On the heels of last season's late start due to COVID-19, which limited four of its teams to just four games, the Pac-12 enters the 2021 season sorely lacking on-field momentum compared to its Power Five peers. The conference last sent a team to the College Football Playoff after the 2016 regular season and had just one team in the final AP Top 25 of the 2020 season in USC, which finished at No. 21.
But as the 2021 season approaches, there is fresh hope for a conference that appears to have more parity than any other league in the country. With five teams in the Preseason AP Top 25, the Pac-12 is deep with potential though perhaps a bit short on elite power.
At No. 11, Oregon is the league's top-ranked team, and the Ducks will be tested early at Ohio State in Week 2. Likewise, Washington plays at Michigan the same day. Those matchups coming after Week 1 contests such as Stanford vs. Kansas State, Oregon State at Purdue and UCLA vs. LSU. Collectively, those major early matchups should give us an idea of how the Pac-12 stacks up with the rest of the country as the conference heads into league play. Once conference play begins, all bets are off as USC and Oregon look to cement themselves as powers once again while plenty of quality contenders give chase in both divisions.
Our CBS Sports college football experts have provided their picks and predictions for the Pac-12 ahead of the 2021 season.
Most overrated team
Arizona State: Is anybody actually paying attention to Arizona State this offseason? There's currently an investigation into the team's recruiting and practice habits during the pandemic, and it's not difficult to see that impacting the performance on the field. Plus, while Herm Edwards has exceeded the expectations most had for him, those expectations were low. This is still an Arizona State team yet to win more than eight games in a season under Edwards. It is 11-11 in the Pac-12 under him overall. That doesn't scream "top 25 team" to me. -- Tom Fornelli (also Dennis Dodd, Chip Patterson, Barrett Sallee, David Cobb)
Utah: Betting against the Utes feels ... awkward. They're a reliable program under coach Kyle Whittingham, if nothing else, and made back-to-back conference title game appearances not that long ago. But this team is tied with Arizona State for second in the preseason Pac-12 poll, and I have some questions. Is Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer the type of guy who can really elevate this team, or is he too reliant on a good defense? Will the Utes navigate through some nasty road games? Will they knock off Oregon at home? I wonder what this team's ceiling really is in 2021. -- Ben Kercheval
Stanford: When David Shaw took over for Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, he got off to a great start; the Cardinal won four division titles in his first five seasons. However, they have one only one since, and that came back in 2017. They went from the team to beat to just pretty good. That is until 2019 when the bottom fell out with Stanford finishing 4-8 and last in the division. The Cardinal bounced back to 4-2 in 2020, but for this season, just making a bowl game will be a success. That is not the standard we are used to seeing from Stanford. -- Jerry Palm
Most underrated team
UCLA: The Bruins' average of 455 yards per game in 2020 marked a high of the Chip Kelly era, and their 410 yards allowed also marked a new best, even with all games coming against conference opposition. Nearly every key player is back from that team, which suffered its four losses by a combined 15 points. The Bruins have a tough schedule but will be a serious threat to upset one or more teams from the group of LSU, Washington, Oregon, Utah and USC. -- Cobb (also Fornelli, Kercheval)
Utah: An influx of transfer talent, including starting quarterback Charlie Brewer, will help the Utah offense look more like it has at it's best under the leadership of Andy Ludwig. Meanwhile, a defense that was a little bit green in some spots will have another year of experience after the disjointed season that was 2020 in the Pac-12. I think many see Utah as the dark horse pick to win the Pac-12 with USC being the clear-cut favorites, but I'm siding with the Utes to finish the season ahead of Trojans in the Pac-12 South. Speaking of ... [skip to bottom of story] -- Patterson (also Palm)
Washington: If not for COVID-19, we might be talking about UW as defending Pac-12 champions. It was only four games, but Jimmy Lake was impressive as a rookie coach. There's a lot of talent here, but the season will be decided by trips to Michigan, Stanford and Colorado as well as a home game against Oregon. It will be interesting to watch incumbent Dylan Morris trying to stiff-arm a five-star freshman at quarterback. Lake has established a physical mentality that would make Don James smile -- Dodd
USC: There's no doubt that this is a big year for USC coach Clay Helton, but he'll have plenty to work with in 2021. Quarterback Kedon Slovis will contend for the Heisman Trophy in his third year, his offensive line is set in stone, and Helton's receiving corps is experienced and dynamic. What's more, its four conference road games are against Washington State, Colorado, a dysfunctional Arizona State and California. Not exactly a gauntlet. Not only will USC win the South, but it'll stroll into the Pac-12 Championship Game with an outside shot at making the CFP. -- Sallee
- Dennis Dodd: Oregon will shock the world at Ohio State in Week 2, win the Pac-12 and get the Left (Out) Coast into the playoff for the first time in five years.
- Tom Fornelli: Oregon will go undefeated within the Pac-12 North, winning each game by at least 10 points.
- Chip Patterson: Utah will spoil Oregon's playoff bid. After the Ducks upended the Utes' own playoff chances on conference championship weekend in 2019, Utah will get its revenge with a Pac-12 Championship Game win.
- Barrett Sallee: Helton's backside has to be on fire after sitting on the hot seat for three years. He'll get offit by leading his Trojans to the Pac-12 Championship Game with a spot in the CFP on the line. USC won't get over that hump, but being in the CFP mix will be enough to keep him employed.
- Ben Kercheval: Oregon will start the year with Anthony Brown at quarterback ... but a change will be made to freshman Ty Thompson, who will end the season as QB1.
- David Cobb: UCLA will beat LSU in Week 1.
- Jerry Palm: Oregon will be the only Pac-12 team to finish in the top 15 of the final CFP Rankings, but it will not make the playoff.
Pac-12 predicted order of finish
Oregon: In Year 4, Mario Cristobal has established a choke hold on the Pac-12. The next step is to get the Ducks into the playoff. Oregon returns more than 4,300 yards rushing and 3,200 yards receiving, but the strength of the team might be the defense. The offense hinges on the development of quarterback Anthony Brown. He had 28 starts at Boston College, but the Pac-12 North is a different animal. If Oregon wins at Ohio State, look out. -- Dodd (also Fornelli, Sallee, Kercheval, Palm)
Utah: I'm calling my shot a little bit here because I think Utah's defense will be excellent and Brewer can have the kind of success Tyler Huntley saw in 2019. Getting to the conference championship game may be the toughest part for the Utes, who draw Oregon from the North and face fellow South contenders USC and Arizona State in back-to-back weeks. After three division titles in the last four years, this is the season that Whittingham -- the No. 14 coach in the country in our 2021 rankings -- finally breaks through with Utah's first conference championship as a Pac-12 member. -- Patterson
USC: The path is clear for the Trojans to make the Pac-12 title game as they play five of their nine league games at home and miss both Washington and Oregon out of the North. Among the league's serious contenders, USC has the most-proven quarterback in Slovis, and its defense is underrated. The run game is bound to take a step forward after ranking 11th in the league in yards per attempt last season, and that should make USC a more robust all-around threat as Helton searches for a way off the hot seat. -- Cobb