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the Gekko Files: a way-too-early peek at the PAC 12 North

Here is a shocker: you all voted Washington as the most likely to win the division in 2018

Las Vegas Bowl - Boise State v Oregon
Is Oregon a team on the upside?
Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

Today we hit part 2 of our two-part, wisdom of crowds-driven, way-too-soon preview of the PAC 12 2018 football season. Last Sunday, we debated the PAC 12 South. There was overwhelming support for USC as the clear favorite despite the fact that there is a bit of roster overhaul underway as guys like Sam Darnold, Ronald Jones and Uchenna Nwosu all move on.

We continue our fan-vote powered previews with the PAC 12 North. Not surprisingly, there is a very clear favorite among the Washington fans that contributed to this preview. That shocks no one, I’m sure.

What interested me in these results was a clear trend towards a shakeup of the projected standings based on how the North finished in 2017 beyond the Washington situation. There was clear coalescence around relative projections for each team in the North even with a few of those teams occupying positions different from how they finished last season.

Let’s jump into it.

PAC 12 North - Projected 2018 Standings

(1) Washington Huskies

(2017 record: 7-2 / 10-3)
Washington’s fan-voted predicted 2018 finish
Chris Landon

Key Losses: DL Vita Vea, OL Coleman Shelton, WR/KR Dante Pettis, LB Keishawn Bierria, TE Will Dissly, K Tristan Vizcaino

Key Returners: QB Jake Browning, OL Trey Adams, RB Myles Gaskin, DB Taylor Rapp, DL Greg Gaines, DB Byron Murphy, LB Ben Burr-Kirven, OL Kaleb McGary, WR Chico McClatcher

Comments: Let the 2018 hype train officially leave the station!

With roughly three-quarters of their total production returning (tops in the nation), a S&P+ survey that has them ranked in the preseason top four, and an opening week kickoff against Auburn on the schedule, there are football fans of all forms predicting a playoff run for Washington.

Clearly, you Husky fans are feeling it.

Washington is blessed with depth and experience at every position. With a 2018 signing class ranked among the best 15 in the nation, that depth is greatly enhanced by a wave of new playmakers and contributors who can do nothing but lift the program even higher. Hell, Washington even has a five-star QB running the scout team.

So, what could go wrong?

Chris Petersen and co. will still need to show that they can generate a pass rush with Vita Vea no longer chewing up two to three blockers. They must also show that there is more big play potential in the offense than what was seen in 2017. Finally, the whole defense needs to show that it can step up more against the better offenses that they face as memories of Fiesta Bowl linger in the minds of the Husky faithful.

These may seem like small things compared to some of the challenges facing others throughout the rest of the division, but it is those small things that make all the difference to this coaching staff.

(2) Stanford Cardinal

(2017 record: 7-2 / 9-5)
Stanford projected finish
Chris Landon

Key Losses: OL David Bright, DL Harrison Phillips, LB Bobby Okereke, TE Dalton Schulz, DB Quenton Meeks, DB Justin Reid, LB Peter Kalambayi, LB Joey Alfieri, QB Keller Chryst, OL Casey Tucker

Key Returners: RB Bryce Love, WR J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, OL Foster Sarell, QB K.J. Costello, OL Nate Herbig, DL Dylan Jackson, LB Curtis Williams

Comments: How unusual was it for the PAC 12’s reigning North Division winner to have an overall record with two more losses on it than the runner-up? Such is the fate of a team when it doesn’t handle its head-to-head business with its biggest threat.

Most of you believe that Stanford will in 2018 once again represent the single greatest threat to UW’s divisional dreams. There is good reason for that.

His name is Bryce Love and, you may have heard, he is the favorite to win the Heisman.

Beyond Love and the big-play production he brings to Stanford’s offense, it is hard to discount the relative depth and balance that Stanford enjoys across the rest of their roster. QB K.J. Costello looks like “the answer” for the Cardinal as a signal caller (though we will be watching his injury status), the offense looks like it will be a strength again despite a few key losses, and the so-called “rebuild” on defense will be accomplished mostly with juniors and seniors who have been with the program for several seasons.

It won’t be perfect. There are real questions about how both the defensive line and the secondary will shape up. You also have to wonder where depth in the receiving corps and rushing attack will come from once you get past the front line depth. But with young players like WR Connor Wedington, TE Kaden Smith, LB Curtis Williams and DB Malik Antoine ready to step forward, it is easier to be optimistic about Stanford.

(3) Oregon Ducks

(2017 record: 4-5 / 7-6)
Oregon projected finish
Chris Landon

Key Losses: RB Royce Freeman, OL Tyrell Crosby, WR Charles Nelson, DB Tyree Robinson, DL Henry Mondeaux, RB Kani Benoit, DB Arrion Springs

Key Returners: QB Justin Herbert, LB Troy Dye, WR Dillon Mitchell, OL Calvin Throckmorton, DB Thomas Graham Jr., DL Jalen Jelks, LB/DB Lamar Winston

Comments: There was definitely an air of optimism surrounding the Ducks in this survey. This despite the well-covered tumult that struck the team in the wake of Willie Taggart’s betrayal ... errrr ... defection.

It’s understandable. We’ve all seen what Justin Herbert can do at QB when healthy. It is also difficult to not believe that Oregon’s young defense is on the upswing, in particular with players like Dye, Jelks, and Winston coming into their own.

