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Picking the Pac: Pac-12 North Season Preview

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Our annual opportunity to impose a worst-case scenario on the Ducks

NCAA Football: Stanford at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

In case you missed it, check out yesterday’s post with Pac-12 South predictions.

Washington 10-2 (7-2)

We have spent plenty of time previewing Washington from every angle, so I’m not going in depth on the roster in this space, but let’s look at how we get to this record. Looking at UW’s schedule, I see 10 games where we will likely be favored and two that are closer to a toss-up (Michigan and Oregon). Even the games where we’ll be favored are far from sure things; Stanford and Cal, for example, are probably closer to a 60% win probability. In other words, the likelihood of winning 11 or 12 games is, as always, slim. Moreover, getting wins over both Michigan and Oregon would be great, but the odds aren’t great to win both of them. In this scenario, I have UW beating Michigan and losing to both Oregon and Stanford. By my calculations, that would still be good for double-digit wins, a Pac-12 North win, and an outstanding season.

Oregon 8-4 (6-3)

This projection is close to a worst-case for the Ducks, but hey, this is a UW blog. I’m entitled to give a worst-case prediction for Oregon. A win over Ohio State in week two would be very surprising. Oregon also has a tricky conference schedule, with road games against UW, UCLA, Utah, and Stanford. With big name coordinators and blue chip recruits, how would Oregon get stuck here? Let’s start with the fact that the Ducks have lost three of their last four games. Anthony Brown took over for Tyler Shough at QB late in the season and looked a bit more reliable, but still not as dynamic as some Ducks QBs in recent years. The skill position star power is there- CJ Verdell and Travis Dye at RB, Devon Williams, Jaylon Redd, Mycah Pittman, and Johnny Johnson at WR, DJ Johnson at TE-, but that was true last year, too, and the production was closer to good than great.

Syndication: Arizona Republic Patrick Breen/The Republic via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The defense has big names like Kayvon Thibodeaux, Noah Sewell, and Mase Funa at DE/LB, but like the offense, the 2020 results did not match the pedigree. In particular, the secondary did not produce commensurate with the underlying talent level. Prior DC Andy Avalos left to become the Boise St. head coach and he was replaced by Cal’s Tim DeRuyter. Can DeRuyter implement a scheme that doesn’t have troubling let ups like 41 points to Oregon State and 34 to Iowa State?

California 8-4 (5-4)

Which version of Chase Garbers will we get in 2021? He went 7-0 as a starter in 2019 on either side of an injury, then struggled in 2020 in his abbreviated 1-3 season. The safe, ball-control offense went too far last year and became almost hopelessly conservative. Kekoa Crawford is back at WR and Christopher Brown is a dangerous big back. There is a recipe for an offense that can support Justin Wilcox’s defense-first formula. It will rely on improved play from an experienced OL and better execution from Garbers in obvious passing situations.

Of course, the defense-first formula only makes sense if the defense can win games for them, which it didn’t last year. The Bears were well below average in both rush and pass success rate allowed in 2020. Despite stars like Cameron Goode and Kuony Deng at linebacker and Josh Drayden in the secondary, there just weren’t enough big plays to get opposing offenses off the field. This pick is a vote of confidence for Wilcox and the defensive personnel. They have been very good more often than not, and I think Cal can defend their way to a winning record in conference.

Oregon State 5-7 (3-6)

Speaking of former UW coordinators, I desperately wanted to pick Jonathan Smith’s Beavers to finish third, but couldn’t make the schedule work to get them enough wins. Even this far into fall camp, there’s still a big question mark at QB. Triston Gebbia is still on the sideline with a hamstring injury. Sam Noyer transferred from Colorado after a competent showing there. Chance Nolan is still in the race after a so-so showing in Gebbia’s stead last year. My money is on Noyer due to his dual-threat ability and experience. Without Jermar Jefferson, the running game will revolve around South Carolina transfer Deshaun Fenwick and last year’s complement BJ Baylor. The key to the whole offense is a very good offensive line. The win over Oregon showed a team that could exert its will on a more talented defense. If they can do that more consistently, they are close to a breakthrough.

NCAA Football: Oregon State at California Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Defensively, an undersized line did not hold up against the run or the pass. Avery Roberts and Omar Speights tallied loads of tackles from the LB position because they got no help up front. Likewise, the lack of pressure led to easy passes for opposing QBs. With such an obvious need for improvement and Smith doing well to bring in talent via the transfer portal, I suspect they can get that unit up from “miserable” to merely “below-average,” which dramatically changes the team’s outlook.

Washington State 5-7 (3-6)

I previously wrote that the institutional chaos at Arizona State caused me to downgrade their projection. The same goes for Wazzu, albeit in a slightly different way. Just because all of the attention around WSU has related to Nick Rolovich and the word “mandate” doesn’t mean that the other coaches or players are necessarily distracted from the job at hand. Nonetheless, it’s hard to see how Rolovich’s behavior has helped build a more unified mentality going into the season.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Utah Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

And it’s not like WSU has a big margin for error. The 2020 Cougar vintage was 108th in defensive SP+, which is actually the best ranking a Rolovich defense has ever posted. The defense sold out for big plays and got routinely picked apart. Jayden de Laura should start at QB over Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano. A bunch of receivers left the program, but there is still talent at the skill positions in Max Borghi, Deon McIntosh, Travell Harris, and Renard Bell. Last year, a solid offense failed to keep pace with a poor defense. It’s hard for me to see 2021 looking much different.

Stanford 4-8 (3-6)

Despite whispers about a resurgence, David Shaw’s Cardinal have a schedule problem. With a talent level a notch below the top five or six teams in the conference, they unfortunately have to travel to play several of the teams they could possibly beat on a neutral field- ASU, Washington State, Oregon State. If they can’t pick off a couple surprises from that list, it gets pretty hard to find home wins over talented squads like Oregon, UW, and Utah. Unlike so many Pac-12 teams in 2021, Stanford has big holes to fill on offense, including at QB, where Jack West and Tanner McKee will vie to replace Davis Mills. West was just fine when he played last season and McKee is just learning the offense after an LDS mission. Simi Fehoko and Foster Sarrell are gone, too. The only position of stability for Stanford is running back, where Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat were more solid than spectacular.

The super-sized three-man front held up reasonably well against the run last season but didn’t get much pressure in passing situations. Is there enough pressure from the OLB position to create more big plays? The defense only intercepted two passes in all of 2020 and a lot of that has to do with a lack of pressure making QBs comfortable finding their receivers. The mediocre Stanford defense has been a dirty secret for a few years. After a run of dominance, most fans assume that Stanford will continue to defend well, and even if the slow offensive pace depresses total points, this same group was not efficient last year and there’s little reason to think that will change drastically.