Biggest Question: Can the Trojans break into the Playoff for the first time in school history? Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams made quick work of the turnaround at USC last season, going from 4-8 in 2021 to 11-3 in 2022 after coming over from Oklahoma in the offseason and bringing a bus load of transfers in from across the country to quickly patch the roster. Williams would ultimately win the Heisman, but the Trojans slipped up twice to Utah, including the Pac 12 Championship Game, keeping them out of the Playoff picture. Expectations are obviously higher in 2023, and USC is favored to win what should be an incredibly difficult conference (RIP). This squad looks as good as last seasons, but a tough back half of the season that sees Notre Dame, Utah, Washington, and Oregon within a month could spell trouble if the defense isn’t improved. I think the Trojans lose a game, but ultimately make the Playoffs based on a prime resume that’ll include a Pac 12 Championship.
Biggest Game: @ Oregon (November 11th) – The toughest matchup on the schedule for the Trojans also comes very late in the season, when they’ll travel to Eugene to face a very talented Oregon squad with a great quarterback in Bo Nix. A win here would be a massive feather in the cap when it comes to the Playoff committee.
Preseason MVP: QB Caleb Williams – The 2022 Heisman Trophy winner will look to do what only Archie Griffin (undeservedly) has done: win the award twice. He’s coming off a season in which he threw for 4,537 yards and 42 touchdowns, and will likely be the first pick in next years NFL Draft.
Breakout Watch: DB Domani Jackson – The 5-star recruit from the 2022 class saw only limited action last season, but with Mekhi Blackmon gone to the NFL the expectation is that Jackson will play a significant role in this defense, and should help the Trojans defense improve off a mediocre 2022 season.
2 – Washington Huskies (2022 Record: 11-2) (2023 Projection: 10-2)
Biggest Question: After a quick turnaround, is the next step a Pac 12 Championship? Like Lincoln Riley at USC, Kalen DeBoer came to Washington last offseason and made a massive turnaround from 4-8 to 11-2. The only difference was that it was unexpected from the Huskies. He brought in Michael Penix from Indiana, whom he coached during a stop there in 2019, and his longtime companion Ryan Grubbs as offensive coordinator and the rest is history. The Huskies look as impressive, if not more, in 2023 though and should absolutely compete for the conference championship. The Huskies November slate will determine where this team goes, though, as they’ll face off against USC, Utah, Oregon State, and Washington State in a true murderers row of opponents. USC likely has the leg up in the conference, but Washington is very much a good bet to win and even could see their second Playoff birth.
Biggest Game: @ USC (November 4th) – A late season matchup with the Trojans could hold plenty of implications when it comes to both the Pac 12 Championship and the Playoff picture, and even a step further with the Heisman race as Williams and Michael Penix are expected to be candidates throughout the season.
Preseason MVP: QB Michael Penix – I’m not sure anybody expected to see the breakout that Penix had in 2022, when he threw for 4,641 yards and 31 touchdowns while leading the Huskies to double digit wins for the first time since 2018. With Grubbs back at offensive coordinator, Penix is on deck to have another standout year and potentially become a first round pick next Draft cycle.
Breakout Watch: CB Jabbar Muhammad – Muhammad has started 13 games over 3 seasons at Oklahoma State before transferring to Washington this offseason, and the Huskies have done one thing incredibly well over the last decade: produce standout defensive backs. Muhammad has the tools to become another key player at the position for the Huskies.
Biggest Question: With a new OC in Eugene, will Bo Nix continue his rise or see a dip in play? Ducks offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham left to take the Arizona State head coaching job this offseason and was replaced with Will Stein, formerly of UTSA. Bo Nix saw his play take a major step up last season, so some questions are naturally surrounding whether that continues or if he dips back closer to his Auburn days. Stein is an up and coming coach in the college ranks after serving on Jeff Traylor’s staff the previous few seasons, and his offenses while there were continuously amongst the top of the Group of Five and the play of quarterback Frank Harris was notable from a national view. I don’t think Duck fans should be worried about Nix or the offense regressing in 2023, and I actually think Stein being on board might make the offense even better than it was in 2022.
Biggest Game: @ Utah (October 25th) – A road trip to Salt Lake in late October is not something Oregon fans want to see, but it’s the best test on the schedule for this team. Previous iterations of Oregon football were not prepared for this matchup, but the Ducks won in Eugene last season and hope to carry that into this years matchup.
Preseason MVP: QB Bo Nix – He’s focused. He’s having fun. He might really be a dark horse for Heisman. Nix came to Eugene last offseason and it started off bad after getting tossed around by Georgia to open the year, but as time went on he showed great improvement and ended 2022 with 3,593 passing yards and 29 touchdown passes. Nix enters 2023 with plenty of praise and high expectations, we’ll see if he puts it all together again for the Ducks.
