What to watch as the PAC-12 kicks off this weekend (and into the season)
There are three new coaches in the PAC-12 this year. Washington State saw Mike Leach leave for the Mississippi State job and replaced him with Hawaii head Coach Nick Rolovich. Don't expect that prolific Cougar offense to slow down at all, though. Rolovich runs a similar style and has been part of dynamic offenses at Hawaii and Nevada. He also played in the Arena Football League, which has been known for high-scoring contests.
Colorado saw Mel Tucker depart for Michigan State just a year after arriving in Boulder. It was a late hire because of the abrupt retirement of Mark Dantonio, so the Buffaloes were left scrambling a bit to fill the position. They ultimately decided on Karl Dorrell- who has been a successful head coach in the PAC-12 at UCLA in the early 2000s. Since then, he has spent time with multiple NFL teams and briefly served as offensive coordinator at Vanderbilt.
The final new coach is Washington's Jimmy Lake. He has mostly served as a defensive backs coach during his career and was named the successor when Chris Petersen resigned in December.
Utah and Oregon's defenses
We won't see Utah on the field Saturday, but their defensive unit bears watching. The Utes lose NINE starters from a defense that finished 6th best in the nation in 2019--including most of their defensive line and their entire secondary. LB Devin Lloyd and DE Maxs Tupai are the only returning starters.
Oregon's defense is also one to keep an eye on. The Ducks finished 2019 as the country's 9th best defense and have several players coming back. Although they do lose a few key players--standout safeties Jevon Holland and Brady Breeze and cornerback Thomas Graham have all opted out, and star middle linebacker Troy Dye has graduated--there is still a lot of optimism about this group in Eugene.
There will be seven new quarterbacks in the PAC-12 this season. Utah will be turning to either South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley or freshman Cameron Rising or freshman Drew List. Oregon will hand the reigns over to either Boston College transfer Anthony Brown or promising sophomore Tyler Shough. Both players would have huge shoes to fill following now-Chargers QB Justin Herbert. Nebraska transfer Tirstan Gebbia has won the job at Oregon State after playing in four games with one start in 2019. Freshman Jayden de Laura is the next in line at Washington State. The Colorado job was won by Sam Noyer, while Washington has four guys listed as possible starters. The most experienced new starter is Arizona's Grant Gunnell, who started three games last season.
There are several impressive quarterbacks to keep an eye on here, and others who may need to step it up. USC's Kedon Slovis burst onto the scene as a freshman and eventually took the job from incumbent starter JT Daniels. Daniels has since transferred to Georgia. Davis Mills did the same thing at Stanford, although as a junior. He is now the incumbent after supplanting KJ Costello. Cal's Chase Garbers is coming off of a career year and leads the conference in starts among returning quarterbacks. He has shared time as the team's QB in the past but should be ready to be the full time starter this year. Dual-threat sophomore Jayden Daniels was good as a freshman at Arizona State. In 11 games, he threw for almost 3000 yards with 17 touchdowns and only two interceptions. Daniels will look to build off of that as the Sun Devils look to enter the next phase of their rebuild. UCLA' Dorian Thompson-Robinson was similarly impressive for a bad team and will try to have a breakout junior season.
Oregon has a running back stable that includes at least two NFL talents in CJ Verdell and Travis Dye. Their success is a big part of making the Ducks offense work well. Washington State's Max Borghi is one of the most underrated running backs in the country and one of the best receivers out of the backfield. He has the ability to run between the tackles as well. Oregon State's Jermar Jefferson is an all-conference candidate and has quietly had a historic college career. He enters the season 12th on the Beavers' list of all-time rushers. Colorado's Alex Fontenot broke out with 874 yards in his sophomore campaign and may be relied on more heavily this year.
