While the Pac-12 was the talk of college football much of the past month for all the wrong reasons, don’t let the venerable conference’s demise overshadow the immediate future — this league is loaded with talent and set up for a marvelous swan song this season.
With defending Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams of USC leading the way, the Pac-12 has as much star power behind center as any conference in recent memory. And the biggest headline grabber might be on the Colorado sideline in Buffaloes coach Deion Sanders.
We’ll leave the realignment handwringing and odes to lost tradition for another day. For now, ESPN reporters Kyle Bonagura and Paolo Uggetti look forward to the brightest newcomers, biggest early-season games and predictions for the season to come.
Three transfers to know
WR/CB Travis Hunter, Colorado: Colorado went from having the least amount of talent in the Pac-12 — and among the worst in Power 5 — to being a fascinating wild card that added playmakers from all over the country. Hunter, the former five-star recruit, is the biggest addition. After a year at Jackson State, he’ll play both ways for the Buffs, and if they turn things around, he’ll play a big role. — Bonagura
QB DJ Uiagalelei, Oregon State: The former Clemson quarterback was once tabbed as one of the “next big things” in college football, but it didn’t work out for the Southern California native in the ACC. There’s no denying his natural ability, so perhaps a change of scenery and the chance to work with coach Jonathan Smith is what he needs to tap into that promising potential. — Bonagura
LB Mason Cobb, USC: The Trojans went into the offseason an improved defense away from being a true national title contender, making Cobb’s arrival from Oklahoma State maybe the most pivotal in the Pac-12. He was one of the best linebackers in the Big 12 last season and will provide a boost that could have playoff ramifications. — Bonagura
Three key positions to fill
UCLA QB: Among incoming Kent State transfer Collin Schlee, experienced backup Ethan Garbers, redshirt freshman Justyn Martin and potential star freshman Dante Moore, Chip Kelly has four quarterbacks to choose from this fall as he attempts to replace Dorian Thompson-Robinson. — Uggetti
USC DL: Tuli Tuipulotu was the best USC player last season not named Caleb Williams. His departure to the NFL leaves behind a void that needs to be filled if the Trojans’ defense is to make a necessary leap. Coach Lincoln Riley and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch utilized the transfer portal to bring in players such as Arizona’s Kyon Barrs and Bear Alexander from Georgia, both of whom should play key roles in the trenches. — Uggetti
Utah DB: The longtime stalwart of the Utes’ defense, Clark Phillips III will no longer be playing in Salt Lake City, and he leaves behind not just a spot to be filled at cornerback but a void in terms of leadership. All signs point to Zemaiah Vaughn or Miles Battle (or both) being the ones to attempt to maintain the Utes’ defense this season. — Uggetti
Three impact freshmen
UCLA QB Dante Moore: There’s some real boom-or-bust potential in picking a guy who has no guarantee to even see the field this season, but such is the world of preseason prognostication. If Moore does win the job, he’ll be without question the most impactful freshman, if for no other reason than the importance of the position. He’s the only true freshman quarterback who has a chance to start his team’s opener barring unforeseen injuries. — Bonagura
USC WR Zachariah Branch: The speedy Branch was ESPN’s top-ranked receiver in the class of 2023 and is expected to carve out a significant role right away for the Trojans. — Bonagura
Arizona S Genesis Smith: Smith has generated rave reviews since arriving on campus prior to spring practice and appears ready to immediately help improve Arizona’s secondary. — Bonagura
Three must-see September games
Utah at Baylor, Sept. 9: The Utes welcome Florida to Salt Lake City in late August in a rematch of last year’s fun opener in Gainesville, but early September brings perhaps a tougher test — a road game against a Baylor team that is flying under the radar. — Uggetti
Colorado at TCU, Sept. 2: It’s Colorado’s season opener, Deion Sanders’ first game as Buffs head coach, in Texas, against last year’s Cinderella team and national title runner-up. Need I say more? — Uggetti
USC at Colorado, Sept. 30: All eyes will be on the Buffaloes and Sanders the first month of the season, so it’s no surprise that the matchup in Boulder against the other team in the conference that’s an attention magnet will be a must-watch event. — Uggetti
Ranking the top QBs in the Pac-12
Dusty Dvoracek and Takeo Spikes break down the pecking order of Pac-12 quarterbacks, including Oregon’s Bo Nix.
Uggetti: Caleb Williams
It’s hard to go against the reigning Heisman winner, especially when he looks, feels and has said he’s even more comfortable at USC and in Lincoln Riley’s offense going into his junior year. It will be difficult for Williams to match his explosive production of more than 4,500 passing yards and 42 touchdowns in his first season at USC, but if anyone can do it on the way to being the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, it’s Williams.
Williams is the only pick here for obvious reasons, but I’ll offer up Michael Penix Jr. as a backup. It’s not inconceivable he could throw for 5,000 yards on a team that begins the season in the playoff conversation.
On the hot seat
Uggetti: Justin Wilcox
The coaching turnover in the Pac-12 has been such that most of the conference’s teams have switched coaches in recent years, which makes it hard to find one who could be in trouble should things go south this season. While longer-tenured coaches such as Chip Kelly and Kyle Whittingham are certainly safe from their seats getting hot anytime soon, Wilcox could be one to watch. He has been at Berkeley since 2017 and has not had a season at or above .500 since 2019. All that being said, Wilcox, who was one of the candidates to replace Mario Cristobal at Oregon, signed a six-year contract extension last year.
Going into his seventh season, Wilcox is the only coach who can be considered here, as Paolo pointed out. The other 11 are either brand new, have experienced some early success or are firmly entrenched. Wilcox, on the other hand, has yet to coach Cal to a winning conference record and won just two Pac-12 games a season ago.
Uggetti: Oregon State
Under Jonathan Smith, the Beavers have had a remarkable ascent to the top half of the conference. After a 2022 season in which they finished 10-3, lost two games by three points and won their bowl game over Florida by 27, it’s tough to call Oregon State a sleeper team. But in the context of the Pac-12, in which much of the attention surrounds the likes of USC and Oregon, the Beavers are still flying under the radar. Adding quarterback DJ Uiagalelei from the transfer portal should only raise the ceiling for this team going into the season. Should DJU pan out, don’t be surprised to see Smith’s team compete for a spot in the conference title game.
While I just made the argument that Wilcox is on the hot seat, I’m actually cautiously optimistic the offseason Cal had — bringing back offensive coordinator Jake Spavital and bringing in several transfers — has a good chance to jump-start the program. It’s a tough year to make a leap considering how stacked the Pac-12 is, but the Bears will almost certainly be better than last year’s team and should be good enough to go to a bowl.
Conference title game prediction
Uggetti: USC 42, Washington 35
The two best quarterbacks in the conference propel their teams to the final Pac-12 championship game, in which a proper shootout ensues and the reigning Heisman winner leads the winning drive.
Bonagura: Utah 35, USC 31
If USC were coming off back-to-back conference titles with the same quarterback returning for Year 3, as Utah is, the Trojans would be a popular national title pick. Let’s not let big-brand bias treat the Utes any differently.
POST AUTHOR: Kyle Bonagura and Paolo Uggetti