#1 – Can Anyone Make a Playoff Push?
It is no surprise that the most pressing issue within the PAC-12 is the drought of College Football Playoff appearances. In the seven years since the Playoff has been instituted, the PAC-12 has only had two teams make the cut: Oregon in 2015 and Washington in 2017. So the question is: Can any team in the conference rise to the level of Playoff contender in 2021?
I don’t believe so.
The three best teams in the conference (Oregon, USC, Washington) all have some serious question marks that I’m hindered by when projecting a Playoff contender.
For the Ducks, my biggest question is what they can get from Anthony Brown, the Boston College transfer, at quarterback. Brown played a bit last year while contending with now departed Tyler Shough, and while the parts around him are certainly promising weapons, I don’t know that Brown is a good enough QB to get the Ducks into the Top 4. Oregon travels to Ohio State on September 11th in a big matchup that’ll give much indication on the status of this team moving forward.
For USC, my biggest question is whether or not Clay Helton is good enough to get a team into the Playoff. I don’t have any reservations about the Trojan offense behind Graham Harrell and Heisman hopeful Kedon Slovis, but Clay Helton has been on the hot seat for what feels like my whole lifetime. A 5-0 regular season before a PAC-12 Championship loss to Oregon should give some hope for USC, and I do think they are a dark horse if they can get by Notre Dame on the road. If USC can avoid the usual slip ups, they’ll be a contender, but can they really be better than a few SEC teams, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Clemson, etc? Hard to see, but in college football, anything can happen.
For Washington, I think the Huskies have a little of each problem. I was a supporter of Jimmy Lake succeeding Chris Petersen as head coach, but we’ve only seen a brief glimpse of him as the leader of the program. He’ll step into 2021 for his first full season, likely bringing another stout defense, but Washington has some question marks at the QB position. Dylan Morris was the starter for four games last season, and projects to start again this year, but he’ll also compete with transfer Patrick O’Brien, and in the wings sits five star prospect Sam Huard. One would imagine Huard in the eventual heir the starting gig, and likely the best
#2 – Chip Kelly Watch
Another year, and the same questions loom over LA: Is this the year Chip Kelly turns the Bruins around? I have some faith in a winning record breakthrough in 2021. Kelly is a lowly 10-21 in three seasons with UCLA, and the seat continues to get warmer as they tick off loss after loss, and with good reason.
Though, in Year 4, with a roster full of Chips preferred talent, and some veteran leadership at QB with an improving Dorian Thompson-Robinson, I have faith they’ll return to Bowl Season.
For starters, the Bruins went 3-4 last season. On paper, that is a bad season, but when you dig a little deeper into those four losses, they came by a combined 15 points. With a more experienced roster, I expect those losses to be improved on.
A peak into the schedule shows some winnable games. LSU comes to town on September 4th after a Week 0 visit from Hawaii. LSU has plenty of talent, but questions linger at QB, and a down season in 2020 shows that this is a winnable home game for the Bruins. In league play, the Bruins have a few tough road tests. Trips to Stanford, Washington, Utah, and rival USC will all pose threats, but I do think UCLA can grab one or two. They’ll host Oregon, albeit right after the trip to Seattle, as well as an early season home tilt against an Arizona State program that is both talented and under a recruiting investigation. A quick glance at the schedule as a whole, six wins should be the minimum for UCLA this year, but I wouldn’t count out the Bruins from getting to seven or even eight if they learned from those 2020 losses.
#3 – Arizona State Sanctions
One of the more interesting teams in the conference is going to be Arizona State. It wasn’t all that long ago that most of the college football fanbase was laughing at the hiring of Herm Edwards. Things have trended surprisingly well for the Sun Devils since then, with improvements in recruiting, a young stud QB in Jayden Daniels, and now a sudden favorite to win the PAC-12 Championship.
Then, the recruiting violations. During the COVID-19 pandemic, NCAA set in force rules against in-person visits for recruiting. This was clearly not something Arizona State deemed desirable, and according to reports, held upwards of 30 in person visits from recruits during the dead period. There are still questions as to whether Edwards knew about these visits, but as of this writing, the Sun Devils have placed tight end coach Adam Breneman, wide receivers coach Prentice Gill, and defensive backs coach Chris Hawkins all on administrative leave.
Arizona State is still one of the four favorites to win the conference, but not having key on-field staff available during fall camps is a big blow to the team. Overall, the team has the talent to win the conference, but I wonder how much this investigation will loom over both the roster of players and the coaching staff. Fortunately for Arizona State, the schedule starts off slow, without a power five opponent until Week 4 against Colorado.
All of this leads me to be pretty skeptical about what the Sun Devils will do in 2021, but they’ve got the talent on the roster to still put up a fight if they don’t let this loom.
#4 – Breakout Candidates
Antonio Pierce, Defensive Coordinator (Arizona State) – The former NFL Linebacker has come on strong since joining the Sun Devil program, both as a recruiter and a coach. In 2020, he shared the job with Marvin Lewis (yes, that Marvin Lewis), and will be the sole DC in 2021. 34 takeaways in its past 11 games and returning pretty much everyone on defense, I think Antonio Pierce is prime to make a big name for himself in coaching circles.
Noah Sewell, LB Oregon – I was in love with Noah’s brother Penei, and I feel I may be equally in love with Noah by the time he’s done in Eugene. The PAC-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year is poised to build off a successful first year where he led the Ducks in tackles and finished second in TFL and sacks. Sewell should be a national name by seasons end and a contender for the Dick Butkus Award.
UCLA – Maybe this is the year for UCLA? Chip Kellys program trended upwards a little bit in 2020, albeit with a 3-4 record, but an improved roster that should be more on brand with Kellys style and Dorian Thompson-Robinson continuing to grow, I think UCLA will get back to a bowl game and potentially 7/8 wins.
#5 – Games To Watch
LSU @ UCLA (September 4th) – A huge game for Chip Kelly that could help shift the program in the right direction
Oregon @ Ohio State (September 11th) – If Oregon wants to break into the College Football Playoff, its gonna take a midwest upset in Columbus. Kayvon Thibodeaux vs. Ohio State offensive line is gonna be a fun matchup to watch.
Washington @ Michigan (September 11th) – Huskies first road game under Jimmy Lake is in The Big House.
Utah @ BYU (September 11th) – The Holy War. Need I say more?
Cal @ TCU (September 11th) – Rematch of the infamous Cheez-It Bowl
Utah @ USC (October 9th) – Utah looks for their first win on the road against USC.
Arizona State @ Utah (October 16th) – Two PAC-12 contenders meet in Salt Lake City
USC @ Notre Dame (October 23rd) – A classic rivalry and a must win matchup if the Trojans want a shot at the Playoffs.
USC @ Arizona State (November 6th) – This game may decide the South division
Oregon @ Washington (November 6th) – On the same day, Oregon and Washington may face off for the North division
Arizona State @ Washington (November 13th) – A week after big matchups, the Sun Devils and Huskies meet for a potential Championship game preview
Cal @ Stanford (November 20th) – Two academic institutions that play for an axe. Only in college football.
UCLA @ USC (November 20th) – The LA rivalry could have some sizable repercussions
#6 – Final Predictions
- Oregon State
- Washington State
- Arizona State
Offensive Player of the Year
Kedon Slovis, QB USC
Defensive Player of the Year
Kayvon Thibodeaux, EDGE Oregon
Coach of the Year
Mario Cristobal, Oregon