College Football

Pac-12 Drama Worth The Wait

November 5, 2020

By Geoff Schwartz

College football is whole again, as the Pac-12 Conference begins play this weekend. I played in the conference at Oregon in 2004-2007, and I now cover the league for a living. 

Despite a seven-game season that starts in November, the conference is filled with intriguing storylines, top quarterbacks, big-name coaches and countless reasons to watch in 2020.

Here's a look at some of the big stories for this sprint of a season, and why I'm so excited to have the Pac-12 back:

Competitive Balance in the North

The winner of the SEC is going to be Alabama. The winner of the Big Ten will be Ohio State. And the winner of the ACC will be Clemson, even without Trevor Lawrence for a couple weeks.

The winner of the Pac-12, however, could be one of six teams, with four of those residing in the North. 

Oregon Ducks (8-1, 12-2 in 2019):
We will get into more into Oregon below, but the Ducks are the favorites in the North. The defending conference champions have a stable coaching staff and a talented roster. They also love punching opponents in the mouth, especially in the trenches.

But there are red flags for a possible slow start that could cost them a conference title. Oregon has to replace all five starting offensive lineman and its starting quarterback. The line lost its anchor when left tackle Penei Sewell, a likely top three pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, opted out to prepare for the next level.

While I trust the coaching staff to develop players, the Ducks have a new offensive coordinator in former Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead, who has had limited time to install an offense that’s vastly different from last season.

Entering 2020, Oregon’s defense was poised to be one of the best in the country, with the nations top unit of secondary players. That secondary took a big hit, however, when three players (CB Thomas Graham Jr., S Jevon Holland and S Brady Breeze) opted out. The Ducks did get a boost when Deommodore Lenoir, a second-team All-Pac-12 cornerback, opted back in after initially declaring. They still have an All-American defensive end in sophomore Kayvon Thibodeaux, plus the top two inside linebacker recruits in the nation. 

California Golden Bears (4-5, 8-5 in 2019):

There’s no team in college football that will provide more preseason future wager value than Cal, which currently sits at 20-1 to win the conference. Cal is a quality team that is extremely well-coached, but doesn’t get love because its roster don’t have an awesome blue-chip ratio.

Cal is the only team in the North to return its starting quarterback in junior Chase Garbers. Plus, the Bears welcome back all five offensive lineman and their best skill-position players.

Garbers was 7-0 last season when he started and finished a game. Cal needs to be more explosive on offense, which it hopes new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave can bring to the offense.

Defense is the calling card for Justin Wilcox’s Bears, as they only allowed 22.7 points per game in the offensive-minded Pac-12 last season. Wilcox’s defense will need to make up for the loss of tackling machine Evan Weaver, who led the nation last season with 182 tackles.

Luckily for the Bears, they have the an athletic freak at linebacker in Kuony Deng, a 6-foot-6 senior who can run sideline to sideline. Cal loses two secondary members, but it does return Cam Bynum, who briefly opted out, but came back. This Cal defense plays sound and doesn’t let the offense dictate tempo. Lastly, Cal gets Oregon at home. They are a live underdog to win the North.

"The Team Up North" (4-5, 8-5 in 2019):

This is what us Oregon folks call the team with a Husky mascot in the state of Washington. The Dawgs had a down season in 2019 after winning the conference in 2018. After it was over, Chris Petersen shocked the college football world by stepping down after six seasons in Seattle, and defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake immediately took over as head coach.

Lake has his work cut out for him in his first season. Unlike other teams in the conference with new coaches, Lake doesn’t have a grace period to get his team going. Expectations are always high on Montlake, where Peterson took the Huskies to three New Year's Six Bowls, including an appearance in the College Football Playoff semifinals in 2016.

Washington also has to replace its starting quarterback, running back, left tackle, center and tight end on offense. Lake has yet to name a starting quarterback heading into the season, with transfer Kevin Thomson battling underclassmen Jacob Sirmon, Dylan Morris and Ethan Garbers. (Washington's opener at Cal, slated for Saturday night, was cancelled Thursday because of COVID-19 issues in Berkeley.)

Defense will be the strength for Washington, despite the losses of top pass rusher Joe Tryon, who opted out. The secondary is loaded as usual, but will that be enough to win the North? No. I have concerns about QB play, as no one has appeared to take control of that job. Who are the playmakers on offense? The Huskies have shuffled around offensive linemen to replace departed starters from last season -- but just like Oregon, it’s tough to start this shortened season with new lineman.

I think Washington's roster is just young and unproven at the moment, with Oregon and Cal providing more of sure things.

Stanford Cardinal (3-6, 4-8 in 2019):

I’m not high on Stanford, but there is some reason to be optimistic about the Cardinal. For starters, they can’t possible be more injury-prone this season. Their last two seasons were derailed because of the injury bug. 

Pac-12 insiders believe quarterback David Mills can be special, and if he starts fast, Stanford can be a contender in the division. However, Mills must do most of the work because the overall roster just isn’t that talented, especially with left tackle Walker Little and cornerback Paulson Adebo opting out.

With all that being said, I’m not counting out a team coached by David Shaw.

Two 2021 Heisman Candidates duel in Pac-12 South 

USC is the favorite in the Pac-12 South and for good reason. The Trojans return the best offense in the conference, led by quarterback Kedon Slovis. The sophomore entered last season as the backup to JT Daniels, but took over when Daniels injured his knee in the season opener against Fresno State.

The offense clicked under Slovis, who completed nearly 72 percent of passes for 3,502 yards. Slovis plays in the Graham Harrell "Air Raid" offense, so he’s going to have plenty of opportunities to guide this offense with his arm.

