The Ducks are the early Pac-12 favorite for 2020
Oregon is the reigning Pac-12 champion, and coach Mario Cristobal's team will be the heavy favorite to win the conference once again in 2020. The Ducks lead the early predictions for next season, with Washington and California locked into a tight battle for the No. 2 spot. The next tier is also hard to sort out this early, as very little separates Washington State, Stanford and Oregon State. USC is the early favorite in the South, but Utah and Arizona State aren't too far behind. While Oregon is the projected top team, this conference is wide open and should make for an entertaining season.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2020 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Pac-12 for 2020:
Early Pac-12 Predictions for 2020
The Ducks have to replace quarterback Justin Herbert and four starters on the offensive line, but coach Mario Cristobal’s team is an overwhelming favorite in the Pac-12 for 2020. Cristobal continues to reel in outstanding talent on the recruiting trail and hit another home run this offseason by bringing aboard former Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead as the team’s new offensive coordinator. Moorhead’s first task is to identify a replacement for Herbert, but left tackle Penei Sewell ranks among college football’s top returning players, and there’s a deep stable of backs headlined by CJ Verdell to build the offense around in 2020. While Oregon’s offense has a few holes to fill, that’s not the case on the other side of the ball. The Ducks took a big step forward on defense under new coordinator Andy Avalos in 2019 and return most of this group next fall. Standout linebacker Troy Dye will be missed, but Cristobal added two potential impact freshmen in Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe. Safety Jevon Holland and cornerback Thomas Graham anchor a strong secondary, and Kayvon Thibodeaux is primed for a huge season after finishing 2019 on a high note. The Ducks face off against FCS champion North Dakota State in the opener and play Ohio State in Eugene in Week 2. The conference slate is favorable, as Oregon hosts Washington, USC and Arizona State next fall.
It’s a close call between Washington and California for the No. 2 spot in the very early Pac-12 North picks for 2020. The Huskies are a team in transition next fall, as Jimmy Lake replaces Chris Petersen as the program’s head coach, and there are several question marks surrounding the offense. New play-caller John Donovan is back at the collegiate level after spending the last four seasons in the NFL with the Jaguars. Donovan’s first task is to find a replacement for Jacob Eason and develop more playmakers in the passing game following the departure of tight end Hunter Bryant and receiver Aaron Fuller. Three quarterbacks – Ethan Garbers, Jacob Sirmon and Dylan Morris – will battle to win the starting job this offseason. Additionally, the offense must replace center Nick Harris, tackle Trey Adams and 1,000-yard rusher Salvon Ahmed. With the offense under construction, Lake will lean even more on a standout defense in 2020. The Huskies bring back a strong core next fall, including standout defensive back Elijah Molden, lineman Levi Onwuzurike and linebackers Joe Tryon, Ryan Bowman and Edefuan Ulofoshio. Lake’s first schedule features a home opener against Michigan and road trips to Oregon, Utah, California, USC and Washington State.
As mentioned above, little separates California and Washington in the early predictions. The Golden Bears have increased their win total every season under coach Justin Wilcox. After a 5-7 mark in 2017, the program finished 7-6 in ’18 and 8-5 last year. Another jump in victories would push California into consideration for the top 25, and that’s a goal certainly within reach with most of the two-deep coming back. The strength of Wilcox’s teams have been on the defensive side of the ball. The Golden Bears held teams to just 21.9 points a game in 2019, and while linebacker Evan Weaver and safety Ashtyn Davis leave big shoes to fill, this unit returns enough talent to once again rank near the top of the Pac-12. However, for California to finish in the top 25 or push Oregon for the division title, the offense has to take a significant step forward after finishing last in the conference in scoring in back-to-back years. New coordinator Bill Musgrave inherits some promising pieces to utilize, including quarterback Chase Garbers, running back Christopher Brown and receivers Nikko Remigio and Makai Polk. The offensive line surrendered 46 sacks in 2019 but brings back nearly all of its main contributors. The home schedule sets up for a run nine victories, as California gets TCU, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Stanford and UCLA in Berkeley next season.
4. Washington State
The transition in coaches from Mike Leach and the Air Raid offense to Nick Rolovich and the Run-and-Shoot should be relatively seamless for Washington State in 2020. Rolovich’s first priority will be to find a quarterback to pilot his high-powered offense after the departure of three seniors – Anthony Gordon, Trey Tinsley and Gage Gubrud. Gunner Cruz, Cammon Cooper and incoming freshmen Jayden de Laura are the frontrunners to take the first snap in 2020. Regardless of who starts at quarterback, getting the ball to running back Max Borghi is a good idea. Borghi accounted for 110.4 all-purpose yards a game last season and should be the focal point of this offense. Brandon Arconado, Easop Winston and Dezmon Patmon are gone from the receiving corps, but the cupboard is stocked with options, including Tay Martin, Renard Bell, Jamire Calvin, Travell Harris, Rodrick Fisher and Calvin Jackson. Center Frederick Mauigoa departs the offensive line, but tackle Abraham Lucas is one of the best in the Pac-12. The defense will return largely intact, but this unit took a step back on the stat sheet in 2019. Reloading up front and replacing cornerback Marcus Strong will be among the top priorities in the spring. Rolovich’s first season in Pullman concludes with a tough five-game stretch: Arizona State, at Colorado, at UCLA, Oregon and Washington.