Breakout Watch: WR Tez Johnson – A transfer from Troy this offseason, Johnson had 56 catches for 863 yards and 4 touchdowns for the Trojans last year and should see improvements on those numbers in this offense. He’ll provide a solid number 2 option for Bo Nix in the receiving game.
Biggest Question: Can DJ Uiagalelei elevate his game enough to make the Beavers a viable conference championship threat? The Oregon State Beavers made huge strides in 2022, ending the season with double digit wins for the first time since 2006. Expectations are now much higher, and in the offseason head coach Jonathan Smith went into the transfer portal and brought in two year starter DJ Uiagalelei from Clemson. He had a bit of a topsy turvy tenure with the Tigers, but the Beavers succeeded in spite of having below average play from the quarterback position. DJs arrival should provide a boost to the Beavers offense regardless of which version we get, but working with Smith and being out of the spotlight might be the key to unlocking the player that was a consensus five-star prospect coming out of high school and because of that, I’m pretty high on the Beavers in 2023.
Biggest Game: @ Oregon (November 24th – Season Finale) – With the Ducks headed to the Big Ten and the Beavers future up in the air, I expect a bitter Oregon State team to have this matchup circled on the calendar in the boldest sharpie possible. Potentially the final yearly edition of the Civil War.
Preseason MVP: RB Damien Martinez – Martinez had a tremendous true freshman campaign that saw him rush for 982 yards and 7 touchdowns, and the Beavers ground and pound attack behind a strong offensive line should lead to increased production in year 2 for the running back.
Breakout Watch: WR Anthony Gould – The junior pass catcher is the leading returning producer in the unit and should see an uptick from his 27/457/3 season in 2022. Along with being a threat in the passing game, Gould had 2 punt return touchdowns on 14 attempts last season.
Biggest Question: Will the Utes falter under the weight of a tough schedule or grind out another classic Wittingham season? Utah enters the 2023 season as back-to-back Pac 12 Champions, but the rise of USC, Washington, and even Oregon State could play spoilers to a potential three-peat. The Utes schedule is not easy, though. Out of conference, they’ll host Florida in Week 1 and make a road trip to Baylor the week after. Utah is better than both teams, but they did lose to Florida last season and Baylor plays a similar grinder style of ball that could cause an upset. In conference play, Utah matches up with USC, Washington, and Oregon State on the road and play host to Oregon and UCLA. Thats all 5 of other top 6 teams in this preview. I don’t see the Utes winning the conference again and am expecting some regression in the teams record this season.
Biggest Game: @ USC (October 21st) – Utah dominated USC in their Pac 12 Championship matchup and beat them twice overall last season. A win in Los Angeles heading into the meat of their schedule would be huge for the Utes in proving me wrong.
Preseason MVP: QB Cam Rising – Rising has been a tremendous leader for the Utes since arriving from Texas and has been at the helm for both Pac 12 Championship teams. He passed for 3,034 yards and 26 touchdowns last season, but what makes him so valuable is his ability to keep the Utes in every game until the final whistle.
Breakout Watch: TE Thomas Yassmin – Yassmin had a very under-the-radar season in 2022 as the third string tight end in this offense, but he had 6 touchdowns and averaged 23.2 yards per catch (13 receptions, 301 yards) during his limited time. With Dalton Kincaid off to the NFL, Yassmin is expected to see an increase in playing time in the two tight end system the Utes love to operate.
Biggest Question: What are the expectations for true freshman Dante Moore? Chip Kelly made headlines when he flipped blue chip quarterback prospect Dante Moore from Oregon to UCLA this past cycle, and the expectation is that Moore will start immediately for the Bruins in the post Dorian Thompson-Robinson era. Expectations will obviously be high, but we should also keep them in check a bit. I don’t for see the Bruins winning the conference by any means, and Moore will likely have some growing pains mixed in with some highlight reel performances. 8 wins feels about right for UCLA this season, and I could see that going down to 6 or up to 9 depending on typical football circumstances. The focus for UCLA should be building this roster out for next seasons move to the Big Ten and getting Moore adjusted to this level of competition.
Biggest Game: @ Utah (September 23rd) – Assuming Moore starts immediately, his first conference test of the season will also be the hardest road trip on the schedule. The Bruins travel to Utah in late September in one of the fiercest atmospheres in college football. A great first test for the blue chipper.
Preseason MVP: EDGE Laiatu Late – The star pass rusher had 10.5 sacks for the Bruins last season en route to All-American honors. He has prototypical size for the position and as a sophomore is already getting major NFL Draft buzz.
