Spring football has come to an end across the Pac-12, leaving a conference in transition looking forward to the 2022 season. Defending champion Utah is enjoying consistency after winning the league for the first time, but the rest of the Pac-12 has plenty of moving parts.
The biggest moves came on the coaching front, as USC poached Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma to lead the program. In the Pac-12 North, Oregon lost Mario Cristobal to Miami but replaced him with national title-winning defensive coordinator Dan Lanning from Georgia. In all, there are four new coaches in the Pac-12, along with a number of new coordinators.
Remember, these are overreactions. We have only a limited sample of spring football on which to judge the future of these programs before they finally take the field in the fall. Still, come back at season’s end and judge whether we were on to something with these brief glimpses.
The Wildcats will be college football‘s most improved team: One would be hard-pressed to follow an 1-11 debut with a better offseason than what Jedd Fisch has accomplished. The Wildcats recruited the Pac-12’s No. 2 high school class and added a star-studded transfer group which includes quarterback Jayden de Laura (Washington State) and receiver Jacob Cowing (UTEP). Fisch has a vision for the program and it will finally show itself in Year 2. Things certainly can’t get much worse.
Herm Edwards is a goner: There’s no bigger mess in the Power Five right now than the one at Arizona State. The Sun Devils fired half their coaching staff following an NCAA investigation into allegations that occurred during the pandemic. Then, they promptly lost 17 scholarship players to the transfer portal, including starting quarterback Jayden Daniels and star linebacker Eric Gentry. Getting Florida quarterback Emory Jones in return will buy Edwards some time, but nowhere near enough.
Cal will have the Pac-12’s best defense … and worst offense: Coach Justin Wilcox has earned nearly universal praise from his peers as a defensive mind, and that will continue despite losing two NFL Draft picks on that side of the ball. Key contributors are back for more, including leading tackler Daniel Scott. Unfortunately, the team’s leading passer, rusher and receiver are all gone from a Golden Bears squad that ranked No. 96 nationally in points scored a year ago. Purdue transfer quarterback Jack Plummer should be solid, but quarterback play alone hasn’t been the issue.
Karl Dorrell will be resetting again: Colorado added a handful of nice transfers, including Baylor receiver RJ Sneed and Sam Houston running back Ramon Jefferson. Unfortunately, the Buffs lost far more talent, including star running back Jarek Broussard and receivers La’Vontae Shenault and Brenden Rice. That won’t help boost what was one of the worst offenses in the country in yards per play. Adding offensive coordinator Mike Sanford is a plus, but even he can’t make up for the talent gaps. Dorrell should receive some leeway for taking over during the pandemic, but progress has been slow.
The Ducks will live and die with Bo Nix: The former Auburn signal-caller has shown moments of both brilliance and despair in his tumultuous college career, but he has a chance to be the face of a program again in Eugene. Top running backs Travis Dye and CJ Verdell are out. Top receiver Devon Williams entered the draft. Defensively, All-Americans Kayvon Thibodeaux and Verone McKinley are gone. Oregon opens against defending national champion Georgia, and it’s difficult to see any place where the Ducks can quickly find upside with a new staff outside of Nix.
The defense is back: Trent Bray was elevated to interim defensive coordinator following an embarrassing loss to Colorado last November, and the unit took a big step forward in the final month to earn Bray the full-time job. After allowing nearly 32 points per game against Power Five foes, including 76 combined points against miserable Cal and Colorado offenses, Bray held Stanford and and Arizona State to a combined 24 points. If the spring showcase was any indication, Oregon State is going to be even more aggressive after an offseason under Bray’s tutelage. The 39-year-old is a star in the making.
Tanner McKee will drag the Cardinal back to competitiveness: Stanford’s history with Pac-12 competition has lived and died with quarterback play. McKee showed flashes of taking that step in 2021, completing 65.4% of his passes for 2,327 yards and 15 touchdowns. However, he struggled to keep his performance up as the season came to a close. If the spring game is any indication, McKee has only grown as a passer. Finding some reliable receiving options could hold the Cardinal back, but there’s talent on the roster.
Zach Charbonnet will be the Pac-12’s leading rusher: The Michigan transfer showed his elite talent during a breakout junior season, carrying the ball 202 times for 1,137 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns. With no obvious replacement for fellow running back Brittain Brown, who departed for the NFL Draft, Charbonnet will take on an even bigger load. As a true bell-cow running back, Charbonnet is up for the challenge and will rank among the nation’s most productive rushers.
The Trojans are making the College Football Playoff: Why go easy on Lincoln Riley in his first season after shocking the world and heading to the beaches of LA? Star quarterback Caleb Williams came with him and leads the top transfer class in the nation. The Trojans were Pac-12 South champs as recently as 2020 and the roster has some real talent. Mix Riley, Williams and receiver Mario Williams — Pitt WR Jordan Addison could still transfer in as well — and the Trojans can accomplish big things. USC is back.
This is the best Utes team since 2008: The Utes went 13-0 in 2008 with a win over No. 4 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to finish No. 2 in the nation. Four years earlier, Urban Meyer’s Utes went 12-0 to finish No. 4. While those seasons will live forever in Utah lore, this will be the best Utah team since then. One year after winning the Pac-12, the Utes return 13 starters, including quarterback Cam Rising and seven other key contributors on offense. Circle a battle with USC on Oct. 14 in Salt Lake City — it will decide the conference, and maybe even a playoff spot.
This is the most confusing team in the conference: New Washington coach Kalen DeBoer has won everywhere he has ever coached, all the way back to three NAIA titles at Sioux Falls. However, Washington is up there for strangest situations in the sport. The offense was driven into the ground under Jimmy Lake, but DeBoer should quickly fix that unit. At the same time, are co-defensive coordinators William Inge and Chuck Morrell prepared to keep the modern “DB U” lineage going in Seattle? DeBoer’s first season will be all about defining his program.
Cam Ward will become a household name: Ward was one of the most anonymous players of the transfer portal, but don’t be fooled. The transfer quarterback from FCS Incarnate Word can sling it. Ward earned offers from Ole Miss and Houston before following his former coach Eric Morris to Wazzu. Ward won the Jerry Rice Award in Spring 2021 before throwing for 4,648 yards and 47 touchdowns while leading UIW to its first FCS Playoff victory. Plenty of comparisons will be made to the similar situation with Bailey Zappe at Western Kentucky last year. Let me be the first to say: It has merit. Ward has that kind of ceiling.