August 9, 2021

2021 Pac-12 Football Season Preview

There’s perhaps no conference that had a more unusual season in 2020 than the Pac-12.

The conference initially decided to cancel the season but then canceled its cancellation. (Talk about cancel culture, right?). They hoped to play at least six games, although some teams ended up with just four games. However, the Pac-12 is set to play a full season in 2021.

Of course, after an incomplete season in 2020, not to mention all of the other changes and transfers impacting the college football world, the Pac-12 might be the most difficult conference in the country to forecast. Nevertheless, we’ll take a crack at predicting how the Pac-12 will play out in 2021.

*Betting odds via FanDuel Sportsbook as of Aug. 8

College Football Season Previews: SEC | Big TenACC | Big 12

Favorite: Oregon Ducks

Last year may have been an unusual season, but the Ducks are still the reigning Pac-12 champs and have a chance to make it three in a row in 2021.

Coach Mario Cristobal still hasn’t gotten Oregon to the big stage nationally, but the Ducks have the best betting odds to win the Pac-12 at +250. The offense will be led by the running back tandem of Travis Dye and C.J. Verdell and they'll be joined by five returning starters on the offensive line who will lead the way for them.

In fairness, the quarterback position is a little bit of a question mark. Boston College transfer Anthony Brown didn’t play a lot until late in the 2020 season. But he has plenty of experience and can be deadly in play-action, which bodes well for a team that should have success running the ball. Meanwhile, the Ducks have a few impact players on defense, including Kayvon Thibodeaux and Noah Sewell, so there aren’t a lot of concerns on that side of the ball.

The only caveat to Oregon’s status as Pac-12 favorites this year is the Ducks must hit the road for games against Washington and Utah, which could trip them up.

Top Competitor: Arizona State Sun Devils

Technically, Washington has the second-best odds to win the Pac-12. But the Sun Devils are the real threat to Oregon at +400. The only reason Arizona State has longer odds than Washington is that the South Division has three or four good teams while the North Division figures to be a two-team race. Nevertheless, Herm Edwards appears to have the best team in the Pac-12 South this year with ASU having legitimate conference title aspirations.

Jayden Daniels has been the starting quarterback in back-to-back seasons, bringing a little experience to the table along with his dual-threat skill set. The Sun Devils return four starters on the offensive line and have one of the best groups of skill players in the conference, so Daniels will have plenty of support around him. Meanwhile, the ASU led the Pac-12 in points allowed last year and will begin the year with eight seniors or grad transfers in the starting lineup, meaning the Sun Devils will be able to beat teams on both sides of the ball.

Dark Horse: Utah Utes

While USC and Arizona State are both +400 to win the Pac-12 championship this year, Utah is being slightly disrespected by the oddsmakers at +600. But don’t kid yourself, the South Division is a three-team race with the Utes on level-footing with USC and Arizona State. Under Kyle Winningham, this has been the most stable program in the Pac-12, playing in the Pac-12 Championship Game in both 2018 and 2019.

The Utes had an elite defense in 2019 and didn’t take that much of a step back last year. With eight starters back and a stacked defensive line, the Utah defense has a chance to be one of the best in the conference. The concern with the Utes is on offense, but the arrival of Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer could potentially solve those issues. Brewer has plenty of experience and can sling it all over the field.

The Utes have also dipped into the transfer portal to reload at running back and wide receiver, so there are a lot of moving pieces on the offense. But if things come together on that side of the ball, the Utes will be a serious threat to finally win the Pac-12 title.

Deep Sleeper: California Golden Bears

Nobody is talking about Cal as a threat in the North Division after the Bears went 1-3 last season. But two of those losses came by a combined five points while Cal’s lone win came against Oregon in early December. Also, Justin Wilcox had things moving in the right direction, leading the Bears to back-to-back bowl games before the weirdness of 2020. At +5000 to win the league and +1600 to reach the Pac-12 Championship Game, it might be worth taking a flyer on Cal.

Under Wilcox, the Golden Bears have always been one of the best defensive teams in the Pac-12. Chase Garbers also gives them one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the conference. There’s also a ton of experience in the backfield and along the offensive line, so it’s not as if Garbers will have to do it himself.

The Cal offense won’t be explosive by any stretch, but if the defense remains solid, the Bears are the epitome of a deep sleeper.

Overrated: Washington Huskies

The Huskies have a +350 moneyline to win the Pac-12, which is better than any team in the South Division and not far behind Oregon’s +250. But there is still a lot of mystery around this team after the Huskies played just four games last year in Jimmy Lake’s first season as head coach. For what it’s worth, Washington was 3-1 in those four games, although wins over Oregon State and Arizona weren’t overly convincing.

While Dylan Morris looked good in those four games last year, he still doesn’t have much experience. He remains unproven and will have freshman Sam Huard and transfer Patrick O’Brien breathing down his neck.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Huskies are solid as usual. But they struggled against the run against a soft schedule last year and will be without pass rusher Zion Tupuola-Fetui, who got hurt in spring. The secondary also has some questions, so there’s a lot that could go wrong with Washington this year, making it hard to believe in the Huskies as a serious threat to Oregon in the North Division.

Basement Dweller: Arizona Wildcats

Kevin Sumlin sure left a mess in Arizona for Jedd Fisch to clean up.

The Wildcats lost seven in a row to close out the 2019 season and then proceeded to go 0-5 last year, so they begin the 2021 season on a 12-game losing streak. That explains Arizona’s +10000 odds to win the conference while the second-longest odds are shared by Colorado and Oregon State at +6000. They are even +10000 to win the Pac-12 South while Colorado is just +1400.

Fisch’s solution is to use the transfer portal to reload quickly. Former USF quarterback Jordan McCloud and former Washington State quarterback Gunner Cruz will both get a chance to prove themselves. But neither is a guarantee to solve the problems on an offense that averaged 17.4 points per game last year. The defense has just as many questions after finishing last in the conference in most statistical categories last year while recording just two sacks in five games.

Somehow, things could potentially get worse for Arizona before they get better.

Player to Watch: Kedon Slovis, USC

If you watched Slovis play last season or just looked at his numbers, he probably would have been a Heisman finalist had USC played a full season. On more than one occasion, he single-handedly led the Trojans to a comeback victory in the closing minutes of a game. He’s the only reason USC played in the Pac-12 Championship Game last year and is the most proven and established quarterback in the conference heading into the 2021 season.

All of that aside, Slovis is the player to watch in the Pac-12 this year because the Trojans need him to be brilliant. USC enters the season with no shortage of questions about the team’s offensive line and running game. That means a lot will fall on Slovis to lead the Trojans. USC will catch a break with its cross-over games with the North Division. But nothing will come easy in the Pac-12 South, not to mention USC has three challenging non-league games, including an October trip to Notre Dame.

If the Trojans are going to win the South Division and return to the national spotlight, they’ll need Slovis to play at a Heisman-caliber level.

Photo: Getty Images