Gold: Predicting Pac-12's 2023 bowl teams
The road to Houston, Texas, won’t be easy in 2023. That we know. It hasn’t been easy for the Pac-12 since maybe 2014, when Marcus Mariota and the Oregon Ducks steamrolled to the championship game.
But Pac-12 fans would settle just for a successful bowl season at this point, especially after going 3-4 in 2022-23, with three straight heartbreaking losses, including a second-straight Rose Bowl loss. Now with the Rose Bowl sliding into the CFP semifinal chair in 2023 and UCLA and USC leaving and the playoff expanding in 2024, things are going to look very different going forward.
Here’s how I expect things to go next year, at least.
Rose Bowl (CFP semifinal): USC
The scheduling tilts back to the Trojans’ favor in 2023, as they get 5 conference home games as well as 2 non-conference matchups with San Jose State and Nevada. They’ll travel to South Bend next year for a battle with Notre Dame, but other road games against Arizona State, Cal and Colorado aren’t threatening. A road game at awesome Autzen Stadium against the Ducks won’t be a breeze, nor will home games against UCLA, Utah and Washington.
But with the reigning Heisman Trophy winner in tow, plus an all-star cast of skill position players and some impressive transfer talent, expectations will be sky high for USC in 2023. And after coming to the precipice of a CFP berth before losing the Pac-12 title game to Utah, could you blame fans if they’re feeling CFP-or-bust?
Of course, changes have to be made on the defensive side. If that happens, watch out.
Fiesta Bowl: Oregon State
The Beavers should get to conference play undefeated with matchups against San Jose State, UC Davis and San Diego State and land UCLA, Utah and Washington, along with Stanford, at home in conference play. While Oregon State gets 5 Pac-12 road games in 2023, only two are even moderately worrisome, at Oregon and Washington State. The Beavers also get Arizona, Cal and Colorado on the road, all winnable games.
The real question for OSU next season is at quarterback, where we’re all wondering if D.J. Uiagaleilei can live up to the hype with which he originally joined his former school, Clemson.
Jonathan Smith is building a program to be proud of up in Corvallis, and he’s done it by relying primarily on the high school recruiting ranks, rather than through the transfer portal. If Uiagaleilei is the home run some expect him to be — or, if Ben Gulbranson or another quarterback can usurp him and produce more than Gulbranson and Chance Nolan did last season — another 10-win season is in the cards.
Alamo Bowl: Washington
The Huskies are lined up for a big season, with abundant talent returning, a tough but navigable schedule and another offseason under Kalen DeBoer and Ryan Grubb.
The Huskies get 5 conference road games after opening with games against Boise State and Tulsa and at Michigan State, with Oregon and Utah highlighting the matchups. They’re staring at a potential 2-2 road slate, though, with Oregon State and USC.
I’m not putting anything past Washington and quarterback Michael Penix Jr. in 2023, though.
Holiday Bowl: Utah
The Utes don’t have to start their season in the muggy confines of The Swamp next season, which is a big plus. But thy do follow a Week 1 home date with the Florida Gators with a tough test at Baylor, followed by a gimme home game with Weber State. Then comes a slate that includes home games with Arizona State, California, Colorado, Oregon and UCLA and road dates at Arizona, Oregon State, USC, Washington.
Not exactly a great schedule when you get the top teams in the league and avoid Stanford and Washington State.
Also not exactly great when you’re expected to lose your star quarterback — Cam Rising — without a defined succession plan. The Utes don’t exactly have a no-brainer behind center, which limits their potential. In a year or two, though, the Utes’ recent recruiting successes will pay off handsomely.
Sun Bowl: Oregon
First things first, the Ducks don’t open up the season with the defending national champions in 2023. I highly doubt they’ll be dealt a 49-3 loss to Portland State, like Georgia did to them in Atlanta. The Ducks have a pair of easy tests in Texas Tech and Hawaii and then a Pac-12 schedule that includes 5 home games., including Oregon State, USC and Washington State. Utah and Washington on the road won’t be easy, but Oregon has ample talent returning and a terrific recruiting class.
Bo Nix announcing he’d be back for one last go-round changed the Ducks’ complexion in 2023. Then again, so did the loss of Kenny Dillingham. Let’s not ignore that Nix has had his best college success under Dilly’s tutelage.
And we also can’t forget that Oregon loses 4 starters from arguably the best offensive line in the country, a veteran unit that allowed an FBS-low 4 sacks.
Dan Lanning is laying down a terrific foundation in Eugene, but I expect a slight back-slide in 2023.
Las Vegas Bowl: UCLA
The Bruins have gone to great lengths to replace their star-studded offensive backfield, but will that be enough against a road conference schedule that threatens to derail any momentum UCLA built this season. Between 5-star recruit Dante Moore and intriguing transfer prospect Collin Schlee, they should be able to replace at least most of Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s production, though perhaps not his leadership.
One thing majorly in the Bruins corner: They somehow avoid both Washington and Oregon, two of the better teams in the conference. With a favorable non-conference schedule, featuring home games against Coastal Carolina and NC Central as well as a road date with San Diego State, they should get off to their second-straight 3-0 start.
If they can get by Arizona, Oregon State, Stanford, USC and Utah on the road — or at last go 3-2 — the Bruins are looking at a 10-win season.
But after projecting that this year, I’m softening my prediction to 8 wins. They’ll find a way to trip up.
L.A. Bowl: Washington State
Jake Dickert has to be satisfied after a 7-win season in his first full-time year at the helm of the Cougars. But 2023 might prove a bit more frustrating: The Cougs get three tough teams on the road in Oregon, UCLA and Washington. Another 7-win season is likely with Arizona, Arizona State, Cal, Colorado, Stanford, Colorado State and Northern Colorado on the schedule. Home games against Oregon State and Wisconsin could be the difference between 7 wins and 9 wins, though. The Cougars do miss both USC and Utah, though.
Much will fall onto Cameron Ward’s shoulders. The former prolific Immaculate Ward passer did not exactly set the world on fire in his first season in the Palouse, and now he loses his offensive coordinator as Eric Morris left to become head coach at North Texas. If Ward takes a big step forward, 9 wins is possible. If he doesn’t, 7 is likely. If he recedes, 5 is on the table.