Pac-12 North: Way Too Early Look at 2020
By: Matthew Zimmer
Bowl season is all but complete with just the National Championship game to go. The Pac-12 finished a mediocre 4-3 as a conference, including USC and Utah getting blown out in their bowl games. However, the North went 3-1 with the only loss being Washington State (6-6) against (at-the-time) a 10-win Air Force team.
They say it’s never too early to look ahead to next season, so I thought why not take a look at the Pac-12 North and some changes for each team.
The top team in the division and the conference took home the Rose Bowl title with a 28-27 win over No. 8 Wisconsin. Oregon will lose their NFL-caliber quarterback, Justin Herbert, but they’ll keep their 2021 NFL prospect in offensive lineman Penei Sewell. The obvious question for the Ducks (and quite honestly, most of the Pac-12 North) is the new starting quarterback for 2020 and who will be the offensive coordinator.
The potential Ducks from 2019 to 2020 at QB are Tyler Shough, Bradley Yaffe and Cale Millen. Of the likely returners, Shough has the inside track on the starting job because he’s the only one with experience playing QB at Oregon. During the early signing period, the Ducks snagged a pair of four-star quarterbacks, Robby Ashford from Alabama and Jay Butterfield out of California.
As for the new OC, the Ducks are expected to go with an outside hire, but it’s possible they view running backs coach Jim Mastro as a possible Marcus Arroyo replacement. The Oregonian/Oregon Live’s James Crepea put together a list, before the Rose Bowl win, of potential candidates for the job. As Crepea mentions in the piece, Mario Cristobal conducts thorough searches for coaching hires. The biggest complaint I heard about Arroyo was creative play-calling. So, I’d expect Cristobal to look for someone creative to fill the void at OC.
Oregon State Beavers
The Beavers shocked some, and delighted others, with their 5-7 finish in 2019 after winning just two games in 2018. Like the Ducks, Oregon State will be looking for a new starting quarterback. Unlike Oregon, however, the Beavers need to replace an NFL-caliber wide receiver in Isaiah Hodgins.
Jake Luton was about as battle-tested as you can be in the collegiate level. He suffered big injuries in his career, but also conquered those demons last year. Luton, named one of Mayo Clinic’s Comeback Players of the Year for 2019, threw 28 touchdowns and just three interceptions. The obvious replacement is former Nebraska transfer Tristan Gebbia. However, the Beavs signed a pair of QBs from California, four-star junior college transfer Chance Nolan and three-star Ben Gulbranson.
As difficult as replacing a QB is, replacing ANY player with the skills of Isaiah Hodgins will be more taxing. The Beavs next leading receivers were over 700 yards, 40+ catches and 10 TDs behind Hodgins in 2019. The All-Conference second teamer caught 86 passes for 1,171 yards and 13 touchdowns. Tight End Noah Togiai was second in receptions with 44; wide receiver Champ Flemings was second in receiving yards with 457; Flemings and Togiai tied for second most touchdown receptions with three.
It would be insane to expect one player to fill Hodgins’ shoes. Although crazier things have happened, the likeliest scenario is the Beavers spread the ball around more without a dominant receiver like Hodgins. Oregon State has plenty of receivers on the roster, and they added three three-star recruits in December.
Cal Golden Bears
The good news for Cal is they won’t lose their starting quarterback to graduation, unlike Oregon and Oregon State. The Golden Bears will have Chase Garbers back and (unless I missed something in my research) will only lose one running back (Alex Netherda who only had four carries in 2019) and one wide receiver (Jordan Duncan who was their second leading receiver). However, Cal did hire a new OC.
Longtime NFL assistant Bill Musgrave is highly regarded in football circles, both college and pro. After the hire, Cal head coach Justin Wilcox said Musgrave “has a brilliant offensive mind,” and referred to Musgrave as “one of the top teachers of offensive football and quarterbacks.” That’s good news for Garbers’ future, and the Cal offense in 2020. They finished 8-5, and third in the Pac-12 North last year, but expect big improvements from Cal’s offense especially.
The obvious thing here is the shocking departure of Chris Petersen as head coach. Jimmy Lake, the former defensive coordinator, takes over in Petersen’s place starting in 2020. Lake wasted no time gutting the offensive staff after a sub-par 2019. The new Husky coach fired his OC, QB coach and TE coach less than 24 hours after Washington’s win over Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Lake has his work cut out for him in hiring a completely new offensive staff. Reports surfaced Tuesday that former Boise State quarterback and Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore is mulling the opportunity to be the Huskies next offensive coordinator. 2019 starting QB Jacob Eason also declared for the upcoming NFL Draft, so Lake won’t have an incumbent starter trying to learn a new system. The Huskies coaching makeover will help them improve from 2019’s 4-5 conference record, but the Huskies will still be on the outside looking in for the College Football Playoff.
Washington State Cougars
Another year, another new quarterback to run Mike Leach’s offense. The Cougs bigger issues are honestly on defense, but a third QB in three years isn’t great either. A year removed from Minshew Mania, the Anthony Gordon experience was less attention-grabbing despite the records Gordon set. Last year, the Cougar QB set school and conference single-season records for passing TDs, passing yards, completion percentage, total offense and completions. Yet, no one realizes this because the Cougs finished a poultry (6-7) after their aforementioned Cheez-It Bowl loss to Air Force.
Mike Leach is no slouch when it comes to breaking in new quarterbacks, but after the stability of Luke Falk the Cougs have had back-to-back seasons with quarterbacks gone after one year. Washington State still has highly-touted 2018 four-star QB Cammon Cooper on the roster, but rumors surfaced this off-season that Leach and staff could look for another transfer quarterback as well. As the saying around college football goes, Leach will have a quarterback who will throw for a bunch of yards and touchdowns. The big question is, will more wins come with another new QB?
After their worst season overall at 4-8, since going 5-7 in 2008, the Cardinal are looking to regroup in a number of areas. Stanford never had any real consistency at quarterback. Last year’s incumbent starter, K.J. Costello, is entering the transfer portal after only playing five games in 2019. The Cardinal started three QBs last year, Costello, Davis Mills and Jack West, due to injuries throughout the season. So far, only one quarterback will join the Cardinal in 2020 as 2018-signee four-star Tanner McKee completes his LDS mission in Brazil.
The Cardinal also gave up 40-plus points four times in 2019, including twice in conference. Last year was easily the worst year for David Shaw down on the farm, which makes me believe Stanford will play better. BUT I think they still miss out on a bowl game in 2020.
Oregon rides the success of 2019 and improves in some areas, including offensive play-calling, to finish as the North Champion again. Cal’s improved quarterback play gives them a shot at second in the North. Washington battles Cal for second. The Beavs, Cougs, and Cardinal will have better seasons, but Stanford will miss out on bowl eligibility.