Pac-12 predictions 2021: Conference standings, Heisman hopefuls and best games
New commissioner George Kliavkoff made it clear from his introductory conference that it has been far too long since the Pac-12 has won a national championship.
To get there, start with getting back in the College Football Playoff. Washington is the last team to reach the CFP in 2016, and the conference enters the 2021 season looking to break that drought.
It’s hard to judge the conference based on 2020. COVID-19 concerns truncated the season, and Oregon won the conference with a 3-2 record, and that was because Washington could not play in the Pac-12 championship game because of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Oregon and Washington return as the Pac-12 North favorites. USC will look to win the Pac-12 South again, but Arizona State is a popular sleeper. A series of non-conference tests will determine how legit the Pac-12 is.
Sporting News looks at the Pac-12 and makes its predictions for 2021:
Oregon is the only Pac-12 school with a winning percentage better than 70 percent the last three seasons. The conference has been fighting for national respect, and Mario Cristobal has the Ducks in decent position to re-emerge as a national power. Defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux leads a talented roster that has embraced that challenge.
MORE: Ducks say ‘Bring it’ to 2021 challenges | ACC predictions | Big Ten predictions | Big 12 predictions
The Pac-12 has some huge non-conference matchups in September. LSU travels to UCLA on Sept. 4, and Washington faces Michigan on Sept. 11 in primetime. The Ducks have the biggest stage earlier that day at Ohio State in a noon ET kickoff.
Win that game, and Oregon is a legit national championship contender. Lose, and the pressure to go undefeated in Pac-12 beckons.
Dylan Morris is the starter at Washington, but Huard will compete for snaps. The five-star recruit passed for 153 TDs in high school at Kennedy Catholic in Bellevue, Wash. Huard is the son of former Washington quarterback Damon Huard. How long until he’s ready to take over?
Jackson enrolled early, and the Desert Pines (Las Vegas) product will have a chance to compete for playing time in a rotation that includes returners Drake London and Bru McCoy. Jackson has prototype receiver size at 6-0, 190 pounds. He will fit in Graham Harrell’s version of the Air Raid.
Brewer is taking advantage of the Super Senior rule and transfer portal to play one more season, and gives the Utes an experienced quarterback. Brewer led Baylor to a Sugar Bowl appearance in 2019. He passed for 65 TDs and 28 interceptions while adding 22 rushing TDs for the Bears.
Stephen Carr transferred to Indiana, but the USC backfield received a lift when Ingram arrived from Texas. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry the last three seasons for the Longhorns, and the 222-pound back offers a power presence between the tackles in Harrell’s offense. He will get the most opportunities early for the Trojans.
The Sun Devils are a hot sleeper pick to break through in the Pac-12 South, and that hinges on Daniels, a three-year starter who has 22 TDs and just three interceptions the last two seasons. He’s also averaged 6.8 yards per carry. Former Sun Devils quarterback Jake Plummer finished third in the Heisman voting in 1996. He led Arizona State to the Rose Bowl that season. Can Daniels do the same?
USC quarterbacks always face high expectations, and Slovis appears to be the next first-round quarterback heading into his third year as a starter. He’s passed for 47 TDs and 16 interceptions, and he’s completed 70 percent of his passes. Slovis hasn’t fared well against ranked teams with a 1-3 record, but one Pac-12 championship run can answer those questions.
It’s a pivotal year for Chip Kelly, who has a 10-21 record with the Bruins. Thompson-Robinson showed signs of a full-fledged breakout with across-the-board improvements in 2020, and whether that happens again could determine how long Kelly stays at UCLA. It’s time for DTR to put it all together.
These teams didn’t play last season, and the fact Washington should have played for the Pac-12 title heats this rivalry up a little more. Oregon has won the last two one-score thrillers in 2018 and 2019, and either the Ducks or Huskies have represented the Pac-12 North in the conference championship game four of the last five years. It’s the biggest game on the conference schedule.
The Trojans have won the last three meetings in Tempe since the infamous “Tarmac Game” in 2013. Herm Edwards is 0-2 against USC, but those games have been decided by a combined total of six points. This has the feel of a “Pac-12 After Dark” thriller.
Kelly and USC coach Chip Kelly have been on the hot seat for most of the last two seasons, and this game always is a temperature check. If both teams are out of the Pac-12 South race, this could be one of those hot-seat bowls. USC has won five of the last six meetings.
Kliavkoff is right. The Pac-12 has not won a national championship in football since 2004, a 17-year drought since USC’s heyday in the early 2000s. That is the longest drought by any Power 5 conference. Oregon was the last team to play for a national championship in 2014, and Washington was the last team to make the CFP in 2016.
The conference is desperate for someone to put it all together and go on a championship run.
Oregon and USC will meet in the Pac-12 championship again, and it would be easy to pick the Ducks. We just like the Trojans’ offense and where it takes off with Harrell, Slovis and a talented supporting cast Helton has improved through recruiting. The Pac-12 has better playoff opportunities when USC and Oregon are good at the same time, and the Trojans get this round. They will have to settle for the Rose Bowl, however.
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