A year removed from the ravages of the pandemic, will the Pac-12 remind the nation of their considerable history, or will the “League of Champions” continue their struggles to remain relevant in the changing landscape of College Football???
Though other leagues were indeed affected by the COVID-19 pandemic that wrecked havoc across the country in 2020, no conference was dealt a crueler blow than the Pac-12, with most of their residents unable to play more than a scant handful of games due to the health and safety restrictions that were instituted along the west coast. The last of the Power Five leagues to begin their campaign, it wasn’t until early November before they managed to kick things off, all the while hurdling through a condensed schedule in order to accommodate a Conference Championship Game, which coincidentally took place on the day before the final College Football Playoff Rankings were set to be released. As fate would have it, none of their number would compete in the Playoff, with (North Division Champion) Washington unable to even compete in the title game due to COVID-19 concerns, shining an unfavorable light on the growing divide between the Pac-12 and it’s brothers among the Power Five. With the landscape of College Football shifting more with every passing year, the league has been rumored to be entering a proposed partnership with the BIG Ten and ACC in an attempt to match the growing influence of the SEC. Until that happens, all it’s teams can do is continue to build and compete their asses off, with the conference as wide open as it’s been in years. So with that said let’s take a trip to the “League of Champions” and get acquainted with it’s contenders in an attempt to glean if any are worthy of representing the west coast in the Playoff for the first time since 2016…
The Favorite: USC
Critics often point to the fall of Southern Cal as the main reason behind the Pac-12’s descent into irrelevance, and when you think about it they may have a bit of a point. The dominance of programs such as Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State have have done nothing but enhance the profile of their respective leagues in the eyes of the CFP Selection Committee, and it’s been quite a while since the Trojans have competed at that kind of level. Hell, the Pac-12 has been starved of any dominant outfit for the better part of a decade, no matter what school has laid claim to that title. And it’s with that said that in a conference that continues to be wide open that USC should be able to make the leap and fill that vacuum of power. Then again, that’s been the running script for many years now in Los Angeles: they’ve always had the talent, but will they manage to find a way to put it altogether? That is the conundrum that (Head Coach) Clay Helton has yet to unravel, even after six years on the job. Indeed, the Trojans have been nothing short of patient with the 49-year old, who has gone a solid 45-23 since taking over (full-time) in 2016, but has nonetheless delivered just one conference championship (2017) and zero appearances in the Playoff, with their highest finish in the AP Poll checking in at Third (2016). However, one look at this roster and there are all the makings of a potential champion that can vie for a spot in the Playoff; USC returns thirteen starters from last year’s South Division Champions, including seven on Offense, highlighted by (Junior Quarterback) Kedon Slovis, who led the league in every major passing category. Entering his third year as the starter, Slovis experienced his ups and downs in 2020, showing his chops in the clutch with three Fourth Quarter Comebacks, while also tossing a disappointing seven interceptions. The train of thought is that with a full Offseason to his benefit along with what should be a vastly improved Offensive Line that returns four starters, he and the attack as a whole should be among the best in the Pac-12. The Defense also bears watching as it enters it’s second year under (Defensive Coordinator) Todd Orlando; the Trojans took to his aggressive scheme well in 2020, registering as many takeaways (16) in half as many games as they did in the previous campaign. Look for (Freshman Edge-Rusher) Korey Foreman, who was the No. One Overall Recruit in the country in 2021, to make an impact on a loaded Front Seven that isn’t short on talent by any means. Then again, as we said earlier that is precisely the theme with the program: there is a wealth of talent on hand, but it remains to be seen if Helton & Co can put it to proper use, otherwise falling short of their annual lofty expectations may end up costing him his job, regardless of the bode of confidence that the school gave him during the Offseason.
The Contender: Oregon
The only other school in the Pac-12 to compete in a National Championship Game since the turn of the century, Oregon comes into 2021 as the league’s reigning champions, with (Head Coach) Mario Cristobal rebuilding the program into what could very well be a bonafide powerhouse in the near future. However, they were rather fortunate to even claim that league crown, for all things considered they didn’t even win their own division; the Ducks ended up making the trip to Los Angeles due to Washington being deemed ineligible due to concerns over COVID-19. With that said, they certainly made the most of that opportunity, besting USC in a 31-24 affair, earning the program their second consecutive league title. Entering his fourth full season in Eugene, Cristobal has recruited his ass off, delivering a wealth of talent to the Pacific Northwest. Simply put, they are loaded on both sides of the football, including a deep, athletic group of Receivers along with four returning starters along the Offensive Line, while the Defense has seven starters coming back, highlighted by (Junior Edge-Rusher) Kayvon Thibodeaux, who is definitely on the watch list for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. (Incoming Defensive Coordinator) Tim DeRuyter certainly has an embarrassment of riches to play with, including an impressive Secondary led by (Cornerback) Mykael Wright, not to mention (veteran Linebacker) Noah Sewell. However, what ultimately separates Oregon from the likes of USC is that whereas the Trojans can claim the top Quarterback in the conference, the Ducks are quite the question mark at the game’s most important position. After starting seven games, (former Quarterback) Tyler Shough transferred to Texas Tech, leaving the job in the hands of (Graduate Transfer) Anthony Brown, who saw action in each of the last two games of the campaign. Shough got off to a hot start in leading an Offense that averaged over forty points through the first four games, but came crashing back to Earth in a 21-17 defeat at California and never quite regained his form. Brown completed just 15-of-23 passes for 164 yards and a pair of touchdowns in his limited action. While he should have the edge early, expect (Five-Star Recruit) Ty Thompson to get every opportunity to earn the job. Whomever wins the competition will be thrown into the fire in the early goings of the schedule, with a trip to Columbus to face (BIG Ten Champion and National Runner-Up) Ohio State in one of the most heavily anticipated non-conference contests of the season.
