchdowns at Mater Dei High School.  Without apology, coaches salivate and drool and say, “Hey . . . spit happens.”

While running backs have flocked to the Ducks, the same can’t be said for receivers.   Charles Nelson is gone and there are no returners with more than half of Dillon Mitchell’s 42 receptions, so this unit has been a point of concern.

But recently, things have begun to change.

First, Tabari Hines announced he would transfer to Oregon from Wake Forest.  Yes, it’s true he was only the third-leading yardage receiver at WFU, but that third-place yardage was at least 20% more than any of Oregon’s receivers.  Fans have been excited about Hines while Wake Forest has been mumbling something along the lines of its initials.

Cristobal also plans to use all-PAC-12 candidate Jacob Breeland much more out of the tight end position.

We’re keeping eyes on two athletic speedsters in the slot with former five-star Taj Griffin and especially versatile sophomore Jaylen Redd.

And finally, spring game fans saw the emergence of Florida speedster Daewood Davis as he got behind defenders, fought for the ball, fought off tacklers, and wound up in the end zone twice.

All-in-all, this receiver group is shaping up quite nicely.

Defensively, Jordon Scott proved to be one of the best freshman tackles in America and he is surrounded by returning talent along a defensive front that includes all-PAC-12 defensive end Jalen Jelks.

There is some shuffling among the linebackers but Troy Dye returns to the middle and should be one of the best in the nation.

The secondary has a couple of position changes but pure freshman (now sophomore) Thomas Graham Jr. and Amadi Ugochukwu tied for the most interceptions and both return. Brady Breeze and Deommodre Lenoir are also back although Lenoir may be used in a more diverse role.

With an NFL-ready quarterback, unparalleled speed at the skill positions, lots of defensive returners, limitless coaching energy, and strong lines on both sides, the Ducks are capable of double-digit wins for the first time since 2014.

With so much riding on Herbert and his availability being impossible to predict, Savvy hedges at nine wins.

3.   USC

There are those who think USC will take a step back because Sam Darnold is gone.

There are others who say, well yeah, but so too are his ball-security problems and besides, there’s nothing to see here folks because we always have plenty of five-stars livin’ it up in Hotel Southern California.

That may be true, but let’s not forget that Darnold was picked third among all NFL-drafted players.

Deciding on new quarterbacks at USC seems akin to premier night in Hollywood.  Like, spotlights and hoopla and national attention.  Or like the peculiar pomp and hand-wringing that precedes announcement of the prom king.  It comes with shimmering lights,  pink champagne on ice, and Tiffany-twisted’s Mercedes bends [sic] and her pretty, pretty boys she calls friends.


This year’s pageant doesn’t disappoint.  In fact, it’s become rather a ten-star spectacle because it showcases five star Matt Fink, a dual-threat sophomore, and five-star Jack Sears, a strong-armed freshman.

But wait.  This is the land of glamoppulence so why stop there?  Enter J.T. Daniels, a 2019 recruit who reclassified himself to 2018 just so USC could peacock a 15-star extravaganza.

Fink is the only one with experience and his 11.7 yards per carry looks pretty darned fashionable.  Okay, so that’s only built on seven carries but, you see, you just don’t understand.  This is the land of tinsel and silicone where appearance is everything and winking head-nods mean you’ve arrived.

Remember the last time USC had to find a starting quarterback?  That first game against Alabama—ouch!  And then, it took weeks to finally get Darnold into place and by that time, the season was already pretty much of a mess.  How long will it take this time?

Poor Clay.

Coach Helton has plenty of talent but it’s sorting through quarterback dilemmas without losing emphasis on those annoying drive stoppers like focus and discipline and communications. Granted, it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy but that’s the point; it is happening to a nicer guy and at some point, it needs to stop.

Whoever winds up at quarterback will have four stellar returning linemen ahead of him.  There is need to find a qb-protecting left tackle after Toa Lobendahn was moved back to center.  Either Clayton Johnston or Austin Jackson will move to the left side while Jordan Austin appears ready to become a starter at guard.

Despite an elite roster and plenty of outstanding running backs, USC didn’t rank in the top-30 of the nation’s rushing yardage.  Ronald Jones II is gone but sophomores Stephen Carr and dynamic Vavae Malepeai are more than enough, that is if coach Helton decides that giving the ball to experienced running backs is preferred to passing it with inexperienced quarterbacks.

Deontay Burnett is gone from the receiving corps but if the QB situation turns out right, Tyler Vaughns will explode on the national scene.  As a freshman, Vaughns had 57 receptions for 809 yards. Also keep an eye on 6’4”, 215 lb. Michael Pittman who led all receivers with a 17.57 average per catch.

