For obvious reasons, this is going to be a unique season, highlighted by diminished home-field advantages and a 7 game, conference only schedule. The first 6 games will be comprised of teams playing their 5 divisional peers and one cross-divisional game. The last weekend is reserved for a zipper format between the divisions in which each North team will play their South division seed equivalent. This means there won’t be as many chances for teams to separate themselves in the conference standings and could end up yielding a hotly contested divisional race until the very end. As a friendly reminder, the divisional race a year ago wasn’t very contested. In 2019, the Ducks were the only Pac-12 North team to finish with a conference record above .500 and captured the division title by 4 games. Anyways, without further adieu, let’s get into it.
Oregon – The Ducks come into this season as the conference’s primary contender to make the College Football Playoff. Oregon loses a handful of key pieces – Justin Herbert, Troy Dye, Jevon Holland, Thomas Graham, their top 6 offensive linemen including the Outland Trophy winner Penei Sewell, and the list could go on. From that angle, it makes a lot of sense to say Oregon will regress in 2020. But the fans in Eugene don’t feel that way at all. Oregon continues recruit at a level they’ve never before seen, and there’s a lot of confidence around the program that Mario Cristobal is steadily marching the Ducks back to national championship contention. One key factor, the addition of Joe Moorhead at OC could unlock a lot of offensive potential. None of that will matter if Oregon is doesn’t find a capable arm at quarterback. That battle is still going on between in-program product Tyler Shough and Boston College transfer Anthony Brown. Arguably the bigger concern is an entirely new offensive line, but if there’s one head coach that should be trusted to get the offensive line right, it’s Mario Cristobal. Ultimately, there just isn’t another team in the division that quite presents the necessary threat for me to pick against the culture of the defending conference champs.
Washington – UW has a lot of adjustments to make heading into this season. Not only is Chris Petersen out, but the Huskies also look to replace the NFL arm of Jacob Eason. That said, Washington has more 4 and 5 star talent than any other program in the conference, narrowly edging out Oregon and USC. Ultimately, this season will be defined by the Huskies ability or inability to figure out the quarterback position. There are a lot of possible arms in the room, each with a varying mix of experience and raw talent. If the Huskies can find their guy, there’s reason to think this team can compete for a conference title. However, if they have inconsistent QB play, paired with a first year head coach, this season could expose some of the same flaws that characterized the Huskies 8-5 campaign in 2019. Those concerns, paired with the loss of defensive leaders DL Levi Onwuzurike and LB Joe Tryon, both of which decided to opt out of this season in favor of NFL draft preparation, are the key factors that prevent me from picking UW to win the North.
Cal – Many have tabbed Cal as the sleeper team in the Pac-12 North. I get it, there’s a lot to like about what Justin Wilcox is putting together in Berkeley. The question is, will all those positive developments in the culture of the Golden Bears translate into wins this season? Cal is still in the bottom half of the conference in terms of where the talent on their rooster was ranked out of high school. The Cal offense hasn’t been gamebreaking under Wilcox, and the defense figures to slip a bit with the loss of FBS leading tackler Evan Weaver. Honestly, I just don’t believe there is enough there to place this program higher than third.
Stanford – The Cardinal are in a strange spot as a program. Stanford finished at the bottom of the division in 2019, something that would’ve seemed unthinkable at times during this programs past decade as perennial contenders in the Pac-12 and a common fixture in the top 10 teams in the country. Some of that magic is eroding at Stanford, as divisional powers like Oregon and Washington have reshaped their programs to match the physical test presented by Stanford. I’m just not convinced the same old Cardinal playbook still works as well as it once did. That said, despite a handful of headscratching departures in the offseason, David Shaw’s roster still has the talent and style of play to beat the teams they are supposed to.
Oregon State – The unfortunate reality for Beavers fans, is that this program exists at a disadvantage in the conference in terms of location and resources. Expectations in Corvallis don’t figure to be national or conference championships any time soon. However, can this program get back to consistently playing in bowl games and finishing in the top half of the conference as it did for most of the first decade of the 2000’s? I believe Jonathan Smith provides reason for optimism. Smith looks to be a good offensive mind and he loves the Oregon State program. Things are trending the right direction and on any given Saturday I believe the Beavers can put up a fight, but I don’t think they’ve put it all together enough to hang in this divisional race tell the end.
Washington State – Frankly, I’m not sure what to think of Wazzu under Nick Rolovich. This program has been defined, in so many ways, by the personality and scheme of their former head coach Mike Leach during his time in Pullman. Rolo had a very successful stint at Hawaii and has his own quarks that should make him a good fit. However, with all of the unpredictability of this season and the very limited offseason, I can’t bring myself to expect too much from these Cougs trying to work in an outside hire while already operating at a talent deficit.
GAMES TO WATCH
11/7 – Washington @ Cal
The Golden Bears have shown a proclivity to pull head scratching upsets on the Huskies in recent years. Will that trend repeat itself? We’ll find out week one in a matchup intended to separate the pretenders from the contenders in this divisional race.
11/14 Cal @ Arizona St
Tempe is always a dangerous place to travel regardless of how many fans are in attendance. Both these programs are trying to climb to Pac-12 prominence, and this early season cross-divisional test will be a great measurement of which up and comer is closest to challenging the traditional powers of the conference. Plus for Cal specifically, this relatively difficult draw from the south presents another barrier to their quest to win the north.
11/27 Oregon @ Oregon St
The Beavers kept it close last season against their in-state foes. If the Ducks are the premier team in this conference, than this will be a good test to see just how close Oregon State is to getting back to where they want to be. On the other side, Oregon needs to be able to put away teams like the Beavers with ease, if they really want to state their case for the playoff.
12/12 Washington @ Oregon
This rivalry game has been
incredibly close and incredibly good for each of the past 2 seasons. Washington has mustered some of their best efforts against the Ducks, but under Cristobal, Oregon has just barely had enough to get it done. Will Washington take back the north or is Oregon going to extend the gap between themselves and the competition. I truly believe there is no better game in the conference than this one. Adding to the significance, with a shortened conference schedule this game could very well send the winner to the conference championship.
COMPLETE PAC-12 PREDICTIONS
Oregon over USC