The Pac-12’s offseason from hell is finally over. How many words have been spilled on TV deals and conference alignments, moves that happen two years from now and moves that never happened a dozen years ago?

It’s almost as if we forgot what the point was: football. That’s it. Football.

It’s back for the Pac on Thursday night with the inaugural edition of #Pac12AfterDark, a 7 p.m. kickoff between Arizona State and Northern Arizona at Sun Devil Stadium.

Georgia vs. Oregon it is not, but it’s football. We’ll take it. We’ll take the noise of the college band and the rabid student section, of blown whistles and blown coverages, all day over the white noise of the past two months. When the calendar flips to September, we’ll have been more than two months removed from the earth-shattering news that USC and UCLA were leaving the Pac-12 for greener pastures.

Finally we’ll get back to football. Let’s hope that’s all we talk about for a few months.

Here are a few things on my mind heading into Week 1 of what should be a wild, wild football season out west.

Has it really been that long since the Playoff?

In 2021, Utah was the highest-rated Pac-12 team in the CFB Playoff rankings at No. 11. In 2020, you had to look all the way down to No. 17 to find USC in the CFP rankings, with Oregon down at No. 25.

Contrast that to a decade ago.

From 2010, when Oregon and Stanford both finished 12-1 and ranked No. 3 and No. 4, respectively, in the BCS rankings, to 2014, the Pac-12 had 10 teams finish in the top-10 of the rankings. In the past 5 years, the conference has had 3. Three, total.

No wonder we’re not sniffing the CFP. We haven’t deserved to breathe the same rarified air as the SEC, Big Ten and even ACC.

Now, with USC on the rise and Utah locked and loaded, with Oregon returning ample talent as well as UCLA, it would be a complete disappointment if the Pac-12 isn’t in the hunt this season.

It’s been years — years! — since the conference competed at a national level. You’ve got to go back to Washington in 2016, which might as well be 1906 in college football years.

This could be it, though. The league’s top talent just has to produce as expected. Not too tall of a task.

Who has the most to gain this season?

Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith: The Beavers head coach has the chance to move this program from the middle of the Pac to the upper echelon. Winning a big matchup with Boise State would give the Beavers some momentum heading into another tough nonconference game against Fresno State. If Oregon State can win those two games and then split a brutal back-to-back of USC and Utah, the Beavers will hit the middle of conference play riding high.

USC running back Travis Dye: Dye put up terrific numbers for Oregon last season, but proving he can be an effective lead back for a second school — especially one with the national clout that USC has — would shoot him up draft boards. Not that Oregon isn’t an impressive place to pad a résumé, but taking over the Trojans puts him at another level.

Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward: Ward enters the 2022 season as one of the most talked-about quarterbacks in the country after two hugely productive seasons at Incarnate Word. The Cougars have had a track record of highly effective quarterbacks, but Ward is on another level as a prospect. He had 71 touchdowns and 14 interceptions the past 2 years. If he halves those numbers with Wazzu, he’s looking at an all-league campaign. And that would equal an early draft selection.

Stanford quarterback Tanner McKee: Much like Ward, McKee enters 2022 with a ton of hype and a ton of hope. If he stays healthy throughout the year, he can play himself into top-15 status. McKee’s intangibles and ability to fit balls through tight windows is very attractive to NFL scouts. Now he just has to stay upright and produce.

USC coach Lincoln Riley: Riley reportedly signed a contract with USC in the nine figures, and he’s taken his place among the hottest coaches in college football. But if he turns the Trojans around in a hurry, the NFL might come calling, sooner than later.

The debut of Gold Stars

One of my favorite running columns over the years at various stops has been Gold Stars, a weekly look at the top unsung — or sung, really — performances in the Pac-12.

We’ll keep a running tally throughout the year and unveil our top 5 Gold Stars of the season when all is said and done.

First place gets an In-n’-Out gift card.

Week 1 Warriors

Every year, someone bursts onto the scene seemingly out of nowhere, a benefactor of circumstance, matchup and either lack of hype or lack of track record. Here’s who I want to see come out of the gates in a hurry.

USC defensive end Korey Foreman: Even when healthy last season, the former No. 2 recruit in the country was still not much of a producer last season, and he enters the season after having been hobbled throughout training camp. But he’s going to play a major role for the Trojans this year, and if he doesn’t, that doesn’t bode well for USC. I’d love to see him get off to a good start, silence some doubters and start living up to his massive potential.

UCLA defensive end Bo Calvert: Sticking with the same position in the same city, the UCLA pass-rusher had 4 sacks last season to lead the team, but the arrival of the Murphy Twins from North Texas as overshadowed Calvert’s return. A regular contributor to the Bruins for years, now is the former Oaks Christian star’s time to shine.

Oregon quarterback Bo Nix: When last we saw Nix, the former Auburn quarterback was down for the count with a broken ankle suffered in a mid-November matchup with Mississippi State. He has since headed west to Oregon, where he and the Ducks have the stiffest opening-week test in the conference with Georgia. An Oregon upset — and a big game from Nix — would put the Pac-12 firmly on the map this year. An embarrassing loss will be hard to overcome.

It’s about time Kyle Whittingham gets the respect he deserves

In an age of immediate results and otherworldly demands, the Utah head coach just keeps plugging away. In some ways, this season feels like a culmination of a decade of work going into making the Utes the absolute standard in the Pac-12. In other ways, this feels like par for the course. Utah has always been good, those of us in the west have known, but the Utes have never gotten their just due.

Problem is, they’ve snuck some truly bad losses into a sustained streak of good seasons. This is the season when Utah has to avoid all landmines, starting with a brutal Week 1 opener at Florida.

It’s one thing to head to the Swamp in November. It’s another thing right at the beginning of September. It’s expected to be in the mid-80s when the game kicks off, with a 50 percent chance of rain.

The Utes can struggle with the elements or the surroundings, but not both. If Cameron Rising can’t get it going in the passing game, the burden will fall to Tavion Thomas, but he’s delivered without issue.

Now is the time for Utah, and it starts with the Gators.

Predicting the Week 1 superlatives:

Most passing yards: Washington State QB Cameron Ward vs. Idaho: Squaring off with one of college football’s worst pass defenses will put Ward on a good trajectory. The Vandals allowed 256 passing yards per game last year, with 26 touchdowns allowed and just 4 interceptions. Ward is in for a field day.

Most rushing yards: UCLA RB Zach Charbonnet vs. Bowling Green: The Falcons were stingy through the air last year, allowing under 190 passing yards per game. Their run defense? Not so good. Charbonnet will tee off on a run defense that allowed nearly 190 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns last year.

Most receiving yards: Washington State WR De’Zhaun Stribling vs. Idaho: The Pac-12’s leading freshman receiver in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns, Stribling will take a big step forward in Year 2. His stats from last year — 44 receptions for 471 yards and 5 touchdowns — could double as a sophomore with Ward at the helm.

Most tackles: Oregon State LB Omar Speights vs. Boise State: Facing a Broncos team that needs to develop its running game to have any success this year, the Beavers’ star linebacker will have a chance to rack up the tackles. This game should be among the closest in the conference this week, so both teams will need to run the ball throughout.

Biggest debut: Arizona WR Tetairoa McMillan at San Diego State: The biggest weakness for the 12-2 Aztecs last year was a pass defense that allowed 244 passing yards per game. Arizona coach Jedd Fisch will want to test out his new battery — quarterback Jayden de Laura and wideouts McMillan and UTEP transfer Jacob Cowing.