A summer like no other for the Pac-12 has given way to a football season that defies all reason.
It has been more than 60 days since USC and UCLA announced their departures for the Big Ten in the summer of ’24, and the Pac-12 is no closer to settling its future than it was when the ground liquified.
Clarity could be months away. Meanwhile, a vital season awaits.
The Pac-12 has seven new starting quarterbacks, four new head coaches, three ranked teams (in the AP preseason poll), two mammoth season openers and one collective pursuit:
Place a team in the College Football Playoff for the first time in six years.
It needs someone to excel this fall. Perhaps USC rises above with new coach Lincoln Riley. Far better for the conference would be the emergence of a playoff team that isn’t currently pledged to the Big Ten.
Utah and Oregon are the top candidates, and both have showcase games to start the season: The Utes visit Florida while the Ducks face Georgia, the defending national champions.
A victory by either would generate instant credibility and open a path to the playoff, however daunting it might be.
If Oregon or Utah loses the opener, its path to the grand stage narrows considerably.
Oh, and there’s one more unprecedented piece to the Pac-12 season: There are no more divisions.
The league standings will show a single 12-team grouping, just as they do in basketball.
Our order-of-finish predictions below reflect that change.
- Oregon (9-3/8-1): We expect a slow start with so many new pieces and two challenging early assignments (Georgia and Brigham Young). But the stout defense should carry the Ducks until the offense finds its form. In the end, rookie coach Dan Lanning makes it look easy.
- Utah (10-2/7-2): The defending conference champs must, for the first time, deal with the pressure that comes with taking everyone’s best shot. Look for a stellar start at Florida, two losses in conference play, followed by a successful title defense. (See below.)
- USC (9-3/7-2): We’re buying the hype, but at a reduced price. The Trojans don’t quite have the talent or depth across the lines of scrimmage to pull off the 13-0 or 12-1 season that’s required for a playoff bid. But give Riley one more recruiting cycle, and the CFP awaits.
- UCLA (9-3/6-3): With three non-conference cupcakes and eight home games, the schedule is built for a successful season. So is the coaching staff (new defensive coordinator: Bill McGovern) and the roster (same quarterback: Dorian Thompson-Robinson). Consider UCLA a title contender.
- Washington (8-4/5-4): Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has sustained enough injuries through his college career to raise concerns over reliability. But the Huskies were more talented than they showed last year. The results and personnel should move in lockstep this fall.
- Oregon State (6-6/4-5): One of several teams that could make these projections look foolish. The defense should improve under new coordinator Trent Bray, but will the offense dominate on the ground with a retooled line? If so, the Beavers could land on the top tier.
- Washington State (6-6/4-5): WSU’s 2021 season was so extraordinary that we hesitate to make it the basis for assumptions this fall. Our questions aren’t about coach Jake Dickert’s leadership or quarterback Cam Ward’s talent but about the fellas up front. Will the lines hold?
- Cal (6-6/4-5): Transfer quarterback Jack Plummer (from Purdue) is on the short list of the Pac-12’s most intriguing players in 2022. If he takes the offense to a higher level of efficiency, a breakthrough season could follow. Because you know the Bears will play sound defense.
- Arizona State (5-7/3-6): Perhaps the toughest team to project due to immense roster turnover, coaching staff changes and the looming threat of NCAA sanctions. It’s not hard to sketch a path to mediocrity for the Sun Devils, especially if the discipline improves and the yellow flags vanish.
- Stanford (4-8/2-7): We’re not convinced a bounce-back season looms for the Cardinal, partly because of the wobbly defense but largely because of the unforgiving schedule that includes Utah, Oregon, Washington and Notre Dame on the road and 10 weeks without a break.
- Arizona (4-8/2-7): Learning how to win is the first essential step for a program that has one victory in the past two seasons. For all the roster improvements, coach Jedd Fisch needs more than one offseason to fully close the gap on the pack. Check back in Nov. ’23.
- Colorado (3-9/2-7): The Buffaloes could surprise — they did just that in the COVID year — but the talent lost to the transfer portal greatly exceeds the talent gained. Also, the offensive line is a work in progress, and we’re skeptical the quarterback play will support a mid-level finish.
Championship game: Utah 31, Oregon 26
Two weeks after their loss in Eugene, the Utes cement their status as the Pac-12’s top program with their second consecutive title. But multiple losses once again prevent a CFP appearance.
