Leading up to the start of the season, Rotoworld will be pumping out previews for every Group of 5 and Power 5 conference (plus Independents), complete with fantasy projections courtesy of RW analytics guru Hayden Winks, draft prospects to watch and a full examination of each conference's team's best and worst case scenarios. Up in this installation: The Pac-12 South division. If you're looking for the Pac-12 North preview, you can find it here.
*Note: While this preview will only specifically cover the Pac-12 South, Hayden's fantasy projections are for the whole of the conference.
|Khalil Tate (Arizona, SR)||3047||29||423||26|
|Gage Gubrud (Washington State, SR)||4001||32||134||26|
|Justin Herbert (Oregon, SR)||3296||29||145||21|
|K.J. Costello (Stanford, SR)||3367||28||39||19|
|JT Daniels (USC, SO)||3669||26||32||19|
|Steven Montez (Colorado, SR)||3046||20||247||19|
|Tyler Huntley (Utah, SR)||2731||18||284||18|
|Jayden Daniels (Arizona State, FR)||1721||11||527||20|
|Jacob Eason (Washington, JR)||2939||19||-47||15|
|Dorian Thompson-Robinson (UCLA, SO)||2627||18||193||16|
|Chase Garbers (California, SO)||1973||18||246||17|
|Jake Luton (Oregon State, SR)||2323||14||107||17|
|Eno Benjamin (Arizona State, JR)||1172||12||280||24|
|Joshua Kelley (UCLA, SR)||1073||11||216||23|
|Zack Moss (Utah, SR)||1033||10||153||22|
|Salvon Ahmed (Washington, JR)||972||11||254||20|
|Max Borghi (Washington State, SO)||522||9||381||20|
|CJ Verdell (Oregon, SO)||939||9||278||19|
|Jermar Jefferson (Oregon State, SO)||1047||9||116||17|
|J.J. Taylor (Arizona, JR)||1011||6||124||15|
|Vavae Malepeai (USC, JR)||561||6||230||14|
|Christopher Brown Jr. (California, SO)||726||6||141||13|
|Stephen Carr (USC, JR)||558||7||156||12|
|Alex Fontenot (Colorado, SO)||674||6||119||12|
|Artavis Pierce (Oregon State, SR)||656||5||160||12|
|Cameron Scarlett (Stanford, SR)||476||8||138||12|
|Travis Dye (Oregon, SO)||649||4||62||10|
|Jamir Thomas (Washington State, FR)||288||3||171||8|
|Marcel Dancy (California, JR)||491||4||13||7|
|Devonta'e Henry-Cole (Utah, JR)||419||4||20||6|
|Deion Smith (Colorado, rFR)||385||3||24||6|
|Gary Brightwell (Arizona, JR)||379||2||42||6|
|Sean McGrew (Washington, JR)||288||3||72||5|
|Jaren Mangham (Colorado, FR)||289||3||24||5|
|Laviska Shenault Jr. (Colorado, JR)||95||1096||6||24|
|Amon-Ra St. Brown (USC, SO)||80||1002||4||17|
|Michael Pittman Jr. (USC, SR)||55||942||5||15|
|Juwan Johnson (Oregon, SR)||57||798||6||15|
|Theo Howard (UCLA, SR)||68||726||4||14|
|Tyler Vaughns (USC, JR)||59||793||5||14|
|Brandon Aiyuk (Arizona State, SR)||62||753||4||13|
|Dezmon Patmon (Washington State, SR)||63||686||4||13|
|Davontavean Martin (Washington State, JR)||64||615||5||13|
|Easop Winston Jr. (Washington State, SR)||57||686||5||13|
|Britain Covey (Utah, JR)||58||618||4||13|
|Isaiah Hodgins (Oregon State, JR)||62||677||4||13|
|Aaron Fuller (Washington, SR)||50||743||4||12|
|Trevon Bradford (Oregon State, SR)||51||588||4||12|
|Jordan Duncan (California, SR)||58||606||4||12|
|Cedric Peterson (Arizona, SR)||43||635||6||12|
|K.D. Nixon (Colorado, JR)||49||604||3||11|
|Trevon Clark (California, JR)||48||502||5||11|
|Andre Baccellia (Washington, SR)||50||549||2||10|
|Osiris St. Brown (Stanford, JR)||37||597||4||10|
|Jaylon Redd (Oregon, SO)||41||469||5||10|
|Kyle Williams (Arizona State, SR)||49||460||3||9|
|Simi Fehoko (Stanford, rFR)||35||516||4||9|
