Pac-12 Football: Preview and Predictions for 2021 Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystSeptember 1, 2021

Pac-12 Football: Preview and Predictions for 2021 Season

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    Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux
    Oregon's Kayvon ThibodeauxAbbie Parr/Getty Images

    The Pac-12 has been left out of each of the past four College Football Playoffs, and with nary a team in the preseason Associated Press Top 10, most expect that drought to extend to a fifth year.

    However, the league does have five teams in the Top 25No. 11 Oregon, No. 15 USC, No. 20 Washington, No. 24 Utah and No. 25 Arizona Stateputting it in a tie with the Big Ten and SEC for most ranked teams.

    Could this be the season that #Pac12AfterDark games actually have national implications again?

    In this preview of the 2021 Pac-12 season, we'll talk favorites, challengers, biggest stars, top storylines and coaches who are new to the conference or enter the season on the hot seat. There will also be projections for best offense, best defense and conference standings.

    We'll also wrap things up with a way-too-early prediction of the Pac-12 Championship Game. 

Biggest Stars

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    Arizona State's Jayden Daniels
    Arizona State's Jayden DanielsAmanda Loman/Associated Press

    Kedon Slovis, USC QB

    Jayden Daniels, Arizona State QB

    Trying to identify the third-best quarterback in the Pac-12 is...not easy. It might be Washington's Dylan Morris, though his four-game sample from last fall wasn't particularly encouraging. The other viable candidate is Utah's Charlie Brewer, who threw for nearly 10,000 yards over the past four seasons at Baylor. However, the fact that it was unclear two weeks ago whether he or Cameron "45 career passing yards" Rising would win the starting job doesn't exactly suggest Heisman Trophy potential.

    The top two quarterbacks in the league should be great, though.

    Kedon Slovis' sophomore campaign was mildly disappointing, at least from an efficiency point of view, and he still pulled off a few fourth-quarter comebacks while averaging better than 320 passing yards per game. No other returner managed 225.

    Jayden Daniels also went through a sophomore slump as Arizona State became much more of a run-first team during its four-game 2020 campaign. He completed only 58.3 percent of his pass attempts and averaged 175.3 passing yards per game. However, he made up for it by becoming a rushing threat, averaging 55.8 yards and one touchdown on the ground per game. He did scramble a fair amount as a freshman, but he's a real dual threat now.

            

    Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon Edge

    In addition to being the league's two best quarterbacks, Slovis and Daniels won't need to deal with edge-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, as Oregon plays neither USC nor Arizona State in its crossover games this year.

    Thibodeaux was the No. 2 recruit in the 2019 class and may well be the No. 1 NFL draft pick in the spring, depending on whether the team in that spot opts for the best quarterback or the best player. He had only three sacks in seven games last fall, but it almost feels inevitable that he'll hit double digits this season if he stays healthy.

            

    Jarek Broussard, Colorado RB

    Colorado surprised everyone by starting 4-0 last year, and Jarek Broussard was the biggest reason for that. After not playing in 2018 or 2019, he exploded for 733 rushing yards in those games, punctuated by a 301-yard performance against Arizona.

    Once again, not much is expected from the Buffaloes, but they could spoil the dreams of some of the Pac-12's CFP hopefuls on nights when Broussard goes berserk.

Top Storylines

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    Utah's Nephi Sewell
    Utah's Nephi SewellRick Bowmer/Associated Press

    The CFP Elephant in the Room

    I'd be willing to bet an irresponsible amount of money that one of the first comments on this article will be something along the lines of: "Who cares? The Pac-12 has no hope of making the playoff anyway."

    And you know what? It's hard to argue with that.

    Oregon was the runner-up in the first CFP in 2014. But in the six years since then, the Pac-12 has made it exactly onceWashington was the No. 4 seed in 2016. Over the past few years, the American Athletic Conference champion (UCF in 2018, Cincinnati in 2020) has usually had a better argument for a bid than any member of the Pac-12.

    Will that change this year, or are we headed for yet another season in which the Pac-12 cannibalizes itself right out of the playoff picture? Well, that at least partially depends on how well the league does in its...

