As Kyle Whittingham jogged off the field at the Rose Bowl moments after his Utah team suffered a second consecutive loss in the Granddaddy of them all, the skies above the San Gabriel Mountains opened up and pelted the third-longest tenured FBS head coach with a rare Southern California shower.
It was a suitable end to a disappointing performance and an equally appropriate way to wrap up the Pac-12 season, which saw several teams battle their way to national attention but was capped off by having others rain on the parade at the end of the day.
The silver lining of it all, well known to the even-keeled coaching veteran, was that for as much as others might dwell on the thud of an ending to the 2022 season, the end of the game also marked a transition to the fresh opportunity ahead.
“We just have to keep coming back to this game until we get it right. Took us three times in the Pac-12 Championship before we got the win, so we’ve got to make sure that we try to continue to get better — I know the landscape is changing,” Whittingham said later. “As disappointed as we are, and as bitter as this is, still a lot to build on. Definitely, the season overall was a step in the right direction for our program, we’ve got to continue that.”
That’s what they will hope anyway, not just for the Utes’ own benefit in chasing an elusive Rose Bowl victory, but because the pack chasing the two-time conference champs is as crowded as ever.
Is the league’s parity a good thing?
Six Pac-12 programs finished in the final Top 25 last season, and at least five should carry that over into the preseason polls for 2023. The league sports the reigning Heisman Trophy winner in USC’s Caleb Williams, plus a host of others that will likely be installed by bookmakers as favorites to keep the award on the West Coast. Toss in a number of high-profile coaching changes, several impressive recruiting classes, and a host of transfer portal additions, and it’s not exactly hyperbole to say that the conference is about as deep as it ever has been — especially at the top.
Unfortunately, that is in many respects the issue that has haunted the Pac-12 for much of the past decade and will be one of the few shadows that loom over the coming campaign out west. Parity may be a thing to trumpet in a general sporting sense, but when it comes to the sport of college football, it is mostly an Achilles’ heel.
Utah’s upset of the Trojans last December ensured five full seasons without a CFP berth for the league, and it’s possible that the conference — which loves to label itself as one full of champions — again finds itself left out of the tournament conceived to crown one. Washington’s 2016 team remains the last Pac-12 team to make it into the CFP, and it remains to be seen whether any of the current crop can survive the weekly grind that conference play has become to make it into the final four-team playoff before expansion thankfully arrives in 2024.
Should any team break through to actually join the ranks of the elite in 2023, it certainly will have earned it. That’s doubly so from a defensive perspective given the crop of quarterbacks that dot the rosters of just about every program.
Loaded with quarterbacks
The leader of the pack is none other than Williams, who amazingly lived up to the high billing he had upon arriving in Los Angeles with head coach Lincoln Riley, delivering a debut better than any red carpet the town saw in 2022. The rising junior looks well on his way to becoming the top pick in the 2024 draft after throwing for an FBS-high 42 touchdowns (against just five picks) and figures to be the face of college football moving forward.
As dazzling as Williams can be with the ball in his hands (and he needs it plenty given the Trojans’ anemic defense), he’s far from the only one who could be ticketed to New York at the end of the season. Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. led the country in passing yards per game and guided his team to an 11-2 mark in Kalen DeBoer’s first season on Montlake. The Huskies may have been playing the best of anybody in the country (not named TCU or Georgia) down the stretch and Penix’s announcement that he would bypass the draft for another crack at winning some hardware has sent expectations through the roof in Seattle and beyond.
It’s a similar story at their Pacific Northwest rivals Oregon, who were delighted at senior signal-caller Bo Nix announcing he was coming back after a 10-3 mark under 36-year-old first-time head coach Dan Lanning. The latter still has a few game management issues to clean up but returns a hefty amount of talent around Nix that will be supplemented by what is widely regarded as a top-10 recruiting class and a few key transfers, too.
Up the road in Corvallis, Oregon State is fresh off its third double-digit win season in school history despite relative sub-par play under center. That was a testament to Jonathan Smith’s coaching abilities and a reason why it will make the Beavers a fascinating must-see moving forward as he gets his hands on former five-star QB D.J. Uiagalelei.
The Clemson transfer has shown plenty of flashes over the years and is coming off an ACC title with the Tigers despite his career flatlining somewhat lately. Nevertheless, he’s the most talented QB Oregon State has had in years (if not decades) and could be the key to contending for the conference crown.
