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Sports >  NCAA football

Pac-12 football preview: Our predictions for division races, conference championship

Southern California head coach Clay Helton, left, smiles at quarterback Kedon Slovis (9) after a 52-35 win over UCLA in an NCAA college football game on Nov. 23, 2019, in Los Angeles.  (Associated Press)
Southern California head coach Clay Helton, left, smiles at quarterback Kedon Slovis (9) after a 52-35 win over UCLA in an NCAA college football game on Nov. 23, 2019, in Los Angeles. (Associated Press)
By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

The blueprint behind The Hotline’s predictions is easy to spot if you’ve scrutinized each team’s coaching staff and depth chart.

For those who haven’t plunged into the Pac-12 roster weeds, we say 1) good for you and 2) the selections below lean heavily on continuity.

With all the disruption over the past seven months, continuity is king.

It’s always significant, of course, but this year, the importance has doubled.

We generally favored teams that possess one of two golden triangles:

• Returning head coach, returning offensive coordinator and proven quarterback.

• Returning offensive coordinator, proven quarterback and veteran offensive line.

Other factors were considered, including the full starting lineup and the schedules. But there’s a fairly close correlation between continuity and placement.

Predicted record assumes six regular-season games (Week 7 matchups have not been announced by the conference).

In case of ties, placement is based on head-to-head results.

(Predictions were made before Washington’s game at Cal on Saturday was canceled by a Bears player testing positive for COVID-19.)

North

1. Cal (4-2): The Bears aren’t the most talented team in the division, but they have experience where it counts and arguably the best-coached defense in the Pac-12. What’s more, they play three division rivals at home. We expect a deadlock atop the North, with Cal’s home wins the difference.

2. Stanford (4-2): Quarterback Davis Mills must raise his game for Stanford to return to relevance. The offensive line should be better, and healthier, than last season. When it comes to injuries, the Hotline believes teams typically revert to the mean – and Stanford was walloped last year.

3. Oregon (4-2): The combination of new offensive coordinator, inexperienced quarterback and overhauled offensive line – all five starters are new – makes the defending conference champs vulnerable. They’re loaded with talent, especially on defense, but we’re forecasting a backslide.

4. Washington (3-3): A team that lost five games last season has a new head coach, new offensive coordinator, new quarterback and no proven playmakers. The defense, also hit by attrition, will need to be even better than expected for the Huskies to win their third division title in five years.

5. Oregon State (2-4): As we worked through potential scenarios in the North, no team had a wider range of potential landing spots than the Beavers. Their defense should be solid, but we’re a tad skeptical of the offensive line and new quarterback Tristan Gebbia. Third place isn’t out of the question.

6. Washington State (1-5): The Cougars’ future is brighter than their present under first-year coach Nick Rolovich, whose team has faced more challenges than most in 2020. In contrast to other coaching changes on the Palouse (i.e., Paul Wulff to Mike Leach), the roster doesn’t require an overhaul.

South

1. USC (5-1): Stocked with talent and experience on both sides of scrimmage, the Trojans are the clear favorite within the division and the conference. The lone break in their chain of continuity – a new defensive coordinator, Todd Orlando – should benefit a unit that has underperformed in recent years.

2. Arizona State (5-1): One of the top young quarterbacks in the conference, sophomore Jayden Daniels, will be asked to take on a greater playmaking role and requires help from an untested group of tailbacks. The defense is not only experienced but strongest where it counts most: in the secondary.

3. Utah (4-2): The two-time defending division champs will have a new quarterback and a rebuilt defense that lost six all-conference performers. The offensive line will be one of the league’s best, but the Utes need a high-end tailback to replace the departed Zack Moss.

4. UCLA (3-3): Crucial third year for coach Chip Kelly, whose fate will track closely with the efficiency level reached by junior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. The depth chart has no major weaknesses but no obvious strengths, leading to another forgettable season in the middle of the division.

5. Colorado (1-5): How much tumult can a team take? The Buffaloes hired their coach (Karl Dorrell) in late February, held no spring practices and will have a new starting quarterback (Sam Noyer) for the first time since 2017. And it’s not like the depth chart was oozing talent before all the 2020 chaos set in.

6. Arizona (0-6): There is more continuity in Tucson than the prediction suggests, but the defense is loaded with unknowns and Kevin Sumlin’s future looms over the program. If quarterback Grant Gunnell is better than we expect, the Wildcats could win two.

Pac-12 Championship Game

Matchup: USC vs. Cal

Winner: USC. The Trojans have the best combination of talent and experience and carry enough brand value to catch the eye of the playoff selection committee – but only if they are undefeated and dominant. Are they capable? Not in our minds. The likelihood of a wasted opportunity here or mystifying decision there is too great. They will stumble … and take the Pac-12’s playoff hopes down with them.

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