As USC and UCLA prepare to play their final years in the Pac-12, the 2023 season marks the beginning of a season of change. The league in its current format is going out with a bang, however, with half the league pushing for national acclaim in a highly competitive upcoming season.
For the first time since Matt Leinart in 2005, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner will play in the Pac-12 as USC.quarterback Caleb Williams returns for one more season with coach Lincoln Riley. Washington's Michael Penix Jr. and Oregon's Bo Nox also opted to turn down NFL opportunities to push for a College Football Playoff berth. This might be the best version of the Pac-12 we have seen in years.
Five teams -- nearly half the league -- boast +650 or better odds to win the Pac-12 in 2023, meaning every practice and every development in March and April matters. Here is one question every team in the Pac-12 must answer in spring camp.
Can transfers fix the run defense? Arizona's run defense was so bad last season that its 209.1 yards per game allowed were more than what Kansas State averaged offensively en route to a Big 12 title -- and K-State was a top-15 rushing offense. Giving up 354 rushing yards to Cal, a school that posted 805 rushing yards total in its other 11 games combined, marked the low point for Arizona.
Wildcats coach Jedd Fisch was far more targeted in the portal this season, taking only five players. However, all five were either linebackers or interior defensive lineman. Oregon transfer Justin Flowe was one of the nation's elite recruits and performed well for the Ducks. Bill Norton comes to Tucson by way of Georgia.
The Wildcats played only two true linebackers last season, so the three transfer portal additions are a major investment in the position. Competition should be much better than one year ago.
Can the Sun Devils build an offensive line? Arizona State lost three starters along the O-line after the 2022 season, not counting the departure of star guard LaDarius Henderson to Michigan following an injury. The entire interior line has to be rebuilt from scratch. The Sun Devils added a handful of key transfers in the portal, but took an early hit after Ben Coleman – a 16-game starter for Cal – suffered a major injury in spring camp. Redshirt Joey Ramos seems poised to lock down one guard spot, but the other is now fully up in the air after Coleman's injury.
Arizona State ranked No. 90 in rushing offense and No. 80 in sacks allowed last season, a central part of the disappointing 3-9 campaign. With running back Xazavian Valladay off to the NFL, the Sun Devils need to find ways to generate a push.
Is OC Jake Spavital finally the answer? For six years at Cal, offense has been an unsolvable equation for coach Justin Wilcox. The Golden Bears haven't finished higher than 75th in total offense since the program fired Sonny Dykes following the 2016 season.
Ironically, Jake Spavital was the coordinator on that 2016 team that finished top 10 in total offense. After being fired at Texas State, Spavital has returned to Berkeley to fix the offense. Spavital is known for his success with quarterbacks, helping develop the likes of Will Grier, Case Keenum and Geno Smith, among others. He quickly identified his next protégé by adding Sam Jackson as a transfer from TCU.
In addition to Spavital, Cal has created a strong consortium of offensive coaches at Cal. Offensive line coach Mike Bloesch ran the offense at North Texas. Tight ends coach Tim Plough, 37, is an up-and-comer who starred calling the offense at UC Davis but tanked at Boise State. The mix of young perspectives will give Cal a fresh, new look.
Where is the roster exactly? Frankly, everything about Colorado is a question. Forty-four new players are coming to Boulder in 2023, and chances are even more could be on the way during the next transfer window. Shedeur Sanders will play quarterback and Travis Hunter will start at corner. After that, it's anyone's guess.
Coaches have attempted to flip rosters before, but never like this. The Buffaloes have just two bowl appearances in the past 15 years and are tearing the roster to the studs right from the start. Sanders handled the transition at Jackson State, but succeeding in the Pac-12 takes another level. By the time spring practice ends, Sanders should have a strong idea of the true state of the roster. That still gives him another opportunity in the second transfer window to fill holes.
Can the Ducks handle offensive line turnover? Offensive line play took center stage during Dan Lanning's first season. The Ducks settled in as the No. 6 offense in the nation at more than 500 yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry. After the strong debut, though, the Ducks are rebuilding in every way on the offensive line.
Star center Alex Forsyth leads four starters off to the NFL, including both tackles. Offensive line coach Adrian Klemm also left for the New England Patriots, and Lanning elevated former Ducks grad assistant A'lique Terry to his first foray into the Power Five as a full-time position coach.
Oregon has recruited the offensive line position exceptionally in both the high school and transfer markets. Marcus Harper II made 10 starts at left guard and should lock down the position. Steven Jones was the Week 1 starter at left guard before suffering an injury, while longtime Texas starter Junior Angilau should lock down a starting spot somewhere. Tackle is a little more complicated, but elite recruit Josh Conerly and Rhode Island transfer Ajani Cornelius headline what should be a loaded battle for the position.
How quickly can DJ Uiagalelei get comfortable? The Bellflower, California, product rated as the No. 1 pro-style passer in the 2020 Top247 and the No. 2 overall player, only behind Bryce Young. His composite score ranks No. 206 all time, higher than any player in Oregon State history. After two inconsistent seasons starting at Clemson, he is Oregon State's newest project.
Uiagalelei improved in his second season as a starter, completing 62% of his passes for 2,521 yards and 22 touchdowns. However, his finish to the season was underwhelming after he completed just 8 of 29 passes for 99 yards in a loss to South Carolina. His footwork and reads never got to the level they needed to follow the Clemson quarterback lineage.
