Pac-12 Year in Review: 2023 was perfectly wild, right to the bitter end
It was all doom and gloom until the football actually started. Imagine if the Pac-12 had been able to delay things just a year. Imagine if the Pac-12’s leadership had been able to keep USC and UCLA in the boat for another 12 months.
Would the league becoming the best conference in football have changed the media rights landscape? Would the fact that the league’s championship game became a de-facto play-in for the College Football Playoff have changed the minds of any of the departing schools? The CFP expands to 12 next year; the drought was coming to an end then anyway.
Could the breakup of the Pac-12 have been avoided?
None of those questions matter now, of course. The breakup happened. USC and UCLA orchestrated moves to the Big Ten. Oregon and Washington will make the jump as well. The so-called ‘Four Corners’ will join the Big 12. The two Bay Area schools will join a collection of teams on the Atlantic coast. The two State schools in the PNW will do *waves hands in the air* something.
The conference as we know it is coming to an end.
The 2023 calendar year was marked by disappointment and destruction.
Right up until the actual football started. Then we had nothing but entertainment.
Here’s a look back at the 12 events that shaped the past year in the Pac-12:
Jan. 2: Cameron Rising goes down in the Rose Bowl
Utah had knocked off USC in the 2022 Pac-12 Championship Game, clinching a second consecutive league title and a return trip to the Rose Bowl. The Utes hoped to win the game after an instant classic against Ohio State the year prior, but quarterback Cameron Rising was knocked out of the game with a knee injury and Utah struggled to keep up on the scoreboard.
The initial hope was that Rising would be good to go for the start of the 2023 season and Utah — which returned Brant Kuithe and a host of other difference-makers — would be able to make an unprecedented run at a three-peat in the Pac-12.
In reality, Rising’s knee injury set the tone for the rest of the calendar year for the Utes. At one point this season, Kyle Whittingham said this was the most challenging year of his career from an injury standpoint. Rising never played, with it revealed midway through the year his injury was far more severe than initially made to appear. Kuithe never played, either.
Throughout an 8-5 campaign, it seemed like every week brought about a new injury to a significant player. Chris Curry was limited to four games. Micah Bernard was limited to two. Ja’Quinden Jackson never looked like himself. Mycah Pittman saw the field twice. Thomas Yassmin played in five games.
Logan Fano was lost after five games. Lander Barton was lost after seven games. Junior Tafuna and Connor O’Toole were slowed at the start of the year.
A program that has been built on continuity was thrust into constant chaos during the season.
It all hampered Utah’s ability to contend for a Pac-12 title, but Rising’s absence was particularly problematic. Utah leaned on Bryson Barnes and Nate Johnson throughout the bulk of the season and that duo produced one of the Power Five’s worst passing attacks. Utah was 99th in pass efficiency, averaging 6.6 yards a play. It was 97th in completion rate. Utah threw 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Rising will return in 2024 to help Utah through its first year in the Big 12. After what had to be one of the most trying years of his football career, here’s wishing better fortune next year.
March 16: Arizona comes crashing down
The 2022-23 basketball season was a rather unceremonious one for the Pac-12.
UCLA, the league’s regular-season champion, faltered in the conference tournament title game and then squeaked by Northwestern in the NCAA Tournament second round before losing to Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. The most veteran team Mick Cronin has had in some time, UCLA looked like a legitimate threat to win a title behind Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell. Instead, it fell out of the tourney in the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season.
USC made the tournament again, but it got bounced in the first round again.
Arizona State made it into and then out of the First Four, but lost to TCU in the first round.
And then there was Arizona.
The Wildcats took the college basketball world by storm in Tommy Lloyd’s first year. Benn Mathurin was unleashed. Christian Koloko was unflappable. Dalen Terry was incredible. The 2022-23 Wildcats just couldn’t replace those three departures.
