The 2020 race to win the Pac-12 starts with last year’s champion – Oregon. The Ducks are Athlon’s pick to win the league once again in 2020, but in a twist, it’s coach Mario Cristobal’s defense – not the usual high-powered Oregon offense – that leads the way. Cristobal hired former Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead to direct an offense replacing quarterback Justin Herbert and four starters along the offensive line. Left tackle Penei Sewell is the Pac-12’s top player for 2020, and the development of quarterbacks Tyler Shough and Anthony Brown could determine whether or not Oregon contends for a trip to the College Football Playoff.
California holds a small edge over Washington in Athlon’s projections for the North Division in 2020. The Golden Bears return eight starters off one of the league’s top defenses and have a favorable home slate – Utah, Oregon, Washington and Stanford all come to Berkeley – but need to generate more on offense in order to challenge the Ducks for first in the North. Chris Petersen leaves big shoes for new coach Jimmy Lake to fill, but there’s no shortage of promising talent in Seattle, especially on a defense that held teams to 19.4 points a game last fall. Washington’s offense under new play-caller John Donovan remains unsettled, especially with a three-man quarterback battle set to unfold in the fall. Stanford had bad luck with injuries – especially on the offensive line – last season but should return to a bowl game behind quarterback Davis Mills. OregonState and WashingtonState round out the North, but Athlon expects both to reach bowl eligibility. Both teams need improvement on defense and must find a quarterback to climb higher in the standings.
Utah has claimed the South Division crown two years in a row, but Athlon is taking USC at the top for 2020. Quarterback Kedon Slovis and the nation’s top receiving corps lead the way for coach Clay Helton’s team. However, the schedule isn’t easy, and the Trojans need more from a defense that has underachieved in recent years. The Utes slide to third in Athlon’s projections, but don’t expect a significant drop off from coach Kyle Whittingham’s squad. Utah’s track record on defense, a strong offensive line and solid skill talent should keep it in the mix to win the South if Jake Bentley or Cameron Rising steps up at quarterback. ArizonaState gets the nod at second over Utah in Athlon’s South predictions. The emergence of quarterback Jayden Daniels is a big reason why, and the Sun Devils should be among the league’s best on defense.
Is this the year UCLA takes a step forward under coach Chip Kelly? Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has shown flashes of potential, but the Bruins still need more help up front along the offensive line and on defense. The 2020 season marks a critical year for Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin after a 9-15 start to his tenure. Quarterback Grant Gunnell is a breakout candidate, but the Wildcats must improve a defense that surrendered 35.8 points a game last fall. New Colorado coach Karl Dorrell has a tough job ahead in 2020. The Buffaloes return two standouts on defense – linebacker Nate Landman and defensive lineman Mustafa Johnson – but averaged only 23.5 points a game last fall and have very little in the way of experience at quarterback.
Pac-12 2020 Predictions
The Ducks are Athlon's pick to win the Pac-12, as coach Mario Cristobal's team can lean on a standout defense, left tackle Penei Sewell and a strong set of running backs until Tyler Shough or Anthony Brown settles in at quarterback. The Week 2 showdown versus Ohio State is a huge measuring stick game for Cristobal's revamped offense. Both Washington and USC come to Eugene in 2020.
The Golden Bears have increased their win total from five to seven to eight under Justin Wilcox. Going up another level requires improvement on an offense that has finished last in the conference in scoring in each of the last two years. If Chase Garbers can stay healthy, the junior has potential to rank among the league's top quarterbacks. Wilcox has brought dramatic improvement to the defense during his three-season tenure, and with eight starters back, this unit ranks among the best in the Pac-12. A home slate featuring Oregon, Utah, Washington, Stanford and UCLA is favorable.
