With spring football over in the Pac-12, the clock is ticking on the conference's final days with its full, 12-team form. With UCLA and USC departing for the Big Ten next summer, both teams look to make a splash in their own 'Last Dance' in the conference.
The collection of starting quarterback play in the Pac-12 should be its best in years. There's a wealth of returners at the position, including Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams and Washington's Michael Penix Jr. New blood also joins the fold in UCLA's Dante Moore and Arizona State's Jaden Rashada, both of whom are pushing for starting jobs.
The Pac-12 hasn't reached the College Football Playoff since Washington in 2016. Last year, USC was on the doorstep of breaking that drought before falling to Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Could this be the season the Trojans break that streak? Here are some overreactions heading into the fall that may come to fruition.
Wildcats fall short of the postseason once again: The Wildcats were one of the most improved teams in college football last season. After going 1-11 in coach Jedd Fisch's first season in Tucson, the Wildcats went 5-7 in 2022 and just missed out on a bowl game. With Fisch entering his third season, the time is now to take the next step. Arizona picked up a commitment from former Oregon linebacker Justin Flowe but lost one of the top wide receivers in the conference when Dorian Singer transferred to USC. Jayden de Laura returns at quarterback after a solid 2022 campaign, but in a loaded conference, Arizona isn't able to find six wins to get over that hump. The Wildcats should beat Northern Arizona and UTEP but traveling to Starkville to face Mississippi State in the second game of the season will be a challenge.
RB Cameron Skattebo will be a household name by November: Skattebo is the best running back in college football you probably have never heard of. After a dominant season at Sacramento State, where he rushed for 1,382 yards and seven touchdowns while earning Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year honors, Skattebo entered the transfer portal and signed with the Sun Devils days later. His bruising style of play will create nightmares for opposing teams in the conference. He should head into the fall as the starter for the Sun Devils in the first season of the Kenny Dillingham era.
Justin Wilcox is coaching his final season in Berkeley: Wilcox is considered one of the top defensive minds in college football, and there were rumors he could depart from Cal for the then-vacant Washington job before the Huskies hired Kalen DeBoer in 2021. Weeks later, Wilcox signed a massive contract extension to keep him in Berkeley until 2027. Wilcox has a 30-36 record at the school since his first season in 2017 and hasn't posted a winning season since 2019. If Cal struggles this season, the Wilcox era could come to an end. The Bears just don't have the talent to be one of the top teams in the conference.
Travis Hunter becomes the Pac-12's best player not named Caleb Williams: It's not every day that a former top-ranked player in his class hits the transfer portal but that's exactly what happened with Hunter. The former No. 1 player from the 2022 cycle by 247Sports followed Deion Sanders from Jackson State to Colorado, where he is destined for stardom. Hunter showed flashes at Jackson State playing on both sides of the ball as a cornerback and wide receiver, and that role is expected to be even larger this fall. Hunter missed a handful of games last fall due to an injury, and this will be his season to shine. He should play both ways with the Buffs and may even handle some special team duties. Hunter has the potential to become an All-Pac-12 player and should be considered one of the best players in the conference.
The pass rush will be a difference-maker in 2023: Last season, Oregon's defense only recorded 16 sacks, a program-worst dating back to the 1986 season. That number is expected to change with EDGE Brandon Dorlus returning and Jordan Burch coming over from South Carolina. Dorlus started all 13 games last season for the Ducks and received second-team All-Pac-12 honors. Another wild card for the group is prized freshman Matayo Uiagalelei, the brother of Oregon State QB DJ Uiagalelei. Matayo was five-star recruit, according to 247Sports, and will have a chance to see the field early. The pass rush will be back to a high level this fall.
