The 2021 Pac-12 season ended with Utah destroying Oregon to capture their first-ever conference title. USC’s down decade after their dynasty in the 2000s has allowed relative newcomers like Utah and more traditional conference powers like Oregon, Stanford, and Washington to compete for titles yearly. However, USC’s decision to pry Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma has the Trojans envisioning a new era of dominance in the 2020s. But it can take multiple years for coaches to rebuild struggling programs, and the other Pac-12 contenders would like a word before coronating the Trojans as conference champs. So let’s take a closer look at where the Pac-12 teams stand heading into next season.
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2021 marked the first year the Bruins finished with a winning record during the Chip Kelly era. They’ll look to continue that momentum next year with a potent offense and a haul of transfers that should improve the team. The Bruins’ success next season will depend on quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s continued development. DTR came to Westwood as a blue-chip prospect with sky-high expectations. After a few underwhelming seasons, he had his best and most consistent year in 2021 and has opted to return to school for his final year of eligibility with the Bruins. Last season, Thompson-Robinson got it done on the ground and through the air, and his continued development could propel the Bruins from a good to a great team.
While you can usually rely on a Chip Kelly-led team to be solid on offense, it’s another story on the defensive side of the ball. Improvement under the new DC Bill McGovern will be needed if the Bruins want to have a shot at a conference title (+900).
Utah Utes, Best Bet-
The Utes bounced back from a 1-2 start to rack up eight conference victories and win the conference for the first time and program history. Utah capped off the season by nearly defeating Ohio State in the Rose Bowl during a thrilling 48-45 loss. Head coach Kyle Whittingham is looking to repeat as Pac-12 champions and capture a College Football Playoff berth this season. Utah will need big years from quarterback Cameron Rising and running back Tavion Thomas to replicate their 2021 success. Rising and Thomas combined for 47 touchdowns last year and will serve as the offensive foundation this season.
While the offense should remain dynamic, the defense is more of a question mark. The team has to fill gaps left behind by the departures of 1st round pick Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell. Transfers Mohamoud Diabate (Florida) and Gabe Reid (Stanford) should be able to step in immediately and make an impact. Still, returning players must continue to develop to match the Utes’ stout defense in 2021. But even with the rebuild on D, Utah is considered a favorite to win the conference (+300).
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Oregon is coming off a third consecutive trip to the conference championship game and should be highly ranked to start the season. Still, the Ducks face many unknowns for a top 25 squad that’s enjoyed a sustained run of success. Former Georgia assistant and first-time head coach Dan Lanning is in charge after Mario Cristobal left for Miami. A starter at QB has yet to be named as an Auburn transfer. Bo Nix and former five-star recruit Ty Thompson battle it out for the top spot on the roster. And as if that weren’t enough, the team has to replace the production of top-five draft pick Kayvon Thibodeaux.
But despite all the uncertainty, the Ducks have a ton of upside entering the 2022 season. Lanning is fresh off a championship with Georgia and has spent the offseason installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Regardless of who is named the starter, either Nix or Thompson should be an upgrade over Anthony Brown under center. The defense should also be stout under Lanning, who consistently fielded one of the nation’s top defenses at Georgia. Noah Sewell, the leading returning tackler in the Pac-12, will lead a defense that should make strides under Lanning’s staff. The Ducks are stacked with talent and experience. If they can put it all together, they might be able to bring a Pac-12 title (+300) back to Eugene.
At this point, it’s fair to ask whether expectations could be higher for the Trojans next season. They’re the favorite to win the Pac-12 (+250) after signing one of the most highly touted young coaches in the game in Lincoln Riley. Their starting quarterback, Caleb Williams, is one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy at the season’s end. And they just added Jordan Addison, the top receiver in college football, from Pitt through the transfer portal. A USC team hasn’t created this much excitement since the Carrol, Leinart, Bush era.
Will USC dominate the conference as many expect, or will they falter under the weight of extraordinary expectations? Ultimately, how well the Trojan’s defense performs will likely answer this question. USC’s D was horrendous in 2021, giving up 32 points and over 400 yards per game. Tuli Tuipulotu should be a star next season, and the Trojans have added several impact players through the transfer portal. Still, it remains to be seen whether that will be enough to support the championship-caliber offense. Williams and company are virtually guaranteed to get theirs on offense. But, likely, the Trojans will only go as far as their defense takes them. No matter how far USC goes this season, we know they are the NFL’s best bet for sending talent to the next level. They may not be in the PAC 12 for much longer. It will be interesting to see if they can finish things off with a bang.
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