Stanford is coming off the program’s first losing record under coach David Shaw and a handful of players entered the transfer portal following the season. The Cardinal have a ways to go in order to contend for the division title, but Shaw’s team could at least rebound back into a bowl in 2020. Quarterback Davis Mills is promising, and after a year of bad luck and injuries along the offensive line, Stanford should be better up front. The return of standout tackle Walker Little certainly helps that cause next fall. Tight end Colby Parkinson departed for the NFL, but receivers Michael Wilson, Simi Fehoko and Osiris St. Brown are a solid trio on the outside. Stanford’s defense also needs to get back on track after allowing 6.3 yards a play – the highest mark over the last 11 seasons – last year. The transfers of Michael Williams, Bo Peek and Jovan Swann have thinned the depth in the trenches. However, the defense got an unexpected boost when cornerback Paulson Adebo passed on the NFL for another year on the Farm. Kyu Blu Kelly is slated to start opposite of Adebo after a solid freshman season, giving Stanford a solid pair of cornerbacks to match up against the Pac-12’s passing attacks. A non-conference slate that features BYU and Notre Dame doesn’t provide much margin for error to get to a bowl game. However, Stanford doesn’t play Utah or Arizona State in crossover action with the South.
6. Oregon State
While Oregon State ranks No. 6 in our very early power rankings for the Pac-12 North, there’s very little separation after the top three in the division. The Beavers showed marked improvement in coach Jonathan Smith’s second year. After a 2-10 record in 2018, Oregon State improved to 5-7 and 4-5 in Pac-12 play. Smith’s team just missed out on a bowl game with three losses by three points or less. Reaching six wins in 2020 won’t be easy, as the offense has to replace quarterback Jake Luton, receiver Isaiah Hodgins and offensive linemen Blake Brandel (LT) and Gus Lavaka (LG). Former Nebraska signal-caller Tristan Gebbia will compete with JUCO product Chance Nolan for the starting quarterback position. The ground game should be in good shape with Jermar Jefferson back, while Trevon Bradford, Champ Flemings and Tyjon Lindsey headline the top targets at receiver. Improvement on defense was a big reason why Oregon State nearly made a bowl game last season. After giving up 7.4 yards a play in 2018, the Beavers cut that total to 6.05. Linebacker Hamilcar Rashed (22.5 TFL) is back to anchor a defense that doesn’t lose a ton of pieces, providing optimism for another jump in production for 2020. The Pac-12 slate features swing games at home against California, UCLA and Arizona. However, Oregon State catches both Arizona State and Utah in crossover play with the South Division.
A good way for coach Clay Helton and USC to avoid hot seat talk in Los Angeles is to make a run at the Pac-12 title. And with quarterback Kedon Slovis and one of the nation’s top receiving corps in place, the Trojans should be able to reach that goal in 2020. Slovis threw for 3,502 yards and 30 touchdowns as a true freshman last year and already ranks among college football’s top signal-callers for 2020. Receiver Michael Pittman will be missed, but Amon-Ra St. Brown, Tyler Vaughns, Drake London, Kyle Ford and Bru McCoy are back to anchor a deep receiving corps. USC needs more production out of its ground game (3.93 ypc) and better play in the trenches after giving up 28 sacks in 2019. The departure of left tackle Austin Jackson early to the NFL adds to the concerns up front. The Trojans have underachieved on defense, finishing fifth or lower in the Pac-12 in points allowed in each of the last four years. Coordinator Clancy Pendergast was dismissed at the end of the 2019 season, and the new play-caller is set to inherit a defense with plenty of talent. USC only loses two seniors among its top 15 tacklers from 2019, with standouts Jay Tufele and Drake Jackson are back to anchor the trenches. The Trojans open with Alabama in Arlington and play Arizona State (home) and Utah (road) before mid-October. The Nov. 7 date at Oregon could be a preview of the Pac-12 Championship Game, and there’s a Nov. 28 matchup against Notre Dame also on tap.
2. Arizona State
Herm Edwards has Arizona State positioned for a run at the Pac-12 South title in 2020. The Sun Devils finished ’19 on a high note by winning their final three games, including a 20-14 matchup against Florida State in the Sun Bowl. Additionally, of the team’s five losses, four came by 10 points or less. The development of sophomore quarterback Jayden Daniels is a big reason why this team can push for the division title. Daniels threw for 2,943 yards and 17 touchdowns and added 355 yards and three scores on the ground. New play-caller Zak Hill is tasked with helping Daniels elevate his game to the next level, but Arizona State will have a few key question marks to answer. Incoming four-star recruits Daniyel Ngata and DeaMonte Trayanum are likely to replace running back Eno Benjamin, while the receiving corps has to be restocked with Brandon Aiyuk and Kyle Williams out of eligibility. While Benjamin, Aiyuk and Williams are tough to replace, the progression of the offensive line could hold the key to the 2020 season. This unit gave up 33 sacks in 2019 and loses five key seniors from the depth chart. Arizona State’s defense also has a new coordinator (Tony White), but the transition period should be minimal. Cornerback Kobe Williams will be missed, and the line has to retool a bit with Roe Wilkins and George Lea departing. However, there’s a strong foundation for White in place after holding teams to just 22.4 points a game in 2019. A key trip to USC takes place on Sept. 26, while Edwards’ squad also faces a crucial four-game swing (California, at Oregon, Utah and at Arizona) in November.
