For those of you new to the Gekko Files series, you might note that my team by team assessments are very light on predictions for actual final records. The reason for this is fairly straightforward: I feel that I need to get through my research on each team before I am ready to prognosticate how all of the moving parts are likely to come together in the form of wins and losses.
More precisely, I feel that I need to go deep on each team, their rosters, and their schedules before I am ready to take on the most foolish of fool’s errands. That’s right, I will be putting my name next to a prediction of every in-conference game played in the PAC 12 in 2019.
There are 54 games played between PAC 12 teams every season not counting the PAC 12 Championship. My success in predicting those 54 games ranges from a high of 39 to a low of 31 across the nine seasons that I’ve been doing this. So you can take all of this with a huge grain of salt given the fact that a) these picks are made in the summer before eligibility and depth charts are worked out across PAC 12 rosters and b) nobody can account for things like injuries, monsoons or blizzards in any given week.
Nevertheless, there is a certain clarity that comes from building up a prediction of how the divisional races will work out when you take a bottoms-up, game-by-game approach. Details such as home/away, placement of BYE weeks and the flow of opponents come into focus much more so than if one were to just predict records based on talent and how the teams performed the year before.
One of the interesting things that come from doing this kind of bottoms-up approach is that it often contrasts markedly from what the media predicts in the PAC 12 Media Day poll. This is not always the case - for example, my projection for last season matched almost exactly the media poll. But this year is one of those years where a significant number of teams finish somewhere different in the bottoms-up versus medial poll approach. As a reminder, here is what the Media voted on a few weeks ago courtesy of PAC12.com
I refer to the tool that I use to build up the game-by-game predictions simply as “The Grid”. It is essentially the same tool that I’ve used in each year that I’ve produced the Gekko Files series. Here it is:
The grid captures my pick for each game that is scheduled in the PAC this season. The home teams in any matchup are listed along the horizontal axis. The team noted in each coordinate is the team I’ve picked to win, A yellow highlight indicates that I expect the result to be a significant upset.
Predicting the PAC 12 South
Much of the media focus during this off-season has been on how much of a favorite that Utah is to not only win the South but to win the conference. Certainly, the Utes have the kind of play in the trenches that makes them the most physical team in the division. It is also the case that Utah has a bit of a dream schedule in terms of where they play their games and the order in which they get to take on their opponents. I see only one loss on their schedule before they travel to UW on November 2, and that is a road trip to USC under Friday Night Lights in September (and even that pick was made with hesitation). Regardless, the Utes do look like the clear favorite in the South and have the chance to remain a top 10 ranked team for most of the season.
Spots two-through-six look like a milieu of football teams where one might beat the other on any given Saturday. I have the Trojans finishing second which feels about right. Regardless of how you feel about Clay Helton as a coach, the Trojans still have the kind of talent that can generate plays on both sides of the balls. One also has to presume that JT Daniels will be ready to take the next step in his development. Talent tends to travel well, so two road wins to go with three home wins feels reasonable and should be good enough to place a claim on second place.
I’ve got UCLA and Arizona both finishing with four wins but with Arizona owning the tie-breaker. The return of Khalil Tate is a major factor for the Wildcats even as they look to break in some new talent at receiver and develop on defense.
The Bruins are in a similar situation. Chip Kelly certainly has them tracking as a team on the rise but without that proven commodity at QB to lean on. It will be hard for UCLA to establish the kind of consistency needed to withstand the grind of a PAC 12 schedule.
The Buffaloes own the tie breaker against ASU as fifth in this analysis. In truth, the combination of Steven Montez and Laviska Shenault under normal circumstances would likely be enough to lift the Buffs ahead of UCLA and maybe even Arizona. However, Mel Tucker is going to want to establish a rushing attack even with the issues that he has on his o-line and in the backfield. I think there will be some growing pains - and an extra loss or two - as Colorado reinvents itself in this regard.
I see ASU as a team that is right there with the three teams ahead of them in terms of their spot on the developmental curve. They certainly have a robust running game that they can hang their hat on. But the QB situation is hard to project as is the overall state of their defense. That plus a tough road schedule have me somewhat sour on their prospects.