|Bryan Thompson (Utah, SO)||33||530||3||9|
|Stanley Berryhill III (Arizona, SO)||31||487||4||9|
|Colby Parkinson (Stanford, JR)||43||642||9||13|
|Hunter Bryant (Washington, JR)||40||459||5||10|
|Noah Togiai (Oregon State, SR)||28||304||2||6|
|Jacob Breeland (Oregon, SR)||20||276||2||5|
|Devin Asiasi (UCLA, JR)||24||222||2||5|
|Cam McCormick (Oregon, JR)||20||218||2||5|
|Brant Kuithe (Utah, SO)||19||205||1||4|
|Josh Falo (USC, JR)||16||164||2||4|
|Cole Fotheringham (Utah, SO)||15||172||1||3|
Utah 11-1 (8-1 in conference)
USC 8-4 (6-2 in conference)
Arizona State 6-6 (4-5 in conference)
Arizona 5-7 (2-7 in conference)
Colorado 4-8 (2-7 in conference)
UCLA 3-9 (2-7 in conference)
2018 record: 9-5 (6-3 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: DE Bradlee Anae. A fluid athlete who offers an impressive first step and an array of moves and countermoves, Anae needs to continue to work on his functional strength and technique, but has Day 2 potential with a strong spring process.
The case for: We’ve waxed poetic on Utes HC Kyle Whittingham before. He runs a tight ship, a clean ship, always on the ready with a sturdy defense (and a hit/miss offense). For all of his positives -- Whittingham has posted at least nine wins in four of the last five seasons -- he has just one double-digit win campaign to his credit since taking over as head coach prior to the 2011 season. He might just have the firepower for another 10-plus win campaign this fall.
That starts on the defensive side for us. Whittingham consistently fields good defenses, but this might be his best one yet. It is loaded with star power, particularly on the defensive line, where end Bradlee Anae and interior DLs John Penisini and Leki Fotu make life a perpetual living purgatory on both the run and the pass.
And while Utah might now lack for the services of linebackers Chase Hansen and Cody Barton, Whit added former UCLA backer Mique Juarez to help make up for those losses. He also brought in former Penn State LB Manny Bowen, though alas, Bowen has since opted to give up football. But upperclassman Francis Bernard does return to the fold, and there’s so much ammo up front that Bowen’s retirement -- while a stinging blow -- shouldn’t set this crew back.
Utah’s offense has always been a little more of a wandering unit than its defense, but we absolutely dig Whittingham’s hire to replace OC Troy Taylor, as Andy Ludwig is not only well-associated with Whit having worked with him in the past, but is also coming off a banging stint with Vanderbilt in which he helped build the Commodores from a door mat offense to a dangerous one over the last four seasons.
He has plenty to work with at Utah, with RB Zack Moss leading the way on the ground, but what we’re most interested in seeing is how Ludwig might be able to tame QB Tyler Huntley. Huntley threw for just 1,788 yards with a 12/6 TD/INT ratio in nine games last season. He was forced out by injury down the stretch, which led to a handful of starts from the nondescript Jason Shelley. Just how much juice Ludwig can inject in Huntley’s veins is our biggest question with Utah, because very nearly everything else is in place for a second consecutive run to the conference title game.
We won’t rule Utah out for the Playoff either. It will take some doing and a few unexpected breaks, but that is how much promise we see in this roster.
