If I told you, when the confetti rained down on Georgia in Sofi Stadium last January, that the Pac-12 would be the deepest conference in college football next season, would you believe me?
Probably not. But here we are.
A tumultuous offseason for the conference out west changed college football forever. Conference realignment, absurd media deals, and frustration between universities and conference officials cast a cloud of doubt over the league’s future. And sure enough, once the dust settled, the Pac-12 had dwindled down to two.
Ironically, the “Conference of Champions” is having one of its best seasons in its existence. After one week of conference play, the Pac-12 leads all Power Five conferences with four teams inside the top 10 of the Associated Press Top 25. Washington, USC, Oregon, and Utah rank 7th-10th, respectively.
Starting at the top, the Washington Huskies are only building off their momentum from last season’s surprising surge. Head coach Kalen DeBoer’s scheme has placed quarterback Michael Penix Jr. squarely in the race for the Heisman Trophy. Penix leads the nation with 1,636 passing yards and 16 passing touchdowns through four games while only being taken down for one sack. Star receivers Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan, who are beginning to pick up considerable NFL draft buzz, only complement Penix’s game-wrecking abilities. DeBoer and offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb allow Penix to get the ball out of his hands quickly, spreading the defense out before taking their shots downfield to Odunze. It’s truly a brilliant mix of game planning and talent that has looked unstoppable through four weeks.
The issue for the Huskies is their lack of talent along the offensive line. Despite only allowing one sack thus far, Washington’s offensive front hasn’t been able to garner enough push to run the ball effectively, averaging just 4.8 yards per carry on the season. Their defense is also nothing to write home about, generating just five sacks and allowing 370 yards per game.
The strategy in Seattle is simple enough: just score more. Easy enough, but Washington won’t face its first true test until Oregon comes to town in mid-October. For now, the Huskies have a notable chance at the College Football Playoff, with a dominating offense that has yet to be challenged.
USC was well on its way to the playoff last season until it all came crumbling down in the Pac-12 Championship loss to Utah. Still, Caleb Williams won the Heisman decisively, head coach Lincoln Riley remains the best quarterback whisperer in the sport, and the Trojans were expected to take the final step into the top four this year.
Aside from Williams, USC is loaded on the offensive side of the ball. Behind an improved offensive line, receivers Brenden Rice, Mario Williams, and Tahj Washington have paced the vertical passing game with nine combined touchdowns. Freshmen receivers Duce Robinson and Zachariah Branch draw matchups with linebackers in the middle of the field, who are no match for their shiftiness. Branch has already made a major impact on special teams as well, with two return touchdowns.
As is the theme for many Pac-12 contenders, the Trojans have a quick-strike offense but a very suspect defense, also reminiscent of Riley’s teams at Oklahoma. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who joined the USC staff with Riley from Oklahoma, hasn’t turned the talent into production. The Trojans are allowing 20 points per game, which doesn’t sound all that bad until you peek at their schedule, which includes offensively-challenged teams like San Jose State, Stanford, Nevada, and Arizona State. This past weekend, USC surrendered 28 points to a Sun Devil offense that had not scored in over 100 minutes coming into the game.
The Trojans should be seen as the favorite to win the Pac-12 and possibly sneak into a playoff spot, but they will only go as far as the defense will take them.
Here’s where things can get tricky. Oregon is another team that has invested heavily in the transfer portal. Their quarterback, Auburn transfer Bo Nix, made his nation-leading 51st career start on Saturday against the Buffaloes. Running back Bucky Irving, formerly of Minnesota, has made a name for himself as one of the best backs in all of college football, garnering over 1,300 total yards a season ago and picking up where he left off this season. On defense, the Ducks brought in SEC transfers with safety Tysheem Johnson from Ole Miss, who currently leads the team in tackles, corner Khyree Jackson from Alabama, and edge rusher Jordan Burch from South Carolina, who leads the team with three sacks.
The Ducks are thriving in recruiting as well, highlighted by junior receiver Troy Franklin, with over 400 receiving yards and five touchdowns already this season. Even the hometown, two-sport, walk-on linebacker Bryce Boettcher is third on the team in tackles and the energizer of a vastly improved defense.
So, where do they fall short? For starters, their secondary under defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi has been exposed several times this year, especially in penalties. In the Ducks’ lone road test this season at Texas Tech, the secondary committed six fouls, all of which resulted in first downs for the Red Raiders in a close-call win. When Oregon takes on teams with a surplus of talent at playmaker positions, their young secondary must limit the deep passing game without committing a penalty, something Colorado couldn’t test them much without Travis Hunter.
Secondly, Duck fans will painfully explain why they hate the month of November, when Oregon has consistently seen promising seasons slip through their fingertips. Last season, it came at home against rival Washington and on the road at in-state rival Oregon State. In 2021, it happened twice against Utah, once in Salt Lake City and again in Las Vegas for the conference championship. Perhaps most memorably, in current Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert’s final season in Eugene, the Ducks were shocked in Tempe by the Sun Devils in a 31–28 loss in 2019. No matchup in November can be looked past this year. In this year’s penultimate month, the Ducks host California, USC, and Oregon State, while traveling to the scene of the crime in 2019 to face a lowly Arizona State.
This is Oregon’s best shot at the playoff since Marcus Mariota’s Heisman campaign led the Ducks to the inaugural playoff at the Rose Bowl and national title game in the 2014–15 season. Bo Nix is capable. He has improved so much under this Will Stein-led offense. He’s focused. He’s having fun. Don’t be surprised if he’s in New York City in December, or even better, in a playoff semifinal on New Year’s Day.