The Wild Card: Washington
Ironically, everything that we just detailed about Oregon can be applied to Washington, who will be looking for some good ol’ fashioned retribution after being denied the right to compete in the Pac-12 Championship Game due to COVID-19 concerns. In his first year in replacing Chris Petersen, (Head Coach) Jimmy Lake handled himself rather well in Seattle, sticking to the blueprint that his predecessor utilized to great success: punishing opponents via the run and attacking them on the other side of the football with an aggressive approach. In the end, the Huskies’ 3-1 finish felt more like an extended Spring Practice than anything resembling a proper season, though that should be a boon towards building depth for an outfit that has a balanced seven players returning on both sides. All Five Offensive Linemen return (the largest in the history of the program), along with (All-First Team Pac-12 Tight End) Cade Otton, helping pave the way for a prolific rushing attack that churned out 226.5 yards per game. Look for (Junior Tailback) Richard Newton to get first crack at the lead role in the Backfield; after rushing for 498 yards and ten touchdowns in 2019, he fell by the wayside as a Sophomore with just 122 yards on twenty-three attempts. however, the question, as is the case with Oregon, is who will be taking snaps at Quarterback, for it is very much an open competition for the starting gig. Despite winning a tightly-contested competition in 2020 and playing reasonably well over the course of their four games, (Sophomore) Dylan Morris is not guaranteed the role he enjoyed last season by any means, and that’s due to the arrival of (True Freshman) Sam Huard. If that name doesn’t sound familiar to you, then allow us to elaborate; the Five-Star Recruit is practically royalty at Washington, with his father (Damon) and uncle (Brock) each starring at Quarterback for the Huskies before plying their trade in the National Football League. Needless to say, the lefty has already been anointed the savior by the fan base, which should make this a fascinating competition that bears watching moving forward. In the meantime, whomever wins the job has the requisite supporting cast to facilitate success, though one look at their schedule and it’s clear that they’ll be tested early; much like the Ducks, they’ll be heading to BIG Ten country for a date with Michigan in Ann Arbor, which should give us a clear idea as to what the Huskies will look like heading into their conference schedule.
In Trouble: Arizona
If there is any program within the Pac-12 that finds themselves in a mess heading into 2021, it’s unquestionably Arizona, who are looking to turn the page from the unmitigated disaster that was the Kevin Sumlin Era. Simply put, Sumlin was an odd choice from the word go, with the skipper unable to find any traction in terms of recruiting, which ultimately led to his dismissal after three dreadful seasons compiling a 9-20 record. Seriously, after boosters paid out of pocket for a billboard that read “No Pity for the Kitty”, the hierarchy within the Athletic Department opted to buy out the remaining $7.5 million of his contract. While most schools wouldn’t have held a miserable 2020 (given the circumstances, of course) against their Head Coach, the Wildcats used that delayed 0-5 campaign (punctuated by a 70-7 loss to rival, Arizona State) to move on, though Sumlin’s successor hardly inspired a positive reaction from the fan base. Needless to say, Jedd Fisch has A LOT of work to do to get this program back to anything resembling respectability, with the (former UCLA Offensive Coordinator) landing the first leading gig of his career. Fisch has served at an assistant at many successful programs, ranging from Michigan, Miami, Florida, and Minnesota in the college ranks as well as the Seattle Seahwawks, New England Patriots, and Baltimore Ravens to name a few in the NFL. What we’re trying to say is that this guy should know what a winning team looks like, and he’ll need to draw upon all of his experiences to turn things around in Tucson, for it looks like this program is at least three years away from simply getting to a Bowl, of which there are over thirty of. With that said, he’s done a wealth of good PR with the faithful having brought back a number of Ex-Wildcats (including Tedy Bruschi and Rob Gronkowski) to the program, though his most significant addition is likely acquiring the services of (Defensive Coordinator) Don Brown from Michigan. Winning the Offseason was important, but now it’s time that we see him win games, which is something that Arizona hasn’t done in their last twelve contests. The Offense looks to be a blank canvas, with last year’s Quarterback, Grant Gunnell transferring away to Memphis, and replaced by either (Washington State Transfer) Gunner Cruz or (Freshman) Will Plummer. With just five starters returning on this side of the football, look for Fisch to institute a more balanced attack, while Brown’s blitz-happy scheme should coax more big plays from a Defense that returns seven of their number.