Still, new head coach Mario Cristobal is an unknown as a program leader. We don’t really know what changes he will make schematically, nor do we have a sense of how the Ducks will cover what looks like a lack of depth in key offensive positions. The excellent recruiting class just signed will almost assuredly lead to some true freshmen having to play before they might be ready. A reliance on young players is always an issue that can raise doubts in exercises such as this.

(4) Washington State Cougars

(2017 record: 6-3 / 9-4)
WSU projected finish
Chris Landon

Key Losses: QB Luke Falk, WR Tavares Martin, OL Cody O’Connell, DL Hercules Mata’afa, OL Cole Madison, RB Jamal Morrow, K Erik Powell, DL/LB Frankie Luvu, DL Daniel Eukale

Key Returners: WR Kyle Sweet, LB Jahad Woods, WR Davontavean Martin, LB Peyton Pelluer, OL Andrew Dillard, DB Jalen Thompson, WR Jamire Colvin, WR Renard Bell, DL Logan Tago

Comments: Even before the tragic passing of QB Tyler Hilinski, the Cougars were facing a difficult rebuild. The success of 2017 was built largely around the talents of players such as Mata’afa, T. Martin, Morrow, and Falk. With those players all moving on, there are substantial questions about how this team will gel in 2018.

I sense that the rank-and-file PAC 12 fan is starting to get a sense of the upgraded talent that WSU head coach Mike Leach has been bringing to the table in Pullman. Thus, there are very few predictions of the floor crumbling out from underneath the Cougs. It is still going to take some work to rebuild the offensive line, identify a quarterback, and settle in on a defensive line rotation. I definitely think guys like Woods, Thompson, and D. Martin have “star” potential. But Leach is going to have to count on some JC transfers and some young players to plug some gaps.

(5) Cal Bears

(2017 record: 2-7 / 5-7)
Cal projected finish

Key Losses: RB Vic Enwere, LB Devante Downs, RB Tre Watson, WR Jordan Veasy, DL James Looney, LB Raymond Davison, K Matt Anderson, DB Darius Allensworth

Key Returners: RB Patrick Laird, LB Jordan Kunaszyk, QB Ross Bowers, WR Vic Wharton, DB Camryn Bynum, WR Kanawai Noa, DB Jaylinn Hawkins, LB Alex Funches

Comments: It’s hard to understate just how much of an impact Justin Wilcox made in his first season as Cal’s head coach. Recall that in 2016, the Bears were giving up over 42 points per game. In 2017, against a much more difficult schedule, the Bears surrendered just less than 29 per game.

That’s a phenomenal turnaround.

Nevertheless, very few of you who voted feel that Cal has much upside in 2018. This might be as much about the rest of the conference as it is about the Bears. It is clearly possible to improve as a team but not to gain ground on other teams who might also be improving at a similar rate.

That said, the Bears definitely have some questions. Offensive playmaking is going to be an area of emphasis as Cal tries to figure out what to do with talents such as WR Demetris Robertson and WR Melquise Stovall. Running back depth behind senior Patrick Laird is a challenge. Coaxing more development out of a young offensive line that is returning every starter and getting more pressure on opposing QBs are also high priorities this offseason.

Until we see how these issues get addressed, it seems like Cal is destined to be scratching and clawing for bowl eligibility once again in 2018.

(6) Oregon State Beavers

(2017 record: 0-9 / 1-11)
OSU projected finish
Chris Landon

Key Losses: RB Ryan Nall, LB Manase Hungalu, QB Darell Garretson, WR Jordan Villamin, RB Thomas Tyner

Key Returners: QB Jake Luton, DB Jalen Moore, TE Noah Togiai, WR Timmy Hernandez, LB Bright Ugwoegbu, RB Artavis Pierce, DB David Morris, LB Andrzej Hughes-Murray

Comments: Jonathan Smith has his hands full as he takes over a beaten and battered team in Corvallis. The good news, if there is any, is that he wasn’t handed a kitchen with completely bare cupboards.

Yes, the Beavers will have a major issue replacing the production lost by Ryan Nall on offense and Manase Hungalu on defense. You could argue that those two players were the two best on the entire roster last season. But there are some pieces left over from Gary Andersen’s tenure that can play.

I’m particularly interested to see what Smith does with his young star tight end Noah Togiai. In addition, young DBs like Moore and Morris give the Beavers something to build around on defense.

Unfortunately, there are not nearly enough of those pieces going into 2018. Thus a rather dire outlook as voted on by our readers.

In many ways, 2018 kind of feels like 2017 in that the North seems to have a greater preponderance of experienced returners, more stable coaching staffs and better overall prospects than their compatriots to the South. UW is a clear favorite coming from the North, but would there be any hesitation to pick Stanford or even Oregon over a South rival in a theoretical PAC 12 Championship game?

I wouldn’t feel any based on what we know today.

Taken as a whole, though, it is hard not to believe that the PAC 12 will be discounted by the national media once again in 2018. With the star power that walked out of the LA schools, the weird coaching carousel the struck the conference, and the lingering doubts about Washington’s true potential, it would appear that the bar for the conference to reach the playoffs is going to a bit higher than it might be for some other conferences. It may well be the case that it is USC, Washington, or bust for the conference.