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Pac-12 football counter-programming: Reasons to get excited about the 2022 season

By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

One year ago today, at dinnertime, the Pac-12 sent shockwaves of delight to every corner of the conference: Controversial commissioner Larry Scott announced he was stepping down.

Optimism sprouted immediately, especially for the sagging football product, but progress has been slow. The 2021 season brought another year without a playoff berth, another string of head-scratching losses and another forgettable postseason.

On the anniversary of the stunning news from San Francisco, the Hotline opted against plowed ground and instead decided to offer a morsel of counterprogramming: 12 reasons Pac-12 football fans should be excited about the 2022 season.

For unmatched insight, we reached out to Pac-12 Networks analyst Yogi Roth, who lives, breathes, dines and snacks on Pac-12 football.

Roth’s list covers big-picture items that are ideal for casual observers and depth-chart details that hardcore fans will appreciate.

Here we go …

1. Close games and strong cultures

Roth: “I call it the transfer portal impact vs. the player development impact vs. the NIL (name, image and likeness) impact. With the portal, do you revamp your roster or just be selective with one or two guys? Or if you have a young team, do you keep developing them and not make much use of the portal? Then there’s NIL and how the coaches manage it.

“The games will be close in this league, and culture will be important. Culture wins one-score games and that is what Pac-12 football often is. Discipline and culture win one-score games. And culture has a drop-down menu in today’s college football: It’s the portal, NIL, the locker room and how you develop guys.

“I look forward to learning how each program manages these aspects.”

2. Utah: The next step?

Roth: “I’m so looking forward to seeing if the Utes can start the season the way they finish the season.

“I think they have the top offensive trio in the country at QB/RB/TE with (quarterback) Cam Rising, (running back) Tavion Thomas and (tight end) Brant Kuithe. The defense is loaded, and the consistency in the coaching staff is incredible.

“This is the window for them – it’s their league based on what they did this past year, what they return and their culture. To me, they are easily in the top 10 and probably the top seven or eight. They will be everybody’s favorite (from the Pac-12) to go to the playoff. And the schedule sets up well for them.

“They will be in the mix for everything they want to achieve.”

3. Lincoln Riley and the USC roster “overhaul”

Roth: “He has already made an impact on USC recruiting, an impact on the broader recruiting landscape and an impact on USC’s daily approach to their program. It has been incredible, and it’s everything we would have expected.

“Over the past few years, I truly believe that this generation of players are only concerned with what just happened – who just won the Heisman Trophy, who just went to the playoffs. He has all that. It’s so intriguing to see all the things he’s bringing and how the team is responding. And that roster overhaul he talked about on signing day – it’s happening.”

4. Are Pac-12 quarterbacks back?

Roth: “Last season probably wasn’t up to what the Pac-12 standard has been at the position. But I look at 2022 and see four tiers.

“The first tier is UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson, ASU’s Jayden Daniels, Stanford’s Tanner McKee and Utah’s Cam Rising. I’d put those four up against the top four from any conference. Who’s better in the Big Ten? Who’s better in the ACC or SEC? You see four draft-eligible players who, if they take the next step, will be in the quarterback conversion right behind the very top group. They are the real-deal guys.

“Then the second tier is Oregon State, which is TBD with two quarterbacks who have started in Chance Nolan and Tristan Gebbia; add in the big arm of Ben Gulbranson and this team is set up for success at QB.

“The third tier is the teams with competition from transfers against the guys on the roster. Arizona’s in that group with Jayden de Laura coming in. So is Cal with Jack Plummer and Oregon with Bo Nix and Washington with Michel Penix and Washington State with Cam Ward and USC if they get Caleb Williams. Those competitions are going to be fierce, and each team will move the ball and challenge defenses with their respective starter.

“Tier four is Colorado, by itself, with Brendon Lewis and JT Shrout, and extremely talented freshman Owen McCown coming in this summer. With those QBs, the Buffs might have the most intriguing quarterback battle of the spring along with Oregon.

“Bottom line, this position is going to perform at a high level in 2022.”

5. Oregon’s front seven under Dan Lanning

Roth: “(Linebacker) Noah Sewell is the best defensive player in the league, and I think he’s going to be a top-10 pick. He has a chance to be ‘that guy.’ And then you have Brandon Dorlus and Mase Funa and a healthy Justin Flowe. Now you bring in Dan Lanning, who just won a national championship (as Georgia’s defensive coordinator).

