Recently, the state of the Pac-12 was shaken up as two of its most historic programs in USC and UCLA decided to take part in the conference realignment bonanza.
Lost in the frenzy is the fact that the league has a season to play this fall, and things are relatively wide-open in terms of who will climb to the top. In 2021, Utah was the team that was able to claim supremacy and prove its worth in an ever-changing environment. With new looks, Oregon and USC will be on their tail again.
Let’s look at the Pac-12 football programs and what they bring to the table this fall.
Perhaps the most intriguing team on the West Coast — and maybe in the whole nation — heading into this go-round is the new, Coach Lincoln Riley-led Trojans.
The team hardly takes on the same identity as it had last year under Coach Clay Helton’s direction, as Coach Riley convinced former Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams and receiver Mario Williams, Oregon tailback Travis Dye, and Pitt wideout Jordan Addison to join him in L.A.
For all the prospects of flashiness on offense, the defense only has three returning starters, and only one of whom — defensive end Tuli Tuipulotu is slated to be a first-stringer.
A few special players left Oregon this offseason, as edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux and safety Verone McKinley III joined the professional ranks, but a new leader on the sideline and behind center will bring their own flavors to the program.
Former Auburn quarterback Bo Nix transferred in, and Georgia assistant Dan Lanning arrived in Eugene. Nix and freshman Ty Thompson are in the running for the starting job.
The defense will feature an impressive linebacker duo in Noah Sewell, who led the Ducks’ unit in tackles by a large margin, and Justin Flowe, a former five-star pledge.
Utah has a strong case as being the sturdiest squad in the Pac-12. The Utes blew Oregon’s doors off twice in a three-game span last year. Then, boasting a league title, they played in the Rose Bowl for the first time, giving Ohio State a run for its money before falling just short. In the process, the fan base was able to pull on some Fanatics officially licensed sports apparel and take home some sports collectibles and memorabilia.
After helping his crew rebound from a slow start, quarterback Cameron Rising earned honors as a first-team All-Pac-12 performer. He slung the football for 2,493 yards and 20 scores. Along with him, the team’s leading rusher — junior Tavion Thomas — and four of its five top receivers are back to defend their trophy.
Looking to replace Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell, senior Mohamoud Diabate transferred in from Florida, while Karene Reid has experience playing for the Utes. This team would do well in all leagues.
Oregon State Beavers
The Beavers enter this campaign hoping to make the most of some shake-ups with the teams around them in the North division. They ranked fourth in the Pac-12 as it pertained to scoring and total offense last year, and they hope to keep a similar standard.
A lot of that goal will rest on the shoulders of senior quarterback, Chance Nolan, who passed for 2,677 yards and 19 touchdowns a season ago. Including him, four of Oregon State’s top five runners remain on the roster.
Things are looking up both in the front and back of the team’s defense, as junior John McCarton and Florida transfer Andrew Chatfield Jr. will dig in on the defensive line. As for the secondary, both starting corners — sophomore Alex Austin and senior Rejzohn Wright — and the nickelback, Jaydon Grant, remain.
Back in the day, Coach Chip Kelly was the architect of high-octane offenses at Oregon. When he arrived at the helm of the Bruins, many wondered if he could replicate those sorts of attacks. This season, he’ll have another chance to bring that excitement.
Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson chose to come back for one more season after the Bruins looked at a few transfers. A promising sign for the team’s faithful is that the dual-threat passer has gotten incrementally better each season. Running back Zach Charbonnet paced the crew in rushing with 1,137 yards. He’s back, as well.
New defensive coordinator Bill McGovern will have to work with a unit that endures a good bit of turnover, with only two starters making their way back.
Huskies fans will expect to see an improved Washington offense in 2021. The team never really found a scoring groove, which led to Coach Kalen DeBoer coming to Seattle from Fresno State to take over.
Sophomores Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan provide a capable receiving duo to whichever passer is chosen as starter. Junior Michael Penix Jr., formerly of Indiana, transferred in to compete with two-year UW starter Dylan Morris. Freshman Sam Huard is also in that fold.
Junior linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui was an All-American in 2020 before being shelved for a good part of last season. The team had a great passing defense a year ago, but part of the credit could go to the fact that it didn’t do well in stopping the run.
California Golden Bears
The cupboard of returning starters for Coach Justin Wilcox’s team isn’t all that full. Golden Bear supporters will be hoping their team can do the most with them.
Purdue transfer Jack Plummer got first-team reps at quarterback during the spring. Four of Cal’s five top pass-catchers have departed, though, Junior Jeremiah Hunter had 21 catches for 388 yards and a score last year. Running back Damien Moore is a familiar face, too. He rumbled for 518 yards.
Junior Brett Johnson made a name for himself in 2020 but was injured in a car accident and sat out all of last year. He’ll be back in the lineup this time around.
The Wildcats seek to climb out of the hole they’ve been in and return to the top of the Pac-12. An impressive class of recruits brought in by Coach Jedd Fisch might go a long way in doing so.
Arizona pulled in five four-star pledges — including wideout Tetairoa McMillan and running back Rayshon Luke. These talents, along with a good deal of changes within the roster, could be what the program needs to get back into relative relevance.
A transfer from Washington State, quarterback Jayden de Laura figures to operate the offense, which brings back all but one of its top five leading rushers from last year.
The defense kept foes under 400 yards per game for the first time in over a decade. The secondary returns a stable of covermen that have put up more than 65 combined starts.
Coach David Shaw has been at Stanford for 11 years now, but national success has eluded the program for a bit. The team hasn’t played in a bowl game in three years, a streak that junior quarterback Tanner McKee hopes to help break this season.
McKee threw for 2,327 yards in 2021, and four of his five leading pass-catchers join him on the gridiron again. That includes senior wideout Elijah Higgins and junior tight end Benjamin Yurosek, who collaborated for 88 grabs and nearly 1,200 yards last year.
The defense sees a scheme change after Stanford finished dead last in the Pac-12 in total defense and average rushing yards allowed. On the back end, senior Kyu Blu Kelly looks to add to a second-team All-Pac-12 honor last year.
Washington State Cougars
After an interesting season, the Cougars look to focus on the field. Incarnate Word transfer Cameron Ward has garnered a good deal of hype after coming over to operate Wazzu’s attack. He threw 71 touchdowns in two years at his last stop. Wideout De’Zhaun Stribling led conference freshmen with 44 catches and 471 yards last year.
The defense touts a pair of adept edge rushers in juniors Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson. Both appeared on all-conference teams last year, combining for nine sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss. Daiyan Henley comes in from Nevada to help replace an experienced tandem in Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers.
Safety Jordan Lee also followed defensive coordinator Brian Ward over from Nevada.
Arizona State Sun Devils
When Coach Herm Edwards took over in Tempe, it was assumed that the Sun Devils would find themselves working at the top of the Pac-12. That’s what hopes were, anyway. They’ll be looking to fulfill those expectations even though starting quarterback Jayden Daniels has since left to join Brian Kelly at LSU.
Florida transfer Emory Jones seems like the front-runner to take that job, but there isn’t a lot of experience to help him settle in, whether it be from rushers or receivers.
Senior linebacker Kyle Soelle was tops on the defense in tackles with 88 last season, including eight for a loss. Behind him and seniors Michael Matus and Merlin Robertson, there aren’t any returning starters on the unit, which was first in scoring and total defense a year ago.