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Pac-12 Football 2021 Predictions

Jayden Daniels, Arizona State Football

Jayden Daniels, Arizona State Football

The Pac-12 won’t lack for intrigue in the 2021 college football season. On paper, the conference may not have a dominant team or a playoff contender. However, as indicated by the 2021 Pac-12 predictions, the league has wide-open races in both divisions and a strong case could be made for a couple of teams as the overall favorite.

Oregon edged Washington in Athlon’s predictions for the Pac-12 North Division, with California at No. 3. It’s a close call between Stanford, Washington State and Oregon State in the order of finish for the final three spots in the North. Arizona State edged USC and Utah as the team to beat in the South in Athlon’s predictions. An improving UCLA team is predicted fourth, followed by Colorado and Arizona to round out the division.

Pac-12 2021 Predictions

North Division

1. Oregon

Coach Mario Cristobal has Oregon primed to win its third Pac-12 title in a row in 2021. An early trek to Ohio State is a huge barometer test, and while road trips to Utah and Washington aren’t easy, the Ducks return the best all-around roster in the conference.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Trust in coordinator Joe Moorhead. The Ducks have one of the top play-callers in college football, and even with an unsettled quarterback situation, the offense should be prolific. CJ Verdell and Travis Dye form a potent one-two punch at running back, all five starters are back up front, and there’s plenty of talent at receiver.

Concern: Anthony Brown is favored to win the quarterback battle, and the Boston College transfer played well in limited time last year. He will be tested right away with a trip to Ohio State in Week 2. The Ducks lost the most turnovers (16) of any team in the Pac-12 last year.

True Freshman to Watch: WR Troy Franklin/Dont’e Thornton

Incoming Transfers: None

Breakout Player: WR Devon Williams

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Veteran play-caller Tim DeRuyter is one of the top assistant hires of the offseason after Andy Avalos left Eugene to be the head coach at Boise State. Oregon’s defense was hit hard by opt outs at the start of 2020, but seven starters are back for ’21 and this should be one of the top defensive units in the Pac-12. End Kayvon Thibodeaux is a first-team All-American, and linebackers Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell are rising stars.

Concern: How much will the Ducks improve in one offseason after allowing 28.3 points a game – up from 16.5 in 2019? More turnovers are needed (just seven forced last year).

Redshirt Freshman to Watch: LB Justin Flowe

Incoming Transfers: None

Breakout Player: LB Noah Sewell

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

2. Washington

The Huskies are somewhat of a mystery going into coach Jimmy Lake’s first full year as head coach. After a 3-1 stint and a Pac-12 North title last year, Washington possesses one of the league’s better defenses and a favorable schedule. However, question marks remain on offense.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Left tackle Jaxson Kirkland leads a strong offensive line, with Sean McGrew and Richard Newton forming a solid duo at running back. Quarterback Dylan Morris showed promise in the four-game stint in 2020. Tight end Cade Otton is among the best in college football.

Concern: Will Dylan Morris take a step forward under center? Or will touted freshman Sam Huard eventually push for the job? The Huskies need more consistency and big plays at receiver. The sample size was small last year, but Washington’s offense was statistically better than the previous season. This unit needs to continue to progress, however. How much improvement will coordinator John Donovan generate in ’21?

True Freshman to Watch: QB Sam Huard

Incoming Transfers: WR Giles Jackson; WR Ja’Lynn Polk; QB Patrick O’Brien

Breakout Player: RT Victor Curne

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Since 2014, Washington has not finished lower than third in the Pac-12 in scoring defense. Lake and new play-caller Bob Gregory should have another strong group once again thanks to the return of linebackers Ryan Bowman and Edefuan Ulofoshio and cornerback Trent McDuffie.

Concern: The Huskies need to get better versus the run (161.2 ypg allowed). Edge rusher Zion Tupuola-Fetui (seven sacks last year) will be missed after an Achilles tear in spring practice. Sorting out the starting safeties and replacing cornerback Elijah Molden top the list of priorities in the secondary.

Redshirt Freshman to Watch: LB Sav’ell Smalls

Incoming Transfers: DB Brendan Radley-Hiles; LB Jeremiah Martin

Breakout Player: DL Tuli Letuligasenoa

3. California

After back-to-back winning seasons (2019-20), California finished 1-3 last year. Of course, the one-win mark is easily explained by the unusual nature of last season and the limited practice time prevented this team from adapting to a new play-caller on offense. The Golden Bears should rebound in ’21.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Quarterback Chase Garbers has the potential to be one of the top signal-callers in the conference and having a full offseason to work with play-caller Bill Musgrave should help the offense improve in 2021. California brings back four starters up front, an experienced running back unit and the bulk of its receiving corps.

