Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer 383d

2017 Pac-12 preview: Who's the top CFP contender?

The 2017 college football season might have begun last weekend, but to the nation, it's official opening night is Thursday.

For the Pac-12, Stanford and Oregon State kicked off things a week ago, but with the bulk of the conference getting started in the next couple of days, it's time to take one last preseason look at all 12 teams going into the year.


Last year's record: 3-9 (1-8)

Key returning players: RB Brandon Dawkins, WR Shun Brown, OL Jacob Alsadek, LB DeAndre' Miller, S

Key losses: RB Samajie Grant, WR Nate Phillips, WR Trey Griffey, LB Paul Maglorie

Reason for optimism: It can't get much worse, right? Also, the Wildcats did blow out rival Arizona State 56-35 to close out last season, so the hope is that sort of momentum will carry over.

Cause for concern: This defense was historically bad last year, ranking in the triple digits nationally in scoring, passing and total defense. That offense wasn't much better, ranking eighth or worse in the conference in scoring, passing and total offense.

X factor: Honestly, that defensive line as a whole could be one big (mostly undersized) X factor for the Wildcats. There isn't a lot of depth there and juco transfer Sione Taufahema is coming off a knee scope. However, if this group over performs, this defense will be much better.

Game to watch: Houston, Sept. 9

Arizona State

Last year's record: 5-7 (2-7)

Key returning players: QB Manny Wilkins, RB Demario Richard, RB Kalen Ballage, WR N'Keal Harry, BUCK Koron Crump, DL JoJo Wicker, LB D.J. Calhoun

Key losses: WR Tim White, LB Laiu Moeakiola, DB De'Chavon Hayes, K Zane Gonzalez

Reason for optimism: There is young talent that could be headed for a breakout season this year, especially on offense. Having Crump back is huge, as his nine sacks are the most among returning Pac-12 players.

Cause for concern: After rushing out to a 5-1 start last year, the Sun Devils dropped their last six games, meaning the pressure is on head coach Todd Graham. Priority No. 1 is new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett revamping a defense that was the Pac-12's worst and ranked second to last nationally.

X factor: Harry was the nation's No. 1 WR prospect in the 2016 class and could really turn into a star for the Sun Devils. He caught 58 passes as a freshman, but should even better this fall.

Game to watch: at Utah, Oct. 21


Last year's record: 5-7 (3-6)

Key returning players: RB Tre Watson, WR Demetris Robertson, DL James Looney, LB Devante Downs, LB Cameron Saffle, K Matt Anderson

Key losses: QB Davis Webb, WR Chad Henson, RB Khalfani Muhammad, OL Steven Moore, DL DeVante Wilson, DB Khari Vanderbilt,

Reason for optimism: Cal is totally starting over from scratch with new coach Justin Wilcox. He may have a lot of turnover to deal with on offense, but there is some explosion at the skill positions, and the defense has good front seven experience.

Cause for concern: That offensive turnover and the simple fact that the defense was literally one of the nation's worst last year. With Webb and his 4,295 yards and 37 touchdowns gone, will be replaced by redshirt sophomore Ross Bowers, who has zero passes to his name.

X factor: Bowers will have some nice talent around him at receiver and running back. After a breakout freshman season, Robertson could position himself as one of the conference's top playmakers.

Game to watch: Ole Miss, Sept. 16


Last year's record: 10-4 (8-1)

Key returning players: RB Phillip Lindsay, WR Shay Fields, WR Devin Ross, OL Jeromy Irwin, OL Tim Lynott LB Rick Gamboa, BUFF Ryan Moeller

Key losses: QB Sefo Liufau, C Alex Kelley, DL Josh Tupou, LB Jimmie Gilbert, LB Kenneth Olugbode, CB Chidobe Awuzie, CB Ahkello Witherspoon, S Tedric Thompson

Reason for optimism: Sure, losing the school's all-time leading passer in Liufau sounds tough, but sophomore Steven Montez is full of confidence and has nine starters on offensive to work with.

Cause for concern: For most of the 2016 season, Colorado had one of the nation's most formidable defenses. Well, only three starters from last year are back and defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt left for Oregon.

X factor: Linebacker Derek McCartney is back after suffering a season-ending ACL injury in Week 3 last year. He should really help to push this defense as it grows and brings 25 starts into 2017.

