THE FAVORITES: OREGON and USC
In a normal year, Oregon would have been the obvious favorite. This is an abnormal year with a shortened schedule and several opt-outs, so the two spots in the Pac-12 title game are more open to interpretation than most experts think. The Ducks have taken some hits with several players opting out, including offensive tackle Penei Sewell, the conference’s top NFL draft prospect. Oregon coach Mario Cristobal has been reloading with top recruiting classes, but the personnel losses are significant. Star quarterback Justin Herbert graduated to the NFL, where his talents are obvious, and five starting offensive linemen are gone with him. At the Westgate SuperBook, Oregon is the + 130 favorite, with USC the + 250 second choice. Cristobal makes shaky game-management decisions, and USC coach Clay Helton is a consistent underachiever, so pick your poison. The Ducks’ success will depend heavily on the development of redshirt sophomore quarterback Tyler Shough. The Trojans have an established QB in Kedon Slovis, and USC might be better defensively and have slightly more talent across the board than Oregon.
The Pac-12 is playing a six-game schedule, five games against division opponents and one cross-division game, and the league office did the elite teams some scheduling favors. The Ducks drew a home game against UCLA as the crossover, and USC gets a home game against Washington State. Oregon embarrassed USC 56-24 last year, but that was a much different Ducks team led by Herbert.
LIVE DOGS: ARIZONA STATE and CALIFORNIA
Critics howled about the coaching hire of Herm Edwards, but he’s 15-11 in two seasons with the Sun Devils. He also has a future star at quarterback in sophomore Jayden Daniels. Arizona State has a little rebuilding to do, but Edwards has recruited well. Cal coach Justin Wilcox always puts a tough defense on the field, and he has a quarterback who can win in junior Chase Garbers. If the favorites falter in the North or South, the Golden Bears and Sun Devils are in positions to surprise, and each team is posted at 16-1 odds to win the conference by the Westgate.
DEAD MONEY: COLORADO
New coach Karl Dorrell said he expects Colorado to compete for the conference championship. Dorrell is delusional if he believes that. Preseason optimism is one thing, and outrageous statements are another. The Buffaloes could be underdogs in every game, with their best shot to win being the Nov. 7 opener against UCLA. In the North, Washington State will take a few steps back, and onetime doormat Oregon State is not a bad joke anymore.
BIG GAMES ON THE BOARD
Arizona State at USC, Nov. 7
The top quarterbacks in the conference, Daniels and Slovis, duel in the Coliseum. The Pac-12 made this a national showcase game on Fox and set a rare early kickoff of 9 a.m. PT. The Sun Devils were 5½-point home underdogs in a 31-26 loss to the Trojans last year.
USC at Utah, Nov. 21
The Utes have only nine returning starters from last season’s 11-3 team that won the South. The Trojans were whipped 41-28 in a visit to Salt Lake City in 2018.
Oregon at California, Dec. 5
Where could the Ducks get tripped up on the road? Keep an eye on this date in Berkeley. The Golden Bears were 21-point dogs in a 17-7 loss at Oregon last year.
Washington at Oregon, Dec. 12
The Huskies were flops last year, and a blown lead in a 35-31 loss to the Ducks in Seattle was a crushing blow. With the retirement of Chris Petersen, a new era begins at Washington with Jimmy Lake taking over as coach.
USC at UCLA, Dec. 12
The Trojans expect to be playing for the Pac-12 South title. Bruins coach Chip Kelly is 1-1 against USC.
Justin Wilcox somehow coached the Golden Bears to an 8-5 record last season despite having the lowest-scoring offense (21.2 ppg) in the Pac-12. Wilcox turned to a fellow Oregon alum, Bill Musgrave, to upgrade an offense that returns 10 starters. Musgrave, who took over as offensive coordinator when Beau Baldwin left to coach Cal Poly, last coached at the college level at Virginia in 2002. He has been the offensive coordinator for four NFL teams: the Jaguars, Vikings, Raiders and Broncos. Musgrave brings 20-plus years of NFL experience to Berkeley. While Cal will have some spread looks, expect the Bears to run a more pro-style look led by junior quarterback Chase Garbers. Cal was 7-0 when Garbers started and finished a game, but he was banged up all season. The offensive line returns all five starters, and the entire running back corps and seven of the top eight receivers are back, so the unit should be dramatically improved. Though losing three NFL draft choices, the defense returns seven starters, and senior corner Camryn Bynum, the team leader in pass breakups, opted back in for the 2020 season. Cal gets top North rivals Oregon, Stanford and Washington at home. While the Ducks remain the favorites in the North, Cal could be the dark horse.
