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Thirty Day Countdown Day 24: Biggest Potential Pac-12 Surprise Storyline

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On day 24, we look through some potential unexpected surprises to look for in 2018.

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Penn State v Washington
Zeke Turner says hi.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Sup and welcome to day 24 of our 30 day countdown. In accordance with how numbers work, here’s a celebratory photo of Zeke Turner playing in a game which — who even remembers the outcome? Not me, certainly:

Washington v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

While Chris took yesterday to pick a player from Washington past and John wrote Monday about “But what even is a must-win game?”, today we’ll be going over some more fun hypotheticals:

What does the Pac-12 have in store for 2018 that we’re not even thinking about yet?

Without further ado, our candidates:

The two traditional physical defensive trench juggernauts win their divisions — on the backs of their offense

At this point — games taking place in the Grand Canyon State notwithstanding — Stanford and Utah have been the teams that seem to most consistently give the Dawgs fits.

And for those of you who’ve been paying attention (which is probably most of you at this point), they pretty much always do so via devastating trenches and a suffocating defense. In a conference that hasn’t been known lately for a physically dominating style of play in recent years, the Cardinal and Utes are the most glaring exceptions.

Yet we could very well find 2018 as an exception, and this is how that goes down:

With a defense whose line has nobody to step up in the wake of guys like Harrison Phillips and Solomon Thomas and linebackers whose depth has been limited from the last couple years of recruiting, the Cardinal’s defensive efficiency drops significantly. Meanwhile in Salt Lake, their defensive line struggles early on after losing three of last season’s starters to graduation before getting into the swing of things. The defensive backs of both teams hold down the fort while the front seven figures their crap out, but the overall performance of both teams’ defenses takes a dip; while neither have the inefficacy of a Big 12 defense, the Utes and Cardinal both see their defensive points per game increases a bit, hovering around 25.

On the other hand, both teams’ offenses kick it into a hitherto practically unforeseen gear, relative to what the two are known for:

KJ Costello provides stability and firepower at quarterback for the first time in two seasons. With the air game improved, defenses’ inability to only focus on Bryce Love (who’s finally healthy) makes the ground attack extra potent. JJ Arcega-Whiteside continues to be a mismatch nightmare for opposing DBs. Osiris St. Brown and other young wide receivers provide Costello with more athletic targets. Their points per game increases to 38.

Utah’s transformation is more subtle but still significant; Zack Moss continues to ascend the RB ranks. Tyler Huntley improves on his debut season both on his feet and through the air. The line blows up opposing defenses. Their points per game increases to 33.

Both teams win their divisions and meet up in a Pac-12 Championship that goes through Bay Area traffic in a logistical nightmare. It’s a big ol’ fun game. Utah fans finally get to stop complaining about how they’re the only team to not win the South.

JUSTIN HERBERT HEISMAN WINNER AIRHORN PEW PEW PEW

Just kidding. (Although that being said, I do love me some J-Herby, which is a nickname I just came up with.)

Arizona is exposed as a one-trick pony whose run at a South title is ruined when teams figure out how to key in on Khalil Tate.

The hype over the Kevin Sumlin hire and Khalil Tate’s ability as a runner and passer is exposed as just that.

Despite starting out the gate at 4-0 with victories over BYU, Houston, Southern Utah, and Oregon State and a ranking in the top 25, the cracks in the armor start to show in a week five loss to USC. While that one loss doesn’t take away Wildcats fans’ hope, the team can’t maintain the previous level of play and loses four games in the second half of the season. Although they manage to overperform their talent level, the Arizona defense can’t hold up against better teams while defenses figure out how to key in on Tate. Lacking enough playmakers to take the pressure off him, the offense doesn’t have the dynamism to compete at a high enough level and the Wildcats limp to a bowl eligible but mediocre record.

While they’re able to overperform their talent level — and Khalil Tate makes up for deficiencies elsewhere as best he can — they still can’t live up to the lofty hopes foisted upon them by optimistic fans and fearful Pac-12 opponents.

OREGON ACTUALLY RETAINS THEIR RECRUITS AIRHORN PEW PEW PEW

That would be a surprise storyline, hey?

Cal blows everybody’s mind and breaks into the North’s top three

Between UW, Stanford, and Oregon, most people figure the top three in the Pac-12 North is all but set. “Oh, forget that!” says Cal, who has other plans.

Stanford falls on hard times with their brutal first half schedule and is unable to solidify their place as the top one or two teams in the North. While Oregon’s defense continues to improve and Justin Herbert proves he really is worth they hype, their relative lack of proven receivers and runningbacks only carries them so far. Meanwhile, UW wins the division, but that doesn’t really matter as far as Cal’s placement is concerned.

At the same time, Cal sneakily improves on their last season while taking advantage of the shortcomings of the other two teams. Their defense increases their physicality and overall performance, Bothell native and returning quarterback, Ross Bowers, retains his position and improves his reads, pocket presence, and understanding of opposing defenses, giving more juice to an offense made up of overperformers. Patrick Laird continues his journey from walk-on to surprise star and Kanawai Noa and Vic Wharton build on their growth from last year.

Stanford and Oregon don’t quite live up to their expectations and Cal takes advantage of it, cracking the top three for the first time since the Pac-10 expanded.


Poll

Which surprise storyline becomes reality?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    Utah v. Stanford make the Pac-12 Championship through new offensive prowess
    (35 votes)
  • 49%
    Arizona doesn’t live up to the Tate-Sumlin billing and ends up a more exciting product with a familiarly mediocre record
    (228 votes)
  • 19%
    Cal breaks into the top three of the Pac-12 North
    (91 votes)
  • 22%
    Something something Oregon joke answer
    (103 votes)
457 votes total Vote Now

The Verdict

Arizona.

Although the talent infusion from Sumlin’s recruiting and connections to Texas will likely improve their product marginally down the line, the Wildcats’ difficulty in recruiting the talent necessary to take them to the next level has been a consistent fact of their last handful of cycles. Couple that with the fact that Sumlin was an okay in-game coach at Texas A&M (can we say “Hi there, UCLA game circa 2017?), and the hype train rests almost solely on the shoulders of Khalil Tate. Tate is a badass who elevates whatever team he’s on, but he and he alone can’t bring Arizona to win the South or come close. Couple that with their upswing during the second half of last season and the subsequent somewhat-too-high expectations for this year, and my gut is telling me some Arizonians have the bar too high to come away from this season satisfied.

That being said, I’d love if Cal can break through. And Utah deserves the frikkin’ South already, dangit.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.