          

    Many Nonconference Opportunities to Prove Itself

    We'll touch on some of these again and in more depth when we get to the "Best Games on Tap," but the Pac-12 is loaded with big games in nonconference play.

    Both USC and Stanford will face Notre Dame. USC, Utah, Arizona State, Washington State and Arizona will each take on BYU. This weekend, UCLA gets a huge opportunity at home against LSU, while Oregon State travels to Purdue and Stanford plays Kansas State in Arlington, Texas. Next weekend is even bigger with Oregon at Ohio State, Washington at Michigan, Colorado facing Texas A&M in Denver and Cal at TCU on the docket.

    The unfortunate news for the league is that 10 of those 14 games will be on the road, and with the exception of the BYU games against Arizona State, USC and Utah, the Pac-12 team might be the underdog in all 14 of them. But these are exactly the types of games it needs to win from time to time to prove it deserves a seat at the table alongside the other Power Five leagues.

            

    Who the Heck Will Win the Pac-12 South?

    With the other four Power Five leagues, there's a consensus on what the conference championship matchups will be. You've got Clemson vs. North Carolina in the ACC, Ohio State vs. Wisconsin in the Big Ten, Iowa State vs. Oklahoma in the Big 12 and Alabama vs. Georgia in the SEC.

    But in projecting the Pac-12 South champion, you might as well get a three-sided die, label them "Arizona State," "USC" and "Utah," and toss that D3 down a flight of stairs. UCLA is also a viable threat. And we can't ignore the fact that Colorado almost won this division last year.

    We'll get more into that three-horse race shortly, but it's always refreshing to have a division wherein it feels like anything is possible. (Well, anything aside from Arizona winning it.)

The Favorites

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    USC's Kedon Slovis
    USC's Kedon SlovisAshley Landis/Associated Press

    Pac-12 North Favorite: Oregon Ducks

    Last year marked Oregon's lowest-scoring season since 2006, as it averaged just 31.3 points per game. And now the Ducks need to replace quarterback Tyler Shough, who transferred to Texas Tech after what was a solid first season.

    But if former Boston College transfer Anthony Brown can hit the ground running as the new starting quarterback, the supporting cast is certainly good enough for him to thrive.

    That starts with the backfield tandem of CJ Verdell and Travis Dye, who have combined for more than 4,300 rushing yards over the past three seasons. While it's not quite the LaMichael James-Kenjon Barner pairing from a decade ago, they have been indispensable in recent years.

    They'll play behind an offensive line thatthanks to Penei Sewell's opt-out last seasonwill be mostly unchanged. The receiving corps is also loaded with returning talent, as Devon Williams, Jaylon Redd, Johnny Johnson III and Mycah Pittman are all back for another year.

    The real strength of this team, though, is the defense. We'll get more into that later, but as long as Brown is reasonably good at quarterback, this should be a 10-win team.

          

    Pac-12 South Favorite: USC Trojans

    If nothing else, USC should have one of the best passing attacks in the country.

    We've already touched on Kedon Slovis as the best passer in this league, but he also has the best receiving corps. It's unclear if the suspended Bru McCoy will be available after he was arrested on suspicion of intimate partner violence with injury in July. But the Trojans still have a bevy of talented pass-catchers in Drake London, Kyle Ford, Gary Bryant Jr. and transfers Tahj Washington and K.D. Nixon.

    Only Mississippi State averaged more pass attempts per game than USC did in 2020, and it seems fair to expect a repeat of that.

    USC should also have one of the best secondaries, at least in the Pac-12. The duo of safety Isaiah Pola-Mao and cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart will make things difficult in a league that, as previously mentioned, doesn't have a lot of proven talent at quarterback.

    However, USC is anything but a lock to win the division because of the trenches.

    For a team that passes as often as it does, the protection left a lot to be desired last fall. And one of the reasons the Trojans had Slovis throw so darn often is they've had trouble establishing the running game for the past few years. You're also looking at a mediocre pass-rushing team that is replacing two of its best players in that department (Talanoa Hufanga and Marlon Tuipulotu).

    USC looks like the team to beat, by a slim margin.

