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Pac-12 preview: Where does the conference fit in the CFP picture? Can anyone challenge Oregon?

Nick Bromberg and Sam Cooper
·10-min read

Welcome to the college football party, Pac-12. The conference kicks off on Saturday and is the final Power Five conference to begin play in 2020.

And much like the Big Ten, the Pac-12 doesn’t have any margin for error if its teams are going to play a full schedule. The Pac-12 has scheduled seven games in seven weeks for its members. If a game isn’t played because of coronavirus cases at a school, the game will be declared a no-contest.

It took just two weeks for the Big Ten to have its first no-contest of the season. Will the Pac-12 be able to make it that far into the season?

And will the Pac-12 have a team in serious contention for the College Football Playoff? The conference’s seven-game schedule is the smallest of any Power Five conference. That’s another disadvantage for a conference that hasn’t had a team in the playoff since Washington lost to Alabama in the semifinals after the 2016 season.

As of now, Oregon and USC appear to be the Pac-12’s best bets for the playoff. And those bets aren’t that great. Oregon is at No. 12 in the AP poll while USC is at No. 20. While the two teams have already benefited from losses by teams in the SEC, Big 12 and Big Ten, one of them will probably have to go undefeated to get serious playoff contention.

A 6-1 Pac-12 champion won’t stack up favorably to one-loss teams from other Power Five conferences. And may not even get an advantage against a 9-2 team from the ACC or Big 12 or an 8-2 team from the SEC.

Here’s how we see the Pac-12 unfolding in 2020. Teams are listed in order of their predicted division finish. Odds to win the conference are via BetMGM.

Oregon running back CJ Verdell (7) rushes for a touchdown past Utah defensive back Javelin Guidry (28) during the second half of an NCAA college football game for the Pac-12 Conference championship in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. Oregon won 37-15. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Oregon running back CJ Verdell is back after rushing for more than 1,000 yards each of the last two seasons. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

North Division

1. Oregon (-100)

2019 record: 12-2 (8-1 Pac-12)

Notable opt-outs: OT Penei Sewell, DB Jevon Holland, DB Thomas Graham, DB Brady Breeze

Oregon won 12 games, the Pac-12 and the Rose Bowl in Mario Cristobal’s second season as head coach. Expectations were sky-high for the Ducks entering 2020, despite losing Justin Herbert to the NFL. Once COVID-19 hit and the season was delayed, several other departures followed. Those include All-American tackle Penei Sewell and three secondary starters. Still, Oregon has arguably the most-talented roster in the conference, and has the potential to be more dynamic on offense with Joe Moorhead calling plays — provided new quarterback Tyler Shough is ready to lead that unit.

2. Cal (+2000)

2019 record: 8-5 (4-5 Pac-12)

Notable opt-outs: LB Tevin Paul

Under Justin Wilcox, the identity of the Cal program is completely different compared to what it looked like under Sonny Dykes. This is a tough, defensive-minded football team that potentially has several all-conference performers on that side of the ball in 2020. But it’s a team that has a pretty good quarterback, too. Chase Garbers’ numbers are rarely eye-popping, but the Golden Bears usually win when he is leading the offense. Cal should be able to run the ball, but will need to be better at receiver to win its first Pac-12 North title.

3. Washington (+450)

2019 record: 8-5 (4-5 Pac-12)

Notable opt-outs: DT Levi Onwuzurike, OLB Joe Tryon

After 14 years as a college head coach, including six at Washington, Chris Petersen decided to step away and hand the reins to trusted assistant Jimmy Lake. Lake coached under Petersen at Boise State and followed him to UW, ascending from defensive backs coach, to co-defensive coordinator to defensive coordinator. The UW defense should be really good despite the losses of run-stuffer Onwuzurike and Tryon, the team’s best edge rusher. Offense, though, is somewhat of a mystery. It’s unclear who will start at quarterback and Lake hired John Donovan, who wasn’t exactly beloved during his time as offensive coordinator during James Franklin’s early Penn State years.

4. Stanford (+2000)

2019 record: 4-8 (3-6 Pac-12)

Notable opt-outs: OT Walker Little, CB Paulson Adebo

Stanford plummeted to 4-8 in 2019, the program’s worst season since 2007. That was Year 1 of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure, back when David Shaw was the Cardinal’s offensive coordinator. Stanford had been in the top half of the Pac-12 North every year dating back to 2009, and Shaw is determined to make sure it gets back there in 2020. A step forward from Davis Mills, the program’s prized five-star recruit from back in 2017, is needed at quarterback. Not getting destroyed by a parade of injuries will help that cause, too.

Stanford quarterback Davis Mills (15) looks to throw a pass against California during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019 in Stanford, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Stanford quarterback Davis Mills (15) looks to throw a pass against California during the first half on Nov. 23, 2019, in Stanford, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

5. Oregon State (+8000)

2019 record: 5-7 (4-5 Pac-12)

Notable opt-outs: OL Onesimus Clarke

Jonathan Smith appears to have something cooking at his alma mater. After a five-season stretch where it won just six Pac-12 games, Oregon State went 4-5 in conference play and nearly was bowl-eligible in Smith’s second season in charge. Hamilcar Rashed Jr. emerged as a legitimate star when he put up 62 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks while the other side of the ball has a strong collection of playmakers. Among that group is running back Jermar Jefferson, who has more than 2,000 rushing yards over his first two collegiate seasons. Nebraska transfer Tristan Gebbia has been named the team’s starting QB. Gebbia was a four-star recruit out of high school and is finally getting his chance. If he lives up to his recruiting billing, the Beavers could be the conference’s surprise team.

