College football writer
When Kyle Whittingham walked off the field in the Rose Bowl moments after his Utah team suffered its second straight loss in the granddaddy of them all, the heavens above the San Gabriel Mountains opened up and hit the third-string coach longest FBS lead with a rare. Southern California shower.
It was a fitting end to a disappointing performance and an equally fitting way to end the Pac-12 season, in which several teams fought their way into the national spotlight but ended with others raining on the parade in end of day .
The silver lining to it all, well known to the veteran even-handed coach, was that as much as others might dwell on the noise of the end of the 2022 season, the end of the game also marked a transition to the new opportunity . forward.
“We’ve just got to keep coming back to this game until we get it right. It took us to the Pac-12 Championship three times before we got the win, so we’ve got to make sure we try to keep getting better. . . . I know the landscape it’s changing,” Whittingham said later. “As disappointed as we are, and as bitter as this is, there’s still a lot to build on. The overall season was definitely a step in the right direction for our program, we’ve got to keep it going.”
That’s what they’ll be hoping for anyway, not just for the Utes’ own benefit in chasing an elusive Rose Bowl victory, but because the group chasing the two conference champions is as crowded as ever.
Is league parity good?
Six Pac-12 programs finished in the final Top 25 last season, and at least five should carry over into the 2023 preseason polls. The league boasts Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams of USC, in plus others that probably will. be installed by the bookies as favorites to retain the prize on the West Coast. Throw in a number of high-profile coaching changes, several impressive recruiting classes and a slew of additions to the transfer portal, and it’s not exactly hyperbole to say the conference is as deep as it’s ever been, especially in the superior
Unfortunately, this is in many ways the problem that has dogged the Pac-12 for much of the last decade and will be one of the few shadows hanging over the upcoming campaign in the West. Parity may be a big deal in a general sports sense, but when it comes to the sport of college football it’s mostly an Achilles heel.
Utah’s upset against the Trojans last December ensured five full seasons without a CFP berth for the league, and it’s possible the conference, which likes to label itself as one full of champions, may once again be out of the tournament designed to crown one. The 2017 Washington team remains the last Pac-12 team to reach the CFP, and it remains to be seen if any of the current crop can survive the weekly grind that conference play has become to reach in the last four-team playoff before. The expansion is coming in 2024 luckily.
Should any team manage to join the ranks of the elite in 2023, they will undoubtedly have won. That’s doubly so from a defensive perspective given the crop of quarterbacks that dot nearly every program’s rosters.
Loaded with quarterbacks
Leading the pack is none other than Williams, who incredibly lived up to the high billing he got upon arriving in Los Angeles with head coach Lincoln Riley, making a debut better than any red carpet he’s seen city in 2022. The rising young prospect is on track to become the top pick in the 2024 draft after throwing for 42 touchdowns (against just five picks) and figures to be the face of college football that move forward
As dazzling as Williams can be with the ball in his hands (and he badly needs it given the Trojans’ anemic defense), he’s far from the only one who could be ticketed to New York at season’s end. Michael Penix Jr. of Washington led the nation in passing yards per game and guided his team to an 11-2 mark in Kalen DeBoer’s first season at Montlake. The Huskies may have been playing the best of anyone in the country (not named TCU or Georgia) throughout the stretch, and Penix’s announcement that he would bypass the draft to win another piece of hardware has sent expectations into Seattle and beyond.
It’s a similar story to their Pacific Northwest rivals, Oregon, who were thrilled to have starter Bo Nix announce he was returning after a 10-3 mark under 36-year-old first head coach Dan Lanning . The latter still has some game management issues to clean up, but returns a wealth of talent around Nix that will be complemented by what is widely considered a top-10 recruiting class and some key transfers as well.
On the road in Corvallis, Oregon State is just coming off its third double-digit winning season in school history despite relatively subpar play under center. That was a testament to Jonathan Smith’s coaching skills and a reason he’ll make the Beavers a fascinating must-see moving forward as he gets his hands on former five-star DJ QB Uiagalelei.
The Clemson transfer has shown plenty of flashes over the years and is coming off an ACC title with the Tigers, though his career has slowed down a bit lately. However, he is the most talented QB Oregon State has had in years (if not decades) and could be the key to competing for the conference crown.
