As hard as it is to believe, we are less than 90 days to the start of the college football season. And as such, in the lead-up to SEC Media Days in late July, we felt like it was a good time to go and give you quick, league-by-league unofficial power rankings.
These are hardly official, as there is still some portal activity going on - and as we all know, a random scandal can pop up at any time (just ask Arizona State last summer). Still, now feels like a good time to reset everything that happened last year, and everything you need to know going into next year.
Today, we start with the Pac-12, which faced basically unprecedented off-season upheaval in December and January. Lincoln Riley is in at USC as is Dan Lanning at Oregon, while somehow Herm Edwards is still at Arizona State, even as his most of his staff and players have left.
Anyway, let's get to the Pac-12, with one quick note: Because the league announced this year that the top two teams will play in the conference title game (as opposed to division winners) we have elected to rank these teams 1-12 here.
The Pac-12 changed their championship game selection to just having the two teams with the highest conference winning percentage, instead of the two winners of the North and South division. The divisions are still intact, but they just don’t matter as much anymore.
1. Utah Utes - (2021 record: 10-4, 8-1 in the Pac-12; Pac-12 champion)
The reigning conference champion has a ton to like this year on both sides of the ball. The Utes bring back quarterback, Cam Rising, and running back, Tavion Thomas, in addition to a total of 73% of a top-20 offense in efficiency. Kyle Whittingham and defensive coordinator, Morgan Scalley, are known for reloading defenses, and known for defense in general. Expect the Utah defense to be more than fine, and the offense to take another step forward. Utah can make a statement out of the gate as they open against Florida in the Swamp, and then overall the schedule is not super hard, the biggest test for them is a road trip to Oregon in late November. They go to UCLA and get USC at home as well. I like Utah to win 11 games and they’re also my pick to win the Pac-12 and, I think they finally make the College Football Playoff.
2. Oregon Ducks (2021 record: 10-4 overall, 7-2 in the Pac-12; Pac-12 runners-up)
The Ducks come into the 2022 season with a new coach, Dan Lanning, after Mario Cristobal left for Miami. Lanning brings over some great help with Kenny Dillingham on the offensive side and then Tosh Lupoi on the defensive side. They have a few questions regarding their personnel, namely at quarterback. There’s going to be a competition between Bo Nix and Ty Thompson, and I’d expect Bo Nix to get the job for Oregon to get some stability. The Oregon defense should also be good, and it has talent all over, but the loss of Kayvon Thibodeaux will hurt. The schedule starts off with a bang against the reigning national champions, Georgia, then they get BYU as well at home. Their biggest game in-conference game is at home against Utah but have the advantage of no game against USC. They also do get UCLA and Washington at home. I’d expect Oregon to win around 10 games, and it will be a great season for Lanning’s first year.
3. USC Trojans (2021 record: 4-8 overall, 3-6 in the Pac-12)
The Trojans won the college football offseason, starting with the hiring of Lincoln Riley, and then it kept going with the transfer portal commitments. Caleb Williams followed his coach out west, and they also added former Oregon running back, Travis Dye, and 2021 Biletnikoff winner Jordan Addison from Pitt. Defensive Coordinator, Alex Grinch, followed Riley from Norman, and he’s going to be tasked with shoring up a defense that desperately needs some improvement. The good news is that they also added help on the defensive side as well. The schedule works out well for USC, with a road game against Utah being its biggest test as well as two rivalry games at the end of the year on the road against UCLA and at home against Notre Dame. I like USC to win around nine games, but I wouldn’t be shocked if they won more just because there’s a lot of talent there.
4. UCLA Bruins (2021 record: 8-4 overall, 6-3 in the Pac-12)
Chip Kelly finally had a winning record for the first time in his coaching tenure at UCLA last season and still returns most of the team, especially on offense. Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Zach Charbonnet are the headliners on offense, but some new receivers need to step up. The defense has a new leader with Bill McGovern taking over a unit that needs improvement after being ranked 107th in passing defense last season. The Bruins have a very easy non-conference schedule but get some tests in conference play. They get Utah at home and then Oregon on the road, with their rivalry game against USC is also in the Rose Bowl. I like the Bruins to win around eight games this year and expect the questions about Chip Kelly to continue if he has plateaued in Westwood.
5. Washington Huskies (2021 record: 4-8 overall, 3-6 in the Pac-12)
This might be a controversial pick, but the Huskies should be much improved next year. The addition of Kalen DeBoer as a head coach is a perfect fit to ignite a Huskie offense that was one of the worst in the conference. There will be a very big quarterback battle between Sam Huard Jr. and Michael Penix Jr. which will be a key to see who will run the new offense. Washington should be more than fine on defense with the unit still being one of the best in the conference even with how bad the offense has been. The Huskies have a good schedule as well. They have a big test at home against Michigan State in the non-conference, and then they miss Utah and USC. They get UCLA, Oregon, and then Washington State on the road. The Huskies should win around eight games, and this will be a good stepping-stone for DeBoer in his first year.