DJ Uiagalelei finds his 2020 form: Uiagelelei looked as if he was destined for stardom after passing for 439 yards and scoring three touchdowns in place of Trevor Lawernce on Nov. 7, 2020, against Notre Dame. Uiagelelei struggled the following season as the full-time starter, however, and was benched late last season for then-freshman Cade Klubnik. Oregon State is the place where Uiagalelei returns to form that will put him in at least in the conversation to be a first-round pick next spring. Uiagalelei has a plethora of weapons in RB Damien Martinez, WR Anthony Gould, WR Silas Bolden and transfer TE Jermaine Terry ll. Mix that in with a good offensive mind in head coach Jonathan Smith and the Beavers will have a chance to compete for a Pac-12 title, which would also boost DJU's draft stock.
RB E.J. Smith realizes his full potential under Troy Taylor: The last time Stanford made an outside-the-box hire, it went with Jim Harbaugh from San Diego in 2007. The school took a similar approach this offseason by hiring away Troy Taylor from Sacramento State. The Hornets finished the 2022 regular season 11-0 and had one of the highest-scoring offenses with one of the best rushing attacks in the country. Smith, the son of former NFL star RB Emmitt Smith, should benefit the most. The former four-star RB started the season with an 87-yard touchdown on Stanford's first play from scrimmage last fall but only played in two total games after suffering a season-ending injury against USC. Taylor will be the coach to unlock his full potential. He will establish himself as one of the top running backs in the country this fall.
QB Dante Moore will be a Freshman All-American: Who will the top quarterback be from the 2023 recruiting cycle? With Arch Manning buried on the depth chart at Texas, Moore will have a chance to be the highest-ranked player at his position to play immediately. The Bruins have to replace star Dorian Thompson-Robinson, and the challengers appear to be Moore, Ethan Garbers and Kent State transfer Collin Schlee. Moore appears to be the leader in the clubhouse after flipping his commitment from Oregon to Chip Kelly and the Bruins on National Signing Day. WR Kam Brown should serve as Moore's top target this fall and is due for a breakout season with the ultra-talented freshman under center.
Trojans reach the College Football Playoff National Championship: The Pac-12 team with the best chance to reach the College Football Playoff this season is USC. Headlining the returners is Williams, who looks to be the favorite to be selected No. 1 overall in the 2024 NFL Draft. USC also had the No. 2 transfer recruiting class in the country behind Colorado, per 247Sports. The team's biggest offseason addition came late last month with the arrival of former Georgia DL Bear Alexander. Singer, a wideout transfer from Arizona, will be one of Williams' top targets this fall after a standout 2022 season at Arizona. The Trojans won't fall short of the CFP this season after just missing out on the dance last season, and in fact will make it all the way to the title game in Houston
Even with Rising back, Utes fail at a three-peat: For the first time in years, there seems to be parity in the Pac-12. Other teams in the Pac-12 such as USC, UCLA, Oregon, Oregon State and Washington all have a realistic chance of winning the conference this fall with the talent on the roster. This will serve as Utah's toughest title defense yet, and with nonconference matchups with Florida and Baylor to open the season, the Utes could find themselves in a hole early before the team opens conference play at home against UCLA. Even with Rising back in the mix, the Pac-12 is loaded at that position. Utah could be in danger of finishing in the middle of the standings if they get off to a slow start to the season.
Michael Penix Jr. is named a Heisman Trophy finalist: Penix had a season to remember in 2022, passing for 4,641 yards and 31 touchdowns to only eight interceptions. Washington returns one of the best wide receiver tandems in college football in Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan. Both players had more than 1,000 receiving yards last season and can put up similar numbers this fall. If Penix shines like he did last season and Washington takes the next step in DeBoer's second season at the helm, Penix should end up in New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. He's getting early consideration to be a first-round pick next spring, and that hype will only rise if Washington makes a run at the CFP.
QB Cameron Ward finally has his breakout season: In his first season at Washington State last fall, Ward started all 13 games, passing for 3,231 yards and 23 touchdowns to nine interceptions. He was certainly good enough, but didn't quite put up the eye-popping numbers at his previous stop, FCS program Incarnate Word, where he passed for 4,648 yards and 47 touchdowns in 2021. He is a player due for breakout season at the Power Five level. If Ward plays this season as he did at Incarnate Word, he'll finally be one of college football's names to know.