Predicting the PAC 12 North
The media is really big on Oregon in the North thanks in large part to the return of QB Justin Herbert and the stellar recruiting class that Mario Cristobal reeled in. However, when you chart the actual game-by-game path that each of the competitors in the North have to travel, both UW and Stanford emerge as teams in better position to make a run at the division crown if for no other reason than schedule nuances.
I have UW winning the North at 7-2. While there are several players having to be replaced, they have depth in the trenches - particularly on the offensive line - that they’ve not enjoyed for many years, their defense looks very strong on the back end and they should see a sharp uptick in offensive explosiveness over what we’ve seen the last two years. The five home games on their schedule are well-placed, including the critical 11/2 matchup that will come against Utah after their first BYE week of the season. In fact, the only home game that is really concerning is the visit by Oregon that happens on the tail end of what looks like a four game gauntlet (vs USC, @ Stanford, @ Arizona, vs Oregon). But the way the schedule works out, UW could lose that one and still be a strong contender to win the North.
Stanford is my pick for second. This might be a surprise to some as they are another team that is replacing a lot of starters. But like UW, they have a lot of depth emerging in places (offensive line, defensive line) that weren’t apparent last year. The presence of a talent like Paulson Adebo on the defensive back end is an example from last year of how that kind of depth can produce a breakout star in any given year. They also have plenty of talent available to generate explosive plays on offense even if you are not in love with their running backs. That they get to play Oregon and Washington at home is a key advantage for them, although they would likely have to win both in order to win the North.
Oregon is right there with UW and Stanford on a man-for-man basis. One cannot discount the value of having Herbert back or of their experienced offensive line. I’m not sure that their defense is strong enough to overcome some of the better offenses in the league, however, and that creates some potential pitfalls for them when you look at their schedule. The three game stretch at the end where they play at UW, vs WSU and at USC could get tricky for them, though I’ve picked them to go 2-1 over that span.
WSU loses the tiebreaker to Oregon in this scenario and falls to fourth. However, this could easily be reversed if Gage Gabrud emerges as a threat at quarterback. The Cougars probably bring more to the table offensively than the Ducks, but likely have more work to do on the defensive side of the ball.
Cal is the odd man out in the North race despite my sense that they have the kind of defense that will make some games interesting. They simply are too far behind the other teams offensively to get past the four win mark in a loaded division.
I’ve got Jonathan Smith notching two wins in conference this year as they continue the Oregon State rebuild. There seems to be enough offense on the team with the duo of Isaiah Hodgins and Jermar Jefferson available to score some points. I think they matchup pretty well at home against Arizona State and I have them surprising Stanford who might fall asleep on the Beavs given where that road trip lands on their schedule.
The PAC 12 Championship
Washington vs Utah
The competitiveness in the Washington / Utah games over the past three seasons has been so intense that one might argue a Chris Petersen / Kyle Whittingham rivalry is starting to bud in a spontaneous, non-geographic kind of way. It’s becoming such a thing that most fans might be surprised to learn that Utah has only beaten the Huskies one time in 13 all time head-to-head matchups. When your average margin of victory over the past four games is less than 8 points, details like that tend to be forgotten.
I do expect that the rivalry will continue to grow in 2019. I predicted a win for UW in Seattle during the regular season and I expect the Huskies will take another close one in this possible PAC 12 Championship rematch. Visiting Utah fans might consider this a bit of homerism, but it is really hard to ignore the advantages that Washington has in terms of overall depth across position groups even if Utah boasts the better defensive line. In particular, I think Washington’s ability to prevent points - Utah scored just 10 points across two games last season with largely the same roster going against largely the same Washington scheme - is a huge advantage for UW. Until I see some kind of breakout with Andy Ludwig now managing the Utah offense, it is hard to project a different kind of result.
If all goes as I forecast, the Huskies will be on track for the second straight PAC 12 Championship and third in the last four years. However, with two losses, I see yet another exclusion from the College Football Playoff replaced by another trip to the Rose Bowl (the CFP this year is the Peach Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl) where a rematch against one of their last two post-season opponents - Ohio State or Penn State - could very well happen.
With this prediction now made, I will close the book on the 2019 Gekko Files. I hope that you’ve enjoyed the 35,000 or so words that have gone into producing this series and that you come out of it both excited and better informed for the PAC 12 season that lies ahead. Don’t forget to leave your feedback in the comments.
Let’s enjoy some football.