2019 Pac-12 Media Day: Five storylines to follow as conference aims for playoff return
The Pac-12 has been in just two of the five editions of the College Football Playoff
The final power conference media day will take place this week when the Pac-12 welcomes reporters and members of the media to Hollywood for a full day with all 12 of its schools represented on Wednesday. The car wash of shuffling the entire conference through in one day will provide plenty of soundbites to analyze as we begin to preview the 2019 season in the Pac-12.
Here are a few storylines to follow that might get some traction from the coaches and players at the event.
1. The Pac-12 and the playoff: The Pac-12 has a playoff problem. Since the inception of the College Football Playoff, the event hasn't included a team from the conference in two of its five iterations. That run is also pairing with a run of just one Final Four appearance for the league in basketball in the last decade (Oregon, 2017). League officials believe in the cyclical nature of success in college athletics, and point to the many improvements and innovations coming from the league. But those streaks and the outlook for 2019 isn't great right now.
Pac-12 advocates also point to the imbalance in scheduling as a data point for playoff consideration, with the ACC and SEC remaining at eight conference games while the Pac-12, Big Ten and Big 12 play nine. The argument is that you give yourself a better chance to be an undefeated or one-loss team at the end of the year with an eight-game conference schedule, and the fact that the ACC and SEC have yet to miss the playoff could be tied to that imbalance. I wouldn't expect that as a primary point at the podium on media day, but it could be a topic one of these coaches decides to address in this platform.
2. Washington's quarterback battle: Washington has established itself as the class of the conference over the last couple of years, first making the College Football Playoff in 2016 and then winning the league for the second time in three years last season after a fierce battle with Washington State and Oregon in the Pac-12 North. Chris Petersen has recruiting up and player development at a point where the Huskies program is able to send key players to the NFL Draft every year and maintain a steady level of production with another group of future pros leading the way. But while wave after wave of talent made the jump to the next level, the quarterback position remained steady in the hands of four-year starter Jake Browning.
Quarterback battles are all the rage at these kind of events, and we haven't had this kind of uncertainty at that position for Washington since it took over as the top dog of the conference. Former Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason ran the scout team last fall while sitting out to comply with transfer rules, but wasn't able to separate himself from sophomore Jake Haener during spring practice. The two quarterbacks split first-team reps through spring drills, and it will be interesting to hear how Petersen views the battle heading into fall camp.
3. Can Justin Herbert lead Oregon back to the title game?: The NFL and the NFL Draft beat, in particular, keep a unique spotlight on the college games that generate national exposure during the college football season. After returning to Oregon while having the opportunity to maybe be the first quarterback taken in the 2019 NFL Draft, Justin Herbert has become one of those individuals that will bring increased interest from the national audience because of his pro potential. Herbert has been described as having No. 1 overall pick levels of talent at the quarterback position, but what is that going to mean for the Ducks on Saturday?
Herbert's role as the face of the Oregon football program is fascinating for what it represents: the Ducks' best chance at a Pac-12 title and College Football Playoff appearance since Marcus Mariota. Oregon proved it could hang with the best in the conference last year, but a few head-scratching stretches of football left the Ducks short of a consistency that's required to emerge from the nine-game conference schedule on top. Herbert will be discussed, spotlighted and profiled throughout the season regardless, and Ducks' fans hope it's not only in the context of his NFL Draft future.
4. Drama in LA with Clay Helton and Chip Kelly: With his back against the wall after a 5-7 season, Clay Helton brought in Kliff Kingsbury to create an offensive spark with his system and the Trojans' talent at the skill positions. Then the NFL sought that same spark, and Helton doubled down on his commitment to a new look on offense with the hire of Graham Harrell. On paper, all of this should be great news for J.T. Daniels. If the talented sophomore puts up anything close to Mason Fine numbers, he's going to recapture that hype and excitement he generated as a five-star prospect at Mater Dei. But what happens if that production comes without -- or at the expense of -- wins? What might constitute a successful season for Helton hasn't been expressly defined, but the onus is certainly on this coaching staff to put a championship contender on the field if they want to avoid hot seat conversations that are lurking around the corner.
Chip Kelly doesn't face the same pressure as Helton, but the challenge for 2019 has already presented itself with a daunting schedule. The Bruins showed promise as the year unfolded and Dorian Thompson-Robinson settled into the backfield with Joshua Kelly. But when the nonconference is Oklahoma, Cincinnati and San Diego State, and the Bruins' cross-division draw includes trips to Washington State and Stanford, it's fair to wonder where the wins might be for Kelly in Year 2. UCLA fans are going to have more patience than USC fans, but there's a potential for season-long unease for the Pac-12's Los Angeles pair.
5. Khalil Tate's resurgence year?: For one month in 2017, there was not a more electric player in football than Khalil Tate. There is a sense that Tate, in Year 2 with Kevin Sumlin and recovered from injury issues that lingered for much of the 2018 season, could be in for a big year. The backfield duo of Tate and J.J. Taylor can be as impactful as any in the Pac-12 if the offense is rolling. If execution is to be blamed for where Arizona fell short on offense during 2018, then Sumlin's late arrival to the job should be noted. Arizona parted ways with Rich Rodriguez in early January and hired Sumlin on Jan. 14. Sumlin had to scramble to assemble a staff, hit the recruiting trail before National Signing Day and prepare for a spring practice all in a matter of weeks. For comparison, Pac-12 foe Chip Kelly was introduced as UCLA's coach 50 days before Sumlin took the job in Tucson. So now that everyone is settled and healthy, there is some belief that Arizona could be poised for a big step forward in a wide-open Pac-12 South.
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