The Challengers

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    Washington tight end Cade Otton
    Washington tight end Cade OttonTed S. Warren/Associated Press

    Pac-12 North Challenger: Washington Huskies

    Oregon played (and won) last year's Pac-12 championship, but only because 3-1 Washington was unable to field a team because of a COVID-19 outbreak.

    It should have been Washington's third Pac-12 championship appearance in five years. Though the Huskies had to relinquish their spot, they had a moderately promising four-game start to the Jimmy Lake era.

    All five starters return along the offensive line, and the assumption is that they will be blocking for quarterback Dylan Morris for a second consecutive season. However, it wouldn't be a colossal surprise if 5-star true freshman Sam Huard inherits that job sooner rather than later.

    The Huskies also get back tight end Cade Otton, who led the team in every receiving category in 2020, as well as all four of their leading rushers. Regardless of who's at quarterback and who's in the backfield, expect a lot of ground and pound.

    On defense, Zion Tupuola-Fetui's torn Achilles in the spring may have lowered the ceiling a bit since he was responsible for seven of Washington's 10 sacks last season. But defense has been the hallmark of this program in recent years, and the addition of Oklahoma transfer Brendan Radley-Hiles in the secondary should help offset some of that lost pass rush.

            

    Pac-12 South Challengers: Arizona State Sun Devils and Utah Utes

    For Arizona State, things are shaping up nicely for a breakthrough year.

    On offense, Jayden Daniels could stand to improve his completion percentage, but at least his misses rarely wind up in the wrong hands. He has thrown only three interceptions in 422 career pass attempts. Meanwhile, the Sun Devils rushing attack made a massive leap last season, averaging 264.3 yards per game while pacing the team to a Pac-12-best 40.3 points per contest. Both Rachaad White and DeaMonte Trayanum return with hopes of leading yet another unstoppable rushing force.

    On defense, the Sun Devils occasionally allow a bunch of yards, but they sure are opportunistic. In 17 games since the start of 2019, they have forced 41 turnovers. It hasn't been just one or two particular players, either. In fact, in the process of piling up 13 takeaways last season, there were 13 different players who forced a fumble, recovered a fumble or recorded an interception. If you step on the field for Herm Edwards' defense, you better be ready to make a game-changing play.

    For Utah, the hope is that transfers will fill in the gaps between a ton of returning starters for a team that finished strong last fall.

    Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer will take over at quarterback. LSU transfer Chris Curry and Oklahoma transfer TJ Pledger will factor in to the running game. And Oklahoma transfer Theo Howard should be a major contributor in the receiving game.

    The Utes will also likely lean on Washington transfers Josh Calvert and Brandon McKinney on defense, though they won't need much help on that side of the ball with linebackers Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell both back for another year.

    The Utes went 11-1 during the regular season just two years ago, and improved ball security (2.6 turnovers per game in 2020) might be all it takes to get back on that path.

Best Games on Tap

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    Oregon's CJ Verdell
    Oregon's CJ VerdellChris Pietsch/Associated Press

    Oregon at Ohio State (Sept. 11)

    If Oregon (and the Pac-12 in general) wants to be taken seriously as a title contender, it just about has to win this one. The Ducks are 0-9 all-time against the Buckeyes, and the overwhelming assumption is that this road game will push that record to 0-10. But if Kayvon Thibodeaux and Co. can create some pressure and make C.J. Stroud uncomfortable in the pocket in just the second game of his college career, perhaps the Ducks can pull off a national landscape-altering upset.

               

    USC at Notre Dame (Oct. 23)

    Notre Dame has won three straight and six of the last eight in this annual (except for 2020) series, but this is the other massive opportunity for the Pac-12 to gain some respect in nonconference play. This one comes much later in the season, though, at which point we'll have a better idea if either of these teams has any hope of reaching the playoff. This one seems likely to be a de facto CFP elimination game.

              

    Oregon at Washington (Nov. 6)

    As it always seems to be in recent years, this should be the unofficial Pac-12 North championship game. Not much is expected from the rest of the division, and Oregon and Washington play only one game each against the projected top three teams in the South: Washington vs. Arizona State on Nov. 13 and Oregon at Utah on Nov. 20. Oregon won nail-biters in 2018 and 2019 before last year's game was canceled.

