My predictions for the 2020 Pac-12 football season

California Memorial Stadium
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On Tuesday, the Pac-12 announced its 2020 football schedule. The seven-game, conference-only schedule includes five divisional games and one crossover game before championship week, during which all 12 teams will play. The two division winners will play Dec. 18 in the Pac-12 championship game.

Pac-12 football fans have been awaiting this decision with bated breath for months. Now that football is finally back, here are my (somewhat) bold predictions for how this Pac-12 season will play out.

North Division

1. California

The Justin Wilcox era has well and truly begun in Berkeley. The Bears don’t have anything resembling the high-powered, Air Raid offenses of the Sonny Dykes era or Jared Goff at quarterback. But they do have a solid quarterback in junior Chase Garbers, who is 13-2 when he has played for more than half the game. They also return 10 starters on offense, the most among all Pac-12 teams, and are coming off of an 8-5 season.

And let’s not forget that Wilcox teams seem to thrive under strange conditions. Remember Cal’s win over Washington in Seattle last year? The Bears overcame a 2 1/2-hour severe weather delay to upset the then-No. 14 Huskies. A seven-game, conference-only schedule starting in November could be just what they need to win the North Division.

2. Oregon

OK, Justin Herbert is gone. So is the Ducks’ best offensive lineman, and arguably the best offensive tackle in the nation last season, Penei Sewell, who opted out of the 2020-21 season back in September. But with much of the offense from last season still intact, and an uber-talented defense spearheaded by sophomore defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux and freshman linebacker Justin Flowe — two of the best young defensive players in the nation — there is a good reason behind why the Ducks are expected to successfully defend their Pac-12 crown.

That said, I think that if Garbers plays all 60 minutes in Oregon’s Week 5 matchup, Cal will pull off the upset, steal the North Division title from the heavily favored Ducks and earn a shot at its first Pac-12 championship since 2006.

3. Washington

Expectations are high for the Huskies’ new head coach Jimmy Lake, who worked as the defensive coordinator under former head coach Chris Petersen since 2016. But a first-year coach inheriting a team that finished 4-5 in conference play last season is not usually a recipe for immediate success. An easier division crossover game against Arizona should help Washington finish respectably at No. 3 in the North.

4. Stanford

The Cardinal ended last season’s conference schedule with a loss to Cal in the Big Game and finished the season with an overall record of 4-8, its worst since 2007. Head coach David Shaw, who has won two Rose Bowl titles with Stanford so far, will be on the warm seat (not the hot seat) if he can’t improve on that record this season.

5. Oregon State

I’m inclined to be more optimistic about Oregon State this year. Led by Hamilcar Rashed Jr., who finished the 2019 season first nationally in tackles for loss and third in sacks, the Beavers’ linebacker corps is extremely talented. But I’m afraid OSU’s dearth of talent across the board will hurt it in weeks three through six, when it plays Cal, Oregon, Utah and Stanford.

6. Washington State

It was a sad day for the Pac-12 when former Wazzu head coach Mike Leach took his talents (and antics) down south to be Mississippi State’s new head coach this offseason. Leach’s replacement, Nick Rolovich, will need time to bring the Cougars back up to speed. Oh, and no quarterback on their current roster has thrown a pass in an NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision game.

South Division

1. USC

As a freshman last season, quarterback Kedon Slovis threw for just more than 3,500 yards and scored 30 touchdowns. The dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate enters his second season with the Trojans full of confidence and armed to the teeth with offensive weapons. Wide receivers Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns were both named on the 2020 watchlist for the Biletnikoff Award, which is given annually to the best wide receiver in college football. Four running backs — Vavae Malepeai, Stephen Carr, Markese Stepp and Kenan Christon — shared touches last season, so look for at least one of them to emerge as the go-to guy.

A relatively easy slate of games heading into Week 7 should make for smooth sailing. I expect a loaded USC squad to crush the wide-eyed Bears on Dec. 18 to claim its second Pac-12 title in four years.

2. Arizona State

I must admit, I was tempted to really shake things up and put the Sun Devils in the Pac-12 title game. Head coach Herm Edwards has turned this program around since his introduction in 2017. Year after year, ASU has defied expectations and developed some serious NFL talent. But with star running back Eno Benjamin and wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk gone, dual-threat quarterback Jayden Daniels, who turned heads in his freshman season, will have a more limited set of options this time around.

Losses against USC on the road in Week 1 and Cal the following week mean that the Sun Devils will start the season 0-2. They’ll win the rest, upsetting Utah in Week 4, but it won’t be enough.

3. Utah

Oh, how the mighty will fall. The Utes must replace nine defensive starters and have yet to pick a starting quarterback and running back to replace Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss, respectively. Perhaps I’m being too harsh. In all fairness, under head coach Kyle Whittingham’s guidance, the Utes have not finished a season at or below .500 since 2013. But I believe a lack of veteran experience will lead to losses against Arizona State and USC, as well as a loss against UCLA, Arizona or Oregon State.

4. Arizona

Head coach Kevin Sumlin must be sweating right now, and not just because of the hot Tucson sun. The Wildcats somehow finished last season with a worse record than in 2018, Sumlin’s first season in charge. Their division crossover game, which is on the road against Washington, won’t provide any relief.

5. UCLA

The Bruins’ offense has been atrocious these past two seasons, and I don’t see it getting much better this time around. Also, their defense has finished 11th in the conference in points allowed for three years straight. Dual-threat quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson will have to finally live up to expectations this year in order for head coach Chip Kelly to have any hope of keeping his job.

6. Colorado

Former head coach Mel Tucker’s sudden decision to leave CU for the same job at Michigan State, coupled with star receiver Laviska Shenault Jr.’s departure and uncertainty about who will start at quarterback, means that for the Buffs, this season is all about surviving.

William Cooke covers men’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].