USC, 9-3 (7-2)
Kedon Slovis might be the most famous player in the conference, but he certainly hasn’t been the most successful one to date. Graham Harrell’s Air Raid hasn’t reached the heights some would have anticipated, and the departures of Amon-Ra St. Brown, Tyler Vaughns, and OL Alijah Vera-Tucker, plus the suspension of Bru McCoy raise some personnel questions. Nonetheless, Drake London is joined by transfers KD Nixon and Tahj Washington, plus running backs Vavae Malepeai and transfer Keontay Ingram. As usual, there is firepower on the offensive side.
The defense has a similar gap between star power and production. DE Drake Jackson and DBs Chris Steele and Isaiah Pola-Mao give the Trojans a physical advantage against most offenses they’ll face. The question becomes whether the team can improve on last year’s red zone failings or if the problems are more endemic to Clay Helton’s tenure of underachievement. This projection splits the difference- without Oregon or Washington on the schedule, 7-2 is the sort of “good enough’ that has kept Helton employed so far.
Utah, 9-3 (6-3)
The Utes crested in 2019 and very nearly won the Pac-12, led by a talented group of senior skill-position players. The following season was a combination of a rebuild and a reload. It only took one year, but it looks like Utah is ready to mingle with the conference’s elite once again. Whereas most offenses are headlined by a QB, Utah’s offensive line is probably the best in the conference with five returning starters and excellent production. Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer should be an upgrade at QB and there is a solid combination of transfers and returning players at RB, WR, and TE. The only black cloud hanging over the offense is the loss of star freshman RB Ty Jordan, who died at the end of last season of an accidental gunshot wound.
Even in the rebuilding year, Utah’s defense was good for second in the conference in opponent scoring. Mike Tafua returns as a superstar pass rusher and Devin Lloyd will line up behind him as one of the conference’s premier linebackers. Opponents had some success passing against the Utes last season, as UW saw in the 2nd half comeback of their matchup. If the pass rush can get home or the secondary can trade a few big plays for sound coverage, they should be able to solve that problem. As always, the team’s question is whether they have enough offensive explosion to keep up with heavyweight opponents.
UCLA, 7-5 (5-4)
While the Bruins might not look exactly like Chip Kelly’s ascendant Duck teams, the statistical markers of an efficient, explosive running attack at a fast pace have started to emerge. With a very good offensive line and Brittain Brown and Zach Charbonnet in the backfield, the tools are in place for more success on the ground. Dorian Thompson-Robinson also appeared to be rounding the corner as the QB. After two years with a completion percentage under 60% and a TD/INT ratio of 1.75, DTR improved those figures to 65.2% and 3/1. Likewise, he added a full yard to his yards per attempt. Factor in TE Greg Dulcich and WR Kevin Phillips and UCLA has an offense that could contend for a Pac-12 title.
Of course, offense isn’t what cause UCLA to go 3-4 last season. In the four losses, UCLA surrendered 48, 38, 43, and 48 points. In the three wins, the opponents never cracked 20, resulting in an oddity that UCLA never surrendered between 18-28 points in any game. The unit created lots of sacks and interceptions, but ranked 121st in the country in tackle success rate. Even with explosive plays, those extra yards kept drives going and eventually put points on the board. Even so, four losses by a total of 15 points mean that the team is closer to rounding the bend. With a bit more luck in those close games or marginal defensive improvement, this team can rise to the top half of the conference.
UCLA also has the honor of kicking off the 2021 season for the Pac-12, this Saturday against Hawaii. The Bruins are favored by 17.5, which is enough to make Hawaii very interesting. I’d prefer to bet the over 68.5 since UCLA’s offense is way ahead of its defense and Hawaii put up some big numbers against more talented teams last year. As it is, I will go with the Bruins with a final of 44-24.
Arizona State, 8-4 (5-4)
If there’s a team I’m fading relative to the consensus, it’s ASU. And my issue has nothing to do with the talent or depth on the roster; it’s the dark clouds gathering over the coaching staff that concern me. Maybe I’m naïve, but I still think that losing three on-field coaches due to recruiting violations matters enough to show up in the on-field performance. In the actual games, the rush offense is loaded. Chip Trayanum is a big play waiting to happen. Rachaad White is great at avoiding tackles. Jayden Daniels is not just the best rushing QB in the conference, but a two-minute threat unto himself. Between LV Bunkley-Shelton, Johnny Wilson, and Utah transfer Bryan Thompson, there are enough receivers to diversify the offense when teams load up against the run. Of course, both the TE and WR coach are on administrative leave, so it remains to be seen how their loss will impact the passing game.
The four-game sample led to some weird defensive stats, such as ASU ranking in the bottom half of the conference in yardage defense, but #1 in scoring defense. The 70-7 drubbing of a lame duck Arizona team skewed lots of the stats on both sides of the ball. With starting DT Jermaine Lole already injured, there are legitimate questions about the defense. Lole’s absence could get in the way of needed progress against opposing rush attacks. The secondary has talented returning starters, but they also showed a soft underbelly at times (especially late in the loss to USC). ASU and UCLA have a very similar fundamental question- will the explosive run game do enough to sustain a questionable defense? I’ll take the team with a more stable coaching situation.
Colorado, 4-8 (3-6)
Despite starting 4-0 in 2020, it’s not clear that Colorado was actually good. The Buffs narrowly beat UCLA and Stanford before those teams “figured it out” later in the season. They failed to dominate San Diego State and Arizona, then got blown out by Utah and Texas. They had the point differential and overall performance of a team that was closer to 2-4 than 4-2, and I don’t think they would’ve won more than six in a full season.
Is there reason to think they can be better this year to keep a similar record? That all starts with electric running back Jarek Broussard, and the man whose job he took, Alex Fontenot. Sam Noyer’s transfer to Oregon State leaves Brandon Lewis and Tennessee transfer JT Shrout battling it out at QB. The defense also had some important departures, such as DT Mustafa Johnson. In a year with so much stability elsewhere in the conference, that might put the Buffs behind the competition. The defense loved to gamble last year and did make big plays, but also gave up lots of big plays. That’s a tough recipe to support with significant offensive question marks. Unless the horseshoe remains lodged in place from last year, I’m seeing some backsliding here. A tough schedule (Texas A&M and Minnesota in non-conference, both UW and Oregon from the North) won’t do them any favors.
Arizona, 3-9 (1-8)
Arizona’s 2020 season was miserable and reached its nadir with a 70-7 loss to rival Arizona St. Mercifully, the final game against California was cancelled for Covid-related reasons. The team was structurally unsound and psychologically withdrawn. The big question is whether there’s enough in the cupboard for Jed Fisch to show incremental progress (think Steve Sarkisian with the 2009 Huskies), or if it’s going to take years to get back to the talent level to compete in the conference. Fisch has ample experience with offensive systems, but with Grant Gunnell at Memphis, the QB position has no obvious solution. There are few standouts back at the other skill positions and the offensive line was miserable. Can a new scheme and some investment turn that around?
Similarly, the defense returns a lot of starters from a unit that gave up boatloads of yards in every game it played. Fisch brought former Michigan DC Dom Brown to install a defensive system that had lots of success in the Big Ten, but notably struggled with Ohio State’s big, athletic receivers. The same problems could arise against USC, though I’m sure Arizona fans would take that if it meant a fighting chance against the rest of the schedule. Altogether, it’s unlikely that Arizona will be favored against a single FBS opponent this year. I’m picking them to win two anyway (plus their FCS game) simply due to better organization and effort under new leadership.
Who has the best shot to unseat USC in the Pac-12 South this year?
This poll is closed