The next college football season will feature a number of clear-cut division races, but the Pac-12 North contains a considerable degree of mystery. There are a few teams obviously favored to win, but the specific favorite isn’t overwhelmingly obvious. To put it slightly differently, there are a lot of very realistic scenarios in which three different teams could win the division. There is enough uncertainty throughout the division to indicate that this race could go in several different directions.
Odds To Win National Championship: +4600
The Ducks had several players opt out of the 2020 season due to the pandemic. They were likely to go pro this year, but they were still within the program. Therefore, they had not technically been “lost,” but now they are, with each player — safety Jevon Holland, tackle Penei Sewell, safety-linebacker hybrid Brady Breeze, and cornerback Thomas Graham — having officially moved to the NFL.
In addition to those four opt-outs who did not play in 2020, among the other Ducks who played in 2020 and went pro as well was cornerback Deommodore Lenoir. Meanwhile, 2020 quarterback Tyler Shough – who had been on the board for the Heisman Trophy odds – left the program and transferred to Texas Tech. Veteran Anthony Brown is likely to be the Week 1 starter, though a lot of people who follow the program are high on Ty Thompson, a freshman.
Oregon has a lot of pieces in place on this roster. The receivers, the linebackers, the defensive line – they’re all in very good shape. Oregon is expected to field a very strong defense, and the skill players on the edges are also very fast and talented. However, quarterback is a huge question. This team’s QB play was not up to par last year and the Ducks need to make big strides at that position in order for everything to come together. The good news for Oregon: No one else in the conference might be good enough to take advantage of the Ducks’ vulnerabilities.
Odds To Win National Championship: +9000
The Huskies have had a bad offseason. Defensive lineman Zion Tupuola-Fetui, who was going to be Washington’s best returning defensive player, got injured and is expected to miss the vast majority of the regular season. He could return in time for the end of the season, maybe the last one or two games, but not likely much more than that. That’s a crushing loss for a team which needed its defense to stand tall and be the anchor of the larger roster. Cornerback Elijah Molden and defensive end Levi Onwuzurike both went to the NFL, so Tupuola-Fetui’s absence for the first few months of the season is going to stand out that much more.
Washington’s quarterback last season was Dylan Morris. He occasionally showed signs that he can be a good leader for this offense. He led a dramatic late comeback victory against Utah, but he generally struggled most of the year. He needs to elevate his game and give the Huskies a potent threat in the downfield passing game if this team is going to come anywhere close to fulfilling its potential. A skeptical view is warranted for Washington in 2021.
California Golden Bears
Odds To Win National Championship: +25000
The California Golden Bears might be the ultimate mystery team in this division. The 2020 season was viewed as the year in which the Golden Bears had to make their move. They had a lot of veteran players and a roster mixture which gave them a legitimate hope of winning their first Pac-12 North title. When they stumbled and failed, it seemed the dream was lost … but then something happened: The pandemic gave players an extra year of eligibility on top of what they already had. Every player, even seniors, had the chance to return to the team for one more extra season of college football. Cal’s players generally chose that extra year of eligibility instead of heading off to the NFL. Now 2021 still feels like a year in which California can make a run at the title.
The problem in all of this is that the Golden Bears’ offense really struggled last year under first-year offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. The players need to learn Musgrave’s system and implement it effectively.
The Bears return a lot of starters, but they do lose cornerback Camryn Bynum and defensive end Zeandae Johnson. The other really big changes came on the coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter went to rival Oregon and assistant Marcel Yates did the same. Oregon defensive back coach Keith Heyward came to Cal to coach the outside linebackers. Peter Sirmon is the new defensive coordinator. Geep Chryst is the new tight ends coach.
The various coaching changes are fascinating because Oregon and Cal took coaches from each other. However, DeRuyter was a highly regarded defensive coordinator. His loss is a net minus for the Bears. Cal could still put the pieces together, but there are lots of reasons to doubt this team.
Odds To Win National Championship: +30000
The main loss for Stanford is quarterback Davis Mills, who improved as the season went along and became a top-70 pick in the recent NFL Draft. Head coach David Shaw will have to replace Mills and get a passing attack which can complement the Cardinal’s normally solid running game. Stanford can grind out yards but will need to find the vertical strike down the field if this season is going to be a success.
Oregon State Beavers
The Beavers lose their meal-ticket running back, Jermar Jefferson, and receiver Kolby Taylor. Their offense doesn’t have a ton of depth, so the Beavers stand on fragile ground. The program has not assembled lots of reinforcement under head coach Jonathan Smith.
Cornerback Nahshon Wright, a top-100 pick in the recent NFL Draft, is a key loss on offense. Oregon State is not at a point where it can reload each year. The Beavers face an uphill battle in 2021.
Washington State Cougars
Odds To Win National Championship: +50000
The Cougars have a problem at safety. Tyrese Ross and Ayden Hector entered the transfer portal. The defensive backfield is a glaring point of weakness for this program.
The other really big concern is at quarterback. Jayden de Laura was suspended for spring practice after a DUI incident. The starting job is up for grabs, and coach Nick Rolovich needs to find a convincing answer that builds trust within the locker room and in the offensive huddle.