2021 PAC-12 Season Preview
The PAC-12 Conference doesn’t get a lot of love from the pollsters throughout the year, but this is a fun conference to watch. None of the teams in the conference played many games last year, due to the pandemic, so it will be nice to get back to normal on the West Coast. Which team will walk away with the Conference title this year? Can any Pac-12 team sneak into the NCAA Playoffs? Let’s dig in and find out.
All Team & Player Rankings Are Courtesy Of Phil Steele’s CFB Preview
Teams are in predicted order of finish.
Washington Huskies: The Washington Huskies were one of the most inexperienced teams in the nation last year, and yet they won the North Division with a 3-1 record. This year, they have 18 starters back and are ranked 33rd in the land in terms of experience. The Huskies have ten starters back on offense, including QB Dylan Morris, who threw for 897 yards with four TDs and three INTs last year. He has top receiver Cade Otton back after catching 18 passes for 258 yards and three TDs in four games a year ago. The Huskies have one of the better receiving corps in the league. The Running game will also be solid as their top four running backs all return, and they will set up behind an offensive line that rates as 3rd best in the nation. Back in 2019, the Huskies put up 32 ppg, and last year they averaged 30.3 ppg. They will top both those numbers this year.
From 2015 through 2019, the Huskies allowed no more than 19.4 ppg in a season, but last year, they gave up 25 ppg in the four games. The defense should go back to allowing less than 20 ppg this year as they have eight starters back on that side of the ball and plenty of depth. The Huskies have a solid defensive line and a good linebacking crew, but the defense is led by their secondary, which ranks as 5th best in the nation. It is a rather young secondary as all four starters are sophomores. That unit allowed just 185 ypg through the air a year ago. The Huskies have a road game against Michigan early in the year, and if they win that game, we could see them in the NCAA playoffs this year. No matter what happens in that game, the Huskies will still win the PAC-12 North as they are strong on both sides of the ball, plus get Oregon and Arizona State at home. I also look for them to win the PAC-12 title game after sitting out last year.
Oregon Ducks: Oregon, Oregon State, and UCLA were the only teams in the PAC-12 to play seven games last year. The Ducks went 4-3 a year ago, and they have 16 starters back from that team. They do lose QB Tyler Shough, who transferred to Texas Tech. However, the Ducks will have Anthony Brown at QB after transferring from Boston College a year ago. Brown played in two games for the Ducks last year, and he threw for 4798 yards with 40 TDs and 20 INTs in three seasons with the Eagles. Brown should have a very solid season as Oregon’s top four receivers all return, and that group rates as the 4th best in the nation. The Ducks averaged 246 ypg passing last year, and they should top that this year. The running game will also be good with the 2nd best RB corps and the 3rd best offensive line in the league. The offense is loaded this year and will top the 31.3 ppg they hung up a year ago.
The Oregon defense was not that good last year as they allowed 28.3 ppg on 406 ypg a year ago. That is after allowing just 16.5 pg and 329 ypg in 2019. The Ducks should get back to playing solid defense again as all three of their units rank among the top three in the league. The strength of the defense is a linebacking corps that ranks as 12th best in the nation. Noah Sewel was the 8th rated LB in the country a couple of years ago, and he had two sacks and 4.5 TFLs last year as a freshman. This will be a strong defense led by a strong linebacking corps. The Ducks have just as much talent as the Huskies, but Oregon has to face Washington on the road, plus they have road games against Stanford, UCLA, and Utah. It will not be easy, but still, a second-place finish in the north and a solid bowl game are in store for the Ducks this year.
Stanford Cardinal: The Cardinal hosts the Ducks, and I would love to put them in 2nd place in the North Division, but I do not feel that they have the defense to move into that spot. Stanford has eight starters back on that side of the ball after allowing 31.7 ppg a year ago, but all three defensive units are ranked 7th or worse in the PAC-12, including a linebacking corps that ranks 10th. The Cardinal has had their issues on the defense of late as they also allowed 29.8 ppg in 2019. They will see some excellent offenses this year, so having a defense that will struggle is not a good thing for Stanford.
