Gold: The best-case scenario for every Pac-12 team in 2022
Seeding the UCLA Bruins, who only just emerged from their slumber under Chip Kelly to win eight games last season, as the No. 1 best-case scenario team in the Pac-12 is bordering on absurdity.
But nothing is quite as absurd as the Bruins’ 2022 schedule, which is more imbalanced than an elephant on a teeter-totter and full of more favors than a six-year-old’s birthday party.
Defending champion Utah may have a better résumé. USC may have better top-end talent. Oregon has plenty of experience returning on both sides of the ball.
But all three have speed bumps on the schedule that could knock even the sturdiest of SUVs off course.
And remember: This column isn’t “Most Likely Scenarios” or even “Scenarios That Could Happen.” This is wildest fantasy, drawing-a-5-on-a-16 territory.
Here’s a look at some Pac-12 wishful thinking:
Arizona — Best-case scenario: 5-7
The Wildcats have a nightmare six-game swoon with Oregon, Washington, USC, Utah, UCLA, and Washington State in a seven-week stretch in October and November. And that’s right before the Territorial Cup.
That does not bode well for Jedd Fisch’s bunch.
What could bode well?
A 2-2 start, with wins over North Dakota State and Cal — though neither will be pushovers — and then a victory over Colorado to move past .500 for the first time in years (while tripling last year’s win total). And then a couple more wins the rest of the way, including in the in-state matchup with Arizona State.
Arizona State — Best-case scenario: 5-7
The Sun Devils have braved a torrential downpour of tumult in the past two years. How they’ve managed to do so is a credit to Herm Edwards, though it was Edwards who put his ethically dubious coaching staff together. With so many coaches and players leaving, ASU is a complete question mark.
Having Oklahoma State and Utah before the calendar turns to October means the Sun Devils can’t get comfortable early. Then come USC, Washington, and Stanford in consecutive weeks. Giving them a 2-2 start with wins over Northern Arizona and Eastern Michigan, it’s hard to find more than three other wins on the schedule (Colorado, Stanford, Arizona?).
Cal — Best-case scenario: 6-6, LA Bowl
The Bears had a 4-2 stretch to end last year, with home wins over Colorado, Oregon State, and USC and a road win in the Big Game at Stanford. They’ve also got nice returning talent on defense, the offensive line, and special teams.
So what’s the problem?
A muddled quarterback situation and a muddier schedule.
If Cal gets its passing game solved and can weather a brutal month of Washington, Oregon, USC, and Oregon State with at least one win, the Bears are going bowling. If not, another 5-7 season awaits.
Colorado — Best-case scenario: 4-8
Here’s the scary part: That’s kind of being generous.
The Buffaloes could be 0-4 before they wake up. TCU, Air Force, Minnesota, and UCLA to start the season. Ouch. It’s basically the opposite of the Bruins’ schedule. Then come winnable matchups with Arizona and Cal and some breathing room. But, oh wait, here comes the Pac-12 off the top rope: Oregon, USC, Washington, and Utah in the final month of the season.
That’s just brutal for a Buffaloes offense that severely lacks star power. Colorado has just one offensive player on the All-Pac-12 preseason honorable mention team (offensive lineman Frank Filip). Back-to-back four-win seasons could spell trouble for Karl Dorrell.
Oregon — Best-case scenario: 9-3, New Year’s Six bowl
The Ducks open the season in Atlanta with the defending national champions while breaking in a first-time head coach. Two weeks later, they host a 10-3 BYU team that went 5-0 against the Pac-12 a year ago. Then comes a feisty Washington State team in Pullman, and later, home tests against Stanford, UCLA, and Utah and road games at Arizona, Cal, Colorado, and Oregon State.
Oregon has plenty of returning talent up front on both sides of the ball, but the Ducks took some hits in the skill positions (bye-bye, Mr. Travis Dye *single tear*).
If Bo Nix seizes the quarterback position early in the competition and looks like he did at certain points of his Auburn career, Oregon will be right in the thick of the Pac-12 race. A very realistic possibility sees the Ducks emerge from nonconference play at 1-2, then going 7-2 or 8-1 in conference play. With the landmines on the schedule, I peg them at 9-3, but with a shot at a Rose Bowl berth.
Oregon State — Best-case scenario: 8-4, Alamo Bowl
The Beavers have won 8 or more games just once since 2009, when the Beavers went 8-5 or better for the fourth consecutive year. But after going 9-24 in Jonathan Smith’s first three years, Oregon State went 7-6 and 5-4 in Pac-12 play.
The Beavers have an abundance of talent in places you want it: the offensive line and the defensive backfield. Even more importantly, there seems to be full commitment to Smith’s approach.
That should keep Oregon State hanging with teams that might have superior talent.
With a schedule that is somewhat favorable—Boise State, USC, and Oregon all head to Corvallis—the Beavers could surprise some teams. Like they did last year, beating the Utes and Trojans.
Stanford — Best-case scenario: 6-6, LA Bowl
You’ve got to admire it. Scheduling Notre Dame and BYU in the same year is as bold as it is brainless. In modern Power Five football, you’ve got to find two wins in nonconference play, and between the Fighting Irish and Cougars, that’s a whole lot of struggle.