            

    The Three-Team Pac-12 South Round Robin
    Utah at USC (Oct. 9)
    Arizona State at Utah (Oct. 16)
    USC at Arizona State (Nov. 6)

    The schedule makers did Utah no favors by putting its two biggest games on back-to-back Saturdays, though the Utes do at least get their bye week before diving in to a one-two punch that might determine who wins the division. Arizona State will be in a similar predicament the following month, drawing USC and Washington on consecutive weekends. Frankly, it's because USC has neither a tough crossover game nor a brutal two-week stretch that we're projecting the Trojans to win the division.

Coaching Carousel

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    Arizona's Jedd Fisch
    Arizona's Jedd FischChristian Petersen/Getty Images

    Jedd Fisch, Arizona (New)

    Arizona has lost 12 consecutive games dating back to October 2019, the most recent of which was a 70-7 shellacking at the hands of Arizona State. They weren't all that ugly, but 11 of the 12 losses were decided by double figures.

    After that, it was bye bye, Kevin Sumlin, and hello, Jedd Fisch, who has bounced between college football and the NFL for the past two decades. At the college level, Fisch spent time with Florida, Minnesota, Miami, Michigan and UCLA. At the NFL level, it was Houston, Baltimore, Denver, Seattle, Jacksonville, Los Angeles (Rams) and New England.

    However, save for two games as the interim head coach at UCLA in 2017 after the Bruins fired Jim Mora, this will be his first stint as a head coach. It was an unorthodox hire for sure, but after the dream of reviving Sumlin's coaching career went up in smoke, it's hard to argue with unorthodox.

    Fisch inherited a rebuilding job and then some. In addition to the 12 straight losses, Arizona had not even signed a top-600 recruit in the 2020 or 2021 class, so Fisch dipped into the transfer portal for 12 FBS transfers. Maybe that added experience will pay dividends in the long run, but it would be a surprise if the Wildcats won anything other than their home game against Northern Arizona.

             

    Clay Helton, USC (Hot Seat)

    UCLA's Chip Kelly and Oregon State's Jonathan Smith are at least in a little bit of danger of losing their jobs if their seasons go poorly. Arizona State's Herm Edwards (ongoing NCAA investigation) might get the ax for a different reason.

    But the primary Pac-12 name on the hot seat for yet another season is USC's Clay Helton.

    For as much time as he has spent on the chopping block, Helton hasn't been all that unsuccessful. The 5-7 record in 2018 was rough, but he still has a winning percentage of .662.

    Unfortunately for Helton, the ever-present expectation at USC is a return to the 2002-08 level of excellence, wherein the Trojans finished seven consecutive seasons ranked in the Top Four. Their recruiting is also "supposed to be" better than it has been lately.

    USC did go 5-1 last year and has 10-win potential this year. Anything short of winning the Pac-12 South, though, could result in a changing of the guard.

Best Offense: Arizona State Sun Devils

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    Arizona State's Rachaad White
    Arizona State's Rachaad WhiteAmanda Loman/Associated Press

    From 2013-19, the Arizona State offense just kept getting worse and worse, trickling from 39.7 points per game all the way down to 24.8.

    But last fall, the Sun Devils exploded for 40.3 points per game and 7.3 yards per playessentially tying Florida's high-octane unit in both categories.

    Was it merely a statistical anomaly in a four-game season, or was it a swift return to the days of yore?

    There's plenty of reason to believe it was the latter.

    With the exception of Frank Darby (who was limited by injury in 2020 anyway), every single Sun Devil who had a rushing attempt or a reception is back for another year. That includes the running back tandem of Rachaad White and DeaMonte Trayanum, who helped Arizona State average 264.3 yards and four touchdowns per game.

    It's also promising that the Sun Devils improved throughout the course of the brief season, which culminated in a win over Oregon State in which they scored 46 points and gained 514 yards while attempting only 15 passes.

    Most important of all, Jayden Daniels is back for a third year as the starting quarterback. As mentioned previously, he has thrown just three interceptions in his career, and he showed improvement in Year 2 in the scrambling decision-making department. If he continues to develop, Arizona State will be mighty difficult to defend.

