Seven months from the start of the 2021 season, we’re calling our shot: The South will be the superior, and perhaps even the dominant division next season.
Whether or not it produces the eventual Pac-12 champion — and history suggests it will not — the South will produce more good teams, win more head-to-head matchups and collect more bowl bids than the North.
Our initial canvassing of 2021 depth charts suggests five teams capable of contending for the South title but only two capable of winning the North.
And neither of those favorites looks particularly dominant.
Put another way, we expect the conference to be well stocked with top-25 teams but devoid of top-four teams.
Let’s plunge into the Hotline’s (early) projections for the conference race.
1. Washington: The Huskies are our pick to win the North for the first time since 2018, but the selection comes with a bit of hesitancy following defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski’s departure to Texas and with lingering questions about potency in the passing game. That said, the returning personnel, which includes the entire offensive line, makes it easy to envision a scenario in which UW combines a relentless running game with solid defense to grind its way to a division title, one close game at a time.
2. Oregon: At this point in the offseason cycle, Oregon and UW are separated by a whisker (or maybe a feather). In addition to replacing defensive playcaller Andy Avalos, the Ducks must solve the shortcomings within their front seven that led to a surprisingly porous performance against the run. Their offense returns largely intact, with a veteran line, proven tailbacks and Year Two for quarterback Tyler Shough. That bodes well, but only if the Ducks limit mistakes and improve consistency, especially in the fourth quarter.
3. Cal: Our pick to win the division in 2020 never had a chance once COVID protocols wiped out the lines of scrimmage for most of the season. We won’t discount the possibility that the Bears, healthy and experienced, rise up to claim the title, but momentum has clearly stalled in Berkeley. Specifically, we need to see quarterback Chase Garbers and second-year playcaller Bill Musgrave produce more cohesiveness in the passing game. You can only win so many games 21-17. Over a full season, that’s a precarious existence.
4. Washington State: The Cougars’ prospects for 2021 improved Tuesday when offensive tackle Abraham Lucas announced his return. He’ll anchor a veteran line that’s surrounded by returnees at the skill positions. If Max Borghi stays healthy and quarterback Jayden de Laura progresses, points won’t be a problem. Preventing touchdowns might be, however. The Cougars were trampled frequently (38.5 points allowed per game), and we don’t see an established collection of playmakers poised to reverse that trend.
5. Stanford: From here, it’s clear: 2020 was the year for Stanford, with factors beyond its control derailing what could have been a division title. Now, it’s rebuilding time. We see holes everywhere, on both sides of the ball: The flawed defense remains short on elite talent, while the offense must replace its best linemen, top receiver and A-level quarterback. Not since 2012, after Andrew Luck’s departure, has the Cardinal entered a season with so much uncertainty under center. But back then, at least, it could lean on a dominant defense.
6. Oregon State: The end-of-season bottoming was a tad misleading because of injuries and COVID, and it’s not the source of this projection. Instead, our calculation is based on limited but significant attrition (starting with Jermar Jefferson), the noticeable year-over-year regression on defense and lingering questions at quarterback. More broadly, OSU’s position looks precarious: The Year Two momentum under Jonathan Smith (in 2019) gave way to a pandemic pause, but that makes progress in ’21 essential to the overall trajectory.
1. Arizona State: Whether the Sun Devils can fulfill their potential, we are hardly convinced. But as the depth charts currently stand, they possess the fewest flaws and the widest path to the division title: A veteran quarterback (Jayden Daniels) who makes plays with his arm and legs; high-level athletes at the skill positions; a proven back seven; and above all, vastly improved lines of scrimmage. The narrow losses to start 2020, combined with the dominant finish, suggest an ascendant program. Next fall, ASU reaches the top.
2. USC: We were all in with the Trojans in 2020. But the new year brings a revamped roster and deep skepticism in this space — to the point that we gave strong consideration to slotting USC in third place. There are questions on both sides of the ball, including quarterback. (Kedon Slovis stagnated in 2020.) But nowhere is USC more vulnerable than along the offensive line, where mediocre talent meets a lack of physicality. Add the philosophical aversion to the running game, and we expect the Trojans to regress on offense.
3. Utah: As with ASU, the Utes encountered early hurdles but produced an impressive finish to create momentum for ’21. And were the computer modeling at the heart of these projections (joking!) based on 20 of the 22 positions, we would have the Utes slotted for the top of the South. But the death of tailback Ty Jordan created a tragic void in the running game, while an injury and erratic play left a bevy of questions at quarterback. The Utes have plunged into the transfer market to bolster both positions. We shall see.
4. UCLA: For the first time in the Chip Kelly era, we considered UCLA for first place. The thought was fleeting, however — not because of talent so much as execution: Too often, the Bruins undermined their prospects for victory (through turnovers or play-calling decisions); too often, they were a few plays short; too often, they left points on the field. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s return provides a solution to the short-circuiting, but we need proof before putting faith in UCLA’s ability to rise to the top tier in the South.
5. Colorado: This projection will no doubt generate pushback from CU fans, whose team is fresh off a better-than-expected second-place finish. But winning three out of four in a pandemic season doesn’t, in our view, equate to an equivalent performance over a full season. The Buffaloes possess a superb young tailback in Jarek Broussard but have a looming quarterback competition, holes to fill on defense and challenges on the lines of scrimmage within a division that’s well stocked with physical, veteran units.
6. Arizona: The Wildcats’ 2020 season unfolded exactly as we predicted, raising the likelihood that we’ll whiff with this projection. But clearly, coach Jedd Fisch faces daunting challenges, not the least of which is locating a quarterback and crafting a playbook that best suits his personnel. That personnel, however, is limited. Arizona doesn’t recruit at a high level in the best of times, and the past few years have hardly been the best of times. Maybe everything breaks right and the Wildcats escape the bottom. But they won’t climb into the upper tier.
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