The Oregon Ducks won the Pac-12 in 2019. They had a dream-like season, just missing the college football playoff and beating the Wisconsin Badgers in the Rose Bowl. With a significant amount of seniors leaving, it is fair to ask if the Ducks will be able to repeat their success?
The national media seems to think the Ducks will be able to defend their seat at the head of the conference, given the relative weakness of the other teams. But just how far ahead of the field are the Ducks?
The Pac-12 North is the superior division on the West coast. With Oregon and Washington representing the only two CFB Playoff berths for the conference thus far, and Stanford representing the majority of the Pac-12 championships not claimed by Oregon and Washington (and the much better overall depth of the North), it is easy to see why the North is almost always favored to win the conference.
But Oregon stands atop the North.
Stanford had an abysmal 2019, followed by an even worse off-season during which a player seemed to transfer every few days. The Cardinal has not been a historically great team, but David Shaw built on his predecessors’ successes and built Stanford in to a perennial contender. Perhaps the well of talent has dried up for the once great program, or maybe they are just in a temporary lull. Either way, Stanford is in no condition to compete in the conference right now.
Washington is almost there. They have the second-most four and five-star recruits on their roster of any team in the conference, but they do not gel as a unit. A bunch of players doing well individually does not make a great football team, and Washington proves that every week.
California has probably the best case to beat Oregon in 2020. They return a decent offense, with a talented QB, a defense that can be relied on to hold most teams under their scoring average, and a coach in Justin Wilcox who has proven capable of coaching up one of the less talented rosters in the conference. But after another middle-of-the-road recruiting class (39th overall), Cal is just falling too far behind in talent to hang with the upper tier of the conference.
Oregon State is similar to Cal, but not as far through its rebuild. Jonathan Smith may be the premier offensive play-caller in the conference, but his struggles on the recruiting trail will forever hold back the Beavers. Continued improvement may bring better recruiting, but as of now the Beavers have one of the least talented rosters in the Power 5.
Washington State is always a threat with the air raid; however, as the Ducks get better and better in the secondary, a gimmicky offense will become less and less effective. While the Cougars attempt to break in a new head coach, the Ducks should do nothing but pull away from a team with little to no top tier talent.
The Pac-12 South is too close to call every year. Will USC and their bevy of 4 and 5 stars overcome their sloppy coaching, will Kyle Whittingham get the ultra consistent Utah defense to prop up its offense enough? No one ever knows.
USC, for all of their talent, just cannot seem to put it together. In the same way that Washington has superior talent but inferior coaching, the Trojans constantly find themselves as the top dog in the preseason polls, but third in their own division because they simply can’t play together as a team. With declining results on the recruiting trail, along with the expected firing of Clay Helton at the end of the year, USC is on the verge of irrelevance.
Utah is one of the teams that could elevate the Pac-12 out of mediocrity, if only the Utes could come up big when it counted most. A sort of West coast Wisconsin, Utah often finds itself at the precipice of greatness without all the highly-rated prospects of other contenders. But much like the Badgers, the Utes often lose the biggest games of the year, preventing them from reaching the CFB Playoff. With a poor showing in the conference championship, as well as a lackluster bowl performance and a bevy of talent graduating from the program, the Utes are likely entering something of a rebuild.
UCLA is far from greatness. With subpar recruiting despite their prime location, the Bruins are one of the worst run programs in the FBS. Without any real superstar players, and with a coach who refuses to run the offense that led to his success, UCLA is completely irrelevant on the national stage. Their main draw is a head coach, and Chip Kelly seems to be well past his glory days.
Colorado seems to be in a perpetual rebuild. They often have some of the best players in the conference, but without consistent coaching their teams rarely develop in to anything other than teams that could have been good.
Arizona is a team that is always touted as “one year away,” but that year never arrives. The arrival of Kevin Sumlin brought plenty of hope, but few results. The Wildcats are slated to be bad once again, and probably in search of a new head coach at the end of the season.
Arizona State is the rising program of the Pac-12. With a talented QB, a bunch of young skill position players, and recruiting that should put them on the national stage before too long, ASU is what Arizona strives to be. While probably only a year away from contending, the Sun Devils are still slated to be one of the best teams in the South.
Oregon is recruiting at an extremely high level, winning at an equally high level and bringing in coach after coach that seems poised to take the program over the top. All the Ducks have to do is not get upset, and they will be the West Coast Clemson: a team in a conference of has-beens and wannabes that transcends the field.
Top Photo Credit: Kevin Cline
Natalie Liebhaber, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in the financial technology industry in Bozeman, Montana.
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