The offense has just six starters back, and they have to replace QB Chris Mills. The good news is that the Cardinal has a very deep stable of runnings backs as their top four from last year all return. Auston Jones led the team with 550 yards and eight TDs last year, and he was the 8th rated back when he came out of high school a few years ago. Taking over at QB will be Tanner McKee, who was the 5th rated recruit back in 2019. He will be throwing to a wide receiver corps that ranks as third-best in the league. The offensive line is loaded with highly touted players, but we note that three starters are freshmen and the other two are sophomores, so it is a very young line. I can see the Cardinal topping last year’s 29.3 ppg they put up, but the defense will still struggle. Road games against USC and Arizona State, plus home games against Oregon, Washington, Utah, and Notre Dame, will not be easy to navigate. Still, if the defense improves and they beat Oregon at home, the Cardinal could sneak into the 2nd spot in the North.
California Golden Bears: I like this California team as they are experienced with 46 lettermen back, including 17 starters. They went just 1-3 last year, but one loss was by a point to Stanford, and another was by four points to Oregon State. Their lone win was against a solid Oregon squad. I can see Cal turning some close losses into wins this year, and they should look more like the 2019 team that went 8-5. The offense has struggled the last three years as they have averaged no more than 21.5 ppg over that stretch. This year, we should see improved play from the offense with nine starters back, including QB Chase Garbers, who threw for 771 yards with six TDs and three INTs last year. Cal has back their top three RBs, eight of their top nine receivers from a year ago, plus four of five starters along the offensive line. I can see them put up at least 24 ppg this year.
The defense was not horrible as they allowed just 26.5 ppg on 367 ypg last year. In 2019, the Bears allowed just 21.2 ppg, and I can see this defense resembling that group. Cal does have a weak defensive line, but their back eight are among the best in the league. The pass defense went from allowed 264 ypg in 2019 to just 198 ypg last year, and we should see them allow less than 200 ypg again this year. If the line can surprise and get pressure on opposing QBs, then the Bears could have the best pass defense in the PAC-12. The Bears get Washington State at home, along with USC, Oregon State, and Colorado, while having a cupcake game against Arizona on the road. The Bears are improved on both sides of the ball, and I see them making it back to a bowl game this year after missing out a season ago.
Washington State Cougars: The Washington State Cougars also went just 1-3 last year, and they too should be improved with 18 starters back. The problem for the Cougars this year will be navigating a schedule that includes road games against Utah, California, Arizona State, Oregon, and Washington while having to deal with Stanford and USC at home. That would be a tough slate of games for most teams. The offense put up 10.8 ppg less last year than they did in 2019, but they bare in the 2nd year of Rolovich’s schemes and have eight starters back on that side of the ball. The Huskies will have a new QB as Jarrett Guarantano takes over after transferring from Tennessee. He threw for 6174 yards with 38 TDs and 17 INTs in 41 career games with the Vols. The Cougars have the 3rd best set of receivers in the Pac 12, and they also have a solid group of running backs, but the offensive line is one of the worst in the league. Still, this offense should top 30 ppg on the year.
The defense is an area that needs more work after the Cougars allowed a whopping 38.5 ppg a year ago, which was 118th in the nation. They also allowed 307 ypg through the air, which was 125th in the land. Washington State has ten starters back on this side of the ball, but still, all three units rank 8th or worst in the PAC-12. The secondary was torched last year, and it may not get much better as that unit ranks 11th in the league. Washington State also has the worst-ranked special teams unit in the league. Despite a lousy defense and a demanding schedule, they still have enough offense and enough winnable games to reach bowl eligibility.
Oregon State Beavers: The Oregon State Beavers went just 2-5 last year, and while they have 19 starters back, I do not see them finishing out of the basement in the North Division. The offense was solid last year as they put up 28.9 ppg, and with ten starters back, we should see them top 30 ppg this year. Tristan Gebbia is back at QB, and he has a solid set of receivers that rank as one of the best in the PAC-12. Seven of their top eight receivers are all back, but they could use some help from a ground game that will struggle after losing their top RB from a year ago. Oregon State now has the 2nd worst RB corps in the league after averaging 198 ypg on the ground a year ago. Still, with a solid passing game and a good offensive line, the Oregon State offense will put some points on the board.
The defense will be a problem, as it seems to be every year. Last year, the Beavers allowed 33.5 ppg, and they have now allowed at least 32.5 ppg in each of the last four seasons. OSU has nine starters back on this side of the ball but not a whole lot of depth, and that will be a problem, especially late in the year. The linebacking corps rates as one of the best in the league, but the line and secondary are among the worst. The Beavers could play a lot of high-scoring games this year. The schedule is not easy as the Beavers have road games against Washington State, Colorado, California, Oregon, and USC while getting Washington, Utah, Stanford, and Arizona State at home. We could very well see the Beavers go winless in league play this year.
