Pac-12 football outlook: Jon Wilner’s projections for the 2023 conference race

We are seven months from the most anticipated Pac-12 football season in ages, with a lineup of quarterbacks, coaches, top-25 groups, playoff contenders and Heisman Trophy candidates — to not point out two departing colleges — that can generate limitless storylines on the discipline and off.

With the recruiting largely full, the NFL draft deadline having come and gone and the switch portal lastly closed (till May), rosters are taking form.

The Hotline presents our preliminary projections for the conference race, which will probably be up to date following spring apply.

1. Washington: The hottest staff in the conference at the finish of the 2022 season is our decide to win the title in 2023, largely due to what has transpired over the previous month. The return of quarterback Michael Penix and a slew of playmakers on each side of the scrimmage elevates the Huskies to frontrunner standing. But with the returnees come expectations that have not existed on Montlake since the top of the Chris Petersen period. The identical forged of characters can produce completely totally different chemistry. Second-year coach Kalen DeBoer’s administration of inner dynamics will probably be essential.

2. Utah: A morsel of readability got here earlier this week, when coach Kyle Whittingham informed The Athletic that quarterback Cam Rising must be prepared for the season opener following the severe leg damage suffered in the Rose Bowl. Like Washington, the Utes possess a slew of high skills who handed on the NFL Draft. But will Utah play with the mixture of urgency, execution and fortune that is required to gather a 3rd consecutive conference championship? There’s a purpose no staff has pulled off the three-peat in the Pac-12’s enlargement period.

3. Oregon: After three consecutive appearances in the Pac-12 title sport, the Ducks didn’t qualify in ’22 due to late-season collapses towards Washington and Oregon State. We see no proof of serious regression, nevertheless — Oregon’s lineup stays as proficient as any in the conference and quarterback Bo Nix may determine in the Heisman dialogue. But will the protection, particularly, play to its potential? The Ducks had extra blue-chip prospects than their efficiency (No. 88 nationally in yards allowed per play) would counsel.

4. USC: Year Two beneath Lincoln Riley appears to be like mighty acquainted. The Trojans ought to discipline a first-class offense with quarterback Caleb Williams at the controls, however will the protection enhance sufficient to assist a conference title and playoff berth? We’re skeptical. This a lot is obvious: The otherworldly turnover margin that saved USC repeatedly (28 takeaways, seven giveaways) will not be repeated. Any reversion to the imply, with no commensurate uptick in protection, will result in extra losses and a disappointing last season in the Pac-12.

5. Oregon State: We thought of … strongly thought of … slotting Oregon State someplace in the high 4 however in the end couldn’t decide a staff with quarterback points over 4 rivals with first-class returnees. It’s not merely a matter of Clemson switch DJ Uiagalelei successful the job in Corvallis; he should play at a excessive degree on a weekly foundation. Also, the Beavers will not catch anybody without warning. Can a program that simply produced its greatest season in 16 years make the encore even higher?

6. UCLA: This slot represents the begin of a transition from the Pac-12’s top-end groups to the second tier, based mostly on 2022 efficiency and 2023 personnel. The Bruins lose the key items to their high-powered offense (quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and tailback Zach Charbonnet) and can grow to be considered one of the have-nots until they offset the attrition with extra competence on the different aspect of scrimmage. Will Chip Kelly lastly produce a worthy protection? At this level, there isn’t any selection however to attend till we see it to imagine it.

7. Washington State: The Cougars had been a tick above .500 general (7-6) and a tick under in league play (4-5) after a season of stout protection and spotty offense. The extent to which the former holds and the latter improves will set the course for ’23. We see two new coordinators, holes on the offensive line and extra of the identical on the scoreboard. Of course, that would not be so unhealthy: WSU has made seven consecutive bowl appearances (2020 excluded), the longest streak in the conference for a staff not named Utah.

8. Arizona: Coach Jeff Fisch used the switch portal to craft a formidable turnaround in Tucson: The Wildcats went 1-11 in his first yr and gained 5 video games in ’22 (and had been aggressive in most of the seven losses). But the subsequent step, into the postseason, is tougher than a single victory would counsel. The protection was a turnstile, a number of high playmakers departed (through the switch portal), and quarterback Jayden de Laura’s progress appeared to stagnate. If his effectivity would not enhance, Arizona’s trajectory may flatline.

9. Colorado: Peer by way of the huge hype accompanying Deion Sanders’ arrival — granted, that is not a straightforward job — and it is clear the Buffaloes will probably be exponentially higher than they had been in 2022. But higher would not equal good, not when CU was the worst Power Five staff in the nation final season and never when the schedule options 5 groups that gained 10 or extra video games (together with TCU). If the Buffaloes end 4-8 and are aggressive in the majority of the losses, depend the season as a hit.

10. Cal: The Bears peaked in 2019, misplaced all momentum when the pandemic struck and have plunged right into a rut: stable on protection, wayward on offense and seemingly destined to win or lose by a rating of 24-17. Next season will carry a system change beneath new playcaller Jake Spavital, an Air Raid practitioner. But the expertise is missing up entrance, and the lack of receiver J.Michael Sturdivant (to UCLA) cuts deep. We count on extra of the identical, with Cal shedding floor relative to its competitors.

11. Arizona State: It’s troublesome to take challenge with the strikes made by rookie coach Kenny Dillingham. It’s equally troublesome to discover a compelling purpose to suppose the adjustments will propel ASU onto the center tier of the conference, particularly with a schedule that features Oregon, Washington, Utah, USC and Oklahoma State. We aren’t bought on Notre Dame switch Drew Pyne as a high-level quarterback; attrition on the traces of scrimmage has been important; and a switch class that numbers in the 20s will want time to coalesce.

12. Stanford: The worst staff in the conference final season that wasn’t Colorado additionally skilled a training change. Troy Taylor would possibly show a greater rent than Deion Sanders — you by no means know — however Stanford would not have the capacity to overtake its roster as shortly as CU. And make no mistake: The roster desperately wants an overhaul. It took Jim Harbaugh three years to raise the Cardinal out of the gutter in the mid-2000s. If Taylor completed the feat in 4, we’ll be impressed.

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