2020 Preseason Pac-12 Football Outlook and Predictions

Projected team records, divisional & Conference predictions, and CFP outlook

Posted on November 5, 2020

  By Dane Miller, SuperWest Sports

After a botched schedule release in August followed by a return to play announcement in September, the Conference of Champions is finally taking the field. The Pac-12 enters the race for the College Football Playoff as the last Power 5 conference to begin play, and with significant ground to make up.

As it stands now, Oregon and USC are the early-season favorites to return the Pac-12 to the promised land for the first time since 2016-17.

Getting there, though, is no guarantee. It’s likely going to take an undefeated year with a convincing win in the Championship Game, and some help back East.

The Selection Committee has historically displayed an implicit bias toward the SEC, and you can bet that certain members are frothing at the mouth at the thought of inviting two Southern teams for the second time in the Playoff Era.

It just means more—or so we are told.

Toss in the very real possibility of an undefeated, or one loss, Norte Dame squad with an undefeated Group of 5 team, and you have a mess on your hands.

To boost its champion’s resume, the Pac-12 could have chosen to schedule USC at UW and Oregon at Utah in its cross-divisional matchups. But that’s water under the bridge.

Whoever lifts the trophy in December will likely be forced to compete for a spot in the Playoff with a team from a more respected conference, with more wins, and more clout among the Committee members.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Projected Records and Predictions

Putting the glass of reality aside, most of us are just glad to have football back. From the budding resurgence in Corvallis to the underestimated threat in Berkeley, the storylines across the Conference are concrete and compelling. Half the programs are breaking in new starting quarterbacks, three new head coaches are taking the helm, and some headmen are facing make-or-break seasons.

Though it’s difficult to accurately handicap a team’s success without spring ball and a traditional fall camp, below are my projected records and predicted order of finish, as promised.

North Division Predictions

1. Oregon (6-0)

The Ducks enter the season as the favorite to win the Conference, and Mario Cristobal should get Oregon back to the Pac-12 Championship game with a shot at the Playoff. Strong recruiting classes over the past several years should ensure that UO doesn’t miss a beat, despite losing key contributors on defense to COVID opt-outs, and Justin Herbert to the NFL.

The contests with California and Washington are the real tests, but both come at the end of the season. The earlier games against winnable opponents provide a nice proving ground for Cristobal to identify the right quarterback and break in a new offensive line.

2. California (4-1)

Justin Wilcox and Cal hoped to start 2020 on the right foot with a win over Washington, but that game has been canceled due to a recent positive COVID-19 test.  Arizona State remains on the schedule for now, and seems winnable, with the Oregon game looking like the only potential stumble. Chase Garbers brings a different type of moxie to the team that is simultaneously intangible and palpable.

When he is in the game, the Bears just play different (and better). Assuming he remains healthy, California should take down Oregon State, Stanford, and Washington State while battling ASU close. Returning every starter on offense and seven on defense should make the difference in those close contests. The consequence of having the opener against UW cancelled remains to be seen.

3. Washington (4-1)

The Dawgs are an enigma. On one hand, their vaunted secondary and talent at wide receiver, as well as at running back, should be enough to catapult Washington into contention for the North title. Jimmy Lake’s coyness about his starting quarterback doesn’t build confidence, though it keeps their opening opponent guessing. We now know it won’t be Cal, as that game has been canceled after a Bear player recently tested positive for COVID-19.

The lack of an experienced quarterback figures to be a problem against Oregon, a projected loss. The cancellation of the Cal game does give Lake more time to develop his new gunslinger, but forces the Dawgs to start the season even later. Be that as it may, UW should take care of business against the rest of the North and Arizona.   

4. Oregon State (2-4)

Tasked with replacing Jake Luton and Isaiah Hodgins, Jonathan Smith and the Beavers must rely on an improved defense and first-year starting quarterback Tristan Gebbia. Though OSU is an interesting pick to upset a few teams, the only projected victories are against Washington State and Stanford.

The matchups with Oregon, Washington, California, and Utah are likely non-starters, despite the new quarterbacks at three of the four. As far as the revised schedule goes, the Beavs’ got the shortest stick. This season could wind up being even more a rebuild year than anticipated.