After consecutive Pac-12 championships and losses in the Rose Bowl, Utah is viewed as a big dog in the conference. Head coach Kyle Whittingham somehow finds a way to win every year, and so far, this season is no different. The Utes are effectively operating at half speed. They are missing quarterback Cameron Rising, tight end Brant Kuithe, and multiple starters on defense. But wouldn’t you know it, they’re 4–0 with wins over Florida, Baylor, and UCLA.
Rising, who is recovering from a torn ACL in the Rose Bowl against Penn State, suited up last weekend against the Bruins but never saw the field. The Utes offense hasn’t been clicking, whether Bryson Barnes or Nate Johnson are under center. Getting Rising back boosts all of the playmakers, like running back Ja’Quinden Jackson and wideout Money Parks, a great candidate for the all-name team.
Defensively, Utah is known for its physicality up front, and that hasn’t changed. Junior defensive end Jonah Elliss leads the team with 5.5 sacks, and Karene Reid is one of the best coverage linebackers in the country. Reid has tallied three pass deflections and even opened last week’s game against UCLA with a pick-six, which ultimately proved to be the difference in the seven-point win. The Utes defense is only going to get stronger as injured starters and depth players return to balance the team out.
What’s concerning for Utah’s chances at a three-peat in the Pac-12 is their daunting road schedule, beginning with a trip to Corvallis to play an Oregon State team in wounded animal mode, fighting for its life after a loss in Pullman. From there, the Utes will travel to USC, Washington, and Arizona before finishing up at home with the Rumble in the Rockies. Whittingham said he hopes to have Rising back this week against the Beavers’ ferocious defense, but nothing is clear.
Rising’s eventual return will provide a lift to a stagnant offense that has somehow willed Utah to an undefeated start against a challenging non-conference schedule and UCLA, but the question is if Rising can settle in fast enough. If he does, Utah could surprise people again in Las Vegas and leave the Pac-12 with a three-peat.
Apart from the top contenders, there are still several teams good enough to ruin a contender’s season. Oregon State and Washington State, the last remaining conference members after this year, both feature quality offenses led by transfer quarterbacks. DJ Uiagalelei transferred to Corvallis this past offseason from Clemson, where he failed to live up to expectations as the heir to Trevor Lawrence. The Beavers have a potent ground attack with running backs Deshaun Fenwick and Damien Martinez. Their stifling defense, headlined by defensive back Akili Arnold, takes a lot of pressure off Uiagalelei. The Beavers lack the star power in recruiting to contend for the Pac-12 title, especially after the loss to Washington State last week, but their defense and experienced quarterback could help them knock a contender off the ladder.
The Cougars of Washington State have never sniffed the conference title game, but they can always be relied on for one thing: The air-raid offense. The late Mike Leach brought his infamous air-raid attack to Pullman in 2012 and changed how the Cougars play football since. Current head coach Jake Dickert has continued the tradition under Cameron Ward, who threw for more than 400 yards and four touchdowns in the Wazzu’s 38–35 win over the Beavers. Ward hooked up with receiver Josh Kelly eight times for 159 yards and three scores, and a dazzling grab along the sideline. Washington State will always be a threat to outscore you by throwing it deep, which makes the thin secondaries around the conference shiver.
In Southern California, with a five-star freshman in Dante Moore at quarterback, Chip Kelly has quietly grown a competitor in the shadow of the rival Trojans. While Kelly manages to get the most out of a young and inexperienced offense (averaging 456 yards per game), the seasoned veterans on defense are what separates them from their conference foes. Defensive lineman Laitatu Latu is one of the most coveted NFL prospects in the country right now and leads the team with four sacks. Corner Jaylin Davies, an Oregon transfer, leads the team with four deflections, and senior linebacker Darius Muasau has over 90 tackles each of the past three seasons, two in Hawaii, and 11 forced turnovers in his collegiate career.
Kelly is no stranger to the big game, coaching both in the NFL and in a national championship for Oregon in 2011. UCLA gets the Trojans at an opportune time, as USC will have faced Washington and Oregon in the prior weeks, thus presenting a golden opportunity for the Bruins to spoil their rival’s season.
The contenders are all very similar, each containing offensive prowess that is scarce around the country, but a suspect unit on defense could hold them back. The potential spoilers are just the opposite, with rampaging front sevens that are difficult to gameplan for. The big four of Washington, USC, Oregon, and Utah all face each other this season, so it’s possible that the conference cannibalism continues into the league’s last chance at the playoff. If any of the teams can finish undefeated or with just one loss against the other contenders, they’ll have a chance to redeem themselves in the conference title game and easily make it. Easier said than done, as the last time a Pac-12 team finished with one loss or less was in 2016, when the one-loss Huskies made the playoff, only to be stomped by the Alabama Crimson Tide.
In the end, the path to the playoff is through each other. Washington and Oregon are the most balanced squads in contention, so the October 14th matchup, followed by a potential rematch in Las Vegas, could decide who receives the final Pac-12 CFP bid. Anything can happen, but in my mind, the Ducks and Huskies are the most likely qualifiers.
The depth in roster talent, strong-minded coaches, and Heisman-caliber quarterbacks make this season unlike any other. The swan song of the Pac-12 is sung beautifully with offensive spectacles that should make for a cinematic conclusion.
Grab your popcorn, for it’s only just begun.