SportsPac12 Senior Football Writers Roundtable: Early-Season Observations

A candid discussion about the Pac-12 CFP chances and the Conference race

Posted on November 20, 2020

  By Dane Miller, Jack Follman, and Nick Bartlett, SportsPac12

With a third of this shortened 2020 Pac-12 football season complete, our senior football writers—Dane Miller, Jack Follman, and Nick Bartlett—discuss a range of topics from the Conference’s College Football Playoff chances to this season’s surprise teams. Let’s listen in.

Dane: Alright guys, Week Two is in the books and it’s ripe for some early-season observations. I’m an optimist, but I think it’s time to get realistic: The Pac-12 has a fading chance of making the Playoff. USC has significantly underwhelmed, and there are some strong teams back East vying for those four spots. Can we really look someone in the eye and say our eventual Champion is better than Ohio State, Alabama, Norte Dame, Clemson, and Wisconsin?

Nick: There is no way in this stratosphere that a Pac-12 team can be considered better than the five aforementioned programs with the exception of maybe Wisconsin. The only team in our conference worthy of mentioning in this conversation is Oregon and they are still unproven.

The Ducks are extremely talented and could be considered in the same realm, but they’ll need to win games with more flash to impress the committee. If Tyler Shough can improve his consistency and limit turnovers, I think UO could compete with some of the best programs in the nation, but that doesn’t mean they’d win. Their defense is solid, but offensively, I don’t think they have enough at the wideout position to win one-on-one matchups against elite secondaries.

Tyler Shough | University of Oregon Communications

Oregon is close, but not quite as talented as the premier teams in the country. As for USC, and my surprise pick to win in the conference in Washington, just no. Both of those teams are incomplete and barely beat subpar competition.

What do you think Jack? Are the Ducks better than the five teams Dane mentioned?

Jack: I don’t think any Pac-12 team looks worthy of a Playoff spot right now, and the only one who looks close so far is Oregon. But will they even get the chance to play someone that proves they are worthy?

For me, Oregon is the best shot, though they have to win their next three games convincingly, beat Washington, and hopefully get an undefeated USC in the Championship Game. And then handle the Trojans convincingly. Even then, to me, it depends on how those top five close out.

Right now, I wouldn’t put any Pac-12 team ahead of anyone on that list other than Wisconsin, and they probably need one of the top four to lose more than one game to get in.

Dane: I think it’s a long-shot at this point, especially with an undefeated Cincinnati and BYU clouding the picture. I do agree that Oregon is the best chance, and I actually think they go undefeated the rest of the season. But like Jack mentioned, who are they going to play that will give them a signature win?

But moving on, the Colorado Buffaloes are the surprise team in the Conference of Champions after two weeks. None of us expected Karl Dorrell to start 2-0, and Sam Noyer appears to be the driving force. The senior quarterback puts his body on the line and makes the throws required of him under Dorrell’s system. And the CU defense is playing good enough to win games.

Do either of you think the Buffs have a realistic chance of winning the South?

Nick: I do think that Colorado has a chance to win their division, but that doesn’t mean they’re the best team in the South. It’s just one of those 2020 things.

They’re extremely lucky that the ASU game got cancelled this week. This gives them two weeks of practice time to prepare for the Trojans.

While I don’t think this team is as good as it’s looked in its first two matchups, I was thoroughly impressed that they ran for 177 yards against Stanford. The Cardinal are historically known for their grind-it-out mentality, and CU not only beat them in the trenches, they more than doubled their output on the ground. This could prove to be a statement going forward.

Jarek Broussard | David Zalubowski/AP via

Offensively, running back Jarek Broussard could be considered the Pac-12 breakout player of the year, eclipsing 300 yards in the first two games. Defensively, linebacker Nate Landman provides stability in the middle of the field.

Bottom line for Colorado, if they beat USC, they’ll be first place in the South with the tie-breaker on their side. Will it happen? I don’t know. But is it possible? Yes!