Best Defense: Oregon Ducks

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    Oregon's Noah Sewell
    Oregon's Noah SewellRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Considering four of the five Ducks selected in the 2021 NFL draft were defensive backs, there is reasonable cause for concern about the Oregon secondary.

    Three of those four players (Brady Breeze, Thomas Graham Jr. and Jevon Holland) opted out of the 2020 season, so at least the Ducks are already accustomed to playing without them. But now they also need to replace Deommodore Lenoir, and they will begin the season without both Jamal Hill and DJ James.

    Needless to say, it won't be a surprise if Ohio State's elite receiving corps has a field day in that Week 2 matchup.

    But the Ducks do still have cornerback Mykael Wright and safety Verone McKinley III to lead the way, and 2020 5-star recruit Dontae Manning is an obvious candidate for a breakout year. By year's end, they should at least be competent in the secondary, if not well above average.

    Until that time comes, though, Oregon can lean on what should be one of the best front sevens in the nation.

    Edge-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux is the name everyone knows, and he will anchor the defensive line once again. Meanwhile, at linebacker, Oregon signed the top two recruits in last year's class in Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe. Sewell became a leader last year, and it's only a matter of time before Flowe gets there this year.

    Keep an eye on redshirt freshman defensive tackle Keyon Ware-Hudson, too. Thibodeaux will handle most of the pass rushing, but Ware-Hudson will be a key run-stuffer for the Ducks.

    They might not get all the way back to their 2019 level of holding opponents to 16.5 points per game. Still, this defense will be rock solid.

Projected Standings

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    Stanford's David Shaw
    Stanford's David ShawJeff Chiu/Associated Press

    North Division

    1. Oregon Ducks (10-2, 8-1 in Pac-12)

    2. Washington Huskies (9-3, 7-2 in Pac-12)

    3. Cal Golden Bears (5-7, 4-5 in Pac-12)

    4. Oregon State Beavers (5-7, 3-6 in Pac-12)

    5. Washington State Cougars (5-7, 3-6 in Pac-12)

    6. Stanford Cardinal (4-8, 3-6 in Pac-12)

           

    South Division

    1. USC Trojans (10-2, 8-1 in Pac-12)

    2. Utah Utes (10-2, 7-2 in Pac-12)

    3. Arizona State Sun Devils (10-2, 7-2 in Pac-12)

    4. UCLA Bruins (5-7, 3-6 in Pac-12)

    5. Colorado Buffaloes (3-9, 1-8 in Pac-12)

    6. Arizona Wildcats (1-11, 0-9 in Pac-12)

           

    A quick note on Stanford: The Cardinal look like the third-most talented team in the Pac-12 North, but their schedule is a nightmare. They're the only team in the conference that doesn't get to play Arizona or Colorado, and even their games against Oregon State and Washington State are on the road. They also don't face a single Group of Five or FCS opponent in nonconference play. If Stanford manages to win seven or more games against this slate while breaking in a new starting quarterback, it would go down as David Shaw's most impressive coaching job.

Projected Pac-12 Championship Game: Oregon vs. USC

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    USC's Drake London and Oregon's Jamal Hill
    USC's Drake London and Oregon's Jamal HillAshley Landis/Associated Press

    Three of the last four Pac-12 Championship Games came down to the wire, but the North side won each of the previous four games by at least 19 points.

    Don't be surprised if this one brings back memories of 2013-16 with Oregon winning comfortably.

    To even have the Trojans in this spot, I obviously think they'll be a good team. But I also think Oregon is a terrible mismatch for them at the line of scrimmage.

    The Ducks are going to have the best defensive line in the Pac-12. They should also have one of the better offensive lines. And they have a pair of established rushing threats in CJ Verdell and Travis Dye.

    Conversely, the Trojans probably have the worst defensive line, worst offensive line and worst running game among the Pac-12's five contenders.

    Kedon Slovis is going to put up remarkable numbers this season, and I have no doubt he would do a decent amount of damage in this game. But Oregon's repeated victories at the point of attack will outweigh the handful of 20-yard passing plays USC will get.

    Prediction: Oregon 38, USC 20

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