Look for Utah, USC and Oregon to create a riveting conference race
During the upcoming Pac-12 season, the Hotline will track, analyze, and critique all 80-plus football games, including the conference championship and any bowl matchups that may occur.
However, before we take on the role of Sunday morning quarterback, it’s only fair that we play the role of preseason prognosticator.
What’s the point of shooting if you’re not going to call them?
Our preview of the highly anticipated season continues below with conference race projections.
- Washington: The Huskies have been our Pac-12 pick since January, and they have momentum and motivation after finishing last season with seven consecutive wins but no conference title game berth. The retooled offensive line must meet or exceed its 2022 standard in order to keep quarterback Michael Penix upright and deliver missiles to an elite group of wideouts. Bralen Trice and Zion Tupuola-Fetui should provide consistent edge pressure, relieving pressure on the unproven secondary.
- Utah: The two-time defending champions enter 2023 looking to become the first Pac-12 team to three-peat. The health of quarterback Cameron Rising, particularly the strength of his surgically repaired knee, is critical to the team’s success. The defense, particularly the front seven, should be ferocious, giving Rising time to settle in. We’re skeptical of Utah’s playoff push because of the difficult non-conference schedules with Florida and Baylor. The conference race, on the other hand, is a different calculation.
- USC: The Hotline does not pick ties on principle, but the smart money is on a tie between the Trojans, Huskies, and Utes for first or second place. Last year, USC won the regular-season championship thanks to quarterback Caleb Williams’ outstanding play and the team’s out-of-this-world turnover margin. Look for a regression in one of those areas (the turnover margin is more likely). Any reversal could be mitigated by improved defensive play. But we have to see it before we believe it.
- Oregon: The rises of Washington and USC have pushed Oregon out of the Pac-12 spotlight, which could benefit second-year coach Dan Lanning and 17th-year quarterback Bo Nix. Points will not be an issue, but avoiding points may be. The defense should have a strong front line. Will the other positions consistently perform at a high level? (They didn’t last year.) We wouldn’t be surprised if Oregon wins the conference title, but each of the three teams listed above the Ducks makes a slightly stronger case.
- Oregon State: All eyes are on quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, whose raw talent is exactly what the Beavers require to advance. Will his efficiency, however, be sufficient for a team with less margin for error than its trophy-hunting counterparts? Expect more of the same from Ohio State: masterful coaching, a run-heavy offense, and above-average defense. Also, given their second-class status in the realignment game, expect the Beavers — and Washington State — to play with an extra dose of motivation.
- UCLA: No projection unsettles us more than this one because, to be honest, it feels too easy. The Bruins finished tied for fifth place last season, have massive voids at quarterback and tailback to fill, and return a slew of starters from a mediocre defense. Having said that, they have a veteran offensive line and a relatively easy schedule (no Oregon or Washington). In a tough conference, that combination is ideal for a middle-of-the-pack finish. However, projections that feel just right are usually horribly wrong.
- Washington State: As the Cougars enter their second season with quarterback Cam Ward at the helm, the downside risk far outweighs the upside potential. The return of tailback Nakia Watson is significant, but the offense will not advance without strong play from a veteran line that struggled in 2022. The competition, in our opinion, is WSU’s primary challenge. The conference’s bottom should be stronger than it was last year. If the Cougars don’t make strides, they risk losing ground in the standings.
- Arizona: Coach Jedd Fisch quickly changed the tone of the program, taking the Wildcats from 1-11 in his first season to 5-7 in his second. However, margins are thin for football coaches at basketball schools in college towns with limited local recruiting prowess. Fisch needs a bowl berth this fall to keep his momentum going. Much is riding on quarterback Jayden de Laura’s maturity and line of scrimmage play. From here, Arizona lacks the personnel up front to crack the Pac-12’s top half, but it should earn a postseason bid.
- Cal: Coach Justin Wilcox’s early-career success gave way to ridiculous COVID restrictions, institutional challenges unique to Cal, and his own staffing mistakes, the hiring of former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave at the top of that list. Jake Spavital, the new playcaller, worked under coach Sonny Dykes in Berkeley in the mid-2010s. (Cal quarterback Sam Jackson V transferred from TCU, where Dykes is now.) The Bears are known for their strong defense, so any offensive improvement could propel the team forward.
- Colorado: We struggled with CU’s situation, weighing Deion Sanders’ collection of incoming playmakers against the reality of 60-plus new faces — and the questionable depth that could result from massive roster turnover. Another unknown is whether Sanders can effectively coach at the Power Five level. (The answer may not be obvious for another two or three years.) But we do know that the September schedule is brutal, with games against TCU, Nebraska, Oregon, and USC. In Week One, the Buffaloes had better be in midseason form.
- Stanford: Troy Taylor’s first nine months on the job were filled with positives, but the next three will serve as judge and jury. He doesn’t have much at quarterback or on the offensive line to work with, and the defense returns only three starters. (That might be a good thing given its 2022 performance). Taylor employs the best players available, but he still loses far more often than he wins. The Cardinals’ talent cupboard was not empty. It was removed from the kitchen wall and thrown into the basement to collect dust.
- Arizona State: Rookie coach Kenny Dillingham earns an A+ for energy and enthusiasm, but his team has a C- roster full of newcomers and unproven returnees. We do not anticipate high-level quarterback play, especially in comparison to the competition, and there is no elite tailback. The secondary should be among the best in the conference, but the front seven is riddled with concerns. Furthermore, the Sun Devils were assigned to both Washington and Oregon in the schedule rotation this season, which was the last thing they needed in Year One of Dillingham’s turnaround project.
Washington wins the Pac-12 championship over Utah. Comment: Never underestimate Utah’s culture of toughness — both mental and physical — and the role it plays in the face of adversity. However, the Huskies have far too much offensive talent to be contained. (At this point, the retooled offensive line should have come together.) Meanwhile, Utah’s offense is simply not sharp enough to keep up, and the quest for a three-peat falls short. The final score was UW 34, Utah 24.