2021 Pac-12 Media Days takeaways: New commissioner faces realignment, expectations high for Clay Helton at USC

New Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff laid out a clear set of priorities for the conference Tuesday that emphasizes success in football and men’s basketball amid the shifting dynamics of college sports. Speaking before the league’s football Media Days event, Kliavkoff said the Pac-12 “will make all of our football-related decisions with the combined goals of optimizing CFP invitations and winning national championships.”

No Pac-12 football team has qualified for the College Football Playoff since Washington made it after the 2016 season, and while Tuesday brought plenty of talk for what lies ahead on the field in 2021, it also centered on the future of the conference as a whole amid a downturn of its national relevance in football.

With Kliavkoff entering his first football season as commissioner following the retirement of Larry Scott, the Pac-12 is at a critical juncture both on and off the field. Can a dominant team emerge from the group of contenders that includes Oregon, USC, Utah and Washington to snap the league’s CFP drought this season? What about the league’s overall viability amid the struggles of the Pac-12 Network? Here are some of the top takeaways from Kliavkoff’s address and the appearances from the league’s 12 coaches.

Pac-12 expansion?

On the hot topic of conference realignment, Kliavkoff said he believes the departure of Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12 for the SEC “strengthens our unique position as the only Power Five conference with teams in the Mountain and Pacific time zones.” He added that “we do not think expansion is required to continue to compete and thrive.”

“That said, the fallout from Texas and Oklahoma gives us an opportunity to once again consider expansion, and we’ve already had significant inbound interest from many schools,” Kliavkoff said. “We will work with our presidents and chancellors to evaluate these opportunities.”

If the Pac-12 does end up pitching any of the remaining eight Big 12 members — or anyone else — on the potential merits of joining the conference, it can tout a new initiative that Kliavkoff announced Tuesday as a plus. Much like it did several years ago with men’s basketball, the Pac-12 is launching a football strategic working group designed to identify how the conference can improve.

Merton Hanks, the league’s senior associate commissioner for football operations, will lead the group, which will include the conference’s head football coaches and athletic directors. Kliavkoff mentioned that the league will look at scheduling methodology, both for league games and non conference games, as well as the conference’s division structure and kickoff times, among other things.

“The mandate for this group is simple,” Kliavkoff said. “Recommend changes to our football program with the goal of optimizing for CFP invitations and winning championships.”

USC’s expectations

Expectations are always high for USC football, and that’s no different in 2021 as the Trojans are a heavy favorite to repeat as Pac-12 South champion, earning 27 of the possible 40 first-place votes for the division in the league’s preseason media poll. Meeting or exceeding that bar may be especially critical for coach Clay Helton this season as he enters his seventh season.

Only nine of the 130 FBS head coaches ranked as a four or a five in Dennis Dodd’s annual hot seat rankings published this month, and Helton — along with Arizona State’s Herm Edwards — represented the Pac-12 among those in the danger zone. Of course, that’s nothing new for Helton, who was actually in “win or be fired” territory as a “five” for last season’s ranking before getting downgraded to the “start improving now” range after last season’s 5-1 campaign.

“You can be at USC and win every game but one, and if it’s the last one, it’s looked at as a bad season,” Helton said. “That’s being at a special place. You can have an undefeated regular season and win a Pac-12 championship game and everybody is sad. That’s a special place to be. So when you’re at a place that’s won 11 national championships, you know the standard of excellence and you know what’s demanded. We welcome that. We welcome it as players, we welcome it as coaches. That’s why we all came to USC. 

“Our job right now is to get back to that championship game and to win that game because we know when we win that game, it opens the doors to the Playoff and the national championship opportunities.”

QB battles for Oregon, Washington

North Division favorites Oregon and Washington each return quarterbacks with experience who are the frontrunners to start their season openers, but both also welcome their highest-rated quarterback signees of the 247Sports era. So, naturally, quarterbacks were a topic of discussion for both Oregon’s Mario Cristobal and Washington’s Jimmy Lake as they made the rounds Tuesday.

Sixth-year senior Anthony Brown, a Boston College transfer, is the early leader for the Ducks after taking on an increased role late last season following three seasons of significant playing time at BC. Cristobal made it clear, though, that five-star signee Ty Thompson will have an opportunity in preseason practice, as will redshirt freshmen Robby Ashford and Jay Butterfield.

“Anthony will start with the ones,” Cristobal said. “He has earned that. He’s done a very good job from a performance standpoint, leadership performance, taking on Coach Moorhead’s offensive scheme. At the same time the freshmen behind him have done an excellent job as well. It merits them getting an opportunity to compete for that position as well. We will make that happen. I think it’s an injustice to the game of football and to our program and culture not to provide opportunity. But that being said, when we start practice, Anthony will start off with the ones, and he has earned that.”

Washington is in a similar situation as Dylan Morris returns for his third year in the program after starting all four games last season and leading the Huskies to a 3-1 record. Competing with him for the job will be five-star signee Sam Huard and Colorado State transfer Patrick O’Brien.

Vaccine talk

Washington State coach Nick Rolovich was the only one of the league’s 12 coaches not physically present Tuesday after he disclosed last week that he has elected not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine for “for reasons which will remain private.” Rolovich did participate remotely, though, and he shed more light on where the Cougars stand as a team when it comes to vaccination rate.

Washington State’s squad is “roughly at 75% fully vaccinated or in the process of getting fully vaccinated,” according to Rolovich. By contrast, Kilavkoff said two-thirds of the league’s 12 teams have a vaccination rate of 80% or better with four teams exceeding a 90% rate or better. 

The Pac-12 is planning to conduct regular testing on unvaccinated athletes and anyone who displays COVID-19 symptoms, Kilavkoff said. He said the league is still considering what its forfeiture policy will be this season but that the league is “leaning towards” going back to the pre-COVID-19 policy of forfeits for those who can’t field a team.

Downplaying distraction

Just a few months ago, Arizona State was shaping up as a trendy pick to win the Pac-12 South with coach Herm Edwards entering his fourth season boasting a surplus of returning starters and a potential star quarterback in Jayden Daniels. But reports that ASU is under investigation for alleged recruiting violations appear to have zapped some of the hype surrounding the Sun Devils. The program lost a commitment from four-star safety Jaylin Marshall on Monday, the day after ASU placed tight ends coach Adam Breneman on paid administrative leave amid the NCAA investigation. 

The Pac-12 media predicted Arizona State will finish third in the division, despite a manageable schedule that includes five conference home games. Edwards insisted Tuesday, though, that the investigation is not a distraction as the season nears.

“Well, for us it hasn’t been a distraction at all, to be quite honest,” Edwards said. “If you watch our players work and our coaching staff, we’re excited about getting back in the building tomorrow. They’re there today, but I’m going to be back in the building tomorrow. Really going forward on starting camp the 4th of August. I heard the local guys, you guys will actually hopefully get to attend practice, kind of see what it looks like. We’re a focused football team. I think it has a lot to do with the players that decided to come back in the spring. That’s kind of where our mindset is right now, as far as what I know, what I see and feel about the players.”


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