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Pac-12 Football: Spring 2021 Power Rankings and Storylines to Watch

Kedon Slovis, USC Trojans Football

Kedon Slovis, USC Trojans Football

Spring practice for the 2021 college football season is just around the corner for most teams and that includes the 12 programs in the Pac-12. Arizona State and California have already kicked off offseason workouts, but the rest of the league will begin official practices in the next couple of weeks. It’s always difficult to read too much into what happens during spring practice, but this is the first step for programs sorting out the roster, depth chart and position battles for the upcoming year.

With spring practice underway or set to start soon, it’s time for an early power ranking of all 12 Pac-12 teams, along with a preview of the biggest offensive and defensive question marks for 2021.

Pac-12 Spring Power Rankings and Storylines to Watch in 2021

1. Oregon

2020 Record: 4-3 (4-2 Pac-12)

Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 8

Key Spring Question (Offense): All of the pieces are in place for a dynamic offense, but a big question mark remains under center. Can true freshman Ty Thompson push Anthony Brown for the starting nod?

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Oregon

Key Spring Question (Defense): New coordinator Tim DeRuyter inherits a strong base of personnel, but the Ducks have room to improve after giving up 28.3 points a game last season and need to replace a couple of key cogs, including safety Nick Pickett, cornerback Deommodore Lenoir and tackle Jordon Scott.

2. USC

2020 Record: 5-1 (5-1 Pac-12)

Returning Starters: Offense: 7, Defense: 6

Key Spring Question (Offense): Offensive Line. The Trojans have one of the nation’s top quarterbacks (Kedon Slovis) and a standout group of receivers. But none of that will matter unless the line play is better in 2021.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: USC

Key Spring Question (Defense): Can USC build off the slight improvement this unit showed in Todd Orlando’s debut as coordinator? A handful of key contributors – safety Talanoa Hufanga, tackle Marlon Tuipulotu and cornerback Olaijah Griffin – are gone, however.

3. Arizona State

2020 Record: 2-2 (2-2 Pac-12)

Returning Starters: Offense: 7, Defense: 8

Key Spring Question (Offense): Jayden Daniels is poised for a big season, the Sun Devils are loaded at running back, and the offensive line is ready to take a step forward. The question marks about this group are minor, but coordinator Zak Hill needs to get Daniels and his young receivers on the same page this spring.

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Key Spring Question (Defense): Similar to the offense, it’s hard to find many questions here. Arizona State brings back its main contributors from 2020 but it needs to get tougher against the run and better at getting to the quarterback.

Related: College Football's Top 20 QBs on the Rise for 2021

4. Washington

2020 Record: 3-1 (3-1 Pac-12)

Returning Starters: Offense: 7, Defense: 8

Key Spring Question (Offense): Will the offense take a step forward in coordinator John Donovan’s second year? Quarterback Dylan Morris showed promise, but the Huskies also need more playmakers to emerge on the outside.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Washington

Key Spring Question (Defense): Not much. The Huskies bring back the bulk of their 2020 defense that held teams to just 25 points a game. There’s plenty of depth and talent in the secondary, but cornerback Elijah Molden will be missed.

5. Utah

2020 Record: 3-2 (3-2 Pac-12)

Returning Starters: Offense: 10, Defense: 8

Key Spring Question (Offense): The Utes need to sort out their quarterback battle and develop a pecking order at running back. Transfers Charlie Brewer and Ja’Quinden Jackson will compete with Cameron Rising at quarterback, while T.J. Pledger and Chris Curry arrive in Salt Lake City to push for carries at running back.

NCAAF Top 25 Rankings: Utah

Key Spring Question (Defense): As expected under coach Kyle Whittingham, Utah should have one of the better defenses in the Pac-12. There aren’t a ton of glaring concerns about this group going into 2021, but the Utes can get better across the board after giving up 5.5 yards a snap last year.

Related: 35 Key Super Seniors Returning in 2021

6. UCLA

2020 Record: 3-4 (3-4 Pac-12)

Returning Starters: Offense: 9, Defense: 10

Key Spring Question (Offense): The Bruins are trending in the right direction on this side of the ball and should build off last year’s improvement (26.7 ppg in 2019 to 35.4 in ’20) with nearly everyone back in ’21. Coach Chip Kelly’s team could use a few more big plays on the outside, but the biggest question mark going into the fall  surrounds which running back steps up to replace Demetric Felton.

