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Duck Dive: Pac-12 North 2021 Updates and Predictions

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Going deep with personnel changes and projecting every Pac-12 game

Pac-12 Championship - Stanford v USC

The first article in this series was published in early May, and since then each team has had personnel changes and competitions settled in Fall camp. This article will update all the teams in the Pac-12 North, along with predictions for every game and my projected order of finish in the division. Yesterday’s article updated the South.


Pac 12 Championship - Oregon v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Oregon

July 19th preview

The Ducks’ preview was the final one I published and so there have been no additions or departures since then, just ongoing Fall camp battles, a few injuries, and a couple of suspensions. I have a long list of players who were absent in some practices, but in my experience this coaching staff is both more apt to rest a player with a minor injury and less clear about any injury or absence’s significance than most (which is saying something), so I’ll limit what I note here to what we have concrete information about.

On offense, Oregon looks to be losing #81 TE Herbert for a while, though with four other 4-stars in the room plus the unlikely comeback of super senior #84 TE McCormick that shouldn’t affect production much. Three of the 4-star true freshmen offensive linemen seem like they’re dealing with injuries, specifically #51 OT Miller, #76 OT Suamataia, and #72 OT Walden, but I wasn’t expecting them to see the field this year except possibly in deep garbage time.

Defensively, the big story is the suspension of likely starters #0 CB James and #19 DB Hill, on possibly the stupidest charges I’ve heard in over a decade. Oregon is deep in talent and bodies at these positions but light on experience, so watching their replacements’ performance in the opener will be my top priority. There are a couple other hits to linebacker depth in #42 ILB LaDuke and #9 OLB Navarette, but they didn’t see the field much as true freshmen last year and the Ducks are deep at these positions so I don’t think this’ll have much impact.

EDIT: This afternoon it was announced that James and Hill have been reinstated but will not play in the opener against Fresno St.

Prediction: 10-2, 8-1. I have Ohio St penciled in as a loss just like everyone else, and simply because no team has ever run the table in Pac-12 history, the Ducks will drop some game in a dumb fashion. Oregon should be favored in every game they play except the one in Columbus, it’s simply the most talented, deep, and balanced roster, and has the sharpest coordinators of any Pac-12 team, and missing USC and ASU out of the South is quite a gift.


NCAA Football: Oregon at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Washington

June 21st preview

After Spring it looked like a clear pecking order for UW’s quarterbacks, with returning starter #9 QB Morris cemented, Colorado St grad transfer #10 QB O’Brien backing him up, and true freshman 5-star #7 QB Huard redshirting. But last week reports emerged that O’Brien’s throwing arm is injured, and if he’s unavailable then Huard’s timetable may be moved up if something happens to Morris. The other potentially missing piece on the offense is #16 WR McMillan, who appears to be out for surgery on his hand. UW’s receiver corps was already depleted and reliant on unknowns after the mass exit this offseason.

I’ve heard some rumors that returning starter #68 LG Ale, who I thought was the weakest link in last year’s line, may be replaced by one of the younger 4-stars coming up in this system. That would go against my cultural expectations of this program, but I’ll be watching out for it in their opener.

On the defense the most significant developments since publication have been with the inside linebackers, a position that was already thin due to years of poor recruiting and development by DC Gregory. Will Latu and Miki Ah You are no longer with the program, #40 ILB Tuputala has an undisclosed injury that put him on a scooter, and #15 ILB Heimuli was held out of practice last week with a brace on his knee. I count three different walk-ons in UW’s ILB rotation at this point.

Prediction: 9-3 / 8-4, 6-3. This is the only team I’m going to hedge my bets on, and it’s just because I haven’t done the film study on Michigan I need to predict what should be a very close game (UW’s linebacker news makes me think the Wolverines could run all over them, but I don’t know if they’re bright enough to do that). So nine wins with a victory in Ann Arbor, eight if a loss. I’m not particularly high on this team - I think the roster is talented but shockingly out of balance, the departures and injuries over the offseason have been troubling, and the coordinator picks have been underwhelming. However, the schedule is a breeze, missing USC and Utah from the South (my top two teams of that division), and getting Cal, UCLA, Oregon, and ASU at home. But four of the road trips will be tricky: Oregon St, Stanford, Colorado, and the always parlous Arizona game in the desert (on a Friday, the week before going to the Farm!). I think they’ll split those four and also lose to Oregon at home.


COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 05 Oregon at Cal Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

California

May 3rd preview

The Bears took a late quarterback transfer, #9 QB Glover from UPenn, and recent camp reports indicate he’s shot ahead of the rest of the backups to be the second-stringer behind #7 QB Garbers. It’s been five years since a starting Cal QB played a full season, so it’s important to keep an eye on the backup situation, and I’m not real wild about this one. When we talked to Rob I noted the peculiarity of Cal not having a fullback on the roster in OC Musgrave’s offense, but they’ve remedied that with a transfer from San Jose St, #44 FB Tagaloa.

But I think the changes this summer have been net negative, because of the big loss of longtime center Michael Saffell to medical retirement. Last year’s backup center, #60 C Driscoll, got quite a few reps and I thought looked fine (indeed all the backups did), though as I’ve noted I think the fact that there wasn’t much of a dropoff when the starters were out could be read in two ways.

Cal got a couple of defensive transfers, #46 OLB Bimage from Texas, and #93 DL Bequette has transferred back to Cal after spending some time at Boston College. But again I think the news here is net negative, as #90 DL B. Johnson will miss the season with an injury suffered in a car accident. Johnson was by far their best d-lineman and when he couldn’t play last year (or was exhausted from being overplayed) Cal’s defense quickly deteriorated.