The defense was loaded and was expected to finish among the nation’s top-25.  Instead, it finished 68th for average yardage per game.  Yes, it finished fifth in the nation for sacking quarterbacks but only 56th for stopping the run.  Teams that cannot stop the run better than that are not teams that play for national championships.  They are also teams that lose bowl games 24-7.

It’s great that defensive lineman Christian Rector is back but he’s the only returning defensive lineman among USC’s top 15 tacklers. Malik Dorton should have a break-out season at defensive end but the other positions are still works in progress.

Non-stop linebacker Cameron Smith has been all-PAC-12 since infancy and his return means another nightmare for opposing running backs.  He will be joined by impressive John Houston Jr. and Jordan Iosefa so this group has plenty of experience and should be solid.

Troy had too many missed assignments, turnovers (120th ranked), penalties (125th ranked) —all of those nagging details that neuter big plays and terminate scoring opportunities.

Much of that happened on the back end as the Trojans gave up 13 plays over 40 yards.  The good news is that the top four producers are back led by Jack Jones who had four interceptions, seven pass break ups, 40 tackles, and a Grammy recording back in 1962.

Despite losing nine starters, USC has more than enough talent to get double-digit wins. But, even after all of that sweet summer sweat, we still don’t how long it will take USC to come up with the right quarterback nor if it can stop the run nor if it will be more disciplined.  With Stanford, Texas, and Utah all on the road, Savvy is sticking with 9-3.

History suggests that Helton will likely solve the turnovers but probably not the penalties.  If he solves both, some will dance to remember.  If he solves neither, some will dance to forget.

4.   Utah

While eight other PAC-12 teams were losing bowl games by a combined 87 point margin, Utah is the only Conference team to win.  It was a tidy season.  The Utes won four, then lost four, then split four.  The offense averaged 35 points, then 19 points, then back up to 34.

It was easy for critics to say that a late-September injury to quarterback Tyler Huntley was the problem and they pointed to his absence in the first two losses of October as evidence.  However, even after he returned, Utah lost twice in a row and both were to unranked opponents, Arizona State and Oregon.

So if Huntley wasn’t the issue, then what was?

Utah ranked 118th for sacks allowed, 119th in yielding tackles for loss, and 99th for converting third downs.  There is ample reason to believe that offensive line play was inadequate and must get better.

In ten games, Huntley connected on 64% of his passes and over 2400 yards.  He needs to reduce his number of interceptions (3%) but, if he stays healthy, he has enough to lead this team to the PAC-12 title game.

There are no other quarterbacks on the roster who had any playing time in 2017 so coaches are eagerly awaiting elite prep recruit Jack Tuttle while also keeping an eye on talented rs-freshman Jason Shelley who was the 12th-ranked dual threat prep quarterback in 2017.

One reason that this SLC group might do better is because, for the first time in years, Whittingham didn’t change his offensive coordinator.  Troy Taylor is back and Savvy is projecting a rise to 39th in total offense ranking.

All-PAC-12 receiver Darren Carrington is gone but Utah has four others who caught at least 25 passes and it has Bronson Boyd after his transfer from Texas Tech and sitting out a year. Unfortunately, the leading returning receiver, Raelon Singleton, left the program to join Houston.

Zach Moss rushed for 1173 yards and has two outstanding backups in Armand Shyne and Devonta’e Henry-Cole.  This group ranked dead-center for running the football and should be better now.  Also watch for seldom-used Troy McCormick Jr. to get some break-away carries.

With newly granted eligibility, center Lo Falemaka will anchor the offensive line.  Besides being good news for the team, it was good news for Falemaka who has been through more than most college players.  Early in his freshman year, he survived a shooting incident.  After recovery, he was asked to switch from tight end to center.  He has since been nominated to the Rimington List as the nation’s premier center, and he is being closely watched by the NFL.

The defense has lost a lot of talent, especially along the defensive line where all three of the top tacklers for loss are gone.  Leki Fotu and Pita Tonga seem ready to fill in at tackles with perhaps Bradlee Anae although Anae appears on some depth reports at defensive end. The other defensive end appears to be Caleb Repp but Max Tupai is coming off a redshirt season and has looked outstanding.

Two starting linebackers are gone but Cody Barton returns as one starter and dynamic Chase Hansen is moving in from safety.  They are expected to be joined by Donovan Thompson.  The starting group looks solid but there is still need to develop depth.

Utah’s secondary was truly fantastic as it only allowed 113 yards per game through the air. Corner Julian Blackmon leads this group after coming up with 4 interceptions, six pass break ups, and 48 tackles.  Corrion Ballard is another returning starter while Javelin Guidry moves into the nickleback role.

Can this defense come together before early games against two teams named “Huskies”—Northern Illinois with its strong running attack, and a week later, another one of those menacing ranked teams in Washington?

