After nearly a century of excellence that started as the Pacific Coast Conference, this fall is trending to be the final football season in the existence of the Pac-12. It also so happens that this could go down as one of the best and most competitive seasons in the history of the conference.
Five Pac-12 teams are ranked in the AP Top 25 poll to start the season: USC (No. 6), Washington (No. 10), Utah (No. 14), Oregon (No. 15) and Oregon State (No. 18). Utah is the two-time defending champs, but its hopes of a three-peat rest on the health and availability of star quarterback Cam Rising. It's possible he could miss the start of the season because he is still rehabbing a torn ACL suffered in the Utes' Rose Bowl loss to Penn State.
The two highest-ranked teams feature the two best quarterbacks in the conference: Michael Penix Jr. and Caleb Williams. Williams won the Heisman Trophy in 2022 and Penix has his eyes on the most prestigious award in college football with the Huskies expected to have one of the most explosive offenses in the country.
Pac-12 play will be a bloodbath. It's realistic that multiple teams could crowd the top of the standings around Thanksgiving with one or two losses in conference play, and multiple teams have a chance of taking the conference crown.
Not being considered in this argument are Arizona, Arizona State, California and Stanford. Arizona State and Stanford enter the season with first-year coaches and headed towards a rebuild. Cal hasn't won an outright conference championship since 1958 and Arizona appears closer to missing a bowl game for the sixth-consecutive season than winning a conference championship.
Here is the argument for the eight other teams to be crowned champions of the conference in the final Pac-12 Championship Game this winter. All futures via Caesars Sportsbook.
Tier l: Favorites
Odds to win Pac-12: +170
Keys to the season: The Trojans have the best player in the country and he just so happens to also play the most important position in football. Williams could join exclusive company and become only the second player in the history of college football to win the Heisman Trophy twice if he has another standout season and the Trojans have similar success. You can argue USC's offense is even better than last season. USC replaced former Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison with former Arizona WR Dorian Singer, who had 66 catches for 1,105 yards and six touchdowns last fall. True freshman WR Zachariah Branch has drawn comparisons to NFL star WR Tyreek Hill and should give the Trojans a deep threat that can take the top off of the defense. They also feature Mario Williams, who was Caleb Williams' former teammate at Oklahoma and Brendan Rice, the son of former NFL star Jerry Rice. USC added former South Carolina RB MarShawn Lloyd via the transfer portal and also returns RB Austin Jones from last season.
USC's biggest question mark is the defense. The Trojans went out and got Arizona CB Christian Roland-Wallace, Georgia DL Bear Alexander and Texas A&M DL Anthony Lucas from the transfer portal to shore up that side of the ball. The defense has to improve for the Trojans to take the next step into a national championship contender, but the offensive firepower gives them enough to compete with any team in the country. As for the schedule, USC faces Utah and Washington at home and Oregon and Notre Dame on the road. A 3-1 record in that stretch will almost certainly guarantee a spot in the Pac-12 title game if the Trojans win the games they're favored in.
Odds to win Pac-12: +330
Keys to the season: Washington is on a similar offensive tier as USC. The Huskies have a Heisman hopeful in Penix Jr., who led the Pac-12's top offensive team. Penix, who transferred to Washington from Indiana and reunited with his former OC Kalen DeBoer, is going to be able to throw to one of the best wide receiver duos in the country in Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan. Odunze is the better of the two receivers but rest assured that McMillan would be the WR1 at 99% of FBS programs.
The defense ranked third last season and should be improved with preseason All-American Bralen Trice expected to make the next jump into a superstar edge rusher. The schedule includes big road games against Michigan State, USC and Oregon State, but the Huskies get the benefit of hosting Oregon and Utah.
Washington will win the conference if the offense maintains its excellence from last season and the defense improves to the second or best unit in the Pac-12. Washington, like USC, can score with any team in the country, but the difference is the Huskies can get stops on defense, too.
Odds to win Pac-12: +330
Keys to the season: Oregon has the same argument as many teams on why it can win the conference title: The Ducks have one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Looking beyond the quarterback play of Bo Nix, Oregon can make some noise in the Pac-12 this fall because of its improved defense. Its pass rush was below average last season and as a team, only recorded 16 sacks, which was the least amount at the school since the 1986 season. The Ducks addressed that weakness by snagging Jordan Burch from South Carolina, signed highly-touted freshman edge rusher Matayo Uiagalelei and also expects Brandon Dorlus to take the next step.
Despite winning 10 games last season, there were missed opportunities that could've led to a CFP berth. Yes, Oregon was blown out in the season-opener against future national champion Georgia, but it lost a close game at home against Washington and blew a double-digit lead against Oregon State that could've changed the whole dynamic of its season.
Oregon's conference schedule is manageable and a Week 2 showdown at Texas Tech could have drastic implications on the season for both programs. Nix didn't have to come back for another season; it would've been easy for him to head the NFL after his offensive coordinator, Kenny Dillingham, took the Arizona State job. Winning the Pac-12 starts with Nix and the defensive line improving.
Odds to win Pac-12: +450
Key to the season: Utah's chances of winning the Pac-12 rely on the health of Rising. He's the most important player on the Utes roster, and if he's not 100% healthy by the time Pac-12 play gets underway the chances of a three-peat decrease. Rising is approaching nine months post-injury and his status for the season opener against Florida remains in question. On the flip side, Rising proved to be one of the top quarterbacks in the country last season and outdueled Williams twice. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said at Pac-12 Media Day in July that both sides of the line of scrimmage should be "very good" and that he was "cautiously optimistic" heading into the season.