Despite losing quarterback Justin Herbert and seven other offensive starters from a 12-2 Rose Bowl team, the Ducks are favored to win the Pac-12. Marcus Arroyo left as offensive coordinator to take over as coach at UNLV. Head coach Mario Cristobal will turn to Joe Moorhead, who was fired as Mississippi State coach, to run the offense. Cristobal intends to get his three-headed backfield monster — CJ Verdell, Travis Dye and Cyrus Habibi-Likio — plus star redshirt freshman Sean Dollars more involved in the passing attack. The quarterback competition is between sophomore Tyler Slough and grad transfer Anthony Brown, who started the last three years at Boston College. Junior left tackle Penei Sewell, the Outland Trophy winner, is arguably the best NFL prospect in the conference but has opted out. Oregon will have five new starters on the offensive line. The defense, led by sophomore end sensation Kayvon Thibodeaux (nine sacks), was supposed to be the team’s strength. It still might, but it will have to do without three starters in the secondary who opted out. The Ducks are the most talented team in the Pac-12 and have been No. 1 in the conference for the last two years in recruiting. The schedule is favorable, getting Washington and Stanford at home.
Third-year coach Jonathan Smith was a four-year starter at quarterback for the Beavers. He inherited a 1-11 team in 2018 and has improved in both his seasons. Oregon State was two seconds from becoming bowl-eligible for the first time since 2013 but gave up a late score at Washington State and then lost its rivalry game for the 11th time in 12 seasons to finish 5-7, with three losses by three or fewer points. Smith must replace a three-year starting quarterback in Jake Luton, but Nebraska junior transfer Tristan Gebbia, who started the finale at Oregon, was highly recruited. The Beavers must also replace two of their top three receivers and have three new starters on the offensive line. Defensively, Oregon State did improve from 2018 but really had nowhere to go but up. However, the unit did drop its points allowed from 45.7 ppg to 32.5 and its total yardage from 537 ypg to 446 while also increasing its sack total from 15 to 32. Smith is building a solid culture in Corvallis and seems to have this program moving in the right direction, but it might not show in the record because of a rough schedule.
The Cardinal went 4-8 in 2019 for their first losing season in David Shaw’s nine years. Stanford’s 10-year postseason streak also was broken, and it lost “The Big Game” to rival Cal and fell to Notre Dame at home for the first time in 10 years. Junior quarterback Davis Mills started six games last year, and the job is now his as K.J. Costello transferred to Mississippi State. Four of Stanford’s top five receivers are back, as are four starting offensive linemen. But the Cardinal were hit some by opt-outs. Junior left tackle Walker Little and junior second-team All-American corner Paulson Adebo were arguably the best players in the program, but both are preparing for the NFL draft. Last year Stanford started three quarterbacks and three true freshmen on the offensive line due to injuries, and its usually potent rushing attack was rendered powerless against stacked fronts. The Cardinal averaged 106 ypg on the ground, their lowest since 2007, and just 21.7 ppg. Injuries also beat down the Stanford defense, which allowed 430 ypg and 29.8 ppg, the highest marks allowed since 2006. Stanford plays its most difficult North foes — Oregon, Washington and California — on the road. Is this program in decline or on the comeback?
