The Pac-12 South is an interesting case. While the North has been dominated by perennial contenders Oregon, Stanford and Washington, the South has been more of a mixed bag, with some programs on the rise, some on the decline and others in between. As I did a few weeks ago with our fellow Pac-12 North opponents, let’s take a look Oregon’s South opponents in 2019 and preview the matchups.
Odds to win conference: +1000
Plays Oregon: Week 10, LA Memorial Coliseum
Overview: USC’s offseason started off with tremendous promise but turned into yet another disappointment. When USC hired Kliff Kingsbury to be offensive coordinator, the entire conference trembled in fear. Kingsbury is one of the best young offensive minds in the game, and with USC’s athletes, he would have lit up scoreboards up and down I-5. About a month after accepting the ‘SC job, Kingsbury jumped ship and accepted the head coach job with the Arizona Cardinals.
The Trojans, still in need of an OC, went back to the state of Texas and brought Graham Harrell to Hollywood — the same Harrell who broke NCAA passing records under Mike Leach at Texas Tech. Harrell took the ‘SC job, leaving the University of North Texas, where his offenses scored 35.6 ppg and 34.6 ppg the prior two years.
If Harrell is able to have similar success at USC, the Trojans can become one the best teams in the conference. JT Daniels, the returning starter at quarterback, will have plenty of opportunities to sling the ball, and he should excel in Harrell’s version of the Air Raid offense.
But the buzz in Compton is about the future, or lack thereof, of the Trojans’ much-criticized head coach Clay Helton. Rumors will be buzzing all season long. “Is Urban Meyer heading to USC?” will be a headline you will see multiple times. Will the headline prove to be true? I don’t know. But I do know that the clock on Helton is ticking. His seat is scorching hot right now.
Prediction: No team ever starts a season with more expectations than USC, and for the last decade the Trojans haven’t been able to live up to them. USC is a few years away from becoming a contender again. Oregon goes into the Coliseum and handles business 38-21.
Odds to win conference: +1000
Plays Oregon: Week 11, Autzen Stadium
Overview: Arizona is in year two under Kevin Sumlin and year three with Khalil Tate. Their relationship together started a bit rocky, but things seem to have smoothed out. The Wildcats don’t have high expectations, but they’ll most likely finish with a record above .500.
Last season, Arizona was everyone’s dark-horse team, and rightfully so. With a Heisman contender at quarterback and an offensive-minded head coach, the Wildcats should have been great. But neither Tate nor Sumlin were able to live up to expectations, and they finished with an underwhelming 5-7 record.
But Tate didn’t have a “bad” season. He actually played incredibly well. Just comparing numbers, Tate was very close to Justin Herbert. This season may prove to be more challenging, though. Tate lost most of his pass catchers and will primarily be throwing to freshmen. Tate might need a few weeks to bring the offense up to speed, but by the time the Wildcats visit Autzen, they’ll be zooming.
The Wildcats’ biggest problem last year was their defense’s inability to stop anyone. Their offense averaged 31.3 ppg, but the defense allowed 32.6. I’m no mathematician, but I think you want score more points than you allow….
Can the defense get more stops this season? I don’t see it. If anything, I think it gets worse. Can Tate score 40 points a game? If he can, Arizona will do well. If he can’t, be prepared for another 5-7 season.
Prediction: Last year, Arizona put a beating on the Ducks, winning 44-15. Herbert played as if it was his first-ever college football game. This year, Oregon gets some revenge and returns the favor. Oregon wins going away 48-20.
Odds to Win Conference: +2300
Plays Oregon: Week 12, Sun Devil Stadium
Overview: Last year, in Herm Edwards’s return to coaching, Arizona State had an up and down year, which was better than most thought. It’s hard for any coach to step into a program and have success in year one, especially when that coach hasn’t coached in a decade.
Edwards led the Sun Devils to a 7-6 record in his first season — the same record that Todd Graham led them to in his final season. Edwards built a great foundation, and because of it, Arizona State should improve this season. But they’ll have to replace a departing senior QB, and a pretty good one at that, in Manny Wilkins.
The Sun Devils have a handful of young men to replace Wilkins. The two most likely are Jayden Daniels and Dillon Sterling-Cole.
Daniels, 6’3”, 180 lbs., was a four-star recruit and the second-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the 2019 class. Sterling-Cole, 6’3”, 215 lbs., was also a four-star recruit and was the 14th-ranked pro-style quarterback coming out of high school. Edwards and OC Rob Likens have a difficult choice ahead of them, as the two players bring different skill sets to the table. Likens did say he would like to “make a decision by August 15th.” Don’t be surprised if both Daniels and Sterling-Cole end up taking snaps, though.
