A decade ago, the Pac-12 split into six-team divisions that have been anything but equal.
Of the 10 conference championships, the North has won nine.
The North has placed more teams in the end-of-season AP rankings.
It has sent more teams to major bowls.
And it has produced the Pac-12’s only two College Football Playoff participants (Oregon and Washington).
This fall, everything changes.
From here, it’s clear: The South will be the stronger, deeper division.
It has better quarterbacks and better defenses and more teams with depth charts capable of winning the conference title.
We see two contenders in the North, Oregon and Washington, and a gap to the division’s middle tier.
But the South features four teams with viable paths to the championship: Arizona State, Utah, USC and UCLA.
The difference in division depth is often subtle, appearing only after the results of all 54 games have been tallied and assessed.
This season, the disparity might be obvious by the middle of October.
Welcome to our Pac-12 football preview series – a breakdown of the division races with predictions for each game.
Projected record: 9-3/7-2
Wins: vs. Fresno State, vs. Stony Brook, vs. Arizona, at Stanford, vs Cal, at UCLA, vs. Colorado, vs. Washington State, vs. Oregon State
Losses: at Ohio State, at Washington, at Utah
Comment: The road schedule is extremely difficult, and Oregon’s fate depends largely on the level of quarterback play it receives – presumably from senior Anthony Brown, but possibly from freshman Ty Thompson – in the fourth quarter of those five games. Not to be overlooked in any assessment of Oregon’s potential: the impact of new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, one of the best in the conference. The Week 2 trip to Ohio Stadium is the most important game of the season, not only for the Ducks but for the Pac-12.
Projected record: 9-3/6-3
Wins: vs. Montana, at Michigan, vs. Arkansas State, vs. Cal, vs. UCLA, at Arizona, vs. Oregon, vs. Arizona State, vs. Washington State
Losses: at Colorado, at Stanford, at Oregon State
Comment: We expect the Huskies to win in Ann Arbor, Michigan – 21-17 sounds about right – but gave serious thought to picking a loss the following week, against sneaky Arkansas State. UW’s less than elite talent at the skill positions and its preferred style of play (run-heavy) are such that close games will be frequent and upset losses likely. The key to success is the pass rush; with the injury to Zion Tupuola-Fetui, we’re not convinced it will reach the level required on a sustained basis to fuel a division title.
Projected record: 7-5/5-4
Wins: vs. Nevada, vs. Sacramento State, vs. Washington State, vs. Colorado, vs. Arizona, vs. USC, vs. UCLA
Losses: at TCU, at Washington, at Oregon, at Oregon State, at Stanford
Comment: An important year for momentum in the Justin Wilcox era. The primary issue with any evaluation of the Bears in 2021 is the weight assigned to their performance in 2020: Was the lack of high-level play the result of suboptimal talent or the impact of COVID on the offensive line? Our hunch is the latter, but we’re waiting for a consistent downfield passing game to appear. With a cross-division schedule that features Colorado and Arizona, the Bears should be back in the bowl picture, with a chance to contend in the North.
4. Oregon State
Projected record: 6-6/3-6
Wins: at Purdue, vs. Hawaii, vs. Idaho, vs. Washington, at Cal, at Colorado
Losses: at USC, at Washington State, vs. Utah, vs. Stanford, vs. Arizona State, vs. Oregon
Comment: The lack of certainty at quarterback concerns us less than the absence of a No. 1 tailback to replace Jermar Jefferson. The line should be fine, at least on offense. OSU’s ultimate placement in the North hinges primarily on a defense that showed marked improvement in 2019 but faltered last year. It doesn’t need to be an elite unit for the Beavers to hold their own against the best in the conference, but it cannot be a turnstile. On the bright side for OSU: The division is weaker than in pre-COVID years.
Projected record: 5-7/3-6
Wins: vs. Kansas State, at Vanderbilt, vs. Washington, vs. Oregon State, vs. Cal
Losses: at USC, at UCLA, vs. Oregon, at Arizona State, at Washington State, vs. Utah, vs. Notre Dame
Comment: We’ll say it up front: For Stanford to seriously contend in the North, it needs David Shaw’s best coaching job. Without a proven quarterback or dominant lines of scrimmage, the Cardinal will be hard pressed to survive the only schedule in the country with 12 Power Five opponents and the most difficult combination of cross-division opponents possible. The lack of cream puffs in the nonconference lineup will increase the physical toll of the long season and substantially narrow the path to bowl eligibility.
6. Washington State
Projected record: 5-7/2-7
Wins: vs. Utah State, vs. Portland State, vs. Oregon State, vs. Stanford, vs. Brigham Young
Losses: vs. USC, at Utah, at Cal, at Arizona State, at Oregon, vs. Arizona, at Washington
Comment: WSU appears well set in the backfield and along the offensive front, but we’re in wait-and-see mode with regard to the receivers and quarterbacks. (The failure of Jarrett Guarantano to distance himself from Jayden de Laura during the latter’s suspension is noteworthy.) Of this we are certain: The Cougars must take advantage of the winnable games in the first half of the schedule, because the back end is brutal. They need five victories through the BYU game (Oct. 23) to have a reasonable chance at the postseason.
