The Tribune’s 2020 Pac-12 football preview: Oregon, USC look like teams to beat, but don’t count out Utah


Kedon Slovis, USC

If this were a normal, non-pandemic environment, Slovis, a true sophomore quarterback, would have entered this season with some Heisman Trophy hype.

As it stands, the Scottsdale, Ariz. native is going to have to settle for being the Pac-12′s most-hyped signal caller. Slovis took over as USC’s starter midway through the 2019 opener, and proceeded to throw for 3,502 yards, 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions, while completing 71.9% of his passes.

The Trojans went just 8-5 in 2019, but were 7-2 vs. the Pac-12, trailing only Utah (8-1) in the race for the South title. Within those seven league wins, Slovis was often brilliant. A career-high 515 yards on 37-for-47 passing in a win over UCLA, 29-for-39 for 432 yards and four touchdowns vs. Arizona State, and 29-for-35 for 406 yards and four more touchdowns at Cal highlight the brilliance.

With Slovis at the wheel, USC is rightly the prohibitive to win the Pac-12 South in 2020, but the Trojans will be put to the test immediately. Circle the Nov. 7 opener vs. another South contender, Arizona State, with the winner taking early control of the division. Also, make sure you’re up and caffeinated, as kickoff at the L.A. Coliseum is scheduled for 10 a.m. MT with a network television broadcast designation on FOX.

FILE - In this Nov. 2, 2019 file photo, Southern California quarterback Kedon Slovis throws a pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Oregon in Los Angeles. Slovis returns s quarterback for his sophomore season in November. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong, File)

Coach of the Year

Kyle Whittingham, Utah

Whittingham proved his worth as a head coach long ago, but this season provides an interesting set of circumstances aside from the pandemic.

The Utes are breaking in a new quarterback, a new group of running backs, and trying to replace nine defensive starters from last season. If Utah accomplishes some combination of beating Arizona State, beating USC, and finishing at least 5-1, Whittingham deserves real consideration as Pac-12 Coach of the Year. We think 4-2 or 5-1 for Utah is reasonable.

For the record, Whittingham is 42-39 in nine seasons vs. the Pac-12, but 14-4 over the last two, both of which resulted in South Division titles.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kyle Whittingham as Utah faces Oregon in the Pac-12 football championship game in Santa Clara, Calif., on Friday Dec. 6, 2019.

Coach on the hot seat

Kevin Sumlin, Arizona

After securing a $10 million termination buyout from Texas A&M, Sumlin signed a five-year, $14.5 million contract at Arizona in Jan. 2018. In the first two years of that deal, the Wildcats went 9-15 overall, 6-12 vs. the Pac-12, and things do not project to get any better with Sumlin’s team voted to finish last in the South.

The bad news is, Sumlin’s job should rightfully be in jeopardy at this point. The good news is, with the pandemic ongoing and any number of unprecedented factors entering the daily worries of head coaches everywhere, maybe Sumlin gets a mulligan this fall.

Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin is shown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Texas Tech, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, in Tucson, Ariz. Sumlin could be on the hot seat this season after going 9-15 his first seasons at Arizona. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

Team to beat


Please, let’s not overthink this.

The Ducks were nine points away last season from running the regular-season table and very likely making the College Football Playoff. Yes, key pieces from that Rose Bowl winner are gone, whether to the NFL or having opted out of the season, but the pieces still around make Oregon a heavy favorite to win the Pac-12.

Two names to know: Redshirt sophomore quarterback Tyler Shough is the likely starter with Justin Herbert gone to the NFL, and junior running back CJ Verdell has rushed for 2,238 yards and 18 touchdowns in his first two seasons in Eugene.

The Ducks are the class of the Pac-12 and, if they go 7-0, debating their CFP validity with that many games should be interesting.

Oregon running back CJ Verdell (7) rushes for a touchdown past Utah defensive back Javelin Guidry (28) during the second half of an NCAA college football game for the Pac-12 Conference championship in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Dec. 6, 2018. Oregon won 37-15. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Don’t sleep on

Arizona State

Seemingly everyone laughed at the Herm Edwards hiring ahead of the 2018 season, and while 15-11 in two seasons is nothing to write home about, the Sun Devils could be ready for a breakthrough.

