Bryce Love, Stanford
The 2017 Heisman Trophy runner-up's return for his senior season makes him an easy choice. Remarkably, five Stanford players have finished second in the Heisman voting since 2009. Love is one of those classic running backs with a knack for breaking long runs, after seemingly being contained. Utah understands, after Love's 68-yard touchdown run clinched the Cardinal's victory in Salt Lake City last October. Love will complete a degree in human biology in December, two quarters short of four years. His medical school plans may have to wait until after his NFL career, however.
Coach of the Year
Chip Kelly, UCLA
The trick with this pick is identifying a potentially overachieving team. That's not easy, but the Bruins' being picked fourth in the Pac-12 South gives Kelly a decent shot at the award. The conference has changed since he coached at Oregon. In those days, as he said, the Ducks were the only team with shiny helmets and a revolutionary offense. Other teams have that stuff now, and UCLA's talent is not exceptional. Even so, Kelly's teams tend to make a big impression in his first season, and that could happen again with the Bruins.
Coach on the hot seat
Mike MacIntyre, Colorado
It may have been reasonable to shelve this category for 2018, after a year when five coaches were replaced in the Pac-12. Realistically, trending toward “warm” is the worst that MacIntyre could do this season, being only two years removed from a Pac-12 South championship. What's worth watching is whether Colorado permanently slides back to the bottom rung of the division after everything converged in its favor in 2016, or if the Buffaloes occasionally can make a run at a top-half finish. Folsom Field remains a great venue, regardless.
Team to beat
Pac-12 administrators secretly have to be cheering for the Huskies. The Pac-12 needs to restore its national presence, and Washington is the conference's best hope in 2018. Even if the Huskies lose to Auburn in their Sept. 1 opener in Atlanta, they will remain positioned for the College Football Playoff if they go unbeaten in the Pac-12. They won't overwhelm all of their conference opponents, as recent history shows, so they'll need to win some tough games. Clearly, though, coach Chris Petersen is fulfilling the expectations that accompanied his hiring.
Don’t sleep on
For all of his success, David Shaw remains among the most underrated coaches in the country. The Cardinal's year-by-year win totals since he succeeded Jim Harbaugh in 2011 are 11, 12, 11, eight, 12, 10 and nine. Thanks to Stanford, No. 6 Washington is not even the defending champion of the Pac-12 North. If Stanford beats USC in the second week of the season, the Cardinal could be on their way to big things in 2018. Either way, they'll present a challenge to Washington and will be another tough opponent for Utah in the first half of the season.
Team you don’t want to play
Utah is the traditional answer to this question, and that’s not a hometown pick or a case of the other coaches being condescending. Just look at how the Utes played USC and Washington on the road last season, coming within a yard (on a 2-point conversion try) of beating the Trojans and then needing only a first down offensively or a fourth-down stop defensively to put away the Huskies. Utah’s physical nature presents a challenge to every Pac-12 opponent.
Team with no chance
It's true that the Beavers could or even should have beaten Colorado and Stanford last season, after interim coach Cory Hall briefly rejuvenated them, but they're a distant 12th in a 12-team conference. They've gone winless in Pac-12 play in two of the past three seasons, and this could be another 0-9 campaign. FCS member Southern Utah even has a reasonable shot at an upset in Corvallis. The hallmark of the Pac-12 is there's never an easy week in conference play, but teams that have OSU on their 2018 schedules get the closest thing to a break.
Most overrated player
Steven Montez, Colorado
He's not a self-promoting guy, so this label is not Montez's fault. He just gets too much credit as the quarterback of a team that went 2-7 in the Pac-12 last season. Montez completed only 14 of 28 passes against Utah in November with a bowl trip at stake, and the bulk of his 195 yards came after the Buffaloes trailed 28-0. In his defense, Montez posted some big numbers last year, including 376 yards vs. USC, but Colorado beat only California and Oregon State in league play. He can play his way out of this title with a good game at Nebraska on Sept. 8.
Most underrated player
Patrick Laird, California
Weber State knows all about Cal’s running back and BYU will see him in person Sept. 8 in Provo. The Wildcats may have upset Cal last September if not for the breakout, 191-yard performance of Laird, a former walk-on who had gained a total of 74 yards in two-plus seasons. Seizing the job after initially replacing an injured teammate, Laird finished his junior season with games of 153 yards vs. Stanford and 178 yards vs. UCLA, and the Bears will be relying on him this year. Laird is a popular figure in Berkeley, having conducted a summer reading program for children.
Future household name
JT Daniels, USC
With a job description of quarterbacking the Trojans, it is just about impossible for anyone to be undiscovered. Daniels qualifies for this label only because he has never played in a college game. He's already well known, as Gatorade National Player of the Year and a recruit who reclassified to 2018, making himself eligible to join USC's program this summer. The early reports in camp suggested Daniels looked like a genuine college QB, and the proof will come against the likes of Stanford, Texas and Utah between now and mid-October.
HOW THEY’LL FINISH
Huskies visit Utah for a “Blackout” game and host BYU in September.
Good early tests await the Cardinal, with San Diego State, USC, Notre Dame and Oregon.
The Ducks were 6-2 with quarterback Justin Herbert last season and 1-4 without him.
4. Washington State
Mike Leach's team was picked fifth in the official poll, but Cougs are still dangerous.
Bears' visit to BYU in the second game could determine each team's bowl eligibility.
6. Oregon State
Jonathan Smith won a bunch of games as OSU's QB, but his coaching job is challenging.
Trojans could lose at Utah and still win the division title, thanks to an easier schedule.
If quarterback Tyler Huntley stays healthy, Troy Taylor's offense could get humming.
Inheriting QB Khalil Tate made Tucson a nice landing spot for coach Kevin Sumlin.
September games vs. Oklahoma and Fresno State will provide a good gauge of the Bruins.
5. Arizona State
The Herm Edwards Experiment will have all of college football paying attention.
The Utes are tired of hearing that the Buffaloes won a South title before they did.