If the Pac-12 fails to send a team to the College Football Playoff this season, it will mark five straight years the league has been absent from the event. But with the league gearing up for a normal 2021 campaign after its condensed 2020 season, there’s reason for optimism that the conference can reclaim some of the national prominence it has lost in recent years.
For starters, the league’s top historical power appears to be healthy as USC is coming off a 5-1 season and is returning star quarterback Kedon Slovis and elite pass rusher Drake Jackson. The CFP has been around since 2014 and the Trojans have yet to qualify. But with the conference’s only other prior CFP participants Oregon (2015) and Washington (2017) a bit less solidified on the offensive side of the ball, this could be the year of the Trojans.
But if not, the Ducks, Huskies and a steady Utah program are lurking with sights set on a league title. Arizona State and Cal are each in the chase pack looking for breakthrough seasons as well, and this will be a critical season for UCLA after the Bruins looked close at times under Chip Kelly last season before ultimately finishing 3-4.
So while the league continues to lag behind its Power Five peers, perhaps the conference can parlay the momentum generated on the basketball side and surprise the nation with a resurgence on the gridiron. There will certainly be some good nonconference opportunities for the league. On Sept. 11 alone Oregon plays at Ohio State, Colorado hosts Texas A&M and Washington plays at Michigan.
With the Pac-12 teams now all having concluded spring sessions, here are some overreactions from the to get you revved up for what’s ahead in the 2021 season out west.
Arizona: The Wildcats are finally fun
Jedd Fisch seemed like a random hire in the moment when Arizona tabbed the Patriots quarterback coach to replace Kevin Sumlin. But there is no debating Fisch’s track record in both the college and pro games. The 45-year-old is among the most well-traveled coaches you’ll find in the industry as he counts Bill Belichick, Sean McVay, Jim Harbaugh, Pete Carroll and Mike Shanahan among his former bosses.
What’s made the beginning of Fisch’s tenure at Arizona truly impressive, though, is how he’s made Arizona football fun again. He brought Wildcats legend Tedy Bruschi into the fold as an advisor and managed to bring Rob Gronkowski back to campus as a guest coach for the spring game. Gronk hasn’t been a visible figure at his former school over the years, and Fisch’s embrace of the program’s past is a sign he has the vision needed to succeed as the CEO of a college program following two decades in assistant coaching roles.
Gronkowski set a world record and provided the program with a viral moment by catching a football dropped from a helicopter the day before the spring game. The following day, he and Fisch were firing water balloons into the student section during the spring game (yes, students actually came to the spring game!). So while the Wildcats have a long way to go in terms of on-field performance, the fact their program seems fun again is a good start.
Arizona State: Jayden Daniels is league’s best QB
With all due respect to USC quarterback Kedon Slovis, the best quarterback in the Pac-12 is Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels. The former four-star prospect burst onto the scene in 2019 with 17 touchdown passes and just two interceptions as a freshman. However, the disjointed nature of a 2020 season that saw Arizona State play only four games kept Daniels from really breaking out nationally last year.
That probably just means he’s hungrier this season as the Sun Devils look to take a major leap in Herm Edwards’ fourth season as coach. It will be Daniels’ second season in offensive coordinator Zak Hill’s system, and if ASU can get a couple of receivers to step up, Daniels could play his way into the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft. Daniels’ ability to run and improvise sets him apart from Slovis, whose numbers are inflated by the air-raid system in which he plays.
California: It’s now or never for Bears
Last season was shaping up to be a great one for Cal football until the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the program’s ability to conduct normal operations and the Bears limped to a 1-3 record following three seasons of progression under coach Justin Wilcox. However, Cal’s lone victory came against Oregon to close the season, and that was no fluke; the Bears returned a ton of productive players last season from their squad that went 8-5 in 2019.
Many of those same key playmakers are back yet again, including a group of sixth-year “super seniors” highlighted by defensive anchors Kuony Deng and Cameron Goode at linebacker. Defense is Wilcox’s specialty and the Bears have a high floor on that side of the ball. The offense, however, remains a source of concern. Fourth-year quarterback Chase Garbers has the tools, experience and surrounding weapons to lead a quality attack. However, the Bears looked awful offensively last season under new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, and there will need to be significant strides in that system this season if this team is going to reach its potential and compete for the Pac-12 North title.
On that topic, it feels like it might be now or never for Cal. Perhaps the Bears can be a perennial bowl team under Wilcox, but in terms of competing for a Rose Bowl spot, the window may be closed after 2021. Oregon’s prolific recruiting suggests the Ducks could reclaim absolute authority in the Pac-12, and Washington may not be far behind after coach Jimmy Lake’s 3-1 debut season and the arrival of Sam Huard at quarterback.
