2019 Pac-12 Power Rankings: Will Oregon and Utah live up to the hype?

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 conference power rankings. With the official start of the college football season just days away, we’re power ranking the teams in each FBS conference. Next up is the Pac-12.

Other Power Rankings: ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Group of Five, SEC

12. Oregon State (2018 record: 2-10, 1-8 Pac-12)

Jonathan Smith inherited a mess from Gary Andersen when he got the head-coaching job at his alma mater. His first season was a rough one. The Beavers went 2-10, but Smith found out he has some explosive players on offense.

Jermar Jefferson rushed for 1,380 yards and 12 TDs as a true freshman while receivers Isaiah Hodgins and Trevon Bradford combined for 115 receptions for 1,525 yards and will be reliable options for QB Jake Luton, a sixth-year senior who beat out Nebraska transfer Tristan Gebbia. On defense, nine starters return from a defense that allowed 536.8 yards per game. Only UConn was worse.

11. Colorado (5-7, 2-7)

Mike MacIntyre led Colorado to a Pac-12 South title in 2016, but back-to-back losing seasons ended up costing him his job after six seasons. The Buffs started 5-0 last fall, but closed the season on a seven-game losing streak. But the cupboard isn’t bare for new coach Mel Tucker.

Tucker inherits a proven starting QB in Steven Montez and a star at receiver in Laviska Shenault, but there’s plenty of work to be done on defense. Middle linebacker Nate Landman (104 tackles) and defensive end Mustafa Johnson (15.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks) are two players he can rely on. There’s not much proven talent elsewhere. The schedule — Oregon, Washington State and Utah on the road — won’t make it easy to get back to a bowl.

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10. UCLA (3-9, 3-6)

UCLA should be a lot better in its second season under Chip Kelly, but there may not be much of an increase in the win column. The Bruins face Cincinnati — a team that beat UCLA in L.A. last year — to open the season before hosting San Diego State and Oklahoma in Weeks 2 and 3. That’s a brutal non-conference slate. Not to mention, the Bruins play their most difficult Pac-12 games — Washington State, Stanford, Utah and USC — on the road.

Kelly was forced to play a lot of inexperienced players in 2018. That should benefit the Bruins in 2019. Dorian Thompson-Robinson is back at QB, Joshua Kelley came out of nowhere to finish fifth in the Pac-12 in rushing (1,243 yards) and receiver Theo Howard (119 career catches) returns for his senior season. The offense should be much better, but if there’s not a big jump on defense you shouldn’t expect the Bruins to reach a bowl game.

9. Arizona (5-7, 4-5)

Kevin Sumlin and Khalil Tate seemed like a good match but Arizona ended up being a big disappointment in 2018. Sumlin changed some things on offense, limiting Tate’s ability as a runner. And when Tate hurt his ankle, things only got worse for the offense. The Wildcats started the year 3-5 but had a chance to reach a bowl against rival Arizona State, only to blow a 40-21 third quarter lead and lose 41-40.

That’s a terrible way to end a season, but with Taylor back, four starting linemen returning and Tate healthy and better aligned with Sumlin, there’s reason for optimism on offense entering 2019. The defense returns six of its top seven tacklers, but showed in the Week 0 loss to Hawaii that there’s a lot of work to be done.

8. Cal (7-6, 4-5)

Cal was a complete mess offensively in 2018. The Golden Bears turned the ball over 31 times, more than any team in the nation. That ineptitude was on full display in the Cheez-It Bowl, a 10-7 loss to TCU, but so was the strength of the defense. Cal ranked 15th nationally in total defense (317.2 ypg) and 22nd in scoring defense, allowing just 20.4 points per game.

Entering Justin Wilcox’s third season, Cal returns seven starters on defense, including all four in the secondary, a group that could be the Pac-12’s best. Middle linebacker Evan Weaver, who tallied a ridiculous 159 tackles, is also back for his senior season. This defense is going to keep Cal in a lot of games. If the offense can improve even a little bit, it could go a long way.

7. Arizona State (7-6, 5-4)

There weren’t many expectations for Arizona State after the school hired Herm Edwards. But the Sun Devils had some nice moments as the season progressed, including upsets over Michigan State and Utah and a comeback win over rival Arizona to clinch a winning record. In 2019, Edwards will have a true freshman starting at QB with Jayden Daniels, a top 100 recruit. Daniels is a promising prospect, but RB Eno Benjamin is the offense’s best player. Benjamin finished fifth in the country with 1,642 yards.

The defense should be solid yet again in 2019 with seven starters returning. The Sun Devils are especially strong at linebacker, a unit led by Merlin Robertson and Darien Butler. Robertson, Butler and safety Aashari Crosswell both emerged as standouts in 2018 as true freshmen. They could be all-conference caliber players in 2019.

6. USC (5-7, 4-5)

In 2018, USC finished with a losing record for the first time since 2000, but the school decided to bring back Clay Helton for another season. The Trojans started the year 4-2 before losing five of their last six games down the stretch. It wasn’t pretty, and Helton will get one final shot to save his job in 2019. He has plenty of talent on his roster. It is USC, after all.

