In the continually changing landscape of college football, few have experienced more over the close season than the Pac-12.
Gone are the traditional North and South Divisions, replaced now with a single group of 12 teams. The two teams with the best winning percentage in conference play will face each other in the end of season championship game.
Gone will be USC and UCLA the season after next. Both teams have signed up to join the expanding Big Ten (which already has fourteen teams). Oregon and Washington are rumoured to be mulling over a move to follow the Southern California teams across. Quite what this means for the long-term future of the Pac-12 remains to be seen. The Big 12 are looking to add to their ranks and both Arizona teams plus Utah and Colorado could be under consideration.
On a more positive note, Lincoln Riley and Dan Lanning are the two headline coaching additions, landing at USC and Oregon respectively. They will be aiming to unseat defending champions Utah in what looks like a competitive conference. Could this lead to a first College Football Playoff place in six years?
The opening weekend will illustrate the strength of Pac-12 teams as the top two face SEC competition. Oregon face national champions, and Lanning's former team, Georgia, while Utah visit Florida in the Gators' first game under Billy Napier.
Utah's consistent improvement under coach Kyle Whittingham led them to a first Pac-12 championship and an impressive showing against Ohio State in the Rose Bowl has the Utes dreaming of a first trip to the College Football Playoff.
Returning quarterback Cameron Rising and running back Tavion Thomas give Utah a dynamic one-two punch on offense. Thomas ran for 1,108 yards and 21 touchdowns while Rising was the highest rated QB in the conference. Four of the starting five offensive linemen return, including the talented right tackle Braeden Daniels. Utah's defense, despite the departure of Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell to the NFL, remains solid. Look for Clark Phillips III to shine at cornerback.
Joining Dan Lanning as the new boys in Eugene are quarterback Bo Nix and offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham, who coached Nix at Auburn in his strong freshman year. Nix is a great runner out of the pocket and an improved passer. He will be protected by all five returning offensive linemen who play their third season together.
Lanning brings knowledge of bringing championship winning defenses to Oregon and will have seven returning starters to work with, including Noah Sewell who will form a fearsome linebacking duo with Justin Flowe. Home games against conference rivals UCLA, Washington and Utah give Lanning a favourable start. He could make a statement in Week 1 against his old team.
Trojan fans will be drooling in anticipation ahead of the new season under the guidance of the expensively acquired Lincoln Riley. The new head coach brings a 55-10 record from Oklahoma and like college football's Pied Piper, has lured top talent to follow him to Los Angeles. Top running backs Travis Dye and Austin Jones move within the conference from Oregon and Stanford respectively, strengthening USC while weakening their rivals.
Southern California is renowned for the story of Serena and Venus, the Williams sisters. It may also be remembered in time for the emergence of the Williams brothers (in namesake only). Quarterback Caleb and receiver Marvin followed Riley to Hollywood, and are joined by Brenden Rice, son of the NFL's greatest wideout, Jerry. USC's offense looks spectacular although the defense needs some work. Revenge for last season's 62-33 thrashing by UCLA and a road trip to Utah will define their season.
Chip Kelly enters his fifth year at UCLA with some confidence. Dual-threat quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson returns for a fifth season in L.A. having passed for 21 touchdowns and run for a further nine. He will be joined by former Michigan transfer Zach Charbonnet who ran for 1,137 yards and 13 touchdowns in his first year for the Bruins.
The defense is bolstered by the hire of former NFL assistant Bill McGovern as defensive coordinator. He will be joined by former Cowboy and 49ers defensive star Ken Norton, Jr. who will coach the linebackers. Gabriel and Grayson Murphy join as impact defensive ends from North Texas. Tough games on the road at revenge-seeking USC and Pac-12 favourites Utah will have a big say in the outcome of their season.
New head coach Kalen DeBoer comes in from Fresno State to give the Huskies a shot in the arm. He will be reunited with Michael Penix Jr. who transfers from Indiana, where DeBoer was his offensive coordinator during an impressive 2020 season. They will have their work cut out to improve an insipid offense that averaged less than 100 yards per game on the ground. Both will have a brief reunion with the Big Ten as Washington hosts Michigan State in Week 3.
If DeBoer can wrap his arms around the offense and accelerate the scoring, the Huskies' consistently strong defense can lead them to contention. It might be a season too early.
