2019 Pac-12 expert picks: Overrated, underrated teams and predicted order of finish

Congratulations, you've made it. The 2019 college football season starts Saturday for Week 0. Among the two games that will be played include a late-night showdown between Arizona and Hawaii on CBS Sports Network

Speaking of Pac-12 teams, it's time to wrap up our preseason expert picks with that glorious power conference out West. And there is certainly no shortage of storylines. First and foremost, can the conference break its College Football Playoff drought? Oregon and Washington are by and large considered the most likely candidates -- Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert has Heisman hopes, too -- but could Utah crash the party? And what about USC? Is this the end for coach Clay Helton, or will the Trojans rebound and finally realize their potential?

Our college football team has an array of opinions on all things Pac-12, from the most overrated and underrated teams, to their bold predictions and conference champions. See how each one of our experts see the Pac-12 shaking out this season. 

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Graphic illustration by Michael Meredith

Most overrated team

Oregon: Until proven otherwise, I've got the Ducks labeled as a very talented team capable of great things, but ultimately set to be undone by inconsistency. Justin Herbert, a fantastic offensive line and a duo of gifted running backs are the anchor to an argument for the Ducks as Pac-12 title contenders, but most of that group contributed to the poor start at Washington State and the head-scratching loss at Arizona in the middle of 2018. -- Chip Patterson (also Tom Fornelli and Barton Simmons)

UCLA: As much as I like Chip Kelly, something isn't lining up at UCLA. There seldom has been a window open to taking over LA like there is now. USC is struggling. UCLA has a hall-of-fame coach. Why do I feel like the future is brighter in Troy? USC isn't going to tolerate mediocrity much longer whether Clay Helton makes it or not. Kelly is at UCLA for the long term. That's fine but the biggest problem I have is the quarterback position. Dorian Thompson-Robinson has to show me he is a difference maker. He is surrounded by playmakers so we'll see. But shield your eyes when viewing the schedule. The nonconference games are at Cincinnati, San Diego State and Oklahoma. The Bruins get Stanford and Washington State from the North. Why do I smell a 4-8?   -- Dennis Dodd 

USC: Still the name program in the Pac-12, USC is just a name at this point. Instead of competing for Pac-12 and national titles, the Trojans expectations have been reduced to just making a bowl game. Even that is not a given. Again this season, most of the focus on USC football will be whether the coach and/or athletic director will keep their jobs. If this keeps up much longer, USC will just be a name from the past. -- Jerry Palm 

Washington State: It seems like it's just a forgone conclusion that Eastern Washington transfer quarterback Gage Gubrud will pull a Garner Minshew and draw the eyes of the college football world to Pullman, Washington. I'm not sure that those dots should be connected. Yes, he was a two-time finalist for the Walter Payton Award given to the top offensive player in FCS and threw for 9,984 yards and 87 touchdowns in four seasons. But road games at Utah, Oregon and Washington are all losses, and I'm not buying Gubrud leading the Cougars to wins with his arm in the rest of their toss-ups. When you factor in the nonconference tilt with Houston at NRG Stadium, and I don't see Mike Leach's crew being anything other than a mid-tier bowl team. -- Barrett Sallee

Stanford: That schedule is just so brutal. Northwestern in Week 1? Back-to-back road games at USC and UCF followed by Oregon in Week 4? If it wasn't for a game against Oregon State, it wouldn't surprise me if the Cardinal finished September with a losing record. And things don't get much easier with Notre Dame at the end of the season. Yes, quarterback K.J. Costello is legit, but how will the offense look without a proven running back? The Cardinal relied more on the pass last season with Bryce Love hampered by injuries, so it's certainly possible to do it again, but that's not been this program's bread-and-butter. And can the defense improve? A once-stout unit has oddly been more susceptible against the run over the past couple of seasons. That's a lot of question marks to answer in the top-heavy Pac-12 North with a tough nonconference slate. We can no longer just give the Cardinal the benefit of the doubt.  -- Ben Kercheval


Most underrated team

USC: Instead of piling on with the gloom and doom and signaling the end of the Clay Helton era, I've decided to embrace a sunshine-splashed optimism with Trojans football. The wide receivers are freaks, the offense is set up for them to succeed and this entire roster is well aware of the work needed to restore USC to its place among the Pac-12 title contenders. -- Chip Patterson (Tom Fornelli and Barrett Sallee)

Washington State:  A lot of the attention the Cougars get, if they get much at all, is on coach Mike Leach. Leach is a character and says some things that make you raise an eyebrow, but he has also built a pretty solid program at a place that a lot of people think is a tough place to win. This year's schedule includes road games with Utah, Washington and Oregon, so winning the league may be a stretch, but do not be surprised if Wazzu ruins it for someone else. -- Jerry Palm (also Dennis Dodd)

