The Pac-12 is entering a season of transition as the league welcomes new coaches to big-name programs such as Oregon, USC and Washington along with a handful of transfer quarterbacks who are expected to make big impacts. But there is one constant for the conference as it grapples with the looming reality that UCLA and USC will soon depart for the Big Ten, and that’s the play of Utah.
Coming off their second season of 10 wins or more in the past three, the Utes have become a model for stability under 18th-year coach Kyle Whittingham. Will that continuity carry the Utes to a defense of their Pac-12 title? Utah will certainly be among the favorites, but fending off the likes of Oregon, Washington, UCLA, USC and others won’t be easy as the league seeks to place a team in the College Football Playoff for the first time since 2016.
One change for the 2022 season designed to maximize the league’s chances of securing a CFP berth is the eradication of the divisional format. While the schedule is still determined by the old North and South divisions, the teams playing in the championship game will simply be the two teams with the best record in league games.
Our CBS Sports college football experts have provided their picks and predictions for the Pac-12 ahead of the 2022 season.
Most overrated team
USC: The Trojans may win the Pac-12. They may not. But to assume they’re going from 4-8 to playoff contention — which is what a conference title would bring — is a bit of a reach. There is a grand experiment going on out on the West Coast. Has a team ever attempted this sort of turnaround at this level? Remember, the Trojans are openly talking about winning the league. USC will be vastly improved but a conference title is too much to ask. — Dennis Dodd (also Tom Fornelli, David Cobb)
Oregon: I clearly think highly of the Ducks within the Pac-12, having picked Oregon to finish third in the conference in this same story, but it’s their position against the rest of the national landscape where I think the ranking is a little bit off. Oregon is a top-12 team in both the AP Top 25 and Coaches Poll, and I think that’s putting a ton of confidence in — and setting a pretty high bar for — first-year coach Dan Lanning. The roster is talented, Lanning clearly has coaching chops and I like his staff, but I’ve got Oregon as more of a fringe top 25 team until we see the new-look Ducks in action. — Chip Patterson
UCLA: When the Bruins beat LSU in Week 2 last season, expectations started to go off the rails. Then UCLA went 6-4 by beating every team on its schedule that missed a bowl and losing every game against a bowl squad. The schedule might be easier in 2022, but UCLA has shown nothing more than the proverbial Mendoza Line between good and bad teams under Chip Kelly. That doesn’t scream a top-four team in the conference. — Shehan Jeyarajah (also Barrett Sallee)
Arizona State: This is more about the Arizona State program than the current team, which the media picked to be near the bottom of the Pac-12 this season. This is a program that has failed to play in a bowl game only once since 2011, excluding the pandemic season. On the surface, it would appear to be a program in good shape, but the NCAA is knocking on the door and talent is walking out of it, leaving it in dire straits entering this season. Coach Herm Edwards is clearly on the hot seat as the 2022 season kicks off. — Jerry Palm
Most underrated team
Oregon State: The Beavers have punched above their weight almost since Jonathan Smith has arrived. Coming off a 7-6 bowl season during which it beat USC, Washington, Stanford and Utah, Oregon State has already served notice. Pac-12 coaches are on alert. The rest of the country isn’t. The Pac-12 North was there for the taking, had there been a Pac-12 North. Still, look out for redshirt junior quarterback Chance Nolan and 6-foot-6 tight end Luke Musgrave. — Dodd (also Cobb, Palm)
Oregon: There are plenty of reasons not to expect much from Oregon in 2022. Not only has Mario Cristobal moved on to Miami, making Dan Lanning the fifth different head coach to be in charge of the Ducks over the last 11 seasons, but key players like Kayvon Thibodeaux, Anthony Brown and Travis Dye are gone as well. But despite the defections, Cristobal’s recruiting efforts over his tenure left plenty of talent in Eugene. If Bo Nix finally finds some consistency — a big ask, I know — this is a team that will still flex its muscles in a Pac-12 conference that doesn’t have a lot of known commodities outside of Utah entering the season. — Fornelli
Washington: The Huskies finished 4-8 in 2021, but that’s not quite representative of the quality of talent on campus. Bringing in successful coach Kalen DeBoer and returning what should still be a feisty defense gives the Huskies a chance to rise — and rise quickly. — Jeyarajah (also Patterson)
Washington State: The Cougars are being pegged by most pundits as one of the worst teams in the conference, and I just don’t see it. Washington State is going to own the trenches on defense against most conference foes, have program continuity with Jake Dickert at the helm, and get quarterback Cameron Ward and offensive coordinator Eric Morris from Incarnate Word after the duo set the FCS ranks on fire. Are the Cougars going to win the conference title? Absolutely not. But they will have a big say in who does. — Sallee
- Dennis Dodd: Utah will beat Florida, USC (twice) and San Diego State, win the Pac-12 and make the CFP.
- Tom Fornelli: The Utes will prove to be the best team in the Pac-12, beating USC twice like they did Oregon last season. Unfortunately, other losses will keep Utah from being chosen for the College Football Playoff again.
- Chip Patterson: The Pac-12 will have multiple teams with a real shot at making the College Football Playoff when the selection committee releases its first set of rankings, only to see the league cannibalize itself throughout November and into conference championship weekend.
- Barrett Sallee: Utah will stumble on a Thursday night at Washington State, but will rebound to win out and make the College Football Playoff.
- Shehan Jeyarajah: The matchup between Utah and USC on Oct. 15 will be the game of the season. Unfortunately, the teams will meet up again in the Pac-12 Championship Game and the loser will get revenge, knocking the league out of the College Football Playoff.
- David Cobb: Despite its status as a 17.5-point underdog against reigning national champion Georgia in Week 1, Oregon will compete with the Bulldogs and be within striking distance in the fourth quarter. The game will trump Ohio State vs. Notre Dame in terms of drama and watchability on the first full Saturday of college football.
- Jerry Palm: For the first time since the 2017 season, the Pac-12 will put multiple teams in New Year’s Six games.
Pac-12 predicted order of finish
Utah: Oregon and USC have more elite talent than Utah, but the Ducks and Trojans are in their first season under new coaches and won’t overtake the dean of Pac-12 coaches in Kyle Whittingham. In his 19th season with the Utes, Whittingham has built a sustained winner that is coming off a Pac-12 title and has all the tools required for a repeat. With an excellent quarterback in Cameron Rising, loads of returning skill talent and a defense that is always fierce, Utah is an easy pick. — Cobb (unanimous)
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