LOS ANGELES — Pac-12 Media Day is back, and nothing is quite the same.
After last year’s virtual event to preview an abbreviated, awkward season, conference higher-ups, coaches, student-athletes and media members are gathering in Hollywood on Tuesday for a more traditional kickoff event.
But it isn’t Pac-12 Media Day as we’ve come to know it.
The festivities have moved down the street from the Hollywood & Highland complex to the W Hollywood Hotel — and could be headed to Las Vegas sooner than later if/when league headquarters are relocated to Sin City.
Vegas has been new Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff’s base of operations. The freshly minted conference leader will make his first state-of-the-league address — and boy, does he have a lot to talk about.
Kliavkoff inherits a conference coming off a COVID-19-constricted campaign. As the 2021 season unofficially begins, the specter of the pandemic still looms. Per Los Angeles County guidelines, Pac-12 Media Day attendees will be required to wear masks while indoors. Media members also had to fill out a vaccine questionnaire last week.
The conversation will turn to football at some point — we think — and that’ll no doubt come as a relief to the coaches who are accustomed to talking about depth charts and quarterback battles. Every coach who’s scheduled to participate has been through this before, either virtually or in person, with one exception: Arizona’s Jedd Fisch.
What questions will be asked of the first-year Wildcats coach? Of his rival at the School Up North, Herm Edwards, whose program has had an interesting offseason to say the least? Of the first-year Pac-12 commissioner? Let’s probe some of the possibilities:
1. Given the arrival of NIL, the seemingly inevitable expansion of the College Football Playoff and the strong probability of another round of seismic conference realignment, what’s next for the Pac-12?
Kliavkoff arrives at a critical inflexion point for the league. Its media rights will be up for renegotiation soon, giving Kliavkoff and his staff a chance to boost the conference’s revenue and expand its exposure. They also undoubtedly will explore new avenues to broadcast marquee Pac-12 events in a world in which streaming is displacing traditional forms of delivery.
What the Pac-12 will look like when the new deal goes into effect remains to be seen. If, as widely reported, Oklahoma and Texas leave the Big 12 for the SEC, how will other conference respond? Will the Big 12 survive? If not, will the Pac-12 gobble up some of its leftovers?
Kliavkoff might not be the commissioner of the Pac-12 for long. He could become the boss of the Pac-14 or the Pac-16. When confronted with that possibility, expect him to leave every conceivable option open and available.
2. How are the conference’s members faring when it comes to vaccination rate, and how will the league handle it if a team can’t play because of a viral outbreak?
If you’ve been following any of the other league media days, you know that vaccination rates have been a major talking point. Somewhat surprisingly, given that it has become a politically sensitive topic, most commissioners and coaches have served as vaccine advocates. Even in the SEC, whose footprint includes some of the states with the lowest rates, coaches have urged their players to get the shot, if they haven’t done so already.
Aside from concern for their staff and team’s well-being, coaches have a newfound incentive to be pro-vaccine: It could give them a competitive advantage.
Last year, leagues went out of their way to try to reschedule games if they couldn’t be played because one side suffered an outbreak. Other conferences seem to be leaning in the direction of forfeit should that happen this fall. Expect the Pac-12 to follow suit.
3. We know “it’s personal” for UA football, Jedd, but what about personnel — specifically, your quarterback situation?
The Wildcats will have a new scheme and a new QB in 2021. We have an idea of what the former will look like after an extensive showcase open to media and fans in spring. We don’t yet know the identity of the latter.
Will Plummer — the lone scholarship holdout from last year’s quarterback room — and transfer Gunner Cruz duked it out during spring practice. Both had their moments — and struggles. Cruz appeared to be ahead at one point, but Plummer closed that gap by the end of spring. The two appeared to be in a dead heat entering summer workouts.
June brought a twist to the competition — the arrival of an additional contestant. South Florida transfer Jordan McCloud has joined the QB derby. McCloud has the most experience of the three, having appeared in 20 college games, and he is expected to get a fair shot to win the job when training camp opens a week from Friday.
4. We know that “you play to win the game,” Herm, but is it possible to take that credo too far?
Things were looking up for Arizona State. The Sun Devils finished 2020 on an uptick. They brought most of that team back, including potential all-conference quarterback Jayden Daniels.
Then a bombshell dropped. Multiple media outlets reported that ASU might have committed significant NCAA violations during the pandemic by hosting prospects during what was supposed to be a recruiting “dead period” — i.e., no official visitors on campus.
Expect Edwards to be bombarded with questions about those allegations – what went down, how much he knew about it and how it might impact his team. He likely will demur and deflect, which isn’t the usual M.O. for the typically talkative coach. Then again, Herm being Herm, he might not be able to help himself.
The scandal casts a dark cloud over an ASU program that some still will pick to win the Pac-12 South — and possibly the conference championship — in the league’s media poll. The roster, however it was assembled, is that good.
5. OK, one more for you, Jedd – can you provide some clarity on the ever-changing Arizona linebacking corps?
For three straight seasons, 2017-19, the UA linebacker room was a beacon of stability. Tony Fields II never missed a start; Colin Schooler never missed a game.
Last summer, with the Pac-12 season in peril, they transferred. Since then, the LB group has undergone a massive transformation.
The Wildcats have added four ’backers from the NCAA transfer portal — Kenny Hebert, Rashie Hodge Jr., Malik Reed and Jerry Roberts — while also losing one (promising second-year freshman Derick Mourning). Another would-be transfer, 2019 MAC Defensive Player of the Year Treshaun Hayward, is no longer part of their plans.
Add in a batch of incoming freshmen, and the linebacker room will be practically unrecognizable. The most familiar face, fifth-year senior Anthony Pandy, will be on hand in Hollywood to help Fisch sort it all out. Arizona’s other player representative is receiver Stanley Berryhill III, who entered the portal in the offseason, committed to Ball State, then changed his mind.
Berryhill arguably was Arizona’s spring MVP. It can change that fast in the volatile world of modern college football.