The Pac-12 appears to be a true football power this season with five ranked teams, topped by No. 6 Southern California.
The conference also has perhaps the nation’s best collection of quarterbacks, headlined by the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
It may tun out to be a climactic final act.
With eight teams headed out the door next year, the lights could go out for good on Pac-12 After Dark following the 2023 season.
“From what I know, it probably didn’t need to come to this, but things happened along the way and really unfortunate,” California coach Justin Wilcox said. “So it’s frustrating, there’s some anger in there, but right now, what we’re focused on is this season.”
The Pac-12 was already going to look different next season with USC and UCLA heading to the Big Ten.
Last month, Colorado shook things up even more by bolting to the Big 12. A week after that, Arizona, Arizona State and Utah joined the Buffaloes. Soon after, Oregon and Washington announced they were headed to the Big Ten.
That leaves the “Conference of Champions” with an uncertain future after being whittled down to a Pac-4 of Cal, Stanford, Oregon State and Washington State.
“It’s important that we stay focused here in the now in maximizing what we can,” Washington State coach Jake Dickert said. “But at the end of the day, we’ll look back at college football in 20 years and be like, ‘What are we doing?’”
The Pac-12 should be as strong at the top as it has been in years — even if it is the last season of the conference as we know it.
USC came up just short of the College Football Playoff in coach Lincoln Riley’s first season, but may be in a better position to get through this season. Quarterback Caleb Williams is back after winning the Heisman Trophy and Riley has added another wave of talent to a roster that was already overflowing with it.
No. 10 Washington returned to the national spotlight in its first season under coach Kalen DeBoer and is poised to be in the CFP picture this year. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. returns after leading the FBS with 357 yards passing per game and he will have one of the nation’s top receiving corps at his disposal.
No. 14 Utah is coming off consecutive Pac-12 championships and could contend again depending on the health of quarterback Cameron Rising, who’s recovering from a torn ACL suffered in the Rose Bowl.
No. 15 Oregon had a successful first season under coach Dan Lanning, earning 10 wins and a bowl victory. The Ducks have one of the Pac-12’s best quarterbacks in Bo Nix and should be improved on defense, the weak link a year ago.
Also count Oregon State to be in the mix for the Pac-12 title.
The 18th-ranked Beavers have been building something in Corvallis under coach Jonathan Smith, going from an also-ran program to winning 10 games last season, including a blowout of Florida in the Las Vegas Bowl. The addition of former Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei could push them to the next level.
Colorado was the talk of the offseason after hiring Deion Sanders.
The flamboyant former NFL star made some noise while coaching at Jackson State and has Boulder buzzing after the Buffaloes went 1-11 a year ago. Sanders overhauled the roster, raiding the transfer portal to add nearly 90 new players to the program in hopes of a fast start.
Arizona State ended the Herm Edwards experiment after 4 1/2 seasons and excited the fan base by hiring hometown son Kenny Dillingham. The 32-year-old former Sun Devils assistant is the youngest coach in the FBS and has spurred change in the desert with his energy after arriving from Oregon.
Stanford will have a new coach for the first time since 2010 after David Shaw stepped down during the offseason. The Cardinal handed the reins to former Cal quarterback Troy Taylor, who quickly turned Sacramento State into a winner by installing a wide-open offense.