Concern: California has ranked last in the Pac-12 in yards per play in four consecutive seasons. This unit managed only 20.2 points a game last year, gave up 15 sacks, ranked 11th in the conference in third-down offense and struggled to generate big plays. How fast can Musgrave and Garbers get on the same page?

True Freshman to Watch: TE Jermaine Terry

Incoming Transfers: None

Breakout Player: WR Jeremiah Hunter

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Wilcox is one of the Pac-12’s top defensive coaches, and even if there was a slight regression on the stat sheet last year, it’s hard to doubt this defense. Linebackers Cameron Goode and Kuony Deng are two of the best in the conference, and the secondary should be solid once again.

Concern: California is thin along the defensive line and could be vulnerable against the run. More pass rush is needed, and cornerback Cam Bynum won’t be easy to replace.

True Freshman to Watch: DL Akili Calhoun

Incoming Transfers: S Raymond Woodie III

Breakout Player: DL JH Tevis

Order a Copy of Athlon Sports' 2021 College Football National and SEC Preview Editions

4. Stanford

Stanford won at least eight games every season from 2011-18. The Cardinal went 4-8 in ’19 but rebounded to 4-2 in the abbreviated six-game slate last fall. Coach David Shaw’s team has a tough battle ahead to get back to double-digit wins this season with a schedule featuring 12 Power 5 opponents, including Notre Dame in non-conference play and crossover games against the projected top four in the South.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The Cardinal enter 2021 with quarterback uncertainty, but running back Austin Jones is back after running for 550 yards last year, and Michael Wilson headlines a good group of receivers. Three starters form a good foundation up front.

Concern: Will Jack West or Tanner McKee emerge as the clear starter at quarterback? Can the Cardinal find a playmaker at tight end and successfully replace center Drew Dalman?

Redshirt Freshman to Watch: OL Myles Hinton

Incoming Transfers: None

Breakout Player: OL Walter Rouse

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Depth is an issue up front, but end Thomas Booker and tackle Dalyn Wade-Perry is a foundation to lean on. With Ricky Miezan back in the mix from injury, the linebacker unit should improve in 2021. The secondary is a concern but is experienced.

Concern: This unit has regressed in recent years and surrendered 6.6 yards a play and 31.7 points a game last fall. The Cardinal ranked last in the Pac-12 in third-down defense, pass efficiency defense, struggled to get to opposing quarterbacks and gave up 222 rushing yards a game.

True Freshman to Watch: DL Aaron Armitage

Incoming Transfers: None

Breakout Player: LB Ricky Miezan

5. Washington State

The Cougars were one of the teams hit the hardest by the unusual offseason leading up to 2020. New coach Nick Rolovich didn't have time to implement and develop his run-and-shoot scheme, but a normal spring and fall practice should help Washington State get on track in ’21.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Running back Max Borghi is primed for a full season of work after playing in just one contest last year. He’s one of the top all-around backs in the nation. The Cougars return two all-conference candidates at receiver in Travell Harris and Renard Bell. The line should also be among the best in the Pac-12, especially with tackle Abraham Lucas leading the way.

Concern: Will a quarterback emerge? Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano is competing with Jayden de Laura and Cammon Cooper for the starting nod. For this offense to take off, finding an answer here is a must.

JUCO Transfer to Watch: WR CJ Moore

Incoming Transfers: RB Nakia Watson; WR Lincoln Victor; QB Jarrett Guarantano

Breakout Player: WR Travell Harris

Previewing the Defense

Strength: The pieces are in place to improve with seven returning starters, which includes standout linebacker Jahad Woods. The pass defense should improve with better experience in 2021.

Concern: The sample size was small (four games), but Washington State gave up 6.69 yards a snap and 38.5 points a game last year. This group also ranked 11th in the conference in pass efficiency defense and registered only eight sacks.

True Freshman to Watch: P Nick Haberer

Incoming Transfers: CB Kaleb Ford-Dement; CB Chris Jackson; LB Ben Wilson

Breakout Player: CB Jaylen Watson

6. Oregon State

Jonathan Smith is just 9-22 as the head coach at his alma mater, but the three-year mark isn’t a good indicator of program’s development. The Beavers defeated eventual Pac-12 champ Oregon last season and lost all five games by 13 points or less. This team will be a difficult out for the rest of the conference.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Oregon State’s offensive line returns all five starters and should rank as one of the top units in the Pac-12. There’s good experience and potential returning at receiver and tight end.