Utah has always been a team that relies on its line on both sides of the ball, including at tight end. Replacing first-round pick Dalton Kincaid at the position won't be easy, but starter Brant Kuithe is poised for a big season. The Utes have a tough nonconference slate against Florida and Baylor and don't get the luxury of avoiding USC, Washington, Oregon and Oregon State.
Utah knows how to win the conference better than anyone as of late and that experience should be a big factor. The Utes might not be the favorite, but they remain one of the toughest draws for any team on a weekly basis.
Tier ll: Dark horses
Odds to win Pac-12: +1100
Keys to the season: Oregon State had mediocre quarterback play last season and still managed to win 10 games. The outlook at the position heading into the season is different now with former Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei taking over. Still, Uiagalelei is no sure thing and his struggles the last two seasons at Clemson are well documented.
The former five-star prospect will be the highest-ranked quarterback coach Jonathan Smith has worked with, and it will be Uiagalelei's job to help restore the magic he showed during his second college start as a true freshman against No. 4 Notre Dame in 2020, when he threw for 439 yards with three touchdowns on the road. Smith has experience unlocking the most out of former top recruits at the position. He worked with former Washington QB Jake Browning when he was the Huskies' OC and turned him into a Heisman Trophy candidate. He can do the same with Uiagalelei, who will be surrounded on offense by star RB Damien Martinez, speedy WR Anthony Gould and three veteran offensive linemen to protect him in Joshua Gray, Taliese Fuaga and Jake Levengood.
Oregon State and UCLA are the only two teams in the conference that aren't playing a Power Five program in their nonconference schedule. The Beavers also have the luxury of facing Utah and UCLA at home and avoid playing USC. Uiagalelei will have to make a big jump, cut down on turnovers and show what college football fans saw in 2020 in order for Oregon State to contend for the Pac-12 title.
Odds to win Pac-12: +1400
Keys to the season: The Bruins have the easiest path to reach the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Bruins face all three first-year head coaches (Arizona State, Colorado and Stanford) and avoid playing Oregon and Washington. Yes, they have to face Utah and Oregon State on the road, but the Utes could be without Rising to start the season because of his rehab from a torn ACL.
UCLA's quarterback competition is likely down to veteran backup Ethan Garbers or superstar true freshman Dante Moore. Even if Garbers gets the nod to start the season opener, it's very likely Moore gets a chance to showcase his talent at some point and the No. 4 overall player in the 2023 class from the 247Sports rankings is oozing with potential.
The Bruins added one of the top running backs in the transfer portal in former Ball State's Carson Steele and he will get a majority of the carries. UCLA returns star EDGE rusher Laiatu Latu, who had 10.5 sacks and three forced fumbles last season. With a favorable nonconference schedule that includes Coastal Carolina, San Diego State and FCS-North Carolina Central, the Bruins are a dark horse to win the conference if Moore becomes a superstar.
Odds to win Pac-12: +2500
Keys to the season: If Cameron Ward becomes a household name by the end of the season, it will mean the Cougars are in the race for the Pac-12 title. Ward is one of the top quarterbacks in the country you probably haven't heard of, yet. After starting his college career at FCS-Incarnate Word where he put up video game numbers, he transferred to Washington State. His numbers last season weren't eye-popping (3,231 yards and 23 touchdowns to nine interceptions) but he has a chance to make a massive jump in 2023.
Washington State will likely have three new starting wide receivers this season: Kyle Williams, Josh Kelly and DT Sheffield. Williams and Kelly both played in the Mountain West last season at UNLV and Fresno State, respectfully, while Sheffield comes from the JUCO ranks. Ron Stone Jr. and Chau Smith-Wade both return on defense and will help anchor a unit that ranked fifth in the Pac-12. The schedule plays to the Cougars' advantage and they face the three first-year head coaches and they also avoid having to play USC and Utah. If WSU can beat one of Oregon or Washington on the road and handle business elsewhere, it will have a path to make the title game.
Tier lll: Prime Time
Odds to win Pac-12: +5000
Keys to the season: How is it possible that a team that went 1-11 last season could turn around and win the conference the following season? Well, if anyone has a chance to do just that it's Deion Sanders and Colorado. The Buffaloes had the most dramatic roster overhaul of any program in the history of college football this offseason, bringing in 50 new players from the transfer portal and solidifying the No. 1 transfer portal class in the 247Sports rankings.
Travis Hunter is going to be a must-watch player this fall no matter Colorado's record. There's a good chance the former No. 1 recruit in the country from the 2022 recruiting cycle plays on both sides of the ball this fall. Hunter and five-star true freshman CB Cormani McClain should form a dynamic duo in the secondary and being mentored by one of the greatest defensive backs in NFL history certainly helps. Shedeur Sanders can be considered the second-most important player Colorado brought in from its transfer portal class. He put up big numbers at FCS-Jackson State, and if he duplicates that production the Buffaloes will be in a fantastic spot.
The schedule to open up the season is brutal, with a game at national runner-up TCU followed by the first home game of the Sanders era against Nebraska. Colorado could go 0-12 or 12-0 and they will still dominate the news cycle and headlines because of Sanders. They are arguably the most intriguing program to follow this season. The drastic use of the transfer portal could turn out to be a massive success or failure.