They won the 2022 conference tournament title for a second consecutive year, but lost to 15-seed Princeton 59-55 in the first round. Arizona was deeply flawed, and it forced Lloyd into an offseason of reflection.
“Our culture probably wasn’t strong enough,” Lloyd said, “and our effort wasn’t good enough when we needed it most.”
May 6: Bronny James stays home
Bronny James, son of NBA legend LeBron James, committed to USC over Ohio State and Oregon. The 5-star combo guard joined a class with another 5-star guard (Isaiah Collier) to give the Trojans a massive shot in the arm.
USC added pieces on the edges of the rotation to fill out the roster and brought back Boogie Ellis to lead the group. Many expected Andy Enfield’s 2023-24 USC team to be his best ever and challenge for a Pac-12 title.
With the Heisman Trophy winner in Los Angeles as well, USC’s athletic department was as sunny as ever during the summer months. The football team was already must-watch under Lincoln Riley — enthralling, frustrating, and wildly entertaining. The basketball team became one of the hottest tickets in the sport.
Two months after his commitment, James suffered cardiac arrest during an offseason workout. The basketball world — collegiate and NBA — stopped and sent well wishes to the freshman guard and the James family promised he’d be back soon.
On Dec. 10, James returned to the floor with some trademark flair.
BRONNY JAMES CHASE DOWN BLOCK 😱
REMIND YOU OF SOMEONE?
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) December 10, 2023
July 27: Colorado breaks first
From a football perspective, the spring and summer months brought about precious little when it came to actual football discussion. Rather than Xs and Os, discourse in the sport was dominated by media rights talk and market viability.
In the Pac-12, commissioner George Kliavkoff expressed confidence at every turn the league would secure a media deal that would keep everyone together beyond 2024. The Big 12 — rebuffed by the Pac-12 in the immediate aftermath of the OU/Texas defections — circled the ‘Four Corners’ schools like a vulture. The Big Ten had already done its diligence on Oregon and Washington and just needed to wait.
“Patience will be rewarded,” Kliavkoff said on July 21.
The conference was negotiating with Apple TV about a streaming-only deal that excited absolutely no one. The conference reportedly asked ESPN for $50 million a year per school in media revenue and ESPN laughed itself out of the room.
When he met with reporters at the conference’s football media day on July 21, Kliavkoff said the Pac-12 schools were “committed to each other and to the Pac-12,” he said that negotiations were going well and “the longer we wait for our media deal, the better our options get,” and he said an announcement was not being made in order to keep the focus on football.
Six days later, Colorado announced it was leaving the league and returning to the Big 12.
Pac-12 defenders argued the loss did minimal damage because Colorado provided little to the league.
You have to respect the blind confidence. In reality, Colorado walking away from the table convinced the others all this was no longer viable. The league was down to nine. Its two biggest remaining brands — Oregon and Washington — looked at potential replacements and gagged. The other three Big 12 targets — Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah — surely wouldn’t want to sit on their hands while Deion Sanders and the Buffs went off into the sunset.
There was already unrest. The ground was already unstable. Colorado’s move less than a week after Kliavkoff got up in front of the burning building and assured people things were fine set off the chain reaction everyone expected.
Aug. 4: Oregon and Washington make their B1G move
Everyone was waiting for the other to make the move ahead of an Aug. 4 meeting of the remaining nine schools. In the early morning hours that day, Pac-12 sources started signaling to anyone who would listen that there was a growing wave of optimism the nine schools would sign a new grant of rights to remain together.
Minutes before the meeting of Pac-12 presidents, Oregon and Washington officials informed the league they were leaving for the Big Ten. When the two Pacific Northwest powers didn’t show up to the meeting, Arizona had the last data point it needed.
The Wildcats had wanted the Big 12. They needed Arizona State president Michael Crow to come to terms with the Pac-12’s crumbling future in order to keep the two schools together. Eventually, Arizona State got on board. Utah followed.
By the end of the day, five more schools had formally announced moves to new leagues.