The case against: Our two largest concerns with Utah come in the secondary and in Huntley. Let’s tackle the former matter first. While the Utes are loaded up front and solid at linebacker, they must replace starting safeties Corrion Ballard and Marquise Blair and have much less margin for error in the secondary than they do in the front seven.
It is not an unworkable math problem -- a strong front seven inevitably helps the secondary, just as the inverse is true -- but with a schedule that will see them face J.T. Daniels, Mystery WSU QB (probably Gage Gubrud) and Jacob Eason, we could see some cracks in crucial contests. One good beat for Utah, though, they will not be facing Justin Herbert and Oregon.
Then there’s Huntley. And we just don’t know, there. Kyle Shurmur totaled a 50/16 TD/INT ratio over the last two seasons working with Ludwig, but whether Ludwig can immediately get Huntley’s passing game sparked -- we already know that the dual-threat signal-caller has enough wiggle to get it done on the ground -- is the greatest unknown with this potential Pac-12 title combatant.
If Huntley can provide just a little more consistency through the air, that’s when Utah truly becomes an interesting national contender. Again, we just don’t know. All we know is that we love very nearly everything else about this team.
Vegas over/under win total: 9
2018 record: 5-7 (4-5 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: WR Michael Pittman. Pittman might have issues cracking the first round given the excess of receiving talent in the prospective 2020 class, but he has sleeper riser written all over him. More than athletic enough to impress in a combine setting, Pittman makes his game on contested catches and impeccable body control.
The case for: It would be easy to lash the Trojans one last time for their sad 2018 season, but we will refrain. Instead, let’s look toward the brightest possible future, one which would push the Pac-12 out of the shadows and back onto the national stage. No shade on either Oregon or Washington, but a winning USC changes the prominence of the conference.
That brightest future begins with the maturation of JT Daniels under new OC Graham Harrell, who is expected to hyper-charge an offense which far too often under HC Clay Helton has lacked for an identity. “Sam Darnold does cool stuff” is not an identity. Harrell will hopefully open it up to let those athletes fly, the Amon-Ra St. Browns and Stephen Carrs and Michael Pittmans of the world.
Daniels looked like a kid last season, and while the “shoulda been in high school” line was used to no end, it’s true. Regardless of his age, he jumped up one season of football. That should, theoretically, pay off now, with one year in the collegiate fire under his belt. USC has more than enough skill-position talent on offense to make noise, if Daniels and Harrell can bring it all together. If they can't, Helton may be out of a job this winter.
The case against: Clay Helton. No, that’s mean. Let’s be more specific -- Clay Helton getting antsy after a loss or two and messing with Harrell’s offense. No. Hands off Coach Helton. Back off! We have seen Helton put his hand on the offensive reigns when it probably shouldn’t have been there before, but if he does it this time around, it’s going to cause real problems.
Very quietly on the other side, USC has lost bodies left and right on defense, between Cam Smith, Porter Gustin, Marvell Tell and Iman Marshall, among others. Those are NFL athletes. USC still has athletes on defense -- we’ll ride with the potential of LB Palaie Gaoteote, for instance-- but their losses are significant. With most top programs, the recruits and depth are there on turnover. It’s just a matter if they are ready.
We’ll find out very, very quickly. Unfortunately for USC, the schedule is not conducive to much of a learning curve. The Trojans open against Fresno State in a game that feels immediately like a trap. That is just the start of a gauntlet which will see them play Stanford, BYU, Utah and Washington in September, Notre Dame in October and Oregon to open November.
There will be no hiding for Helton if this jumps the tracks.
Vegas over/under win total: 6.5
Arizona State Sun Devils
2018 record: 7-6 (5-4 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: RB Eno Benjamin. A versatile back who plays with force, Benjamin fits perfectly in the mold of the modern NFL as a runner who can be utilized in multiple capacities.
The case for: Herm Edwards was a laugh hire last winter, a washed up NFL coach who had not held a college coaching position since the 80’s and had built a home as a very loud talking head. The chuckles stopped abruptly when Herm’s crew upset Michigan State in the second week of the season. They won that game 16-13, the first of nine regular-season games they played which were decided by one touchdown or less.
