Pac-12 midseason awards: UW’s Penix, Utah’s Whittingham lead our look at the best (and worst) from the first half

From T-shirts to QB play and legal affairs, we examined everything

The final season of Pac-12 football as we know it also happens to be the most compelling Pac-12 football season in eons. With seven weeks gone and seven to go, the Hotline looks back at the best and worst of the first half…

The main plot I: Outstanding achievement

The conference entered 2023 with high expectations and easily exceeded them. It has a 29-6 non-conference record and a winning record against Power Five opponents. It has six teams in the current AP top-25 poll — there were eight at one point — and two in the top ten. It has three Heisman Trophy favorites and five College Football Playoff contenders (teams with fewer than two losses). To put it another way, the Pac-12 is the best league in the country after so many bad seasons.

Top storyline II: QB performance

The conference’s most talented quarterback lineup has performed admirably in front of a national audience. The betting favorite for the Heisman Trophy is Washington’s Michael Penix Jr., with USC’s Caleb Williams and Oregon’s Bo Nix also in the running. Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders, Washington State’s Cam Ward, Arizona’s Noah Fifita, and Oregon State’s DJ Uiagalelei are among the top 30 quarterbacks in the country based on efficiency rating, joining the three aforementioned stars.

Top storyline III: Colorado’s Ascension

In September, the Buffaloes and first-year coach Deion Sanders dominated the college football universe, generating massive TV ratings and attracting new fans. Sanders has appeared on ’60 Minutes’ and been parodied on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ despite playing for a mediocre team that may not be bowl-eligible. We attribute the Sanders craze to the team’s season-opening victory over TCU. If that game hadn’t been scheduled, or if the CU coaching staff hadn’t done an outstanding job preparing the Buffs, the spotlight on CU wouldn’t have been as bright.

Top storyline IV: Legal wrangling

While a thrilling season unfolds on the field, an intramural battle erupts in the courtroom. The Pac-12 has been sued by Washington State and Oregon State, the only schools that have not committed to another conference for next season. The ‘Pac-2’ and the ‘Pac-10’ later agreed to enter mediation and set a preliminary injunction hearing for November 14.

Washington QB Michael Penix Jr. is the top offensive player.

Penix continued where he left off last season, putting up big numbers, being extremely efficient, and being able to deliver the ball accurately anywhere on the field. He leads the country in passing yards (383.5 per game) and ranks second in yards per attempt and third in passer rating. Oh, and he’s the overwhelming favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, according to the most recent BetMGM odds.

Utah DE Jonah Elliss is the top defensive player.

Elliss was not on our bingo card when the season began, but he has had a significant impact. The son of former Utah All-American Luther Elliss ranks second in both sacks (nine) and tackles-for-loss (13). His relentless pressure has been the foundation of a defense that has carried the two-time defending conference champions while their offense sputters.

Kyle Whittingham of Utah is the best coach.

This choice will be criticized in some quarters, but it is based on our expectations: Washington was picked to win the conference by the Hotline in January, so the team’s performance thus far was expected. We would never have predicted that the Utes would be 5-1 with four wins over Power Five opponents — Florida, by the way, is 5-2 — without the services of injured quarterback Cam Rising. Utah is also missing a slew of key offensive playmakers, including tight end Brant Kuithe, and has been plagued by injuries in general. Despite this, Whittingham’s team is right in the thick of things.

Ryan Grubb of Washington is the top offensive coordinator.

Sure, coach Kalen DeBoer has a lot of say, but Grubb runs the offense, which averages 44.3 points and 544 yards per game. The frequency with which Husky receivers are wide-open downfield continues to astound us, a testament to the scheme and Grubb’s ability to anticipate opposing coaches’ tactics. Honorable mention: Will Stein, Oregon’s first-year coordinator, whose collaboration with Nix has been seamless.

Johnny Nansen of Arizona is the best defensive coordinator.

Arizona’s defense has improved the most on either side of the ball, especially considering the level of competition. Nansen’s unit, a mix of returnees and transfers, was 126th in the country in yards allowed per play last season; this season, it’s 57th. Despite five turnovers by Arizona’s offense, the Wildcats shut down WSU in Pullman, held Washington to 31 points, stymied USC’s aerial game, and held Mississippi State to 24 points in regulation. Honorable mentions: Morgan Scalley of Utah and D’Anton Lynn of UCLA.

Jim Michalczik of Oregon State is the top position coach.