“Listen, all along we’ve done everything we could to find an opportunity forward with the Pac-12. Over the last few days, obviously, the opportunity presented itself with the Big Ten,” Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said that day. “I’d say in the last 24 hours is when it really intensified, and wasn’t done until the early, early hours of the morning.”
Four schools were left. Cal and Stanford sat in the Bay wondering what was next. Oregon State and Washington State lamented being left behind. Eventually, the two California schools found a home in the ACC (!!!) but the Beavs and Cougs are still trying to sort out their long-term futures.
Sept. 2: Deion Sanders takes over the world
Contrast the first game of the regular season with the final game of the regular season for Colorado. You’ll get whiplash.
Deion Sanders’ first year began with a thrilling win over a bad team that was propped up because of what it had done a year prior. After a 45-42 win over TCU in which Shedeur Sanders looked legitimately awesome and Travis Hunter looked legitimately awesomer, Coach Prime went into the postgame press conference and started yelling “Do you believe now?” at reporters.
Colorado opened the year 3-0. It beat TCU, a team that had inexplicably gone to the CFP national championship in 2022. Then it beat Nebraska, a team that turned the ball over four times. Then it beat Colorado State in overtime, a team whose coach royally pissed off the Buffaloes during the week leading up to kickoff.
Colorado climbed into the AP Top 20. People paid to analyze the sport were unironically talking about the CFP on sports talk shows.
Everyone wanted a piece of Prime. Colorado was involved in the Big Noon Kickoff pregame show for three consecutive weeks to begin the year and four times in the first five games. Colorado hosted ESPN’s College GameDay. Deion Sanders went on to be named the SI Sportsperson of the Year. The media circus that surrounded Colorado to begin the season was unlike anything we’ve seen in this sport in years.
Sanders was and still is a net positive for the sport and for Colorado. He no doubt had a hand in making the Buffs — which had one winning season in the previous six campaigns and might have been the worst team in football in 2022 — attractive to the Big 12. He brought new fans into college football. He gave Power Five opportunities to players. And every step of the way he has looked like a legitimate ambassador for good within the sport — a good man, a caring coach.
But his first Colorado football team was a disaster. The Buffs went 1-8 in conference play, the same record they posted the year prior to his arrival. Their complete inability to play sound football at the line of scrimmage led to a nonexistent run game and a quarterback who ended the year on the shelf because of a fracture in his back.
Sanders has a ton of work to do to improve his team ahead of the 2024 season, but not even a six-game losing streak could tarnish his star. He’s still the talk of college football. And that’ll continue into the new year.
Sept. 23: Jake Dickert and Wazzu go to war with ESPN
Congrats to those who had “Power Five coaches feud with 80-year-olds” on their bingo cards this year. First, it was Ryan Day going after 86-year-old Lou Holtz after Ohio State beat Notre Dame. Then, Washington State head coach Jake Dickert called out 88-year-old Lee Corso for comments he made on the set of ESPN’s College GameDay.
Corso said the top-25 matchup between Washington State and Oregon State on Sept. 24 was the “No One Wants Us Bowl.” Some (including Dickert) thought they heard Corso call it the “No One Watches Bowl.” Either way, Dickert took offense and called out ESPN for its role in breaking up the Pac-12.
“I would love to have a conversation with Coach Corso about the value that he sees in breaking up the premier West Coast conference,” Dickert said after the Cougars beat the Beavers. “I would love to have a conversation with Coach Corso about how he thinks student-athletes and mental health and flying them all over the country is a positive thing.”
Wazzu alum Ryan Leaf and Kirk Herbstreit then beefed on Twitter over the perceived slight — with Herbstreit adamant to defend Corso.
Dickert apologized days later and said he called Corso personally to clarify his comments.
That didn’t stop Pat McAfee from pouring lighter fluid on the situation on the next College GameDay, when he scoffed at the tradition of Ol’ Crimson flying every weekend on the GameDay set and told the Cougs to shut up.