Sophomore quarter Jayden Daniels was often electric as a freshman in 2019, throwing 2,943 yards, 17 touchdowns and two interceptions, while rushing for another 355 yards and three touchdowns.

As noted above, the season-opening Nov. 7 game at USC is going to be a clear indicator of how seriously we need to take Arizona State. A win, the Sun Devils are in early control of the division. A loss, and they trend downward into a middle-of-the-road South team.

Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels throws a pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Utah on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Team you don’t want to play


To be clear, the real answer here is Oregon, but let’s go a different way in an effort to not be boring.

You don’t want to play USC, because playing the Trojans means you have to try and at least slow down Kedon Slovis, and really, how many Pac-12 teams did that effectively last season?

From a Utah perspective, the Utes haven’t seen much of Slovis. When the two met in 2019 in Los Angeles, Slovis suffered a concussion on the second play of the game and was done for the night.

For the season, Slovis cracked 250 yards passing in nine games, including the last six and seven of the last eight in his way to Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year honors.

FILE - In this Friday, Dec. 27, 2019, file photo, Southern California head coach Clay Helton, center, leads his players onto the field before the Holiday Bowl NCAA college football game against Iowa, in San Diego. Helton is 40-22 in four full seasons as USC coach. (AP Photo/Orlando Ramirez, File)

Team with no chance


Honestly, a tough choice between the Wildcats and Washington State, but have you seen the former’s schedule?

Arizona opens at Utah, hosts USC, and travels to Washington open the season. Tough deal for third-year head coach Kevin Sumlin, who is 9-15 overall and 6-12 vs. the Pac-12 in two seasons, which follow six up-and-down seasons at Texas A&M.

Not only is that schedule brutal, but the Wildcats do not appear to have the personnel to keep up. Case in point, Utah opened as a two-touchdown betting favorite for the Nov. 7 opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Arizona quarterback Grant Gunnell (17) is shown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Oregon State, in Tucson, Ariz. Arizona State has some talent back on offense this season, led by sophomore quarterback Jayden Daniels. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Most underrated player

Britain Covey, Utah

I know this sounds silly given Covey led the Utes in receptions in the only two full seasons he’s played, 2015 and 2018, but just wait for the logic.

It’s been a long time since the redshirt junior played. He injured his knee in the 2018 Pac-12 championship game, took a redshirt after four games in 2019, and the start of the 2020 season has been delayed.

Covey’s value to not only Utah’s offense, but its special teams cannot be overstated, and now, he will have the opportunity to remind everyone of that.

Expect Covey to have the ball in his hands a lot, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig saying as much during the early days of fall camp.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah wide receiver Britain Covey (18) breaks a tackle and heads down field for the Utes, in football action between Northern Illinois Huskies and Utah Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019.

Future household name

Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon

Just ask Utah about Thibodeaux after he went for 2.5 sacks and created general havoc in the backfield during the Pac-12 title game.

Thibodeaux was an absolute terror as a defensive end last fall, finishing with 35 tackles, 14 of which went for a loss, and nine sacks on his way to being named Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year.

There is no reason to believe Thibodeaux won’t build on his freshman season, while blossoming into one of the nation’s elite defensive ends, if he isn’t there already.

FILE - In this Nov. 16, 2019, file photo, Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux, left, tackles Arizona's Brian Casteel during the third quarter of an NCAA college football game, in Eugene, Ore. Thibodeaux was selected to The Associated Press All-Pac 12 Conference team, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Chris Pietsch, File)



1. Oregon

2. Cal

3. Washington

4. Stanford

5. Oregon State

6. Washington State


1. USC

2. Utah

3. Arizona State


5. Colorado

6. Arizona


Oregon over USC in the Pac-12 title game, Utah goes 5-1, which leads to heavy optimism going into what should be a normal, full 12-game 2021 season.