1. News in the North
Eight weeks after he won the Pac-12 championship and six weeks after indicating he would return in 2021 “hungrier than ever,” Oregon quarterback Tyler Shough is transferring.
Shough made the announcement Friday, and it’s a surprise in this regard:
Starting quarterbacks with eligibility remaining rarely enter the transfer portal before they lose the job.
Typically, they participate in offseason conditioning, compete in spring practice and then assess the situation.
Or they offer a spirited defense through training camp and then enter the transfer portal.
But a returning starter bailing before the first snap of spring? It doesn’t happen often.
We won’t speculate on the reason for Shough’s decision — perhaps there were personal considerations. And there’s always a chance, albeit unlikely, that he will reverse course and return to Eugene.
For now, let’s assume Shough, who led the conference in passing efficiency, is gone for good.
Given that development, our projection for the North division in 2021 … doesn’t change one iota.
The Hotline picked Washington as the frontrunner a month ago, and Shough’s departure only solidifies our belief in UW as the team to beat.
Granted, the Huskies and Ducks are close enough in strengths, weaknesses and unknowns that they could be mistaken for fraternal twins.
Both teams have veteran offensive lines, quality tailbacks, optimism about the state of their wideouts, and the foundation for a stout defense.
Both have second-year offensive coordinators and first-year defensive coordinators.
Both have trips to Big Ten country on Sept. 11 — the most significant day of a momentous season for the Pac-12 — with the Ducks in Columbus and the Huskies in Ann Arbor.
And both teams will carry an outsized share of the conference’s collective hope for a return to the College Football Playoff.
Is either up to the task?
We continue to favor the Huskies: Their Big Ten challenge is more manageable; they host Oregon; they have more defensive starters returning; and they now have greater stability at the most important position.
Dylan Morris started all four games last fall, looked plenty competent for a rookie and should provide solid production in an offense that will lean on its running game.
Meanwhile, the Ducks will have a new starter, if not a rookie starter, running their offense.
It could be Anthony Brown, the former Boston College transfer who replaced Shough during a rough stretch in the Fiesta Bowl.
It could be inexperienced returnees Jay Butterfield or Robby Ashford.
Or maybe, just maybe, touted recruit Ty Thompson will emerge as the best option, just a few months out of high school.
However it breaks in Eugene, the team up North has the edge.
2. QB or no QB?
If anything, Washington’s advantage relative to the entire division has increased since the 2020 season concluded.
Consider the developments at quarterback.
— Eugene: Shough departs, leaving a yet-to-be-determined, first-time starter as his replacement.
— Stanford: Davis Mills, who would have been the top quarterback in the division, heads for the NFL.
— Pullman: WSU starter Jayden de Laura is arrested for misdemeanor DUI charges and suspended indefinitely.
— Corvallis: OSU starter Tristan Gebbia needs hamstring surgery and has an unknown return date.
— Berkeley: Cal starter Chase Garbers returns after an erratic, abbreviated performance in 2020.
— Seattle: Morris builds on a rookie season in which he completed 61 percent of his passes, was named honorable-mention all-conference and orchestrated UW’s biggest comeback in 30 years (vs. Utah).
With regard to quarterbacks, the Huskies stand as the one-eyed team in the division of the blind, at least at this early stage of the offseason cycle. (We’ll reassess after spring practice.)
But one area gives us pause when evaluating the Huskies against Oregon: the coaching staff.
The Ducks have two first-rate coordinators in Joe Moorhead (offense) and Tim DeRuyter (defense), whereas Washington’s tandem is unproven.
The short season didn’t provide a large enough sample size to properly evaluate John Donovan on the offensive side, while UW’s defensive boss, Bob Gregory, was promoted to his post two weeks ago.
Gregory oversaw the stout Cal defenses of the 2000s — he hired an unproven 20-something named Justin Wilcox to coach the linebackers — but he hasn’t served as a coordinator in more than a decade.
We’ll take a wait-and-see stance on the UW playcallers, but the Huskies possess enough advantages elsewhere to warrant frontrunner status.
3. Portal potential
If we suspend reality for a few paragraphs, it’s easy to identify one of the best teams in the Pac-12:
It resides in the transfer portal.
Enough quality players are transferring that the Hotline was able to compile an all-Portal team.
Admittedly, we’re a tad light on the offensive line, but the players listed below have started or would have been rotation-level contributors for their team.
Please note: Intra-conference transfers are not included (example: quarterback Ethan Garbers, who relocated from Washington to UCLA).
Also, we took some liberties with the timeframe and included players who entered the portal in the fall.
