From The Swamp to the Territorial Cup: 12 games that will define the 2022 Pac-12 season
It should be a highly entertaining season in the Pac-12 this upcoming fall.
Utah has turned its sights from a Pac-12 title to a College Football Playoff appearance. USC has pushed every last chip into the center of the table with gusto. Oregon is looking to re-establish itself under another new coaching staff while remaining atop the North. And there are legitimate divisional threats waiting for just one slip-up from the guys on top.
Here are 12 games that will likely define the season, ordered by the date they fall on the calendar and not necessarily in their significance:
Utah at Florida, Sept. 3
After an offseason of talk about the end goal shifting from “win the Pac-12” to “make the College Football Playoff,” there is no ramp-up to the season for Utah. There is immediate pressure, immediate stakes, and immediate challenge. It’s an awfully challenging task to travel across the country to The Swamp to face a hungry SEC team out to restore some of its credibility after a messy 2021 campaign. The Urban Meyer Bowl will tell us quite a bit about how this Utah team handles its business. The expectations are higher than ever in Salt Lake City. While it’s true a loss in the non-conference portion of the schedule won’t impact Utah’s ability to win another Pac-12 title, it would almost certainly dash hopes of earning a CFP berth. Would Utah view this season as a success if it’s playing for the Rose Bowl at the end and not a shot at a national title? Maybe it still would, but this is a talented team and you don’t spend all offseason talking about the CFP to then lose in your opening game unless you’re North Carolina.
BYU at Oregon, Sept. 17
This list of 12 games was created by just going through the full Pac-12 schedule and slapping every interesting game on the board, then whittling down to 12 from there. Naturally, Oregon-Georgia in Week 1 was on the board to start. It was one of the final cuts. Oregon might beat Georgia. It was a two-score underdog to Ohio State last season in Columbus and stunned the Buckeyes. Oregon is slightly more than a two-score underdog early in that Georgia game. Maybe lightning strikes twice. The most likely scenario is the defending national champions emerge with the win, however. Oregon makes the trek back home, beats up on Eastern Washington the next week out, and then gets ready to welcome BYU to Autzen Stadium for a Week 3 affair. BYU is no joke. Jaren Hall, the Cougars’ quarterback, finished last season 15th nationally in QBR, ahead of guys like Hendon Hooker and Will Levis. The offense projects to be a very good one. This will be the test Oregon has to pass. A 1-2 record coming out of the non-conference slate would make things very interesting for coach Dan Lanning as the Ducks move into Pac-12 play. In Bill Connelly’s preseason SP+ model, BYU is Oregon’s peer (1.8 points better on a neutral field, pretty even in Eugene.) Georgia is viewed as 15 points better. While we’ll learn a lot from Oregon’s opening game under Lanning, BYU might be more important.
USC at Oregon State, Sept. 24
The first three games of the Lincoln Riley ear in Los Angeles feature Rice, Stanford, and Fresno State. With respect to those three, USC looks to be the more talented team. If the Trojans are to have the season many expect, they’ll be 3-0 heading into a Sept. 24 meeting with Oregon State in Corvallis. And that weekend will provide the first test of just how goodthis USC team actually is. The Beavers are not a team to be overlooked in the North. Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith is as good as there is in the conference. Oregon State’s offensive line could once again be the best unit in the league. In those two ways, USC will be tested. Riley-coached teams have fallen to lesser talent before because the gameplan was exceptionally crafted and well-executed. And the biggest area of concern with the Trojans is how that front seven will hold up. This will be a telling game as far as both divisional races are concerned.
Utah at UCLA, Oct. 8
It’s wonderful irony that a UCLA team that has struggled mightily under Chip Kelly to create havoc on the defensive side of the ball has the potential to wreak havoc on the Pac-12 season in 2022. Kelly and his Bruins are at an important juncture in the partnership. Signed this offseason to a contract extension, Kelly has backing from Bruin leadership without doing much on the field to really and truly justify it. The Bruins won eight games last season after just 10 total in his first three seasons at the helm. The offense, led by quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and tailback Zach Charbonnet, looked how we expect a Kelly offense to look. The defense has been the problem area. Significant change on that side of the ball this offseason could make way for a revitalization of sorts in Westwood, making that 8-4 campaign a true building block rather than a blip. UCLA opens the year with a cupcake schedule through its first four weeks—Bowling Green, Alabama State, South Alabama all at home, then a roadtrip to Colorado—before facing Washington and then welcoming the Utes to town. Anything less than a 5-0 record heading into the Utah game will be cause for concern. With a bye week coming after the Utes leave town, UCLA has a chance to completely change the calculus out W
est if it can topple Utah. It’d be a signature win for Kelly. It’d put the Bruins in the driver’s seat in the South.
