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Pac-12 preview: Huskies lead favorites in search of league redemption

This Aug. 3 photo shows Washington coach Chris Petersen walking on the field during a team football practice in Seattle. Petersen’s Huskies are the preseason favorites to win the Pac-12 with their roster full of NFL-caliber talent, but the entire league is looking for an improved season after going 1-8 in bowl games last winter. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
This Aug. 3 photo shows Washington coach Chris Petersen walking on the field during a team football practice in Seattle. Petersen’s Huskies are the preseason favorites to win the Pac-12 with their roster full of NFL-caliber talent, but the entire league is looking for an improved season after going 1-8 in bowl games last winter. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

LOS ANGELES – Chris Petersen spent the past half-decade building a powerhouse at Washington, and his latest group is the strong favorite to win the Pac-12 title while leading the league’s quest to regain national respectability.

So why was Petersen so disappointed when a preseason media poll simply confirmed what everyone already knows by anointing the Huskies as the Pac-12 favorites?

“I like to be on a different team than you guys are on,” Petersen said to reporters at Pac-12 media day. “I’d rather prove you wrong than to prove you right. Now we’re working to prove you right rather than prove you wrong.”

Apparently you can take the coach out of Boise, but you can’t take the Boise out of the coach. Petersen just won’t ditch his underdog worldview, even with quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin leading a Huskies roster stacked deep with NFL-caliber talent and chasing its second playoff berth in three years.

But in truth, the entire Pac-12 could be excused for taking a bit of Petersen’s mentality into this fall. The league’s reputation is still smarting from its 1-8 record in bowl games last winter, followed by an offseason of heavy coaching turnover featuring five schools turning to new leaders. The Pac-12 returns with its usual wealth of talent, but uncertainty at many programs.

Washington has little uncertainty anywhere, and that’s why Petersen’s team is the consensus pick to win the West. The Huskies’ season-opening showdown with Auburn in Atlanta is a chance to show the sport that the Pac-12 is back – or it could just be another game on a long road of redemption.

“I’ve been hearing that a lot, that we have to represent the Pac-12, but we’re just going out there looking to beat Auburn,” said Washington safety JoJo McIntosh, one of five returning starters in the Huskies’ secondary. “Just go out there and compete, and win, and they’ll notice you.”

Here are more things to watch in the eighth season of the conference’s current 12-team configuration:

Chip part 2

Chip Kelly led the speed-based revolution in college football and won three Pac-12 titles during his four-year tenure as Oregon’s head coach. After two stints in the NFL and a year as a broadcaster, Kelly was enticed back to the college game by UCLA and its deep-pocketed boosters, who are determined to put the Bruins on equal footing with crosstown rival Southern California. Kelly could start slowly with a mixed bag of talent, including no standout starting quarterback and little experience at receiver. He isn’t saying much about his plans, naturally. But the entire sport is waiting to see what Kelly can conjure in Westwood.

Love on The Farm

Heisman Trophy runner-up Bryce Love defied most predictions and the conventional wisdom around tailbacks by returning to Stanford for his senior season. The human biology major is determined to graduate in December to protect his dream of going to medical school, but his return also sets up the Cardinal for another season of their punishing ground game with Love running behind four returning starters on the offensive line. Stanford also has four returning receivers for K.J. Costello or whichever quarterback claims the starting job. While Washington is the favorite, the Cardinal are a strong contender in the Pac-12 North.

Herm’s head

Aside from Kelly’s return, the most intriguing new hire among the league’s five new coaches is Herm Edwards. The veteran NFL boss is also the biggest risk : Although he enjoyed modest success with the Jets and Chiefs, Edwards hasn’t coached anywhere since 2008, and he hasn’t been a college coach since his three-year stint as San Jose State’s defensive backs coach in the 1980s. Edwards’ progress in his new job should be fascinating to watch, but the rebuilding Sun Devils are projected to finish last in the South division. “We don’t go by polls,” Edwards said. “We’ve got our own aspirations. We’re trying to win a Pac-12 championship. So whatever people write, they can write what they want. That’s good. Hopefully no players are listening to that, because no coaches are listening to it.”

USC’s next QB

Sam Darnold has left USC for the New York Jets after one Rose Bowl victory and one Pac-12 title. He also left a void behind center for the Trojans, and three young passers are competing in camp to become the next passer in their school’s enviable lineage. Jack Sears and Matt Fink have advantages in experience, but touted freshman J.T. Daniels is making early strides. Coach Clay Helton is likely to wait to make his decision until USC is close to its season opener. The Trojans are the preseason favorites to repeat in the Pac-12 South, but their ability to stay afloat during their usual daunting September schedule could depend on quickly finding a standout quarterback.

Wildcat strike

In his first season at Texas A&M, Kevin Sumlin coached a relatively unsung, athletic quarterback to a surprising Heisman Trophy. Six years after Johnny Manziel did the improbable, Sumlin is taking over at Arizona with the chance to make a star out of Khalil Tate, the dual-threat QB who passed for 1,591 yards and rushed for 1,411 more while starting just nine games last season. The Wildcats are a popular pick to challenge USC for the Pac-12 South title largely on the strength of their coach-passer duo.


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