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Pac-12 football preview: Counting down 10 storylines for the 2021 season

By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

Counting down everything you need to know about the 2021 Pac-12 football season …

10: Years since expansion.

When Utah and Colorado officially joined the conference, on July 1, 2011, they were obvious candidates for a league in need of more: More teams, more games for the TV networks and more money from the TV networks.

As another wave of realignment hits college football, the Pac-12 is evaluating whether it should once again add members – two members, four members, eight members, however many members.

But there are no 2021 versions of Colorado and Utah this time; there are no schools that fit institutionally and competitively and increase revenue for the collective. As a result, industry sources believe the most likely outcome is the Pac-12 stands on 12.

9: North division titles.

The North has dominated the conference, winning nine of the 10 titles since the divisions were formed. The South’s only breakthrough, in 2017, came courtesy of USC.

But this season could bring a power shift, with the South producing both the best team and the greatest depth.

It has better quarterbacks and more experienced rosters, with USC, Arizona State, Arizona and Utah boasting the Pac-12’s highest number of super-seniors – the players who were seniors in 2020 but took advantage of the free year of eligibility granted by the NCAA.

8: Teams with returning QB1s.

From top to bottom of the conference, the returning starters reside at Washington (Dylan Morris), Washington State (Jayden de Laura), Oregon State (Tristan Gebbia), Cal (Chase Garbers), Utah (Cam Rising), UCLA (Dorian Thompson-Robinson), USC (Kedon Slovis) and Arizona State (Jayden Daniels).

That said, competitions are raging in Pullman, Corvallis and Salt Lake City, where transfers are challenging the incumbents.

All in all, the general state of quarterbacking in the conference is not up to the standards of past years. That’s something to watch as the fall unfolds.

7: Bowl partnerships.

At this point, the Pac-12 is guaranteed seven postseason berths:

The Rose (vs. Big Ten), Alamo (vs. Big 12), Las Vegas (vs. Big Ten), Holiday (vs. ACC), Sun (vs. ACC) and Los Angeles (vs. Mountain West) are set.

It also has an at-large slot available in one of three games owned by ESPN: the Gasparilla, Armed Forces or First Responders bowls.

And there could be more openings if the conference sends a team to the College Football Playoff (Orange and Cotton) or to a New Year’s Six bowl (Peach or Fiesta).

The Redbox Bowl, which was based in Santa Clara but went on hiatus last year, could resurface for the 2021-22 postseason cycle. It’s not dead yet.

6: Season-defining games.

How the Pac-12 performs in a series of non-conference showdowns will shape the national perception and determine the likelihood of a playoff berth.

Those marquee duels are (with opponent’s AP preseason ranking):

– UCLA vs. No. 16 LSU (Sept. 4)

– Oregon at No. 4 Ohio State (Sept. 11)

– Colorado vs. No. 6 Texas A&M (Sept. 11 in Denver)

– Washington at Michigan (Sept. 11)

– USC at No. 9 Notre Dame (Oct. 23)

– Stanford vs. No. 9 Notre Dame (Nov. 27)

That’s it, folks: The Pac-12 will play 27 non-conference games, but those six stand above the rest.

Four of them are early, only two are true home games (UCLA and Stanford) and one of them counts a bit more than the others (Oregon at Ohio State).

5: Years since the CFP.

The Pac-12 participated in the first and third editions of the College Football Playoff (Oregon in 2014 and Washington in 2016) but has been left out ever since.

Of the 28 total berths to the event, it has claimed just two – the lowest total in the Power Five.

Nothing has done more to undermine its reputation than the dearth of CFP invitations.

Nor has it consistently produced serious contenders. When the eyes of the sport are focused on the CFP race in November, the Pac-12 might as well be Conference USA.

Even if the conference isn’t invited to the big stage this fall, it needs to remain in the discussion through the final, furious weekends.

4: Black head coaches.

The Pac-12 has long been a standard-bearer for diversity at the highest level of a diverse sport, and 2021 is no exception with Washington’s Jimmy Lake, Stanford’s David Shaw, ASU’s Herm Edwards and Colorado’s Karl Dorrell.

While the total is one less than last season following the dismissal of Arizona’s Kevin Sumlin, the conference still has more Black coaches than the ACC, Big 12 and SEC combined, and singlehandedly accounts for one-third of the total in the entire Football Bowl Subdivision.

3: Pac-12 Networks streaming partners.

If you’ve cut the cord or don’t subscribe to a provider that carries the Pac-12 Networks, there are three streaming options this season: The networks are available on Sling, Fubo and Vidgo, a newcomer to the Pac-12 scene.

Otherwise, it’s the same array of cable and satellite distributors (Comcast, DISH, etc) that have carried the networks in the past, which means DirecTV is not involved.

2: Division winners.

We like Oregon to win the North in a two-team race against Washington, with Cal occupying third place, two or three games back.

The South should be more competitive, with four teams capable of claiming the division: ASU, Utah, USC and UCLA. (That’s right: Beware the Bruins.)

Our pick is Arizona State in a race that could go to the final day … perhaps even the final play.

1: Heisman Trophy candidate

If you want odds on Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels or Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, they are available. But the Pac-12 has one semi-serious candidate at this point: USC quarterback Kedon Slovis, who’s on the second tier of contenders (based on odds offered by major sportsbooks).

Slovis plays the glamor position, he runs a pass-happy offense, and he has the platform to generate support in each of the Heisman’s voting regions.

That platform comes as the result of playing for a school with seven Heisman winners and playing against a school that has seven Heisman winners.

If Slovis shines in the midseason showdown at Notre Dame and the Trojans have a top-10 season, he could reach New York City for the ceremony.

The Heisman is about performance and exposure.

0: Margin for error.

A confluence of two dynamics make this the most important season in conference history:

– The lagging performance in recent years that has damaged the Pac-12’s brand.

– The upcoming media rights negotiations that will determine the league’s financial outlook for a decade to come.

Contract talks with potential broadcast partners are expected to start late in 2022. But the negotiating strategies will be set and the media valuations established before that point … before the 2022 season concludes.

This fall is the Pac-12’s last best chance to generate the ratings and the attention and prove itself alongside the Power Five.

It’s the last best chance to make its case.