Sunday, August 14, 2022

Pac-12 Media Day 2022: Conference realignment, Lincoln Riley’s debut at USC among storylines to watch

The Pac-12’s nickname is “Conference of Champions,” but a more apt term for the league in 2022 might be the “Conference of Uncertainty.” As commissioner George Kliavkoff and representatives from the league’s 12 football teams prepare for their time in the spotlight at Pac-12 Media Day on Friday, questions abound over the future of a conference that is on its heels.

There will be plenty to discuss about what’s ahead on the field this season as some its biggest brands — Oregon, USC and Washington — welcome new coaches. But with the Trojans and cross-town rival UCLA set to depart for the Big Ten in 2024, there is a cloud over the conference as it braces for the impact of losing two of its most valuable members.

With widening gaps in revenue and on-field success between itself and the Big Ten and SEC, the Pac-12 is at an inflection point. Can it rally by producing a College Football Playoff team for the first time since the 2016 season, or will it go the way of its TV network and continue struggling for relevance amid a shifting national landscape?

While these bigger-picture issues loom large over Friday’s event, there will be lighter topics to discuss as well. With half of the league’s teams in line to potentially start transfer quarterback, the Pac-12 could be in line for a fun infusion of offensive life in 2022. 

Regardless of what’s going on and off the field, the Pac-12 can generally be counted on to provide an entertaining product, especially during the late-night window on Saturdays. As we get closer to those on-field shenanigans here’s a look at the big questions entering Friday’s media day event

Kliavkoff’s moment

All eyes will be on Kliavkoff, who faces a monumental challenge more than a year after he stepped into the world of college athletics from a career in the entertainment industry. A year ago, the Big 12 was reeling after it lost Oklahoma and Texas while the Pac-12 seemed relatively stable — and perhaps even in position to expand.

Now, after turning its nose up at expansion last year, the Pac-12 has lost the high ground in the conference realignment battle and needs its leader to confidently articulate a vision for its future. The Pac-12 has already been languishing with lackluster on-field performance and the struggles of its TV network. Now, as the Bruins and Trojans prepare to depart — and with other member schools being targeted as well — the Pac-12 appears to be at risk of fading even further from relevance in the new college sports universe.

Barring some unforeseen bombshell announcement on Friday regarding expansion or a media rights agreement, there’s little Kliavkoff can say that will quell the frustrations of the schools left behind. As a relatively new commissioner, however, he can at least stabilize the ship with a prepared and confident presence as he faces the questions over where the league goes from here.

No more divisions 

Expect the coaches to field questions on the league’s decision to scrap the old format of division winners meeting in the championship game. Instead, the two Pac-12 teams with the best league winning percentage will now square off in the title game.

The decision is similar to that of the ACC, and Kliavkoff has said its goal is to “optimize CFP invitations and ultimately win national championships.” But are all the coaches on board? For some programs that don’t have realistic national title hopes, the ability to claim a division title and appear in the league championship game offered an attainable aspiration that could be jeopardized by the change.

Ultimately, though, it’s hard to find any fault with the conference for doing everything it can to improve its national profile.

Lincoln Riley’s debut

It was going to take massive news to knock USC’s hiring of Lincoln Riley from the top storyline entering media day and looming realignment did the trick. Still, Riley will spend his first two seasons as the Trojans’ coach in the Pac-12 and expectations are that he’ll have the program competing for a league title immediately.

Can USC claim a Pac-12 title during his short stay in the conference? There’s no doubt Riley will be one of Friday’s main attractions, especially considering how he built his first roster. With a significant transfer haul that includes former Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams and former Pittsburgh star receiver Jordan Addison, it seems obvious Riley will be a big beneficiary of college football’s relaxed transfer rules. As such, he’ll likely be peppered with questions about recruiting transfers, tampering, NIL and the other big issues in college sports.

Speaking of Williams, he is one of USC’s player representatives on Friday and one of two transfer quarterbacks who will be a part of Pac-12 Media Day. 

Hello, Cam Ward

Washington State‘s Cam Ward is the league’s other transfer quarterback attending Pac-12 Media Day and for good reason. The Incarnate Word transfer passed for 4,648 yards and 47 touchdowns last season and will be playing in a familiar system, as former UIC head coach Eric Morris is now the offensive coordinator at WSU. The jump from FCS to Power Five competition is substantial, but Ward’s prolific production for an FCS playoff team suggests he can handle the transition.

Expectations for the Cougars seem muted as Jake Dickert embarks on his first full season as head coach after taking over midway through last season. However, the offensive philosophy he’s installing via Morris and Ward has the potential to wreak havoc on the conference. The decision to have Ward represent WSU speaks to the confidence Dickert has in his new QB, and it will be fun to see how they handle the media spotlight.

Dan Lanning’s time to shine

Another figure who will be handling an increased media spotlight Friday is Dan Lanning. Oregon’s 36-year-old first-year coach is getting dumped in the deep end as he takes on one of the West Coast’s premier jobs following an epic run as Georgia‘s defensive coordinator. 

This is Lanning’s first head coaching gig, and it comes at a program where expectations are perpetually high as the Ducks are coming off three consecutive Pac-12 title game appearances under former coach Mario Cristobal. Not only is Lanning navigating all the ins and outs of being a first-time coach at a school with lofty expectations, but he’s also likely to be hit with some big-picture questions about the program as a whole.

With UCLA and USC headed for the exits, what becomes of Oregon in a diminished Pac-12? Welcome to the head coaching ranks, Dan!

Truth serum, please

As for the coaches of the departing schools, how do they really feel about the move? Sure, joining the Big Ten will bring a boost to the athletic department budgets at UCLA and USC. From the coaches’ standpoint, though, the change brings some obvious competitive challenges. Winning in the Big Ten will be significantly more difficult for the Bruins and Trojans, as will the logistics. Both programs will likely be required to make several cross-country flights per season, and any coach who tells you they’re totally fine with that is probably lying.

Riley and UCLA’s Chip Kelly will probably put on a smile and recite the official company lines about how great of an opportunity it is to join the Big Ten. We might even hear about how wonderfully enriching it’ll be for the student-athletes to experience the cultural ambiance of Piscataway, New Jersey, while visiting Rutgers.

At the end of the day, however, both coaches signed up to coach in the Pac-12, not the Big Ten, and it’ll be interesting to see if any underlying frustrations with the move come through in front of the cameras even in passive tones.

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