New coach Jimmy Lake is a rising star and a big reason why Washington has not finished lower than third in the Pac-12 in scoring defense in each of the last six years. The Huskies should be among the nation's best on this side of the ball, but question marks surround the offense once again. Jacob Sirmon, Dylan Morris and Ethan Garbers are set to battle to replace Jacob Eason and more playmakers must emerge at wide receiver. Washington also plays five Pac-12 road games, including dates at California, Utah, USC and Oregon.
The 2019 season marked the first time Stanford has won fewer than eight games under David Shaw. A rebound to that mark will be tough to attain, but the Cardinal should be better in 2020. Quarterback Davis Mills is a rising star to team with one of the league's top receiving corps. The return of tackle Walker Little after missing nearly all of 2019 due to injury is a boost up front. Defensive improvement is needed after allowing 29.8 points a game last fall and question marks remain in the front seven. Getting Washington State and Oregon State at home is huge.
5. Oregon State*
The Beavers showed big-time improvement in coach Jonathan Smith's second season at the helm. Taking the next step and getting to a bowl requires a return to full strength by running back Jermar Jefferson, and quarterback Tristan Gebbia to settle into the job. Top receiver Isaiah Hodgins must be replaced and three new starters are set to take over up front. Oregon State's defense was better after struggling mightily in 2018 but more improvement is needed. Hamilcar Rashed leads a talented linebacker group.
6. Washington State*
New coach Nick Rolovich is one of the offseason's top hires, and running back Max Borghi is underrated nationally. No quarterback on the roster has attempted a pass at the FBS level, and big-time improvement is needed from a defense that allowed 31.4 points a game and ranked last in the Pac-12 against the run. Swing games against UCLA, Oregon State and Stanford take place away from Pullman.
Quarterback Kedon Slovis and the nation's top receiving corps put USC in the driver's seat to win the Pac-12 South in 2020. Shoring up the offensive line will remain a concern into the fall, but the Trojans also have to navigate a tough schedule and improve a defense that has underachieved in recent years. A revamped staff should help on that side of the ball, especially with big-time talents like Jay Tufele and Drake Jackson poised to create havoc up front.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2020
2. Arizona State*
After a terrific freshman season, the Sun Devils will place their hopes of winning the Pac-12 South on the right arm of quarterback Jayden Daniels. The sophomore should thrive under new play-caller Zak Hill, but improvement along the offensive line and restocking the receiving corps and backfield remain question marks going into the fall. New co-defensive coordinators Marvin Lewis and Antonio Pierce will shift Arizona State to more 4-3 looks this fall. With seven starters back, this unit should rank among the best in the Pac-12. A key swing game against Utah takes place in Tempe, and Arizona State doesn't have to play Washington in crossover play with the North Division.
Just because Utah returns only nine starters and loses several key members of a team that has won back-to-back South Division titles, don't count out coach Kyle Whittingham's team from making another run at the conference championship. The Utes have to rebuild a defense that allowed only 15 points a game last fall, but Whittingham has a strong track record of success on this side of the ball. The winner of the quarterback battle between Jake Bentley and Cameron Rising has a good supporting cast to utilize, including tight end Brant Kuithe, receiver Britain Covey and four starters back along the offensive line. Utah has to play at California and hosts Washington but misses Oregon in crossover action. Also, the Utes get USC at home and play at Arizona State on Nov. 21 - plenty of time to break in new starters on both sides of the ball.
Chip Kelly is known for high-powered offenses, but UCLA has finished eighth and 11th in scoring within the Pac-12 over the last two years. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has to take a big step forward for the Bruins to get to a bowl, and Kelly has to find the right answers up front and replace 1,000-yard rusher Joshua Kelley. UCLA's defense has finished 11th in the Pac-12 in points allowed for three consecutive years. Concerns remain for 2020 with only three returning starters, and the linebacker group is thin. The Bruins do catch a break in scheduling: They miss Oregon and Washington in crossover play and have five Pac-12 home games.
