May 29, 2024
The Huskies are the team to beat and will fend off a slew of competitors in what should be one of the best races in the Power Five.

The Hotline will track, analyze and critique all 80-something football games during the upcoming Pac-12 season, including the conference championship and whatever bowl matchups unfold.

Before we play the role of Sunday morning quarterback, however, it’s only fair that we assume the part of preseason prognosticator.

What’s the point of taking shots if you haven’t bothered to call them?

Our preview of the hotly anticipated season continues below with projections for the conference race.

1. Washington: Our pick to win the Pac-12 since January, the Huskies have momentum and motivation after finishing last season with seven consecutive wins but no berth in the conference title game. The retooled offensive line must approach its 2022 standard and keep quarterback Michael Penix upright to deliver missiles to an elite collection of wideouts. We expect sustained edge pressure from Bralen Trice and Zion Tupuola-Fetui, which will alleviate pressure on the unproven secondary.

2. Utah: The two-time defending champions enter 2023 with their sights on becoming the first team in the Pac-12 era to three-peat. Success hinges on quarterback Cameron Rising’s health — in particular, the strength of his surgically repaired knee. The defense should be ferocious, especially the front seven, thus giving Rising time to settle in. We’re deeply skeptical of Utah’s push for the playoff because of the challenging non-conference dates with Florida and Baylor. But the conference race is a different calculation.

3. USC: The Hotline does not pick ties on principle, but the smart money is on some combination of the Trojans, Huskies and Utes finishing deadlocked for first or second place. USC won the regular-season race last year on the strength of quarterback Caleb Williams’ sensational play and the team’s otherworldly turnover margin. Look for a regression in one of those areas (more likely: the turnover margin). Any backslide could be offset by improved play along the defensive front. But we need to see it before believing it.

4. Oregon: The twin ascents of Washington and USC have nudged Oregon off the Pac-12’s center stage, which might benefit second-year coach Dan Lanning and 17th-year quarterback Bo Nix. Points won’t be an issue, but preventing points might be. The defense should have a stellar front. Will the other positions play at high levels consistently? (Last year, they didn’t.) We wouldn’t be surprised if Oregon reaches the conference championship, but each of the three teams listed above the Ducks has a slightly more compelling case.

5. Oregon State: All eyes are on quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, whose raw talent is just what the Beavers need to take the next step. But will his efficiency clear the necessary bar for a team with less margin for error than its trophy-hunting peers? Look for more of the same from OSU: masterful coaching, a run-heavy attack and above-average defense. Also, count on the Beavers — and Washington State — to play with an extra dose of motivation given their second-class position in the realignment game.

6. UCLA: No projection makes us more unsettled than this one because, frankly, it feels too easy. The Bruins finished tied for fifth last year, have massive voids to fill at quarterback and tailback and return a slew of starters from a mediocre defense. That said, they have a veteran offensive line and face a soft schedule (no Oregon or Washington). In a rugged conference, that combination aligns perfectly with a middle-of-the-pack placement. But when projections feel just right, they are usually wildly wrong.

7. Washington State: The downside risk far outweighs the upside potential as the Cougars enter their second year with quarterback Cam Ward at the helm. The return of tailback Nakia Watson is significant, but the offense won’t make the necessary progress without stout play from a veteran line that struggled in 2022. The primary challenge for WSU, in our view, is the competition. The bottom of the conference should be stronger than last year. If the Cougars don’t move forward, as well, they stand to lose ground in the standings.

8. Arizona: Coach Jedd Fisch changed the vibe in swift fashion as the Wildcats improved from 1-11 in his first season to 5-7 in his second. But for football coaches at basketball schools in college towns with limited local recruiting prowess, margins are thin. Fisch needs a bowl berth this fall to avoid losing momentum. Much depends on quarterback Jayden de Laura’s maturity and the play along the lines of scrimmage. From here, Arizona doesn’t quite have the personnel up front to climb onto the Pac-12’s top half but should earn a postseason bid.

9. Cal: A critical year for coach Justin Wilcox, whose early-tenure success gave way to ridiculous COVID restrictions, institutional challenges unique to Cal and his own staffing mistakes, with the hiring of former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave atop that list. The new playcaller is a familiar name, Jake Spavital, who worked in Berkeley in the mid-2010s under coach Sonny Dykes. (Cal quarterback Sam Jackson V transferred from Dykes’ current school, TCU.) The Bears always play solid defense, so any offensive improvement could push things forward.

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10. Colorado: We struggled with CU’s position and weighed Deion Sanders’ collection of incoming playmakers against the reality of 60-something new faces — and the questionable depth that could follow immense roster turnover. Another unknown: Can Sanders coach effectively at the Power Five level? (The answer might not be clear for two or three years.) But we do know that the September schedule is beyond brutal with TCU, Nebraska, Oregon and USC. The Buffaloes had best be in midseason form in Week One.

11. Stanford: There was plenty to like about Troy Taylor’s first nine months on the job, but the next three will serve as judge and jury. He doesn’t have much to work with at quarterback or along the offensive line, and the defense returns just three starters. (That might be a good thing given its 2022 performance). Our bet: Taylor maximizes his personnel but still loses far more often than he wins. The Cardinal’s talent cupboard wasn’t left bare. It was dislodged from the kitchen wall and tossed into the basement to gather dust.

12. Arizona State: Rookie coach Kenny Dillingham gets an A+ for energy and enthusiasm but has a C- roster loaded with newcomers and unproven returnees. We do not expect high-level quarterback play, especially compared to the competition; nor is there an elite tailback. The secondary should be one of the best in the conference, but the front seven is stocked with questions. What’s more, the Sun Devils drew both Washington and Oregon in the schedule rotation this season — the last thing they needed in Year One of Dillingham’s reclamation project.

Pac-12 championship: Washington over Utah
Comment: Never underestimate Utah’s culture of toughness — both mental and physical — and the role that plays under the most difficult circumstances. But the Huskies simply have too much offensive talent to be contained. (By this point, the retooled offensive line will have coalesced.) Meanwhile, Utah’s attack simply isn’t sharp enough to keep pace as the quest for a three-peat ends in defeat.
Score: UW 34, Utah 24

*** Previous installments in our season preview series:

My AP preseason top-25 ballot
The best game of each week

*** Send suggestions, comments and tips (confidentiality guaranteed) to [email protected] or call 408-920-5716

*** Follow me on Twitter: @WilnerHotline

*** Pac-12 Hotline is not endorsed or sponsored by the Pac-12 Conference, and the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conference.