Game to watch: Washington, Sept. 23


Last year's record: 4-8 (2-7)

Key returning players: QB Justin Herbert, RB Royce Freeman, WR Charles Nelson, C Jake Hanson, OL Tyrell Crosby, LB Troy Dye, S Brenden Schooler

Key losses: WR Darren Carrington II, WR Devon Allen,

Reason for optimism: Returning Herbert and Freeman, one of the nation's top backs, along with four starting offensive linemen gives Willie Taggart a great offensive base. Taggart also feels the new 3-4 defensive scheme fits his players better.

Cause for concern: The Ducks are going to be young and inexperienced at receiver and in the secondary. There's a chance a handful of true freshman could play in the secondary. Also, that schedule is brutal from October on.

X factor: Taggart is hoping that Clemson graduate transfer defensive lineman Scott Pagano can play up to his billing and be healthy after offseason foot surgery. If he's at 100 percent, he'll anchor this three-man front.

Game to watch: Washington State, Oct. 7

Oregon State

Last year's record: 4-8 (3-6)

Key returning players: RB Ryan Nall, WR Seth Collins, WR Jordan Villamin, LB Bright Ugwoegbu, LB Manase Hungalu, CB Xavier Crawford

Key losses: WR Victor Bolden, OL Sean Harlow, CB Treston Decoud, S Devin Chappell

Reason for optimism: Coach Gary Anderson went from two wins in Year 1 to four in 2016. With some solid skill players, starting with a star in Nall, the Beavers had the makeup of a team that could challenge for a bowl berth.

Cause for concern: Starting off the season with a 58-27 loss to Colorado State will lower all expectations for this team going forward. The Beavers crossed the 400-yard mark on offense but turned the ball over five times, including three interceptions from new QB Jake Luton.

X factor: The health Collins is key. He's Oregon State's top returning receiver, but he missed the final two games of last season after being hospitalized for illness and is now dealing with finger injury he suffered in preseason camp.

Game to watch: Minnesota, Sept. 9


Last year's record: 10-3 (6-3)

Key returning players: QB Keller Chryst, RB Bryce Love, WR Trenton Irwin, TE Dalton Schultz, OL Nate Herbig, LB Joey Alfieri, CB Quenton Meeks, CB Alijah Holder, S Justin Reid,

Key losses: RB Christian McCaffrey, WR Michael Rector, DL Solomon Thomas, LB Kevin Palma, DB Dallas Lloyd

Reason for optimism: Well, after that 55-point win over Rice last week, ESPN's FPI now rates Stanford as the Pac-12's best team with a 35.4 percent chance of winning the conference. Effortless performances from Chryst and Love help, too.

Cause for concern: The road schedule isn't the greatest. Stanford goes to USC in a week, opens October at Utah and will begin November at Washington State. Plus, Washington joins the Trojans on the schedule.

X factor: True freshman tight end Colby Parkinson could be special. The former No. 2-ranked tight end recruit, who stands a menacing 6-foot-7, 229 pounds, made an immediate impact with three catches for 40 yards and two touchdowns in the opener.

Game to watch: Washington, Nov. 10


Last year's record: 4-8 (2-7)

Key returning players: QB Josh Rosen, C Scott Quessenberry, WR Darren Andrews, WR Jordan Lasley, LB Kenny Young, DL Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, DB Jaleel Wadood, DB Nate Meadors

Key losses: OT Conor McDermott, TE Nate Iese, DL Tak McKinley, DL Eddie Vanderdoes, LB Jayon Brown, DB Randall Goforth, DB Fabian Moreau

Reason for optimism: The Bruins have all the talent to compete for a Pac-12 title. Rosen, one of the nation's best quarterbacks, is back to full health and the defense should be helped by solid recruiting on that side of the ball.

Cause for concern: UCLA returns four starters along the offensive line, but it has to be much better than it was last year with the rush. The Bruins averaged just 2.93 rush YPP and barely hit 1,000 rushing yards.

X factor: Pass-rushers Keisean Lucier-South and Jaelan Phillips are young but were top recruits and have a ton of potential. Phillips should start outside, but both could be the key to how dangerous this front can be.

