Power 5 preview: The biggest challenge facing each Pac-12 team
The offseason headlines weren't positive for the Pac-12, as big-time Los Angeles programs USC and UCLA announced they're departing the conference for the Big Ten within the next three years.
That's created great uncertainty surrounding the conference, but the show must go on until the Trojans and Bruins officially leave.
With Lincoln Riley's hire at USC highlighting a list of new coaches in the Pac-12 for 2022, the unpredictable conference should put forth a highly entertaining product this season.
Here's the biggest challenge facing each team this campaign, with last season's record in parentheses.
Utah (10-4): Replacing star linebackers
There's absolutely no doubt that Utah was the class of the Pac-12 in 2021. With a number of key starters returning, that should be the case again this season. The offense looks to be in great shape with quarterback Cameron Rising coming back, along with the vast majority of the top pass-catchers on the roster from last year. The major question is the middle of Kyle Whittingham's defense, where key losses could present a big challenge for the Utes.
There's also no question that Devin Lloyd was the team's biggest star last year. The linebacker nabbed first-team All-American honors in 2021 after leading the conference in tackles for loss by almost doubling the next closest player. Lloyd parlayed that performance into a first-round draft selection in the NFL. Linebacker Nephi Sewell also departed after a season in which he finished seventh in the Pac-12 in tackles. The Utes will look to Florida transfer Mohamoud Diabate and three freshmen to join returnee Karane Reid to fill that massive void.
Oregon (10-4): Consistent quarterback play
Auburn fans will likely shake their heads at the notion that Bo Nix can provide consistent quarterback play after transferring to Oregon. At his best, Nix is one of the more electric quarterbacks in the country. Unfortunately, that's often followed by questionable decision-making, resulting in untimely turnovers. However, that potential could be the deciding factor in Nix's battle with Ty Thompson for the Ducks' starting quarterback spot.
Regardless of whether it's Nix or Thompson throwing the ball, the passing attack must be a bigger threat for Dan Lanning in his first season as Oregon's head coach than it was last year. The Ducks' offense became too easy to stop if they couldn't run the ball effectively. Utah held Oregon to just 63 and 74 rushing yards in two contests last season. Anthony Brown couldn't move the ball through the air, and the Utes walked away with two victories by a combined scoreline of 76-17.
UCLA (8-4): Secondary
No Pac-12 team stopped the pass worse than UCLA last campaign. An 8-4 season is nothing to be disappointed in, but the Bruins could have contended for the conference title had their secondary performed slightly better. Chip Kelly took the first step toward addressing this issue by bringing in Bill McGovern as defensive coordinator.
McGovern has some talent at his disposal, most notably rangy sophomore Devin Kirkwood. He showed moments of brilliance during his freshman season and has the ability to become one of the conference's best corners. The Bruins also added Wyoming transfer Azizi Hearn and Jaylin Davies from Oregon to help shore up the unit.
Arizona State (8-5): Offense
Arizona State might have seen the most turnover of any college football program from last season. Both coordinators and three other assistant coaches left Herm Edwards' team, and 17 players hit the transfer portal.
The departures affected the Sun Devils' offense most, with three-year starting quarterback Jayden Daniels now at LSU. Emory Jones transferred in from Florida to grab the starting QB job, but the unit around him has plenty of question marks. Star receiver Ricky Pearsall went the other way and is now with the Florida Gators, and Arizona State enters 2022 without its top two rushers from last season and down three offensive linemen. Edwards hit the transfer portal hard to bring in talent, but there's likely too much turnover for the Sun Devils to make a run at the Pac-12 title this year.
Washington State (7-6): Offensive line
There's a buzz around Washington State as a new era of Cougar football is upon us. It's now Jake Dickert's program after the interim coach got the permanent gig following a strong end to the 2021 season. His big offseason move was bringing in FCS star Cameron Ward to play quarterback - a transfer that has already garnered some buzz in the Heisman betting markets.
Ward has the potential to be a breakout player in the Pac-12, but Dickert's biggest challenge this year will be conjuring up enough protection to let the talented passer do his thing. Three full-time starters are gone, and two returnees, Jarrett Kingston and Ma'ake Fifita, are moving from guard to tackle. Konner Gomness saw some action at center last year and will likely get the nod to make that his permanent spot. The rest of the depth chart is a question that will have to be answered quickly if Ward is to get enough protection to work his magic for the Cougars.
Oregon State (7-6): 3rd-down defense
Oregon State's defense faced 185 situations last year where they had a chance to get off the field on third down and give the offense the ball back. However, it only completed that goal half the time - by far the worst number in the Pac-12. That was the biggest reason a 7-6 record was the absolute best the Beavers could muster in 2021.
