The race to win the Pac-12 title in the 2021 college football season features a handful of teams atop the early power rankings, as Oregon and Washington lead the way in the North, while USC, Arizona State and Utah headline the contenders in the South Division. There's a good chance all five of those teams make the top 25 projection for 2021. UCLA is a sleeper team to watch in the South, while California, Stanford, Oregon State and Washington State are locked into a tight battle for No. 3 spot in the North. Colorado hopes to continue trending up with Karl Dorrell as head coach, while Arizona looks to start the rebuilding process under first-year coach Jedd Fisch.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2021 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Pac-12 for 2021:
Early Pac-12 Football Predictions for 2021
The Ducks have their sights set on a third straight Pac-12 title in 2021. The first priority for coach Mario Cristobal and coordinator Joe Moorhead is to sort out a quarterback battle set to feature Anthony Brown, Tyler Shough, Jay Butterfield and touted freshman Ty Thompson. Whoever wins the job will work with an offensive line that returns at least four starters, a backfield that brings back its top three options and talented receiving options like Devon Williams, Mycah Pittman and Kris Hutson. The defense will have a new coordinator after Andy Avalos took the top job at Boise State. Whoever takes over the play-calling duties has a few voids to fill up front and in the secondary, but this unit returns Kayvon Thibodeaux up front, along with rising star linebackers Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell. An early road trip to Ohio State is a good test for Cristobal’s team, while matchups against UCLA, Stanford, Utah and Washington take place on the road.
So far, so good for Jimmy Lake after the first-year coach guided Washington to the Pac-12 North title in the abbreviated 2020 season. With Oregon and Arizona State coming to Seattle, along with no crossover matchups against Utah or USC, the Huskies have a favorable path to the division crown. But in order to repeat, Lake needs quarterback Dylan Morris to continue his progression under center and develop more big-play weapons on the outside. The strength of the offense rests in the trenches. Washington’s defense has ranked inside of the top three in the Pac-12 in fewest yards per play allowed in six consecutive years. Don’t expect that streak to end in 2021. Defensive backs Keith Taylor and Elijah Molden will be missed, but the Huskies recruit and develop well enough on the back end to keep the pass defense near the top of the conference.
The Cardinal finished the unusual 2020 season on a high note by closing with four consecutive wins, including a 31-26 victory over Washington in Seattle. Coach David Shaw has some retooling to do in order for Stanford to challenge Oregon and Washington in the North. With quarterback Davis Mills moving on to the NFL, Jack West and Tanner McKee are likely to battle for the starting job. Additionally, leading receiver Simi Fehoko and two standout linemen Foster Sarell and Drew Dalman also declared. The cupboard isn’t completely bare at receiver, and Austin Jones (550 yards) should rank as one of the Pac-12’s top running backs. The Cardinal return the bulk of their two-deep on defense but have to improve defensively after allowing 6.6 yards per play and 31.7 points a game last season.
The Golden Bears entered 2020 with question marks about their offense after averaging just 21.2 points a game in ’19. The shortened ’20 season didn’t provide much insight into any improvement, as Cal averaged 20.3 points a contest and only 4.5 yards per play. Quarterback Chase Garbers is back next fall, and running back Marcel Dancy will use the additional year of eligibility to power the ground game. Coordinator Bill Musgrave has work to do in restocking the trenches and developing playmakers for Garbers on the outside. California’s defense has been a strength under coach Justin Wilcox and held teams to 5.7 yards a play in four games last fall. This unit should lead the way for the Golden Bears in 2021, especially after linebackers Cameron Goode and Kuony Deng and safety Elijah Hicks decided to return one more season.
5. Oregon State
Jonathan Smith has his alma mater trending up going into 2021, but the Beavers are facing a tough slate that includes crossover games against the projected top three teams in the South, along with road treks to California and Washington State. Tristan Gebbia and Chance Nolan are back to compete for the starting job under center, and the passing game has to take on a larger role in the offense with running back Jermar Jefferson off to the NFL. The arrival of transfer Deshaun Fenwick adds competition to the backfield, and the offense received a boost with center Nathan Eldridge, guard Nous Keobounnam and receiver Trevon Bradford opting to return in ’21. The Beavers also need more out of a defense that allowed 6.5 yards a snap and 33.3 points a game last year. The bulk of the starting unit returns, but linebacker Hamilcar Rashed and cornerbacks Isaiah Dunn and Nahshon Wright are off to the NFL.
6. Washington State
A full offseason should be a huge boost for coach Nick Rolovich in 2021. While the Cougars rank sixth in this division, they will be a dangerous team each week in Pac-12 play. Quarterback Jayden de Laura is a rising star, and the backfield got a boost with Max Borghi passing on the NFL. Washington State has plenty of capable pass catchers, but the line will need some retooling if left tackle Abraham Lucas doesn’t return. Also, the defense is a work in progress after giving up 38.5 points a game in 2020. The schedule isn’t kind with crossover matchups versus USC, Utah and Arizona State.
