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Previewing the Pac: Where do the Sun Devils, Wildcats figure to finish?

Arizona State wide receiver N'Keal Harry (1) made a ridiculous touchdown catch against UTSA two years ago. Can he repeat the feat Saturday night? (AP Photo/Darren Abate)

Has there ever been a college football team that was picked to finish last in its own division or conference that has garnered more national media attention than the 2018 Arizona State Sun Devils?

The hiring of Herm Edwards in December created such a buzz, it’s easy to argue that ASU is up there with perennial powerhouses Alabama and Clemson as one of the most talked-about programs in the country.

In fact, ASU media relations estimates that Edwards has been requested for a total of 500 interviews since the announcement of his hiring went public — and that doesn’t include the outlets that skirted the process and called the coach directly on his cell phone. He granted those interviews too, by the way.

Now, the fun starts.

The Edwards era gets underway Saturday night in Tempe as the Devils host UTSA, so we’ll get our first evidence (as small a sample as it will be) if the veteran coach and television personality can translate that buzz into wins.

It might be a tough go. ASU is blessed with a third-year starter in quarterback Manny Wilkins, who has impressed in fall camp, and wide receiver N’Keal Harry, who may be the best in the country.

But there are questions on defense and the schedule isn’t exactly a piece of cake either.

Here’s a quick look at how I see the Pac-12 shaking out over the next four months.

Pac-12 South

1. USC Trojans – Big question mark at QB with J.T. Daniels, who should be in his senior year in high school, taking the reins. Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports described Daniels as “a savant” when it comes to playing the position, and let’s face it, head coach Clay Helton still has the best collection of talent in the conference.

2. Utah Utes – The only team never to represent the division in the Pac-12 Championship Game might have a shot to do it this season. Kyle Whittingham’s teams are always well-prepared, stout defensively and feature game-changing special teams. This year should be no different. The bummer for the Utes is they miss Pac-12 North opponents Oregon State and Cal — two teams they’re clearly better than — on this year’s schedule.

3. Arizona Wildcats – Arizona, despite a pretty high-profile, late-in-the-game hire in Kevin Sumlin, hasn’t been as popular a subject for national features as ASU. But unlike their unfriendly neighbors to the north, the Wildcats are a sexy pick to win the South. Which Khalil Tate will we see in 2018? The one that victimized the conference for five games last year or the one who struggled (and was hurt) in losses to Oregon and ASU to close the season?

4. Arizona State Sun Devils – The Devils have a rough non-conference schedule with nationally-ranked Michigan State coming to Tempe and a road tilt against San Diego State, who beat them last year. Much of the intrigue about ASU (and Edwards) is based on the unknown — as in, nobody knows how the experiment will go. There is enough talent, however, to keep the Sun Devils in the hunt for a bowl game.

5. Colorado Buffaloes – There isn’t a coach in a hotter seat than CU’s Mike MacIntyre. After winning the South in 2016, the Buffs came hurtling back toward Earth last season in a 5-7 campaign. Quarterback Steven Montez is back, but leading rusher Phillip Lindsay and top receivers Bryce Bobo, Shay Fields and Devin Ross (who combined for 151 catches and 11 touchdowns) are all gone.

6. UCLA Bruins – Good news: the Bruins have Chip Kelly, one of college football’s most innovative offensive coaches, in the fold. Bad news: He doesn’t have a lot of talent to work with. There are big questions at quarterback after the the departure of Josh Rosen to the NFL. Michigan transfer Wilton Speight, who underwhelmed in Ann Arbor, won the quarterback battle, holding off Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Devon Modster, and will get the first crack at running Kelly’s offense.

Pac-12 North

1. Washington Huskies – “Help us Chris Petersen, you’re our only hope.” Yes, Pac-12 supporters who want to see a conference team in the CFP after a one-year absence are going full Princess Leia. The Huskies are loaded, and represent the Pac’s best chance at a playoff representative, but they’ll likely have to topple highly-ranked Auburn in the neutral-site opener Saturday to keep their chances alive.

2. Stanford Cardinal – Is this the year a Cardinal player finally breaks through and wins the Heisman? Five times since 2009, Stanford has produced the runner-up in the balloting for the sport’s top individual award. Last season, it was Bryce Love, who ran for 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns, and should get every opportunity to match his workload.

3. Oregon Ducks – Three years, three different head coaches. Now it’s Mario Cristobal’s turn to take over, and the 47-year-old has a great building block in junior quarterback Justin Herbert, who could be the first signal caller taken in the NFL Draft next April. A Sept. 22 home game against Stanford could set the tone for the conference season after what should be a cakewalk for the first three weeks.

4. Washington State Cougars – Mike Leach is the only coach standing from the conference’s hiring class of late 2012. He’s outlasted Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez, ASU’s Todd Graham and UCLA’s Jim Mora Jr. and has posted an impressive 26-13 record over the last three years. Wazzu still hasn’t named a starting QB in the wake of Tyler Hilinski’s tragic passing in January.

5. California Golden Bears – The Bears’ record (5-7) didn’t improve in Justin Wilcox’s first year as head coach, but there were tremendous strides made defensively, averaging 14.2 fewer points allowed per game, which was the fifth-best such improvement in the country. The schedule is rough, with non-conference games against North Carolina and BYU along with Pac-12 games against Oregon and a road trip to Arizona in the first five weeks.

6. Oregon State Beavers – Former OSU quarterback Jonathan Smith takes over a program with only one way to go. The Beavers are 3-15 in Pac-12 play over the last two seasons, including an 0-9 mark last year.


What to watch for in Week 1

Thursday

Utah over Weber State – Third straight year the Utes open with an FCS opponent. Third straight year they’ll win easy.

Friday

Stanford over San Diego State – Stanford hell-bent on avenging last year’s road loss to the Aztecs.

Colorado over Colorado State – Buffs going for fourth straight win in the rivalry. CSU has scored 10 points total in the last two.

Saturday

Arizona State over UTSA – Don’t like the Devils to cover the 18.5-point spread, but talent should win out for Herm and Co.

Ohio State over Oregon State – Welcome back, Coach Smith. Try not to lose by 100. Buckeyes are 38-point favorites.

Washington over Auburn – Probably the game of the week — should be a squeaker with the Dawgs prevailing.

Washington State over Wyoming – First game between these two teams in Laramie since 1989.

USC over UNLV – The world gets its first look at J.T. Daniels, and it should come in a convincing win.

Cal over North Carolina – Season-opening loss on the road should make UNC coach Larry Fedora’s seat even hotter.

UCLA over Cincinnati – They should relish this feeling in Westwood … it might not happen often in ’18.

Oregon over Bowling Green – Ducks have won 13 straight home openers and have outscored those unfortunate opponents by an average of 37 points.

Arizona over BYU – Second-best game of the weekend in the conference.

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