Skip to main content

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?