Improving that third-down defense is new coordinator Trent Bray's most significant challenge this season. That comes down to rushing the quarterback and defending the pass in the secondary. Isaac Hodgins' return should help on that front, with the talented defensive end back after missing the 2021 campaign due to injury. Outside linebacker John McCartan will also see the field after an injury forced him to miss last season as well. The pass-rusher is expected to play a big role in Bray's defense. Add in the return of both starting cornerbacks, and it's easy to see that a stark improvement in third-down defense is possible.
Cal (5-7): Roster turnover
Significant roster turnover is a major issue for numerous teams in the Pac-12 this season, but Cal was hit as hard as any following a 5-7 campaign. Just eight players who started the Golden Bears' final game last year are back in 2022. Former Purdue quarterback Jack Plummer is the highest-profile addition in Berkeley. The challenge on offense is significant for Plummer, as the Golden Bears have never finished better than eighth in scoring in the Pac-12 during Justin Wilcox's five years as head coach.
The defense also added a number of players, most notably linebacker Jackson Sirmon from Washington. Sirmon ranked fifth in the conference in tackles last year. He could become a breakout player in Wilcox's strong defensive system.
USC (4-8): Managing expectations
For all the noise USC made this offseason, it's almost impossible to remember that it was one of the worst teams in the Pac-12 last campaign. The Trojans brought in Riley from Oklahoma to transform their program, and the offensive guru immediately overhauled the roster.
Riley brought star quarterback Caleb Williams and standout receiver Mario Williams with him from Norman. Adding Biletnikoff winner Jordan Addison and Oregon's Travis Dye only heightened expectations at USC. The defense also experienced significant roster turnover, with at least five transfers expected to start on the replenished unit.
It's easy to look at that talent and expect big things immediately for the Trojans, but the group will likely take some time to get comfortable with one another. Even though the schedule is very manageable with Rice, Stanford, Fresno State, and Oregon State in the first month, a surprising loss early wouldn't be shocking.
Washington (4-8): Passing attack
Last season was a disaster for Washington from the opening kickoff against Montana. A stunning home loss to the FCS program set the table for a rough campaign that resulted in the Huskies firing head coach Jimmy Lake after just two seasons. Enter Kalen DeBoer from Fresno State. He'll immediately get to work fixing an anemic passing attack in Seattle.
Washington's combined quarterback rating of 119 placed third-to-last in the Pac-12 last season. DeBoer will decide this week on the starting quarterback between Dylan Morris, Sam Huard, and Indiana transfer Michael Penix. Penix will likely get the nod due to his familiarity with DeBoer's system from his time as coordinator with the Hoosiers in 2019. With another strong defense expected in Seattle, an improved passing attack could see the Huskies back among the conference's elite in 2022.
Colorado (4-8): Offense
Despite fielding one of the worst offensive units in the country, Colorado still somehow managed to scrape out four wins last season. The Buffaloes ranked 121st in the nation in scoring offense, ahead of only five Power 5 conference programs. Karl Dorrell knows that can't happen again, or he'll likely have to find a new job, so the head coach changed virtually the entire offensive coaching staff for 2022.
New coordinator Mike Sanford has yet to pick his starter, with a camp battle between the incumbent Brendon Lewis and Tennessee transfer JT Shrout taking the headlines. The biggest addition to the offense is Baylor transfer R.J. Sneed II. The speedy receiver should dull the blow from losing Brenden Rice to USC.
Stanford (3-9): Rush defense
Stanford used to be a program mentioned as a contender for the Pac-12 title, but David Shaw and the Cardinal have fallen on hard times lately. Last year's 3-9 finish means the team is 11-19 across the past three seasons. Stanford's porous run defense was the biggest reason the drop-off continued in 2021, ranking 127th in the country after allowing a whopping 235 yards per contest. The Cardinal must improve drastically in that capacity this campaign against a schedule loaded with strong rushing attacks.
Shaw's idea to improve the defense comes with a drastic change from a 3-4 base to a 4-3 setup for the first time since 2010. While that should assist in stopping the run, the inexperience on the line will be a major challenge for Stanford.
Arizona (1-11): Defensive unit
It seems impossible for a fan base to get excited about a team that won just a single game last season, but Jedd Fisch has managed to do that at Arizona. The second-year coach was a menace on the recruiting trail and stayed very active in the transfer portal to reshape the roster. The big get was Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura, a move that should immediately improve the offense and fix last year's passing issues.
The defense improved in 2021, but it'll be difficult to continue that trajectory with coordinator Don Brown now the head coach at UMass. Johnny Nansen will implement a 4-2-5 scheme that'll lean heavily on the secondary to make plays. While there is plenty of talent in that unit, inexperience could be an issue as a number of true freshmen are expected to see plenty of action.