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Key Spring Question (Defense): Can UCLA build off last year’s improvement? The Bruins allowed 6.7 yards a snap in 2019 but cut that total to 5.4 in ’20. Replacing lineman Osa Odighizuwa in the trenches won’t be easy.

7. California

2020 Record: 1-3 (1-3 Pac-12)

Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 6

Key Spring Question (Offense): The unusual offseason prevented new coordinator Bill Musgrave from a full set of practices to build his offense and develop quarterback Chase Garbers. That should change this spring with a full allotment of work ahead. Additionally, finding more playmakers on the outside would be a huge plus for this offense.

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Key Spring Question (Defense): Few question marks hang over the defense going into 2021. Replacing end Zeandae Johnson and cornerback Camryn Bynum are the top priorities to watch in spring.

8. Colorado

2020 Record: 4-2 (3-1 Pac-12)

Returning Starters: Offense: 6, Defense: 6

Key Spring Question (Offense): The Buffaloes should boast a strong ground game again with Jarek Broussard and four starters back up front. With Sam Noyer sidelined this spring due to injury, freshman Brendon Lewis will get a chance to make an impression in the quarterback battle.

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Key Spring Question (Defense): What tweaks are in store under new coordinator Chris Wilson? The Buffaloes allowed 6.1 yards per play last season, so there’s room to improve with six returning starters in 2021.

Related: Complete 2021 Pac-12 Schedule Analysis

9. Stanford

2020 Record: 4-2 (4-2 Pac-12)

Returning Starters: Offense: 6, Defense: 8

Key Spring Question (Offense): Leading receiver Simi Fehoko and two starters are gone up front, but the biggest spring question mark for coach David Shaw’s team rests under center. Jack West and Tanner McKee are set to battle to replace Davis Mills at quarterback this offseason.

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Key Spring Question (Defense): Improvement at every level. Stanford gave up over 200 rushing yards a game, ranked last in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense and gave up too many big plays in 2020. Linebacker Curtis Robinson, safety Malik Antoine and lineman Thomas Schaffer are the top personnel losses going into ’21.

10. Washington State

2020 Record: 1-3 (1-3 Pac-12)

Returning Starters: Offense: 9, Defense: 7

Key Spring Question (Offense): How big of a leap will the Cougars make in coach Nick Rolovich’s second year? The skill talent and experience up front provide optimism, but Washington State needs Jayden de Laura or Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano to develop at quarterback and take the offense to the next level.

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Key Spring Question (Defense): Considering the unusual offseason for a first-year coach and the limited sample size (four games), it’s hard to read a ton into Washington State’s defensive numbers last season. However, the Cougars allowed 38.5 points a game last fall and struggled in 2019 on this side of the ball. This spring is all about development and finding the right mix in the lineup to generate improvement at every level in ’21.

11. Oregon State

2020 Record: 2-5 (2-5 Pac-12)

Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 7

Key Spring Question (Offense): Two questions loom large for the Beavers this offseason. Will Tristan Gebbia or Chance Nolan claim a clear hold on the starting quarterback job in offseason workouts? And who steps up to replace Jermar Jefferson at running back?

College football rankings: Oregon State

Key Spring Question (Defense): Oregon State surrendered over 200 rushing yards a game and ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 in yards per play and points allowed in 2020. A majority of last year’s depth chart is back in ’21, but cornerback Nahshon Wright and linebacker Hamilcar Rashed will be missed.

12. Arizona

2020 Record: 0-5 (0-5 Pac-12)

Returning Starters: Offense: 5, Defense: 9

Key Spring Question (Offense): New coach Jedd Fisch’s background on offense will be put to the test right away after Arizona averaged only 17.4 points a game in 2020. All levels of the offense need to improve but finding consistent and steady play from a quarterback would be a boost to this group in ’21.

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Key Spring Question (Defense): Everything. The Wildcats allowed a whopping 39.8 points a game and 6.74 yards per play last fall. Also, they only generated two sacks. New coordinator Don Brown is a good hire, but it will take some time to turn things around. 

Podcast: Super Seniors, Pac-12 Schedule Released and What Can be Learned from Spring Practice