The past five College Football Playoffs have been held without a Pac-12 team and that trend seems likely to continue even as the conference undergoes a significant facelift.
Two of the league’s biggest programs bring in new coaches – Lincoln Riley at Southern California and Dan Lanning at Oregon. Luring Riley from Oklahoma was a coup for the Trojans, but there is major rebuilding to be done. Lanning is fresh off winning a national title as Georgia’s defensive coordinator and has to fill the shoes of Mario Cristobal after his move to Miami.
There’s also change at Washington with the Huskies hiring Kalen DeBoer after his success at Fresno State and Washington State’s Jake Dickert begins his first full season after serving as interim coach last year after Nick Rolovich’s firing.
Utah remains the one constant. Fresh off its first Pac-12 title, the Utes look like the league’s best hope to reach the national semifinals. UCLA is poised to be in the hunt as its progression under Chip Kelly continues. Washington, Stanford and Arizona State still have big expectations for their programs, while Oregon State and Washington State might be dark horses to watch out for entering the summer.
Springtime power rankings for the Pac-12:
1. Utah (2021 record: 10-4)
Kyle Whittingham’s decision to promote Cam Rising to starting quarterback turned last season around for the Utes after a 1-2 start. It ended with a conference title and memorable shootout loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. Rising returns with running back Tavion Thomas, who had 21 touchdowns on the ground. Tight end Brant Kuithe was the team’s leading receiver and position mate Dalton Kincaid was right behind him. The defense again will be strong up front with Florida transfer Mohamoud Diabate slotting in at linebacker and filling a big need. The biggest worry is the secondary that was torched by the Buckeyes. Clark Phillips gives the group an elite corner but he needs some help there if Utah is going to reach greater heights.
2. Oregon (10-4)
The first issue Lanning must address is figuring out who is his starting quarterback. Bo Nix transfers in from Auburn after three roller-coaster seasons and will compete with Ty Thompson, who redshirted after joining the program as one of the nation’s top recruits. Lanning’s second task will be sorting out the defense. That might be a more comfortable endeavor as he built one of the country’s elite units at Georgia. Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe have the makings of a standout linebacker duo if the latter can stay healthy after two injury-plagued seasons. The one area Oregon will be able to count on is offensive line, where most of last year’s starting group returns and should pave the way for a strong running game. After three consecutive Pac-12 conference game appearances, the Ducks are again the favorites to be there this December even with the changes in Eugene.
3. UCLA (8-4)
The decision by Dorian Thompson-Robinson to return as a super senior gives Kelly his best chance of winning the Pac-12 since taking over the Bruins in 2018. Alongside a veteran quarterback is all-conference running back Zach Charbonnet, giving UCLA two of the league’s top offensive talents. Rebuilding the receiving group is Kelly’s biggest challenge on offense. The transfer portal was used to address needs on the defensive line and there’s experience in the back seven to lean on. The secondary has to be better to take the next step. The Bruins allowed an average of 40 points in their four losses last season.
4. Oregon State (7-6)
Wait, what? The Beavers are a contender in the North? The answer is a simple yes as Jonathan Smith has been building up his team without much fanfare. Oregon State broke through with a bowl appearance last season and was the only team in the league to beat eventual champion Utah after Rising became the starter for the Utes. The strength of the team will again be its running game with holdover DeShaun Fenwick becoming the top threat. Chance Nolan is back at quarterback and his development along with a veteran offensive line could make this one of the league’s best offenses. There’s room for improvement on defense with several key contributors returning. A rough early schedule will tell a lot about this team.