Add to that USC in Week 2, a premature bye in Week 3, Washington in Week 4, and Oregon in Week 5, and the Cardinal could very well be toast by the middle of October.
Last year, a surprising overtime win over Oregon on Oct. 2 was the highlight of the season. It was also the Cardinal’s last win of the season. Seven consecutive losses followed.
A similar scenario could play out this year if David Shaw isn’t careful.
UCLA — Best-case scenario: 11-1, New Year’s Six bowl
The Bruins will almost assuredly finish their nonconference schedule at 3-0 for the first time in more than a half-decade. If, and it’s a big if, UCLA can get past the Week 6-bye-Week 8 sandwich of Utah and Oregon unscathed, the Bruins could be undefeated heading into a home matchup with USC on Nov. 19.
Things are really all lining up for Chip Kelly in Year 5. Three years ago, when Michigan dropped UCLA from a home-and-home, who knew what it would line up for the Bruins? Eight home games, including USC, Washington, and Utah? Oregon on the road coming off a bye? That really couldn’t be better for UCLA, which could finally deliver on Kelly’s promise.
Assuming, of course, that a porous pass defense takes even a marginal step forward. The Bruins were 8-4 last year, winning three straight down the stretch, with one of the worst pass defenses in college football. If new defensive coordinator Bill McGovern can install a scheme that doesn’t leave the defensive backs quite so susceptible, the Bruins have the makings of a special season.
Between Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Zach Charbonnet, UCLA has an offensive 1-2 punch that can stack up with just about anyone in the league, if not country.
Alas, the Bruins will have to get over some hurdles. Defeating USC in dominant fashion a year ago was a big psychological step for UCLA.
Topping Utah, which has won five straight against the Bruins, would be another. Squeaking by Oregon, which has won three straight, including the past two by three points, would be the cherry on that sundae.
It’s hard to imagine UCLA surviving all three, but we’ve seen what happens when a Chip Kelly squad clicks.
USC — Best-case scenario: 10-2, New Year’s Six bowl
The Trojans have so many fireworks on offense, they might as well be a Nevada roadside stand. USC has the potential to be a truly special offense, particularly if Lincoln Riley can get everyone fed in a way that keeps them happy and motivated. But the Trojans’ drop-off in high school recruiting is prominent up front, and here’s a scary little secret: What made USC so legendary in the 2000s wasn’t the offense so much as a Pro Bowler-packed defense. And the Trojans had a truly bad defense last year, ranking 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring defense at 31.8 points per game.
All that being said, what really worries me is USC’s schedule. Fresno State in Week 3, followed by a road game at Oregon State. Both Utah and UCLA on the road. Notre Dame during Thanksgiving week. How can you feel confident in the Trojans going any better than 3-2 in that batch, even with their myriad offensive additions? Is a dynamic passing game really worth that much?
Then there’s this: At various times over the past seven or eight years, USC has looked like it simply gave up on the season. Lest we forget, the Trojans didn’t just stink in 2021, they went 5-7 in 2018. That kind of odor is hard to chase away, no matter how exciting Riley may be.
Utah — Best-case scenario: 10-2, New Year’s Six bowl
I think Utah will win the Pac-12 again this year. I think Cameron Rising will have a terrific season, and Kyle Whittingham will be his predictably steady self. I see tons of balance offensively, impressive tight ends, and a great defense. What’s there not to like?
The schedule. Simple.
Utah opens on the road against the Florida Gators at The Swamp, then comes back two weeks later to host San Diego State. In Pac-12 play, the Utes have road tests at UCLA, Washington State, and Oregon, while hosting Oregon State, Stanford, and USC. Let’s not forget: In a Rose Bowl season a year ago, the Utes still lost four games, including three in the regular season.
Washington — Best-case scenario: 7-5, Sun Bowl
Breaking in a new head coach for the second time in three years, the Huskies have to feel like their heads are spinning. Washington has a good one in Kalen DeBoer, but the Huskies looked downright dreadful last year, and I never would’ve expected to say that about a Chris Peterson-recruited team. Yeah, Jimmy Lake wasn’t the solution, but I believed in the foundation CPete laid down. To see those players score 1 touchdown against FCS opener Montana last year was a stunner.
And yet, this team has the talent for a three-game turnaround.
A 3-1 start is reasonable with Kent State, Portland State, Michigan State, and Stanford all at home to open the year. Then come three road tests in four weeks at UCLA, Arizona State, and Cal. The final quartet features home games against Oregon State and Colorado and trips to Oregon and Washington State for the Apple Cup. Splitting those foursomes seems reasonable.
Washington State — Best-case scenario: 8-4, Alamo Bowl
After starting the season 1-3 a year ago, the Cougars reeled off six wins in eight games, propelling themselves to the postseason. Wazzu blitzed rival Washington, 40-13, in the Apple Cup, securing a seven-win season for the first time since 2018.
Once again, Washington State has a tough early going, with road games at Wisconsin and USC and a home game with Oregon all in a month-long period. That all takes place in the first six games of the year. In the second half, the Cougars have a much easier road. They could very well make a second-half run once more.