1. Oregon Ducks
Oregon will have to move on from Justin Herbert and won’t have too much time to figure things out, with back-to-back early season games against North Dakota State and Ohio State. They’ll also have holes to plug on their offensive line, with every player not named left tackle Penei Sewell gone. The good news for the Ducks is that their defense will be absolutely loaded, anchored by defensive backs Jevon Holland and Thomas Graham Jr.. Defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux is also a star in the making. If either Tyler Shough or Boston College transfer Anthony Brown can take over the quarterback spot and provide stability, Oregon should be the early favorites in the North Division.
2. USC Trojans
No, no, this shouldn’t be another season of the great USC hype. If it is, head coach Clay Helton may be looking for a new job next fall. The Trojans will have to hold off Arizona State for the top spot in the South and have a few massive tests on their slate between Alabama, Oregon, Notre Dame and the Sun Devils. However, USC has one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-12 in rising sophomore Kedon Slovis back in tow and a likeable receiving group anchored by Amon-Ra St. Brown. Their defense needs to be a season more developed with a bulk of their production returning and in general, USC absolutely has to start feeling the sense of urgency to get this program back on track. Helton simply can’t afford another letdown campaign.
Star quarterback Jayden Daniels could be in for an All-Pac-12 type of season for the Sun Devils, if the revolving door of changes around him doesn’t bring him down. After all, Daniels will be handing the ball off to a new running back, tossing the ball to a new fleet of receivers and even getting the plays from a new offensive coordinator in Zak Hill, which doesn’t usually help to grow consistency. Ironically, consistency is what Arizona State is hoping for in 2020, as last season couldn’t have been more of a roller-coaster ride. At their finest (wins over Oregon, Michigan State, Florida State), the boys from Tempe showed they could play with anyone. At their worst (losses to Colorado, Oregon State, UCLA), they proved there’s still a long way to go.
4. Utah Utes
With the last two South Division regular season titles to their name, it’s hard to say that Utah doesn’t run that side of the Pac-12 until someone dethrones them. After all, the Utes have won the second most games of any Pac-12 team besides Oregon since 2018, despite dropping each of their last two bowl games. However, even in terms of a rapidly changing league, few programs will have more questions to answer than Kyle Whittingham’s does. South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley should outlast sophomore Cameron Rising for the quarterback spot, while Zack Moss’ replacement at running back could be more of a fix by committee. Oh yeah, the Utes also must find pieces across their defensive secondary, where they lose all five starters. There’s tons of new names to know in Salt Lake City.
To the surprise of nobody, Justin Wilcox’s program at California has been anchored by it’s defense over the past two seasons and with eight starters returning on that side of the ball, the Golden Bears need to keep that momentum going. That task may be a bit harder than it seems, considering the three starters they lose include All-American Evan Weaver and safeties Ashytyn Davis and Jaylinn Hawkins. On the offensive side of things, the Golden Bears insert a new offensive coordinator in NFL veteran Bill Musgrave, who will have pieces to build around in quarterback Chase Garbers, running back Christopher Brown Jr. and wide receiver Nikko Remigio. The key for California is piecing it all together and not taking a step backwards.
To say the least, David Shaw’s 2019 did not go as planned. The Cardinal looked strange offensively, as a group that couldn’t run the ball all that well behind a banged-up offensive line and defensively, Stanford was a sinking ship. Shaw couldn’t move on to 2020 soon enough, no matter how strange it’s been up to this point. A new start for Stanford might be exactly what’s needed, as Davis Mills becomes the full-time quarterback and four of the team’s top receiving threats, led by Michael Wilson and Simi Fehoko, will be back in tow. The Cardinal should have one of the country’s most stout offensive lines to aid in Mills’ progress, while defensive end Thomas Booker, linebacker Gabe Reid and cornerback Paulson Adebo anchor the defense.
Chris Petersen’s surprise for-now-retirement at just 55 years old saw Washington hand the keys to the program to defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake, who will try to guide the Huskies back to the Pac-12 pinnacle. Standing in their way is not only a wave of opponents who keeps spots 4-8 in the conference fairly fluid, but a bevy of questions with few-to-none answers. Washington is another program with a change happening at quarterback, as sophomore Jacob Sirmon owns the front-runner (and most experienced) spot with a whopping three career passes. The Huskies have tons of questions to answer across the board, which a crucial spring period could’ve helped with. They didn’t get that time and now Lake will have to make decisions on the fly.
8. UCLA Bruins
Guessing what comes next for Chip Kelly at UCLA is a fool’s errand, as his venture in the City of Angels has been more of a flop than a makeover. Kelly has entrusted his offense to the inconsistent play of quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and the Bruins have been more disjointed than put together by a long stretch of the imagination. It begs the question of what can go right (or more importantly, absolutely wrong) in 2020. Like most teams in the league, UCLA’s defense is painfully thin and returns a group of starters from a dreadful 2019 showing. But the truth of the matter is that for Kelly, whose job status may be in the balance, the growth of his program will always be anchored on the offensive side of things, where Thompson-Robinson has to get this group rolling smoothly.
The Beavers struck relevance for the first time in too long in 2019, as second-year head coach Jonathan Smith guided them to a 5-7 mark, which featured four wins against Pac-12 foes. Oregon State now has to keep the development going and try to leap over the .500 mark for the first time since 2013. With quarterback Jake Luton off to the NFL, Smith will hand the reigns to Nebraska transfer Tristan Gebbia, a likeable yet largely unproven talent, who should be aided in his development by a deep receiving core and a soon-to-be star running back in Jermar Jefferson. It won’t hurt that the Beavers also have one of the top defensive menaces in the league in linebacker Hamilcar Rashed Jr., to try and lead a pedestrian defense.
Move over Mike Leach, Nick Rolovich is the captain now. The former Hawaii head coach and always notable Oregon State fan, Rolovich already showed that he’s nowhere near the curious character that Leach was, but he does bring a high-octane passing offense in the “run-and-shoot” that can produce exceptional offensive scoring games. The early issue for the Cougars is that they have no quarterback who stands out to take Anthony Gordon’s spot and Max Borghi is the only play-maker on offense. Their offensive line should be solid though and their defense does return eight starters, even if they can only improve from last year’s poor display. It’ll be a season of growing pains in Pullman.
11. Arizona Wildcats
If any coach in the Pac-12 should be feeling the heat to make things right heading into 2020, it’s Arizona’s Kevin Sumlin, who needs a helping of good results to take him off the hot-seat. The Wildcats head into a new season with a new gunslinger in tow, as they’ve moved on from the talented, but oft-injured Khalil Tate to Grant Gunnell, a rising sophomore who completed 65.2% of his passes in relief situations a year ago. He’s maybe a better true fit for Sumlin’s offensive system, which will need to carry the load with a lackluster defense stacked up alongside them. The job of fixing that defense, which ranked as worst in the league in 2019, now rests on the shoulders of first-year DC Paul Rhoads.
Like most new head coaches, Karl Dorrell doesn’t inherit much at Colorado and “year zero” with the Buffs could definitely be considered an uphill fight from the get-go. Dorrell’s first test as a head coach will be on the road at rival Colorado State, before hosting Fresno State, traveling to Texas A&M and then meeting Oregon. Nothing like jumping into the deep end. He’ll be doing all this as his program finds a replacement for staple quarterback Steven Montez and excitable receiver Laviska Shenault, both of whom could only help Colorado to an 83rd overall ranking nationally in total offense in 2019. A new coach always bring a great sense of optimism, but you can only play on an emotional ledge for so long.