Concern: Running back Jermar Jefferson leaves big shoes to fill. Can the Beavers get consistent quarterback play from Tristan Gebbia or another option?

True Freshman to Watch: QB Sam Vidlak

Incoming Transfers: RB Deshaun Fenwick; WR Makiya Tongue; OL Heneli Bloomfield; QB Sam Noyer

Breakout Player: OL Joshua Gray

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Avery Roberts, Omar Speights and Andrzej Hughes-Murray are back to form one of the top linebacker units in the Pac-12.

Concern: The Beavers have allowed over six yards a play in four consecutive years and finished eighth or worse in the conference in scoring defense every year since 2013. More takeaways are needed after generating just six, and this unit needs to do a better job of limiting big plays (12 of 40-plus last year). The run defense struggled last season and lost two potential contributors to transfer this offseason.

Redshirt Freshman to Watch: DB Alex Austin

Incoming Transfers: DL Keonte Schad; CB Elijah Jones

Breakout Player: DL Isaac Hodgins

South Division

1. Arizona State

All of the pieces are in place for Herm Edwards’ team to win the Pac-12 in 2021. The Sun Devils return nearly everyone off last year’s squad, including quarterback Jayden Daniels and running backs Rachaad White and Chip Trayanum. A crossover game at Washington is tough, and Arizona State travels to Utah, but USC visits Tempe on Nov. 6.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: This offense is primed for takeoff after leading the Pac-12 in scoring and yards per play last season. Quarterback Jayden Daniels is due for a breakout year, the backfield is among the deepest in college football, and there’s no shortage of intriguing weapons at receiver. The offensive line – an issue the last few years – should take a big step forward with four starters back.

Concern: Not much. Will the young receivers develop as expected? Arizona State can improve its red-zone offense after finishing seventh in the Pac-12 last year.

Redshirt Freshman to Watch: WR LV Bunkley-Shelton

Incoming Transfers: WR Bryan Thompson; TE Geor’quarius Spivey; TE Jalin Conyers; OL Triston Miller

Breakout Player: WR Elijhah Badger

Previewing the Defense

Strength: The Sun Devils paced the Pac-12 in scoring defense and ranked third in yards per play allowed (5.4). With the bulk of the two-deep returning, this unit is among the best in the conference once again. Lineman Jermayne Lole is disruptive, and the secondary features two standout cornerbacks in Jack Jones and Chase Lucas.

Concern: Coordinator Antonio Pierce has a strong defense in place, but this unit needs to get better versus the run (183.2 ypg allowed).

True Freshman to Watch: LB Eric Gentry

Incoming Transfers: LB Xavier Steele; DL Matthew Pola-Mao; DL Travez Moore

Breakout Player: DL Jermayne Lole

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

2. USC

USC returned to the top of the South Division last season but lost to Oregon 31-24 in the conference title game. Coach Clay Helton is under pressure going into 2021, as the Trojans have all of the pieces to contend for the conference championship and a top-10 ranking. Can USC put everything together?

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Kedon Slovis is Athlon’s first-team all-conference quarterback, and the junior won’t be hurting for talent on the outside with one of the top receiving corps in college football at his disposal. Texas transfer Keaontay Ingram is a key addition to help spark the ground game.

Concern: The offensive line. This unit is likely to make-or-break USC’s Pac-12 title hopes. The Trojans have to run the ball more effectively (just 3.2 yards per carry in 2020) and protect Slovis better after giving up 15 sacks in six games.

True Freshman to Watch: WR Michael Jackson III

Incoming Transfers: TE Malcolm Epps; WR Tahj Washington; RB Keaontay Ingram; WR K.D. Nixon

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Breakout Player: WR Drake London

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Talent isn’t an issue here, and USC showed some small signs of progress under new coordinator Todd Orlando last year. Edge rusher Drake Jackson is one of the conference’s top defensive players, and end Korey Foreman was a key addition in the 2021 recruiting class.

Concern: The defense has to do a better job in the red zone and continue to build on last season’s progression. The secondary ranked seventh in the conference in pass efficiency defense in 2020. Depth is an issue at linebacker and up front.