The Cougars should be fun to watch this year. New offensive coordinator Eric Morris comes in from FCS team Incarnate Word and brings their star quarterback Cameron Ward with him to jump start the Washington State offense. Head coach Jake Dickert likened Ward to Brett Favre, for his ability to adapt and extend plays. Ward also threw for 4,700 yards and 47 touchdowns last year. If he has half the highlight reel plays Favre created in college, Cougars tickets will be well worth the price.
An experienced defense with six returning starters and a strong pass rush will offer a balanced threat. Road match ups with Oregon State, Utah, Stanford and non-conference Wisconsin will test them.
The Beavers boast one of the best running games in the Pac-12. Deshaun Fenwick and Trey Lowe averaged 6 yards per carry between them and will be joined by Texas freshman sensation Damien Martinez. Junior quarterback Chance Nolan can also run the ball.
Oregon State's defense returns the majority of a promising secondary who should help shore up leaky pass protection.A tough itinerary sees road games at Utah, Stanford and Washington before hosting state rival Oregon in the last regular season game.
Coach David Shaw has a good chance of recapturing former glory at Stanford if he can soldify a shaky offensive line and get the best out of NFL quarterback prospect Tanner McKee. Benjamin Yurosek at tight end and receivers Elijah Higgins and Michael Wilson give McKee a plethora of receiving options, although the running game is weaker for Austin Jones' defection to USC.
The Cardinal defense is a weak point, the lowest-ranked in the Pac-12 last year. Stanford has to improve in the trenches to continue improving. The last conference title, won in 2015, seems a long time ago.
The best news to come out of Berkeley was the Golden Bears signing coach Justin Wilcox to a five-year contract extension, rewarding him for turning down the opportunity to coach his alma mater, Oregon. Jack Plummer comes in from Purdue to replace Chase Garber at quarterback, although he may struggle behind an inexperienced offensive line.
On defense. linebacker Jackson Sirmon transfers from Washington to play for his dad, defensive coordinator Peter. A transitional season for an inexperienced Cal team, but Wilcox's commitment offers a glimpse of a promising future.
Coach Herm Edwards is under pressure in his fifth season in Tempe. Rocked by an NCAA investigation which saw the Sun Devils lose five coaches in the off-season, Arizona State's recruiting cycle suffered and the result is a comparatively poor incoming class.
The Sun Devils also lost quarterback Jayden Daniels who bolted for LSU. He will replaced by another SEC quarterback, dual-threat Florida transfer Emory Jones, who can be electric on his day and frustrating on others. Xazavian Valladay, the Wyoming graduate transfer, adds proven thousand-yard rushing ability to Arizona's backfield.
After a 1-11 season, things can only get better for the Wildcats. Arizona has recruited well and the front office have landed some promising transfers. Tetairoa McMillan flipped his commitment from Oregon to Arizona. He is a four-star wide receiver recruit who has impressed in camp and will make an instant impact. He joins UTEP transfer Jacob Cowing, who had 1,354 receiving yards last season. Hunter Echols joins a revamped defense from USC, joined by former coach Johnny Nansen who takes over as defensive coordinator.
The worst team in the conference, the Buffaloes hired former Minnesota offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. to rejuvenate Colorado's offense. J.T. Shrout, a Tennessee transfer, looks like he will edge out Brendon Lewis at quarterback while Sam Houston transfer Ramon Jefferson adds much-needed spark at running back, replacing the outgoing Jarek Broussard who transferred to Michigan State.
The Buffaloes' defense offers some stability but Sanford's new-look offense needs to gel quickly if Colorado has any chance of moving off the bottom of the conference.
Oct 15th - USC @ Utah - Big test for Lincoln Riley's new-look USC who travel to defending champions Utah.
Nov 12th - Washington @ Oregon - the perennial Pac-12 finalists meet in Eugene.
Nov 19th - USC @ UCLA - the Trojans will be seeking revenge for last season's 62-33 thrashing by the UCLA.
Nov 25th - Oregon @ Oregon State - the 126th meeting will determine who is top dog in the Beaver State and potential winner of the Pac-12 North.
A lot of change in the Pac-12 but for all the headline coaching changes and news about USC, UCLA and potentially Oregon bailing for the Big Ten, the one constant is Utah. UCLA continues to improve and both Oregon and USC will see improvement under their new regimes, but Utah are the favourites to retain their conference championship and challenge for a Playoff place.