5. Stanford (2-4)

Davis Mills won just one game in six starts last season, and the Cardinal lost 13 players to the transfer portal. Though David Shaw has a Top 25 recruiting class to his credit, it won’t be enough as the North Division is as strong as ever this season.

The likely wins will come against Colorado and Washington State, with the end-of-year finale against Oregon State being a toss-up. Things could go either way for the Stanford program, and Shaw’s squad is arguably the biggest wildcard in the Pac-12. However, the opt-outs of Paulson Adebo and Walker Little dampen the Tree’s expectations in 2020.

6. Washington State (0-6)

The two winnable games the Cougars have in Nick Rolovich’s first season are in the opener against Oregon State and Stanford. But both road contests come early in the year. It’s not easy to implement a brand new system without a proper summer camp and spring ball, and doubly hard without a seasoned quarterback.

WSU is coming off its first losing season since 2014, but its offensive line should open plenty of holes for Max Borghi. For a first-year coach with a porous defense, inexperience at quarterback, and a tough cross-divisional matchup with USC, there are too many challenges to overcome.

South Division Predictions

1. USC (6-0)

usc logoThe Trojan’s cross-divisional matchup is with Washington State, setting the table for Slovis and company to make the Pac-12 Championship game with a shot at the Playoff. Only Arizona State and Utah present formidable challenges, with the test in Salt Lake City generating the most cause for concern.

In year two of the Air Raid, USC’s offense should handle any defense the South has to offer, starting with the Sun Devils on national television. The return of Alijah Vera-Tucker bodes well for the Trojans’ season, even as new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando attempts to shore up the other side of the ball.

2. Arizona State (4-2)

The Sun Devils have winnable matchups against Colorado, UCLA, and Arizona, but face steeper challenges against Utah and California. The Utes lost nearly their entire starting defense, tipping the scale to Herm Edward’s team. The test against California is a different story, though.

The Bears historically struggle on offense, but return 18 total starters and should have a healthy Chase Garbers. The other projected defeat is the opening week showdown with USC on Fox. Kedon Slovis and the Trojan offense should be dominate this season, and ASU must replace significant production at running back.

3. Utah (3-2)

Losing nine starters on defense is no easy challenge to overcome, but Kyle Whittingham should follow up his 11-win campaign with a respectable performance in 2020. The cancellation of the season-opening Arizona game gives Utah one less win, but a winning season is still in the cards.

The projected defeats are Arizona State and USC, with the Utes able to hold their own against the rest of the South and Oregon State. Tight end Brant Kuithe is one of the best at his position in the entire country, and Utah’s recruiting classes have remained consistent. The result should be another solid year with an eye toward 2021.

4. Arizona (1-4)

Apart from the game against Colorado in Tucson, it’s difficult to imagine the Wildcats winning more than one game. The UA offense is capable, and will likely surprise a few defenses this season, but the fact remains that the Wildcat defense was decimated by transfers.

Paul Rhoades will do his best to implement the new 3-4 scheme, but without any linebacker depth it’s going to be an uphill struggle. Theoretically, the Cats could upset Arizona State and UCLA, but without seeing the defensive formation in action, a one-win projection is appropriate. The canceled game against Utah gives the Wildcats one less loss, but that won’t change the overall calculus of the their season.

5. Colorado (1-5)

Without a traditional offseason for first-year coach Karl Dorrell to get a feel for his players, things could get rough in Boulder. The question at quarterback, answered recently with the announcement of senior Sam Noyer as the starter, is the Buffs’ primary cause for concern.

The depth and talent at running back was the team’s strength before Tuesday’s announced injury to Alex Fontenot, which could keep him out all season. K.D. Nixon is a threat to score on the edge, but with little to no experience under center, opposing defensive coordinators have a clear game plan. Though CU should open the season with an upset win over UCLA, the team won’t be able to get back in the win column the remainder of the year.

6. UCLA (1-5)

Though the Bruins are favored against Colorado to open the year, the X-Factor of a new era in Boulder could result in the first upset of the Pac-12 season. And other than the matchup with CU, the only game UCLA should be favored to win is Arizona.

With a tough cross-divisional battle with Oregon, the Bruins could find themselves struggling to put up more than one win. On the other hand, Chip Kelly could handle the Buffs convincingly and take down Arizona State to emerge 3-3 in his third season.

—More from Dane Miller—