Jack what do you think? Can the Buffs win the South this year?

Jack: Yes, it’s crazy to say it, but Colorado could easily win the South, especially considering there’s talk of Utah having to forego the entire season. And Arizona State has a serious COVID-19 issue. Throw in that USC just barely beat Arizona after getting very, very, very lucky to beat Arizona State in LA, and the Buffs are a very realistic candidate.

I think a lot of this weirdo season is going to come down to who really wants it. The Buffs feel like a team that could buy in with a new coach and go all out when other teams are hesitant. The win over UCLA looks a lot better now that the Bruins just dusted Cal, and remember, CU’s win over Stanford wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicates due to a very late run by the Cardinal.

The Buffs could very well sneak into a Pac-12 Championship Game. If there is one.

Dane: If Colorado played USC tomorrow, I’d take the Buffs. I picked CU to beat both UCLA and Stanford, and they are capable of taking down the Trojans. For me, Jarek Broussard’s ability to run the ball is the difference-maker. Similar to Chase Garbers last year, Broussard provides that intangible spark that pushes his team to the next level.

And even though Dorrell hasn’t put together a complete game, neither has Clay Helton. Barring a major jump by either team over the next two weeks, I’m riding with Colorado.

But guys, it’s time to address the elephant in the room. What is going on at USC? We were all foaming at the mouth at the thought of the Trojans running the table and meeting the undefeated Ducks in the Championship Game for a shot at the Playoff. Now, we are legitimately asking ourselves if Colorado can pull off the upset. What do you think is going wrong in L.A.?

Nick: That’s a good question.

The starting point for me is the loss of Michael Pittman Jr. While the modified Air-Raid system that Graham Harrell runs has tallied more than 700 passing yards in two games, it lacks the same gusto it had last season.

USC wide receiver Drake London | AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

usc logoDefensive coordinators are directing their teams to sit in soft zones, until proven they can be beat over the top. While Amon-Ra St. Brown, Tyler Vaughns, and Drake London are probably the best trio of receivers in the conference, none of them are true deep-ball threats the way Pittman Jr. was.

Combine this with average running backs and a defense that is allowing 28.5 points per game, and you’ll have a team who’ll likely struggle to win a conference championship.

Jack, what are your final thoughts?

Jack: It just feels like USC under Clay Helton is never going to be what we think they can be. Other than the COVID-19 complications every program is living with, there’s no reason the Trojans should be so clunky these first two weeks. They have experienced talent, depth, some young blue chip guys, and they’re in the second year of their new system with the best quarterback in the conference. There’s no reason they shouldn’t coast through the South.

Clay Helton | Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

I had solid hopes for USC after they had a handful of talented players like St. Brown, Vera-Tucker, Hufanga, and Vaughns not opt out, but I think we found out what we already know. Helton and USC will never fulfill their potential.

Even if the Trojans end up winning the South, and maybe even winning the Pac-12—since I still think they are more-talented than Oregon, or anyone in the North—it’s still time for USC to try something new.

Dane: Expectations are always high in Los Angeles and anything less than a Rose Bowl usually feels like a letdown. But realistically, a “down” season for the Trojans is still better than most of the Pac-12. During the Helton Era, USC has seasons of 10-3, 11-3, 5-7, and 8-5 with a Rose Bowl win.

That’s a 34-18 mark, and we are talking about firing the coach after starting the year off 2-0. Still, circling pack to my initial question, I think the Trojans’ struggles could be due to something neither of you mentioned: Kedon Slovis.

Yes, he had a record-setting freshman season. But does he look like an NFL quarterback? When you think of the talent that program has put into the NFL at that position, I am not sure if Slovis is cut from the same cloth.

That being said, USC is undefeated, ranked, and in theory still has a chance at the Playoff. If they run the table and beat Oregon in the Championship, we will probably be singing a different tune.

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