USC has an outstanding receiving trio with Amon-Ra St Brown, Tyler Vaughns and Drake London. USC showed no ability to run the football last season, so Slovis' numbers should continue to be high, and this offense will be a blast to watch.

Arizona State is the only contender in the South that could knock off USC. The Sun Devils have improved in both seasons under Herm Edwards, hopes are even higher in 2020.

Those hopes rest on the arm and legs of true sophomore quarterback Jayden Daniels, who was third in passer rating among freshman QBs last season. Daniels is a true dual-threat quarterback who threw for nearly 3,000 yards and ran for more than 300. Now, that rushing total feels low for a QB who can scoot, but that was by design.  Edwards' offense was conservative last season, and that should change with new coordinator Zak Hill running the show.

Can Any Pac-12 Team Compete for a Playoff Spot?

Oregon hired Mario Cristobal two seasons ago to take over a program that was heading in the wrong direction. After a 2014 trip to the College Football Playoff, the Ducks ended the 2016 season at 4-8. Willie Taggart was hired and lasted for only one 6-6 season.

Enter Cristobal, who came from the South, where recruiting is king. The former Miami (Fla.) offensive lineman has understood more than any coach in the West that you need to recruit big bodies to bolster the trenches and play more physically on defense. His first full recruiting class in 2019 was ranked as the highest ever for the Ducks, coming in seventh in the 24/7 Sports rankings.

In 2020, Cristobal finished with the 11th-best class, and his Ducks are currently ranked third for 2021. Now, recruiting talented players doesn’t mean a heck of a lot if you can’t coach them up, and this is where Oregon is shining right now. The Ducks had an Outland Trophy winner at left tackle last season (Sewell), and a freshman All-American at defensive end (Thibodeaux). Multiple defensive backs have top-round potential, along with a young linebacker group that’s going to shine.

The Ducks are guided by defensive coordinator Andy Avalos, who will be a future head coach. I’ve been following Oregon since 2003, the year I was recruited to the program. Last season's defense was the best I've seen in Eugene. Defenders were always in the right spot, they pressured when needed and were physical tacklers.

As mentioned above, Oregon lost all five of its offensive linemen, but if there’s one spot on the field I trust Cristobal, it’s developing offensive lineman. Moorhead's offense will be high-powered, up-tempo and score tons of points. He’s exactly what this team needs on offense. 

All this put together means Oregon can realistically compete for a national title ... in 2021 with a full season of preparation, both coordinators returning and recruiting classes continuing to be strong.

Pac-12 Before Brunch and Pac-12 After Dark

The conference might be best known for "Pac-12 After Dark," those kickoffs that start at 10:30 and 11 p.m. ET for the last games of the night.

Those late games are beloved because they're often the only football on TV outside of a Hawaii home game -- and they are freaking wild. Weird stuff happens when the moon is out. Last season, Washington State was leading UCLA 49-17 in the third quarter, around 1 a.m. on the East Coast. By the time the game ended, UCLA had won 67-63. This is why we love Pac-12 After Dark. 

Now this season, we get a new phenomenon: "Pac-12 Before Brunch," games that will start at 9 a.m. PT. And the conference starts off "Pac-12 Before Brunch" with a bang, pitting the two best teams in the South as Arizona State faces USC on FOX on Saturday.

Playing this early is unheard of in football, and it will lead to unpredictable action. Will players bodies be awake early in the games? Will this lead to mistakes? Maybe defenders aren’t crisp tacklers. I think it will be a blast to watch. 

How Do The Experts See It?

FOX Sports canvassed a few of its college football experts to forecast the Pac-12 in 2020. Here's how they see the race:

MATT LEINART, former USC quarterback in 2001-05: 

North champion: Oregon
South champion: USC
Conference champion: USC

Conference overview: "I think USC has the most talent back in the Pac-12 this year. Their offense is loaded with All-American candidate Kedon Slovis at QB and a very talented WR group.  Bringing in Todd Orlando to run the defense should give them a boost as they return eight starters and 12 of their top 13 tacklers. 

"I think Kedon is a Heisman contender, but it will be an uphill battle for him, with only six conference games and trying to play catch up with guys such as Alabama's Mac Jones and Ohio State's Justin Fields.

"I believe ASU is the second best team in the South, and the winner Saturday at the Los Angeles Coliseum should be in the driver’s seat after only one week."

BROCK HUARD, former Washington quarterback in 1995-98:

North champion: Cal

South champion: USC

Conference champion: Cal

Overview: "Cal returns the most experience in the league. While the Bears moved pieces around in the secondary, the continuity of staff and personnel will help make the difference.  The South will be wide open and the ASU-USC opener will likely crown the South champ.

"In a shortened season the lack of depth at USC won’t be the problem it has been in the past. The new blitzing scheme of defensive coordinator Todd Orlando will help fit the personnel, too.

"Had Oregon been able to retain its talented roster and not have the amount of opt outs, the Ducks likely would have won the conference -- but a new offensive line and secondary will cost them a game or two.   

What is Jimmy Lake’s biggest challenge in his first season at Washington and can his defense make up for the inexperience on offense? "Jimmy is a first-time head coach and is navigating the most unusual year any of us have ever experienced.  He has a new offensive coordinator and new quarterback transitioning to a pro-style scheme that will all require patience no one has. The secondary will again be elite, but with a scheme built around the line of scrimmage there will be some growing pains."

REGGIE BUSH, former USC running back in 2003-05:

North champion: Oregon

South champion: USC

Conference champion: Oregon

 


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