Cam Rising will also be back for reigning champion Utah, while Washington State (Cam Ward) and Arizona (Jayden de Laura) both seem quite settled at the most important position on the field. The two Bay Area schools, Cal and Stanford, seem to be the only ones of the 12 who will be completely unsure of where things stand at quarterback, though UCLA is replacing school legend Dorian Thompson-Robinson with either a five-star freshman or a transfer from the MAC.
None of the bunch, Williams included, may be as closely followed, however, as the one who takes over as QB for what might have been the worst Power 5 team in the country last season. Shedeur Sanders is probably used to the attention by now, though, not just because plenty of eyeballs were on him as an electric dual-threat that turned the fortunes of Jackson State around and into an FCS powerhouse, but because of what his famous father is embarking on as the new head coach at Colorado — with full documentary crew in tow to capture it all.
Heck, at this point it’s rare to meet somebody connected to college football who isn’t a little bit curious to see how Coach Prime himself, Deion Sanders, is going to attempt to transform the Buffs from woeful into winners. Things may change considerably as the calendar turns from September fully into fall and the losses start to mount, but the story in college football up until the first few kickoffs will not be about Georgia aiming for a three-peat, seeing if Texas is back or whether Michigan can reign supreme in the Big Ten again — but rather the latest on a Prime experiment in Boulder.
New faces looking to make a splash
The elder Sanders is off to a good start so far in making the once proud program more competitive on the field, bringing “Louis luggage” like former No. 1 overall recruit Travis Hunter and a transfer class ranked No. 4 by 247Sports (one spot ahead of USC). Toss in four-star tailback Dylan Edwards plus five-star corner Cormani McClain, and Colorado is set to welcome in 42 new players and counting amid this offseason roster overhaul.
Such attention on the school and its animated head coach will mean plenty more eyeballs on Pac-12 football in 2023 and further increased attention from those on the East Coast tuning in to see just how things are transpiring at such a grand experiment at the base of the Flatirons. It’s up to the league to take advantage of the moment for further national recognition, not the least because the conference office is in the middle of media rights negotiations that should wrap up this spring and chart a new course under commissioner George Kliavkoff.
Speaking of new eras, Sanders is far from the only fresh face in the Pac-12 coaching ranks.
Arizona State’s Kenny Dillingham takes over at his alma mater as the youngest Power 5 coach in the country. Never mind his 1990 birthdate aging everybody in and around Tempe, the Sun Devils have long flirted with an upward trajectory but never have quite found the consistency to truly elevate the program into one of the Pac-12’s best. Rectifying that is the task the Valley native is keenly aware of and is taking steps to fix right away, such as by bringing in Notre Dame starting QB Drew Pyne via the portal to team with dangerous wideout Elijhah Badger.
Up in a far different climate on the Farm but with a similar charge, new Stanford coach Troy Taylor takes over a team undergoing a full-on reboot after the resignation of David Shaw. Shaw took over the job from Jim Harbaugh and led the program to several conference titles and Rose Bowl victories, but didn’t seem to keep up with changes to the sport as name/image/likeness and the transfer portal made things even tougher than normal for the academically minded institution.
Now it’s up to Taylor, a former Cal QB, ironically, to change things around after working miracles up the road at Sacramento State with a 30-8 record across three seasons. While the jump from the FCS ranks can prove to be tricky, he knows the Pac-12 as well as anyone and already seems to have some of the Stanford administration on board with significant alterations to the way of doing business in this modern era of college football.
Still, as much as some may look across the Pac-12 and see such fresh new optimism in places far and wide, it is also a conference that is one feeling a slight tinge of sadness at the same time given the upcoming departures of USC 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 host of “lasts” before the parting of ways is made 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 doubling as the final machup vs. Oregon for the foreseeable future. UCLA may not mind skipping out on the house of horrors that Reser Stadium can sometimes be, but will have to be mindful that they will also be hosting several familiar faces in the Rose Bowl for the last time (or at least until new nonconference contracts can be agreed to).
When it comes to the state of the Pac-12, it’s hard not to let your mind drift toward such thoughts of it approaching the end of an era as a result. Yet, it’s also a conference that finds itself in a moment worth building on at the same time as those out west hope that 2023 can serve to reinforce all that is trending in the right direction on the gridiron.
The quarterbacks are phenomenal, the number of elite contenders is vast, and the optimism is running as high as ever in places you’d least expect.
Until kickoff comes in earnest this fall, nothing can rain on that.
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