The Pac-12 promised to be one of college football’s most interesting conferences in 2018 after five new head coaches were hired this offseason to lead their programs to “After Dark” supremacy – and what a quintet we have on our hands. First-time head coaches Mario Cristobal and Justin Smith were tabbed at Oregon and Oregon State, respectively, in hopes to bring the Beaver State’s two FBS programs back to prominence in the North Division. The South, meanwhile, welcomes a trio of familiar faces – Kevin Sumlin at the University of Arizona, Chip Kelly in his return to the college ranks with the UCLA Bruins, and the real humdinger – Herm Edwards in charge of the Sun Devils of Arizona State. No less interesting than each coach’s story, however, has been their starts through two weeks – for better and (mostly) for worse.
Cristobal was promoted from offensive coordinator after one season shortly after Willie Taggart bolted for the Florida State job. Coach Cristobal will be aided in his first year by the nation’s 13th ranked recruiting class, according to 247 Sports, and he has one of the top quarterbacks in the country, 6-foot-6-inch gunslinger Justin Herbert, at his disposal. Cristobal’s reputation as a respected offensive mind comes from his stints as head coach at Florida International and assistant head coach at Alabama from 2013-16. The Ducks have the weakest non-conference schedule of the five squads at hand by quite a margin, loading up on relative cupcakes Bowling Green, Portland State, and San Jose State before they square off against Pac-12 North heavyweights Stanford and Washington in a span of three weeks. There are talent and question marks alike for Oregon on defense, but they have the ability to record nine wins in Cristobal’s debut season if everything comes together.
While expectations are rightfully high in Eugene, it’s no secret that Jonathan Smith is starting from square zero with Oregon State after the program’s 1-11 2017 campaign. The former Beavers QB represents perhaps a (very) poor man’s Scott Frost scenario for the program – after four years overseeing a ridiculously productive Washington Huskies offense, Smith probably could have waited and picked a more desirable job to take, and there’s no question nostalgia factored into Smith’s decision to return to Corvallis. Smith said of his expectations for this season: “I want to see the guys competing for 60 minutes, and I want to see them improving from game one to game twelve.” Game one, as it turned out, could hardly be an easier place to improve from – a 77-31 drubbing at the hands of Ohio State was hardly competitive for the full sixty. Still, Smith might be able to breathe life into a program that has fallen a long way, but the defense – which ranked 121st in the FBS last year – will keep the Beavers from challenging anyone in 2018.
Texas A&M’s boosters might have paid for Kevin Sumlin’s plane ticket out of College Station after the 2017 season, which went pretty much like all of the seasons did during Sumlin’s time in charge of the Aggies – a solid start, too much hype, and a glorious crash and burn to end the season outside of the top 25. Still, Coach Sumlin inherited an offense with some serious talent, notably at quarterback in preseason Heisman hopeful Khalil Tate. The Cats avoid Washington and Stanford in conference play, get USC and Oregon at home, and next thing you know, were being tabbed by many analysts to take the Pac-12 South. That sound you’re hearing is a pack of cougars – those from BYU and Houston, that is – slamming the brakes. In week 1, 11-point underdogs BYU exploded for twenty-one points in the third quarter, and the Wildcats’ ensuing comeback fell short, 28-23. This week, Zona hardly looked awake for their 11 a.m. Central time matchup with Houston, who attacked the Wildcats’ three walk-on defensive backs at will. Trailing 38-0 at one point, the game finished 45-18. With Tate hardly looking like himself as a rushing threat (and probably playing hurt) and a defense that’s being diced like cheddar, Sumlin could be in line for a long first season in Tucson.
Like Sumlin, Kelly was brought on to be a program builder at UCLA, and there’s plenty of reason for optimism with the former Oregon coach on board. I gave the hiring an “A” grade at the time, and many touted Kelly’s arrival as a program-defining moment. And while Bruins fans know he doesn’t have the talent this year, they hardly could’ve expected this 0-2 start. In their opener, UCLA jumped out to a 10-0 first-quarter lead over the AAC’s Cincinnati Bearcats, only to see their lead vanish as last season’s 123rd ranked defense showed its warts. The Bearcats then scored on a safety to take a 19-17 advantage, and later in the fourth quarter with Cincy lining up for a field goal, Kelly’s Bruins were flagged for having too many men on the field and gave up a touchdown on the ensuing play. Amidst all this, grad transfer QB Wilton Speight suffered a back injury that kept him out of this week’s game against Oklahoma, thrusting true freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson into the spotlight. The high-flying Sooners and quarterback Kyler Murray predictably gashed the Bruins for 485 yards in a 49-21 breeze. The rough start may be a sign of things to come, as the team avoids none of the big names in Pac-12 play. Perhaps even more concerning for the UCLA faithful is Kelly’s 2019 recruiting class: 87th in the country at the moment according to 247, with no four or five-stars signed on. If athletic director Dan Guerrero could have banked on one thing when Kelly joined the Bruins, it was that Chip was going to masterfully recruit the West, as he did in his Oregon days. If that doesn’t happen, we could be looking at a seriously tarnished reputation for an individual perceived as one of the sport’s finest coaches.
With the jury still out on those aforementioned four hirings, even more so after some quite uninspiring starts, there’s one man still standing tall with two weeks’ worth of dust settled, and what were the odds? All Herm Edwards has done to start the year was wallop a respectable UTSA team 49-7 in Week 1 before taking down 15th-ranked Michigan State 16-13 on Saturday in Tempe on Brian Reese’s field goal as time expired. Picked to go 3-9 by The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman, Edwards has buttoned up what was supposed to be a porous ASU defense while letting the offense cook through QB Manny Wilkins and stud junior wideout N’Keal Harry. The Sun Devils have already crashed the AP Top 25 party in Week 3 in what was supposed to be a tumultuous season from start to finish. I’ll be the first to put my hand up and say I didn’t believe Edwards was the right man for the job in Tempe, citing his lack of recent college coaching experience (Edwards last coached at the college level at San Jose State from 1987-89), advanced age, and mediocre record as an NFL head coach, among other things. Granted, there’s still a long way to go in a season that includes road trips to Washington and USC. If Herm can keep things going in a wide-open Pac-12 South, however, we could be talking about a trip to Santa Clara for the Pac-12 Championship for Sparky and the Devils after the Duel in the Desert takes place in Tucson on November 24th.
2018 looks to be a season of upheaval for the Pac-12 as a whole. Besides the five programs beginning anew with fresh head coaches, there are a number of teams in transition such as Cal in Year 2 under Justin Wilcox and Washington State, which saw expected starting QB Tyler Hilinski tragically pass away in the offseason. Considering how far USC has fallen in the last decade or so, the burden rests on David Shaw’s Stanford and Chris Pederson’s Washington to keep the conference nationally relevant and in College Football Playoff contention, and the Huskies have no room for error following their Week 1 loss to Auburn. Colorado’s thrilling win over Nebraska in Scott Frost’s debut was a nice boost, but there are undoubtedly more questions than answers surrounding the West Coast’s premier programs at this point. What’s for certain is that this campaign won’t lack for intrigue, and as college football fans, we’ll be burning the midnight oil watching every step of the way.
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