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Off-Season Disaster Not Enough To Offset Banner Year for the Pac-12


The worst-kept secret is that things have been going south, or east in some cases, for the Pac-12 Conference the last few weeks. The entire league is on the brink of collapsing after multiple universities decided to leave for what they believe are better pastures in the Big 12 and Big Ten. On the flip side, the best-kept secret is that the Pac-12 is set to be a very strong and competitive league on the gridiron in 2023. The final season of the Pac 12 as we have known it for over a century, has the chance to be one of its best. That's right, the Pac-12 conference that is literally falling apart at the seams, akin to tender meat that just can't stay on the bone, is set up for a banner year. The league boasts multiple College Football Playoff contenders and one of the deepest middle tiers of any conference in college football.


 

The Pac-12 upper tier

Heading into the 2023 season there are several programs that appear to be on the precipice of making a deep run, which could include a playoff berth.

USC Trojans


The Trojans are heading into the second year with their new head coach Lincoln Riley. The former Oklahoma head man, led the Sooners to the playoff three times as a head coach, but he hasn't been back since a 2019 loss to LSU.


With a slew of new faces coming in from the transfer portal, his 2022 recruiting class aging a year in a new system, and a defense that is expected to improve, the sky is the limit. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner, QB Caleb Williams, is significantly raising the ceiling.


The Trojans were able to come away with a respectable 11-win season in year one under Riley. The big question for the Trojans would be how much improvement we see from Alex Grinch's speed defense.

Oregon Ducks

Washington Huskies

Utah Utes


 

Top-notch quarterback play

The Pac-12 top to bottom has the best QB play of any league in the country in 2023. The group is led, of course, by Heisman trophy winner and likely future first-overall NFL draft pick Caleb Williams. However, gunslingers like Bo Nix, Cam Rising, Michael Penix, and Cameron Ward have all made names for themselves. UCLA is also likely to start true freshman Dante Moore, who was one of the top recruits in the 2023 recruiting cycle and was a consensus five-star prospect out of King High School in Detroit, Michigan.

Caleb Williams


The reigning Heisman trophy winner carried what was by many accounts a make-shift roster, left behind by the previous coaching staff, to the finish line in several close games. While the two losses to Utah and the blown big lead in the bowl game to Tulane stick out like a sore thumb, there is no denying USC made substantial strides in 2022. In large part, that is due to the might of the Oklahoma transfer. Williams had 52 total touchdowns and over 4500 passing yards. Ahead of the 2024 NFL Draft, Caleb is being pegged as one of the best QB prospects to come out in recent years.

Williams is also carving out one of the most incredible careers in the history of the sport. To have such an impact in two of the game's most storied rivalries - The Red River Rivalry, as well as the Notre Dame/USC game - adding another Heisman trophy could put him in the running for arguably the best career in the history of the sport.

Bo Nix

Cameron Ward

Cam Rising

DJ Uiagalelei


 

Not your usual middle of the PAC

While the top of the league can be clearly defined, the middle is also strong; a few could emerge as more serious contenders than projected. Keep your eye on the following programs to potentially take a giant step forward.



Pac-12 Beaver Stadium
Photo Credit: Kirt Edblom via Flickr

The Beavers had one of the quietest 10-win campaigns I can recall in recent seasons, finishing things off with an absolute beatdown of a "vaunted SEC opponent". What head coach Jonathan Smith has built in Corvallis is nothing short of spectacular. Oregon State is not exactly a stranger to success; they were a good program in the early part of this century, however recently, they had become the laughing stock of the Pac-12 Conference and one of the worst programs among the Power Five.

The Beavs will bring in a few new impact players, which include former Five-Star QB DJ Uiagalelei from Clemson, and incoming freshman edge Kelze Howard. In addition, Oregon State returns four starters along their offensive line, and their star tailback Damien Martinez. So, the run game should be full systems go, especially considering the one spot void of a returning starter has been filled by highly sought-after Nevada transfer Grant Starck.

This team is a darkhorse in the PAC-12 race.

UCLA Bruins

Arizona Wildcats

Washington State Cougars


 

Intriguing First-Year Head Coaches

Kenny Dillingham - Arizona State

Kenny Dillingham has one of the most unique stories you will ever hear. Dillingham was a good high school quarterback with aspirations of one day playing at the collegiate level, when he tore his ACL and was unable to ever be the same.


