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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

2022 football preview: Utah, Oregon and USC are the teams to beat as an unprecedented season looms

By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

A summer like no other for the Pac-12 has given way to a football season that defies all reason.

How else do you explain the twin threats of pathogen and smoke while two teams have one foot out the door and the other 10 must decide if they’re walking down the aisle or feeling for the hills?

It has been 57 days since USC and UCLA announced their departures for the Big Ten in the summer of ’24, and the Pac-12 is no closer to settling its future than it was when the ground liquified.

As its teams seek national relevance on the field, conference and campus officials will determine whether to sign a new media rights contract, expand the membership or disband.

The developments on the field will be more riveting than the action on it, just not as accessible to the viewing public.

Will Oregon, Washington, Stanford and Cal sign up, or depart for the Big Ten?

Will Arizona, ASU, Utah and Colorado flee for the Big 12?

Will they stick together and stand on 10, or grow the membership?

Clarity could be months away. Meanwhile, a vital season awaits.

The Pac-12 has seven new starting quarterbacks, four new head coaches, three ranked teams (in the AP preseason poll), two mammoth season openers and one collective pursuit:

Place a team in the College Football Playoff for the first time in six years.

It needs someone to excel this fall. Perhaps USC rises above with new coach Lincoln Riley. Far better for the conference would be the emergence of a playoff team that isn’t currently pledged to the Big Ten.

Utah and Oregon are the top candidates, and both have showcase games to start the season: The Utes visit Florida while the Ducks face Georgia, the defending national champions.

A victory by either would generate instant credibility and open a path to the playoff, however daunting it might be.

Looming above this crucial conference season are two incontrovertible truths:

– No two-loss team has ever reached the playoff.

– No Pac-12 team has gone undefeated in league play during the CFP era.

If Oregon or Utah loses the opener, its path to the grand stage narrows considerably.

Oh, and there’s one more unprecedented piece to the Pac-12 season: There are no more divisions.

Months ago, the conference tweaked the qualification process for its championship game. Instead of the North and South winners participating, the teams with the best conference record (by winning percentage) will advance.

This summer, it took the next logical step and scrapped the divisions altogether. The league standings will show a single 12-team grouping, just as they do in basketball.

Our order-of-finish predictions below reflect that change.

1. Oregon (9-3, 8-1): We expect a slow start with so many new pieces and two challenging early assignments (Georgia and Brigham Young). But the stout defense should carry the Ducks until the offense finds its form. In the end, rookie coach Dan Lanning makes it look easy.

2. Utah (10-2, 7-2): The defending conference champs must, for the first time, deal with the pressure that comes with taking everyone’s best shot. Look for a stellar start at Florida, two losses in conference play, followed by a successful title defense. (See below.)

3. USC (9-3, 7-2): We’re buying the hype, but at a reduced price. The Trojans don’t quite have the talent or depth across the lines of scrimmage to pull off the 13-0 or 12-1 season that’s required for a playoff bid. But give Riley one more recruiting cycle, and the CFP awaits.

4. UCLA (9-3, 6-3): With three non-conference cupcakes and eight home games, the schedule is built for a successful season. So is the coaching staff (new defensive coordinator: Bill McGovern) and the roster (same quarterback: Dorian Thompson-Robinson). Consider UCLA a title contender.

5. Washington (8-4, 5-4): Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has sustained enough injuries through his college career to raise concerns over reliability. But the Huskies were more talented than they showed last year. The results and personnel should move in lockstep this fall.

6. Oregon State (6-6, 4-5): One of several teams that could make these projections look foolish. The defense should improve under new coordinator Trent Bray, but will the offense dominate on the ground with a retooled line? If so, the Beavers could land on the top tier.

7. Washington State (6-6, 4-5): WSU’s 2021 season was so extraordinary that we hesitate to make it the basis for assumptions this fall. Our questions aren’t about coach Jake Dickert’s leadership or quarterback Cam Ward’s talent but about the fellas up front. Will the lines hold?

8. Cal (6-6, 4-5): Transfer quarterback Jack Plummer (from Purdue) is on the short list of the Pac-12’s most intriguing players in 2022. If he takes the offense to a higher level of efficiency, a breakthrough season could follow. Because you know the Bears will play sound defense.

9. Arizona State (5-7, 3-6): Perhaps the toughest team to project due to immense roster turnover, coaching staff changes and the looming threat of NCAA sanctions. It’s not hard to sketch a path to mediocrity for the Sun Devils, especially if the discipline improves and the yellow flags vanish.

10. Stanford (4-8, 2-7): We’re not convinced a bounce-back season looms for the Cardinal, partly because of the wobbly defense but largely because of the unforgiving schedule that includes Utah, Oregon, Washington and Notre Dame on the road and 10 weeks without a break.

11. Arizona (4-8, 2-7): Learning how to win is the first essential step for a program that has one victory in the past two seasons. For all the roster improvements, coach Jedd Fisch needs more than one offseason to fully close the gap on the pack. Check back in Nov. ’23.

12. Colorado (3-9, 2-7): The Buffaloes could surprise – they did just that in the COVID year – but the talent lost to the transfer portal greatly exceeds the talent gained. Also, the offensive line is a work in progress, and we’re skeptical the quarterback play will support a mid-level finish.

Championship game: Utah 31, Oregon 26

Two weeks after their loss in Eugene, the Utes cement their status as the Pac-12’s top program with their second consecutive title. But multiple losses once again prevent a CFP appearance.