Washington State could see a College Football Playoff finalist this fall. It could also see a Mountain West Conference bottom-feeder. And the Cougars will probably see everything in between. On the toughness scale, it shouldn’t get any harder than the Washington Huskies or any easier than the San Jose State Spartans. We take a brief look at each of their 2018 opponents and rank them by degree of difficulty, starting with the Spartans and concluding with the Huskies.
San Jose State (last season: 2-11) – Even though the Spartans snagged a win from the other Mountain West team on this list, their 11 losses came by an average of 32 points. Furthermore, both of the quarterbacks that split time for SJSU – Montel Aaron and Josh Love – threw more interceptions (17) than they did touchdowns (13). Frank Ginda, the only Spartan to earn first-team All-MWC honors last year, has graduated. Grade: F
Oregon State (last season: 1-11) – Jonathan Smith has kept a perfect record against the Cougars the past four years, but that could change as the former Washington offensive coordinator enters his first season as Oregon State’s coach. Smith was the right hire, or so it seems, but the Beavers will be just six games into their rebuild when they host the Cougars at Reser Stadium. Presumed starting QB Jake Luton hasn’t taken a snap since the horrific injury in Pullman last season and the Beavers need to replace hard-nosed running back Ryan Nall. Grade: D
Eastern Washington (last season: 7-4) – Gage Gubrud returns as one of the most polished and accomplished FCS signal-callers in the country and his first career start isn’t lost on WSU fans. Gubrud completed 34 of 40 passes for 474 yards and five touchdowns, also rushing for 77 yards and another TD in a win over the Cougars. Granted, Gubrud also had two NFL wideouts by his side then. The Eagles have weapons, just not the same kind they had the last time they took a bus to Pullman. The defense has lots to solve after giving up 36 points per game in 2017. Grade: C-
Wyoming (last season: 8-5) – Craig Bohl has built Wyoming for the long term, so even if the Cowboys lose a potential franchise NFL quarterback in Josh Allen, there’s enough returning that would lead you to believe Wyoming could play in its third straight bowl. Still, quarterback is a pretty sizable question mark at this point and if there were questions about Allen’s accuracy in 2017, his backup Nick Smith, was even worse in limited playing time. Grade: C
Colorado (last season: 5-7) – The Buffaloes are losing plenty of firepower on both sides of the ball: on offense, one of the nation’s underappreciated running backs, Phillip Lindsay (1,474 rushing yards in 2017), plus standout receiver Bryce Bobo; on defense, blazing-fast cornerback Isaiah Oliver, who was CU’s only 2018 NFL Draft pick. Quarterback Steven Montez has proven he can be flashy, but one of his worst days came last season on a wet night in Pullman. Grade: C
Cal (last season: 5-7) – The record wouldn’t indicate it, but 2017 was actually pretty successful for the Golden Bears in year one of the Justin Wilcox era. Cal lost two games by three points to close the year – winning one would’ve made the Bears bowl-eligible. Ross Bowers showed moxie in a decisive win over the Cougars last year and he had two receivers, Vic Wharton III and Kanawai Noa, emerge as the season progressed, catching 123 passes for 1,659 yards when all was said and done. And that doesn’t include his top pass-catcher, Demetris Robertson, who was hurt most of last year. Grade: C+
Utah (last season: 7-6) – If there’s anything you can bet on in the Pac-12, it’s that Utah coach Kyle Whittingham will find a way to get the Utes to the postseason – he’s done it 12 times in 14 years. Utah should shoot a bit higher than that this year, with electric junior QB Tyler Huntley back under center. Junior running back Zack Moss marched for 1,200 yards on the ground last year, but the Utes have to replace the 106 catches, 1,511 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns left by leading receivers Darren Carrington and Raelon Singleton. Grade: B-
Oregon (last season: 7-6) – Oregon is a curious case. A new coach, Mario Cristobal, takes over after the Willie Taggart era ended 363 days after it began. So in one sense, the Ducks are in a transitional phase, losing Taggart, star running back Royce Freeman, all-conference offensive tackle Tyrell Crosby and a few others. On the other hand, there should be enough continuity in Eugene to keep things rolling. Cristobal was one of Taggart’s top assistants, so not much will change schematically. More important, UO has one of the country’s rising quarterbacks in junior Justin Herbert. Grade: B-
Stanford (last season: 9-5) – The Cardinal may be four or five spots higher on this list had Heisman finalist running back Bryce Love elected to come out of school early. Four of Love’s teammates are headed to the NFL, though, and Stanford still has a conundrum at quarterback, where K.J. Costello and Keller Chryst split time last year – neither playing the position much better than the other. Still, the Cardinal always find ways to rebuild on defense and the offensive line, and if Love can exceed the 2,000-yard barrier again, Stanford should at least be a silver medalist in the Pac-12 North. Grade: B+
USC (last season: 11-3) – In the land where future NFL quarterbacks seem to fall off trees, USC’s top priority this offseason naturally is replacing the third overall pick of last week’s draft: Sam Darnold. The Trojans’ track record tells us it won’t take too long, but whoever locks up the job – redshirt sophomore Matt Fink, redshirt freshman Jack Sears and incoming freshman J.T. Daniels seem to be the frontrunners – will have to produce without a few of the weapons Darnold had at his disposal. Still, the Trojans have five All-Pac-12 players returning to their defense and should find their way back to a good bowl game. Grade: B+
Arizona (last season: 7-6) – Next to Love, Arizona’s Khalil Tate is the next-best chance at bringing a Heisman home to the Pac-12 for the second time in five years. Tate’s first six games (1,207 rushing yards, 11 TDs) were notably better than his last three (118 yards, one TD) and Arizona went as he went, winning five of Tate’s first six starts and losing his last three. If first-year coach Kevin Sumlin can find a way to lessen the load of his high-motored QB and simultaneously improve a defense that gave up 34 ppg last year despite boasting individual talent at a number of positions, the Wildcats could find their way back to the conference title game. Grade: A-
Washington (last season: 10-3) – Years 1-4 of the Chris Petersen era in Seattle netted 37 wins compared to 17 losses. If the Huskies can get over a big hurdle the first week of the season, 2018 could be their best season yet. Even though UW shipped five players off to the NFL last weekend, the Huskies return unarguably the best backfield in the Pac-12 – perhaps the nation – with quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin. The Huskies lose the league’s best defensive player from a year ago, but they bring back six players who collected all-conference accolades. It’s a long season, but UW might be well on its way to the College Football Playoff if it can steal a win from Auburn in Atlanta on Sept. 1. Grade: A+
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