Pac-12 Power Rankings: 2023 season begins with parity at the top
Pac-12 football begins again on Saturday with Week 0 action. USC, last year’s darling, takes on San Jose State to kick off the conference’s 2023 season.
Let’s just set the conference’s impending destruction on the side for the next few months. This is going to be a wildly entertaining football conference. There are multiple teams at the top that fancy themselves College Football Playoff contenders. There are multiple teams just beyond that tier that want to take the next step. There are teams that were bad a year ago but have markedly turned things around.
And, oh, by the way, this happens to be the best collection of quarterbacks in America.
Should be a fun season.
As was the case last fall, we’ll power rank each team across every week. And just to serve as a reminder: This is not a prediction of where teams will finish. This is a snapshot of team strength now.
Let’s get to it:
12. Stanford Cardinal
Final 2022 rank: 11
Boy, does first-year head coach Troy Taylor have a task on his hands. The Cardinal are coming off consecutive 3-9 seasons. Four starters on the offensive line left. The entire starting linebacker unit left. Almost the entire secondary left. Actually, it would be easier just to list who came back. Running back EJ Smith and tight end Benjamin Yurosek give Taylor a pair of talented offensive weapons. David Bailey is worth mentioning on defense. Stanford gave up 36 points a game last season and has yet to name a starting quarterback. It’s rough out here.
11. Colorado Buffaloes
Final 2022 rank: 12
Deion Sanders and the Buffs really went for it this offseason. And you have to admire the confidence to even attempt what they did. Sanders believes the new-look Buffs can be competitive right away. Big-time playmakers like corner/receiver Travis Hunter and tailback Alton McCaskill IV and edge Jordan Domineck suggest the Buffs will, at the very least, be entertaining. But they were atrocious the last time we saw them on a football field, and that lands them here. Are they more talented than a few of these upcoming teams? Probably. But we need to see it first.
10. Cal Golden Bears
Final 2022 rank: 10
It’s the start of a very, very, very, very, very important season for Justin Wilcox and Cal. The Golden Bears went 4-8 last season for their third consecutive losing season. Wilcox hit a couple of high notes in the transfer portal — quarterback Sam Jackson V came in right away and took the job, and I’m high on former San Diego State defensive back Patrick McMorris — but he also lost his best pass-catcher to UCLA and saw the running back he brought in to lighten the load on Jaydn Ott suffer a season-ending injury before the season actually began. Defense should be fine, as seems to always be the case. We’re once again asking about the offense, which averaged just 24 points a game last fall and will now be led by a quarterback with six career pass attempts.
9. Arizona State Sun Devils
Final 2022 rank: 9
Arizona State should be a fun team in 2023. Kenny Dillingham offenses provide you with shot plays and tempo and more shot plays. Freshman quarterback Jaden Rashada wins the starting job for the Sun Devils, and he has the skills to really make this thing go. He’ll have no shortage of weapons either, with receiver Elijhah Badger, tight end Jalin Conyers, and running back Cameron Skattebo surrounding him. Badger was the best receiver no one heard about last fall. Skattebo is awesome. Questions rest in the trenches. Anchors on the offensive line left. Nearly the entire defensive line did the same. Dillingham filled holes with the transfer portal. We’ll see how things mesh.
8. Washington State Cougars
Final 2022 rank: 7
Quarterback Cameron Ward was one of my favorite additions of any team last offseason. He looked like a difference-maker when he actually had time to throw the football, but Wazzu gave up 46 sacks. Only two FBS schools gave up more. Nakia Watson and Jaylen Jenkins give the Cougs a solid backfield to work with. DT Sheffield was an offseason riser at wide receiver. Ward has options, he just needs time. The defense should again be stingy with Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson back to muck things up in the opposing backfield, though there’s a major question in the middle: How difficult will it prove to replace Daiyan Henley?
7. Arizona Wildcats
Final 2022 rank: 8
Jedd Fisch’s turnaround in Tucson appears to have been two-fold. Following a 1-11 season in 2021, the Wildcats jumped to 5-7 last fall. Jayden de Laura and Jacob Cowing powered the resurgence, leaders of a group of talented offensive transfers. This offseason was about addressing the defense. Arizona gave up 37 points a game last season (126th nationally). To that end, Arizona returns just one of its defensive starters from the season opener a year ago. Former Oregon linebacker Justin Flower is part of a transfer class that focused almost entirely on the front seven. Arizona can score points in bunches, but too often last season de Laura was in positions where he had to do it while facing a deficit. More complementary football could see the Wildcats finish in the top half of the conference.
