Offseason storylines: Will 2021 be the year of the Pac-12?
After a broken season, nearly everybody decided that they wanted to come back and have a normal season. Will that make west coast football extra tough next season?
A bit more than a month ago, Bill Connelly over at ESPN released his annual returning production rankings. Tracking roster movement is going to be particularly difficult this year, and the rankings will probably undergo minor shifts as we slowly emerge from a global pandemic and players around the country decide how best to proceed with their athletic and academic careers. But the NFL draft declaration deadline has come and gone, and by this point we all have a pretty solid idea of who is and isn’t coming back from each team.
Let’s cut straight to the chase: Cal ranks 20th! That’s excellent! In the top quintile!
Cal ranks 9th in the Pac-12.
You read that right. Everybody’s coming back in the conference of champions, and that means every team is going to face a schedule full of veteran opponents next year. Here are the returning production rankings of just Pac-12 teams, plus Cal’s non-conference opponents just for fun:
Oregon St. (7)
Arizona St. (11)
You can see these rankings reflected in the number of athletes who declared early for the NFL draft (which, this year, is technically anybody who declared for the draft). Arizona*, ASU, Colorado, Cal, Utah, and Washington State all had 5 or fewer players leave, and most of those players were guys who 4 (or 5, or 6!) year players who would have been expected to leave in a normal year.
*Arizona still managed to rank relatively low in returning production thanks to a wave of transfers following Kevin Sumlin’s dismissal as head coach.
Meanwhile, Stanford and USC were comparatively harder hit with draft declarations. Stanford’s nine draft entrants included their two best linemen, starting QB, two solid WRs, and their best player on defense. USC lost 12 players, highlighted by WRs Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns.
But other than USC and Stanford, pretty much everybody else in the conference (and on Cal’s schedule) are bringing back very veteran teams. Maybe not so much veteran in terms of games played since the 2020 season was so abbreviated, but there will be lots of dudes who have spent lots of time in the weight room and/or film room.
So, two questions immediately spring to my mind when I consider the impact of so much returning production around the conference:
Is this the year the Pac-12 impresses in non-conference play?
Returning production doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t translate into wins. Conference play is a zero sum game, but can the Pac-12 turn veteran experience into impressive performances against the rest of the country? There’s reason for optimism. Here’s a list of the Pac-12’s non-conference FBS opponents (home games in bold):
Cal: Nevada, TCU
Stanford: Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, Kansas St.
USC: BYU, Notre Dame, San Jose St.
UCLA: Hawaii, LSU, Fresno St.
Oregon: Fresno St., Ohio St.
Oregon St.: Purdue, Hawaii
Washington: Michigan, Arkansas St.
Washington St.: Utah St., BYU
Colorado: Minnesota, Texas A&M
Utah: BYU, San Diego St.
Arizona: BYU, San Diego St.
Arizona St.: UNLV, BYU
BYU, Notre Dame, and SDSU will probably be down. Unlike Pac-12 schools, BYU and Notre Dame had long seasons that ended with lots of wins, and plenty of their players moved on. SDSU wasn’t nearly as good, but also lost lots of production. All three sit in the bottom 10 in returning production. The Pac-12 will play these three schools a combined nine times.
How well will the Pac-12 fare in road trips against Big-10 teams? Oregon’s going to Columbus, Washington’s travelling to Ann Arbor, Oregon State’s headed to West Lafayette. Few are expecting much out of the Beavers, but Washington and Oregon are expected to lead the conference. Fair or not, the result of those two games will have an outsized role in determining perception of the conference.
Can Colorado sucker punch somebody? The Buffs were surprisingly good in a small sample size, though the season ended with a thud after relatively uncompetitive defeats to Utah and Texas. Still, Colorado was obviously solid and returns almost everybody. Can the Buffs, playing in-state, knock off either Minnesota or Texas A&M?
We should probably expect UCLA to beat LSU, huh? UCLA’s returning everybody, LSU is still kinda rebuilding, the game is in the Rose Bowl . . .
OK, enough about the conference, let’s focus on the real question:
Does this mean that Cal’s season is tougher than we all thought?
Yeah, probably. The relatively good news is that Cal’s getting Arizona and not Arizona State, as Arizona is really the one program in the conference in complete disarray. Seeing Stanford continue to hemorrhage talent is comforting as well, though it would be more comforting IF WE COULD NOT LET KICKS GET BLOCKED GAH I’M NOT OVER IT YET SORRY.
Cal fans were rightly excited when a whole bunch of guys (particularly on the defensive side of the ball) announced they were coming back, and rightfully so. But that excitement has to be tempered by the knowledge that most other fans in the Pac-12 got to enjoy the same kind of good news.
Still, there’s plenty of uncertainty and intrigue. Since nobody played anything close to a full schedule, and everybody looked plenty vulnerable at times even in that limited sample, there isn’t a single team that clearly stands out as an obvious favorite. While that might not be great for the Pac-12’s chances of getting a team into the playoff (which, who cares about that anyway?) it should be good for creating a highly entertaining, taut season from beginning to end. After losing the 2020 season, I’ll gladly take just that outcome in 2021.
One reason the returning production is so high is that a lot of 2020 Pac-12 draft prospects sat out the 2020 season compared to their conference counterparts, so their production is not being counted as returning (Penei Sewell for example is not part of Oregon's calculation since he did not return to the team). Also, because they played an abbreviated season, so there was just not enough tape to move the needle on later-stage NFL prospects.
So the returning production doesn't really reflect top-level talent matriculating out. You could see it in the Fiesta Bowl, when Iowa State battered Oregon for most the game. I'd expect top tier Pac-12 teams to be a step behind when the non-conference slate happens as a result, since Connelly's model can't really account for opt-outs.
Nice write up Nick and great analysis. Being the eternal optimist I am looking for CAL to win 9 or ten games and totally fuck up all the pre-season prediction models. ;-)