The Pac-12 veteran is in charge of Oregon State’s offensive line and the Beavers’ elite running game. Despite the absence of blue-chip recruits and elite NFL prospects, OSU still averages 195 rushing yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry. Jonathan Smith’s smart hire in December 2017 only looks smarter six years later. Year after year, Michalczik coaches the most important position (aside from quarterback) better than anyone else in the conference.

Washington 36, Oregon 33, best game

The Oct. 14 clash of top-10 teams easily cleared the bar, as the bitter rivals produced a riveting three-hour duel that was decided in the final seconds. It was well-played (with few penalties and turnovers) and featured strong defense on both sides. The game would not have been as exciting in our opinion if both teams had scored in the 40s. (The fact that 36 points were enough in a matchup of high-powered offenses demonstrates the exceptional level of play.) Honorable mention: USC’s 43-41 triple-overtime victory over Arizona.

Stanford has the best comeback.

Last week in Boulder, the Cardinal trailed Colorado 29-0 at halftime and appeared to be on track for its third thrashing in four conference games. But Stanford’s second half was unlike anything we’d ever seen before, anywhere. The Cardinal scored on every possession, tied the game on the final play of regulation, and won 46-43 in double overtime to complete the Pac-12’s fourth-largest comeback.

Week 1 was the best.

According to STATS, all 12 teams won on the first full weekend of the regular season, marking only the third undefeated week for the conference since 1980 (with a minimum of four games played). Furthermore, the Pac-12 went 8-1 against the spread in FBS games in the first week. If that isn’t a juggernaut, we don’t know what is.

The worst day was September 27.

Arizona State announced days before its season opener that it had self-imposed a bowl ban due to NCAA recruiting violations committed during former coach Herm Edwards’ tenure. When first-year coach Kenny Dillingham addressed reporters hours later, he was visibly shaken, but he handled the situation as well as he could. The decision was, as we wrote at the time, “an epic administrative failure.”

Oregon’s Dan Lanning is the best bet.

In the first half of the Colorado game, Lanning’s fake punt was a stroke of genius that buried the Buffaloes.

Oregon’s Dan Lanning made the worst call.

His decision to forego field goals in the red zone in Husky Stadium on Saturday was flawed but not egregious. But, with two minutes left, a four-point lead, a stout defense, and a hobbling quarterback across the line of scrimmage (Penix), refusing to punt on fourth-and-3 near midfield? That is considered egregious.

Washington State has the best T-shirts.

The Cougars honored Mike Leach in a variety of ways during their Week 2 victory over Wisconsin, their first home game since his death, including T-shirts with pirate swords and the WSU logo.

Lincoln Riley of USC has the best quote I.

Riley took the R-rated route when asked to explain USC’s sloppy play (10 penalties) in the closer-than-expected victory over Arizona State: “Sh**** coaching.” We applaud the candor and can only assume that many USC fans have felt the same way in recent weeks.

Dante Moore of UCLA is the best freshman quarterback.

Moore has struggled, particularly on the road, but his arm talent is unrivaled. The NFL Draft in 2026 is just around the corner.

Noah Fifita of Arizona is the best backup quarterback.

Since taking over for injured starter Jayden de Laura, the freshman has been outstanding. In fact, Fifita has been so good that we expect him to keep the job once de Laura is fully recovered.

Cal TB Jaydn Ott is the most underappreciated player.

He’s the only Pac-12 tailback averaging at least 100 yards per game, and one of only six in the entire Power Five. Consider how good Ott would be if Cal’s passing game was a concern for defenses.

The Pacific Northwest is the best region.

The conference is undeniably stacked. Washington, Oregon, and Oregon State have all been ranked throughout the season, while WSU has fluctuated in and out of the AP top 25. The quartet has a combined record of 21-4 overall and 9-4 in conference play. Mountain schools came in second. Finally, due to the Bay Area: California schools.

Colorado has the worst field storming.

We understand the excitement in Boulder, but the Buffaloes were 23-point favorites over Colorado State, a Group of Five opponent that lost its season opener to Washington State 50-24. CU supporters understandably have a low expectation of success.

The biggest surprise was the officiating.

The Pac-12 lost several referees to the Big Ten and added an eighth crew, and the results have been… satisfactory. The Hotline watches most, if not all, of each game, and we’ve been impressed with the quality of officiating. Yes, there have been some terrible calls, but terrible calls happen every week in every conference. The Pac-12 has thus far avoided the calamities that plagued it last year with frightening regularity. However, there are still six weeks of regular-season play left, giving the officials plenty of time to disappoint.

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