6. Washington State (+2000)

2019 record: 6-7 (3-6 Pac-12)

Notable opt-outs: DL Lamonte McDougle

Following eight years of Mike Leach, Washington State has brought in another college football personality as head coach. This time it’s Nick Rolovich, who won 10 games last year at Hawaii, his alma mater. As if the transition from Hawaii to Pullman wasn’t enough, Rolovich is installing a new offensive system at WSU that differs from Leach’s famous Air Raid. To make things even tougher, the Cougars drew USC on the schedule as their crossover game. Jayden de Laura, a true freshman, has been named the team’s starting QB. He’ll have an excellent all-around back, Max Borghi, at his side in the backfield.

South Division

1. USC (+210)

2019 record: 8-5 (7-2 Pac-12)

Notable opt-outs: DL Jay Tufele

The Trojans are the only team in the South that will open the season ranked in the AP poll. No. 20 USC brings back QB Kedon Slovis and WR Amon-Ra St. Brown on an offense that returns six starters. Slovis completed over 70 percent of his passes after taking over for the injured J.T. Daniels early in 2019 and threw for 30 touchdowns. While leading tackler John Houston is gone, USC’s defense brings back eight starters and the next six leading tacklers. By drawing Washington State as its North division opponent, USC avoids the top teams from the other side and is the clear favorite in the South. USC last won the division in 2017.

2. Arizona State (+1100)

2019 record: 8-5 (4-5 Pac-12)

Notable opt-outs: None

QB Jayden Daniels is going to be asked to make a big leap in Year 3 under Herm Edwards. The ASU offense loses WR Brandon Aiyuk and RB Eno Benjamin along with three starting offensive linemen and other key contributors in 2019. Daniels completed 60 percent of his passes in 2019 and threw 17 TDs to just two interceptions. Finding a running back or two to replace Benjamin’s production will be key. Defensively, the Sun Devils bring back eight starters including the team’s top four tacklers. ASU can seize control of the South early if it upsets USC in the Pac-12’s first 9 a.m. kickoff on Saturday.

Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels (5) throws a pass against Oregon during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels (5) throws a pass against Oregon during the first half on Nov. 23, 2019, in Tempe, Arizona. (AP Photo/Matt York)

3. Utah (+700)

2019 record: 11-3 (8-1 Pac-12)

Notable opt-outs: None

LB Devin Lloyd was the Utes’ top tackler in 2019. He’s back for his junior season and he’ll be surrounded by a ton of new starters. Utah returns just two starters on a defense that allowed just 15 points per game and fewer than 300 yards per game in 2019. Can someone like Mika Tafua step up and help replace the 13 sacks Bradlee Anae provided last season? How will a secondary that’s replacing starters at every position perform without a spring practice? And with Tyler Huntley gone, Utah’s starting QB will either be Texas transfer Cameron Rising or South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley. And Jordan Wilmore and Devin Brumfield will be tasked with replacing Zack Moss and his 1,416 rushing yards. We’re confident that Utah will be good again in 2020, but there’s so much to replace that it’s easy to envision a step back.

4. UCLA (+2500)

2019 record: 4-8 (4-5 Pac-12)

Notable opt-outs: None

The Bruins were the conference’s chaos team in 2019. After opening the season with three non-conference losses and a combined 42 points, UCLA completed the greatest comeback of the season against Washington State. The Bruins then lost two games before winning three straight and then losing three straight to end the season. In that roller-coaster of a season, QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson showed flashes and he returns his top three receivers from last season. A defense that allowed over 34 points a game for the third consecutive season will need to take a step forward if UCLA is going to contend for the Pac-12 South.

UCLA head coach Chip Kelly looks on in the second half during an NCAA college football game against Utah Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Chip Kelly is 7-17 in two seasons at UCLA. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

5. Arizona (+3500)

2019 record: 4-8 (2-7 Pac-12)

Notable opt-outs: None

The starting QB job is now Grant Gunnell’s with the departure of Khalil Tate. Gunnell threw nine touchdowns and just one interception in 155 pass attempts in 2019 and will have the team’s top three receivers to throw to again in 2020. The offense also returns four starters on the offensive line, and senior RB Gary Brightwell averaged six yards a carry in limited playing time a season ago. The defense lost top tacklers Colin Schooler (Texas Tech) and Tony Fields (West Virginia) to transfers as the Pac-12’s season was in limbo, leaving senior Anthony Pandy as the team’s top returning tackler.

6. Colorado (+10000)

2019 record: 5-7 (3-6 Pac-12)

Notable opt-outs: None

Karl Dorrell takes over after Mel Tucker was in Boulder for a season before heading to Michigan State. Quarterback turned safety turned QB again Sam Noyer has been named the Buffaloes’ starter as he beat out Tyler Lytle for the job. Noyer had originally planned to transfer from Colorado in the offseason, but Dorrell and his staff persuaded him to stay. Noyer will have RBs Alex Fontenot and Jaren Mangham in the backfield with him and senior KD Nixon presumably will be his top receiving target. LB Nate Landman returns to anchor a defense that gave up nearly 300 yards passing per game in 2019.

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