1 – USC Expectations
If you’re reading this, you know that all the rage in the Pac 12 *for 2022* is about Lincoln Riley taking over the head coaching job at USC. After more than a decade of just treading water with various coaches post-Pete Carroll, the Trojans eyed a big fish on the market and reeled him down to SoCal.
Riley heads into his opening season with higher expectations than maybe any new head coach in the history of college football. The Pac 12 isn’t a superpower, Oregon and Washington are also in coaching transition, and Riley has the benefit of the transfer portal, which he’s used to bring in a ton of talent. So, can Riley and the Trojans live up that hype?
Coming to Southern California with Riley from Oklahoma is standout quarterback Caleb Williams. The worst kept secret during transfer season, Williams took over at Oklahoma for Spencer Rattler as a true freshman and his performance indicated he could very well be one of the best players in the sport by the time he leaves college. The other huge splash was the arrival of Jordan Addison from Pitt, fresh off an award winning season. Mario Williams also comes from Oklahoma at wide receiver as well as Brendan Rice (yes, son of Jerry) from Colorado and Terrell Bynum from Washington. Maybe the most underrated transfers on the offensive side though are former Oregon running back Travis Dye and former Stanford back Austin Jones, giving the USC offense two explosive players out of the backfield (albeit, injury concerns lurk).
The defense will be helmed by Alex Grinch, who Riley also brought along with him from OU. The Trojans defense in 2021 gave up more than 30 points per game as well as finishing in the bottom half of FBS in every major category. Luckily, the offense wasn’t the only major transfer portal overhaul. Shane Lee (Alabama) and Eric Gentry (Arizona State) will fill big roles at the linebacker spots and Romeo Height (Auburn) will provide a spark as a pass rusher. Oh, and former number one recruit Korey Foreman is a favorite to have a big breakout campaign in 2022. It may take some time to gel, but the patchwork Trojan defense should be modestly improved from last season.
The talent is here for USC to win the Pac 12 in year one, and the schedule should see the Trojans favored nearly every week of the season. Only Utah and rival UCLA stand out as tough road opponents, and USC misses Oregon completely. Outside the conference, USC gets an interesting matchup with Fresno State in game three that should have plenty of eyeballs glued to the action, and Notre Dame doesn’t come to town until the final week of the season.
Expectations are high, and I think USC should be able to back to the Pac 12 Championship before departing the conference next offseason.
2 – Bo-regon Ducks.
USC isn’t the only major Pac 12 team going through a coaching change. Up in Eugene, former Georgia defensive coordinator and National Champion Dan Lanning takes over after Mario Cristobal left the program to take the same job at Miami. So what will the new Ducks look like and what are the expectations?
At quarterback, Oregon should hopefully expect better play. Anthony Brown was hit or miss at the helm, never being able to provide what the Ducks needed in the wake of Justin Herberts departure. Taking over the quarterback gig will either be touted prospect Ty Thompson or *The Bo Nix Experience*. Unless the change of scenery fixes what has ailed Nix, he likely doesn’t fill the void of consistency that Duck fans would like but, at bare minimum, has a higher ceiling than Brown. Thompson should get plenty of opportunities to win the gig, and bringing in Nix as a valuable emergency option was a smart move for Lanning and new offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham.
The real beauty of this team will be on the defensive side. The Ducks return two prominent defensive talents in Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell. Sewell should be in discussion as a preseason favorite for several defensive awards, and Flowe has battled injuries but has flashed the talent that could make this duo the best linebacker crew in the country.
Dan Lanning and company will open the season in Atlanta against his former squad, the defending champion Georgia Bulldogs. The Ducks likely won’t win that game, but a strong showing could get the ball rolling in the right direction. BYU comes to Eugene two weeks later in another tough matchup, but after that the schedule lightens up a bit. Rival Washington comes to Eugene in mid-November and Utah will follow, but the Ducks don’t make any daunting road trips outside of that week one trek to Atlanta.
In a relatively weak North division, Oregon should be favored to return to the Championship even with the coaching changes.
3 – Did You Say Utes?
Utah comes into 2022 after an emotionally charged 2021 that saw the tragic death of two players, Aaron Lowe and Ty Jordan, the growth of quarterback Cameron Rising, two beatdowns of Oregon (one for the conference championship) and a Rose Bowl birth.
Then the offseason came around, and rumors circulated that long time coach Kyle Wittingham was going to retire. Luckily, that didn’t happen and Wittingham has stayed committed to the Utes for a promising 2022 campaign. Cameron Rising looks to build off the growths he made last season, and has the talent to put himself into the upper stratosphere of quarterback talent in the country.
Britain Covey is finally gone, so the offense will need to find production at the wide receiver position but returning tight ends Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid will provide Rising with plenty of pass catching experience at the tight end spots. Out of the backfield returns Tavion Thomas, who averaged 5.4 yards per carry, went over 1,000 yards on the ground, and accounted for whopping 21 rushing touchdowns last season. If you are unfamiliar with Thomas, its time to get familiar because he’s one of the best backs in the country.
Defensively, the Utes have a big hole to fill after Devin Lloyd left for the NFL. Florida transfer Mo Diabate will be leaned on heavily once healthy to try and replicate some of Lloyds success as a do-it-all style backer, and the backend experienced serious depth issues during the Rose Bowl resulting in running back Micah Bernard playing corner. Clark Phillips and JaTravis Broughton are very talented corners but they’ll need to stay healthy if Utah wants to repeat as South champions.
The Utes open the season with an intriguing matchup with Florida in Gainesville which could give Utah a huge confidence boost that could carry throughout the season. USC will have to come to Salt Lake City, and the Utes will travel to Eugene and also LA for UCLA, but a relatively weak and question laden conference should give Utah a really good shot at returning to the Rose Bowl in 2022.
4 – Predictions & Notes
5 Biggest Games
Oregon vs. Georgia (in Atlanta — Sept 3) – Dan Lanning takes his Oregon Ducks and travels back to Atlanta to face his old team, the Georgia Bulldogs. Can the Ducks give Georgia fits or will there be growing pains?
Utah at Florida (Sept 3) – Coming off a Rose Bowl birth, the Utes try to take advantage of a transitioning Florida squad to grab a win over an SEC opponent in this must-see opener.
USC at Utah (Oct 15) – One would imagine this matchup will be the deciding factor in the South division between stalwart Utah and an explosive USC squad.
USC at UCLA (Nov 19) – The first game against major rival UCLA for Lincoln Riley at USC and a matchup of two of the most prominent offensive minds of the last twenty years of college football.
Notre Dame at USC (Nov 26) – One of the most historic rivalries gets a facelift as Marcus Freeman and Lincoln Riley matchup for the first time as rivals.
USC defeats Oregon
Predicted Final Standings
- Oregon State
- Washington State
- Arizona State