Game to watch: Texas A&M, Sept. 3


Last year's record: 10-3 (7-2)

Key returning players: QB Sam Darnold, RB Ronald Jones, WR Deontay Burnett, TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe, C Nico Falah, OL Viane Talamaivao, DL Rasheem Green, LB Cameron Smith, LB Porter Gustin, LB Uchenna Nwosu, CB Iman Marshall

Key losses: WR Juju Smith-Schuster, WR Darreus Rogers, OL Zach Banner, OL Chad Wheeler, OL Damien Mama, DL Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, DB Adoree' Jackson, DB Leon McQuay III

Reason for optimism: Darnold is the early Heisman favorite, and while his receivers have a lot to prove, Jones is one of the country's best running backs. USC might have the best linebacker corps in the country.

Cause for concern: The Trojans have a lot of room to grow along both lines of scrimmage. Three valuable offensive line starters are gone, while the defensive line has a major hole to fill in the middle with Tu'ikolovatu gone.

X factor: True freshman Marlon Tuipulotu ran with the first-team this spring and should be in the rotation at the nose guard spot with Josh Fatu and Kenny Bigelow, who is coming off a second ACL surgery.

Game to watch: at Notre Dame, Oct. 21


Last year's record: 9-4 (5-4)

Key returning players: OL Salesi Uhatafe, WR Raelon Singleton, DL Lowell Lotulelei, DL Filipo Mokofisi, S Chase Hansen, P Mitch Wishnowsky

Key losses: RB Joe Williams, OL Garrett Bolles, OL Isaac Asiata, DL Hunter Dimick, DL Pasoni Tasini, DL Pita Taumoepenu, DB Marcus Williams

Reason for optimism: Despite the drain on talent, Utah is always going to be a team that's stout up front on both sides of the ball. Even if you don't know all the names, there's a consistency factor that makes them formidable up front.

Cause for concern: Utah lost a lot of starters and experience from last year's team. Neither side of the ball returns more than four starters and secondary is being totally rebuilt.

X factor: Wishnowsky is the nation's best punter and he could be even more vital for the Utes defense if his leg game continues to shine. Of Wishnowsky's 64 punts last year, 57.8 percent of them were taken over inside the 20-yard line and 19 were taken from inside the 10.

Game to watch: Stanford, Oct. 7


Last year's record: 12-2 (8-1)

Key returning players: QB Jake Browning, RB Myles Gaskin, RB Lavon Coleman, WR Dante Petis, OT Trey Adams, C Coleman Shelton, DL Vita Vea, DL Greg Gaines, LB Azeem Victor, LB Keishawn Bierria, S Taylor Rapp

Key losses: WR John Ross, OL Jake Eldrenkamp, DL Elijah Qualls, LB Psalm Wooching, CB Sidney Jones, S Budda Baker

Reason for optimism: The offense is still loaded with Browning, Gaskin and Pettis accompanying an offensive line with three veteran starters returning. USC isn't on the schedule and the road tour is manageable.

Cause for concern: Even with 13 starters returning, the Huskies do have to restock what was the Pac-12's best secondary last year. Washington must replace two starting corners and Baker in the backend.

X factor: When it comes to revamping that secondary, Rapp should definitely be someone to keep an eye on. The sophomore appears to be a budding star after snatching four interceptions in 2016.

Game to watch: at Stanford, Nov. 10

Washington State

Last year's record: 8-5 (7-2)

Key returning players: QB Luke Falk, RB Jamal Morrow, RB James Williams, OL Cody O'Connell, OL Cole Madison, DL Hercules Mata'afa, LB Petyton Pelluer

Key losses: OL Riley Sorenson WR Gabe Marks, WR River Cracraft, S Shalom Luani

Reason for optimism: Yet again, scoring points won't be an issue for the Cougars. Falk is no stranger to putting up Playstation numbers, as he has had back-to-back 4,000-plus-yard seasons and 10,893 career passing yards with 89 touchdowns.

Cause for concern: It's not like the schedule is super daunting, but the Cougars do play five of their seven home games through the first month of the season. After that, five of the next seven are away from Pullman.

X factor: Mike Leach might be better known for his passing offenses, but he has so much depth at running back. Morrow and Williams combined for 1,645 yards and 22 touchdowns, while Gerald Wicks had 478 yards and big-play Keith Harrington returns from injury.

Game to watch: USC, Sept. 29

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