Colorado: I see a lot of people out here counting games vs. Colorado as victories. I was guilty of it too. The Buffs are low-hanging fruit when you're trying to figure out a path to meet or exceed expectations for anyone that has Colorado on its schedule. But the doubt is misguided when you dig a little bit. Colorado has maybe the best player in the Pac-12 in Laviska Shenault and it was 5-0 before Shenault's injury last fall. It also has an upper tier quarterback in Steven Montez, plenty of running mates on offense like KD Dixon at wide receiver and true freshman Jaren Mangam at running back. The defense will stabilize, the offense will be explosive and Colorado will overachieve and blow past the three or four wins that most are projecting. -- Barton Simmons

Arizona: I'll admit, a lot of this (all of it?) hinges on quarterback Khalil Tate and whether 1) he can stay healthy and 2) be used effectively in a way that resembles his breakout season of 2017. The combination of Tate and stud workhorse J.J. Taylor at running back should be enough to keep defenses guessing, if not at least make a slight run towards the South division title. It's simply a matter of whether it can all come together (which would be the responsibility of coach Kevin Sumlin). Call Year One a trial period, so Year Two needs to be an improvement. Still, Tate and Taylor are good enough to buy some long odds. -- Ben Kercheval  


Bold prediction

  • Dennis Dodd: Oregon's Justin Herbert will be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft
  • Jerry Palm: The Pac-12 will be looking for a new commissioner to replace Larry Scott before the year is out.  
  • Tom Fornelli: The Pac-12 may not start the season with a top 10 team in the rankings, but it will finish the season with two...but none in the top four.  
  • Chip Patterson: Besides USC winning the Pac-12? How about UCLA running back Joshua Kelley will lead the Pac-12 in rushing. Kelley, a transfer from UC Davis, was a breakout star in 2018 with six 100-yard performances and a 1,200-yard total on the season. He only started in nine games, so with a full season's workload I could see Chip Kelly's offense propelling him to the top of the league's rushing list. . 
  • Barton Simmons: Due to a brutal early slate, USC starts the season 2-4, necessitating a coaching change. With Graham Harrell as interim coach, the Trojans finish on a 6-0 run.
  • Barrett Sallee: Khalil Tate and Arizona will roll into October undefeated, upset Washington and become a legit threat in the South. The schedule gets tough toward the end. But if Tate returns to his 2017 form, the Wildcats will be a team to be reckoned with in 2019.
  • Ben Kercheval: USC fires Clay Helton and goes all in on getting Urban Meyer.

Pac-12 predicted order of finish

Pac-12 champion

Oregon: Mario Cristobal has done it the right way, rebuilding the Ducks in the image of an SEC team -- getting strong in both lines. True freshman defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux was the No. 1 recruit in the country and is slated to start. The biggest reason for optimism is quarterback Justin Herbert. He has a chance to be the No. 1 player taken in next year's NFL Draft. Herbert is among the core seniors who have a huge chip on their shoulders. Cristobal is their third head coach. They've gone from 4-8 as freshmen to favorites in the Pac-12. The league needs a 12-1 champion to get back in the playoff race. The Ducks might be it.  -- Dennis Dodd (also Barrett Sallee and Ben Kercheval)

Washington: There's so much parity in the Pac-12 that you have to look for areas where one team can find an advantage over the others, and I believe Washington's advantage is Chris Petersen. There are other teams with talent in the Pac-12. A few of them have more. But I don't think there's a team in the Pac-12 that can argue it has a coaching advantage on Petersen and the Huskies. Oh, and Washington has plenty of talent too. In a time when USC has faltered, Oregon has yet to recover from Chip Kelly's departure, and Stanford seems to have hit a wall, Washington's the pride of the conference right now, and it'll show on the field in 2019. -- Tom Fornelli (also Jerry Palm)

USC: The key to all the changes at USC, from a coaching standpoint, has been simplification. That simplification has allowed younger players to get caught up quickly and push for playing time, and that increased competition should only lead to better performance from every position. USC has consistently recruited at a high level and no one is questioning the team's talent, so the only leap of faith required here is that simplifying the schemes will allow that talent to overwhelm opponents as the Trojans retake the Pac-12 crown. -- Chip Patterson

Utah: Utah: It's a little hard to believe that Kyle Whittingham, largely considered one of the best coaches in college football, has yet to win a Pac-12 title, isn't it? But I don't believe in picking someone because "they're due". What I do believe is that if you look for the best defensive lines in football, you'll find a lot of wins. With a loaded defensive front complemented by a talented defensive backfield, Utah's defense will be dominant. Offensively, Utah returns an experienced quarterback, a workhorse at running back and has an offensive coordinator that produced a Top 25 offense last year in yards per play...in the SEC...at Vanderbilt. So yes, Whittingham is due, but that's not why he's winning the Pac-12. He just happens to have the best team. -- Barton Simmons 

CBS Sports Writer

Ben Kercheval joined CBS Sports in 2016 and has been covering college football since 2010. Before CBS, Ben worked at Bleacher Report, UPROXX Sports and NBC Sports. As a long-suffering North Texas graduate,... Full Bio

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