New coach Jimmy Lake was promoted after serving as defensive coordinator the last four years for one of the best stop units in the nation, allowing fewer than 20 ppg each year. Chris Petersen’s resignation shocked the faithful in Seattle, but it is Lake’s program now. Lake’s first order of business is to find a quarterback to replace Jacob Eason, who left early for the NFL draft. Sophomore Jacob Sirmon is considered the favorite, but he is sharing reps in fall practice with redshirt freshman Dylan Morris, Sacramento State grad transfer Kevin Thomson (2019 Big Sky offensive player of the year) and freshman Ethan Garbers, younger brother of Cal quarterback Chase Garbers. Only four starters return on offense. Lake and new offensive coordinator John Donovan, who spent four years as an assistant with the Jacksonville Jaguars, want a more power-based rushing attack. Defense may carry the Huskies, but two of their top players, senior tackle Levi Onwuzurike and senior linebacker Joe Tryon, opted out to prepare for the draft. Pete Kwiatkowski has served as co-defensive coordinator with Lake since 2016, so there is at least some continuity with what should be a solid group. The Huskies open at Cal, which upset them the last two seasons as a double-digit underdog.
Mike Leach and the Air Raid offense left Pullman for Mississippi State. Enter Nick Rolovich and the Run-and-Shoot from Hawaii. Brian Smith and Craig Stutzmann come with him from the islands to serve as co-offensive coordinators. The Cougars must find a replacement for Anthony Gordon, who threw for 5,579 yards — sixth most in NCAA history — and a Pac-12-record 48 touchdowns. The three-way battle for the job features redshirt sophomore Cammon Cooper, redshirt freshman Gunner Cruz and true freshman Jayden de Laura. Whoever wins the job does get a boost in the backfield as junior running back Max Borghi decided to return. Borghi has had only 199 carries in two seasons in Pullman but will get to run the ball more in this new offense as Hawaii’s leading rusher last season had 174 attempts. The defense also has a new coordinator in Jake Dickert, who comes to Pullman from Wyoming. Washington State had played with a smaller and faster defense in the last several seasons, but Dickert wants a bigger and more physical unit, and it will take some time to adjust. Even learning a new system, the Cougars should score points under Rolovich, who had his best numbers last season in his four years at Hawaii.
Alabama’s Nick Saban is not the only coach to make a quick return from the coronavirus. In mid-October, a week after announcing he had tested positive for COVID-19, Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin returned to practice. The bigger storyline with Sumlin heading into his third year in Tucson is about diminishing returns. At Texas A&M, Sumlin beat Alabama and coached Johnny Manziel to a Heisman Trophy. At Arizona, he’s 9-15, including 0-2 against Arizona State, and carries a seven-game losing streak into 2020. USC’s Clay Helton seems to always be on a hot seat yet has far more job security than Sumlin, who needs to develop an elite quarterback and fix a broken defense in a hurry. The Wildcats’ first three games — at Utah, USC and at Washington — are about as tough as it gets in the Pac-12 this season. That ugly losing streak could reach 10 soon. Grant Gunnell is Sumlin’s best hope. A 6-foot-6, 230-pound sophomore, Gunnell took over for Khalil Tate last season and completed 65.2% of his passes with nine touchdowns and one interception. If Gunnell takes the next step and Arizona opens up the offense, look for a trend of high-scoring games. The Wildcats allowed 30 points or more in seven of the final eight games last season.
Most of the hype surrounding the Sun Devils is focused on quarterback Jayden Daniels, who turned into a freshman sensation. Daniels passed for 17 touchdowns with two interceptions and ran for 355 yards and three scores. But the top two playmakers surrounding him, wideout Brandon Aiyuk and running back Eno Benjamin, are gone to the NFL. The offensive line is being rebuilt under a new offensive coordinator. Daniels should continue developing into a legitimate star, but Heisman Trophy hype is premature. It helps that coach Herm Edwards has had success on the recruiting trail, so new young talent will surround Daniels. Arizona State finished last season on a three-game winning streak that was highlighted by a major upset of Oregon and a bowl victory over Florida State. Edwards lost defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales, who took the head-coaching job at New Mexico, and replaced him with former NFL linebacker Antonio Pierce and former Bengals coach Marvin Lewis as co-coordinators. Edwards improved from 7-6 in his first year to 8-5 last year. The Sun Devils will be home underdogs against South favorite USC in the season opener. Then the schedule gets considerably softer, and Arizona State will have a shot to win each of the next five games.
