2018 Pac-12 expert picks: Overrated, underrated teams and predicted order of finish
Taking a close, detailed and opinionated look at the Pac-12 as the college football season approaches
The Pac-12 suffered through a miserable 2017 in which it didn't send a team to the College Football Playoff, didn't even have a true contender and went a whopping 1-8 during bowl season. With that came turnover. Chip Kelly took over at UCLA, Kevin Sumlin went from Texas A&M to buyout life to Arizona, the Herm Edwards experiment arrived at Arizona State, and Mario Cristobal stepped in for Willie Taggart at Oregon.
That said, the conference still boasts its fair share of stars in Stanford's Bryce Love, Washington's Myles Gaskin and Arizona's Khalil Tate. Will that be enough to keep the Pac-12 relevant for the entire season and allow it to step into playoff contention? Keep on reading to see the CBS Sports college football team's unique takes on the Pac-12 entering the 2018 season.
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Most overrated team
USC: I do think the Trojans will win the South. I don't think they will be a national contender. You don't lose Ronald Jones Jr., Sam Darnold and a handful of talented defenders and return as a playoff contender. Throw in a promising -- but still freshman -- quarterback (J.T. Daniels), and it looks a lot like a 9-3, 8-4 season In fact, it will be all Clay Helton can do to hold off Utah this season. -- Dennis Dodd (also Chip Patterson)
Oregon: The Ducks will begin the season ranked No. 24 in the AP Top 25 and could have one of the best QBs in the country in Justin Herbert. While I love Herbert, I'm still skeptical about Oregon in 2018 for one simple reason: The program is about to begin a season with its third different coach in three years. I have a hard time believing that kind of constant turnover won't have an impact on the team. I still think Oregon's the third-best team in the North, but I don't think it finishes the season as a top 25 team. -- Tom Fornelli (also Jerry Palm)
UCLA: Anybody expecting an immediate turnaround for the Bruins in Kelly's first year in Westwood should probably take a step back. Kelly is a great coach who's had a ton of success, but the roster isn't built for a turnkey move-in. I'm not sure there's a difference-maker at quarterback as of this moment, which makes personnel turnover along the offensive line even more concerning. Kelly has speed and talent on the roster, but the Bruins seem more like a low-floor, high-ceiling team this year that has moments of brilliance followed by moments of ineptitude. -- Barrett Sallee (also Ben Kercheval)
Washington State: The reasons to doubt Washington State are piling up. Mike Leach's exit to Tennessee got squashed, creating an awkward return to a program he was ready to leave. The team now has to buy back in to Leach while dealing with the emotional weight of a teammate's suicide. And while Leach may be back, the real driver of Washington State's surge is gone with defensive coordinator Alex Grinch shipping off to Ohio State. Also gone are the team's leading rusher, top two receivers, a pair of decorated offensive linemen and the defensive heart beat in Hercuiles Mata'afa. I'm expecting a cycle down season for Washington State. -- Barton Simmons
Most underrated team
Utah: The Utes always have a salty defensive front and this year will be no different with Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu. What is unique about this year is one of the best secondaries in the country exists behind those guys. This is also Year 2 with Troy Taylor at offensive coordinator and Tyler Huntley at quarterback. I'm envisioning a big step forward offensively with some continuity for the first time in a long time. Arizona, Oregon, Washington and USC are all coming to Salt Lake City, and they all better be on alert because Utah is for real. -- Barton Simmons (also Dennis Dodd, Jerry Palm)
Arizona: The Wildcats finished last season at 7-6, and in a season in which USC is still the team to beat in the South, there's just a lot of room to maneuver elsewhere in the division. Arizona, with Khalil Tate at QB and nearly its entire defense returning, as well as a possible influx of energy from Sumlin and a new coaching staff, might just be the team that takes advantage of it. -- Tom Fornelli (also Barrett Sallee)
Oregon: I think Oregon could surprise some people on defense this year. Underclassmen saw a lot of action last year (the first year with Jim Leavitt's as defensive coordiantor), and I think the improvements on that side of the ball continue with the Ducks having big-time playmakers at all three levels. With Herbert healthy, it's a 10-win team and a threat to Washington and Stanford in the Pac-12 North. -- Chip Patterson
Cal: As far as first-year coaches go, Justin Wilcox's debut at Cal in 2017 went way under the radar. Yes, the Bears matched their 2016 record at 5-7, but there was a visible improvement particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Well, the Golden Bears are one of the most experienced teams coming back in the Pac-12. Quarterback Ross Bowers still has his best days ahead of him, too. The schedule is tough, but Oregon, UCLA, Washington and Stanford all come to Berkeley. Methinks Cal trips up one of those teams, plays the others tough and does just enough to get back to a bowl. Cal may not get above six or seven wins, but this could low-key be one of the more fun teams in the conference. -- Ben Kercheval
- Dennis Dodd: Washington will lose the Pac-12's biggest game of the year in its first game of the year (vs. Auburn), causing the Huskies and the Pac-12 to miss out on the playoff. Even if it goes 11-1 (before the Pac-12 title game) there's a possibility U-Dub won't face a higher ranked team than Auburn this season.
- Jerry Palm: The Pac-12 will have a Heisman Trophy winner but will again fail to reach the playoff.
- Tom Fornelli: After winning 26 games the last three seasons, Washington State will miss out on a bowl game in 2018.
- Chip Patterson: Arizona State will finish ahead of Arizona in the Pac-12 South standings.
- Barton Simmons: The Pac-12 will have at least two representatives in New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation.
- Barrett Sallee: The Pac-12 will emerge as a better top-to-bottom conference than the Big 12 and ACC, and the stain of last season will wash away with the Pacific Ocean tide.
- Ben Kercheval: Daniels will end up leading the Pac-12 in passing yards as a true freshman at USC.
Pac-12 predicted order of finish
Washington: Chris Petersen and the Huskies have taken a lot of crap. Remember the cupcakes episode on ESPN last year? I almost think that kind of mentality has wormed its way into the minds of the selection committee. The Huskies are the class of the league by far this season. Petersen has UW as an annual top-10 team. If the Huskies beat Auburn -- or even if they don't -- watch the momentum build for a playoff run. Washington has some impressive weapons back -- Gaskin, Jake Browning, Trey Adams, Greg Gaines. I could go on. -- Dennis Dodd (also Jerry Palm, Tom Fornelli, Chip Patterson, Barrett Sallee, Ben Kercheval)
USC: We don't know who the quarterback will be yet, but let's not write off the Trojans if Daniels gets the nod. Three different true freshmen under center factored heavily in the last two national championship games and Daniels is one of the best quarterback prospects I've seen in years. If you watched Stephen Carr at running back last year, you know the drop off isn't steep from Jones. Tyler Vaughns had a breakout season to lead a receiving corps that is coming of age. This defense is the most talented it has been since the Pete Carroll era. As long as the offensive line is improved, USC is a scary team. If they start no worse than 2-1, the Trojans will emerge as a force again. -- Barton Simmons
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