Prediction: 8-4, 5-4. HC Wilcox always wins the non-con game against a Power-5 opponent and TCU has been a weird team lately so Cal will start 3-0 out of conference. I think, despite some of the problems noted above and in my preview, this is a solidly coached team that’ll simply do what it’s supposed to: beat the teams it’s better than and lose to the teams against which it has talent disadvantages. So I have the Bears losing to UW, Oregon, USC, and just one dumb game, let’s say UCLA at the end of the year in the Rose Bowl.


Oregon v Oregon State Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Oregon State

June 14th preview

The quarterback contest is still ongoing in Corvallis, and it’s complicated by injuries to last year’s starter #3 QB Gebbia and promising freshman #17 QB Gulbranson. As of the last practice report, last year’s backup #10 QB Nolan and Colorado transfer #6 QB Noyer were trading reps, and #12 LB Colletto was getting plenty of wildcats carries as he has frequently in recent years. True freshman #7 QB Vidlak, who was arguably the star of the Spring game, only appeared sparingly in recent practices.

The only other curiosity to the offense is that both starting tight ends, #84 TE Quitoriano and #88 TE Musgrave, have been held out of practice lately with injuries, and that’s opened the door for a true-freshman walk-on, #89 TE Caufield, to get significant first-team reps.

On defense, the departures of both Jordan Whittley and Evan Bennett at nose tackle still look like they’re going to be significant, as in practices we’ve seen walk-on #97 DT Skelton at the position, and they’ve converted a backup o-lineman to a d-lineman, 347 lbs #76 DT Sio. In the past when OSU hasn’t been able to anchor their 3-4 defense with good play in the middle, it breaks down the rest of the structure.

Prediction: 5-7, 3-6. I’m more of a believer in HC Smith than most because I really appreciate his playcalling and roster management, but this offseason I didn’t see the bold improvements through the transfer portal that I was expecting to, and if anything I think the loss of their nose tackles makes it a net negative for the defense. I think that’s going to cost them a trip to a bowl game in heart-breaking fashion. I believe they’ll split Purdue and Hawaii in the non-con (the weirdest and therefore most likely scenario is beating Purdue on the road and losing to Hawaii at home). The Pac-12 schedule did the Beavs no favors, as they miss two very beatable opponents in Arizona and UCLA, while having to face other possibly beatable opponents like Cal and Colorado on the road. I think this team will continue their painful streak of close losses due to ongoing defensive struggles.


NCAA Football: Stanford at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Stanford

June 28th preview

I haven’t heard a peep out of Stanford since publication - no additions, departures, or settled contests. We still don’t have an answer for Stanford’s starting quarterback, between #18 QB McKee and #10 QB West. HC Shaw said on Wednesday, “If we end up playing two guys, we end up playing two guys … If there’s no separation, we’ll continue the competition into the season.”

There also isn’t an answer to the mystery of whether #19 DL Pakola is on the team or not - since entering then withdrawing from the portal in Spring, he hasn’t appeared on the official roster or practice reports, but those are not often comprehensive. The defensive line is pretty thin as it is and I’ll be curious how this plays out when we finally see them on the field.

Prediction: 4-8, 3-6. I don’t think the wheels are going to fall off this team, in fact I think they never will with HC Shaw in charge, but this schedule is ridiculous. They have three Power-5 non-conference games, only one of which (Notre Dame, the toughest) is at home, and while I have them penciled in as beating Vanderbilt I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a 9 am PT kickoff and they pull a Northwestern 2015. They miss Arizona and Colorado out of the South. I think they’ll beat Wazzu because that team is in trouble and UW because they always do, and one other that comes out of nowhere, but it’s going to be a painful slog and they might start the season 0-6.


NCAA Football: Washington State at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Washington State

May 31st preview

The Cougars’ quarterback competition between returning starter #4 QB de Laura and Tennessee transfer #18 QB Guarantano is apparently still ongoing. I’ll stick with my prediction that de Laura wins since he’s a better fit for and has more experience in this system, but the last 365 days have been so rocky for both of them that nothing would surprise me.

The most significant offseason development for the Cougs otherwise is that super senior #9 WR Bell tore his ACL and will be unavailable. He was their leading receiver in terms of catches last year, and the third and fourth leading receivers have departed as well. They still have #1 WR Harris, who along with Bell got the vast majority of all targets last year, and there are 14 other scholarship receivers in the room, but the run & shoot demands chemistry between QB and WRs and it seemed like de Laura really only had a connection with Bell and Harris last year.

Scholarship running back Cole Dubots is no longer listed on the roster, but there are five backs in the room including two very experienced returners and a transfer so I don’t think that’s too significant.

There were two departures from the linebacker group, longtime rotational player Dillon Sherman is no longer listed on the roster (Jeff speculated back in May that he might retire from football), and true freshman Lolani Langi has transferred out. I don’t think this has much immediate effect since I expected their longtime starters to finish out their sixth years playing almost every snap, but it means even less depth at the position and possible problems going forward … several writers have speculated that a walk-on, #52 LB K. Thornton, is the next man in.

About a week after publication, #1 DB Hill transferred in from Buffalo, and according to practice reports he’s shot up the depth chart. I’m not a big believer in the talent of Wazzu’s secondary and I’m taking this as evidence of such.

Prediction: 3-9, 1-8. I have the Cougs beating the Viks and splitting Utah St and BYU - I don’t expect those teams to be very good but Wazzu might be no better than a mid-tier Mountain West team this year. They get Arizona at home and I think that’ll be a win, or else they’ll have some other typical black magic win out of nowhere as they usually do.