In 2018, plenty of issues plagued the Arizona Wildcats, but it felt especially easy to blame the offense. Under previous coach Rich Rodriguez, the offense had been a force to be reckoned with even in weaker seasons, while the defense had lagged behind and cost the team. The defense slightly improved last year, but then the offense hit numerous potholes.
Khalil Tate wasn’t healthy for long swaths of last fall, and when he was, he was trying desperately to change his instincts in Kevin Sumlin and Noel Mazzone’s new offense. The offensive line took quite a while to get it together, but once it did it became at worst a replacement-level unit. J.J. Taylor and a trio of senior receivers helped carry the load, but Arizona still went from 6.7 yards per play in 2017 to 5.8, an average number at best,
There’s plenty of hope for a rebound. Seven starters are returning, including four offensive lineman, Tate, and Taylor. The one hole on the offense, at receiver, should at least partially be filled by 4-star true freshman Boobie Curry and some promising returning backups. And best of all, they’ve all had eight more months to learn Sumlin’s system.
So how good is Arizona’s offense compared to their peers? Let’s figure that out.
The Pac-12 has long held a reputation for offensive firepower, dating at least to when Pete Carroll and Chip Kelly (at Oregon, mind you) ruled the conference through both talent and innovation on that side of the ball. While the conference as a whole has lost a lot of esteem in really only two years, and while the wacky spread derivatives like the spread option and Air Raid have become less popular in the league, the reputation on offense is still mostly earned.
Here’s my ranking of the 2019 Pac-12 offenses as the season approaches.
I grew up a fan of Mike Leach-era Texas Tech, and seeing him do almost the except same impressive job in Pullman has been thoroughly enjoyable. Pulling Gardner Minshew and an 11-2 record out of his hat last year was especially impressive. Minshew departs, but Eastern Washington grad transfer Gabe Gubrud enters and has a chance to be just as effective. Gubrud will have lots of experience around him, including great all-purpose back Max Borghi, the typical star receivers like Tay Martin, Easop Winston, and Dezmon Patmon, and four returning offensive lineman. WSU and Leach will always be pure air raid on offense, and as a result, they will always be a force to be reckoned with.
Probably the trendiest pick to win the conference, since Justin Herbert decided to return for his senior year, has been the Ducks. It’s not hard to talk yourself into them. Herbert has always been over-hyped as a college quarterback, but I do believe he’ll do great in the NFL, and he’s still a promising prospect in his senior year with plenty of experience. An underrated young running back in C.J. Verdell will be at his side, and he’ll be running behind an almost literal brick wall. All five of Oregon’s offensive linemen return, and three made the preseason all-conference team. The only real loss it suffered on offense was receiver Dillon Mitchell, but Penn State grad transfer Juwan Johnson will fill that hole nicely, along with some returning depth players. Maybe it won’t be the mile-a-minute national title contenders Oregon’s offense was at the start of this decade, but the Ducks will be plenty talented and as a result plenty dangerous.
In the South Division, the obvious and increasingly popular team to pick has been Utah for a majority of the offseason. The Utes really struggled to get it going last September, then suffered brutal injury luck late in the year, and still almost won the Pac-12 and finished 9-5. That injury came in the form of losing quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss, both of whom return for senior seasons and figure to be stars. Receiver Britain Covey, who screams “future New England Patriot fifth-round pick”, will be another very dangerous upperclassman, and also returns from an injury. Utah actually has a deep receiver room, one thing conspicuously missing most places in the conference, and guys like Samson Nacua and Brant Kuithe could help make Utah the dark-horse national contender they’re quickly becoming.
UA fans have no doubt read plenty about the upcoming season’s offense, with Tate, Taylor, and a promising line counterbalancing a gaping crater at wide receiver. Still, it warrants a look. Indeed, Tate returns with another offseason learning from Sumlin under his belt, and he will have one of the best backs in the conference next to him in Taylor. The line returns four starters and adds two JUCO transfers. The real limiting factor is simply going to be injury and how well the inexperienced receiving corps holds up. Curry and Jaden Mitchell are two of the highest-rated recruits in the class, and they will hopefully bolster the depth chart along with Brian Casteel, Stanley Berryhill III and Cedric Peterson. Overall, it’s hard not to feel objectively optimistic for the 2019 Wildcats offense.
ASU was probably one of the most talented offenses in the conference last season, and while the Sun Devils replace a lot, Herm Edwards’ recruiting could help them weather the storm. First-round pick N’Keal Harry was lost at wide receiver, and longtime starting quarterback Manny Wilkins graduated. Nonetheless, ASU has a core to build on. Amazing running back Eno Benjamin returns, Harry’s best foil Frank Darby returns at wideout, and three starting seniors-to-be return on the line, including all-conference center Cohl Cabral. The new quarterback will be either junior Dillon Sterling-Cole or freshman Jayden Daniels. ASU has been solid on offense more often than not, and they return just enough for that trend to continue this year.