The Trojans should be the pre-spring favorite to win the South in 2021, but coach Clay Helton’s team has to do a better job of protecting quarterback Kedon Slovis, which is an even bigger concern with left tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker off to the NFL. Even with Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown departing, Slovis won’t lack for skill talent on the outside, as Drake London, Bru McCoy and Gary Bryant Jr. headline one of the nation’s top receiving corps for 2021. USC’s defense improved under first-year coordinator Todd Orlando, but this unit is set to lose cornerback Olijah Griffin, safety Talanoa Hufanga and lineman Marlon Tuipulotu. Edge rusher Drake Jackson (5.5 TFL) should be one of the Pac-12’s top defenders in 2021. The Trojans have a road test at Notre Dame in October, won’t play Oregon or Washington in crossover play and Utah visits the Coliseum for a key divisional game.
2. Arizona State
The pieces are in place for Herm Edwards to push the Sun Devils into contention for the Pac-12 South title in 2021. Behind new play-caller Zak Hill, Arizona State led the Pac-12 in scoring (40.3 ppg) in ’20, with the bulk of that production set to return in the form of quarterback Jayden Daniels, running backs Rachaad White and Chip Trayanum and young receivers LV Bunkley-Shelton and Johnny Wilson. The offensive line should be deeper and improved next fall. The Sun Devils also paced the South Division in scoring defense (23.3 ppg) and most of this unit is back for ’21. Edwards’ team misses Oregon in crossover play, and USC comes to Tempe. However, road dates at UCLA, Utah and Washington loom next season.
The Utes check in at No. 3 in the South, but coach Kyle Whittingham’s team will push for the division title. The addition of transfers Charlie Brewer (Baylor) and Ja’Quinden Jackson (Texas) adds competition to the quarterback room, while T.J. Pledger (Oklahoma) and Chris Curry (LSU) will push for carries at running back. The winner of the quarterback battle can work behind an experienced offensive line, along with a receiving corps featuring tight Brant Kuithe and receiver Britain Covey. Utah’s defense consistently ranks near the top of the conference under Whittingham, and there’s a lot to like about the 2021 version, including linebacker Devin Lloyd, cornerback Clark Phillips III and end Mika Tafua. The schedule breaks a little in the Utes’ favor with Arizona State and Oregon visiting Salt Lake City. However, road trips to USC and BYU are on tap next fall.
Chip Kelly finally seems to have the Bruins trending in the right direction. In the abbreviated 2020 season, UCLA lost four games – but every defeat came by six points or less. While Kelly is known for offense, the defense took a big step forward last year by limiting opponents to 5.4 yards a snap after allowing 6.7 in ’19. This unit returns largely intact, but lineman Osa Odighizuwa is a big loss in the trenches. UCLA’s offense finished second in the Pac-12 by averaging 35.4 points a game and could be even better in ’21. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is back, with the line and receiving corps returning mostly intact. The biggest loss is at running back with Demetric Felton off to the NFL. The Bruins have to play at Utah, Washington and USC, while also hosting Oregon, LSU and Arizona State in a difficult slate.
The Buffaloes were the Pac-12’s top surprise under new coach Karl Dorrell in 2020. Finishing in the top three of the South Division once again will hinge on navigating a difficult schedule – Texas A&M and Minnesota in non-conference play, crossover games against Oregon and Washington, and road trips to Utah, UCLA, California and Arizona State. Freshman quarterback Brendon Lewis showed promise in the Alamo Bowl, and the Buffaloes have one of the Pac-12’s top offensive players returning in running back Jarek Broussard. Most of the line returns intact, but left tackle William Sherman is entering the NFL draft. Standout receiver K.D. Nixon also hit the transfer portal. A new play-caller will take over a defense that gave up 31.7 points a game in 2020 but also has pieces to work with, including linebackers Carson Wells and Nate Landman and cornerback Mekhi Blackmon.
New coach Jedd Fisch inherits an Arizona team that enters 2021 on a 12-game losing streak. The Wildcats are headed for a complete program reboot, especially after finishing last in the Pac-12 in scoring offense and defense last year. Will Plummer and Kevin Doyle are slated to compete for the starting quarterback job after Grant Gunnell transferred. The cupboard isn’t completely bare for Fisch to utilize on offense, as the Wildcats bring back a good foundation up front and at the skill positions. Arizona’s defense has been an issue in recent years and not has finished higher than eighth in the conference in fewest points allowed per game from 2014-20. Hiring veteran Don Brown as the team’s new play-caller brings instant credibility and optimism for improvement in ’21.