Washington State at Oregon State, Oct. 15
In the Pac-12 North, there is a distinguishable split in perception. Some think Washington State is set up to make a run at the division crown. Some think that team is not the Cougars, but rather their in-state counterpart. And then some think Oregon State, with Jonathan Smith at the helm and that offensive line paving the way, are a darkhorse. This should be a very entertaining game that could help settle the “who is the biggest North threat to Oregon?” debate.
USC at Utah, Oct. 15
I mean. The Battle for the South. Cameron Rising against Caleb Williams. Lincoln Riley against Kyle Whittingham. The conference champs against the hyped usurpers. In Salt Lake City where the atmosphere should be electric. What more could you ask for?
UCLA at Oregon, Oct. 22
This will be Chip Kelly’s third trip to Eugene since his arrival in Westwood. The powers that be in the league’s schedule-making office sure do like the “returning home” storyline. The Bruins lost to the Ducks 42-21 in 2018, a game that was never really close. Two years later, they had a 21-17 lead with three minutes to play in the first half, were looking to build on it, and then a pick-six for Oregon on the last play of the half completely changed the game. This should be a high-stakes battle at the mid-point of each team’s season. Both will be coming off a bye week.
Utah at Oregon, Nov. 19
It’s Utes-Ducks Pt. 3, potentially another appetizer for a Pac-12 title game rematch. With the way the Ducks’ two games against Utah went during the 2021 season, expect the atmosphere in Eugene to be absolutely raucous. Start the petition now to make this a night game. Maybe even bring out ESPN’s College GameDay. The college football slate that weekend features Oklahoma-Oklahoma State and Miami-Clemson, which could both theoretically warrant the same treatment, but teams like Alabama (Austin Peay) and Ohio State (Maryland) play non-meaningful games. There might not be a better game all weekend.
USC at UCLA, Nov. 19
The Battle for LA went decisively to the Bruins last year. UCLA romped USC in a historic 62-33 victory. Dorian Thompson-Robinson was magical. USC was embarrassed. Lincoln Riley will be hoping to keep the Trojans on pace for a conference title game appearance as the Utes face danger in Eugene. Right or wrong, Chip Kelly will be buried if he loses to Riley in Riley’s first year in the league. You can see the headlines now. “Kelly had nice run, but LA belongs to LR now.” They’ll probably be more creative than that. But they’ll for sure be coming.
Arizona State at Arizona, Nov. 25 (Fri.)
When Arizona State lost wideout Ricky Pearsall and linebacker Eric Gentry to the transfer portal last month, the takes started flying. One such question: had the gap between Arizona State and Arizona closed? The Sun Devils went 8-5 last season, the Wildcats 1-11. The fact that thought was even in question was remarkable. Arizona has added quite a bit of talent this offseason. Arizona State has lost just as much, though a few key additions in recent weeks might have stabilized things. Oddsmakers and models like FPI appear higher on the Sun Devils in 2022 than you’d expect based on public perception. The start to the season is brutal, though, with road games against Oklahoma State (not an easy place to play) and USC and a home tilt with Utah all in the first five weeks. Coach Herm Edwards will be under the microscope as long as he remains in town. There’s a scenario where the Wildcats can bring down the proverbial hammer with a Territorial Cup win. Or, Arizona State could once again beat its in-state rival for the sixth year in a row and give Edwards another bullet point in his pros column.
Oregon at Oregon State, Nov. 25 (Fri.)
There are few college football rivalries better than
The Civil War. Oregon State has been on this list three times now. Let’s just wonder what the situation would look like if they won both of the other two games and are sitting here, in the last week of the season, looking at a home game with the Ducks for a spot in the Pac-12 title game. As far as rebuilds go, that kind of moment would serve as quite the punctuation mark on the build Jonathan Smith has been working on since landing in Corvallis. In reality, there are a number of potential outcomes here. Oregon could be in the hunt for a CFP spot and the Beavers could play spoiler. Oregon State could be looking to book its first trip to the Pac-12 title game since its inception in 2011 and Oregon could say, “Not so fast.” Either team could be looking for a feel-good way to end a season that didn’t go according to plan. Whatever the scenario, expect this to have real stakes.
Notre Dame at USC, Nov. 26
Icons, both of them. Notre Dame has won four straight over the Trojans but the 2022 version of this game will usher in a new era in the series. Marcus Freeman takes over for Brian Kelly at Notre Dame, an enthusiastic, recruiting-driven, new-age coach with a strong ability to connect to his players. Freeman could be at Notre Dame a long, long time if he wants to. Lincoln Riley takes over at USC after years of floundering, a championship pedigree coach with all those same kinds of characteristics as Freeman. If both find the kind of success they expect at their respective jobs, USC-Notre Dame could eventually turn into a CFP play-in game. Will it be that in 2022? We shall see.