The 2020 season could be a make-or-break year for Kevin Sumlin. The Wildcats enter this season on a seven-game losing streak and face a difficult schedule featuring crossover games against Oregon and Washington, along with road trips to UCLA, Utah and Oregon State. Quarterback Grant Gunnell is talented, and the offense could thrive provided the line holds up. Arizona's defense has not finished higher than eighth in the Pac-12 in fewest points allowed in each of the last six years. New play-caller Paul Rhoads hopes to change those fortunes, but concerns remain up front and in the secondary.
The Buffaloes are on their third coach in three years after Mel Tucker left for Michigan State. Karl Dorrell previously worked at Colorado as an assistant and went 35-27 as UCLA's head coach from 2003-07. Dorrell has a lengthy to-do list ahead this offseason. The Buffaloes have potential to be solid on defense with seven returning starters, but the offense loses top playmaker Laviska Shenault and uncertainty surrounds the quarterback position. The schedule - at Texas A&M, Oregon, at USC, at Stanford and at Washington - is very unforgiving.
* Indicates team projected to reach bowl eligibility in 2020
Pac-12 Championship Game
Oregon over USC
Pac-12 2020 Projected Top Unit Rankings
PAC-12 2020 SUPERLATIVES AND SEASON PREDICTIONS
Pick by Steven Lassan: Kedon Slovis, QB, USC
Pick by Braden Gall: Jayden Daniels, QB, Arizona State
Pick by Mark Ross: Kedon Slovis, QB, USC
Pick by Steven Lassan: Kayvon Thibodeaux, DL, Oregon
Pick by Braden Gall: Kayvon Thibodeaux, DL, Oregon
Pick by Mark Ross: Hamilcar Rashed, LB, Oregon State
Coach of the Year
Pick by Steven Lassan: Mario Cristobal, Oregon
Pick by Braden Gall: Kyle Whittingham, Utah
Pick by Mark Ross: Jimmy Lake, Washington
Coach on the Hot Seat
Pick by Steven Lassan: Clay Helton, USC
Pick by Braden Gall: Chip Kelly, UCLA
Pick by Mark Ross: Clay Helton, USC
Pick by Steven Lassan: Clark Phillips III, DB, Utah
Pick by Braden Gall: Justin Flowe, LB, Oregon
Pick by Mark Ross: Justin Flowe, LB, Oregon
Pick by Steven Lassan: Jake Bentley, QB, Utah
Pick by Braden Gall: Jake Bentley, QB, Utah
Pick by Mark Ross: Jake Bentley, QB, Utah
Pick by Steven Lassan: California
Pick by Braden Gall: California
Pick by Mark Ross: Washington
Key Position to Watch
Pick by Steven Lassan: Oregon/USC OL
Pick by Braden Gall: USC OL
Pick by Mark Ross: Oregon QB
Best Coordinator Hire
Pick by Steven Lassan: Joe Moorhead, OC, Oregon
Pick by Braden Gall: Joe Moorhead, OC, Oregon
Pick by Mark Ross: Joe Moorhead, OC, Oregon
Hardest Team to Evaluate
Pick by Steven Lassan: Washington
Pick by Braden Gall: Washington
Pick by Mark Ross: Colorado
Coach on the Rise
Pick by Steven Lassan: Andy Avalos, DC, Oregon
Pick by Braden Gall: Justin Wilcox, HC, California
Pick by Mark Ross: Jonathan Smith, HC, Oregon State
Pick by Steven Lassan: Ohio State at Oregon
Pick by Braden Gall: Ohio State at Oregon
Pick by Mark Ross: USC at Oregon
Pick by Steven Lassan: Grant Gunnell, QB, Arizona
Pick by Braden Gall: Hamilcar Rashed, LB, Oregon State
Pick by Mark Ross: Austin Jones, RB, Stanford
Pick by Steven Lassan: Walker Little, OT, Stanford
Pick by Braden Gall: Walker Little, OT, Stanford
Pick by Mark Ross: Walker Little, OT, Stanford