June 19, 2024
The conference was well represented in the Hotline's preseason ballot and the AP poll itself.

The Pac-12 placed five teams in the AP preseason poll on Monday, equalling the Big Ten’s total and falling one short of matching the SEC’s contingent.

In advance of the most anticipated Pac-12 season in a decade — and the final year in the conference for eight schools — two teams cracked the AP top 10: USC will start the season in the No. 6 position, with Washington slotted No. 10.

Three more are ranked in the teens: No. 14 Utah, No. 15 Oregon and No. 18 Oregon State.

UCLA was in the ‘others receiving votes’ category.

The Pac-12 placed five teams in the AP preseason poll as recently as 2021, when a calamitous non-conference performance resulted in scant poll representation throughout the fall.

The ballot below was submitted to the Associated Press late last month. My in-season ballot will be published each week.

Also considered (alphabetically): Appalachian State, Fresno State, Iowa, Kentucky, Miami, Mississippi, Pittsburgh, SMU, South Carolina, Texas Tech, Toledo and UTSA

1. Georgia: The two-time defending national champions have a new playcaller (Mike Bobo), a new starting quarterback (likely Carson Beck) and new offensive tackles. But they are absolutely loaded everywhere else and have a stockpile of blue-chip recruits across the depth chart. Kirby Smart’s second unit would be worthy of a spot in the top 25. (AP poll ranking: 1)

2. Michigan: Coach Jim Harbaugh’s tiff with the NCAA could result in a multi-game suspension, but we don’t expect that to impact the Wolverines. They are built to beat Ohio State with powerhouse offensive and defensive lines along with returning star tailback Blake Corum and starting quarterback JJ McCarthy. (AP poll ranking: 2)

3. LSU: With 15 returning starters and second-year coach Brian Kelly’s system firmly established, the Tigers are poised to challenge Alabama for the SEC West title. Quarterback Jayden Daniels, who spent three years at Arizona State (2019-21), is a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate. (AP poll ranking: 5)

4. Washington: With quarterback Michael Penix Jr. delivering missiles to an elite group of wide receivers, the Huskies should again average 40 points per game. Their twin pursuits of a conference title and playoff berth hinge on a defense led by edge rushers Bralen Trice and Zion Tupuola-Fetui. The Hotline views UW as the best bet to break the Pac-12’s six-year playoff drought. (AP poll ranking: 10)

5. Alabama: Outside the top two in our preseason rankings for the first time since we used a typewriter, the Crimson Tide has reached a tipping point under Nick Saban. Is a backslide coming, or will Alabama return to dominance? Much depends on filling the voids left by quarterback Bryce Young and edge rusher Will Anderson. (AP poll ranking: 4)

6. Ohio State: We could very well regret slotting the Buckeyes this low, for the majority of starters return on both sides of scrimmage. Quarterback Kyle McCord is expected to take over the offense and will have the best collection of receivers in the country. Two road games will determine OSU’s fate: The Week Four trip to Notre Dame and the finale against Michigan. (AP poll ranking: 3)

7. USC: All the pieces are in place for a playoff berth in Year Two under Lincoln Riley, who returns 16 starters, has fortified his defense and welcomes back Heisman winner Caleb Williams. But the Trojans produced an otherworldly turnover margin (plus-21) last season, and we project a reversion to the mean this fall. The course of every season is determined by a handful of plays. Will those crucial bounces work against USC? (AP poll ranking: 6)

8. Clemson: The ACC’s former king has lost ground relative to Florida State but possesses more than enough talent to win the conference and compete for a playoff berth. The Tigers should field a stellar defense and won’t need much from their offense. (AP poll ranking: 9)

9. Florida State: There’s a 1990s vibe in Tallahassee as coach Mike Norvell continues to build a playoff-caliber roster. Then again, that vibe could vanish if the season opener against LSU (in Orlando) goes sideways. Fortunately, we won’t have to wait long to identify the ACC favorite: The Seminoles visit Clemson on Sept. 23. (AP poll ranking: 8)

10. Notre Dame: The arrival of quarterback Sam Hartman (from Wake Forest) provides a solid building block for second-year coach Marcus Freeman following his wobbly debut at the helm. But the schedule is ridiculous with Ohio State, Clemson and USC, leaving the Irish with zero margin for error in the other nine games. (AP poll ranking: 13)