6. Oregon State Beavers (2021 record: 7-6 overall, 5-4 in the Pac-12)
Maybe the biggest surprise in the conference in recent years were the Beavers in 2021. Jonathan Smith has done wonders in Corvallis rebuilding his alma mater. They have a stout and well-coached defense, and a potent rushing attack. The question mark is at the quarterback position because Chance Nolan and Tristan Gebbia both have started games for the Beavers. They have a tricky non-conference schedule with Boise State at home and then Fresno State on the road. They play USC at home, Utah on the road, and then the big rivalry game against Oregon is in Corvallis as well. Oregon State should win around seven games this season and Jonathan Smith should get looked at for conference coach of the year if it’s not Kyle Whittingham.
7. Washington State Cougars (2021 record: 7-6 overall, 6-3 in the Pac-12)
A tumultuous ending to Nick Rolovich’s tenure had Jake Dickert step in and then become the actual head coach. The Cougars brought in the potential prize of the transfer portal with quarterback, Cameron Ward, from Incarnate Ward, and his former head coach, Eric Morris, as their new offensive coordinator. The defensive side of the ball will need to reload, but the new defensive coordinator, Brian Ward, has put an emphasis on turnovers so that should work well on that side considering how many pieces they lost. The Cougars get a tough test in the non-conference schedule against Wisconsin, then Oregon at home, USC and Oregon State on the road, Utah at home, and then their rivals, Washington, at home. If the defensive side can improve, Washington State can win around seven games this year.
8. Cal Golden Bears (2021 record: 5-7 overall, 4-5 in the Pac-12)
This was a toss-up between Stanford and Cal, but Cal has more to like this year. Justin Wilcox has always put up a formidable defense, and this season should be more of the same. The offense needs to find some sort of consistency next season and a potential solution is the transfer quarterback from Purdue, Jack Plummer. Cal has had a tough go recently, with COVID restrictions causing chaos on the program the last few seasons. Cal dodges Utah on their schedule but gets Notre Dame on the road in the non-conference, Washington, Oregon, and UCLA at home, and then USC on the road. Cal’s schedule can go either way, but I do think they get to bowl eligibility at six wins.
9. Stanford Cardinal (2021 record: 3-9 overall, 2-7 in the Pac-12)
David Shaw’s teams have been uncharacteristically bad of late. Last year, the Cardinal went 3-9, and are hopeful to be better this year. Tanner McKee comes back to quarterback the Cardinal offense and should be even better after getting a year under his belt. The offense returns most of its production even though it ranked outside the top-100 nationally. On defense, the challenge comes with a change in defensive scheme. They are going from a 3-4 to a 4-3. Stanford gets Notre Dame and BYU on the road and at home in the non-conference, USC at home, and then Washington, Oregon, UCLA, and Utah all on the road. I think the Cardinal should win around five games, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they lost more.
10. Arizona Wildcats (2021 record: 1-11 overall, 1-8 in the Pac-12)
Arizona is coming off its worst stretch in school history with a 70-7 loss to ASU being the lowest point at the end of the 2020 season. Jedd Fisch has done wonders on the recruiting trail and this year will see some improvement. Jayden de Laura transfers in from Washington State and will most likely be the starting quarterback. They also have the best recruit in school history, Tetairoa McMillan, coming in as a wide receiver. The offense should be much better this coming season, after being abysmal last year, but the offensive line remains a question. The defense should be good as well, after being solid last year, but it just doesn’t have a lot of depth still. A big emphasis for new defensive coordinator, Johnny Nansen, should be turnovers after finishing last in the FBS in turnover margin. Arizona gets no breaks in its schedule with San Diego State and Mississippi State in the non-conference, Washington, Utah, and UCLA at home, and Oregon, USC, and the rivalry game against ASU at home. I really like the skill position talent that Arizona has added, but they aren’t on the level of most other teams in the conference yet, I expect Arizona to win around five games, which would be a huge improvement.
11. Arizona State Sun Devils (2021 record: 8-5 overall, 6-3 in the Pac-12)
The Sun Devils have fallen probably the hardest of any of the teams in the conference. The Sun Devils have a pending NCAA decision looming over them, which could factor into their season. They lost Jayden Daniels, but gained Emory Jones from Florida, who will be the new starting quarterback. The offense should be okay because they managed to gain a few players in the portal to help Emory Jones. The defense will be the biggest issue. They are only returning four starters and are basically starting from scratch. The defensive line should be a bright spot, but the secondary is going to be a struggle. They get Oklahoma State on the road in the non-conference, Utah, Washington, and UCLA at home, and then USC and rival Arizona on the road. I might be more pessimistic about the Sun Devils than most, but they lost a ton of production, and didn’t add a lot to replace it, I think Arizona State wins around four games, and Herm Edwards is likely gone after the season if that happens too.
12. Colorado Buffaloes (2021 record: 4-8 overall, 3-6 in the Pac-12)
The Buffaloes have been on a downturn, and it started last year when they went 4-8. Brendon Lewis will be the starting quarterback, but the offense has holes all over the place. They lost Jarek Broussard to the transfer portal, and because of it, the offense will most likely be very inconsistent at best. The defense was also very bad last year and will most likely be very bad again. They added some depth in the secondary, but the rest of the defense is going to struggle. The schedule does them no favors with TCU and Minnesota in the non-conference at home and on the road, UCLA, Oregon, and Utah at home, and then USC and Washington on the road. I think the Buffaloes are in a tough spot and might need to make a coaching change after this season. I think they only win around three games this year.
This is the first of five parts, previewing the major conferences in college football. Next week: The SEC.
Follow Jake on Twitter - @Jake_Faigus
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