The Pac-12 continues to try and make headway in the College Football Playoff with standouts like Washington and Washington State falling short in 2018. While both programs should be back in the mix this upcoming season, Oregon could also make the case as well.
Heading into this season, here are three questions facing the Pac-12:
1. Can the Pac-12 return to the College Football Playoff?
It's been a rough go as of late for the Pac-12, which found itself left out of the College Football Playoff picture once again; the third time in the five years since the playoffs inception in 2014. Washington finished as the highest-ranked conference team at ninth with Washington State just a few spots lower at No. 13. For the most part, the league has been hampered by a less-than-stellar record against Power 5 opponents, which has been a point of contention among the playoff selection committee. Then there is the overwhelming parity throughout the conference, which has struck contending team's at the most inopportune times.
Washington once again appears the favorite in the Pac-12 with Oregon a close second. Both teams feature schedules with seven bowl-eligible teams from last season with the Ducks facing a P5 challenger in Auburn. To be honest, Stanford faces one of the toughest nonconference schedules with matchup against Northwestern, UCF and Notre Dame - three teams ranked in the top 25 at the end of 2018.
To that end it's going to take a nearly perfect season by a Pac-12 team to qualify for playoff consideration especially with more than a handful of challengers including Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Notre Dame, to name a few who will push for the top four spots.
2. Does Justin Herbert's return signal an Oregon resurgence?
Justin Herbert's decision to forgo the NFL draft and return to Oregon was a surprise ... a nice sort of surprise for Ducks coach Mario Cristobal. For a program coming off a nine-win season and a top 12 ranking, the return of an experienced quarterback who is coming off a 3,000-yard passing season can only strengthen an offense that returns a 1,000-yard rusher in CJ Verdell and a group of talented receivers led by Penn State transfer Juwan Johnson.
The defense took a major turnaround under defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, going from allowing more than 40 points and 500 yards per game in 2016 to allowing 25 points and 385 yards per game in 2018. That's a solid foundation for Andy Avalos to build on as he takes over the job following Leavitt's departure in February. The unit returns more than its fair share of playmakers like linebacker Troy Dye (115 tackles) and safety Jevon Holland (five interceptions) as well as a few new faces like defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, a 5-star prospect who was the second-best player in the 2019 recruiting class.
All in all, there are enough reasons to believe Oregon can contend for its first Pac-12 title since 2014. Although the challenge remains the same: navigating a much-improved North Division that features contenders Washington, Washington State and Stanford.
3. Will Clay Helton survive the drama at USC?
USC won 21 games in its first two full seasons with Clay Helton in charge including a victory over Penn State in the 2016 Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 championship in 2017. But winning can be as fleeting as memories and an underwhelming 5-7 campaign in 2018 has some Trojans fans questioning Helton's future.
The addition of Kliff Kingsbury as offensive coordinator this offseason brought renewed enthusiasm but his subsequent departure a few weeks later to take the Arizona Cardinals job, was another blow. The decision to hire Graham Harrell for the job, who brings with him a version of the Air Raid offense, could spell good things for an offense that is loaded with talent at the skill position but never seems to live up to that potential. The biggest beneficiary of this new offense should be quarterback JT Daniels, who suffered through the growing pains of a freshman starter. Luckily, it won't all be on his shoulders with playmakers like receivers Amon-Ra St. Brown (750 yards) and Tyler Vaughns (674 yards) as well as tailbacks Vavae Malepeai (501 yards) and Stephen Carr (384 yards) to lean on.
The defense is front-loaded with experience including linebacker John Houston Jr. (67 tackles) but the rest of the unit is young and inexperienced.
While this team should show improvements over last year, a divisional crown is most likely out the question. That will be a tough pill for USC fans to swallow and could force the program to make a move especially with an attractive candidate like Urban Meyer as a possible solution.
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