“Who cares,” McAfee yelled. “Were you guys showing this flag when they were 1-11 in 2009? How about when they were 2-10 in 2010? You were? That’s wild. So when they sucked, you guys were showing that every single week on the biggest college football show? Wow! Handle success, Ryan Leaf.
“Jeez. I want a West Virginia flag flying up there every single time. … Shut up, Washington State. I’m sick of you. Waste of time on this show.”
Dickert took the high road and called for a ceasefire several days later, but the whole situation served as the perfect illustration of an awkward season for ESPN and fans of the old guard in the sport.
When Oregon State hosted Washington in Week 12 in one of the biggest games ever at Reser Stadium, ESPN’s GameDay was expected in Corvallis. Instead, the traveling pregame show went to Harrisonburg, Virginia, for a game between James Madison and App State.
Oregon State felt disrespected, but the message was pretty clear: ESPN didn’t want all the extra that would come with setting up shop right in the heart of a program it had just helped to gut. With OSU and WSU left in the wind by conference realignment, there likely would have been a strong contingent of fans in the gallery who made their displeasure with the network clear.
Avoiding the environment altogether was a safe play from ESPN. But the show intended to highlight all of college football had to deal with those kinds of decisions all season. Any time the dissolution of the Pac-12 was brought up, ESPN came off disingenuous. Any time a talking head lamented the break-up of the conference, fans online pointed fingers right back at the network.
It was an unfortunate subplot given how strong the conference was this season.
Sept. 23: Jayden de Laura leaves Stanford game injured, opening a new era in Tuscon
Jayden de Laura took over a 1-11 program and led it to 5-7 in his first year. The Wildcats upset UCLA on the road late in 2022 and looked to be on the rise. But his four interceptions in a seven-point overtime loss at Mississippi State on Sept. 9 led to some groaning from the fanbase.
Decision-making was a question mark at times during the 2022 season. It became a major concern early in 2023. Then, in Arizona’s fourth game against Stanford, de Laura was injured and forced out of the game.
In came Noah Fifita.
Arizona’s season was irreversibly changed.
Fifita, the redshirt freshman, made his first career start against a top-10 Washington team the following week. Arizona lost by seven.
A week later, Fifita threw five touchdowns in a 43-41 triple-overtime loss to what was then a top-10 USC team.
From then on, Arizona didn’t lose a game. The Wildcats ripped off seven consecutive wins — including a 38-24 win over Oklahoma in the Alamo Bowl — to secure the program’s first 1o-win season since 2014. The seven-game winning streak tied a record for the longest in a season in program history. Arizona’s five wins over ranked opponents set a program record for the most in a single season. The 10-win season also marked just the fourth double-digit-win campaign in program history.
Fifita finished the season with 2,869 yards and 25 touchdowns. In his nine starts, he averaged 311 yards passing and 2.8 touchdowns a game. Over the course of a 13-game season, that’s 36 touchdown passes and just north of 4,000 passing yards.
Those are elite numbers.
Fifita’s emergence ultimately meant de Laura would need to leave if he wanted to be a starter. He has since entered the transfer portal — an unfortunate but understandable move. De Laura was excellent for Arizona. And, by most accounts, he was excellent for Fifita as well.
You hate to see a player lose his job because of an injury. But Arizona probably never goes to Fifita if that Stanford game plays out differently.
Think about what returns next season for Arizona. This could legitimately be a preseason Top 10 team. If I had a ballot, that’s where I’d have Arizona. Fifita is that good. The collection of returning talent is that good.
Oct. 14: Oregon and Washington deliver the game of the year
When the Huskies hosted the Ducks for a top-10 showdown on Oct. 14, the anticipation was through the roof. Billed as the game of the year in the early stages of the regular season and a potential Pac-12 Championship Game preview, Washington welcomed its hated rival to Husky Stadium for a massive collision.