QB: Oregon’s Tyler Shough (new team: TBD)
QB: Arizona’s Grant Gunnell (Memphis)
TB: USC’s Markese Stepp (Nebraska)
TB: Colorado’s Jaren Mangham (USF)
TB: Oregon’s Cyrus Habibi-Likio (Boise State)
WR: Cal’s Makai Polk (Mississippi State)
WR: Washington’s Ty Jones (Fresno State)
WR: Utah’s Bryan Thompson (TBD)
TE: ASU’s Nolan Matthews (SMU)
OL: Arizona’s Robert Congel (Oklahoma)
OL: UCLA’s Jake Burton (Baylor)
DL: Utah’s Pita Tonga (Hawaii)
DL: WSU’s Lamonte McDougle (TBD)
DL: Arizona’s Kylan Wilborn (UNLV)
LB: USC’s Palaie Gaoteote (TBD)
LB: UCLA’s Leni Toailoa (TBD)
LB: Utah’s Sione Lund (TBD)
DB: Colorado’s Derrion Rakestraw (Tulane)
DB: Colorado’s KJ Trujillo (TBD)
DB: WSU’s Tyrese Ross (TBD)
DB: UCLA’s Rayshad Williams (Texas Tech)
DB: UCLA’s Elijah Gates (Fresno State)
P: Utah’s Ben Lennon (TBD)
K: USC”s Chase McGrath (Tennessee)
The Pac-12 is hardly alone in losing myriad starting-caliber players. But we’d argue its rosters, on average, are less equipped to handle the attrition than programs in other Power Five.
That said, the Pac-12 is acquiring enough talent from other conferences to construct an impressive starting lineup.
And that’s exactly what we’ll do, in this space, once the dizzying rate of player movement subsides.
4. Better off (but poorer for it)?
The details of UCLA’s new apparel contract, with Nike’s Jordan Brand, have seeped into the public realm.
Everyone assumed the total value would be a fraction of the $280 million deal that Under Armour terminated last summer, and it is: $46.5 million over six years, according to Sportico.
The Bruins were desperate for a new partner, leaving them with little leverage in the marketplace.
Add the plodding performance of the football and basketball teams in recent years, plus the pandemic, and the negotiating climate couldn’t have been worse.
The deal reportedly will pay $500,000 annually in cash — or $10.5 million less than Under Armour paid the Bruins each year.
Good thing UCLA’s athletic department doesn’t need the cash. Err …
Sarcasm aside, the Bruins were never going to strike a lucrative deal (again: no leverage) and instead focused on the partnership they felt could best help them recruit.
That’s Nike, that’s Jordan Brand, and that’s a reasonable calculation to make.
Without realizing their potential on the recruiting trail, the Bruins won’t win at the level necessary to sell the tickets needed to permanently eliminate their structural debt.
We can’t declare UCLA a winner here, or a loser. Too much nuance is involved, and too little time has elapsed.
So our verdict on the news comes from the Department of Two Things Can Be Equally True:
The Bruins made the best of a bad situation but didn’t get what they’d hoped for.
5. Another one slips away
Significant recruiting news broke Saturday afternoon when Maalik Murphy, the No. 2-rated quarterback in the country according to 247sports, committed to Texas.
The move wasn’t a surprise but nonetheless stands as a blow to the Pac-12:
Murphy’s high school (Serra) is a few miles from USC, his mother works for UCLA, and he held scholarship offers from more than half the programs in the conference.
Here’s an update on the top 10 juniors in the Pac-12 footprint with their national ranking (per 247):
(Committed players in italics.)
No. 3: CB Domani Jackson (Santa Ana, CA): committed to USC
No. 15: WR Tetairoa McMillan (Anaheim): uncommitted
No. 23: TB Gavin Sawchuk (Littleton, CO): uncommitted
No. 25: RB Raleek Brown (Santa Ana): committed to Oklahoma
No. 30: QB Maalik Murphy (Gardena, CA): committed to Texas
No. 39: WR C.J. Williams (Santa Ana): uncommitted
No. 45: OG Earnest Greene (Bellflower, CA): uncommitted
No. 50: DE Cyrus Moss (Las Vegas): uncommitted
No. 52: ATH Larry Turner-Gooden (Playa Del Rey): uncommitted
No. 53: S Zion Branch (Las Vegas): uncommitted
How would we define success for the Pac-12 in the 2021-22 recruiting cycle?
Certainly, the conference needs to sign at least half the top 10 players in its footprint to avoid a ruptured pipeline, while outright victory probably requires signatures from seven or eight of the aforementioned prospects.
The early-signing window is 10 months away, and we’ll avoid the temptation to draw conclusions until the late fall.
But clearly, the start has been a tad suboptimal.