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The Pac-12. When you hear that, you probably don’t think of great football, especially recently. You’ve probably made jokes about the conference and scoffed at anyone who’s mentioned them in a national discussion about college football. Well, the conference is improving, and there’s no rule that says you need a bunch of elite teams to have interesting competition. That’s what the Pac-12 will be this year. Interesting. Fun. Exciting. Maybe the most it’s been in years. There’s drama to be had here. I wanted to lay it all out here with the hope you may enjoy this conference this year as much as I plan too.
USC, Once Again, The Main Attraction
Since the whole premise of this is the Pac-12 being so damn interesting, I thought we might as well start with the most interesting team. As always, it’s the Trojans of USC. Now that’s out of the way, I’m not sure where to begin. USC has been an enigma in college football ever since the Pete Carrol era ended. What is this team? What is this program? Where are they headed? USC has lived a thousand college football lives in the last 10 years alone. There was the Lane Kiffin era, which saw the USC hype plane fly, followed by Ed Orgeron stepping in and going 6-2, only to be let go by USC to go win a championship at LSU. Then there was the whole Steve Sarkisian mess, followed by Clay Helton taking over as interim, leading to USC choosing to retain the interim this time around.
Helton and the Trojans won the Rose Bowl in 2016 and the USC hype plane once again soared, only to come crashing down again. Though USC has been good these last few years, they’ve yet to recapture that magic we saw from them the last few months of 2016. A lot of USC fans want Helton gone and some were surprised when he wasn’t let go last year.
This is it. It feels like a make-or-break year for USC, and specifically Clay Helton. If USC doesn’t find something this year, it’s hard to imagine Helton keeping the job. What he has to do isn’t exactly clear. Expecting this roster to make the playoff is unfair, but expecting them to win the conference, not so much. I’m not sure that anyone working for USC even knows what the bar is.
There is some good news. Kedon Slovis returns for a third year, and if he can put some of the issues he had last season behind him, and improve on that wonderful 2019, the ceiling for this team is fairly high, due in large part to a favorable schedule. Their toughest games are on the road against a Notre Dame team replacing a lot and at an Arizona State program that has sanctions hanging over it (more on that later). They have some playmakers at WR like Drake London and KD Nixon, plus a few dudes that can play on defense. Helton has no excuse not to look good this year, and it will be fun, in the best and worst ways, to see how this all plays out.
Where Things Really Get Fun
I’m going to skip over some good teams for now like Oregon, Utah, and Arizona State to talk about what could really make this fun. Spoilers. Every good story needs a villain, and there are some teams that could ruin seasons. I’m talking about programs like UCLA, Cal, and Oregon State. None of these teams scare anyone, nor should they really, but they may have some surprises in them.
At UCLA, Chip Kelly is another coach that needs to show something. The man hailed as one of the most innovative minds in the history of college football has yet to show he still has it in his few years at UCLA. This has a chance to be the year where they do something. Dorian Thompson-Robinson is a playmaker, and he returns his top two pass catchers. The defense is a question, but this is a team you look at and say, “hmm, interesting” for the first time in a few years.
With Cal, the story is the defense. Justin Wilcox remains one of the best defensive coaches in the country and he has one of the better LB groups in the conference to work with. Cal has been decent ever since Wilcox took over. They won’t be anything more than that this year, but decent is good enough to pull out a couple of wins where you aren’t supposed to. Improving the offense will be critical if they really want to make a mark in 2021.
Next, we go from Cal and head north to Corvallis, where Jonathan Smith may have something cooking with the Beavers. Oregon State’s strongest unit is their offensive line. That’s important anywhere in this sport but being good in the trenches in the Pac-12 is not something a lot of teams can say. It gives the Beavers a unique advantage. We saw it front and center last year when they upset Oregon, another program that can claim to be strong upfront. Oregon State gets to play all of the conference’s best teams. They might win a couple of those games and finally end a bowl drought that has lasted almost a decade.
Teams That Will Be Solid
“Teams That Will Be Solid” makes this group sound boring. I think it may be just the opposite. The Pac-12 has been the butt of a lot of jokes across the sport the past few years. A lot of fans haven’t taken this conference seriously. This group has a chance to raise the level of play out west. I’m talking about Oregon, Washington, Utah, and Arizona State. I’d be surprised, even shocked, if any of these teams made a playoff, but all can win the conference and maintain a spot in the top 25 for most of the year. These teams need to do the conference a favor and get people thinking about the Pac-12 again.
Arizona State is the most complicated. Expectations were sunny in Tucson, but looming NCAA sanctions have brought a gloomy cloud over the Sun Devils season. Nothing with the NCAA ever moves fast, so it’s hard to tell what effect this will have on Arizona State’s season. Similar situations in the past could indicate they are moving in the direction of a self-imposed postseason ban, but we might not see anything that causes the roster to dramatically change this fall. Of course, that doesn’t mean nothing will happen to the coaching staff. If the roster does stay intact, Arizona State will return a roster that can hang with anyone in the conference and maybe even the country, aside from the elite of the elite. But all of that could be rendered naught with the NCAA snooping around.
Oregon and Washington are the two names that have garnered the Pac-12 respect recently. They are the only two Pac-12 teams to have made the playoff and year in and year out, seem to be the most talented. When it comes to that talent, it’s Oregon that especially stands out. The Ducks are the favorite to win the league and OC Joe Moorehead should have this offense rolling in his second year, and his first year not affected by COVID. Washington doesn’t have quite the ceiling that Oregon does but returning their entire OL should allow them to compete for the division. There are some heavy losses on defense, but Jimmy Lake is proven as a defensive play caller and the Huskies will always be competent on that side of the ball as long as he is there.
The last team with a real opportunity to make a mark in this conference are the Utah Utes. This is a program that probably doesn’t get the respect it deserves around the country. They don’t always do the best job of replacing talent on a year-to-year basis. But given a few seasons, Kyle Whittingham will always get his team back where they are supposed to be. It was always going to be difficult to follow up one of the most talented teams in program history in 2019, but the Utes are two years removed from that and looking to start again. It really could just come down to how transfer Charlie Brewer looks at QB. If he’s protected by the OL and can play like he did his first few years at Baylor, Utah can win the south and at the highest end of possibilities, compete for a NY6 bid.
It’s hard to know exactly what will happen in this conference this year. But the Pac-12 has a new commissioner and some exciting teams, and they are looking to once again show they are a conference worthy of respect. However smug you may be about the Pac-12, I plead with you to watch how this conference plays out this year, because we are in for some fun.
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