Editor’s Note – The California game against Washington has been called off due to COVID-19 issues.
The Pac-12 football season is finally beginning this weekend, the last of the major conferences to do so. By starting so late they are leaving little margin for error by not having any bye weeks.
Most of these teams have not played an actual opponent in almost a year. Not only have the rosters changed quite a bit, but it may take a game or two for the players to get back into game form.
But sometimes fans and other coaches not knowing how good an opponent will be provides an element of surprise. With so many new coaches, quarterbacks and players in the Pac-12, there are certain to be some major surprises and disappointments.
Lets start in the Pacific Northwest and work our way south through the Pac-12 North division.
Washington. The Huskies have many new pieces in their program. The biggest is that they have a brand-new coaching staff after Chris Petersen retired at the end of the 2019 season. Petersen was arguably the best coach UW has had since Don James in the early nineties, so a drop off is to be expected. That said, new coach Jimmy Lake will certainly have the element of surprise on his side. Other coaches can scout him from previous coaching stops, but since his staff and his players are different, that might not be the most accurate approach. And since Jacob Eason left the team after the 2019 season, there will be a new quarterback this year. Expect that to be returning player Jacob Sirmon. But since it is a crowded quarterback room with several other talented younger players, also don’t be surprised if the new coaching staff decides to rotate players in and out at that position to see exactly what they have.
Washington State. Similar to UW, the Cougars are breaking in a new coaching staff and an even newer quarterback rotation. Unlike at Washington, the Cougars don’t have any returning quarterbacks. Considering their last three starting quarterbacks went to the NFL, it would not be a surprise to see a drop off as they try to break in a brand-new starter. New head coach Nick Rolovich will have his work cut out for him as he tries to fill the shoes of Mike Leach, who headed for his more natural habitat down south in the SEC.
As we cross the border into Oregon, the next program with promise is the Oregon State Beavers in Corvallis. The Beavers don’t typically compete for conference championships, which leaves them in a perfect position to play the spoiler to some of the bigger programs they are surrounded by. One storyline to watch is that OSU will break in new transfer quarterback Tristan Gebbia, who was a four-star recruit coming out of high school. Expect them to make some waves and potentially surprise some people.
The Oregon Ducks are the runaway favorite to win the division. Think of the Ducks as a loaded squad who is currently ranked in the top 15 nationally by most outlets. Of course they have to replace current NFL quarterback Justin Herbert, but many of the other pieces on the team return. Offensive guru Joe Moorhead is now calling plays as the OC, so don’t expect them to be as good and potentially better than last year. If they don’t take first place it will be a surprise more than anything.
Moving into California, one school that could over-perform this year is the Cal Bears. Unlike some other schools, the Bears return their head coach Justin Wilcox and starting quarterback Chase Garbers. That alone should give them a leg up, and they were not a half bad team last year. Mark them down as a team to watch.
Finally, the Stanford Cardinal have been one of the most consistent Pac-12 North teams over the last decade—up until last year, when they went 4-8. They do return otherwise excellent head coach David Shaw, who took over the program after former coach Jim Harbaugh made the switch to the NFL after several successful seasons in Palo Alto. It will finally be five-star quarterback Davis Mills’ turn to prove himself after patiently waiting his turn. Don’t expect the Cardinal to be as bad as last year, though it remains to be seen whether they can return to the top division spot that they all but had a lock on for a long time.
The safest bet to win the division is the Oregon Ducks, but in 2020 almost anything is possible. Let’s just be thankful that West Coast college football is returning and that everyone can stay safe and healthy enough to finish the season.