Winning against ranked teams has been a problem since Utah has lost its last five straight.  It’s not that the Utes don’t have the talent because all five of those losses were by a single possession.  To get over the hump, Utah needs to master the fine points and curtail egregious momentum-reversing errors.

Coach Whittingham has been here since 2005 but has never won the PAC-12 South title. Despite a fast start and national ranking early in 2017, Utah lost six of its last eight to finish 6-6 and barely make it to a bowl game.

Savvy is firm at seven wins although  I personally think Utah gets to eight.

5.   Arizona

With a swarm of last year’s surprisingly successful freshmen back on defense and a quarterback who fascinated the nation, the Wildcats are situated well to make a run at the PAC-12 South title.   To do that, they will need to overcome a change in coaching schemes and the loss of more talent than any group in the PAC-12.

New coach Kevin Sumlin is in a nice position because he has something at Arizona that no other new FBS coach has anywhere:

Khalil Tate.

Tate only needed eight games to amass over 3000 yards and draw awe and praise from all over the country as every week people declared, “Tate killed it!”, although in Tucson, you were likely to hear it as “Tate Khalilled it.”

We all remember Sumlin was the coach for Johnny Manziel and how Johnny Footloose won the Heisman and became a first round NFL draft selection.  And now, many fans think Tate will do the same.

But, it’s important to note some differences.  Manziel was a passer who could run whereas Tate is a runner who can almost pass.  Heisman and NFL quarterbacks are generally those who are pass-first kinda guys.  Of Manziel’s total Heisman year yardage, 72% came through the air.  Last year, Tate was 53%.  And, while Manziel’s interception rate was 2%, Tate’s was 5%.

It’s not likely that Tate will upgrade his stature as a passer because going back to his prep years, he wasn’t generally classified nor recruited as a quarterback but rather as an athlete or, at best, an athlete/quarterback.  And, his passing yardage vs total yardage was nearly identical back then as it was last season:   52%

Former starting quarterback Brandon Dawkins’ transferred to Indiana leaving Arizona with Rhett Rodriguez as the likely backup.  RhettRod did a decent job in the spring which might be important because his challenger K’Hari Lane couldn’t hit a saguaro with a flame thrower.

With Tate majoring in escapology, assessing U of A’s offensive line is as perplexing as it gets.  We could say that when Tate was on the field, the line was top-25 for protecting the quarterback, not allowing tackles for loss, and paving the way for a top-3 rushing attack.  Or, we could say that when Tate was not on the field, it ranked 121st in yielding blocked kicks and 109th in giving up blocked punts.

But maybe it doesn’t matter since most of the starters are gone.  The ‘Cats lost guard Jacob Alsadek and so far, the interior looks suspect.  The good news is that former starting left tackle Layth Friekh is back after the NCAA granted a fifth year of eligibility.

Running back J.J. Taylor posted over 800 yards and was named PAC-12 freshman offensive player of the year.  Sophomore Nathan Tilford only carried the ball 13 times but he averaged more than nine yards per carry and he has been impressive in the off-season.  It will take both of them to replace graduated Nick Wilson because Taylor is too small to be an every-down back.

A host of talented but not spectacular receivers will be led by Tony Ellison,  Shawn Poindexter, and Shun Brown.  Ellison and Brown will see some slot duty and it is desperately hoped that Brown will finally show what he can do.

The ‘Cats defense has all but two starters coming back along with defensive coordinator Marcel Yates who is in his third season.

The defensive line is led by sophomore Kylan Wilborn who posted 9.5 tackles for loss and led the team in sacks with 7.5.  He’ll be joined by defensive end Justin Belkap and new tackle Kurtis Brown.

Sumlin was able to retain the commitment of four-star prep defensive end Adam Plant from Bishop-Gorman High School in Nevada.  Plant had committed, then decommitted, then recommitted, then had more doubts, then finally signed.

Remember that swarm of defensive freshmen?  The best of them were linebackers and, despite the graduation of Dane Cruikshank, this group is very good.  Tony Fields II and Colin Schooler have all-PAC-12 mention after leading the team in tackles (199) and also combining for nine sacks.

The back-end was suspect last season.  It was expected to take a big step forward with the return of five key contributors.  But, Sumlin suspended safety Scottie Young Jr. who played in ten games and was the team’s sixth-leading tackler.  The ‘Cats can expect help from safety Jarrius Wallace who came on strong late last season and snagged two interceptions in the spring game.  Yeah, both were from that flame-thrower guy.

Savvy is projecting Arizona’s total defense will be ranked 86th after finishing 118th last season.  That’s not a defense to be greatly feared but it would be a mistake to think it hasn’t improved or won’t continue to do so throughout the year.

