Gold: The Pac-12 takes center stage in Week 4
Is … is this how my esteemed Saturday Down South colleague Connor O’Gara feels every year?
Like the league he spends his waking professional hours following is actually … relevant? Like the players and coaches he so dutifully chronicles are actually … competent? Like the words he writes and speaks aren’t going into the void but are actually … meaningful?
This is altogether new for me. As someone who has covered the Pac-12 in some way shape or form since 2009, I’m used to Septembers to remember followed by Octobers to forget followed by Novembers when people barely realize there is still football being played on Saturdays after 8 p.m. EST.
Playoff? Playoff? I’m used to football being played for nothing more than bragging rights against rival schools.
But here we are in 2023 and the world is upside down. The SEC claims the top spot in the Associated Press rankings with the almighty Georgia Bulldogs, but no one else ranked in the top 11. The Pac-12, which is used to fighting for the scraps of college football, has teams ranked 5th, 8th, 10th, 11th, 14th, 19th, 21st and 22nd — 8 in total, tying for the national record. And the teams ranked 5th and 8th, USC and Washington, could and should be ranked higher.
It’s Week 4 of the college football season, and with 3 games between ranked teams plus a pair of Heisman candidates playing in No. 5 USC’s Caleb Williams and No. 8 Washington’s Michael Penix Jr., the spotlight is on the Pac-12.
How on Earth did we get here?
Finally, some competent coaching
Given the way things went down for Clay Helton and USC, Jimmy Lake and Washington, Nick Rolovich and Washington State, Kevin Sumlin and Arizona, Karl Dorrell and Colorado and Herm Edwards and Arizona State, plus the defection of Oregon’s Mario Cristobal to Miami, it’s clear there were a slew of head coach hires there in the Pac-12 that ran the gamut from disappointing early exit (Cristobal) to absolute dumpster fire (uh, the rest).
You wouldn’t think it would be that hard to find a program-builder, but for a while there, it was. Let’s just say Pac-12 presidents aren’t the keenest football minds in the country.
But someone must have spiked their collective coffees with pure adrenaline, as the league’s most recent hires have been absolute smash hits. Lincoln Riley in Los Angeles, Kalen DeBoer in Seattle, Dan Lanning in Eugene, Deion Sanders in Boulder, Jake Dickert in Pullman, even going back to Jonathan Smith in Corvallis and Chip Kelly in Westwood — these are not just great coaches, they are leaders of men. Culture-changers.
Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that with some natural recruiting advantages and some competent coaches finally in the building, the Pac-12 is ascending.
In the past 2 years, there have been no bigger benefactors from the transfer portal than the collective teams out west.
Colorado retooled its entire team through the portal this year after a 1-11 debacle, landing the top portal class in the nation, and now the Buffs are off to a 3-0 start. USC raided the portal in Riley’s 1st season with the Trojans last year, ranking No. 1 in the country, then dipped in for more this offseason, ranking 4th. Oregon and Washington also picked up Heisman-contending QBs through the portal. Arizona dug itself out of the college football quagmire through, you guessed it, the portal.
In fact, of the 8 Pac-12 quarterbacks who sport a passer efficiency rating north of 160.0, precisely 1 is a home-grown talent: UCLA true freshman Dante Moore. The rest? A transfer quarterback. Each and every one of them.
It’s the quarterbacks, stupid
OK, fair enough. Between the reigning Heisman winner, Williams — who remains the favorite to become the first player to win back-to-back trophies since Ohio State Archie Griffin — and Penix, who could become the first player to lead the nation in passing yards per game in back-to-back years since Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell in 2007-08, the Pac-12 has the 2 best QBs in the country at this juncture.
And the rest ain’t half bad, either.
The top Pac-12 passers’ national rank the following in passing efficiency:
- Caleb Williams — No. 1, 240.5
- Michael Penix — No. 4, 206.63
- Dante Moore — No. 5, 205.41
- Bo Nix — No. 15, 181.03
- Shedeur Sanders — No. 16, 178.74
- Cameron Ward — No. 17, 177.44
- Jayden de Laura — No. 22, 167.68
- DJ Uiagalelei — No. 27, 162.82
The Pac-12 has never gone this deep at quarterback.
Has any conference?
The pity party
With 10 of the league’s teams getting poached in unceremonious fashion, all eyes were bound to be on the conference anyway this year.
The national media has looked at the Pac-12’s plight with a mixture of bemusement and sadness, but one thing it hasn’t done is looked elsewhere. The Big Ten is boring and off to a surprisingly dull start. The SEC’s best, aside from too-ranked Georgia, have flailed, with Alabama, LSU and Tennessee all suffering brutal losses. The ACC is fun but maybe 2 teams deep, perhaps 3. The Big 12 has a Big 2 and nothing else.
The combination of timing, success and the downfall of other conference has paid off so far for the Pac-12.
The Prime Effect
Raise your hand if you expected Colorado — lowly Colorado — to be the biggest story in college football for 4 weeks running. Heck, 4 weeks? Maybe 10 months!
It’s been All Prime, All The Time, and for good reason. When the NFL’s greatest showman becomes college football’s hottest coaching ticket, then overhauls an entire roster like never before, then proceeds to go 3-0 with 2 rivalry wins and a season-opening victory over the defending national runner-up … yeah, there’s bound to be ink spilled.
And don’t expect it to stop now, not with the Buffaloes heading to Autzen Stadium as near-3-touchdown underdogs to Oregon.
“This is going to be an awesome atmosphere for the Oregon Ducks and this is one of those marquee games that we are really excited about, so we know we’re going to get everybody’s best which is exactly what we want,” Oregon coach Dan Lanning told reporters. “I have a lot of respect for that team and obviously they are a completely different team than they were last year so let’s see what they look like when they go out on the field. I hope we get their best and we are certainly going to try and give them ours.”
But about those Prime commercials. Enough with the commercials.