Colorado: Jarek Broussard is vastly underrated
Jarek Broussard has been through two ACL tears and three head coaches during his time at Colorado but has persisted to become a star in the Pac-12 and one of the most underrated players in the country. And he may just be getting started. Though he was draft eligible after running for 895 yards in six games in 2020 during his third year on campus, Broussard could still play at least three more college seasons if he chooses.
The former three-star wide receiver prospect from the class of 2018 came to Colorado while recovering from a torn ACL suffered as a high school senior and redshirted his first year before tearing his ACL again at the beginning of the 2019 season and missing that entire campaign as well. But when he finally got to play last season, Broussard made the most of his long-awaited opportunity. The 5-foot-9 back surpassed 100 yards rushing in each game during Colorado’s 4-0 start and even topped 300 yards in a win over Arizona on Dec. 5. Broussard will likely share duties with Colorado’s 2019 leading rusher junior Alex Fontenot, who missed the 2020 season with injury.
There should be plenty of touches for Broussard, who is a testament to perseverance and a major reason why the sudden coaching transition from Mel Tucker to Karl Dorrell went much smoother than expected last season as the Buffs finished 4-2.
Oregon: Ty Thompson gets the nod before October ends
Ty Thompson is Oregon’s highest-rated quarterback commitment of the 247Sports era, and it’s not hard to see why. On his first pass attempt of Oregon’s spring game, the early enrollee freshman completed a dart over the middle to fellow freshman Terrance Ferguson. The throw showed why 247Sports Mountain Region Recruiting Analyst Blair Angulo wrote that Thompson has “elite” arm strength. Angulo also noted in his scouting report that Thompson should be a candidate to start early in his college career.
The bet here is that “early” ends up being November of his freshman season. With a player of Thompson’s talent, there’s a decent chance three years on campus is the most you’re going to get, so why wait to get him snaps? While presumptive starter Anthony Brown is entering his sixth season of college football and is battle-tested from his days at Boston College, the Ducks’ downfield passing game may be limited with Brown at the helm. Assuming the Ducks don’t pull off a stunning upset at Ohio State in the season’s second week and enter CFP contention, you can expect a clamoring for Thompson to rise within the fanbase by the middle of the season. He is the future, not Brown, and Thompson’s combination of talent and potential will be too much to ignore.
Freshman Ty Thompson could be starting for the Ducks sooner rather than later in 2021.
Former Fiesta Bowl-winning Oregon State quarterback Jonathan Smith returned to his alma mater in 2018, fresh off four seasons as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for Washington where he helped develop Jake Browning into a superstar. Smith quickly helped turn former Beavers quarterback Jake Luton into an NFL Draft prospect at Oregon State, and it seemed like the program had momentum entering 2020. Consecutive wins over quality division foes Cal and Oregon last November were further confirmation of Oregon State’s positive direction, but then it all came to a halt when it was determined quarterback Tristan Gebbia needed season-ending surgery on a hamstring.
Oregon State lost its last three games without Gebbia to finish 2-5. But if the redshirt junior comes back healthy, it will be his third season seeing game action in Smith’s system, and the former four-star prospect could become a breakout player in the Pac-12. Given Smith’s track record with quarterbacks, his ability to maximize Gebbia’s potential will go a long way toward determining if the Beavers can recapture the momentum they had after the 2019 season.
Stanford: Cardinal will be lucky to get bowl eligible
The Cardinal are replacing a third-round NFL Draft pick at quarterback in Davis Mills and two other draft picks from the 2020 roster — not counting Walker Little and Paulson Adebo who opted out of the 2020 season but raise the program’s number of players drafted to five. It won’t be surprising if that exodus of talent has an outsized impact on a program that lived on an incredibly thin margin for error last season with all four of its victories coming by five points or less. The schedule does Stanford no favors, as the Cardinal must play USC and Utah out of the Pac-12 South and will face three power conference opponents in nonconference play. Stanford will be lucky to get bowl eligible.
UCLA: Bruins will beat LSU in Week 1
Who knows if it will translate to the type of banner season that Chip Kelly needs in his fourth season at UCLA, but there are a few reasons why the Bruins are in good shape to pull an upset of LSU on Sept. 4. For starters, UCLA gets a warmup game on Aug. 28 against Hawaii to help it prepare. LSU, on the other hand, will be traveling to Los Angeles with no such preliminary contest under its belt. That’s a built-in advantage for UCLA.
