The Pac-12 was anything but boring in 2021, which began with Larry Scott announcing his departure (Jan. 20), ended with a ghastly showing in bowl games and featured the hiring of a new commissioner, George Kliavkoff, a brief exploration of expansion, an alliance with the Big Ten and ACC, three in-season head coach terminations and plenty more.
But ’22 also figures to be momentous with NCAA legislative landscape shifting rapidly, College Football Playoff expansion stagnating and the Pac-12 attempting to fortify its long-haul position in the sport.
Here are 12 storylines to watch, in roughly chronological order:
1. Uncertainty in Westwood: Chip Kelly became a lame-duck coach as soon as UCLA backed out of the Holiday Bowl. His original contract runs through the ’22 season, and there has been no agreement on an extension. The $9 million buyout drops to zero on Sunday, allowing either Kelly or the Bruins to walk away from the other for nothing. His return is more likely than not, but hardly guaranteed despite the eight-win season. The next week or 10 days will be decisive.
2. CFP expansion: The impasse remains, leaving little hope for changes to the format during the final four seasons of the current contract cycle. No conference needs expansion more than the Pac-12, and no conference is as flexible on the future format. Best-case scenario for the Pac-12: Agreement on a 12-team event that starts with the 2024 season and features automatic bids for the Power Five champions.
3. The future of divisions: The Pac-12 is reconsidering the viability of the six-team divisions but won’t make a decision until it knows the format for the expanded playoff. The conference’s goal is to maximize its chances for multiple CFP bids on a regular basis, but those decisions cannot be made without first knowing the selection process. Our opinion: The divisions will be eliminated by the 2023 season, at the latest.
4. The Alliance: The Pac-12 also is mulling an eight-game conference schedule. Before the switch can be made, it must have 12 quality opponents lined up to replace the lost round-robin game for each team. (Its TV partners, ESPN and Fox, won’t trade a league matchup for a nonconference cream puff without asking for their money back.) The easiest solution: If the Big Ten also drops to eight conference games, the conferences could set a season-long series of inter-conference affairs. No word when the Big Ten will make a decision.
5. The new coaches: There will be at least four first-year head coaches in the conference, the highest total since the 2018 season: USC’s Lincoln Riley, Washington’s Kalen DeBoer, Washington State’s Jake Dickert and Oregon’s Dan Lanning. Will any of them exceed the expectations? Will any prove to be first-year flops? Also, will there be any other changes at the top, either in Westwood or elsewhere?
6. USC’s relevance: The Pac-12 needs its top programs to perform to their potential, especially with media rights negotiations expected to start in approximately 12 months. The short list includes Washington and Oregon but starts with USC, a true blue blood occupying valuable ground in the nation’s No. 2 media market. The Trojans opened the vault to lure Riley away from Oklahoma and need him to make an immediate impact. He has won on the recruiting trail, but success must unfold on the field, as well.
7. The QB carousel: Just Monday, Dorian Thompson-Robinson announced he would return to UCLA, Jaxson Dart left USC, Washington State reeled in prized transfer Cameron Ward, and Jayden de Laura, formerly of WSU, announced he was heading to Arizona. We expect the carousel to keep spinning for months – perhaps through spring practice – with USC viewed as a likely landing spot for coveted Oklahoma transfer Caleb Williams.
8. Arizona State’s fate: The Sun Devils are awaiting resolution on the NCAA investigation into recruiting transgressions during the pandemic that have already resulted in three assistants being placed on administrative leave. To what degree will the sanctions impact the program’s immediate future? Will there be any sanctions? The Sun Devils need an answer as soon as possible, but the NCAA is not known for swift judgment. One option: They could self-impose penalties.
9. Heisman Trophy hopefuls: The Pac-12 has not produced a Heisman finalist since Stanford’s Bryce Love in 2017, as the lack of individual superstars symbolizes the conference’s competitive decline. Will one of the top returnees (Utah quarterback Cam Rising, perhaps, or UCLA’s Thompson-Robinson) produce a breakthrough season? Or could the best player in the conference be a newcomer who isn’t yet on a roster?
10. Week One showdowns: The 2022 schedule features the standard array of Pac-12 matchups against Power Five opponents, but two stand out as narrative-defining for the conference. Both are Sept. 3, and both are a long way from home: Utah at Florida, and Oregon vs. Georgia in Atlanta. The national champions will be a top-five team, if not the preseason No. 1. Oregon’s new head coach, Dan Lanning, was Georgia’s defensive coordinator this season.
11. Ending the CFP drought: The Pac-12 hasn’t placed a team in the playoff since the 2016 season and accounts for just two of the 32 semifinal berths in the eight-year history of the event. Its lack of presence on the grand stage has undercut fan interest and recruiting efforts. Will 2022 be the breakthrough year? Look at it this way: No two-loss team has made the playoff, so the Pac-12 stands a chance only if there’s a team good enough to go 13-0 or 12-1. Consider us skeptical.
12. Pipeline problems: The Pac-12 won’t thrive on the field until it slows the outflow of four- and five-star talents to other conferences. Riley’s presence at USC should help in the 2022-23 recruiting cycle, but the Pac-12 cannot rely on the Trojans alone. Another key piece to securing the pipeline is maximizing endorsement opportunities (i.e., name, image and likeness) for players, with the conference supporting efforts at the campus level. Any Pac-12 football revival starts with improved talent acquisition.
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