The early schedule is good so expect the ‘Cats to start fast.  Then, we’ll learn a lot on September 29th when USC comes to town amid praise from media lemmings who will favor the Trojans to win for the sixth time in a row against the ‘Cats.  After all, didn’t USC win by 34 last year?

But, wait a minute.

Why is Savvy trending toward possibly predicting an Arizona win?  Maybe it’s because, with the exception of Troy’s trouncing of UA’s freshmen last year, the five other previous wins were by one possession or less.   And then there’s that nagging “road” problem in which all of USC’s losses were away from home.  And now we see that this is not a home game for the Trojans and we remember that the last time U of A won, the game was played in Tucson.

Also, USC is having to find a new quarterback for the first time in years and we remember the miscalculations and misfortunes that prolonged the emergence of Sam Darnold.

The Wildcats will run into back-to-back road games against Utah and UCLA but should emerge with nine wins.

Can the ‘Cats win the South?


But only if Tate Khalils it.

6.   Stanford

With Heisman favorite Bryce Love coming back after rushing for 2118 yards, Stanford’s offense should be as exciting as it is good.

There are plenty of other returning starters including junior quarterback K.J. Costello who passed for more than 1500 yards and less than 2% interception ratio.  The problem is that Keller Chryst transferred, two other quarterbacks are recovering from injuries, and incoming freshman Jack West has little time to get up to speed.

Injuries caused 18 players to be withheld from the spring game which is a problem since Stanford has only 12 returning starters.

There is some rebuilding along the offensive line but a starting five of A.T. Hall, Nate Herbig, Brandon Fanaika and Jesse Burkett all have experience and should perform well.  Walker Little will fill a tackle position and has all-Conference potential.  There is also some depth with Nick Wilson, Brian Chaffin, and impressive newcomer Foster Sarell who coaches say will get plenty of playing time.

Cameron Scarlett and Trevor Speights looked good as backup running backs but Love will get 60% of the carries and 75% of Stanford’s rushing yards.  Despite Love gaining more yards per play than the passing attack, Stanford often showed an inexplicable habit of going away from its running game when it fell behind even by just one possession.

All four of the top receivers return and they combined for 147 receptions and 1900 yards.  J.J. Arcega-Whiteside is an all-PAC-12 candidate and one of the best long ball receivers in the West.  Elite prospect Osiris St. Brown was injured last season but has the speed to score deep.

Stanford’s defense ranked below average and only returns three starters.   All seven of the top tacklers are gone as are 86% of team sacks.

The top returning defensive linemen are Dylan Jackson and Malik Antoine but neither reached 40 total tackles and they will be surrounded by talented but unproven prospects.

Linebacking won’t make the front look any better since Stanford graduated its top five linebackers.  Losing that many linebackers in one cycle is not good news for a team that uses a 3-4 scheme.   This group was disappointing in 2017 and won’t be impressive now.

The secondary had even more problems as it finished 81st in fewest passing yards allowed and has lost four key contributors.  That will become five if Alijah Holder doesn’t return. Otherwise, safety Frank Buncom is the leading returner with two interceptions and one pass break up.

This defense gave up 5.98 ypp and is not likely to keep above that level in 2018.

With a quarterback who didn’t make it through last season, a defense that will fall even farther below average, and the Cardinal being next-to-the-last in the PAC-12 for returning starters, this team won’t reach nine regular season wins as it has the previous  two years.

Stanford will start 2-4 and finish 7-5.

7.   Washington State

WSU had a nice season last year, well, except for that embarrassing bowl game.  But see, there are two reasons the Cougars should be forgiven.

One:  Seven other PAC-12 teams lost bowl games and,

Two:  We shouldn’t expect WSU to excel in bowls because Mike Leach hasn’t done well in his history at WSU and WSU hasn’t done well in history altogether.   It almost seems like a hereditary thing—like WSU isn’t accustomed to having bowl games so it’s become more like, “Wait, we have another game?”

The tragic loss of Tyler Hilinski rocked those on the west coast who had followed him from his earliest emergence in prep football.  If it affected outsiders that much, then it’s almost impossible to imagine what the people of the Palouse have been through.

Only four starters return to the offense and none of them are at the quarterback position.

Gardner Minshew transferred from East Carolina where he had decent numbers despite playing in one of the weakest rosters in America.  The former four-star completed 57% of his passes with a 2.3% interception rate.

Freshman quarterback Cammon Cooper came to Washington as Gatorade prep Player of the Year in Utah but it appears to me that former walk-on Trey Tinsley will become the starter.  The rs-junior, has more experience, better comprehension of the playbook, and teammates have been energized by his firebrand style of leadership.  The Air Raid isn’t known for its complexity so fans should be less impressed that Tinsley understands it than they are concerned that others don’t.