He decided he would go to Arizona State, where he would study law. While there, Dillingham was encouraged to become a student coach. In a near Rudy-esque story from the coaching side of the sport, he rapidly climbed up through the ranks. Dillingham was brilliant, and it was immediately clear to anyone who had the opportunity to work with him. He would later work under Mike Norvell at Memphis and Florida State as an offensive coordinator before heading to Eugene last season with Dan Lanning.


Dillingham did such a fantastic job at Oregon, helping to reshape the career of Bo Nix, that it was clear he would not have to wait long to become a head coach. Arizona State had an opening and brought Dillingham home. At just 32 years of age, the coach has his dream job, coaching his alma mater.


The state of Arizona has been rich with talent in recent years with the likes of Bijan Robinson, Spencer Rattler, and Kelee Ringo bringing attention to the area. Can Kenny Dillingham keep these top-tier prospects in the state? How quickly can he turn things around for the Sun Devils?

Deion Sanders - Colorado

Everyone knows about Deion "Prime" Sanders from his days down in Tallahassee and as one of the NFL's greatest players. However, Coach Prime has never stopped caring about the game and picked up a particular interest in coaching in recent years. Sanders spent time coaching high school ball in Florida, participating as a coach in All-America games as well.


Eventually, this led to Prime heading to Jackson State, where he revolutionized the way fans view FCS and HBCU programs. He built one of the most stacked FCS rosters we had ever seen. While the Celebration Bowl was not exactly kind to the former superstar defensive back, his impact and pedigree were felt.


Coach Sanders has always beat to his own drum; this has not stopped in coaching. From correcting reporters who believe they are on a first-name basis, to being brutally honest about his pedigree, and of course the unprecedented roster reset, he is uniquely his own man. This has not exactly rubbed everyone the right way, but there is no denying, he has brought excitement back to Boulder for the first time in more than a decade. Just how far can Deion take the Buffs?

Troy Taylor - Stanford

Troy Taylor is one of those California golden boys who always seems to do everything well. Taylor was a California state champion as a quarterback in high school, then went on to play at Cal before being drafted by the Miami Dolphins to the NFL. Taylor held nearly every passing record in Cal football history before Jared Goff arrived on campus and is universally respected in California sports circles.


Taylor, after his short stint in the NFL, began his climb up the coaching ladder, spending time in the high school ranks before heading to the college level, where he coached just about every offensive position group you could think of. This helped his already gifted mind to continue to learn and grow an even greater understanding of offensive ideology before heading back to the high school ranks, this time as a head coach of Folsom. Overall, he had a 73-18 record at that level.


He returned to college, this time as an offensive coordinator at Eastern Washington, which quickly led to a couple-year stint in Utah under Kyle Whittingham. He used that opportunity to launch himself into being the head coach of Sacramento State where he built a tremendous program in the blink of an eye out of a perennial loser. Stanford, after recently parting ways with David Shaw, brought in this golden boy. Stanford will never struggle to get into the door of any home of California athletes; his name is a free entry into any parents' living room and any high school facility.


This hire reminds me very much of the one Texas Tech made in Joey McGuire; there could not be a better possible fit. The California legend will do big things at Stanford. The only question: how quickly can he get the Cardinals back on track?

This version of the Pac-12 is going out with a bang!


After over a century of memorable moments, the Pac-12 will change forever. While the league will likely survive, there is no doubt that it will never be the same. The schools leaving are the ones most recognizable to the league's brand. In many ways, it's a bitter pill to swallow. College football has always been a game about tradition and pageantry. The game is rapidly changing with the introduction of the transfer portal, NIL, and conference realignment. While the past days may be missed by traditionalists, like myself, the new era stands to be an exciting new chapter, one that will lead to new adventures and rivalries that may replace some of the current classics.

Just know, the traditional Pac-12 conference will power forward and give the fans one last HOORAH! In its final hour, expect at least one Pac-12 team to make it to the College Football Playoff and several more to handle postseason business, culminating in the best season on the Gridiron for the league in more than a decade. There could not be a more fitting final chapter.

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