In formulating these projections, the Hotline didn’t merely gaze into our crystal ball.
That would be the lazy approach to prognosticating.
Instead, we smashed open the crystal ball, collected the molecules inside, blasted them together inside a particle accelerator, then put the atomic remnants from those collisions under an electron microscope to tell us exactly where each team will finish in 2020 based on depth chart, coaching staff and schedule.
Also, welcome to the latest installment in our Pac-12 football look-ahead series.
(Links to previously published content on this topic are below.)
We’ll revise the projections, if needed, following spring practice.
1. Oregon: The Ducks need a quarterback, four starters up front and more consistency from their receivers — other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln? — but they should be granite on defense. In the North in 2020, one stellar unit could be enough for the title, so long as the offense doesn’t give games away with turnovers and malfunctions. The arrival of a graduate transfer quarterback would increase our confidence level in this pick.
2. Cal: We considered the Bears as the division frontrunner — think on that for a second — but ultimately decided there are enough holes on defense (with the departures of Evan Weaver and Ashtyn Davis) and enough lingering questions on offense to slot Cal into the No. 2 position. It’s not unreasonable for the Bears to make the leap to first place, but good health for Chase Garbers is essential. They were 7-0 last season when he started and finished.
3. Oregon State: Here begins the muddled middle. Washington, Stanford and WSU were all considered, and our view might change once spring concludes. For now, let’s assume Tristan Gebbia is perfectly serviceable as the replacement for Jake Luton. There’s enough talent and experience at other positions, including the lines of scrimmage and the defensive edge — Hamilcar Rashed is back — for OSU to generate another four or fine conference wins.
4. Washington: The defense should be one of the best in the conference, but everywhere else? Hmmmm. The Huskies have a rookie head coach and a rookie offensive coordinator and a new starting quarterback (TBD) and a retooled offensive line and ever-present uncertainty with their receivers and a brutal conference road schedule. Similar to Oregon in the offense/defense imbalance, but not as good on either unit.
5. Stanford: The Cardinal received good news on the draft front with its top talents, left tackle Walker Little and cornerback Paulson Adebo, opting to return. And the laws of physics (nuclear, Newtonian and quantum) suggest Stanford will be healthier in ’20 than it was in ’19. There’s clarity at quarterback with Davis Mills but not enough playmakers to think the Cardinal can rise above the pack and compete for the division title.
6. Washington State: We liked the Nick Rolovich hire, and the long-haul outlook for the Cougars is as bright as can be reasonably expected. But in the short term, success could be mixed: The Cougars need a quarterback, have holes up front and are missing high-end talent on defense. That said, Rolovich scored more points against UW last season with Hawaii (20) than Mike Leach scored in any of the past seven Apple Cups.
1. USC: The Hotline is on record about Clay Helton: His continued employment relegates the Trojans to cycles of success (six wins one year, then eight, then 10) that belie their blue blood status. But in a single season — with loads of returning starters on both sides of the ball, two capable quarterbacks and an improved defensive coaching staff — the Trojans are more than capable of winning the division. And the conference. #GroundhogClay
2. Arizona State: The clear choice for second place in a division where basic competency sets you on course for a run at the title. Quarterback Jayden Daniels is back for Year Two but will be without prime playmakers Eno Benjamin and Brandon Aiyuk. The offensive line should be solid and the veteran defense reasonably stout. But don’t discount significant staff turnover — in particular, the loss of defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales.
3. UCLA: We searched high and low for reasons to not slot the Bruins into third place. But at this point in the offseason cycle, they’re the best option. All the young players who dominated the depth chart in 2018-19 are now experienced. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is a third-year starter, and the arrival of Brian Norwood as defensive passing game coordinator should produce an uptick in that facet. (It can’t be any worse.)
4. Utah: In this space last winter, we were all in with the Utes as the team to beat in the South. Our deep skepticism for ’20 is based not only on the considerable attrition (Huntley, Moss, Fotu, Anae, Johnson, Blackmon, etc) but also on the potential for a lingering malaise rooted in the collapse in the Pac-12 championship and the Alamo Bowl. Coach Kyle Whittingham has a greater challenge ahead than simply filling holes in the depth chart.
5. Colorado: A team that won just five games, that lost its quarterback, best player, best lineman and head coach, that took a February gut punch — that team is not our choice for last place. The Buffs don’t have enough anywhere to compete for a top-tier finish. But the defense should be serviceable, and if new coach Karl Dorrell squeezes anything out of an offense with a huge hole at quarterback, CU’s backslide will be limited (or perhaps non-existent).
6. Arizona: What is there to like? We can’t find much, other than the changes on the defensive coaching staff. The Hotline’s gloomy outlook for ’19 proved spot-on, and we don’t see reason to expect substantial improvement. Maybe the offense takes a half step forward with quarterback Grant Gunnell. Maybe the defense becomes mediocre. Even so, the Wildcats are more than modest improvement away from competing for the division.