Three offensive line starters are gone including one consensus all-American and a two time all-Pac-12 tackle.  Andre Dillard will start again at left tackle and will likely get  first team all-Conference.  Yes, this line blocked for the second-best passing offense in America, but it also yielded 44 sacks (126th).  Both are probably “sheer volume” kinds of numbers, right?

Well, let’s take a closer.  Let’s compare to Oklahoma State, the team that finished one spot above the Cougars for total passing yardage.  After some work with quotients and other annoying things, we find that the Cowboys had 2% of their passing attempts end in sacks.  Then, right below WSU was Oklahoma and the Sooners had a 1% sack rate.   I’m sure you’ve already done the math and you know that the Cougars sack rate was twice those two combined— 6%.

So—no, I don’t think the Cougars’ offensive line did a very good job.  Maybe it’s a good thing that most of it is being replaced.

Although running backs are afterthoughts in the Leach scheme (see “PAC-12, Too Pretty to Wear the Big Tiarra’ on this website) James Williams and Keith Harrington will replace Jamal Morrow as the starting running back.   But, also watch for true freshman and early enrollee Max Borghi because he is already turning heads in Pullman and earning the praise of teammates and running backs coach Eric Mele who commented, “Max, for a freshman coming in, he’s built for college football already.”

Unfortunately, Borghi is likely to gain more rushing yardage in the spring game than he is all season because coach Leach uses running backs as receivers more than as rushers even if they turn heads with more than six yards per carry.

Receiver Tavares Martin, Jr. opted for the NFL a year early but * ho hum * there are eight others who caught more than 30 passes last season for over 4000 yards.

The departure of innovative defensive coordinator Alex Grinch to Ohio St. might be the biggest loss of all for the Cougars.  For several opponents, his stunting and shifting style answered the question of how the Grinch stole their Christmas.

Six starters return to a pretty good defense under new coordinator Tracy Claeys who comes in from Minnesota.  All-PAC-12 defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa took his amazing talents early to the NFL and there is not a player in the Northwest who can replace him.   Mata’afa rampaged for an incredible 22.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks.

Nnamdi Oguoyo returns to lead the defensive line while Jahad Woods is a budding star at linebacker.  Jalen Thompson is back to once again lead the secondary in interceptions but the Cougars must find a way to replace safety Robert Taylor.

With so many new starters and so many new offensive coaches, it seems likely that WSU will revert to those bad old days of slow, slow, FCS-losing Septembers.  Worse yet—two of the Cougars’ September games are on the road at Wyoming and USC.

I like when the “little guy” wins and for years, I’ve been pulling for those in Pullman.  But, this doesn’t look like any more than a six win team, although Savvy might make it to seven by September if Tinsley is as good as his early workouts suggest.

8.   UCLA

For the first time in years, we aren’t writing about negative metrics associated with the dysfunctional coaching of Jim Mora.

Chip Kelly is the new man and he brings a great deal of anticipation, excitement, and creativity back to college football.  Finally Bruin fans, this site won’t be talking about under-performance or not meeting expectations.  Those were easier to predict under the Mora regime than ice cream melting in the sun.

It might be an addition-by-subtraction that quarterback Josh Rosen is gone. Rosen’s controversial and confrontational approach did little to augment UCLA’s win percentage and he wasn’t the most physically advanced quarterback when you realize that he only played in 22 of a possible 42 career games.

So now, coach Kelly is looking at the addition of pure freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson who was highly recruited, has a lot of talent, and fits the Kelly blur-book much better than would have Rosen.

While much is being made of Thompson-Robinson, there is reason to see Devon Modster as the starter after he played in five games, posted a 65% completion ratio, and threw no interceptions.

UCLA had the transfer commitment of Washington quarterback K.J. Carta-Samuels and he seemed like a great fit for coach Kelly.  However, Carta-Samuels pulled the plug on the Bruins and opted for Colorado State after the Rams’ starting quarter tore his ACL in March.

The offensive line was a mess last season and didn’t look much better in the Spring. An outstanding recruiting class of OLs will help, but not soon.

A year ago, UCLA ranked 115th for rushing the football and dead-last for stopping it.

The Bruins have all five of their leading ground gainers back although, like in previous years, none of them reached the stardom of their prep days.  Bolu Olorunfunmi (565 yards) and Soso Jamabo (446 yards) were extraordinary running backs at the prep level but neither has been able to break loose at the FBS level.  With coach Kelly, those problems are about to change and both of these ball carriers are going to be dynamite.

The top two receivers are gone but junior Theo Howard is likely to get 80 or more receptions and close to 900 yards.  Also look for Kelly to turn Howard loose downfield more than in the Mora years.

