Without Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen, Who Will Make Headlines for the Pac-12?

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Spring practice is the chronological midpoint of the long college football offseason, but with signing day, the final spins of the coaching carousel and a substantial portion of the graduate transfer market in the rearview mirror, the balance of the offseason intrigue has been settled until the media day circuit begins in July. Before the on-field news slows to a trickle as schools break for summer, SI writers are examining the most notable storylines and performances from each Power 5 conference during the spring session. So far, we’ve hit the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12. Up next: the Pac-12.

The Big Picture

One question will loom until at least mid-season: Does the Pac-12 have a real national title contender for the first time since the College Football Playoff’s inaugural year? In the three years since Marcus Mariota and Oregon reached the CFP final, only one Pac-12 team has made the field, and that No. 4-seeded Washington squad was handled easily by Alabama, 24–7, in the Peach Bowl. The conference’s contenders have started slow or cannibalized each other down the stretch on more than one occasion, edging out of the playoff conversation before Thanksgiving week.

With several teams undergoing some major transformations—USC must replace quarterback Sam Darnold, Chip Kelly is remodeling UCLA, Stanford has a lights-out running back in Bryce Love but no clue who will start at quarterback—the conference looks like it be in for a second consecutive year of playoff exclusion. Preventing that outcome rests in the hands of Love at Stanford, quarterback Jake Browning at Washington and whoever ends up getting the quarterback job at USC.

State of the Defending Champs

USC lost Darnold and two of his best offensive weapons in running back Ronald Jones II and receiver Deontay Burnett to the NFL, and while coming out of spring ball without a definitive answer as to who Darnold’s successor will be is just fine—true freshman J.T. Daniels is expected to get a serious look once he joins the team this summer after reclassifying to the class of 2018—there’s a lot riding on whoever wins the job this summer. It remains to be seen how patient Trojans fans will be as Clay Helton adjusts his team’s offensive approach without a surefire first-round draft pick under center.

Most compelling QB battle

This has to go to USC, both for the caliber of player it’s replacing and for the unknown that still looms going into fall camp. All spring, redshirt freshman Jack Sears and sophomore Matt Fink competed for the job; Sears has never attempted a pass in a game, while Fink has completed six of nine attempts. Both showed their inexperience this spring—and when camp begins, they’ll have additional competition in Daniels, fresh off of his third year of high school.

Awesome Highlight/Adorable Highlight

Arizona redshirt freshman Stanley Berryhill had a fun score in the Wildcats’ spring game on this shifty catch-and-run after a quick pass from backup quarterback Rhett Rodriguez. Within an offense that should be a ton of fun under the direction of new coach Kevin Sumlin and dual-threat quarterback Khalil Tate, Berryhill is a relative unknown who has the quickness to make an impact.

Meanwhile, Stanford found itself down to one healthy quarterback by its spring game, with K.J. Costello coming back from hip surgery, Davis Mills recovering from a knee injury and Keller Chryst off to Tennessee as a graduate transfer. In stepped walk-on Jack Richardson, who performed much better than expected (21 for 30, 178 yards) and was awarded a scholarship for his efforts after the Cardinal and White Spring Game. “I just got done being in tears,” he said moments after getting the news.

Post-Spring, Pre-Summer Favorite

Washington looks like the Pac-12’s best shot at a playoff team, and with so many quarterback battles still raging (and the aforementioned uncertainty among the conference’s other top teams), that still looks to be the case. Even if he wasn’t able to replicate his standout freshman numbers from 2016, Browning is a known quantity, and his backfield mate Myles Gaskin could lead the league in rushing. Couple that with arguably the best front seven the Huskies have fielded under coach Chris Petersen, and this could be a special year if the Huskies knock off Auburn in Week 1.

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