For all of the things Herm Edwards is not -- he can be frustratingly conservative -- he immediately helped turn ASU into a week-in, week-out thorn. You might defeat Herm, but you aren’t going to out-prepare him. A base level of professionalism can go a long way in this world, whether you’re the head coach of Arizona State or the President of the United States.
Now we’ll see how he makes up for losses. Most notable among those would be QB Manny Wilkins, who played with the heart of a bear -- also the occasional recklessness of a bear -- and WR N’Keal Harry.
While you can count us as smitten kittens for true freshman Jayden Daniels, who enrolled early, crushed it in spring practice and is going to be the face of the program at some point, the safer bet is Dillon Sterling-Cole, who has the experience edge as a junior. Daniels, Sterling-Cole, we don’t expect ASU to turn into Alabama on offense, especially without Harry around as a bail out, fling-it up option.
Arizona State might not have an established quarterback nor an immediate N’Keal Harry replacement, but they do have one offensive superstar in RB Eno Benjamin, who plays with force both as a traditional back and a receiver. Eno totaled 1,905 yards and 18 touchdowns from scrimmage last season.
It would surprise nobody if the future NFL-er combined for 2,000 yards from scrimmage this coming season. Best case scenario for the Sun Devils, Benjamin’s brilliance allows Mystery Quarterback enough room to make mistakes, while ASU’s defense again pulls off a similar trick to last season, when they were mediocre but not so mediocre as to let the games get out of hand. Again, ASU played within a touchdown in nine regular-season contests.
The case against: Call it a bad-but-not-break defense? Eh? Last season, ASU ranked just 50th in the country in scoring defense, but performed notably better in keeping offenses from breaking them over the metaphorical knee with deep plays. Check out this gem from ESPN’s Bill Connelly -- whose S&P+ saw Arizona State as the No. 82 defense on the whole, pretty soggy -- the Sun Devils gave up just 22 plays of 30 or more yards, 34th-best in the FBS. They gave up a mere three of more than 50 yards.
In Herm’s first year, he was not only rediscovering himself as a coach, but he was playing with a roster of kids who had been brought up on the mad stylings of Todd Graham, who never met a blitz package he didn’t like. Oppo taco for Herm, whose methodical hand might not be as unpredictable on the wheel as Graham’s, but when you steer around the three coral reefs, you don’t sink, and well, Graham thought he saw a straight line through.
This season may as well be immaterial for ASU. You want to succeed, sure, but finding that next starting quarterback is what really matters in building toward a true conference contender. Let the grand experiment begin.
Vegas over/under win total: 7.5
2018 record: 5-7 (4-5 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: QB Khalil Tate. Tate's draft stock -- like, whether he land in the draft at all -- is going to hinge on his development this fall. His legs are already a huge plus, but what the NFL will need to see from Tate upcoming is notable steps forward in the passing game.
The case for: Tempted to just say “Khalil Tate” and call it good. Specifically, that atomic flash in October-November from two years back, when Tate rushed for a combined 1,207 yards in six games. In every one of those games, he went over 135 yards rushing. In three, he went over 200 yards. People were dreaming on what Tate might be capable of heading into last season.
Then the season actually happened. Plagued by an ankle injury and whatever the heck Kevin Sumlin was telling him to do, his production plummeted. Tate had eight or fewer rushing attempts in all but two games and never topped 40 yards on the ground. Everybody is saying the right things, about getting on the same page, about injuries, about all that jazz this offseason.
And to Tate’s credit, the rushing might have disappeared, but he played very well as a passer over the final four games of the season, tossing 15 touchdown passes against four interceptions. Three of those four contests came against actual teams, too, vs. Oregon, Washington State and Arizona State (the other against Colorado).
Almost every fiber of your author’s being is saying, “No, absolutely not,” but you know what, you can color us intrigued, because a fully-operational Khalil Tate is not just a player who can propel Arizona to a bowl. He is a player who can legitimately trip up the conference.