The receiver we are watching with the most interest is tight end Caleb Wilson.  Wilson averaged nearly 100 yards per game but his season was interrupted by injuries.  It seems to me if he stays healthy, he has all-America potential. Wilson was once committed to Old Dominion to play quarterback, but changed his mind to play closer to home at USC, then changed that when his father was fired and wound up as a tight end in Westwood.

Kelly said he wanted big players because “Big people beat up little people.” And with that, he went out and recruited a defensive tackle who weighs in at a jaw-dropping 360 pounds and carries the frightening name, Atonio Mafi.  It was this defensive front that proved to be the absolute worst among all FBS teams in stopping the run.  That is a total embarrassment to any team domesticated in Los Angeles and it will change this season because UCLA’s front was very young and nine out of 11 tacklers for loss are back.

UCLA will have one of the best secondaries in the West but fans need to enjoy it because most of it is gone after this season.

UCLA is a great place for coach Kelly because he hates recruiting and being in Los Angeles makes that job about as easy as it gets. The Bruins face Oregon and Oklahoma on the road but have USC, Fresno State, Washington, and Utah at home.

Kelly may be a miracle worker and there is an outside chance he could challenge for the South title this year.   But then, so can three other South teams.  Is Mafi the answer to that weak defensive front?

The cool thing is that for once in a long, long time, UCLA metrics on Savvy are not oppressed by the gloom of a misfit, contentious coach.

For now, Savvy is closer to predicting eight wins than seven.

9.   Arizona State

The great experiment is on.  Like a chemistry set with billowing vapors, beakers in Tempe crackle with a curious concoction that athletic director Ray Anderson believes will yield new gold in the Valley of the Sun.

When Anderson was hired, ASU admins knew that his plan was to bring an NFL model to Tempe and graph it to the norms of college football.  And, he would bring NFL veteran Herm Edwards to make it all work.

There have been many dispirited faces in Phoenix because it hasn’t all gone well and those same faces were the ones that warned of Edwards having been out of college coaching for decades and trouble was certain after his statement of surprise about the complexities of college recruiting.

Others scoffed.  Said it was too early to be critical.  Give the guy a chance.

Now that we’ve had some time, let’s see what Hermie has been up to.

According to AZCentral, spring workouts revealed that some players were intense and fully bought in.  But, others were going half-speed and appeared to be generally disinterested. The overview of those early workouts was that they lacked enthusiasm and were far from precise.

Coach Edwards said, “When you change coaches, there’s always this adjustment period.”

So we fast-forwarded to the spring game to see if things had calmed.

Nope.  The Phoenix news leader called the spring game “sloppy at times”, with too many snapping issues, too many interceptions, and too many players coasting.  I suppose those results mirrored the process— they played without precision because they practiced without precision.

But hey, there are some good things happening here.  It’s not as if there are nothing but vaporized beaker shards scattered about.  Coach E. brought in a nice recruiting class.  In fact, he hit the ground running and signed 11 players in the early signing period while adding two mammoth offensive linemen transfers, Roy Hemsley and Casey Tucker, from Stanford and USC.

With those two transfer linemen, Arizona State is adding 630 pounds of starting manpower.  Savvy is already projecting this line to rise from next-to-the-worst quadrant to slightly-better-than-average.

And, there is a wealth of potential in the roster headlined by magnificent quarterback Manny Wilkins who is skilled, smart, one of the FBS’ most mature leaders, and has three years of experience.  Mix in his stats—64% completions, less than 2% interceptions, and over 3,200 yards passing—and it’s easy to see why the most-golden icon in these parts wears #5.

The receiving unit is led by N’Keal Harry who caught 82 passes for 1142 yards.  Harry has looked sensational in the offseason and the 6’4″ Chandler native is expected to be a high NFL draft pick.  Kyle Williams is also back after bringing in 66 receptions which he squeezed in among studies toward a degree to become an orthopedic surgeon.  Sophomore Frank Darby is another wide-out to watch since he is a long-ball threat. Former Oklahoma commit John Humphrey was lost for the season with another injury but ASU might have uncovered some nuevo oro in new freshman Geordon Porter who is 6’2″ and has 4.4 speed.

Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage both graduated after rushing the football 355 times in 2017.  Taking over for them is Eno Benjamin although it is not certain that Eno will carry 355 times all by himself.  Benjamin averaged less than two carries per game but had the highest average per-carry (6.2).  ASU signed three freshmen and a juco, but none came out of high school with more than three stars and none was rated among the nation’s top thirty.

ASU finally had a decent defense last year and the lineup has been bolstered by a number of juco transfers, especially to fill the secondary which are positions of importance since coach Edwards was a defensive back in the NFL.  He’s been working with this group a lot in the offseason.

The linebacking corps is a concern since all primary starters graduated, no incoming freshmen appear ready, and there is still doubt about the health and effectiveness of Koron Crump.  Watch for Khaylan Thomas to blossom into stardom.

