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A look at the Pac-12 North: Washington might be conference’s best shot at reaching the College Football Playoff

The last time the Pac-12 sent a team to the College Football Playoff, the 2016 Washington Huskies were lampooned for scheduling Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State in nonconference play and never fully grabbed the nation’s respect on the way to the Peach Bowl in Atlanta. There, in a semifinal, they were steamrolled by Alabama 24-7, leading to more doubts about whether they belonged on that stage in the first place.

Perception is what matters most in college football, and that is especially true for Pac-12 teams, which through no fault of their own face an annual uphill battle to earn the attention of the rest of the nation. You can’t pass the eye test if millions of potential beholders are asleep.

Entering 2018, Washington, with quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin returning for their senior seasons, is once again positioned as the league’s most likely national championship contender. The good news, potentially, for the Huskies? This time, they won’t have to wait as long to prove it.

Washington opens Sept. 1 against Auburn, a top-10 caliber opponent, in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. It’s a 3:30 p.m. kick Eastern time and should be the marquee matchup of opening weekend.

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If the Huskies win, they immediately launch themselves into the national championship race and could be awarded a mulligan for a loss in Pac-12 play.

The stakes of Washington-Auburn will be high for the Huskies’ division and conference rivals, too. If they are viewed as a legitimate top-5 team as the season progresses, then any team that unseats them at the top of the league standings will be given more consideration by the CFP selection committee.

It’s a long season, and that sure is a lot of emphasis to put on one game. But every team in the league should be wearing purple and gold Sept. 1, no matter how icky that may feel.

Stanford, last season’s North Division champion, has proven under coach David Shaw that it will always challenge for the league crown. The main reason Washington is favored over the Cardinal is the location of this year’s game — Husky Stadium. Oregon, which gets Washington and Stanford at home in coach Mario Cristobal’s first season, will have the chance to enter the fray as well — with some Autzen magic.

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Here’s a look at the division heading into training camps, in predicted order of finish:

Washington

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Washington quarterback Jake Browning (3) flips the ball away as UCLA’s Jacob Tuioti-Mariner pursues on Oct. 28, 2017.
(Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

Huskies coach Chris Petersen could not have planned a better Year 5 scenario for his Washington program after leaving Boise State.

Petersen started recruiting Browning for the Broncos, convinced him to join him in Seattle and now returns a three-year starter at quarterback who has thrown for 9,104 yards and 78 touchdowns compared to just 24 interceptions.

Entering his junior season in 2017, Browning seemed a good bet to enter the NFL draft early, but his performance took a dip, and he decided to come back for some unfinished business.

The Huskies had similar luck with Gaskin. Most running backs who rush for 4,055 yards and 45 touchdowns in their first three seasons are off to the NFL, no questions asked. But Gaskin, a smaller back at 5 feet 10 and 191 pounds, would likely not have been a high pick.

The Huskies’ defense returns nine starters from a unit that finished eighth nationally in total yardage last year. One of the departures — defensive tackle Vita Vea, a first-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — will be nearly impossible to replace.

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Stanford

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Stanford running back Bryce Love scores a touchdown against San Diego State on Sept. 16, 2017.
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

Is this the year Stanford finally breaks through and plays for a national championship? Is this the year its prolific starting running back finally breaks through and wins a Heisman Trophy?

Under Shaw, no program in the nation has accomplished more the last seven seasons without playing for the big one. With 73 wins, three Pac-12 championships and five Pac-12 North titles, Stanford always feels on the brink.

It’s fitting then that four Cardinal running backs in the last decade — Toby Gerhart (2009), Christian McCaffery (2015 and 2016) and Bryce Love (2017) — have finished runner-up in the Heisman voting.

The electric Love is back for his senior season, which is the best reason to believe the answer to both questions could be a resounding “yes.”

Stanford will do what Stanford does — bloody opponents with its physical offensive line — but it should have the potential for more finesse in 2018. The highly recruited KJ Costello took over the quarterback job midway through last season and has the ability to make plays with his arm and his feet. Dependable receivers JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Trenton Irwin give Costello options on the outside.

Oregon

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Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert looks to pass the ball against Arizona on Nov. 18, 2017.
(Chris Pietsch / Associated Press)

The Ducks had to regroup quickly when Willie Taggart left Oregon for Florida State after one season. They ended up with continuity instead of a splashy hire, promoting Cristobal, who was the co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach.

Cristobal, who coached under Nick Saban at Alabama from 2013-16 after going 27-47 in six seasons as the head coach at Florida International, now leads an Oregon program becoming increasingly desperate to turn its trajectory before a new North power structure sets in.

The Ducks likely have just one more year with talented junior quarterback Justin Herbert, who is rumored to be an early favorite of NFL scouts.

Herbert’s efforts in the passing game will be bolstered by a stable of running backs led by senior Tony Brooks-James, who waited his turn behind Royce Freeman the last three seasons. At 5-9 and 190 pounds, there are doubts about Brooks-James’ ability to be an every-down back, so it’s good timing that redshirt freshman CJ Verdell has begun to impress.

Washington State

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Washington State head coach Mike Leach looks on in the first half of a game against Utah on Nov. 11, 2017.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

No program in the country will be more relieved to play an actual game than Washington State. The Cougars have been training and practicing with heavy hearts since January, when likely starting quarterback Tyler Hilinski committed suicide. Hilinski’s tragic death was uncharted territory for everyone, including head coach Mike Leach.

The quarterback position was always going to be the focus of this fall camp in Pullman, with three-year starter Luke Falk’s graduation opening the door for a new leader to emerge.

In April, Leach welcomed East Carolina graduate transfer Gardner Minshew to the competition. Minshew, who threw for 2,140 yards and 16 touchdowns last season while splitting time at the helm of the Pirates, spent a good portion of the offseason learning Leach’s pass-happy “Air Raid” offense from Hal Mumme, the system’s creator. Minshew will have to beat out junior Trey Tinsley and hyped true freshman Cammon Cooper, a four-star recruit from Lehi, Utah.

California

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California quarterback Ross Bowers looks to pass against North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C. on Sept. 2, 2017.
(Gerry Broome / Associated Press)

Justin Wilcox knows the Pac-12. The former Washington and USC defensive coordinator proved that in his first season as California head coach, as the Bears improved dramatically on defense and found themselves just a break or two away from bowl eligibility at 5-7.

Cal now needs to improve offensively, too, and should be in position to do that with 10 returning starters. The lone missing starter is a big loss, though — five-star wide receiver Demetris Robertson transferred to Georgia during the offseason. Returning receivers Vic Wharton and Kanawai Noa will provide proven targets for whomever wins the starting quarterback competition.

Ross Bowers, who threw for 3,039 yards and 18 touchdowns last year, is the incumbent and will try to hold off South Carolina transfer Brandon McIlwain in camp.

Oregon State

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Jonathan Smith listens to a question at an introductory news conference in Corvallis, Ore. on Nov. 30, 2017.
(Andy Cripe / Associated Press)

After three disastrous seasons under Gary Andersen in which the Beavers went 7-29 and won just three league games, Oregon State brought home one of its legends with the hope of returning to respectability.

Jonathan Smith quarterbacked the Beavers to their greatest season in school history — under Dennis Erickson in 2000, they went 11-1 and won the Fiesta Bowl. After four seasons as Washington’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Smith is now back in Corvallis as head coach. This Beavers’ rebuild should be way more difficult than anything he witnessed as a player.

brady.mccollough@latimes.com

Twitter: @BradyMcCollough


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