11. Penn State: The Nittany Lions will be one of the top teams in the country but once again look destined for third in the Big Ten East. Their defense should be stellar, but will they score enough in the decisive fourth quarters against Michigan and Ohio State? (AP poll ranking: 7)

12. Utah: The two-time defending Pac-12 champs face a difficult road into the playoff with their rugged early-season schedule (Florida and Baylor) and a starting quarterback (Cam Rising) who missed the offseason while recovering from an ACL injury. If the Utes win both, we’ll reassess. But their prospects for another Pac-12 title are bright. (AP poll ranking: 14)

13. Tennessee: Expectations have soared in Knoxville following coach Josh Heupel’s breakthrough second season, but everything hinges on the late-October trip to Alabama and the mid-November home showdown with Georgia. Win at least one, and the Vols could return to the New Year’s Six. (AP poll ranking: 12)

14. Kansas State: The team most likely to prevent Texas or Oklahoma from winning the Big 12 in their final season happens to be the defending Big 12 champs. (The Wildcats beat TCU in the title game.) Returning quarterback Will Howard and a veteran line should power the offense, but KSU’s defense could be a work in progress. (AP poll ranking: 16)

15. Texas: Few programs in the country can match Texas for resources, recruiting power and tradition. Yet the Longhorns have posted one 10-win season since 2010. Is this the year Steve Sarkisian leads UT back to the big stage? We aren’t fully convinced. (AP poll ranking: 11)

16. Wisconsin: The Hotline has full faith in new coach Luke Fickell and a veteran defense to power the Badgers to the top of the mediocre Big Ten West … and become championship game fodder for the East winner. (AP poll ranking: 19)

17. Oregon: It has been years since expectations in Eugene were as low as they are for Dan Lanning’s second season — and yet they aren’t really that low. The Ducks are perfectly capable of winning one of the toughest leagues in the land. We wonder about the retooled offensive line and a defense that stumbled repeatedly down the stretch last season. (AP poll ranking: 15)

18. Texas A&M: No program did less with more last season than the Aggies, who managed just five wins with a blue-chip roster. The eyes of College Station are on new offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino — yes, that Bobby Petrino — to increase production and save coach Jimbo Fisher’s job. (AP poll ranking: 23)

19. Oregon State: Can the Beavers produce another 10-win season? Is this the year they break through and win the Pac-12? Much hinges on the play of quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, the Clemson transfer charged with improving what was OSU’s weakest position last season. (AP poll ranking: 18)

20. Tulane: Dismiss the Green Wave, which won 12 games and beat USC in the Cotton Bowl, at your peril. Coach Willie Fritz and quarterback Michael Pratt are back, which makes Tulane the team to beat in the AAC and a threat to return to the New Year’s Six. (AP poll ranking: 24)

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21. TCU: We don’t expect everything that went right for the Horned Frogs in 2022 to go wrong in 2023. But some things will go wrong, and that should be enough to pile a few more losses on their ledger. (AP poll ranking: 17)

22. North Carolina: Drake Maye stands as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks and projects as a top-10 pick in the NFL Draft. He has veterans across every unit and plenty of playmakers. But the talent gap between the Tar Heels and the ACC favorites, Clemson and FSU, is substantial. (AP poll ranking: 21)

23. UCLA: The schedule is set up for success once again, but the Bruins have giant voids at quarterback and tailback, as well as an unproven defense. Unless something wholly unexpected unfolds, UCLA’s 24-year championship drought will extend by one year — the final year of the school’s membership in the Pac-12. (AP poll ranking: Not ranked)

24. Oklahoma: We aren’t convinced coach Brent Venables is the long-term answer in Norman. We are fairly confident he can generate a short-term turnaround and make the Sooners relevant in their final season in the Big 12. (AP poll ranking: 20)

25. Boise State: Few teams will face more challenging Septembers than the Broncos, who play Washington, San Diego State and Memphis on the road and host UCF. (Good thing they have nine returning starters on offense.) San Diego State and Air Force should provide the stiffest competition in the Mountain West. (AP poll ranking: Not ranked)

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