The front end lost JoJo Wicker early to the NFL and Tashon Smallwood to graduation but now has Darius Slade from Ohio State to keep this unit near the top twenty for attacking opposing quarterbacks.

The problem with chemistry and odd-concoctions is that they can gurgle and alchemise under the surface and not be seen until it is too late—like, not until Manny is  gone.   That means we won’t see any vapors for another 15 months.  Then, it will take some time to assess the risk and take action so we’re looking at December of 2020 before there is a worthy analysis.  At that time, we will all find out if Anderson’s grand experiment produces the gold of diviners or the pyrite of fools.

So for now, Savvy is sticking with a projection of 6-6.  That comes with an opening day loss to UTSA that will lead some to declare that the sky is already falling.  However, Savvy does not interpret the UTSA win as an upset because the Roadrunners are pretty darned good and you can bet they won’t be the ones standing around looking for beaker shards.

One thing we predict for certain is that the eyes of football nation will be watching.

10.  California

Okay Cal, you had your fun.  You shocked us with some crazy wins to start last season, but don’t you think it’s time you settle back down and assume the position?  You know—that spot near the bottom of the North Division?

Your North foes aren’t accustomed to you jumping up and scaring everyone like you did and there is a lotta angst that this Justin Wilcox guy might know how to get you to do it again.

Look Cal—it’s like this—we acknowledge your mental majesty in exchange for you rolling over and playing dead on football fields.  You haven’t been near the Rose Bowl since your grandaddy was born and there’s no reason to think you should do it now.

And yet, Cal presses toward that goal.  Coach Wilcox had amassed a fabulous group of coaches and he put a shot of adrenalin into his defensive front that kept Cal in games and was largely responsible for two wins.

Wilcox came to Cal with a balanced offense in mind rather than the Bear-Raid which puts the ball in the air the majority of the time.   Without a roster of balanced-offensive players, Cal could not make the switch in one season but might make it now.

The offensive line must get better however since it finished 113th in yielding sacks, 112th for giving up tackles in the backfield, and 108th for run blocking.  But, the Cal offensive line cupboard is not Bearen (sorry).  Nearly the entire line returns and the roster has 11 offensive linemen who weigh 300 pounds or more.

The question in Berkeley lately has been whether or not Ross Bowers is the right quarterback.  As a sophomore, he put up decent passing numbers—59% completions, 3039 yards, 18 touchdowns, 2.6% interception rate—but at 6.6 ypa, the long ball was missing.  So were his feet.  Bowers carried the ball 60 times for minus 142 yards.

And, that leaves an opening for USC (South Carolina) transfer Brandon McIlwain who has rushed for plus 127 yards.  McIlwain is a former four-star and top-ten dual threat prep quarterback but his completion ratio was lower and his interception rate higher than what Bowers posted last season.

The Bears had just four running backs entering 2018 so there is room for an incoming freshman to get some playing time.  Patrick Laird will be the starter and will likely be supported by rs-freshman and former four-star Baaggio Ali Walsh who had many offers as a Nevada high schooler.  No other returning RB had more than 50 yards last season.

Cal’s top four receivers are back after combining for 206 receptions and over 2400 yards.  There appears to be a change in approach here as Cal seems to be working on more of a tight end attack.  That has not been confirmed but is something to watch for.

Tone Toailoa is a 280 pound New Zealander who will give a huge boost to an otherwise shaky defensive front.  Two great linebackers are gone and that is causing significant concerns for coaches.  Alex Funches returns after leading Cal in tackles for losses and finished second in sacks.  Jordan Kunaszyk will also start but two others are yet to be found.  The secondary has enough players with starting experience to think it will be competitive.

Savvy currently has this team at five wins but is trending toward six before opening day.

11.  Colorado

After Jim Leavitt left, Colorado’s run defense did also and that explains much about the Buffs only winning five games in 2017.  That was a deep drop from having won the PAC-12 South the year before.  Last year was a youth movement, so there is hope that this season will be better.

Fiery quarterback Steve Montez will run the offense and, despite being criticized for overplaying in critical situations, he posted solid passing numbers across the board.  He is also the Buffs leading returning ball carrier.

He has talent, but he also has some defined and erratic issues.  Consider:  In the five games that Colorado won, Montez had a 70% completion ratio and an 11-to-3 td-to-interception rate.  In the seven games the Buff lost, he had about 50% completions and a 7-to-6 td-to-interception ratio.  There doesn’t seem to be another quarterback ready to step up so those who are crying big Buffalo tears over Montez’ erratic numbers are going to have to keep crying a little bit longer.

Phillip Lindsey graduated to the NFL and took 78% of all CU rushing yards with him.  Beau Bisharat is shown as the starter at running back but only because all other returners accumulated just two total yards.  Our projection for the starting running back goes to Virginia Tech transfer Trevon McMillian who ran for over 1000 yards as a freshman in 2015.

