NCAA PAC 12 Conference

Pac-12 football predictions: Oregon and USC — maybe Arizona State — the cream of the crop, but Utah could be in the mix


SALT LAKE CITY — The sports news has been depressing lately. Making it even harder to digest, every step forward seems to be accompanied by two steps back.

The NBA is slogging through this arduous process right now. Just as we all thought the National Bubble Association was set for an end of July return in Orlando, Florida — as long as players stay in that Magic Kingdom bubble to minimize coronavirus risk — some players began to challenge the idea of whether the timing is right to come back to the court because of the ongoing pandemic and the widespread push for racial equality and law-enforcement reform.

College football certainly isn’t immune to this, either.

That was evident Friday. Three days before the University of Utah and other Pac-12 schools begin to welcome student-athletes back to campus for voluntary workouts, it was announced that six student-athletes at the University of Houston were diagnosed with the coronavirus after returning to campus to prepare for next season.

Just like that, Houston suspended its voluntary workout program. It should be noted that UH did not test student-athletes before they returned to school for workouts earlier this month. In contrast, the Pac-12 will require every person involved in its schools’ workouts to follow best-practice recommendations in terms of testing, contact tracing, monitoring, social distancing, hygiene measures, food service, quarantine and education when that begins Monday.

It doesn’t take too much stretching of the imagination to wonder if more incidents like the one in Houston will throw a wrench in the return of actual college sports this fall and, worse, if more people involved with college sports will contract the coronavirus.

For some reason, those six paragraphs seemed necessary before proceeding with the actual topic of this column. That’s kinda depressing by itself. Even though there are so many uncertainties right now and it can feel presumptive and a bit foolhardy to simply focus on football, it is fun to set the heavy stuff aside and look forward to the college season by checking out predictions for the (hopefully) upcoming 2020 season.

Beats watching cable news for a few minutes, that’s for sure.

One of the first things that jumped out at me as I read the annual Athlon Sports prediction article is that the Pac-12 has a good chunk of quality quarterbacks, which so often seems to be the case. Justin Herbert and Tyler Huntley are gone, but there’s no shortage of potential stars to shine in their absence. Leading the way: USC sophomore Kedon Slovis, the 2019 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. His receiving corps is enough to make any defensive coordinator breathe extra heavy into his mask, too — and that’s even after talented redshirt freshman Kyle Ford reportedly tore his ACL this week.

Stanford (Davis Mills), UCLA (Dorian Thompson-Robinson), Cal (Chase Garbers), Arizona State (Jayden Daniels) and Arizona (Grant Gunnell) all return their quarterbacks, seemingly giving them an initial edge over teams that have some questions surrounding their QB position like Utah, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington, Washington State and Colorado.

Despite its huge loss behind center, Oregon appears to be in the best shape of that group to pick up where it left off — winning the Pac-12. Interestingly, Athlon says it’s Ducks coach Mario Cristobal’s defense that makes them a favorite to be in position for a run at the College Football Playoff. (Another side note of interest: former St. George prep star Penei Sewell, Oregon’s left tackle via Desert Hills High, is considered to be the best player in the Pac-12 this season.)

The Utes should have a nice player at quarterback between South Carolina grad transfer Jake Bentley and the enticing Cameron Rising, but the massive turnover on defense — six to the NFL, nine starters gone — and the loss of all-time-leading rusher Zack Moss have convinced the Athlon prognosticators that the Utes will be in good-but-not-great territory this season.

Utah has been picked to have the fourth-best wide receiver unit (welcome back, Britain Covey!), the third-best offensive line (four returning starters), the No. 4 defensive line (even without the Big Three) and the No. 3 overall team in the South Division after its two-year reign on top.

Other Utes mentioned in the Athlon article: Kyle Whittingham (Coach of the Year), defensive back Clark Phillips III (Top Freshman) and Bentley (unanimous Top Newcomer).

Thanks to the return of their top-tier QBs, USC and Arizona State are projected to duke it out for a chance to face Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game. UCLA, Arizona and Colorado are picked in that order at the bottom of the South, while the North is predicted to finish: 1. Oregon; 2. California (yes, you’re reading that right); 3. Washington (the magazine likes the Jimmy Lake coach hire); 4. Stanford (defense needs help); 5. Oregon State; and 6. Washington State (Mike Leach’s clever quotes apparently aren’t the only things that will be missing in Pullman).

A quick look at 247Sports.com’s predictions reveals about the same expectations for the Pac-12 this fall, with a couple of wrinkles. For one thing, they have Utah winning nine games and finishing second behind Arizona State, not USC, in the South. Why the Sun Devils? The “atmosphere of success” built by Herm Edwards, that’s why. USC’s Clay Helton isn’t to be trusted, if you ask the website’s national reporter Brandon Marcello.

Coaching is also why 247Sports.com is higher on the Utes than some might be: “Something tells me Utah will not drop off as much as many believe because, again, of a veteran coach Kyle Whittingham’s system and culture is embedded in the Utes’ DNA.”

UCLA, Arizona and Colorado also round out the bottom half of their South predictions, while the North should play out as such: 1. Oregon; 2. Cal; 3. Washington; 4. Washington State; 5. Stanford; 6. Oregon State.

And they’re so high on the Ducks, they’re predicting the Pac-12 will have its first CFP participant since 2016.

The best stat from these articles?

The 247Sports.com predictions have had 332 comments in two days. Turns out, I’m not the only one who’d rather talk about college football than the coronavirus.

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