Better late than never?
The Pac-12 will join the college football season on Nov. 7, with each team aiming to play seven games in seven weeks during the coronavirus pandemic. No. 14 Oregon begins the season as the de facto favorite as the conference's only ranked team, but even more questions than usual remain.
In the wake of the conference's schedule being released, our experts share some thoughts, including first impressions, intriguing matchups and title-game predictions.
Which Pac-12 weekend are you most looking forward to?
Ivan Maisel: In a year when normal has been abnormal, in a season that seemed as if it would never start, what a delight to see that Thanksgiving weekend features three of the Pac-12's most enduring rivalries. The North Division's three geographical mates will play their overwrought, smack-talking, yearlong-bragging-rights games on Thanksgiving Friday. We all could use a day when we get to make a turkey sandwich and watch the Big Game, Oregon-Oregon State and the Apple Cup.
Bill Connelly: I agree with that, and I also love that we get Rivalry Week Part Deux with Oregon-Washington and USC-UCLA two weeks later. I'm really curious about Jimmy Lake's first Washington team and whether the Huskies can hang with Oregon in the North. While we'll likely have our answer by then, this could still be a title-game decider. (I've already gotten to where I talk about things like "mid-December rivalry games to decide division titles" as if they're normal things.)
Kyle Bonagura: Never have I ever been more excited for Arizona vs. Utah. Not that there is anything special about that game in particular, but by the time Nov. 7 gets here, we'll have gone through both September and October without any Pac-12 football. Navigating a pandemic doesn't have a road map, so it doesn't make much sense to get hung up on the different ways each conference operated with regard to the 2020 season. But as I've watched other conferences play, I've missed the Pac-12. That's why the opening weekend, which also will feature Arizona State at USC, Stanford at Oregon, UCLA at Colorado, Washington at Cal and Washington State at Oregon State, is the one I'm looking forward to the most.
Adam Rittenberg: Hard to argue with any of those choices, but my eyes immediately went to the Oregon-Cal game on the first weekend of December. Don't be surprised if this is the toughest division test for the Ducks in their quest to repeat as league champions. Cal has the home field and a returning quarterback, Chase Garbers. The Bears have upset Washington and Washington State in Los Angeles. I also think USC's trip to likely frigid Pullman, Washington, on that Friday could be tricky, and Washington-Stanford usually is a fun, physical game.
What's the most intriguing matchup?
Maisel: In Week 1, we get a matchup of the two best quarterbacks in the league: Kedon Slovis of USC vs. Jayden Daniels of Arizona State. That also brings to light the other matchup I like: the USC Soap Opera and all the expectations that Trojans fans had of head coach Clay Helton before the season was suspended, versus the reality of what the Trojans' season will be now. They dumped two national championship contenders from their schedule (Alabama and Notre Dame), as well as a game at North favorite Oregon. Their crossover opponent is Washington State in the Coliseum. The schedule-makers did USC a solid.
Connelly: If we're being honest, the most interesting matchup is "the Pac-12 vs. whoever's trying to beat its best unbeaten team." It was certainly noticeable that USC (Washington State), Oregon (UCLA), Utah (Oregon State) and Washington (Arizona) didn't get the most dominant of cross-division opponents, though this wasn't an outright SEC level of honest intentions. On the field, though, I'm excited that we get USC-Arizona State right out of the gate. Daniels against Palaie Gaoteote IV, Todd Orlando and a remodeled USC defense will certainly clarify what we're working with in the South division a good amount.
Bonagura: It's hard to have any sort of worthwhile expectations heading into this bizarre season. Without spring practice, without traditional training camps, with governmental practice restrictions and opt-outs across the board, there are too many unique variables to feel good about anything. Oregon is -- was? -- the favorite, so I'm interested to see how the Ducks look against Stanford in Week 1, but even more so against Washington State the following week as the Cougars open up the Nick Rolovich era.
Rittenberg: Jimmy Lake absolutely owned Mike Leach as Washington's defensive coordinator, and he wasn't afraid to let everyone know about it before and after the Apple Cups. Lake now enters his first year as Huskies coach, while Leach is off to the SEC. Rolovich runs a similar system to Leach, though, and it will be interesting to see if Lake's mastery in the Apple Cup can continue when the rivals meet.
What is your Pac-12 championship prediction?
Maisel: USC will have to play Oregon after all. I'm pushing all my chips on the fairy-tale ending. Clay Helton takes the Trojans to the Pac-12 championship.
Connelly: We know how it can go when we trust USC too much, but the USC offense is probably the most proven single unit in the conference, and I'm going to say that means something. Meanwhile, Oregon's defense might be the second-most-proven unit. This justifies the really boring chalk pick I'm going to make: USC vs. Oregon in the title game. And just to make sure we don't end up unanimous, I'll say Oregon wins.
Bonagura: I'm fully allowing for the possibility that something completely out of left field happens. Something like a Cal vs. Arizona State rematch in the Pac-12 title game would be an appropriate way to settle this season. For now, though, I agree with Ivan and Bill: Oregon vs. USC makes the most sense, and the Ducks still feel like the safer choice.
Rittenberg: Even with all the opt-outs, I'll go with Oregon in the North, although it wouldn't surprise me to see Cal make the title game with a more balanced team under Justin Wilcox. I'll lean with USC in the South as new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando makes an immediate impact. USC pulls off the mini-upset and leaves the Helton haters hatin' for another offseason.