What the hell is going to happen in the Coliseum this year? I don’t know, but I know I’ll be watching. Sophomore QB J.T. Daniels has to improve on his severe case of true-freshman-itis from 2018, but there’s hope considering he’ll be taught by new coordinator and Air Raid prodigy Graham Harrell. He’ll also have an impressive receiving corps to help him, including Michael Pittman and Amon-Ra St. Brown. Elsewhere...well, I’m not sure there’s ever been worst timing for a rebuild. Head man Clay Helton needs to win now, but he lost quite a portion of last year’s production. USC will always have the talent to win, and now it’s time to see if some combination of Harrell’s scheme, Daniels’ potential and new blue-chippers can deliver on that.
The Buffaloes really had a chance to be an 8-5 team last year, but the offense was just a smidge too inconsistent. New running back Alex Fontenot will be tasked with improving that, but he’ll have plenty of help. Senior quarterback Steven Montez has proven himself a solid player, and he’ll be throwing to the Pac-12’s best receiving corps. All-conference junior Laviska Shenault was a juggernaut in 2018, and he could be even more dangerous if he stays healthy. Around him will be plenty of proven upperclassman, including KD Nixon and Tony Brown. The line also has experience, and will be key in improving those efficiency numbers. All six teams in the South could make a bowl with some luck, and while Colorado probably needs the most, the Buffs also have plenty of great offensive players to make their own luck.
Washington has been the heavyweight in the Pac-12 for three years now, and the Huskies have built that success through defense more than offense. This year, the defense returns almost nobody, so there’s a chance for that narrative to change. Still, UW has to replace quarterback Jake Browning and school career rushing leader Myles Gaskin, but that’s always much easier when you’re bringing in talent like coach Chris Petersen is. Georgia transfer Jacob Eason will likely start at QB, and junior Salvon Ahmed will probably be the new feature back. Luckily for Petersen, most of the surrounding cast returns, including four linemen, a second team all-conference tight end in Hunter Bryant, and a great receiver in Aaron Fuller. It’s likely Washington will be solid if not spectacular yet again on this side of the ball.
If USC is the most intriguing offense in the Pac-12, then its neighbors 10 miles to the northwest are a close second. UCLA returns a promising sophomore quarterback who struggled more often than not, just like USC. This time, though, it’s dual threat Dorian Thompson-Robinson, and he’ll face much less pressure than Daniels. The Bruins also return a legitimate star at running back in Joshua Kelley, another of the conference’s seemingly endless supply of undervalued feature backs. Besides a few solid receivers like senior Theo Howard, most of the offense will be new blood as Chip Kelly continues to morph this roster to his liking. This year, most people should be looking for noticeable improvement with room for more in the future. I like the Bruins’ chances, but I’m hedging my bets by keeping them in Tier 3.
The Cardinal have been a team with a eight-win floor for a decade now, and that whole era has been defined by good quarterbacks and great running backs. The quarterback part is nailed down, as K.J. Costello can make a strong argument for being the most nationally underrated passer, and that’s after making second-team all-conference in the preseason. The running back situation is more dire, as Bryce Love departs after a strange 2018 where he dealt with nagging injuries that mirrored Tate’s in many ways. Cameron Scarlett has long shown flashes, so there’s still hope. Almost nobody else returns except tight end Colby Parkinson, so despite Costello, I’m selling my stock in Stanford’s offense.
11. Oregon State
Most of OSU’s many, many problems came on defense in 2018, but the Beavers still need to prove themselves on offense as well. Either sixth-year and frequently injured senior Jake Luton or Nebraska transfer Tristan Gebbia will probably do solid at quarterback, especially with a gem in receiver Isaiah Hodgins to throw to. Another security blanket will be sophomore running back Jermar Jefferson, one of the better freshmen in the conference last season. If Jefferson, Hodgins, one of the quarterbacks, and a couple more Mike Riley Nebraska transfers work magic this year, coach Jonathan Smith can really start Oregon State’s rebuild.
Well, here’s our last team, all alone at the bottom. The Golden Bears left behind Air Raid coach Sonny Dykes after 2016, despite a dangerous offense that had mostly been that way since the Jeff Tedford-Aaron Rodgers era. Two years later, and California was the worst offense in the conference by a wide margin. Cal’s defense deserves plenty of love (and will get plenty in my next article), but the offense was a nightmare last year that it’s hard to see it improving much. The offensive line returns a lot at least, and either Chase Garbers or Devon Modster might be a solid quarterback, but the Bears have work to do in every category. Justin Wilcox has done a good coaching job in Berkeley, and his challenge in his third year will be fixing this offense so we never have to watch a game like the 2018 Cheez-It Bowl.