PAC-12 South Division
Arizona State Sun Devils: I nearly put the USC Trojans in this spot, but the more I dug, the more I like the Arizona State Sun Devils here. The Sun Devils went just 2-2 last y+ear, but this team is loaded for bear this year. They lose just seven lettermen and bring back 58, including 20 starters. Let’s start with the defense on this team. The Sun Devils allowed just 22.4 ppg and 23.3 ppg in the last two years, and this one could be even better. They have 30 of 31 lettermen back on this side of the ball, including all 11 starters. The Devils have the 4th best defensive line and the 5th best linebacking corps in the league, plus the 11th best secondary in the nation. That secondary has two players that were recruited 12th or better when they came out of high school. The defense should be one of the best in the PAC 12.
The offense will be no slouch with nine starters back from a unit that scored 40.3 ppg on 459 ypg of total offense. The ASU offense has a chance to be one of the better in the country. Jayden Daniels was the 6th rated QB in the nation a few years ago, and he is back after throwing for 701 yards with five TDs and an INT last year, while also rushing for 233 yards and four TDs. that doesn’t sound like a lot but remember, it was just four games. The receiver corp is adequate, but this is more of a running team, as evidenced by the fact that they ran for 264 ypg last year. This year, we will see more of that with a running QB and a running back corps that ranks 10th in the nation, plus an offensive line that is one of the best in the PAC-12. I can see them topping last year’s numbers. I also see the Sun Devils winning the PAC-12 South as they do get the Trojans at home, along with Stanford, while avoiding Oregon out of the North.
USC Trojans: The USC Trojans went 5-1 last year, and this year’s squad is loaded with 50 lettermen back, including 16 starters. Clay Helton has done a solid job in his first six years with the Trojans, and not only does he have a solid amount of returning talent, but Helton also brought in the 9th rated recruiting class in the nation. The offense was solid last year as the Trojans put up 33.3 ppg, and it should be even better this year. Kedon Slovis is back at QB and rates as the best signal-caller in the PAC-12. He will be throwing to a receiving corps that rates as the 6th best in the nation. Keaontary Ingram is a transfer from Texas, where he was the number 11 recruit in the country a few years ago. The Trojans have an offense that will be hard to stop this, and they could hang up at least 37 ppg.
The Trojans did struggle some on defense last year as they allowed 26 ppg on 370 ypg on the year. The pass defense was decent in allowing just 216 ypg through the air, but the run defense needs a bit of work after giving up 153 ypg. That should change this year as the Trojans are very stout up front. They have the 2nd best defensive line in the PAC-12 and the 10th rated linebacking corps in the nation. Special teams are usually overlooked, and the Trojans have the best unit in the league and the 12th best in the nation. USC gets Stanford, Utah, and UCLA at home, plus they avoid both Oregon and Washington out of the North. The Trojans will put up at least nine wins this year and in the end, but I see them falling just a bit short of the South title as they do have a road game against Arizona State.
Utah Utes: The Utah Utes went 3-2 last year, and they have a solid returning team. Sixty-six of their 80 lettermen are back, including 19 starters. If either Arizona or USC slips up, the Utes could slip into the top spot in the PAC-12 North. The Utes averaged 30.2 ppg last year, but with ten starters back, we could see the top 35 ppg this year. Charlie Brewer transferred from Baylor, and he will get the nod to start the year at QB. He threw for 9700 yards with 65 TDs and 28 INTs in four years at Baylor, and he will be protected by the 5th best offensive line in the nation. The wide receiver corps is 3rd best in the PAC -12 with their top four back, and the running game will be no slouch with TJ Pledger running the ball. Pledger transferred from Oklahoma, where he was a 4th rated recruit back in 2018.
The defense allowed 26.0 ppg last year, after giving up just 15.0 ppg in 2019. This defense will be much closer to the 2019 unit, with nine starters back and 32 of 36 lettermen overall. The PAC-12 has some good defenses this year, and this one could be the best of them all. The Utes come in with the 11th best defensive line in the nation, the 13th best linebacking corps, and the 13th best secondary. That is scary. The pass defense is what needs to improve after allowing 265 ypg through the air last year. Three of four starters return to that group, including Clarke Phillips, who picked off two passes in five games. Utah will be very good on offense and even better on defense this year, but they have road games against USC and Stanford, plus a home game against Oregon. Still, 3rd in the South and at least eight wins on the season is what to expect from the Utes this year.
