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30 Day Countdown - Day 19: Biggest Surprise Pac-12 Storyline

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Which of these surprises in the conference would be the least shocking?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 27 Washington Spring Game Photo by Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Every year something happens in the conference that we don’t expect. Last season the Washington State Cougars led the conference in wins. In 2017 Stanford won the Pac-12 North despite finishing the year with 5 losses. In 2016 Colorado came out of nowhere to convincingly clinch the Pac-12 South. And so on. Which headlines that hardly anyone’s predicting right now might come to fruition in 2019?

L.A Resurgence: USC, UCLA Finish 1, 2 in the Pac-12 South

The stars appear to have aligned for Utah this season as they enter 2019 as the unquestioned Pac-12 South favorites. But it’s not as if we’ve never seen a frontrunner get tripped up before. The Utes are expected to take a step forward on offense but what happens if Tyler Huntley gets hurt yet again? That could open the door for someone else.

USC is still the most talented team in the South by leaps and bounds and if Graham Harrell’s spread system just puts the ball in the hands of their 5-star WRs and lets them make plays in space then they could be unstoppable for most teams. Their first two conference games (against Stanford and Utah) are both at home and if they’re able to win both it would put them in the division driver’s seat.

It might be more of a challenge to project massive improvement out of UCLA but despite all of his faults there’s still a chance that Chip Kelly is a really good football coach. It was always going to take some time to completely change the culture in Westwood. But if it comes together this season with DTR becoming one of the most improved players in the conference at quarterback then they could make moves. The Bruins have to play at Utah which will be tough but they dodge both UW and Oregon which means that overall they have one of the easier conference schedules in the Pac-12.

We haven’t seen a lot of teams run away and hide with the South over the years. How far-fetched is a scenario where USC’s only 2 conference losses are let’s say at Arizona State and Washington while UCLA only drops games at Utah and at USC. Meanwhile, the Utes come up short in road games to USC and Washington and lose Tyler Huntley to an injury on the opening drive in Tucson which allows Khalil Tate to pull off a last second comeback in the desert and knock the Utes down to a 6-3 and 3rd place finish. I’ve heard of crazier things.

Overlooked Stanford Wins the North in Odd Year...Again

Coming into the season Stanford looks like they’re clearly at best 3rd in the Pac-12 North picking order and plenty of folks might also put Cal and/or Wazzu ahead of them if they’re feeling particularly frisky. History suggests that you might want to slam the brakes on that take.

In both 2015 and 2017 the Stanford Cardinal were the winners of the Pac-12 North. And while a San Francisco Giants-esque every other year trend seems fluky, it’s really quite simple. In odd years the Cardinal get to play 5 conference home games including both Oregon and Washington. In 2017 that ended up being the difference as Stanford edged out the Huskies by 8 points which let them win the tiebreaker and secure a spot in the Pac-12 title game. (Of course it also helped that each of those teams featured a running back that finished in the top-2 of the Heisman voting and unless Cameron Scarlett was exposed to gamma radiation this summer it seems like a stretch in 2019).

This season Stanford will once again get to face their two most likely challengers for the throne at home and also dodge the prospective favorites in the South in Utah. I put forward a scenario where USC thrives in the previous segment. But if Clay Helton loses the team early and Washington State can’t find a QB capable of adequately piloting Mike Leach’s system then it wouldn’t be a shock to discover that Stanford’s 4 road games are against the 4 worst teams in the conference (OSU, USC, WSU, and Colorado). If they can go 4-0 on the road and Oregon/Stanford/Washington all go 1-1 against one another then the North title will be right there for the taking even if Stanford is actually the 3rd best team in the conference.

Laviska Shenault Finishes as Highest Pac-12 Player in Heisman Voting and First Taken in NFL Draft

Coming out of high school, Laviska Shenault was a mid-to-high 3-star recruit rated as the 66th best player in the state of Texas. Now the might be one of the 6 best players in the entire country. Shenault finished last season with 1,298 yards from scrimmage and 11 TD in just 9 games. If he had continued at that rate and played in all 12 of Colorado’s games it would’ve resulted in a 1,731 total yards and 15 TDs stat line.

Everyone knows that the Heisman trophy almost always goes to a QB. Oregon’s Justin Herbert has been anointed as the most likely candidate for the award from the conference but Stanford’s K.J Costello, and Arizona’s Khalil Tate also appear on most betting odds sites. But the Heisman often gets graded on a curve to account for past performance. Any of those 3 that want to get involved will need to surpass prior levels of greatness and that’s far from a guarantee. A full season from Shenault where he leads the country in receiving yards could easily get him a 6th or 7th place Heisman finish. Dede Westbrook for Oklahoma was the last top-10 finisher as a WR in 2016 and while he played for a top-5 team he also only had 1,524 yards and 17 TDs which is comparable on a per-game basis to what Shenault did a season ago.

Similarly, Justin Herbert is expected to be the highest drafted Pac-12 player in the 2020 NFL Draft. Sometimes coming back to school for another year though can backfire. What happens if Herbert has mediocre games against the top defenses on the schedule and gets injured for the second time in his career? Tall QBs with at best average athleticism aren’t exactly all the rage in NFL circles right now. I could see a situation where the teams at the top of the draft aren’t necessarily QB needy and Herbert ends up falling behind Tua Tagavailoa and Jake Fromm and winds up going in the middle to late 1st. If Shenault is the top receiver in the draft then he could hear his name called before that.

Poll

Which of the Following Pac-12 Suprise Storylines is Most Likely to Occur?

This poll is closed

  • 31%
    USC, UCLA Finish 1, 2 in the Pac-12 South
    (155 votes)
  • 30%
    Stanford Wins the Pac-12 North
    (152 votes)
  • 37%
    Laviska Shenault is 1st Pac-12 Player in Heisman Voting and NFL Draft
    (184 votes)
491 votes total Vote Now

If you have another surprise storyline that you’d like to propose, leave it in the comments below.