Oregon State had a dynamic defense last season, along with one of the best young running backs in the nation in Texan Damien Martinez. The Beavers were so good top to bottom that they beat rival Oregon with 60 yards passing and two interceptions at the quarterback position. If Uiagalelei can play to his vast potential, the Beavers are legitimate Pac-12 title contenders.
Do the Cardinal have a starting QB on the roster? While Stanford dipped over the final few years of the David Shaw era, quarterback remained a source of pride for the program. Tanner McKee emerged as a legitimate NFL quarterback over the past two years. Davis Mills and Kevin Hogan also developed into draft picks.
However, after McKee's departure, there's no obvious replacement waiting in the wings. Junior Ari Patu has thrown 25 passes as a backup, but no major action. Ashton Daniels earned a few snaps as a true freshman. Neither has the recruiting pedigree to demand the job.
Troy Taylor rode a two-quarterback system of Asher O'Hara and Jake Dunniway to a 12-1 record at Sacramento State to earn the Stanford job. He will quickly have to find those pieces to discover his identity in Palo Alto.
What is the line of succession at QB? Calling Dorian Thompson-Robinson a mainstay of the Chip Kelly era is an understatement. DTR threw more than 1,300 passes for Kelly across a five-year career, but now leaves the starting job vacant after departing for the NFL. Unlike many other programs, the Bruins have a number of different visions they could follow for the position.
The early favorite has to be the transfer, Kent State's Collin Schlee, who posted more than 2,500 yards and 17 touchdowns for the Golden Flashes in 2022. However, Ethan Garbers was in the system last season and has a strong recruiting pedigree of his own. Throwing a wrench into everything is Dante Moore, the second-best recruit in program history and unquestioned future of the program.
Getting this answer right isn't just about the 2023 season, it's about the vision of the future. Schlee provides a one-year stopgap, but Garbers will have his say. Moore could be talented enough that he is impossible to keep off the field. It's a question that will keep Chip Kelly up at night.
Does Alex Grinch have a plan for the defense? Lincoln Riley brought immediate success and a Heisman Trophy to USC in his first season. Unfortunately, the defense also came from Norman as the Trojans finished bottom 10 nationally in yards per play. The only defenses that ranked lower in the Power Five were Stanford, Arizona, Vanderbilt and Colorado – not exactly an esteemed group.
Instead of making a change, Riley opted to bring back defensive coordinator Alex Grinch for another season. His job will be more complicated in 2023 as the Trojans lose arguably their top two players, defensive end Tuli Tuipulotu and defensive back Mekhi Blackmon.
The Trojans added another strong transfer class to bolster the depth, including six members on defense. Former elite prospects Domani Jackson, Korey Foreman and Anthony Lucas should be ready to grow into bigger roles. However, this feels like a true last chance for Grinch.
Can the Utes solidify the secondary? Only two of Utah's five starters in the secondary are gone, but the pairing -- cornerback Clark Phillips III and R.J. Hubert -- represented nearly 70 games played and more than 40 starts. Add the transferring Clayton Isbell's 150 career starts and Utah has a few important holes to fill.
Zemaiah Vaughn stepped into the starting lineup for the bowl game with mixed results, recording a penalty and giving up a 20-yard reception on two targets. Still, Vaughn is the early leader to nab one of the spots. Ole Miss transfer Miles Battle will also compete.
Conversely, no returner on the roster played more than 20 snaps at free safety in 2023. Bleu Stewart and Bryson Reeves seem to fit the body type Utah covets at free safety, while strong safety reserve Sione Vaki could also make the switch.
Can the Huskies expand their running game? Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. helped transform Washington's offense into one of the nation's most improved units with the No. 1 passing offense. But for all the excitement about Penix's play, Washington was wildly unbalanced offensively, passing on nearly two-thirds of all plays.
Passing is in the DNA of offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb, whose Fresno State offenses finished bottom 40 in rushing in both of his seasons. However, the lack of effective run game hamstrung the Huskies at times, especially during a loss to UCLA where the team ran for just 65 yards.
Coach Kalen DeBoer prioritized running back in the portal, adding Mississippi State transfer Dillon Johnson and Arizona State transfer Daniyel Ngata. The Huskies also have a few little-used underclassmen that could compete for snaps, including Nebraska transfer Will Nixon and New Mexico transfer Aaron Dumas. The pieces are there to ease Penix's burden.
Can new OC keep Cam Ward's development on track? Former offensive coordinator Eric Morris brought quarterback Cameron Ward with him from Incarnate Word to Pullman. After leaving to take the head coaching job at North Texas, Dickert prioritized Ward's development once more, hiring Western Kentucky assistant Ben Arbuckle to the same position.
Ward's first season at the Power Five level was encouraging as he completed 64.4% of passes for 3,231 yards and 23 touchdowns. He almost single handedly beat Oregon with 375 yards and two touchdowns before making a few late mistakes. After issues early, he did not throw an interception in his final five games.
Arbuckle coached Division II transfer Austin Reed to leading the nation in passing yards, edging out Michael Penix Jr. and Heisman winner Caleb Williams. Ward should thrive under Arbuckle's mentorship.