True Freshman to Watch: DL Korey Foreman

Incoming Transfers: DB Chris Thompson; S Xavion Alford; DL Ishmael Sopsher

Breakout Player: DL Tuli Tuipulotu

3. Utah

The Utes are projected third in Athlon’s predictions for the Pac-12 South but little separates Arizona State and USC with the Utes. If quarterback Charlie Brewer provides steady play, don’t be surprised if Utah ends up hoisting the conference title at the end of the year.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer should stabilize the quarterback position. The Utes may not have a defined No. 1 running back, but there’s plenty of depth and options here, including a couple of transfers. Tight end Brant Kuithe is underrated, and receiver Britain Covey is one of the Pac-12’s top all-purpose players. The offensive line should rank among the best in the conference.

Concern: The Utes fortified their receiver depth with a couple of transfer additions, but they have to produce to take some of the pressure off of Covey and Kuithe. Can Brewer deliver as expected? Utah needs to generate more big plays and produce in key situations (third downs and red zone) after struggling last year.

True Freshman to Watch: RB Ricky Parks

Incoming Transfers: QB Charlie Brewer; RB Chris Curry; RB T.J. Pledger; WR Munir McClain; WR Theo Howard; QB Ja’Quinden Jackson

Breakout Player: OL Jaren Kump/Sataoa Laumea

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Despite replacing several key players from its 2019 defense, Utah held teams to 26 points a game and 5.5 yards per play. Look for this unit to take a big step forward on the stat sheet with eight returning starters, including linebacker Devin Lloyd and a group of defensive linemen that ranks among the best in the Pac-12. 

Concern: With Utah’s track record under coach Kyle Whittingham here, it’s hard to doubt this group. There are some concerns about the secondary after giving up five pass plays of 40-plus yards last year. Safety is a mild issue after RJ Hubert reinjured his knee in the spring. 

True Freshman to Watch: LB Ethan Calvert

Incoming Transfers: LB Josh Calvert; DB Brandon McKinney

Breakout Player: CB Clark Phillips III

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021


The Bruins are just 10-21 under Chip Kelly, but a breakthrough season could be coming in 2021. All four losses in ’20 came by six points or less, and the defense showed signs of improvement to go with an offense that averaged 35.4 points a game. The schedule is tough, but a bowl game should be attainable.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson averaged 285.2 total yards a game last season and took a step forward in his overall development. UCLA’s offensive line has been a source of concern in recent years but should be a strength in 2021. Brittain Brown and Michigan transfer Zach Charbonnet are an effective one-two punch at running back.

Concern: Can Thompson-Robinson build on last year’s progress with his best all-around season for the Bruins? Although the Charbonnet-Brown combo is solid, running back Demetric Felton will be missed. UCLA needs more big plays out of the passing game and must be better at not giving the ball away (13 lost turnovers last year).

Redshirt Freshman to Watch: WR Matt Sykes

Incoming Transfers: RB Zach Charbonnet; QB Ethan Garbers; WR Kam Brown

Breakout Player: RB Brittain Brown

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Improvement and 10 returning starters. After allowing 6.7 yards per play and 34.8 points a game in 2020, the Bruins cut those totals to 5.4 a snap and 30.7 a contest. This defense finished second in the Pac-12 versus the run and paced the conference in sacks.

Concern: UCLA still needs more overall improvement out of unit. Also, situational stops – third downs and inside the red zone – have to get better. End Osa Odighizuwa leaves big shoes to fill. The Bruins finished sixth in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense last year.

True Freshman to Watch: DL Quintin Somerville

Incoming Transfers: LB Ale Kaho; DB Cameron Johnson; LB Jordan Genmark Heath; DL Jay Toia

Breakout Player: LB Caleb Johnson

5. Colorado

Colorado surprised in coach Karl Dorrell’s first season by finishing 4-2 and earning a trip to the Alamo Bowl against Texas. The Buffaloes have reason for optimism after exceeding expectations last year, but after giving up 31.5 points a game and scoring 28.5 a contest, big question marks remain going into 2021.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The Buffaloes boast one of the Pac-12’s deepest backfields with Jarek Broussard and Alex Fontenot leading the way. The line is anchored by four returning starters, while Dimitri Stanley, La’Vontae Shenault and Brenden Rice form a solid trio at receiver.

Concern: Quarterback play. With Sam Noyer transferring, Brendon Lewis and Tennessee transfer J.T. Shrout will compete for the job.

Redshirt Freshman to Watch: QB Brendon Lewis

Incoming Transfers: QB J.T. Shrout; OL Max Wray; OL Noah Fenske; TE Blayne Toll

Breakout Player: WR Brenden Rice

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Assuming Nate Landman makes a full recovery from a torn Achilles, Colorado should have one of the better linebacker units in the Pac-12. New coordinator Chris Wilson inherits plenty of experience and in the secondary to improve a group that allowed 31.7 points a game in 2020.

