Pac-12 preseason picks: Can UW Huskies reclaim conference crown?

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Washington wide receiver Aaron Fuller (12) and Washington State cornerback Darrien Molton (3) battle for a pass from Jake Browning in the first half at Husky Stadium in Seattle on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017. Washington won, 41-14. (Mike Siegel/Seattle Times/TNS)

The Pac-12 Conference football season unofficially kicks off Wednesday when the conference hosts in annual media day gathering in Hollywood.

Chris Petersen will be there to represent Washington, along with senior quarterback Jake Browning and senior safety JoJo McIntosh.

On Wednesday morning, the Pac-12 will release its annual preseason poll, as voted on by media members who cover the conference. The Huskies, ranked No. 4 in USA Todayís post-spring national rankings, are expected to be the favorite in the North -- and likely the pick to win the conference title.

Here are the picks I submitted to the league:

NORTH

1. Washington Huskies

2017 record: 10-3 overall, 7-2 Pac-12

Coach: Chris Petersen, fifth seasonReturning starters: 16 -- 7 offense, 9 defense

Key players: QB Jake Browning, RB Myles Gaskin, RB Salvon Ahmed, OT Kaleb McGary, OT Trey Adams, WR Chico McClatcher, DT Greg Gaines, LB Ben Burr-Kirven, CB Byron Murphy, DB Myles Bryant, S JoJo McIntosh, S Taylor Rapp.

Key games: Sept. 1 vs. Auburn (in Atlanta); Sept. 15 at Utah; Oct. 13 at Oregon; Nov. 3 vs. Stanford

Outlook: Chris Petersen enters his fifth season on Montlake with perhaps the most talented roster heís ever had -- with fourth-year starters at QB, RB and both offensive tackles, and a secondary that might be the best in the nation. Hard to overstate the importance of the Huskiesí Sept. 1 opener vs. Auburn -- a win in Atlanta not only cements UW as a playoff contender but also would restore some of the Pac-12ís sagging credibility.

2. Stanford Cardinal

Coach: David Shaw, eighth season

2017 record: 9-5 overall, 7-2 Pac-12 (North champ)

Returning starters: 15 -- 9 offense, 6 defense

Key players: QB K.J. Costello, RB Bryce Love, WR J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, RG Nate Herbig, LB Sean Barton, CB Alijah Holder.

Outlook: Stanfordís chances of repeating as Pac-12 North champs start and stop with star running back Bryce Love, who rushed for 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting last season. Love will run behind what figures to be one of the nationís top offensive lines, and if healthy sophomore K.J. Costello (14 TD/4 INT in 2017) should be improved entering his first full season as the starting QB. The schedule doesnít help the Cardinal, who have to play at Oregon, at UW and at Cal.

3. Oregon Ducks

Coach: Mario Cristobal, first season

2017 record: 7-6 overall, 4-5 Pac-12

Returning starters: 14 -- 7 offense, 7 defense

Key players: QB Justin Herbert, RB Tony Brooks-James, WR Dillon Mitchell, DE Jalen Jelks, LB Troy Dye.

Key games: Sept. 22 vs. Stanford; Oct. 13 vs. UW; Nov. 10 at Utah.

Outlook: Many have pegged the Ducks as Washingtonís biggest challenger in the Pac-12 North, and that could very well be true if junior QB Justin Herbert remains healthy in 2018. Last year, Oregon went 1-4 when Herbert was sideline with a broken collarbone (averaging just 15 points per game without him on the field and 52.1 him with him). Jim Leavitt is the Pac-12ís highest-paid defensive coordinator, and the Oregon defense -- atrocious in 2016 -- should be even better in Leavittís second season in Eugene.

4. Cal Bears

Coach: Justin Wilcox, second season

2017 record: 5-7 overall, 2-7 Pac-12

Returning starters: 18 -- 10 offense, 8 defense

Key players: QB Ross Bowers, RB Patrick Laird, WR Vic Wharton, LT Patrick Mekari, LB Jordan Kunaszyk, CB Camryn Bynum.

Key games: Sept. 29 at Oregon; Oct. 27 at UW; Nov. 10 at USC; Nov. 17 vs. Stanford.

Outlook: In 2016, Cal had one of the worst defenses in Pac-12 history (allowing 42.6 points per game and 272.8 rushing yards per game). Former UW defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, a Chris Petersen protege, needed only one season to make Cal a respectable defense (28.4 points per game; 164.1 rushing yard per game) in his first year as a head coach. Bothell High product Ross Bowers (18 TD/12 INT) enters his second season as Calís starting QB, and heís joined in the backfield by senior RB Patrick Laird (1,127 yards, 8 TD) in what should an improved offense.

5. Washington State Cougars

Coach: Mike Leach, seventh season

2017 record: 9-4 overall, 6-3 Pac-12

Returning starters: 10 -- 4 offense, 6 defense

Key players: QB Gardner Minshew, RB James Williams, WR Kyle Sweet, LT Andre Dillard, LB Peyton Pelluer, LB, Jahad Woods, S Jalen Thompson.

Key games: Sept. 21 at USC; Oct. 20 at Oregon; Oct. 27 at Stanford; Nov. 23 vs. UW.

Outlook: The Cougars have the Pac-12ís least experienced team, according to Phil Steele, and there are their questions at just about every position on the offense. Gardner Minshew officially transferred from East Carolina to WSU in May, and heís considered the front-runner to take over at QB.