1. Arizona State
Projected record: 10-2/7-2
Wins: vs. Southern Utah, vs. UNLV, vs. Brigham Young, vs. Colorado, vs. Stanford, at Utah, vs. Washington State, vs. USC, at Oregon State, vs. Arizona
Losses: at UCLA, at Washington
Comment: We have been driving ASU’s bus since January and, while tempted to leap off, are sticking with the Sun Devils through thick, thin and NCAA investigation. They have playmakers at key positions, strong lines of scrimmage and a veteran back seven and a gifted quarterback. Plus, the schedule sets up well early, allowing them to accumulate momentum and margin for error. Yes, three assistant coaches are on paid leave, but they had limited experience.
Projected record: 10-2/7-2
Wins: vs. Weber State, at Brigham Young, at San Diego State, vs Washington State, at USC, at Oregon State, at Stanford, at Arizona, vs. Oregon, vs. Colorado
Losses: vs. Arizona State, vs. UCLA
Comment: Don’t be surprised if ASU’s trip to Salt Lake City in the middle of October is the game of the year in the conference and the decisive duel in the South. In fact, we expect it. The Sun Devils will be coming off a Friday home game against Stanford (extra rest) while the Utes will have played a taxing game at USC. Far more surprising would be a season in which Utah isn’t heavily involved in the division race. So long as the quarterback play is solid – there are two good options (Cam Rising and Charlie Brewer) – a 10-win season is within reach.
Projected record: 8-4/6-3
Wins: vs. San Jose State, vs. Stanford, at Washington State, vs. Oregon State, at Colorado, vs. Arizona, vs. UCLA, vs. Brigham Young
Losses: vs. Utah, at Notre Dame, at Arizona State, at Cal
Comment: Sure, the Trojans are stocked with talent and experience, but not everywhere. We’re skeptical of the offensive line, especially against stout defensive fronts at Utah and ASU. That naturally raises questions about execution of the running game in critical situations and protecting Kedon Slovis 40 or 50 times per game. As always with the Trojans, discipline and resolve (mental and physical) are worth monitoring. As for Clay Helton’s future, it’s obvious: Whatever scenario creates the most difficult decision-making process for the administration is the one that will assuredly play out on the field.
Projected record: 8-4/5-4
Wins: vs. Hawaii, vs. LSU, vs. Fresno State, at Stanford, vs. Arizona State, at Arizona, at Utah, vs. Colorado
Losses: at Washington, at Oregon, at USC, vs. Cal
Comment: After so many nonconference whiffs under Chip Kelly, the Bruins do the opposite and look like a top-10 team in the early weeks. (That’s not a typo: We expect a victory over LSU.) They have loads of experience across the depth chart and just enough playmakers to take the playmaking pressure off quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. The result: fewer turnovers, more sustained drives and more victories. We have the Bruins pegged for fourth place in the division but wouldn’t be surprised if they’re in the race until the final weekend.
Projected record: 4-8/2-7
Wins: Northern Colorado, Minnesota, Arizona, Washington
Losses: vs. Texas A&M, at Arizona State, vs. USC, at Cal, at Oregon, vs. Oregon State, at UCLA, at Utah
Comment: Starting in Week 2 with the Aggies, the schedule is unrelenting – and the toll could linger through November. The quarterback situation is a massive concern following the injury to JT Shrout, with a starter (Brendon Lewis) who has thrown 10 career passes and only rookies behind him. Karl Dorrell’s steady hand was critical last year during the COVID disruption. We wonder if the scales don’t rebalance a bit in 2021, leaving CU on the wrong side of the breaks and the bounces.
Projected record: 3-9/1-8
Wins: vs. Brigham Young, vs. Northern Arizona, at Washington State
Losses: vs. San Diego State, at Oregon, vs. UCLA, at Colorado, vs. Washington, at USC, vs. Cal, vs. Utah, at Arizona State
Comment: The good cheer felt throughout the program since Jedd Fisch arrived will continue through an inspired season opener against BYU in Las Vegas. Then reality descends: Years of poor recruiting have left the Wildcats without the depth required to contend in a rugged division, and the muddled quarterback situation heaps additional doubt onto our wary outlook. We expect the Wildcats to be competitive in the majority of their conference games, but closing out victories in the fourth quarter will be a supreme challenge.
Oregon vs. Arizona State: ASU rolls into Las Vegas with the NCAA investigation swirling and Herm Edwards’ future in doubt. (For the conference, the optics are abysmal.) It’s tense for three quarters, but Oregon’s big-game experience is the difference. Ducks 34, Sun Devils 24.
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