Impactful opt outs
By now, everyone should know that many players across the country have opted not to play this season, and those opt-outs have definitely impacted their teams. Likewise, some of the PAC-12's best players will not be on the field in 2020. Cal will be missing star CB Cam Byrum. Oregon will be missing the defensive players I mentioned early plus OT Penei Sewell--largely considered the best OT in the 2021 NFL Draft Class. Stanford will be without left tackle Walker Little. DL Jay Tufele and OT Alijah Vera-Tucker opted out at USC. Defensive linemen Levi Onwuzurike and Joe Tryon will leave a hole in the Washington defense. Washington State will play without DB Pat Nunn and WR Kassidy Woods.
Several offensive lines in this conference were among the best in the country last year, but that success comes with a price. Oregon enters this season without its top six offensive linemen from a year ago, four of whom are NFL caliber players. USC loses both of its offensive tackles plus its center. Washington similarly loses its center and the entire left side of its o-line. The only returning starter along the front at Stanford is center Drew Dalman, and Arizona State will have an entirely new group.
Oregon DE Kayvon Thibodeaux higlights this sophomore class. He was the PAC-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year and led the country in fourth quarter sacks. His teammate, WR Mycah Pittman, is another stud sophomore. Oregon State LB Omar Speights finished just behind Thibodeaux for the award and was a Freshmen All-American selection. QB Kedon Slovis and WR Drake London give USC a formidable offensive duo in the passing game, and the Trojans also have Drake Jackson on the defensive line. Sean Rhyan (UCLA), Dohnovan West (ASU), and Brett Johnson (Cal) are a few of the most promising offensive linemen in the conference, and Washington CB Trent McDuffie has been a starter since day one.
High scoring offenses
The PAC-12 has been known for some lethal offenses. Washington State always has a big-play offense. Even though Mike Leach is gone, Nick Rolovich's scheme shouldn't be too different. Oregon should have a good unit once again, despite breaking in a new quarterback. USC gets a bunch of its skill players back and should be good as long as the offensive line holds up. Utah will have to replace most of its production and will see a dip in offensive production. They just don't have as many threats as last year. Arizona State has Jayden Daniels and Frank Darby to lean on. If someone emerges to help them, the Sun Devils could join the elite offensive ranks. UCLA is also a threat with Chip Kelly's style and DTR on the field.
USC's Clay Helton is in a similar position as Michigan's Jim Harbaugh. He was hired to take the team to the next level and hasn't delivered. With the talent he has this year, he needs to show he can still be that guy. Kevin Sumlin inherited a rebuilding project at Arizona and is just 9-15in two seasons. He had mild success at Texas A&M, but year three is usually a judgment year for college coaches. Much was expected out of Chip Kelly when he returned to the college ranks. Kelly was the head coach at Oregon and led some prolific teams. He spent time as an NFL head coach but is better suited for the college game. We have seen some signs at UCLA, but it hasn't been enough to ensure his job security, Kelly could be in danger if the season doesn't go well.
Colorado sophomore RB Jaren Mangham was an underrated recruit and will have a larger role this year. He can form a great duo with Alex Fontenot. Similarly, freshman RB Chip Trayanum should have an impactful role this year for Arizona State. Cal's Bradrick Shaw, a Wisconsin transfer, can also make an impact if called upon. Shaw was once a starter for the Badgers. His teammate, Kuony Deng, is one of the up-and-coming linebackers in the country and can make a difference on defense. Utah's Devin Brumfield has to replace Zack Moss, but the junior has played a prominent role for the Utes in the past. Others who could emerge are Oregon's Mase Funa, Tyler Shough, and Isaac Slade-Matauita, Stanford's Michael Wilson and Dalyn Wade-Perry, Arizona's Boobie Curry, and Washington State's Jamire Calvin.
It's no secret that the West Coast has been one of the hardest hit areas during the ongoing pandemic--enough to originally cause the conference to cancel their 2020 season. While things seem to be under a little better control now, we have no idea how much the PAC-12's season will be affected. We have seen its impact on other conferences so far, and it has already caused multiple games to be cancelled this weekend. Included in those cancellations are PAC-12 games between Washington vs Cal and Arizona vs Utah.