Cam Rising will also be back with defending champion Utah, while Washington State (Cam Ward) and Arizona (Jayden de Laura) look pretty set in the top position on the field. The two Bay Area schools, Cal and Stanford, appear to be the only ones of the 12 that won’t be completely sure where things stand at quarterback, though UCLA is replacing school legend Dorian Thompson -Robinson for a five-star freshman or transfer from the MAC.
However, none of the group, including Williams, can be followed as closely as the one taking over at QB for what might have been the worst Power 5 team in the country last season. Shedeur Sanders is probably used to the spotlight by now, not just because there were plenty of eyeballs on him as an electric dual threat who turned Jackson State’s fortunes into an FCS powerhouse, but because is his famous father. embarking as the new head coach in Colorado, with a full documentary crew in tow to capture it all.
Heck, at this point it’s rare to meet anyone connected to college football who isn’t a little curious to see how Prime Coach Deion Sanders himself will try to transform the Buffs from woeful to winning. Things can change considerably as the calendar turns from September to fall and losses begin to mount, however the College football history down to the first pitches won’t be about Georgia aiming for a triple, seeing if Texas is back or if Michigan can once again reign supreme in the Big Ten, but the latest in a Prime experiment in Boulder.
New faces looking to make a splash
The elder Sanders has gotten off to a good start thus far in making the once-proud program more competitive on the field, bringing “Louis luggage“as former No. 1 overall recruit Travis Hunter and a No. 4-ranked transfer class by 247 Sports (one place ahead of USC). Throw in four-star running back Dylan Edwards and five-star cornerback Cormani McClain, and Colorado will welcome 42 new players and counting amid this offseason roster overhaul.
This attention to the school and its spirited head coach will mean a lot more eyes on Pac-12 football in 2023 and more attention from those on the East Coast tuning in to see how they’re doing things in such a grand experiment at the base of the Flatirons. It’s up to the league to seize the moment for greater national recognition, especially as the conference office is in the midst of media rights negotiations that should end this spring and chart a new course under commissioner George Kliavkoff .
Speaking of new eras, Sanders is far from the only new face in the Pac-12 coaching ranks.
Arizona State’s Kenny Dillingham takes over at his alma mater as the nation’s youngest Power 5 coach. Never mind their 1990 birthdate, aging everyone in and around Tempe, the Sun Devils have long flirted with an upward trajectory, but have never found the consistency to truly elevate the program to one of the Pac’s best -12. Rectifying that is the task the Valley native is well aware of and is taking steps to fix immediately, including bringing Notre Dame starting QB Drew Pyne through the portal to team up with dangerous Elijhah Badger .
In a very different climate on the farm, but with a similar charge, new Stanford coach Troy Taylor takes over a team that is undergoing a complete reboot following the resignation of David Shaw. Shaw took over for Jim Harbaugh and led the program to multiple conference titles and Rose Bowl victories, but he didn’t seem to keep up with the changes in sports as the name/image/likeness and portal of transfer made things even more difficult than usual. for the academically minded institution.
Now it’s up to Taylor, a former Cal QB, ironically, to turn things around after working miracles on the road at Sacramento State with a 30-8 record in three seasons. While the jump from the FCS ranks can be tricky, he knows the Pac-12 as well as anyone and appears to already have some members of Stanford’s administration on board with significant changes to the way business is done in this modern era of the university. football
Still, as much as some may look across the Pac-12 and see such fresh new optimism in places far and wide, it’s also a conference that feels a slight tinge of sadness at the same time given USC’s upcoming exits and UCLA for the Big Ten just around the corner. The 2023-24 campaign is the final run for the Trojans and Bruins in the place they’ve called home for nearly a century. Both sides of the coin are about to be treated to a whole series of ‘falls’ before the parting of ways becomes official next summer.
For USC, that means one last “Weekender” trip to in-state rival Cal this October and the first trip to Autzen since 2015 that will double as a final matchup against Oregon for the foreseeable future. UCLA might not mind jumping into the house of horrors that Reser Stadium can be at times, but they’ll have to keep in mind that they’ll also be hosting several familiar faces in the Rose Bowl for the last time (or at least until a new conference without lectures). contracts can be agreed).
When it comes to the state of the Pac-12, it’s hard not to let your mind wander to those thoughts of approaching the end of an era as a result. However, it’s also a conference that’s at a time worth building as those in the West hope that 2023 can serve to reinforce everything that’s going in the right direction on the gridiron.
The quarterbacks are phenomenal, the number of elite competitors is high and optimism is as high as ever in the places you least expect it.
Until the real start comes this fall, nothing can rain.
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