The shining star of this team will be running back Eno Benjamin, the best running back in the Pac-12. He can do it all, including catching passes out of the backfield. On the ground, he averaged 5.5 yards per carry in 2018. However, a running back can’t carry a team in the Pac-12. ASU will need its quarterback to play at an above-average level to keep opposing defenses honest.
Prediction: Oregon’s 21 second quarter points in last season’s matchup were the only reason they won. Arizona State dominated the second half, surrendering only a field goal. N’keal Harry was the definition of unguardable last season, but he’s in the NFL now.
Even with Harry and Wilkins gone, the Sun Devils will be pretty good, which is awful for Oregon, because this game is on the road, and the Ducks don’t play well in the desert. This game has all of the signs of a classic trap game: it’s on the road, near the end of the season, right after a big-time matchup against USC. Oregon gets trapped; ASU wins 31-28.
Odds to Win Conference: +12000
Plays Oregon: Week 7, Autzen Stadium
Overview: The only Pac-12 team to hire a new head coach is Colorado. Mel Tucker, who was the defensive coordinator at Georgia, will bring SEC toughness with him to Boulder. He has a couple of Bednarik award watchlist players in his front seven who will flourish in his system. Linebacker Nate Landman and defensive lineman Mustafa Johnson will both create pressure and stop the run.
In his final season at Georgia, Tucker’s defense ranked in the top 15 in both total defense and scoring defense. Tucker isn’t going to be able to replicate that success in his first year with the Buffs. But he has the makings of a good coach, and hopefully some SEC school swoops him up to keep him out of the conference if he starts doing really well.
On offense, Colorado will be led by senior quarterback Steven Montez. His two seasons as a starter are practically identical, and in all three years of his career, his yards per attempt have been nearly identical: 7.7 in year one, 7.9 in year two and 7.1 in year three. I’m going to go out on a limb and say he does it again this year. Those are solid numbers, but nothing to keep defensive coordinators up at night over.
Prediction: Remember when I said Oregon doesn’t play well in the desert? Well, they don’t on weeknights, either. Luckily, this is a Friday and not a Thursday. Even luckier, the one non-Saturday game Oregon plays is against one of the worst teams in the conference. Oregon could easily have another trap game here, but I predict they’ll handle business. The crowd may be a bit less hyped than normal due to the work week, but the Ducks rally and win 45-21.
Odds to win conference: +500
Overview: I know what you’re thinking. “You forgot to tell me when and where they play Oregon?‘ Or, “Utah doesn’t play Oregon!” And you’re right. But as my buddy Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast!”
This is your 2019 conference championship game!
Utah is a really good football team. They will roll through the South and sweep the division. They have a defense that will stop any team in the country. They did lose some players, headlined by Marquise Blair, but Utah won’t have to rebuild. It can reload. Last season, the Utes only allowed 19.4 ppg, and in the Pac-12 title game, they held Washington to 10. If QB Tyler Huntley had played, Utah probably scores at least 11.
Utah needs Huntley to stay healthy and lead the offense to a few touchdowns a game. The defense can take care of the rest. Huntley will also receive help from senior running back Zach Moss.
Prediction: The Utes will spend some time this season in the top 10 of the rankings, and hopefully that’s where they are come conference championship time. Oregon also needs to be in that range if the Pac-12 wants any chance of a playoff berth. This game is going to be wild, and both teams are going to have their work cut out for them.
This game looks more similar to last year’s title game than those before it, and once again the Utes’ offense lets them down. Oregon wins the Pac-12 title 17-10.
Does Oregon Make the Playoffs?
If what I say is true and Oregon only loses one conference game and beats Auburn in Week 1, it’s still a maybe. Clemson and Alabama each have to lose two games to not make it, and OU and Michigan are both in if they win their conferences with one loss. Without going undefeated, Oregon will need help.
My final prediction: Oregon finally breaks through though with a great season, putting the ghosts of Mark Helfrich and Willie Taggart to rest. The Mario Cristobal era hits full stride, and the Ducks go to a Rose Bowl with their heads held high.
Wilsonville, Oregon Top Photo by Harry Caston
Phil Anderson, the FishDuck.com Volunteer editor for this article, is a trial lawyer in Bend Oregon.
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