Power 5 preview: 5 questions for the Pac-12

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After playing the fewest number of games of any Power 5 conference last season, the Pac-12 gets back on track with a full slate in 2021.

In the final installment of a five-part preview series, theScore examines five important questions for the Pac-12 heading into Week 1 action.

Can Clay Helton save his reputation?

Things at USC have gone south since the program's 2017 conference title victory, with Clay Helton unable to produce a 10-win campaign since. Even last year's shortened undefeated regular season ended on a down note with a loss in the Pac-12 championship to Oregon - a team that wasn't even supposed to be in the contest in the first place. However, things are looking up this year, as the Trojans avoid both the Ducks and Washington in crossover play.

USC has high expectations for quarterback Kedon Slovis in his third campaign, and fellow junior Drake London is poised to be a top target after registering 1,069 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. With a talented roster that's starting the season ranked 15th in the country, Helton should be able to keep the Trojan faithful happy with a strong showing.

Can Oregon win a third straight conference title?

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Oregon has seen its fair share of success in recent memory - the program made the national championship during the Marcus Mariota era while Justin Herbert led the team to a Rose Bowl victory and its first conference title since 2014. Now, the Ducks are looking to three-peat as Pac-12 champions and become the conference's first team to make the College Football Playoff since 2016.

The defending champs have a talented receiving corps returning to Autzen Stadium, and Anthony Brown is ready to step into the role of QB1. The Boston College transfer convinced the coaching staff that he was the guy down the stretch last year, leading Tyler Shough to transfer to Texas Tech. The rushing defense is one area of focus for Oregon that could determine the program's title hopes. Last year's unit finished in the middle of the pack in the conference and will get a very tough test in Week 2 against the vaunted Ohio State attack.

Can Washington build off Lake's first season?

Despite retiring in 2019, Chris Petersen still holds the distinction as the last coach to take a Pac-12 school to the CFP with Washington in 2016. The veteran bench boss made way for Jimmy Lake before 2020, and the first-year coach delivered a 3-1 record in a season wrecked by the coronavirus pandemic. The result was a finish atop the Pac-12 North, but the Huskies were forced to withdraw from the title game in favor of Oregon.

There's a lot to build around in Seattle, including the return of all five starters in a strong offensive line and one of the nation's top tight ends in Cade Otton. Lake molded Washington into the conference's number one defense last year, but he's likely losing star pass-rusher Zion Tupuola-Fetui for the campaign and has to replace six starters. The Ducks are the biggest issue remaining for Lake, as Oregon has beaten the Huskies in 14 of the last 16 matchups. If Washington can flip that trend on Nov. 6, the team has a good shot at the North title.

Can UCLA make noise as a sleeper?

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Thanks to a Week 0 win over Hawaii, Chip Kelly improved his overall record at UCLA to an underwhelming 11-21 mark. Though many of the losses were within one score, Kelly has yet to see anything close to a .500 finish during his three years in Los Angeles. Despite the record, the young Bruins have emerged as a sleeper in the Pac-12 South, with last weekend's 44-10 victory serving as a springboard for the campaign.

Dual-threat quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson improved as a passer last year, finishing with a 65% completion rate, but it's Zach Charbonnet who could bring the sizzle the offense needs. The Michigan transfer ran for 106 yards and three touchdowns on just six carries against Hawaii. If Kelly can continue getting high-end production at the running back spot, Thompson-Robinson could take advantage of the passing game with prolific tight end Greg Dulcich.

How will Utah's transfers make an impact?

After finishing last season 3-2, Utah loaded up in the transfer market to bolster its offense. Quarterback Charlie Brewer hopes to have an immediate impact after transferring from Baylor, and tailback transfers T.J. Pledger and Chris Curry, from Oklahoma and LSU, respectively, will bring a physical presence for the Utes.

Brewer especially should significantly help a Utah passing attack that finished in the bottom half of the conference last campaign. The veteran passer provides accuracy, athleticism, and leadership, completing 63.5% of passes on 9,700 yards for 65 touchdowns and 28 interceptions in his career, as well as 22 rushing touchdowns from his time in the Big 12.

Curry and Pledger will join returnee Micah Bernard to bring depth and experience to the running back room. With the usually stout Kyle Whittingham defense bringing back nine starters, the Utes could make a run at the Pac-12 South title if their transfer-heavy offense can deliver.

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Power 5 preview: 5 questions for the Pac-12
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