Colorado’s top three receivers graduated taking away 141 receptions and over 1700 yards.  Jay MacIntyre and Juann Winfree will fill two of those positions and have shown signs they might be even better at the long-ball game.

The offensive line gave up 39 sacks (122nd rank) and was only mediocre in rush blocking.  Three linemen return and co-offensive coordinator Klayton Adams believes that competition among inexperienced players for the two open spots will produce a stronger line in 2018.   He brought in 300 pound tackle Kary Kutsch from Butte College but lost Isaac Miller to medical retirement.

From 2016 to 2017, Colorado’s defense went from the top twenty to near the bottom of the FBS.  While the loss of defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt was expected to cause some defensive tremors, no one expected utter disaster.

Now, the defense returns all of its front end which includes three of its top tacklers (171 tackles) and more than 26 tackles for loss.  Put that with the return of nearly the entire starting secondary and you get a defense that Savvy projects will rise from 109th-ranked to 81st.

Because the schedule is loaded with bowl contenders and Montez is a bit of a suspect, Savvy is projecting five wins.

12.  Oregon State

New coach Jonathan Smith knows the way to championships.  He’s been there.  This is the same under-sized (5-ft-9) former walk-on who became a four-year starter, leader of OSU’s all-time greatest team, and MVP of the 2000 Fiesta Bowl after throwing for 305 yards in a 41-9 rout of #10 Notre Dame.

Yeah, little Johnny knows how to beat up the big boys.

He also knows, it doesn’t happen all at once and it doesn’t happen without overcoming some obstacles.  So, let’s just put the Hawaii recruiting snafu behind us, at least for this review.

Weight training and conditioning requirements have been jacked up high which leads me to think the trenches will be stronger and the offensive line should be able to continuously play at tempo, something it failed to do late in 2017 games.

As returning center Sumner Houston said, “One thing we didn’t do last year is pace and keeping everybody in line and doing things at the speed we need to.”  Returning guard Gus Lavaka agreed but also admitted he had not kept pace.  Left tackle Blake Brandel and rising talent Yanni Demogerontas also return but there is very little depth.

Amid the turmoil and disappointment in Corvallis last season, this offensive line finished in the top thirty for protecting quarterbacks.  When you consider how immobile most of the Beavers’ quarterbacks were, that’s a pretty nice accomplishment.

For those of you Jake Luton fans (raising my hand) who wish there wasn’t a quarterback competition, let’s see some reasons why there will be.  Luton is a giraffee 6’6″ who didn’t make it through four games before being injured and out for the season and his 3% interception rate isn’t up to par.

When the dust settles behind center, the starter will probably be former Wisconsin quarterback Connor Blount who will add mobility.   That might come in handy when OSU opens against Ohio State.

Blount was somewhat of a star in the spring game whereas Luton threw two interceptions in limited play.

There is a lot of uncertainty in the OSU backfield after the graduation of Ryan Nall.  Artavis Pierce is penciled in but not without a challenge from unheralded rs-freshman B.J. Baylor who rushed for nearly 2000 yards as a prep senior and impressed everyone in spring workouts.  Baylor is magnificent as a receiver out of the backfield, much like his cousins, the Rogers brothers.

Isaiah Hodgins, Timmy Hernandez, and Trevon Bradford give OSU a solid group of receivers while senior tight end Noah Togiai led the team in receptions despite an ankle injury that is still a concern.  If he remains healthy, Togiai will be one of the best in the West.

The Beaver defense was weak at all levels and allowed 43 ppg.  It lost leading tackler Manase Hungalu to the NFL but the second and third levels return eight of the team’s top nine tacklers.

Jalen Moore and David Morris make the safeties the strongest Beaver unit and Bright Ugwoegbu has all-PAC-12 potential if he can ingratiate himself with coach Smith and actually get onto the field.

The defensive front was horrid last year, finishing near the bottom for stopping the run and getting to quarterbacks.  There are reasons to expect a little better performance now since the Beavers think they can finally get former USC recruit Isaac Garcia into the starting lineup. The Beavers will also have impressive freshman tackle Isaac Hodgins and juco defensive end Jeremy Reichner appears to have some edge-rush potential.

Except for the safeties and tight end Togiai, everything at OSU seems new and needs to be pieced together.  After a dismal 1-11 season, half of those losses by 28 or more points,  and a defense that ranked 118th in sacks and 120th in total defense, it’s hard to envision a dramatic rise for this team in 2018.

Savvy sees another 1-11 but make no mistake;  Oregon State is on its way back.  Smith and his new crew of coaches have done a nice job of recruiting and that will begin to pay off in 2019.