The game was everything it was made out to be and then some. Washington won 36-33.
Oregon erased an 11-point second-half deficit to take the lead early in the fourth quarter. Washington rallied with a game-winning touchdown throw from Michael Penix Jr. to Rome Odunze with 1:38 to play in the game. There were huge fourth-down calls that loomed over the outcome. There was euphoria on the field in the aftermath.
The Iron Bowl ending was unbelievable, but there was not a better game throughout the entirety of the 2023 college football regular season that was better than Washington-Oregon, Pt. 1.
Fourth down decided this matchup during the 2022 season, when Dan Lanning elected to go for it near midfield, Oregon slipped, and Washington kicked a game-winning field goal. That down was just as influential this season.
Lanning passed on a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the UW 3 to end the first half. The Ducks failed, and they went into the halftime break trailing 22-18.
On a fourth-and-3 from the UW 8 in the third quarter, Oregon passed on another field goal attempt. At that point, they were trailing by 11. Lanning wanted touchdowns. And Oregon was turned away again.
On another fourth-and-3 from midfield with just over two minutes remaining and a lead, Oregon went for it again. Nix fired incomplete and UW took over on downs. Two plays later, Penix hit Odunze for the game-winner.
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) October 14, 2023
“The guy’s cramping up. I mean, cramping cramping the entire fourth quarter and even before that,” Kalen DeBoer said of his quarterback after the game. “You probably could see it. He’s just hunched over just trying to get a snap. Even some of the play-calls might have been affected just as far as the tempo and the rhythm, trying to let him catch his wind.
“This is Michael. He’s been through it for so many years and there’s no way you’re pulling him off the field in that moment.”
Oregon and Washington would meet again in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Ducks couldn’t get past the Huskies there either.
This was, in many ways, the story of the season for both teams.
Washington will meet Texas in the College Football Playoff on Monday. The Huskies showed all season long they had what was necessary when the lights were brightest and the pressure was at its most intense. They passed every test.
Nov. 4: USC comes off the rails
After a 48-20 loss to Notre Dame, ESPN’s Greg McElroy suggested USC might win only one more game the rest of the way — the Cal matchup on Oct. 28.
In the regular season, that suggestion was spot on. USC lost to Utah by two points a week after the Notre Dame debacle. Then it beat Cal by one point, 50-49. Then it lost each of its next three games.
The Trojans’ defense gave up 52 points to the visiting Huskies in a loss on Nov. 4. A day later, defensive coordinator Alex Grinch was fired.
USC won the Holiday Bowl with a skeleton crew of a two-deep. Prior to that game, it lost five of its final six to close out the regular season. Despite the continued brilliance of Caleb Williams, USC fell apart. The run game cratered. The offensive line struggled. The defense failed to do basic things with any degree of consistency.
Through 13 games, USC gave up an average of 6.1 yards per play and 34.4 points per game. It gave up more than 40 points five times and more than 30 points in eight consecutive games from Sept. 30 through Nov. 18.
The defense will go down as one of the worst in the history of the program.
And it was all completely avoidable. When USC blew the Cotton Bowl against Tulane on Jan. 2, it was clear the Grinch-led defense was broken. Grinch was in his first season at USC, but not his first season with Lincoln Riley. The problems that were persistent with USC were persistent with Oklahoma before the tandem left Norman.
Rather than make a move to try and capitalize on Caleb Williams’ return, Riley backed Grinch and got burned. USC wasted the year. Riley’s reputation has suffered because of it.
The back half of the season was marked by a contentious atmosphere. The fanbase was fed up with the defense. Those who questioned Grinch were offended after the Colorado game.
“It’s not really the same issues,” Riley said of the defense after watching the Buffs — who entered their matchup ranked dead last in the FBS in rushing efficiency — run for 5.2 yards a carry against his Trojans. “When something doesn’t go our way, it does not look like last year. Not to a trained eye. Not to a coach.”