UCLA Bruins: Chip Kelly has not worked his magic with the Bruins yet, as he has not posted more than four wins here, and last year the Bruins went just 3-4. Still, this could be his best team yet, with 57 of 64 lettermen back, including 20 starters. UCLA ranks 23rd in the nation and 3rd in the PAC-12in terms of experience here. Kelly is known for high-powered offenses, and they finally broke through here at UCLA last year by averaging 35.4 ppg. This year, we should see another excellent attack as the Bruins have ten starters back, including QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who is a true dual-threat. Last year, he passed for 1130 yards with 12 TDs and four INTs while also rushing for m306 yards and three TDs. UCLA does lose its top RB from last year, but six of their top seven receivers all return, and that group rates as 3rd best in the PAC-12. UCLA will again put up at least 35 ppg this year.
The Bruins do play at a breakneck pace, and that means the defense will usually struggle. Last year it did as the Bruins allowed 30.7 ppg on 410 ypg, and in 2019, they gave up 34.8 ppg on 456 yards of total offense. It is hard to say if this defense will be all that improved as Kelly is not worried too much about stopping teams from scoring. The Bruins have ten starters back on this side of the ball, with all three UNITs ranking 5th or better in the PAC-12. This could be a decent defensive team, and that would make the Bruins a dangerous team. Still, road games against Stanford, Washington, Utah, and USC will keep UCLA from moving up in the standings, but they will at least get to a bowl game for the first time under Kelly.
Colorado Buffaloes: The Colorado Buffaloes went 4-2 last year, and they have 16 starters back from that team, but moving up in the standings will be challenging as the four teams ahead of them are very good. The significant loss for the Buffs is quarterback Sam Noyer, who threw for 1101 yards and ran for another 205 yards. JT Shrout will take over after transferring from Tennessee, but when he does is a question as he is nursing a knee injury. Brandon Lewis could be next in line, but we do note that whoever gets the start, Colorado QBs rank 11th in the PAC 12. The receivers also rank 11th, so the running game may be the way to go for Colorado. They have the 2nd rated stable of backs in the PAC 12, and the 5th ranked offensive line. It could be hard for them to top the 28.5 ppg they put up last year, but we could see them top the 212 ypg on the ground they hung up.
The defense has struggled the last two years as the Buffs have allowed 31.8 and 31.7 ppg in those two seasons. This year, we could see some improvement as they have the top linebacking corps in the PAC-12 and the 7th rated unit in the nation. Three of the four starters are back to that group, and all four starters are upperclassmen. They need the LB corps to play well as both the line and secondary rank 8th best in the PAC-12. I will call for them to allow less than 30 ppg this year. Colorado has a strong running game and a top-notch LB corps, but the rest of the team is either poor or below average. The Buffs will flirt with bowl eligibility, but I see them coming up a bit short of making it to one.
Arizona Wildcats: That brings us to a team that may be the worst in the entire league. Last year, the Arizona Cardinals went 0-5, and they were outscored by 22.4 ppg in those contests. The Cats were also outgained by 103.6 ypg in those games. They have 17 starters back, but just 43 of 60 lettermen, and Arizona ranks 91st in the nation in terms of experience. Eight starters are back on offense, but QB Grant Gunnell is gone. Jordan McCloud transferred from USF this year and is expected to take the reigns of the offense. They also lose their top running back from last year but do have their top six receivers from a year ago. The Cats averaged just 17.4 ppg last year, and while they may top that a little, it’s hard to get excited about an offense that Phil Steele has all four if its unit ranked 10th or worse.
The defense was one of the worst in the nation as they allowed 39.8 ppg on 473 ypg, but they could be a bit better this year with nine starters back on that side of the ball. Depth will be a problem as just 18 of their 27 defensive lettermen return from a year ago. The Cats will wilt down the stretch of the season. We also note that all three defensive units rank 11th or 12th in the PAC 12. Arizona could be slightly better on both sides of the ball, but that will not be nearly enough for them to escape the basement of the PAC-12 South. Their home game against Northern Arizona could be their only win of the year. Yes, they are that bad.