For an LSU team that struggled defensively last season and is welcoming five new coaches to its staff — including another new defensive coordinator — the Bruins pose a problematic first test. UCLA put up 35.4 points and 455 yards per game last season and scored no fewer than 27 points in any of its first seven games. Nearly everyone from that offense is back, including a fourth-year starter at quarterback in Dorian Thompson-Robinson and the entire offensive line. Unless there is some immediate improvement for LSU’s defense under new coordinator Daronte Jones, UCLA should have the upper hand.
The Bruins have also won seven of their last eight nonconference home games against Power Five foes played in Week 1 of the season. That includes a 4-0 mark in Week 1 home games against SEC foes dating back to 1994.
USC: The Trojans are Pac-12’s only CFP-caliber team
This is not a guarantee that the Trojans will make the CFP, but if they don’t, then no one from the Pac-12 will. With San Jose State, Notre Dame and BYU on the docket as nonconference foes, this schedule is the perfect combination of gettable and forgiving. It’s gettable in the sense that the Trojans could be favored in every game. But it’s forgiving in the sense that USC can lose a game and still amass enough quality wins to warrant CFP consideration. While Oregon can enter the CFP conversation with a win at Ohio State on Sept. 11, a win for the Ducks at the Horseshoe would be a significant upset. After that, the Ducks’ schedule lacks the other resume-building opportunities that are present on USC’s docket. For that reason, it stands to reason that USC has a more plausible path to the CFP than Oregon or anyone else in the league.
Utah: Charlie Brewer is the league’s third-best QB
After Daniels and Slovis, the best quarterback in the Pac-12 is Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer. The presumptive Utah starter completed 15-of-15 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns in Utah’s spring game. An overreaction to a meaningless spring game, you say? Well, don’t forget what the headline of this story is. Seriously, Brewer was perfect — he wasn’t even sacked — in something resembling live football. That’s a good omen for a Utes program that appeared in the Pac-12 Championship Game in 2019 and brings back a ton of starters from last year’s 3-2 squad.
Brewer threw for 9,700 yards, 65 touchdowns and 28 interceptions in four years at Baylor while completing 63.5% of his passes. He also ran for 22 touchdowns for the Bears and should be a clear upgrade over last year’s graduate transfer quarterback Jake Bentley.
Washington: Sam Huard needs an early opportunity
As Washington’s fourth-highest ranked commitment and top-rated quarterback signee of the 247Sports era, Sam Huard is entering with plenty of expectations and deserves an early shot at playing time. The son and nephew of former Washington QBs, Huard led his high school team to a 60-17 victory on March 27 by throwing for 514 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions to pass Denver Broncos quarterback Brett Rypien as the state of Washington’s all-time leader for passing yards in high school.
The next day, he was moving in on UW’s campus to begin classes and participate in spring practices. Reports out of the Huskies’ spring drills suggested the five-star lefty started a bit slow. Who could blame him? He was playing against overmatched high school competition literally days earlier, and then all of the sudden found himself practicing against a perennially solid power conference defense.
By the time the spring game rolled around on May 1, Huard was throwing strikes that showcased the arm strength and accuracy that make him Washington’s quarterback of the future. Incumbent starter Dylan Morris is only a redshirt sophomore and shouldn’t be shoved out the door for the sake of starting Huard right away. But second-year coach Jimmy Lake and offensive coordinator John Donovan should at least design some packages to get Huard a little early playing time. There is no sense in trying to redshirt a player who will presumably spend just three seasons on campus.
Washington State: It’s still Jayden de Laura’s job
Incumbent starting quarterback Jayden de Laura was arrested in February on suspicion of driving under the influence and was subsequently suspended for spring practice. That hiccup for de Laura after an encouraging freshman season surely made the Cougars glad they brought in Tennessee graduate transfer Jarrett Guarantano to bolster the quarterback room.
But the bet here is that de Laura will ultimately win the job back in the fall, even though there is plenty of buzz about Guarantano and redshirt junior Cammon Cooper moving to the top of the depth chart. Sure, the Cougars have a recent track record of thriving with graduate transfer quarterbacks (see: Gardner Minshew). But that was under the last coaching staff, and the future is too bright with de Laura to stunt his development by playing a one-year band-aid at the position in Guarantano.
Plus, if you watched Guarantano play at all over the past four seasons at Tennessee, you weren’t surprised that he threw an interception and was injured on the first play of the Cougars’ spring game. That play was an unfortunate synopsis of his college career to date. The coaching staff sent its message by suspending de Laura, but its job is to win games, and de Laura gives them the best chance to do so.