Riley’s decision to part with Grinch marked an inflection point in his USC tenure. So far, things appear to be trending in the right direction. Riley hired D’Anton Lynn away from UCLA to coordinate the defense, they plucked a sitting head coach to handle linebackers and a former defensive coordinator to coach the secondary.
Nov. 25: Jonathan Smith bails on his ‘dream school’
Jonathan Smith said the demise of the Pac-12 didn’t play a role in his decision to leave Oregon State for Michigan State, but it sure is hard to believe him.
After a 31-7 loss to Oregon on Friday, Nov. 24, Smith was asked about his name in connection to the Michigan State head coaching job. Smith said “no decisions have been made” and added he had “been locked in for the last four months.”
Amid rumors the Beavs might lose their coach, Oregon State athletic director Scott Barnes released a statement claiming to be in talks with Smith about a contract extension and an increased salary pool for assistant coaches.
On Saturday, Nov. 25, Smith was officially announced as Michigan State’s head coach. When he flew to East Lansing and met with local media there on Sunday, he said the move was a long time coming.
“I felt confident, to be honest with you, but I did want to sleep on it one more night,” Smith said when asked when he knew he was taking the job. “In my mind, it’s been a long time.”
Oregon State opened the 2023 season at 8-2 before back-to-back losses to Washington and Oregon to close out the year. After Smith’s departure, several assistants followed him to MSU and a huge chunk of the two-deep — including 4-star freshman quarterback Aidan Chiles — hit the transfer portal. Oregon State ended the year with a 40-8 beatdown in the Sun Bowl for its third consecutive loss.
The brutal side of conference realignment.
Smith, a former Oregon State quarterback, said when he was hired that the Oregon State job was his dream job.
“It’s great to be home,” he said at a news conference in November 2017. “Now I’m sitting here in front of you with my dream job, in my dream town, at my dream school.”
In 2022, the Beavers went 10-3 and beat Oregon. It was the third 10-win season in program history and the best year since 2006. OSU was on pace for another historic year in 2023.
If the Pac-12 wasn’t dissolving next summer, would Smith be leaving? Certainly not for Michigan State.
Dec. 1-3: Washington wins the Pac-12, earns berth to the College Football Playoff
Washington claimed the final Pac-12 Championship with a 34-31 win in the rematch with Oregon. We were treated to the matchup everyone wanted and it didn’t disappoint.
The Huskies took a 20-3 first-half lead on the Ducks and looked poised to roll into the College Football Playoff. But then Oregon ripped off 21 unanswered to briefly push back ahead. Immediately after Oregon’s go-ahead drive, Washington responded with a touchdown march of its own to take back the lead for good.
UW outgained Oregon on the ground, 157-124. Johnson ran for 152 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries.
Washington controlled the line of scrimmage for much of the evening.
And the win earned UW a spot in the College Football Playoff — the first team from the Pac-12 to make the field since 2016.
“In the end, there’s a trust and belief that we have in ourself that we’ll find a way. We’ll get it done,” Kalen DeBoer prior to the CFP semifinal game against Texas. “When it comes to those big moments, those big times, when we’ve got to get a touchdown or get a stop, that we’ll do it and that we have everything it takes to win a championship ourselves.”
Washington has been a joy all season. DeBoer, a winner everywhere he has been, has pushed all the right buttons for a team that has won seven of its 13 games this season by eight points or less. UW hasn’t beaten a team by more than 10 points since Sept. 23. The games have been entertaining week after week.
And Washington just kept pulling them out. They won in different ways, self-scouting to break tendencies and finding matchups to exploit regardless of strengths.
Selection Sunday for the CFP was mired in controversy because of what happened with the third and fourth spots, but there was absolutely no doubt what was happening at No. 2. Washington didn’t even hold a watch party for the selection show.
They knew they were in.
And now they have a chance to begin the new year in the best kind of way.