We aren’t calling for the Wildcats to actually make a Pac-12 run, but they are in a unique position to destroy somebody else’s. Arizona plays Washington, Oregon, USC, Stanford and Utah, more or less the cream of the conference crop save Washington State. If Tate is rolling, like really rolling, those big boys should be shaking in their boots.
The case against: OK, first of all, just look at the above schedule again. It. Is. Loaded. Especially if USC and Stanford put together better-than-expected seasons. Beyond that, we wonder on Tate. Not Tate’s athleticism, just whether he can spark in that way again. Defensive coordinators have had two years to spot tendencies since that meteoric rise, two years to rewatch and rewatch and rewatch that film -- you can bet the likes of Chris Petersen and Kyle Whittingham have been doing that this offseason, probably Clay Helton as well.
And it was six games. Before you raise the pitchforks, well, it was six games. Half a season of brilliance. That’s what Arizona is forever chasing, searching for as though it is their White Whale. If Khalil Tate just plays like he did during that stretch.
But let’s be realistic. He probably won’t. Maybe he flashes, maybe he puts together a nice string of games, but the idea that Tate can sustain that six-game pace for a full season feels well beyond the pale to us. Well beyond. His body will not allow it (even at the end of the 2017 season he was dealing with physical issues) or Kevin Sumlin will not allow it (does Kellen Mond go to bed every night thanking the universe for Jimbo Fisher?) or defenses will have caught up to his tricks or the numbers were simply too over-the-top to begin with.
If all of this sounds doom and gloom to you, understandable. But your author would argue that it’s far more of a reach to just expect to return to the form that he showed for a spell two years back than to expect that we will never see that again. Ahab does eventually find the whale, not that it does anybody any good.
Vegas over/under win total: 7
2018 record: 5-7 (2-7 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: WR Laviska Shenault. Shenault will plow through you and is a load to take down in the open field. So long as he can maintain his health, he plays with such physical presence that he has the potential to develop into a top-line wide receiver at the next level. Very much in play for a top-20 or top-15 selection, and we wouldn't rule out top-10 completely.
The case for: Save us, Laviska Shenault! Colorado may have been the worst team in the Pac-12 this side of Oregon State last season, they may have fired HC Mike MacIntyre after the campaign and they may only have a limited number of pieces, but they have Shenault, and that’s why they matter. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound wideout went for 86-1011-6 last season while serving as one of the conference’s beacons of light.
And he did all of that while fighting through a toe injury which caused him to miss multiple games. Colorado’s offense, predictably, failed to rev without Laviska. That brings us to the first part of CU’s best-case for a bowl push - you have to keep Shenault healthy. With Shenault, the rest of the receiving corps - K.D. Nixon and Tony Brown notable pieces in it - slots into place. Everybody has their roles.
We are fans of QB Steven Montez, who has been consistently decent (if unspectacular) these past two seasons in posting 17/9 and 18/9 TD/INT ratios in 2017 and 2018, respectively, but Montez can only carry the load so much. And the offensive line is interesting, if nothing else. It returns essentially all of its depth, but was exceedingly young a year ago. The hope, here, would be that green reps last season lead to sturdier play this season.
For all of the flash and sizzle of Shenault and to a lesser degree Montez, what we’re most interested in seeing is how HC Mel Tucker applies his defensive touch to proceedings. That is Tucker’s wheelhouse, after all. He has some notable toys, too. Defensive lineman Mustafa Johnson leads this unit after posting 52 tackles (15.5 for loss) with 7.5 sacks last season, but Mustafa won’t have to do it alone. Not with linebacker help from Nate Landman, or secondary help from Davion Taylor.
The Buffs ranked a respectable No. 52 in defensive S&P+ last season. If Shenault, Montez and crew can keep the fire on, there’s defensive hope in enough spots that Colorado could surprise for a bowl.
