Gold: Ups and Dows -- The Pac-12 teams most likely to win -- or lose -- 3 more games in 2023 than 2022
Big turnarounds were once a rarity in the days before the instant gratification — and instant talent infusion — of the transfer portal era. But now fortunes can change on a dime, for better or for worse.
Last year, USC went from 4-8 to 11-3, Washington improved from 4-8 to 10-2 and Oregon State went from 7-6 to 10-3. At the same time, Arizona State fell from 8-5 to 3-9 and Colorado dropped from 4-8 to 1-11, both precipitating coaching changes.
This year, whether because of upgraded coaching, upgraded talent or a downgraded schedule, a few Pac-12 teams can cross their fingers for a big leap. Even one team that already made a jump last year. There are also some teams at risk of the bottom falling out.
Here’s a list of Pac-12 teams that could either increase their win total by 3 or watch it fall by 3 this year…
On the list of drastic fallers last year, the Buffaloes bid goodbye to Karl Dorrell and handed the keys of the car to Coach Prime. Will Deion Sanders lead Colorado straight off a cliff or to the promised land?. Who knows, but it will be appointment television.
In year one, though, a 3-win improvement is not just anticipated, it’s about the bare minimum.
Much has been said about Colorado’s difficult schedule, and Pac-12 play is indeed a gauntlet for the Buffs, but between a non-conference schedule that includes Colorado State and Nebraska, as well as some Pac-12 opponents who might be ripe for plucking, and there’s got to be at least four.
On the surface, the biggest improvement for Colorado is a massive roster overhaul that has seen Prime nearly replace the whole roster. But his assistant coaching decisions were inspired, and that combination of better coaching and better players has Colorado in a better place.
And speaking of a better place, Folsom Field might just be as electric as it used to be in the early 1990s, when the Buffaloes were among the top teams in the country.
Like so many of the other teams on this list, Colorado’s fortunes may be impacted by quarterback play. If Shedeur Sanders is half as good he looked in the Buffs’ ESPN-televised spring game, that 3-win improvement might be an underestimate.
This prediction is predicated on one and one thing only: Cam Rising’s health.
If the Utah quarterback is healthy, another 10 wins season is in the cards. If he misses any games as he recovers from a torn ACL, that number goes right out the window.
Dating back to the beginning of last season, anytime someone other than Rising has been under center for the Utes, it’s been trouble. There’s just something about the gritty, athletic senior quarterback that fuels the engine that is the Utah offense, which, by the way, lost one of the game’s most unique players in the Buffalo Bills-bound Dalton Kincaid.
So much has gone right for the Utes the last couple years, it just feels like one of those letdown seasons that happen on the way to true greatness. This is not about losing faith in Kyle Whittingham or backup quarterback Brandon Rose, in particular, but it is about the laws of nature. And a difficult schedule that starts with a pair of tough non-conference games against Florida and Baylor.
Up: Oregon State
No, I don’t expect the Beavers to win what would be a program-record 13 games this year. But folks nationally don’t have any clue that Oregon State truly was on the cusp of greatness last year: A combined 6 points in 2 losses away from being 11-1 in the regular season, which would’ve landed them in the Pac-12 title game, giving them a shot at a 12th win, plus a bowl opportunity.
Aside from a blowout loss at the hands of Utah while in the midst of a quarterback change from the injured Chance Nolan to the mildly effective Ben Gulbranson, Oregon State lost to USC, 17-14, and at Washington, 24-21. That’s 41 combined points to a pair of offenses that basically averaged 40-plus all year.
That USC game was really the eye-opener. Holding the Heisman winner and one of the country’s most electric offenses in the country to 17 points? That’s special.
And Jonathan Smith added one of the biggest transfers in the portal with the arrival of former Clemson quarterback D.J. Uigalelei, who flashed some big talent with the Tigers yet never quite lived up to his 5-star billing. The Beavers were plagued by middling quarterback play last year, and many — me included — felt the team really was just a good QB away from conference supremacy.
Oregon State returns plenty of seasoned talent on both sides of the ball, and Smith has built a culture of accountability that should carry them through the offseason. As hard as it is to imagine the Beavers making yet another 3-win jump, it could happen.
Down: Washington State
There weren’t many middle-of-the-pack Pac-12 teams last year, as the conference was separated into haves and have-nots perhaps like no time before. Half the conference won 9 or more games and 5 finished with 5 or fewer wins.
In Jake Dickert’s first full season at the helm, Washington State, was the league’s lone outlier, going 7-6.
Problem is, in some ways it feels like the Cougars have maxed out. And with brand new coordinators on both sides of the ball, I’m not optimistic for a third straight 7-win season.
Dropping 3 extra games would be hard to imagine, particularly with a joke of a late-season schedule, as the Cougars play Stanford and Colorado at home and Arizona State and Cal on road before heading across the state to play at Washington in the Apple Cup finale. But even 1 slip up there opens the door for a truly bad year. Games against Wisconsin, Oregon State, UCLA, Arizona, Oregon and Washington won’t be easy, and the Buffaloes are the biggest curiosity of them all.
Much will be on an improved 2nd-year effort by incumbent starter Cameron Ward, who transferred over from Incarnate Word and had a good-but-not-great debut season in the Palouse. If he really steps up his game, the Cougars could match or exceed their win total from a year ago. If not, the heels could come off in a big way.
Up OR Down: UCLA
How’s this one for a curveball? If Colorado is the biggest riddle in the Pac-12, UCLA might be the biggest enigma. It seems like the Bruins lost a ton of talent, but Dante Moore could be UCLA’s most talented quarterback since Josh Rosen, who — despite his NFL failures — was pretty darn good in college. As productive as Dorian Thompson-Robinson was for the Bruins, Moore has much better projections.
Losing Zach Charbonnet is blow, but transfer running back Carson Steele got some major hype in spring ball and is primed for a big year. The also upgraded their receiving corps and retained some key defensive pieces who enter Year 2 in Westwood in linebacker Darius Muasau and EDGE Laiatu Latu.
So, yes, a 12-win season is a possibility, especially with UCLA’s soft schedule.
But, also…potential freshman starting quarterback here. That means very little certainty. The Bruins could just as easily win six games as they could win a dozen. Such is life in the topsy-turvy Pac-12. At least for one more year.