Breakout Watch: WR Kyle Ford – Moore would be the easy pick here, but I’m taking USC transfer Kyle Ford, who should see an uptick in playing time on this depth chart. He caught 20 passes for the Trojans last season and averaged 18.3 yards per catch, and his 6’3″ frame should provide a bigger target for Moore (or whoever plays quarterback).
7 – Washington State Cougars (2022 Record: 7-6) (2023 Projection: 7-5)
Biggest Question: Can the Cougars compete at a high level after a mass exodus of production? Washington State won 7 games in 2022 and starting quarterback Cameron Ward returns for another season, but the Cougars will also be replacing a large chunk of their roster. Their four leading receivers have all departed the school, as well as 6 of their 10 leading tacklers on the defensive side of the ball. Neither is ideal for a program that seemed to be on the rise last year, but there is good news. They dipped into the portal to add a few proven Mountain West transfers at receiver. On defense, they return a few key players and added multiple power five players who should step into starting roles, although those players don’t have a truly proven track record as starters. The biggest addition for the Cougars is new offensive coordinator Ben Arbuckle, who comes over from Western Kentucky where the Hilltoppers led the country in 20+ yard plays.
Biggest Game: Wisconsin (September 9th) – An early season matchup with a Wisconsin squad that they beat last year and could be dealing with growing pains under a new head coach, this could be a huge win for the Cougars early in the season to prove the Cougars are a threat to the top end of the league.
Preseason MVP: DE Brennan Jackson – The All-Pac 12 defender had 6 sacks for an underrated Cougars defense in 2022. Look for another solid season from the veteran defensive leader.
Breakout Watch: WR Kyle Williams – Williams comes over from UNLV via the transfer portal, where he had 40 catches for 541 yards and 5 touchdowns. With Arbuckle coming over from Western Kentucky with his high powered air attack, I’d expect big numbers from the receiving core and Williams is my bet to lead the team.
Biggest Question: Is this the year Arizona goes bowling again? The Arizona Wildcats haven’t been bowling since 2017, but Jedd Fisch seems to have the program running in the right direction after a 4 win increase in 2022. The expectations are now to get to 6 wins again, and I think this squad can get there. Jayden de Laura, Jacob Cowing, and Tetairoa McMillan return for what should be an exciting offense, and even with a few tough transfer losses, Fisch and his staff have recruited well and pulled in a number of good additions via the portal to supplement the roster. The schedule isn’t easy, but I believe they’ll be feisty enough to pull off an upset or two and get that long awaited bowl season invite.
Biggest Game: @ Arizona State (November 25th – Season Finale) – Both Arizona schools are going through a rebuild, but the Wildcats are closer to the finish line than the Sun Devils and a second straight win over the rival would be a huge boost, and likely the game that could lock up a bowl trip for the Wildcats.
Preseason MVP: WR Jacob Cowing – The former UTEP transfer stayed at Arizona this offseason after catching 85 passes for 1,034 yards and 7 touchdowns last season, and as the safety valve for quarterback Jayden de Laura he should see another huge season in this Wildcat offense.
Breakout Watch: LB Justin Flowe – The former 5-star recruit transferred in from Oregon this offseason to be closer to home, and while he’s dealt with injuries his first few seasons, the talent is there to become a leader in the middle of an Arizona defense that needs to make significant improvements after allowing more than 36 points per game last year.
9 – California Golden Bears (2022 Record: 4-8) (2023 Projection: 5-7)
Biggest Question: Can new OC Jake Spavital revive a dull offense? It’s no shock to Cal fans, but the offense has been anemic for half a decade. In 2022, they averaged just 23.9 points per game (which is still somehow the most since 2017). Enter Jake Spavital, a long time offensive coordinator who’s spent time at Texas A&M, West Virginia, and even a season at Cal in 2016 under Sonny Dykes (averaged 37.1 points per game). The offensive line will need to be improved, and they’ll be looking at a fresh face with limited experience at the quarterback position, but Spavital has a track record of pumping up offensive numbers and should see at least a small boost from last year with expectations much higher next offseason if he sticks around.
Biggest Game: @ Stanford (November 18th) – I have no idea what expectations are at Cal football. Will another sub-.500 season send Justin Wilcox packing? I have no idea. With the disbanding of the PAC 12 next season and the future of Cal up in the air, they could look to stick by him until the future path clears up, and in that case the biggest game is the rivalry with Stanford.
