Often a little overlooked when talking about the season ahead, perhaps due to its continued lack of representatives in college football's season finale, the Playoff. Could that change this year? The Pac-12 is a competitive conference with five teams in the AP Preseason Top 25, the same number as the SEC and Big 10.
Pac-12 hopes would seem to rest with Oregon, who are going for their third straight conference title. Washington, Arizona State and USC should be in the mix and don't discount UCLA, who looked good in their opening weekend thrashing of Hawaii. Early season encounters with teams outside their conference should give us an indicator as to how good this conference is. UCLA host LSU and Oregon travel to Ohio State in the next tow weekends.
California Golden Bears
Washington State Cougars
Oregon State Beavers
Arizona State Sun Devils
No.11 Oregon goes into the season with Boston College transfer Anthony Brown taking over at QB from Tyler Shough, who transferred to Texas Tech. He will have help to settle in from a huge offensive line who shouldn't miss a beat after Penei Sewell's move to the NFL. Sewell's linebacker brother, Noah, is a key part of an excellent defense that has been carefully constructed through coach Mario Cristobal's recruiting classes. The crown jewel is 6'5", 250lb defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux. If the NFL's demand for quarterbacks wasn't at a premium, he should be the consensus top pick in next year's Draft.
QB prospect Kedon Slovis had a disappointing 2020 after a league-leading 2019 for No.15 USC. If he can show an impressive return to form, the offense should flourish around him. WR Drake London dropped his commitment to basketball to focus on football this year and Keaontay Ingram will add some versatility as a dual-threat back transferring from Texas. Alijah Vera-Tucker is a big loss on the offensive line and US|C will need its defense to step up and keep them in games. USC has the talent to win the Big 12. Anything less than a close challenge will make coach Clay Helton's seat very uncomfortable.
No.20 Washington's quarterback battle was won by sophomore Dylan Morris, who beat five-star recruit Sam Huard for the starting job. Morris was a little erratic in his four starts last year, so keep an eye out for Huard to take the reins at some point this season. RB Richard Newton looks to bounce back this year after a strong 2019 and shortened fixture list in 2020. The defensive pass rush needs some work and was hampered by the loss of Zion Tupuola-Fetui in preseason but the Huskies should have enough to challenge. |Facing Oregon at home will help.
No.24 Utah bolstered their offense through the transfer portal, adding highly experienced Baylor QB Charlie Brewer and running backs T.J. Pledger (Oklahoma) and Chris Curry (LSU) to join RB Micah Bernard. They have a big loss to replace in the form of Ty Jordan, who tragically passed away on Christmas night.
The Utes' defense gives them the best chance to contend. Leading the Pac-12 in rushing defense, look for LB Devin Lloyd to have an outstanding season. Two weekends in October - the 9th at USC and 16th hosting Arizona State - will define their season.
This could be the year that QB Jayden Daniels emerges as a premier talent for No.25 Arizona State. He leads a ground-heavy offense with fellow sophomore running backs Chip Trayanum and Rachaad White who averaged an eye-opening ten yards per carry. The defense is one of the best in the conference, averaging the most turnovers per game and has gifted playmakers in the secondary. A 2-2 record last year was deceptive. they lost close games against USC and UCLA and annihilated Arizona 70-7. They will be one to watch this year.
Stanford's strong running game will help them recover from the loss of QB Davis Mills. Nathaniel Peat and Austin Jones will carry the load behind an impressive offensive line while Michael Wilson and Elijah Higgins will add presence out wide.
The defense could be Stanford's undoing. They lost their leading tackler, defensive back and pass rusher in the offseason. LB Ricky Miezan will be one to watch.
The Pac-12 is aware of Colorado now, after it's strong 2020 season surprised many. Coach Karl Dorrell led the Buffaloes to a spot in the Top 25 and were in contention for the South division late into the season. In a conference of talented running backs, Jarek Broussard averaged 149 yards per game as the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year. A tough first month featuring games against Texas A&M, Minnesota, Arizona State and USC will show if the Buffaloes are the real deal.
UCLA seem to have risen in contention with their strong showing in their season opener against Hawaii. RB Zach Charbonnet had an impressive debut following his transfer from Michigan and QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson moves into his fourth season at the helm of the Bruins' offense with high potential. An explosive defense that led the league in sacks also gave up the second highest amount of passing yards, so consistency will be the key here. Their game against LSU this weekend will be interesting to gauge their potential. Coach Chip Kelly goes into his fourth year with an expectation to contend.
A 21-17 win over perennial favourites Oregon gave California some optimism following a three-game losing streak in an off four-game season. In Chase Garbers, the Golden Bears have an experienced quarterback who can pass and run the ball when needed - he is closing in on 1.000 career rushing yards. Returning receiver Jeremiah Hunter and promising freshman recruit J.Michael Sturdivant provide a much needed aerial threat. Some key losses on defense won't help Cal's cause to move up the division, but linebackers Kuony Deng and Cameron Goode will anchor the team and provide a solid foundation for Cal to realise the potential it showed at the end of last year.
A landmark 41-38 over their in-state rivals showed Oregon State's potential. Three subsequent losses showed there is work to do. The Beavers' exciting offense is unfortunately balanced by defensive inconsistency. Defensive tackle Evan Bennett will be one to watch. They have a promising early schedule with winnable games against Purdue, Hawaii and Idaho that should give them some momentum going into the tougher conference matchups.
Washington State has fifteen starters returning on offense and defense which should give them an opportunity to improve on their 1-3 season. Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh give the Cougars a good one-two punch running game. At time of writing, who hands the ball off to them is still to be confirmed. Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano and sophomore Jayden de Laura will find out shortly. The defense will need to be shored up if Washington State is to improve. The Cougars threw away promising positions at times last year - notably a 28-7 lead against Utah that turned into a 45-28 loss.
Propping up the conference is Arizona. A poor 0-5 season was rubber stamped with a humiliating 70-7 thrashing by rivals Arizona State. Out went coach Kevin Sumlin and in comes Jedd Fisch who comes in from the New England Patriots where he was the quarterbacks coach. Fisch announced that he plans to play both Gunner Cruz and freshman Will Plummer at quarterback. Having lost their last twelve, it can only get better for the Wildcats.
Oct 9th - Utah @ USC - two top contenders in the South division square off in the Coliseum.
Nov 6th - Oregon @ Washington - an early potential Pac-12 decider watched by the "sailgating" fans
Nov 6th - USC @ Arizona State - the other potential conference decider in a pivotal weekend for the Pac-12
Nov 20th - UCLA @ USC - the Victory Bell showdown - can the Bruins reverse recent losses to the Trojans?
Arizona State will be entertaining to watch while both Washington and USC will run them close, but I'm tipping Oregon to win their third consecutive title. They are still a season or two from the College Football Playoff, but the Sept. 11th showdown with Ohio State will see if they can bring this forward.