“I can’t wait to see them practice, how they compete in individual drills, team drills. Outside of L.A., that’s the first place I’m going. The defense has a chance to be special.

“With what Mario Cristobal left behind, that team is built to compete for the Pac-12 title and the playoff this year.”

6. Stanford: Headed for a bounce-back season?

Roth: “I won’t accept their record (3-9) as reality. The culture is too strong. In Michael Wilson and Tanner McKee, they have the best receiver-quarterback duo in the conference as of today. And they had the top (recruiting) class in the league based on the early signing period.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with the defensive front and the maturation of their offensive line. They have weapons, their program is extremely driven after what happened last fall, and they have one of the top coaches in the nation in David Shaw.”

7. North Division mayhem

Roth: “Everybody has beaten each other. Stanford beat Oregon and Oregon beat WSU and WSU beat Oregon State and Oregon State beat Washington and Washington beat Cal and Cal beat Stanford.

“That’s why I go back to No. 1 on this list: Your culture and ability to win close games will be big.

“Last year was the most fun I’ve ever had calling games. Part of it was that we (the Pac-12 Networks) only broadcast one game in 2020, and part of it was the competition and how games came down to the final few drives. I think the North is like that again this year.”

8. Washington: Better than people think

Roth: “They aren’t really in the discussion because they fell so far in 2021. But I’m a big fan of Kalen DeBoer and the coaching staff and the kind of football they play when I watched them at Fresno State.

“The Huskies are going to move the ball down the field. And the players have fallen in love with what they think they can do with this staff. Keep an eye on their wideouts. Jalen McMillan and Rome Odunze have a chance to be all-Pac-12 players.”

9. Development of second- and third-year players

Roth: “Among the players I can’t wait to watch this spring are ASU linebacker Eric Gentry – I think he has the ability to play eight or 10 years in the NFL if he continues to develop like expected; UCLA edge Laiatu Latu (a transfer from Washington), who had first-round pick potential before an injury; Cal’s Brett Johnson, who was my top interior lineman in the league (before an off-the-field accident); Washington linebacker Sav’ell Smalls; Oregon State tight end Luke Musgrave; USC receiver Kyle Ford, who is finally healthy, and edge Korey Foreman; Oregon cornerback Dontae Manning and linebacker Justin Flowe; Stanford receiver John Humphreys; Utah linebacker Ethan Calvert and corner Clark Phillips.

“And there are so many others. This league is loaded with young talent, some proven and some developing, and this spring will be big for all of those players.”

10. Arizona coach Jedd Fisch’s freshman class

Roth: “How is he going to manage the roster and create a competitive cauldron? It’s the best (incoming) class in the league when you combine recruits and transfers as of today, and they only won one game last year.

“All these guys are expecting to play and most are already on campus. Can they have a practice atmosphere that’s as competitive as anything they will face on Saturdays? He’s creating that. You can see it, and I look forward to visiting this spring.”

11. New offensive and defensive coordinators

Roth: “We know there are new guys on both sides for the four teams that have new head coaches (Washington, WSU, USC and Oregon). But what about the other slots?

“Who is UCLA going to hire as its defensive coordinator? How’s Johnny Nansen going to do at Arizona? And Trent Bray at Oregon State? And on the offensive side, Mike Sanford at Colorado?

“I think they each bring their own style, and it will be reflected in their players. This spring is huge for each of them to teach their roster the base scheme and create confidence heading into the off-season for the player-run practices.”

12. The NFL reality

Roth: “This is more about the spring than the season. I call it the NFL reality vs. the lazy narrative. Look at what the players want. They’re all about the College Football Playoff and the league – the NFL. You can play in the Pac-12 and still get to the NFL. It’s third in the number of former players who are on NFL Playoff rosters, behind the SEC and the Big Ten (who have two more teams).

“I’m intrigued by where (Oregon edge rusher) Kayvon Thibodeaux will get drafted. I don’t know if he’s a lock for No. 1 and am sure there will be plenty of dialogue around his game film. I think Trent McDuffie (Washington) could be the No. 1 cornerback taken. Devin Lloyd (Utah) could be the No. 1 linebacker picked, and Drake London (USC) could be the top wideout taken. Those guys are all going to move up the draft boards as there are so many positive things to talk about with each of them.

“There’s a backlog of players because of 2020 and the bonus year (of eligibility), but this could be the most players drafted in the history of the Pac-12. The narrative that you don’t go to the league from the Pac-12 is just lazy and, quite simply, incorrect.”