Justin Herbert, Oregon
Herbert’s visit to Rice-Eccles Stadium last November will be remembered partly for Utah’s four sacks of him and Jaylon Johnson’s fourth-down pass deflection that saved the Utes’ victory.
Yet even in defeat, Herbert did some remarkable things, completing 20 of 33 passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns against one of the Pac-12′s best secondaries. An overlooked element of that game was how Oregon center Jake Hanson missed the first half, due to a targeting ejection the previous game. Once the Ducks’ pass protection was solidified in the third quarter, Herbert became highly effective. And with St. George product Penei Sewell returning from injury this season, Oregon figures to have the Pac-12′s top offensive line.
Herbert will thrive behind that line, aided by a strong running game and capable receivers. He would have been a high draft pick in April, but he chose to return for his senior season and is a potential No. 1 choice overall. The Ducks could meet Utah only in the Pac-12 championship game, creating a great matchup with the Utes' defense. Oregon will face a similarly tough defensive line in the season opener vs. Auburn. If Herbert can avoid the Tigers' rush, he could exploit Auburn.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Clay Helton, USC
If Helton is fired in late September, disregard this pick. Here's the logic behind it: This might be the only foreseeable year when USC coach is eligible for the award that usually goes to an overachieving team. Coming off a 5-7 season and facing a front-loaded schedule, Helton and his staff will have to do great some work to survive. If they do, they'll be rewarded, just this once.
The Trojans' first six games are vs. Fresno State, vs. Stanford, at BYU, vs. Utah, at Washington and at Notre Dame. If they manage to go 4-2 in that stretch, which is not unreasonable, they'll be on their way.
COACH ON THE HOT SEAT
Clay Helton, USC
Repeating the choice of Helton in this category is not a contradiction. It helps explain why he’s a Coach of the Year candidate. The conference’s other coaches, who vote for the postseason awards, understand what he’s up against this season – even while recognizing USC’s talent level. Some percentage of USC’s fan base will be cheering against Helton in September, hoping the Trojans will upgrade their staffing (hello, Urban Meyer). USC appeared inferior to Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium in a 41-28 loss last October, and the Utes’ Sept. 20 visit to the Coliseum becomes very important to Helton’s future.
TEAM TO BEAT
The main reason Utah was picked to win the Pac-12 championship in the conference’s published media poll was Oregon and Washington split the votes in the North, effectively eliminating the other from being chosen overall. Nearly every voter selected Utah from the South, and just enough of them chose the Utes over the North winner. Not even the most loaded team in Utah’s Pac-12 era quite matches the talent level of the Ducks or Huskies. Oregon and Washington will stage a great duel Oct. 19 in Seattle, with Justin Herbert’s passing making the difference for the Ducks.
DON’T SLEEP ON
The Sun Devils were picked low in the Pac-12 South last season, apparently because people figured Herm Edwards would mess up the operation in his return to coaching. That didn’t happen. ASU beat Utah with a healthy Zack Moss playing for the Utes and Tyler Huntley coming off a phenomenal October (Utah trailed in the third quarter when Huntley left with a broken collarbone). This season, the Sun Devils are being overlooked because of having to replace quarterback Manny Wilkins and receiver N’Keal Harry, but they have running back Eno Benjamin and a veteran offensive line. Jayden Daniels, a prime Utah recruiting target, was named the starting quarterback as a freshman.
TEAM YOU DON’T WANT TO PLAY
The traditional answer is a team such as Utah or Stanford, because of the physical toll. It’s also true that Washington State is not the only Pac-12 school with a spread offense. But coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid requires a different kind of preparation, plus the chore of rushing the passer 60 or 70 times a game and getting frustrated by giving up a bunch of yards. Utah altered its defensive scheme in the first half last September, using three defensive linemen instead of four, but it didn’t work as the Cougars scored 21 points. And then WSU won the game with an 89-yard touchdown pass.
TEAM WITH NO CHANCE
The Beavers improved just enough last season to cost former Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre his job with a comeback victory and they have a great running back, sophomore Jermar Jefferson. OSU is a long way away from becoming competitive again in the Pac-12 North, though. The program's recent struggles underscore how good of a coaching job Mike Riley did for a long stretch, before his recruiting tailed off and the other Northwest schools stopped kidding around. Jonathan Smith looks like a good, young coach, but this project is going to take awhile in Corvallis.
MOST OVERRATED PLAYER
Colby Parkinson, Stanford
This pick reflects how tight end is just not a prominent position in the Pac-12, especially in terms of the volume of receptions. Somebody had to be selected as the tight end on the preseason All-Pac-12 team, and Parkinson was chosen after catching 29 passes in 13 games last season. His receptions accounted for a 16.7-yard average and seven touchdowns, though, and he's a good blocker in Stanford's scheme. Yet the opportunity exists for a player such as Utah sophomore Cole Fotheringham to emerge as the conference's best tight end, in competition with Washington's Hunter Bryant and Oregon's Jacob Breeland.
MOST UNDERRATED PLAYER
Khalil Tate, Arizona
Only in the modern world could a quarterback go from a regional cover of Sports Illustrated to being underrated in one year. Tate's disappointing 2018 season, partly attributable to injuries, makes him overlooked in 2019 and eligible for this distinction. There's an argument that Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin didn't maximize Tate's skills in their first season together, basically taking away the QB's running ability. If Tate returns to his 2017 form, he could alter the look of the Pac-12 South. As Stanford coach David Shaw said, “People have forgotten about this monster named Tate. … When he's healthy, he's as good as anybody in college football.”
FUTURE HOUSEHOLD NAME
Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon
Having the country’s top-ranked player in the ESPN 300 in the class of 2019 leave his home in southern California, yet stay in the Pac-12, was a major breakthrough for Oregon. The defensive end from Oaks Christian High School also was named USA Today’s Defensive Player of the Year. Thibodeaux enrolled at Oregon in January and should have immediate impact. “I’ve said this a few times, and I really mean it: The most impressive part about Kayvon is not the five stars that sit beside his name, it’s his five-star attitude and work ethic,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said.
HOW THEY’LL FINISH
1 – Oregon
Ducks must play better on the road to rise above Washington.
2 – Washington
Husky fans hope QB Jacob Eason is an upgrade over Jake Browning.
3 – Stanford
Cardinal's biggest splash may come outside of conference play.
4 – Washington State
Mike Leach was a deserving choice as Coach of the Year in 2018.
5 – California
Bears were good enough to beat Washington last season.
6 – Oregon State
How were Beavers ever as competitive as they once were?
1 – Utah
Utes have been building to this point for a few years.
2 – USC
Seems impossible for Trojans to remain down, with their talent.
3 – Arizona State
Freshman QB Jayden Daniels chose Sun Devils over Utah.
4 – UCLA
Bruins were very young in 2018; they'll be better.
5 – Arizona
QB Khalil Tate can lift the Wildcats, if he stays healthy.
6 – Colorado
Buffaloes take seven-game losing streak into 2019 season.