The smoke of the NFL Draft will clear the way for Washington, which represents the Pac-12’s best hope, by far, for reaching the College Football Playoff next season.

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The Hotline will state it front, center and unequivocally, even if few want to hear it and even fewer believe it:

Washington represents the Pac-12’s best hope, by far, for reaching the College Football Playoff next season.

We’ll stake out that ground now — not because it’s seven-and-a-half months until the season opener but because it’s one day past the NFL Draft deadline:

The framework for all 12 rosters has now been set, barring a few graduate transfers and impact signees.

The conference lost 19 players to the early-entry process. From a playoff standpoint, however, the issue isn’t so much quantity as quality:

How many impact players from contending teams are moving on?

Last year, the conference only lost 12 underclassmen, but most were from would-be contenders. Sure enough, the issue in 2017 was the absence of elite teams, not a lack of depth.

Before we assess the current attrition, here are the Pac-12’s early-entry totals by year:

2014: 25
2015: 16
2016: 15
2017: 12
2018: 19 (full list is below)

Of the current group, eight are from two teams that could otherwise have been reasonably considered playoff candidates: USC and Stanford.

Both, as we’ll explain, were hit particularly hard on one side of the line of scrimmage.

But there is another playoff candidate that suffered, by comparison, little draft damage: The Huskies.

While Vita Vea was a singular force — one of the top defensive linemen to play in the conference this decade — he is the only UW underclassman moving on.

Washington will return nine starters on defense and seven on offense, including quarterback Jake Browning, tailback Myles Gaskin and four offensive linemen.

In other words: Browning and Gaskin + the best offensive line in the conference (arguably) + the best defense in the conference (indisputably).

Add to that equation a non-conference schedule that will have playoff-level juice (Auburn) and a conference lineup that should clear the path to Levi’s Stadium (Stanford at home, no USC).

Feels a bit like 2016 all over again.

Why not Stanford or USC?

Welp, the Trojans lost their playmaking trio of Sam Darnold, Ronald Jones and Deontay Burnett to the draft, plus all-conference defensive end Rasheem Green.

It’s mighty difficult to envision the Trojans making the playoff without Darnold when they couldn’t make it with him.

Meanwhile, Stanford’s prospects brightened with the return of Bryce Love. Add quarterback K.J. Costello, a veteran line and playmakers at tight end/receiver, and the offense should be as potent as any in the conference.

But the Cardinal got walloped by defensive departures.

The top-three talents, Harrison Phillips, Justin Reid and Quenton Meeks, are moving on from a unit that was hardly dominant in ’17 (and lost several key seniors, as well).

Bottom line:

Washington will have more balance (fewer weaknesses) than either the Trojans or Cardinal, and the leap from middle-of-the-Pac to playoff contender seems a bit steep for the likes of Oregon, Arizona, and Arizona State, despite their returning quarterbacks.

At this early point, it looks like the Huskies or bust for the Pac-12’s playoff drive in 2018.

Here’s the list of early entries (taken from CBS Sports’ draft tracker):

Arizona State
OL Sam Jones
LB Christian Sam
DE JoJo Wicker

Colorado
CB Isaiah Oliver

Oregon State
RB Ryan Nall

Stanford
DL Harrison Phillips
S Justin Reid
CB Quenton Meeks
TE Dalton Schultz

UCLA
QB Josh Rosen
OL Kolton Miller
WR Jordan Lasley

USC
QB Sam Darnold
TB Ronald Jones
WR Deontay Burnett
DE Rasheem Green

Washington
DT Vita Vea

Washington State
DL Hercules Mata’afa
WR Tavares Martin (dismissed from team)

And there could be more. The official list will be released (by the NFL) later in the week. There might be a surprise or two.

The Huskies are my early pick for the conference tile, obviously. Check the Hotline on Wednesday for a full breakdown of both divisions.