Pac-12 stock report: My Heisman Trophy ballot, NFL Draft exodus and the opportunity awaiting in 2021

Commentary on Pac-12 developments on and off the field, plus a dose of Hotline transparency …
Rising: Wideouts
Alabama’s DeVonta Smith on Tuesday became the first receiver to win the Heisman Trophy since Michigan’s Desmond Howard in 1991.
Smith did it handily, collecting twice as many first-place votes as the runner-up, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
One of those votes came from yours truly.
In keeping with Hotline tradition — and more importantly, in the ongoing interest of Hotline transparency — here’s the ballot I submitted to the Heisman Trust in the middle of December:
1. Alabama WR DeVonta Smith
2. BYU quarterback Zach Wilson
3. Florida tight end Kyle Pitts
Smith was the best player in the country, in my estimation, and it wasn’t close. He averaged 16 yards per catch and nine catches per game, in addition to scoring 20 touchdowns and producing countless big plays as the Crimson Tide blasted its way to an undefeated season.
More broadly, my ballot reflected a tweaked approach to the voting process.
In a typical year, I place heavy emphasis on performance — specifically, on performance in big games … on competitive greatness, the trait at the top of John Wooden’s ‘Pyramid of Success.’
As Wooden wrote: “Be at you best when your best is needed.”
But with the pandemic woven into the fabric of the 2020 season, I added a component to the calculation: entertainment value.
Which players produced dazzling unpredictability?
Who provided us a level of visceral joy?
Who elevated the sport?

The Heisman, in my view, is supposed to reflect the best player in a given season.
But each season is its own entity, pandemic or not, in much the same manner that each team is different year-to-year — even if the roster is largely unchanged.
Smith, Wilson and Pitts not only produced at a high level.
They helped elevate, illuminate and lighten the 2020 season.
Falling: USC
The deadline for early-entry candidates to declare for the NFL Draft is two weeks away, but we’re calling the race:
The Trojans are the biggest loser in the Pac-12.
They have been walloped by attrition, losing at least six players who competed in the 2020 season (plus one preseason opt-out).
The list of departed includes all-conference receivers Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns, plus safety Talanoa Hufanga, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, and elite linemen on both sides of scrimmage.
Losing players early to the draft is an indication of roster talent and, ultimately, can help with recruiting.
In that regard, the attrition reflects positively on the Trojans, who last year had just one player leave early, tackle Austin Jackson.
The problem comes when your depth chart isn’t properly prepare to backfill.
USC has no shortage of top talents at receiver, but we’re skeptical of the line play moving forward.
The substandard 2020 recruiting class could begin to impact performance.

Neutral: Oregon
The Ducks concluded their season later than any team in the conference (Jan. 2), so it makes sense that their top talents haven’t yet announced draft intentions.
Decisions made in Eugene over the coming weeks will frame the North race and, to an extent, the Pac-12’s competitive prospects on the national stage.
To this point, Washington, which is returning the bulk of its depth chart, is setting the standard within the division.

Rising: South contenders
The attrition walloping USC has created an opportunity in the South.
We would place Arizona State atop the list of possible successors to the title based on the combination of returning talent at the skill positions, improving line play and a proven quarterback (Jayden Daniels).
Let’s not discount Utah, especially if consistency emerges at quarterback; the Utes should be well stocked on the lines of scrimmage.
(After disrupted starts, Utah and ASU were playing as well as anyone in the conference by the end of the regular season.)
And key returnees for UCLA (quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson) and Colorado (linebacker Nate Landman) should boost the division’s depth.

Falling: Stanford
The Cardinal is the closest equivalent to USC within the North division, having been fairly battered by attrition in recent weeks.
The draft-related departures of quarterback Davis Mills, top receiver Simi Fehoko and multiple starting linemen have stripped the roster of its primary talents.
This was Stanford’s season to rise in the North — and it might have, if not for the testing error that derailed Mills in the first two games.
But competing with UW and Oregon will be vastly more difficult next season based on projected roster construction.
From here, it appears the window has closed.
Rising: Pac-12
We strive to call ’em like we see ’em  on the Hotline, and here’s what we see for the conference in 2021:
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It cannot get any worse than it was this season, at least from a competitive standpoint.
The Pac-12 cannot be any less relevant in the national conversation, any less impactful in the playoff race, any  less respected in the media narrative.
An upward trajectory — hardly inevitable but arguably likely — would come at the perfect time, too:
As we outlined on Tuesday, the 2021 season stacks up as the most significant in the history of the conference.
And there is ample opportunity to send a strong message, in the form of early-September dates with LSU, Ohio State, Michigan and Texas A&M.
They’re only eight short months away.

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*** 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.

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