UW game-by-game breakdown
Sept. 3: vs. Kent State
Comment: Given the Week One implosion last year — and this being Kalen DeBoer’s debut — we expect a first-rate effort from the Huskies, even if the execution is a bit spotty.
Sept. 10: vs. Portland State
Comment: Home favorites are vulnerable to a look-ahead sinkhole, but Portland State lacks the personnel of, say, Montana.
Sept. 17: vs. Michigan State
Comment: The Spartans are loaded on defense and will attempt to exploit any physical weakness along UW’s lines of scrimmage. But the Huskies respond with a performance from a previous era (2016-18) and outmaneuver the visitors with pages from the playbook kept under wraps in Weeks One and Two.
Sept. 24: vs. Stanford
Comment: The September road takes a detour through Letdown City as Stanford, which is coming off a bye, takes full advantage of the extra prep time and UW’s lingering euphoria.
Sept. 30 (Friday): at UCLA
Comment: Knocked for a loop by Stanford, the Huskies are unable to regain their footing against an opponent that has the offensive balance to take whatever UW’s defense gives.
Oct. 8: at Arizona State
Comment: So much for that 3-0 start. But at least receivers aren’t running six-yard patterns on third-and-nine. This skid is about personnel, not scheme.
Oct. 15: vs. Arizona
Comment: It’s not easy or clean, but the Huskies take advantage of Arizona being in a vulnerable spot following a home showdown against Oregon.
Oct. 22: at Cal
Comment: The past three head-to-heads have produced one-score results, and we expect the same here. First team to 18 wins.
Oct. 29: idle
Comment: No competitive advantage; the Beavers are also idle.
Nov. 4 (Friday): vs. Oregon State
Comment: Whether it’s a bad fourth-down spot or a busted play on special teams, something screwy in the fourth quarter will make all the difference.
Nov. 12: at Oregon
Comment: The difference is speed — speed at scrimmage, speed on the perimeter, speed in the backfield, speed on special teams. The Ducks have more of it, everywhere.
Nov. 19: vs. Colorado
Comment: Remember the absolute clunker in Boulder late in the 2019 season? This is the opposite. UW rolls.
Nov. 26: at Washington State
Comment: What a difference a year makes. Also helpful: a real offense.
WSU game-by-game breakdown
Sept. 3: vs. Idaho
Comment: Cougars learned a hard lesson in last year’s opener. But Idaho is no Utah State.
Sept. 10: at Wisconsin
Comment: Scouting report on the Badgers: nine wins last year, returning quarterback, elite tailback, veteran line, revamped defense. Tough assignment for WSU but not quite insurmountable.
Sept. 17: vs. Colorado State
Comment: Classic trap game off the Wisconsin trip and with the Ducks looming. CSU will be ready under new coach Jay Norvell, who moved over from Nevada. The Cougars better beware.
Sept. 24: vs. Oregon
Comment: WSU hasn’t beaten Oregon in the post-Mike Leach era. Victory requires a next-level game from Cameron Ward. We’re not sure he’s ready just yet.
Oct. 1: vs. Cal
Comment: When game week arrives, this won’t feel like one the Cougars should win. Which is why we’re predicting victory.
Oct. 8: at USC
Comment: The Trojans will have one eye on their upcoming showdown at Utah, thus providing WSU with a path to keep it competitive for at least two and perhaps three quarters.
Oct. 15: at Oregon State
Comment: Some intra-conference series take inexplicable turns. We cannot explain WSU’s dominance of the Beavers, nor can it last forever.
Oct. 22: idle
Comment: WSU and Utah are both off this week, but their break is cut short by two days — it’s more of a half-bye.
Oct. 27 (Thursday): vs. Utah
Comment: Another series the Cougars owned during peak Leach-era success. The reconfigured offensive line will face a Wisconsin-level test, and fail.
Nov. 5: at Stanford
Comment: The visitors rise up and make all the plays in the fourth quarter to record their sixth consecutive victory over the Cardinal — this, after losing the previous eight.
Nov. 12: vs. Arizona State
Comment: November momentum is the best momentum, especially when wrapped with the Pullman chill.
Nov. 19: at Arizona
Comment: Both teams have one eye on their upcoming rivalry games. But the Cougars are playing for a bowl berth, and Arizona is not.
Nov. 26: vs. Washington
Comment: We’re more excited to watch the post-game festivities, which could include a flag-planting by the visitors, than the game itself.