In the decade since the Pac-12 added two teams and split into two divisions, the strength of the football product has pointed in just one direction: To the North.
The North division has won nine of the 10 conference championship games and produced more quality depth from 2011-20, if we use the end-of-season Associated Press Top 25 rankings as the benchmark for success.
The South was the stronger division only once, in 2014, when Oregon won the conference title (and played for the national championship) but the South generated five of the conference’s six teams in the final AP rankings.
Remove that outlier from the tally, and the North has accounted for 17 of the league’s 28 ranked teams (61% ) at the end of the other nine seasons. It has been better at the top and better near the top, which makes it … better.
But a shift in the balance of power looms.
The South looks like the tougher overall division as the 2021 season approaches, with more good teams, fewer depth chart holes, stronger lines of scrimmage and the potential to deliver vastly superior quarterback play.
All in all, five teams from the South look capable of successful seasons: Arizona State, Utah, USC, UCLA and Colorado.
In the North, the quality starts to erode midway down, after Oregon and Washington and perhaps Cal, as well.
Welcome to our look at the division races – the first installment in the Hotline’s series assessing the state of Pac-12 football in the aftermath of spring practice.
Previous projections, from our January breakdown, are noted.
1. Oregon (previous: 2). The outlook for the Ducks has improved since January and is partly based on Anthony Brown emerging as the clear leader in the quarterback competition, thus creating a needed hierarchy and level of stability. Questions remain about the offensive line, the receivers and the defensive backfield, but only to the extent that those units are championship-worthy. The front seven should be ferocious and offset weaknesses elsewhere.
2. Washington (previous: 1). The primary reason for the North shakeup is the injury to UW edge rusher Zion Tupuola-Fetui, who will miss most, if not all of the season. (His Achilles tear is the most significant spring injury in the conference, by far.) The Huskies should have the best offensive line in the league and a solid defense. But are they dynamic enough on either side of the ball to outlast the Ducks? Are there enough big plays in the pipeline? We aren’t convinced.
3. Cal (previous: 3). The Bears hold their slot as the best of the rest in the North, albeit with some misgivings: The injury to lineman Brett Johnson (from a car accident) will materially impact the defense, and anything that undermines the defense is very bad news for the Bears. Granted, COVID wrecked Cal’s offensive line last season, but we remain in wait-and-see mode with regard to the pairing of quarterback Chase Garbers and play caller Bill Musgrave.
4. Stanford (previous: 5). The bottom tier of the North has only become murkier since January. For now, Stanford seems like the safest pick. Yes, the Cardinal lost a load of talent to the NFL and needs a quarterback. (The best option is sophomore Tanner McKee, who has thrown seven career passes.) But the entrenched system and stable coaching staff are reasons to think the program will avoid finishing in the North cellar for the second time in three years.
5. Oregon State (previous: 6). The best that can be said of the Beavers at this moment is they aren’t Washington State. (More on that below.) The NFL attrition was low in quantity but high in quality; the quarterback situation lacks clarity with Tristan Gebbia’s injury; and we’re skeptical that the defense has enough pieces to thrive, especially on the line and in the secondary. And while wary of drawing conclusions from 2020, we can’t ignore how it ended for OSU – and the impact that sour finish could have on momentum.
6. Washington State (previous: 4). If Tupuloa-Fetui’s injury was the most significant on-field development in the division, WSU quarterback Jayden de Laura’s DUI arrest and subsequent suspension was the biggest off-the-field event. It greatly undercut his ability to lead and added immense uncertainty to the leadership situation in Pullman. Is Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano sufficient security? We’re not ready to take that leap of faith. WSU is well stocked at some positions, less so at others.
1. Arizona State (previous: 1). Nothing has changed at the top of the South. The Sun Devils possess the most desirable combination of quarterback, skill position talent and line play, and their secondary should be one of the best in the conference. It’s easy to envision defenses loading the box to force Jayden Daniels to make plays from the pocket. If he does, the Sun Devils could finish two games clear of the competition. If Daniels stagnates, the South will be loads of fun.
2. Utah (previous: 3). Were you to map out an ideal spring for the Utes, it would closely resemble the actual events in Salt Lake City: The return of 19 starters, combined with the arrival of quarterback Charlie Brewer (from Baylor), has brightened our view of Utah’s prospects. The lines of scrimmage look stout, and the secondary should be plenty good enough for a run at the division title. As usual, Utah’s fate hinges on the efficiency of the passing game.
3. USC (previous: 2). The upgraded recruiting is more likely to help the Trojans in 2022 and beyond. For the coming fall, issues loom on the edges of the secondary, the interior of the defensive line and all across the offensive front. Nor are we convinced quarterback Kedon Slovis will return to his 2019 form. Also, the efficacy of the short-yardage running game is very much in doubt. At this point, the Trojans are a better bet for fourth place than first place, with third as the most likely outcome.
4. UCLA (previous: 4). The Bruins are one of two teams still winding through spring practice – Stanford is the other – and we reserve the right to update this projection if developments dictate. For now, the returning talent suggests another mediocre season looms in this ascendant division. What could elevate UCLA’s position? Only one thing: Next-level play from senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson; to this point, he has shown mere flashes of what’s required.
5. Colorado (previous: 5). Many CU fans will undoubtedly take umbrage at this projection, but consider the intra-division results from 2020: The Buffaloes edged UCLA in the opener; they were run off the field in the second half by Utah; and they didn’t play either Arizona State or USC. So there’s nothing in the head-to-head outcomes to support a higher placement in what should be a normal, nine-game conference season. Clearly, there is momentum under Karl Dorrell, but we need to see more on the scoreboard.
6. Arizona (previous: 6). It’s difficult to imagine a better start to the Jedd Fisch era than the one playing out on the ground in Tucson. And we fully expect a few wins from the program in the fall. That said, the Wildcats are several recruiting classes away from possessing the quality depth necessary to remain competitive over the course of the season. The quarterback situation is messy, the defense is wobbly, and the lines are porous. Fifth place is possible, but that’s the current ceiling.
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