After just one season in Boulder, coach Mel Tucker bolted for Michigan State in February and left Colorado in a bad spot. The hiring of Karl Dorrell was not hailed as a steal, but Dorrell has a positive history with the program and in the Pac-12. Dorrell was Rick Neuheisel’s offensive coordinator at UCLA and Washington and went 35-27 as the Bruins’ coach from 2003-07. Interestingly, Dorrell was 8-0 ATS as a home dog. He will have to rebuild the Buffaloes on the offensive side after the departures of quarterback Steven Montez and top wideout Laviska Shenault. Dorrell looks ready to name incoming freshman Brendon Lewis as the starting QB. Lewis, a four-star recruit from Texas, is a strong dual-threat athlete. A limited offseason makes it more challenging to implement a new offense with a freshman quarterback. For several reasons, it’s easy to pick Colorado last in the division. The Buffaloes, who finished 5-7 each of the last three seasons, could be underdogs in every game. Ironically, Dorrell’s opening game will be against UCLA in Boulder, and it’s probably the most winnable game on the schedule. If Dorrell wins two games, his first year will be a success. He needs more time to rebuild the program.
By the end of October, UCLA coach Chip Kelly will not be hearing any chirping from his growing mob of critics, but that’s only because the Bruins will not play a game until November. Kelly’s ego and record have taken big hits in his first two years in Westwood, where he’s not regarded as a wizard. Kelly is 7-17 at UCLA after compiling a 46-7 record in four years at Oregon and then taking an ill-fated tour through the NFL. Kelly was expected to turn things around last year, when he had 19 returning starters, but the Bruins’ punchless offense was just as poor as their defense. Dorian Thompson-Robinson returns as the starting quarterback, although skeptics might regard that as bad news after he tossed 12 interceptions and lost seven fumbles. Thompson-Robinson, the most experienced QB in the league with 20 games played, has the skills to be more successful. Kelly’s offense in L.A. does not resemble the innovative spread he won with at Oregon, and leading rusher Joshua Kelley has moved on to the NFL, so it’s difficult to predict significant improvement. The defense has been atrocious, allowing a total of 101 points in late-season losses to Utah and USC. To make matters more difficult, the Bruins play at Oregon in their crossover game.
Kedon Slovis, an afterthought when last season started, is now a headline attraction as the most-hyped quarterback in the Pac-12. An injury opened the door for Slovis, who completed 71.9% of his passes for 3,502 yards and 30 touchdowns, and he took full advantage of the opportunity. When USC hosts Arizona State on Nov. 7, Slovis will duel with the conference’s other rising star quarterback, Jayden Daniels. On paper, the Sun Devils are the second-best team in the South, but that could change because the Trojans are too often paper tigers. USC returns 17 starters, and that means no more excuses for coach Clay Helton, who’s entering his fifth year and his second straight season on the hot seat. Helton, 13-12 straight up and 10-15 ATS the last two seasons, has a loaded roster on both sides of the ball. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell schemes a wide-open attack that will feature Slovis and a slew of fast playmakers. The shortened season is a huge benefit to USC, which dropped Alabama, Notre Dame and Oregon from its schedule. The Trojans drew Washington State as their crossover opponent, which means Helton is catching some breaks. If USC falls short of reaching the league title game, Helton could take a hard fall.
Three quarterbacks are competing to be No. 1, and the starter might not be announced until just before Utah’s opener Nov. 7 against Arizona. South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley and Texas transfer Cameron Rising are co-favorites, with Drew Lisk as the underdog. The Utes are no longer the favorites in the South, a year after winning the division and taking an 11-1 record into the conference title game. A lopsided loss to Oregon followed by a bowl blowout at the hands at Texas spoiled the end of a great season. Seven Utah players were selected in the NFL draft — only Alabama, LSU, Michigan and Ohio State had more — and quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss must be replaced. Huntley accounted for 24 touchdowns and Moss, a third-round pick by Buffalo, rushed for 1,416 yards and 15 touchdowns. Utah will show a new look, and not an improved one, in a rebuilding year. At the same time, never count out Kyle Whittingham, who’s a bet-on coach. The Utes were 9-2 against the spread before imploding in last season’s final two games. A schedule that excludes rival Brigham Young is favorable, with Utah getting USC in Salt Lake City and drawing Oregon State as the crossover opponent.