6. Oregon State Beavers

Coach: Jonathan Smith, first season

2017 record: 1-11 overall, 0-9 Pac-12

Returning starters: 15 -- 7 offense, 8 defense

Key players: QB Jake Luton, WR Isaiah Hodgins, TE Noah Togiai, LB Bright Ogwoegbu, LB Jonathan Willis, S David Morris.

Key games: Sept. 1 at Ohio State; Nov. 10 at Stanford; Nov. 17 at UW; Nov. 23 at Oregon.

Outlook: Former Washington OC Jonathan Smith inherited his dream job in December, returning to his alma mater in his first head-coaching job. The challenges of trying to rebuild a program that went 1-11 are obvious, particularly with the messy way Gary Andersen left Corvallis midway through the 2017 season. Add to that a brutal 2018 schedule -- featuring the opener at Ohio State, plus a four-week season-ending stretch (vs. USC, at Stanford, at UW, vs. Oregon) that has to be the toughest in the Pac-12 this year -- and Smith might be lucky if heís able to double the Beaversí win total from last year.

SOUTH

1. Utah Utes

Coach: Kyle Whittingham, 14th season

2017 record: 7-6 overall, 3-6 Pac-12

Returning starters: 14 -- 8 offense, 6 defense

Key players: QB Tyler Huntley, RB Zack Moss, DE Bradlee Anae, CB Julian Blackmon, LB Chase Hansen, K Matt Gay, P Mitch Wishnowsky.

Key games: Sept. 15 vs. UW; Oct. 12 vs. Arizona; Oct. 20 vs. USC; Nov. 17 at Colorado.

Outlook: Is this the year Utah finally rise to the top in the South? The Utes again had one of the better defenses in the Pac-12 last year (23.2 points per game), and the offense figures to be better with junior QB Tyler Huntley (15 TD/10 INT + 6 rushing TD) entering his second full season as the starter in Troy Taylorís system.

2. USC Trojans

Coach: Clay Helton, fourth season

2017 record: 11-3 overall, 8-1 Pac-12 (conference champ)

Returning starters: 13 -- 7 offense, 6 defense

Key players: RB Stephen Carr, WR Tyler Vaughns, WR Michael Pittman, DT Christian Record, LB Cameron Smith, CB Iman Marshall, S Marvell Tell.

Key games: Sept. 8 at Stanford; Sept. 29 at Arizona; Oct. 20 at Utah; Nov. 17 at UCLA.

Outlook: Quarterback is the question here after Sam Darnoldís departure for the NFL, and if USC does turn to true freshman JT Daniels, as has been widely speculated, then weíll find out a lot about him early. USC plays back-to-back road games against Stanford (Sept. 8) and Texas (Sept. 15).

3. Arizona Wildcats

Coach: Kevin Sumlin, first season

2017 record: 7-6 overall, 5-4 Pac-12

Returning starters: 16 -- 7 offense, 9 defense

Key players: QB Khalil Tate, RB J.J. Taylor, WR Tony Ellison, WR Shun Brown, LB Tony Fields, LB Colin Schooler, CB Jace Whittaker.

Key games: Sept. 8 at Houston; Sept. 29 vs. USC; Oct. 12 at Utah.

Outlook: Khalil Tate was the breakout star in the Pac-12 last season, and former Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin enters his first season in Tucson with nine returning starters on defense.

4. Colorado Buffaloes

Coach: Mike MacIntyre, sixth season

2017 record: 5-7 overall, 2-7 Pac-12

Returning starters: 10 -- 4 offense, 6 defense

Key players: QB Steven Montez, RB Travon McMillian, WR Jay MacIntyre, WR Laviska Shenault, DL Javier Edwards, LB Rick Gamboa, DB Evan Worthington.

Key games: Sept. 8 at Nebraska; Oct. 13 at USC; Oct. 20 at UW; Nov. 17 vs. Utah.

Outlook: After their surprising run to the South title in 2016, the Buffaloes slipped to 5-7 finish last year. The defense should be better this season, but key losses at running back and wide receiver could keep Colorado from really challenging for the division title this year.

5. UCLA Bruins

Coach: Chip Kelly, first season

2017 record: 6-7 overall, 4-5 Pac-12

Returning starters: 12 -- 5 offense, 7 defense

Key players: QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson, RB Bolu Olorunfunmi, WR Thoe Howard, LB Jaelen Phillips, CB Nate Meadors, S Adarius Pickett.

Key games: Sept. 8 at Oklahoma; Oct. 6 vs. UW; Oct. 26 vs. Utah; Nov. 3 at Oregon; Nov. 17 vs. USC.

Outlook: In his first season in the then-Pac-10 -- as the offensive coordinator at Oregon -- Chip Kelly had the perfect quarterback (a senior in Dennis Dixon) to run his blur offense. Eleven years later, in his first season as the head coach at UCLA, the general belief is Kelly will have to turn over his offense to a true-freshman QB in Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Not a great recipe for immediate success.

6. Arizona State Sun Devils

Coach: Herm Edwards, first season

2017 record: 7-6 overall, 6-3 Pac-12

Returning starters: 12 -- 8 offense, 4 defense

Key players: QB Manny Wilkins, WR NíKeal Harry, WR Kyle Williams, CB Chase Lucas, LB Koron Crump.

Key games: Sept. 8 vs. Michigan State; Sept. 22 at UW; Oct. 27 at USC; Nov. 24 at Arizona.

b Itís easy to snicker at some of the unusual organizational changes in Tempe with Herm Edwards taking charge, but there is a decent chance this last-place pick could look foolish come November. ASU does return a veteran QB in Manny Wilkins and NíKeal Harry is the most dangerous receiver in the league.

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