Story by Jon Wilner
Reaction to Pac-12 developments on the field …
1. Week One judgment
The first Saturday of full non-conference play in two years started poorly for the Pac-12, with Stanford’s inept offense, and ended abysmally with Washington State’s late-game collapse.
In between, USC was victorious, but Oregon struggled, Oregon State came up short, Cal was outplayed, Arizona couldn’t make plays, and Washington pulled a face plant for the ages.
All in all, the conference lost two of its three games against Power Five opponents and lost three of five against Group of Five opponents.
It would have been a Black Saturday — at minimum, a Gray Saturday — except for UCLA.
The Pac-12 won the game it had to win, the marquee affair of the weekend.
As a result, we’ll call Week One a push for the conference. Neither indisputably good nor unequivocally bad.
Increasingly, success is defined by big games on big stages against blue blood opponents. The Bruins not only beat LSU 38-27, but they were also clearly the superior team. In the Rose Bowl. On FOX. In primetime.
The afterglow, in other words, has staying power.
Besides, half the college football world won’t even realize the Pac-12 was winless in the three-night games. Everything unfolded too late for viewers across the Mississippi.
But they all know what happened in the Rose Bowl.
(That said, we’ll offer one caveat: If LSU finishes in fourth or fifth place in the SEC West, which is entirely possible, the victory will lose much of its luster.)
There is another component to consider — the significance of a UCLA uptick at this moment in time for the Pac-12.
With the scheduling alliance in its formative stages and the media rights negotiations set to begin in 12-15 months, a resurgence by the Bruins would undoubtedly help the Pac-12 sell itself.
Yes, UCLA has been off the football radar for ages. But it’s a national name with a recognizable coach, and its city is the No. 2 media market in the country. There is value in the Powder Blue.
If Chip Kelly were to turn the Bruins into a top-10/15 team this season and next year, the Pac-12 would benefit immensely.
2. Division dynamics
Two weeks ago, we suggested the South would prove the stronger division this season, with four teams capable of winning the conference title compared to two in the North.
Never did I suspect the shift would be so visible so early in the season. But the results speak volumes:
The North went 1-5 this week, with Oregon’s fragile performance against Fresno State as the only victory.
Meanwhile, Oregon State and Stanford lost in faraway time zones to Power Five opponents; Cal and Washington State lost at home to Mountain West teams; and Washington lost at home to Montana.
All in all, it was an awful day for the division.
The South was markedly better. Yes, three teams (ASU, Utah, and Colorado) played FCS opponents. But USC was fairly impressive in a 30-7 win over San Jose State, and UCLA looked like a top-10 team.
The last time the balance of power tilted South was 2014 when the division produced five ranked teams at the end of the season.
From here, it appears we’re in for a repeat.
3. A-B-Cs of QB play
In addition to the balance of power, we will spend the season tracking another vital piece of the Pac-12 story in 2021: The play of its quarterbacks.
So far, not so good.
UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson was solid in the victory over LSU, and USC’s Kedon Slovis offered a typically solid performance against San Jose State.
But beyond the L.A. duo, we witnessed a hefty dose of sketchy performances on Saturday.
Washington’s Dylan Morris struggled, as did Arizona’s Gunner Cruz.
Oregon State’s Sam Noyer got pulled.
Stanford’s tandem (Jack West and Tanner McKee) was ineffective.
Cal’s Chase Garbers did not impress.
WSU lost Jarrett Guarantano early to injury, while Jayden de Laura was hardly scintillating in relief.
And Oregon’s Anthony Brown was downright ordinary until his game-saving touchdown run in the final minutes.
Put another way: The standard of play at the position wasn’t what longtime fans have come to expect.
4. Leaky roof.
But our specific focus here is on the geographic top of the conference: The Washington schools.
We haven’t checked the record books, but this was surely one of the worst Saturdays the Huskies and Cougars have produced, in tandem, in decades.
The Huskies were unimaginably bad on offense against Montana. They scored on their first drive — the one they had eight months to prepare for — and then didn’t manage another point.
In the fourth quarter, the Grizzlies did as they pleased on both sides of the ball.
Morris threw three interceptions, completed one pass of 25 yards (or more), and should be in jeopardy of losing his starting job to either Patrick O’Brien or Sam Huard.
And if the Huskies are equally inept next week in Ann Arbor, then we might wonder about employment prospects for offensive coordinator John Donovan.
They were that bad.
5. And in the Palouse …
At least Washington’s problems are entirely on the field.
What had been a nightmarish seven weeks for the Cougars — almost entirely because of Nick Rolovich’s refusal to get vaccinated — got considerably worse Saturday night.
The Cougars had a 12-point lead midway through the fourth quarter but were helpless to stop Utah State, which scored on drives of 70 and 78 yards in the final minutes to secure the upset.
(One could say WSU didn’t have an antidote for the Aggies’ passing game.)
We have said all along that Rolovich’s stance on the vaccine only increased the pressure on him to win immediately.
Now add this season-opening loss to the embarrassment his anti-vax stance has caused the university — not to mention the lawsuit filed against him by a former player — and it could be a tense, tumultuous few months in Pullman.
Support the Hotline: Receive three months of unlimited access for just 99 cents. Yep, that’s 99 cents for 90 days, with the option to cancel anytime. Details are here, and thanks for your support.
*** Send suggestions, comments, and tips (confidentiality guaranteed) to email@example.com or call 408-920-5716
*** Follow me on Twitter: @WilnerHotline
*** Pac-12 Hotline is not endorsed or sponsored by the Pac-12 Conference, and the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conference.