5. Southern California (4-8)
You’re seeing a lot of talk about the Trojans possibly being playoff contenders or winning the Pac-12 in Riley’s first season. Let’s take a wait-and-see approach as there are major concerns on both sides of the ball after last year’s team imploded. Caleb Williams transferred with Riley from Oklahoma and will take over the quarterback spot. He showed moments of brilliance and inexperience as a freshman. Joining him are more than a dozen other transfers, including running back Travis Dye from Oregon. Beyond the skill positions, there are problems to address on the offensive line and throughout the defense. So while USC might score more, they’re going to have to stop people without the requisite talent. Should make for some fun shootouts. Yes, Riley does bring a winning pedigree, however he has never led a rebuild like this and how quickly he can get this team into a championship-caliber unit remains to be seen.
6. Washington State (7-6)
Dickert split six games after being promoted from defensive coordinator to interim coach, helping the Cougars finish second in the North. Cameron Ward transferred in from Incarnate Word to fill the quarterback vacancy and his playmaking ability will be part of a new offense installed this spring that will focus less on passing than the previous systems used by Rolovich and Mike Leach. Dickert’s defense last year made strides and if it can continue that ascension then Washington State has the opportunity to finish one spot higher in the division than last year.
7. Washington (4-8)
The first task for DeBoer is solving the offensive issues that have plagued the program in recent seasons. The Huskies managed just under 22 points per game and brought in Indiana transfer Michael Penix Jr. to compete at quarterback with last year’s starter Dylan Morris and heralded redshirt freshman Sam Huard. The running game is also a work in progress, meaning much of the pressure for success is going to rest on the defense. The good news there is enough talent is in that group to again finish ranked near the top of the Pac-12 statistically. The offense has to do its part to reverse the win-loss record, though.
8. Arizona State (8-5)
With a veteran team returning, last season ended with disappointment as the Sun Devils underachieved. The loss of quarterback Jayden Daniels to LSU was one of the surprise departures in the aftermath of the campaign. Trenton Bourguet and Alabama transfer Paul Tyson are among the competitors to fill the starting job. That’s not the biggest question for Arizona State, unfortunately, as wide receiver and the secondary are lacking in experience and talent. And if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s the lingering NCAA investigation into the program looming. Herm Edwards is going to need some magic to put all the pieces together to compete for the South title.
9. Stanford (3-9)
Each of David Shaw’s first three seasons ended with at least 11 victories. The past three seasons the Cardinal have 11 victories combined. Such is the state of the program that was once annually a conference title contender and now is squarely in the bottom half of the league. After respective finishes of 122nd and 114th in total offense and defense last year, there are lots of areas to address. The good news is that quarterback Tanner McKee is among the many holdovers on offense and there’s some young talent on defense.
10. California (5-7)
The Golden Bears are the lowest-rated team from the North on this list, but the margins between them and the rest of the division are very small, making a potential rise very possible. The arrival of former Purdue quarterback Jack Plummer provides some hope for an offense that needs to carry its weight for Cal to go bowling. Like most seasons under Justin Wilcox, the defense should be one of the best in the conference and keep the Bears in most of their games.
11. Colorado (4-8)
Changes were needed after the Buffaloes were statistically among the worst in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Karl Dorrell brought in offensive coordinator Mike Sanford in his overhaul of assistants. Also joining the program is Tennessee quarterback transfer JT Shrout, who will compete with Brendon Lewis, the team’s starter as a freshman last year. While the passing game was poor, the running game wasn’t much better and needs someone to emerge as primary ball carrier. The situation is somewhat better on defense, though overall there needs to be improvement to get into postseason consideration.
12. Arizona (1-11)
This ranking might be harsh for the Wildcats even with them coming off a one-win season in Jedd Fisch’s debut. The team got better throughout the campaign and Fisch then landed an impressive recruiting class and some impact transfers. Among the key additions are quarterback Jayden de Laura, who started the past two seasons at Washington State, wide receiver Jacob Cowing from Texas-El Paso and Southern California defensive lineman Hunter Echols. Another possible impact comes from heralded wide receiver recruit Tetairoa McMillan. Arizona will start in the basement, but don’t be surprised if it finishes much higher.
Follow colleges reporter Erick Smith on Twitter @ericksmith