The case against: Tucker does, indeed, have a few defensive toys to play around with. Johnson is a beast and could have a huge year, for instance. The problem is that the defense essentially only amounts to a few nice pieces. There is almost no depth to speak of, here. Not with linebackers Evan Worthington and Nick Fisher gonzo, not with more/less the entire line vacating the premises outside of Mustafa.
Then there is the offense. Shenault is all kinds of football gorgeous and Montez has his moments, but beyond the soft line mentioned earlier, Colorado’s real issue is that they almost completely lack a running backs room. Last year, Virginia Tech transfer Travon McMillian provided a stable presence. Tucker would have been wise to add another transfer back this offseason, to keep the assembly line moving, but he did not do that.
In total, we’re talking a star wide receiver and respectable quarterback, no running game, a questionable offensive line and a defensive front-seven which could be severely taxed unless a yet-unknown party steps up in a big way. Unfortunately, even if the Buffs were charging toward a bowl berth in November, they wrap up the regular season in brutal fashion, with closing contests against Washington and Utah.
Vegas over/under win total: 4.5
2018 record: 3-9 (3-6 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: CB Darnay Holmes. Holmes has the quickness to bury under opposing wideouts' skins off the snap as though he's the Babadook. He also has one of the best noses for the ball in college, having picked off three passes in each of his two seasons with the Bruins.
The case for: Last November, we started to see glimpses of HC Chip Kelly’s offensive brainchild, as the Bruins topped 25 points scored in four of their last six games, including 34-point and 42-point showings in the final two games of the season. How much to read into this late-season blossoming, as it was Wilton Speight largely doing the damage, posting 335 passing yards against Arizona State and 466 passing yards (whaaaat) against Stanford.
Assuming that Dorian Thompson-Robinson can perform on the level, several other offensive pieces are already in place. They have a reliable punch at both running back and receiver in Joshua Kelley and Theo Howard, respectively.
To be completely honest with you, dear reader, we don’t yet know how to judge Chip’s second collegiate run. There simply is not enough information. What we do know, the Bruins have lagged in recruiting, apparently by Kelly’s choice. Rivals ranked their 2019 recruiting class as the No. 44 haul for that cycle (they're currently at No. 64 for 2020). He is simply targeting different kinds of players than the consensus mainstream. We will see if Chip’s trust in his own methods ends up biting him. It might. For now, the work continues as UCLA tries to form itself in Kelly’s image.
The case against: You know who doesn’t target three-star recruits, by and large? Alabama. Clemson. Georgia. Ohio State. The teams that win all the time. UCLA was already at a talent disadvantage when Kelly took over the team. That disadvantage will grow larger if Kelly’s recruiting bets do not hit.
Dorian-Thompson Robinson did not play well last season and it took Wilton Speight to rev the offense. That is problematic, because we know who Wilton Speight is, and even beyond that Wilton Speight (who, probably a fine human being, was not a good quarterback) is not walking through the door to save the day. If Thompson-Robinson performs as he did last fall, when he threw for 1,311 yards (57.7% completions) with a 7/4 TD/INT ratio, Kelly might not have an answer for the problem.
And if the Bruins can’t keep the offensive mojo going which Speight somehow magically tapped into, this is not a defense which can prop up the offense while it figures things out. We are in on UCLA’s secondary, led by corners Darnay Holmes and Elijah Gates and safety Quentin Lake.
Looking at this from another angle, the pass-rush is kitten strong and leaves the secondary hung out to dry too often for comfort. Amaze your friends with this fact during your next UCLA viewing party -- last season, LB Keisean Lucier-South led the Bruins with...four sacks. Yikes.
Ultimately, it’s only fair to wait on Chip. This was always going to be a process. And he did somehow turn Wilton Speight into Josh Rosen for two games. We just wonder if it might be 2020, or 2021, before Kelly finally gets this ship out of the dock. And we would be lying if we said that we didn't wonder how much patience Kelly might have if the program is only just starting to get it together a year or two from now.
Vegas over/under win total: 5.5