6. UCLA Bruins
Final 2022 rank: 6
Welcome to the post-DTR era in Westwood. For a minute there it seemed like this moment would never arrive. But now that it has, UCLA finds itself at an interesting juncture. Zach Charbonnet is out the door, leaving as one of the most consistent tailbacks in the country over the last two seasons. Former Ball State star Carson Steele takes his place. I love Steele. I also love Chip Kelly plucking J.Michael Sturdivant from Cal to give whoever winds up playing quarterback one of the top receiver options in the league. With Laiatu Latu, Gary Smith, and the Murphy brothers back, there’s no excuse for UCLA to struggle on defense. The Bruins look like they should be strong in the trenches.
5. Oregon State Beavers
Final 2022 rank: 3
All-Pac-12 selections return on the offensive line in Taliese Fuaga and Joshua Gray. An All-Pac-12 running back returns in Damien Martinez — one of the best runners in the country. The defense was a roaring success under Trent Bray’s leadership, soaring to 16th nationally in scoring defense. While some of the star power from that unit is gone, Bray and Co. look like they’ll have a formidable front seven. The questions for Oregon State were always in the pass game. And DJ Uiagalelei provides the potential answer at long last. Does the Clemson import take the Beavers to the next level? His playmaking ability at the quarterback spot would have you believe it’s possible, but his Clemson tenure was marred by accuracy issues that need to be improved.
4. USC Trojans
Final 2022 rank: 5
The 2022 Trojans were so all-or-nothing it hurt. The offense ranked third nationally in success rate. The defense ranked 127th nationally in success rate. The offense topped 35 points in seven of its final eight. The defense yielded 35 points in six of its final eight. We have seen this “bend, don’t break, but eventually break” defense paired with Lincoln Riley’s prolific offenses before and Riley elected to run it back once again with Alex Grinch as his DC. Things have to change in a substantial way on that side of the football this season. USC brought in reinforcements from the transfer portal and got a little heftier on the defensive line. On paper, I like the moves. Does it work on the field? With Caleb Williams in tow, USC possesses a national championship-caliber offense.
3. Utah Utes
Final 2022 rank: 1
I’m breaking my rule a bit here. If you win the conference you play in the year prior, you open the new season atop that conference unless your team imploded. I slotted Utah No. 1 in my preseason power ranking last year for that exact reason. Utah needs to replace Clark Phillips III, Mo Diabate, and Gabe Reid on its defense, but there are potential difference-makers all over the place and at every level. Utah could field a top-20 defense nationally by efficiency. The offense is in a good place when healthy… It’s just not healthy. Uncertainty at quarterback leads to the placement. If Cameron Rising is ready to go after offseason ACL surgery, Utah should beat Florida. If Rising is unavailable, a two-game opening stretch against Florida and at Baylor will be thorny. If Bryson Barnes had a healthy Brant Kuithe to lean on, you’d feel better. But it doesn’t seem like Utah has that either.
2. Oregon Ducks
Final 2022 rank: 4
Oregon was one of the best teams in the country Weeks 2-9 last season. No one could touch quarterback Bo Nix, who was dicing up defenses through the air when he wasn’t handing it off to his wrecking ball running back. Nix returns for another year. The wide receiver room — Troy Franklin, Tez Johnson, Traeshon Holden, Jurrion Dickey — is a top-10 room nationally. The running back room — Bucky Irving, Noah Whittington, Jordan James — is a top-10 room nationally. The offensive line probably won’t be as good as last year (a sky-high bar) but could still be a top-20 unit. If Jordan Burch lives up to expectations, Oregon is going to challenge for a College Football Playoff spot.
1. Washington Huskies
Final 2022 rank: 2
What a debut season it was for head coach Kalen DeBoer. From 4-8 to 11-2, Washington immediately became one of the most exciting teams in college football under DeBoer. The Huskies ranked seventh nationally in offensive success rate as quarterback Michael Penix Jr. dazzled week in and week out with his arm. Only three FBS quarterbacks finished with a better EPA than Penix last fall. And his return to UW for the 2023 season led to returns from elite receiver Rome Odunze, standout edge rusher Bralen Trice, and every other draft-eligible Husky on the roster. No one got drafted from UW in the 2023 NFL Draft because everyone who would have been drafted opted to return and chase a national title in Seattle. DeBoer fought off overtures to keep Ryan Grubb as his offensive coordinator, and the portal supplemented weak spots on the roster. UW will be tested this fall, but it gets the top preseason spot.