The Pac-12 hasn't seen a team reach the College Football Playoff since Washington in 2016. It's a streak that has plagued the conference for the better part of a decade, and last season did little to ease concerns. Despite a strong early-season showing from Oregon, the conference's CFP hopes went down in flames weeks into November.
Despite the poor recent effort from this once-powerful conference, the Pac may (finally) be back. New coaches, recruits, and transfers have a trio of contenders looking quite formidable. While the Pac-12's depth is still a bit of a wildcard, this might finally be the year where the CFP curse is broken.
The Contenders: USC, Oregon, Utah
USC made major moves this offseason, kickstarted by the sudden arrival of head coach Lincoln Riley, who convinced quarterback Caleb Williams and wide receiver Mario Williams to leave Oklahoma as well. Accompanied by former Oregon running back Travis Dye, and it's clear that the Trojans have the conference's most dangerous offense on paper. The biggest questions facing USC in year one are the team's chemistry and whether the defense can fix its major issues from 2021. If all goes well, this could be a playoff team.
The Ducks had a more tumultuous spring, as Mario Cristobal departed for his alma matter in Miami. However, new head coach Dan Lanning, who was the defensive coordinator at Georgia last year, may be a better fit for the roster. Outside of Noah Sewell, Oregon lacks many defensive playmakers; having Lanning scheming up plays might be a great way to generate pressure. Auburn transfer Bo Nix is inconsistent, but he's experienced and talented, two things the Ducks needed at quarterback. A daunting week one matchup with Georgia awaits Lanning's team.
Lost in the shuffle of a frenetic Pac-12 offseason is Utah, the defending conference champions. The Utes are a model of stability this year, bringing back 1,000-yard rusher Tavion Thomas and quarterback Cameron Rising, a steady starter, albeit not a spectacular one. The defense has usually been a strength of Kyle Whittingham's teams, and that should remain the case even without linebacker Devin Lloyd. To become a CFP contender, Utah needs to see improvement in the secondary, which got torched by Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.
The Challengers: UCLA, Washington State, Oregon State, Arizona State
Similarly to Utah, UCLA returns a dynamic QB-RB combo in Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Zach Charbonnet. With Chip Kelly calling plays, there should be plenty of juice for the Pac-12's highest-scoring offense last season. Defense was a different story in 2021; the Bruins gave up the most passing yards in the conference. Defensive coordinator Bill McGovern, as well as new additions such as North Texas transfers Grayson and Gabriel Murphy, will be crucial if UCLA wants to reach the championship game.
One of the best under-the-radar moves of the entire offseason was Washington State bringing in Incarnate Word quarterback Cameron Ward. Ward, who accounted for 47 touchdowns, was a second-team FCS All American, and he now reunites with his former head coach Eric Morris, currently the Cougars' offensive coordinator. The defense is still shaky, but there's enough firepower to make WSU a force to be reckoned with.
Oregon State had their best season in eight years with a 7-6 record. The Beavers' offense, one of the best in the conference, was carried by a dominant offensive line that returns three of their five starters next season. Starting running back B.J. Baylor left for the NFL, but there's enough talent on the roster to ensure that the Beavers still have a solid running game. The real area of concern is the secondary, which struggled mightily at times in 2021. With nearly all of the team's defensive backs returning, a smarter, more experienced unit should emerge in Corvallis.
Despite a solid 8-5 record in 2021, it's difficult to get too excited about Arizona State. The transfer portal was not kind to Herm Edwards, as he saw his starting quarterback (Jayden Daniels), best linebacker (Eric Gentry), and multiple offensive line starters leave Tempe. Still, Florida's Emory Jones is a decent replacement at QB, and Wyoming transfer Xazavian Valladay has a ton of talent at running back. Defense might be the program's greatest concern, as just four starters from last year's squad remain.