Preseason MVP: RB Jadyn Ott – Ott burst onto the scene as a true freshman with a 274 yard performance against Arizona but never eclipsed the 100 yard mark again, partly due to a poor passing game and offensive line play. With Spavital taking over the offense, Ott should see a boost in the receiving game and an opened up passing game should also lead to better rushing production for the young star running back.
Breakout Watch: QB Sam Jackson – The former 4-star recruit for TCU transferred in this offseason and is projected to be the starting quarterback for the Golden Bears. He’s a dual threat that will get a lot of play in a pass happy attack and his ability to run will take some pressure off Jadyn Ott.
Biggest Question: What are the realistic expectations of Deion Sanders first season? Ask anybody in college football about Colorado this offseason and you’ll get a million different answers about what the Buffaloes will do in Deion Sanders first season. After his arrival, he made plenty of splashes by flushing the roster and remolding it entirely through the transfer portal. A lot of splashy additions via power five programs and some of his key players at Jackson State have the hype at weirdly high levels, but I’m here to temper those expectations. For starters, an entirely new roster is going to take time to mold and plenty of these additions have limited playing experience. The other big issue is in the trenches, where there is limited talent on both sides of the ball but most noticeably the offensive line. Deion might turn this program around eventually, but I have plenty of doubts that this roster and a hectic schedule will see the vision played out this early and everyone needs to be realistic.
Biggest Game: Nebraska (September 9th) – Colorado will host Nebraska in Deions home debut between two hopeful fan bases about to begin the trek back up the college football mountain with rebuilds. If Colorado wins this, it certainly could spark this program into a better season than I’m projecting.
Preseason MVP: WR/CB Travis Hunter – The former number one overall recruit will likely see playing time on both sides of the ball yet again for Deion, and he’s an impact player at both positions. Expect a huge season and more national recognition for the young superstar.
Breakout Watch: LB Demouy Kennedy – The former Alabama player transferred in this offseason and will immediately step into the starting rotation for the Buffaloes. If he can live up to his recruiting status, it’ll be a huge get for this defense.
11 – Arizona State Sun Devils (2022 Record: 3-9) (2023 Projection: 3-9)
Biggest Question: How fast can Arizona State rebound? The Sun Devils had gone .500 or better every season besides one over the past decade before everything came crashing down last year and Herm Edwards was fired. This offseason, they hired Oregon offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham, an ASU alum, to become the next head coach and he has a little bit of a climb ahead of him. The Sun Devils will have a mostly new defense, but the addition of Brian Ward to oversee that side of the ball could help get that group up to speed quicker than expected after an impressive job at Washington State last season. Offensively, the Sun Devils will need to find a long term answer. Drew Pyne comes over from Notre Dame but he feels like a stop gap as opposed to a game changer. Notable recruit Jaden Rashada joins the group and the hope is that he can be the solution down the road. With some transfer moves next offseason, Dillingham could get this team back into bowl season fairly quickly, but it might take a few seasons before they compete at the top of the Big 12.
Biggest Game: Arizona (November 25th – Season Finale) – Beating in-state rival Arizona to cap the season would be a huge plus headed into the offseason, especially with the Wildcats new found ability to recruit within the state.
Preseason MVP: WR Elijhah Badger – One benefit Drew Pyne will have when he starts at quarterback for the Sun Devils will be Badger, who had 866 yards on 70 receptions in 2022. The redshirt Junior will be looked at to lead what looks to be an experienced receiving core.
Breakout Watch: DL Prince Dorbah – The Texas transfer comes to Arizona State and will be expected to make big contributions for a team that only had 17 sacks in 2022.
Biggest Question: In the new look world of college football, what is the long term outlook of this program? As the landscape of college football continues to dramatically change, one team that seems to be worse off is Stanford. Academic standards drastically limit what can be done in the transfer portal and the result of that is seeing plenty of players leave and the inability to quickly replace them like other rebuilding programs. Recent developments in realignment also have Stanford looking in from the outside, as the conference disbands and their fate completely up in the air. Stanford isn’t dead, but the era of high profile bowl games might be on life support for the foreseeable future unless they can outright out coach other teams.
Biggest Game: Sacramento State (September 16th) – New head coach Troy Taylor takes on the program he led to a 12-1 record last season, and the Cardinal won’t be heavy favorites here.
Preseason MVP: TE Benjamin Yurosek – Much like the rest of the team, Yurosek had a disappointing season in 2022 with only 1 touchdown, but he’s a heavily relied upon target as a safety valve for the quarterback and will be used as such yet again.
Breakout Watch: RB E.J. Smith – The son of NFL Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith, the young running back looked poised for a big season after posting 206 yards in his first two games before dealing with a season ending injury last year. Back healthy, Smith will be relied upon heavily in a run first attack.