The Utes have won back-to-back Pac-12 South titles, but coach Kyle Whittingham’s team is losing a ton of talent. An offense that averaged 32.3 points a game in 2019 has to replace first-team All-Pac-12 selections in quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss. Utah has a couple of capable options at running back to replace Moss, and South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley will compete with Texas transfer Cameron Rising for the starting quarterback job. Rising star Brant Kuithe is back at tight end, and four starters return to provide a strong foundation in the trenches. Additionally, receiver Britain Covey is back after taking a redshirt year in 2019. Whittingham and coordinator Morgan Scalley should keep the defense performing at a high level, but there’s no doubt this unit has some rebuilding to do this offseason. Utah led the Pac-12 in scoring defense (15.0 ppg) in 2019 and will have to replace a handful of standouts, including linebacker Francis Bernard, cornerback Jaylon Johnson, safety Julian Blackmon, end Bradlee Anae and tackles John Penisini and Leki Fotu. Linebacker Devin Lloyd and end Mika Tafua are back to anchor the rebuilding effort in Salt Lake City. The season starts with the Holy War matchup against BYU, followed by road trips to Wyoming and California to end the first month of the season. Utah hosts USC, Washington and Arizona but has road games versus UCLA, Arizona State and California slated for 2020.
The Bruins showed some signs of life in coach Chip Kelly’s second year. After a 3-9 mark in 2018, UCLA improved to 4-8 overall and 4-5 in Pac-12 action last season. Can the Bruins take another step forward and get into a bowl in 2020? While UCLA’s offense has room to improve, a winning record is likely to hinge on how much the defense improves. The Bruins surrendered 6.7 yards a play, 18 gains of 40 yards or more and 34.8 points a game last season. The defense returns a good chunk of experience up front and in the secondary, but the linebacker unit has to be rebuilt and standout cornerback Darnay Holmes departed early for the NFL. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson seems primed to take a step forward after accounting for 2,899 total yards and 25 overall scores in 2019. Leading rusher Joshua Kelley (1,060 yards) and tight end Devin Asiasi (44 catches) must be replaced, but Demetric Felton is back as an all-purpose threat, while Kyle Philips (60 catches) returns to lead the receiving corps. UCLA has tricky road trips to Hawaii and San Diego State next season in non-conference play. Kelly’s squad doesn’t have to play Oregon or Washington in crossover action with the North and gets Stanford, Arizona, Utah and USC at home. A bowl game should be the expectation in 2020.
With a 9-15 record through two years in Tucson, the 2020 season is shaping up to be an important one for coach Kevin Sumlin. To push for a bowl trip next season, Arizona must address a defense that has ranked eighth or worse in the Pac-12 in most yards per play allowed for six consecutive years. New coordinator Paul Rhoads spent the last two years as a defensive assistant at UCLA and inherits a defense that isn’t losing much personnel from 2019. Linebacker Colin Schooler (98 tackles) should rank among the Pac-12’s best at his position, but Arizona has to replace standout defensive back Jace Whittaker, get tougher versus the run and cut down on the points allowed (35.8 ppg). The other side of the ball provides more optimism for Sumlin. Grant Gunnell showed promise as a freshman (1,239 yards and 65.2%) last fall, with Gary Brightwell, Nathan Tilford, Bam Smith and Michael Wiley back at running back. The offensive line returns largely intact, and Gunnell loses only one senior among the top 10 pass catchers from 2019. The schedule features a home date against Hawaii and a trip to Texas Tech. Arizona gets Oregon and Washington in crossover play and also has road games at Utah, UCLA and Oregon State.
Mel Tucker had a solid debut in Boulder, guiding the Buffaloes to a 5-7 mark and three wins in Pac-12 action. For Colorado to jump to six (or more) victories next fall, Tucker has to replace a couple of starters up front, standout receivers Laviska Shenault and Tony Brown and break in a new quarterback with Steven Montez out of eligibility. Those are significant personnel losses to address, but provided the next wave of starters emerges up front, there’s a solid group of running backs to build around on offense. The defensive side of the ball also has its share of question marks. Linebacker Davion Taylor, safety Mikial Onu and cornerback Delrick Adams depart from a unit that surrendered 6.5 yards a snap in 2019. However, the news isn’t all bad on defense. Linebacker Nate Landman and defensive lineman Mustafa Johnson are back as returning standouts, and Tucker was able to get a handful of freshmen valuable snaps. Road trips to Texas A&M and Colorado State are on tap in non-conference play, while Colorado catches Oregon, Washington, Stanford and Washington State in crossover play.
Podcast: Early 2020 Predictions and Rankings