Whether the Pac-12 Conference is as healthy as ever, in the midst of its death throes, or most likely somewhere between, one thing is undeniable. The upcoming 2023 football season will be the last year we’ll see the league as it is currently configured.
UCLA and Southern California will be off to the Big Ten next summer. More schools could follow if the league doesn't get its television contract in order. The undercurrent to all the pending realignment, of course, is the league’s football futility in the playoff era. Like it or not, the conference’s best chance to end its playoff drought likely rests with one of the schools with a foot out the door.
Here’s how we rank the programs, with the most important question each will face with spring drills concluded.
1. Southern California
Yeah, about that defense…?
The school’s spring game recap will tell you officially that the defense won. This is mostly because Caleb Williams led the first team offense on just one series, and it took exactly three plays to move 75 yards to the end zone. The defense did get its share of takeaways, but that wasn’t the issue last year. The problem was getting carved up for nearly five yards per attempt on the ground and allowing a third-down conversion rate of just a shade under 43%. We won’t really know if matters have improved until we see true game action. We do know that Alex Grinch, Lincoln Riley’s hand-picked DC who accompanied him from Oklahoma, is well aware his side of the ball needs to demonstrate progress this year with the goal of reaching the College Football Playoff likely decided by how Grinch's group performs.
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Will there be more plays from the cornerbacks?
Pass coverage was a problem area against the Pac-12’s top offenses. Elijah Jackson was banged up much of the season, and freshman classmate Jaivion Green was thrown to the wolves at times. Those two both made significant progress in the spring, and they were joined by experienced newcomers Jabbar Muhammad and Thaddeus Dixon. Any improvement from the coverage team could help the Huskies take the next step and play for the conference title because the offense should be in great shape with Michael Penix Jr. leading the way.
Who will replace Dalton Kincaid?
It’s easy to forget, but the Utes’ do-everything tight end was supposed to be part of a platoon last year. But when Brant Kuithe went down with a knee injury, all Kincaid did was put together an All-America type season. Kuithe, meanwhile, decided to return for a sixth season with the Utes. He wasn’t ready for spring drills but should be back for the fall, and he’ll be a welcome presence for returning quarterback Cam Rising.
Will Jordan Burch be the Ducks’ next great rush end?
The former South Carolina Gamecock arrives in Eugene with plenty of potential. Though the former five-star recruit took some time to develop, he’s coming off his best season in which he recorded 3½ sacks and 7.5 total tackles for loss. He’ll have ample opportunities to make his presence known against the high-octane passing attacks he’ll see in the Pac-12.
What will the defense look like under new coordinator D’Anton Lynn?
Sure, there will be a lot of changes at key positions in Chip Kelly’s offense to iron out as well, notably the departure of longtime starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. But any improvement on defense can mean the difference between winning and losing in the high-scoring league. Lynn brings nine years of NFL coaching experience to the Bruins’ job, most recently with the Baltimore Ravens, so it will be interesting to see how his philosophy translates to the college game. The secondary is the first order of business after UCLA finished 116th in passing defense.
6. Oregon State
Will DJ Uiagalelei thrive in Corvallis?
The former Clemson signal caller is not guaranteed the starting job in the fall as he will continue to compete with incumbent Ben Gulbranson and dynamic freshman Aidan Chiles. But his presence and coach Jonathan Smith’s proven ability to maximize talent make the Beavers an intriguing team to watch in 2023.
7. Washington State
Do the Cougars have the best wideouts in the Pac-12?
There’s a lot of competition for that title around the league to be sure, but returning quarterback Cam Ward has to like his collection of targets coming out of the spring. A couple of new arrivals, DT Sheffield from the junior college ranks and Fresno State transfer Josh Kelly, made the biggest impressions during the final scrimmage, and returning sophomore Tsion Nunnally and veteran running back Nakia Watson could contribute to the aerial attack as well.
Can the Wildcats get to a bowl?
There was tangible progress in year two under Wildcats’ coach Jedd Fisch, who has quietly rebuilt the program after if bottomed out with no wins in 2020 and just one in Fisch's first season. With just one more notch in the win column in year three, Arizona will be back in the postseason lineup. Having Jayden de Laura back under center for a second consecutive season will help, and now the staff must hope the infusion of defensive talent via the portal will result in more stops.
Do the Golden Bears finally find a way to score more points?
Cal managed just 23.9 points a game last season, second only to Stanford from the bottom of the Pac-12. It is hoped that Sam Jackson V, a dual-threat QB who transferred in from TCU, will provide a spark. If not, the defense will again be stressed to carry the load if this team wants to contend for a bowl berth.
10. Arizona State
Can new coach Kenny Dillingham tap the Sun Devils’ potential?
Despite plenty of built-in advantages like first-rate facilities and proximity to a major NFL market, Arizona State still can’t seem to gain traction. Dillingham hopes to change that, concluding his post-spring remarks with an appeal to the local fans to get behind the Sun Devils. Predictably there will be a lot of roster turnover with a new staff taking over, but a number of players who had initially entered their names in the portal opted to stay in Tempe. There's a mystery at quarterback that won't be resolved until the fall.
What is a realistic goal for first-year coach Troy Taylor?
Cardinal fans might have to be patient as the new head man looks to retool a proud program that had grown a bit stagnant of late. The offense, not exactly a strength last year (see above), will be led by an inexperienced quarterback regardless of who wins the job. Still, it’s a team capable of pulling off a surprise or two even in down years – just ask Notre Dame.
How much different will the Buffs’ roster look like when fall camp opens?
There’s no doubt that Deion Sanders’ arrival in Boulder has generated more interest in the Buffaloes' program than any other team coming off a last-place conference finish. But it’s impossible to make any predictions about what the on-field product might look like until the massive roster turnover is completed over the summer. About all we know for sure is Shedeur Sanders, who came to Colorado with his father from Jackson State, will be the starting quarterback and joining him from the Tigers is heralded recruit Travis Hunter. But with this much upheaval on a team that won one game last year, it's hard to sort out where this year's victories come from.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pac-12 spring football power rankings: USC, UCLA set for last ride