Concern: The Buffaloes need overall improvement here. This group ranked eighth in the Pac-12 versus the run, surrendered over 30 points a game (31.7) and gave up too many big plays.

Recruit to Watch: S Trustin Oliver

Incoming Transfers: LB Jack Lamb; DB Robert Barnes

Breakout Player: CB Christian Gonzalez

Order a Copy of Athlon Sports' 2021 College Football National and SEC Preview Editions

6. Arizona

New coach Jedd Fisch has a major rebuilding project ahead after inheriting a program on a 12-game losing streak. Fisch tapped the transfer portal for instant help, and his background on offense should play well in the Pac-12.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Fisch’s background on offense should instantly boost a group that averaged 17.4 points a game in 2020. The transfer portal provided two potential options to start at quarterback. Arizona has talent at receiver and brings back three starters up front. The backfield should be solid.

Concern: The Wildcats need to find a stable answer at quarterback. How far can Fisch improve this unit in one offseason? Arizona needs better play out of its returning pieces up front. Turnovers (12 lost) were a problem last fall.

Redshirt Freshman to Watch: QB Will Plummer

Incoming Transfers: QB Jordan McCloud; QB Gunner Cruz; RB Drake Anderson

Breakout Player: RB Michael Wiley

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Fisch hit a home run by hiring former Michigan coordinator Don Brown to call the defense. The veteran assistant should bring some improvement to this group right away. There are pieces and talent to build around up front and in the secondary.

Concern: Brown has a lot of work to do. Arizona managed only two sacks in five games, ranked last in the Pac-12 in points allowed, yards per play and rush defense. The linebacker unit is a concern.

Recruit to Watch: DL Alex Navarro-Silva

Incoming Transfers: LB Malik Reed; LB Jerry Roberts; LB Kenny Hebert; CB Isaiah Rutherford; DL Jason Harris; S Gunner Maldonado

Breakout Player: DL Jalen Harris

Pac-12 Championship: Oregon over Arizona State


Offensive POY

Pick by Steven Lassan: Kedon Slovis, QB, USC

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Kedon Slovis, QB, USC

Pick by Mark Ross: Kedon Slovis, QB, USC

Defensive POY

Pick by Steven Lassan: Kayvon Thibodeaux, DL, Oregon

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Kayvon Thibodeaux, DL, Oregon

Pick by Mark Ross: Kayvon Thibodeaux, DL, Oregon

Coach of the Year

Pick by Steven Lassan: Herm Edwards, Arizona State

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Herm Edwards, Arizona State

Pick by Mark Ross: Herm Edwards, Arizona State

Coach on the Hot Seat

Pick by Steven Lassan: Clay Helton, USC

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Clay Helton, USC

Pick by Mark Ross: Clay Helton, USC

Top Freshman

Pick by Steven Lassan: Korey Foreman, DL, USC

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Korey Foreman, DL, USC

Pick by Mark Ross: Korey Foreman, DL, USC

Top Newcomer

Pick by Steven Lassan: Charlie Brewer, QB, Utah

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Charlie Brewer, QB, Utah

Pick by Mark Ross: Charlie Brewer, QB, Utah

Sleeper Team

Pick by Steven Lassan: Utah

Pick by Ben Weinrib: UCLA

Pick by Mark Ross: Utah

Key Position to Watch

Pick by Steven Lassan: USC OL

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Washington QBs

Pick by Mark Ross: USC DBs

Best Coordinator Hire

Pick by Steven Lassan: Tim DeRuyter, DC, Oregon

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Don Brown, DC, Arizona

Pick by Mark Ross: Tim DeRuyter, DC, Oregon

Hardest Team to Evaluate

Pick by Steven Lassan: Washington

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Colorado

Pick by Mark Ross: Arizona

Coach on the Rise

Pick by Steven Lassan: Graham Harrell, OC, USC

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Jonathan Smith, HC, Oregon State

Pick by Mark Ross: Graham Harrell, OC, USC

Must-See Game

Pick by Steven Lassan: Oregon at Washington

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Oregon at Ohio State

Pick by Mark Ross: USC at Arizona State

Breakout Player

Pick by Steven Lassan: Noah Sewell, LB, Oregon

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Noah Sewell, LB, Oregon

Pick by Mark Ross: Jayden Daniels, QB, Arizona State

Comeback Player

Pick by Steven Lassan: Nate Landman, LB, Colorado

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Max Borghi, RB, Washington State

Pick by Mark Ross: Nate Landman, LB, Colorado

Podcast: Pac-12 Preview and Predictions