J.T. Daniels, a former five-star recruit, leads the way at QB and has his top three receivers — Michael Pittman, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns — are back in the fold. Those guys will be fun pieces for new coordinator Graham Harrell to use in what is expected to be more of an Air Raid scheme. But if the season starts slowly, things may deteriorate. The Trojans open with Fresno State and Stanford at home before facing BYU on the road, Utah at home and then Washington and Notre Dame on the road. Yikes.

5. Washington State (11-2, 7-2)

Mike Leach keeps finding ways to win. Last year, he brought in Gardner Minshew from ECU and he lit up Pac-12 defenses, leading the Cougars to a surprising 11-win season. In 2019, it will be fifh-year senior Anthony Gordon, Minshew’s backup last year, as the starter. Gordon beat out Gage Gubrud, a graduate transfer from Eastern Washington for the starting job. Gubrud set records in the Big Sky.

On defense, WSU really struggled defending the run last year. Losing LB Peyton Pelluer and safety Jalen Thompson, arguably the unit’s top two players, won’t help matters. On top of that, the Cougars have to travel to Utah, Oregon and Washington this year. The Cougars will undoubtedly get back to a bowl game, but it’s hard to envision them competing for the North crown.

4. Stanford (9-4, 6-3)

Stanford had a pretty underwhelming 2018 season. The Cardinal started 4-0, lost four of their next five, and then won four straight to finish the year. They lost to better teams and then took care of business against the Pac-12 bottom feeders. It’s hard to envision a much different scenario in 2019 — especially when you consider the difficulty of a schedule that has Northwestern, UCF and Notre Dame as non-conference games.

David Shaw’s offense returns K.J. Costello at QB, stud left tackle Walker Little and tight end Colby Parkinson. The rest of that side of the ball is mostly unproven, so this is one of those years where the program’s recruiting and development needs to come to the forefront. The defense has more all-around depth to be excited about. Paulson Adebo, a second-year starter at cornerback, is coming off an all-conference season.

3. Washington (10-4, 7-2)

Coming off a Pac-12 title, Washington must replace two of the best players in program history. At quarterback, five-star Georgia transfer Jacob Eason beat out sophomore Jake Haener and will look to fill the void left behind by four-year starter Jake Browning. There’s no question, however, who will step in for Myles Gaskin at running back. Salvon Ahmed has combined for 996 yards over the last two seasons and is in line for a breakout year.

On the other side of the ball, the Huskies have five NFL draft choices to replace. The unit returns only two starters and is especially unproven at the linebacker spot. Fortunately for the Huskies, the schedule shakes out very favorably. Washington faces Oregon, Washington State, Utah and USC at home. The non-conference run is easy and UW’s toughest road game will come against Stanford on Oct. 5. Don’t be surprised if you see the Huskies back in the conference title game.

For a more in-depth look at Washington, No. 16 in our preseason top 25, click here.

2. Utah (9-5, 6-3)

Utah finally won its first Pac-12 South title in 2018 and enters 2019 as a favorite to win the league outright. The Utes have star seniors at both quarterback (Tyler Huntley) and running back (Zack Moss), as well as a versatile receiver in Britain Covey. Huntley and Moss are both coming off injuries and will be relying on a revamped offensive line this year.

Even with star power like that on offense, the strength of the team is the defense. The defensive line is especially loaded, with Leki Potu and John Penisini in the middle and Bradlee Anae rushing off the edge. The secondary also has all-conference caliber players with Jaylon Johnson at corner and Julian Blackmon, who is moving from corner to safety. And from a schedule perspective, the Utes won’t have to play Stanford and Oregon out of the North like they did last year. Instead, it’s Oregon State and Cal.

For a more in-depth look at Utah, No. 14 in our preseason top 25, click here.

1. Oregon (9-4, 5-4)

It was a close call, but the overall scope of talent on the Oregon roster gave the Ducks the edge over the Utes. It all starts with Justin Herbert, the potential No. 1 pick, at quarterback. And he’s got C.J. Verdell and Travis Dye back at running back, a deep group of receivers (though losing Dillon Mitchell hurts) and the conference’s best offensive line.

The defense is loaded with talent, too. Senior linebacker Troy Dye, who logged 115 tackles a year ago, is one of seven starters back on that side of the ball under new coordinator Andy Avalos, who steps into the position after seven seasons at Boise State. Defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, a five-star freshman, is in the mix for a starting role from the jump.

We clearly believe Mario Cristobal’s team is the most talented in the conference, but the schedule is really tough. The Ducks face Auburn in a marquee non-conference matchup in Week 1 and also drew road games against Stanford, Washington and USC in conference play.

For a more in-depth look at Oregon, No. 11 in our preseason top 25, click here.

Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert is back for his senior season and could be the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL draft. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar, File)

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