Pac-12 football preview: A guide to the 2023 season

It’s truly the end of an era out West as the Pac-12 looks destined to dissolve after at least eight member schools announced they were leaving for greener pastures in 2024. 

The “Conference of Champions” is at least going out on a high note however, featuring some of the best quarterbacks in the country — including the reigning Heisman winner — and a roster of contenders that truly rolls six deep.

The question remains if all that will be simply entertaining deep into “Pac-12 After Dark” territory this year or if it could produce the first playoff team from the league in six seasons after constantly beating each other up in late October and November. 

Three new head coaches also present a new wrinkle, highlighted, of course, by Colorado’s Deion Sanders attempting the most audacious roster revamp in the sport’s history, and Kenny Dillingham taking over at Arizona State as the youngest head coach in the country.

Either way, it should be a nostalgia-filled farewell for many along the West Coast right up until kickoff rolls around, when we could see the best campaign for Pac-12 football in, well, league history take place between the lines.

With that in mind, here’s a look at every team in the Pac-12 listed in a predicted order of finish:

Coach: Lincoln Riley (2nd season at USC, seventh as a head coach. 66-13 overall)

Last year: 11-3 overall, 8-1 Pac-12

Postseason: Lost to Tulane in Cotton Bowl

Players to Watch: QB Caleb Williams — The reigning Heisman Trophy winner led the country in total touchdowns (52) and set a school record for total yardage while throwing just five interceptions. WR Dorian Singer — Pac-12’s second-leading returning receiver after a 1,105-yard campaign at Arizona. S Calen Bullock — Hard-hitting safety paced the Trojans with five interceptions.

What we’re excited to watch: Williams is the most electric player in the country and is aiming for history by becoming the second player ever to win the Heisman twice.

What success looks like: Anything other than a Pac-12 title and CFP berth will be viewed as a disappointment in Los Angeles.

Achilles’ heel: The defense remains the difference between being a true title contender and a top 15 squad after ranking 106th in total defense a year ago and giving up 45 points per game in their three losses.

X-Factor: A host of transfers were brought in to help improve the defense, including DT Bear Alexander from Georgia and LB Mason Cobb from Oklahoma State.

Caleb Williams’ Heisman repeat chances, other top storylines

Caleb Williams' Heisman repeat chances, other top storylines

Coach: Kalen DeBoer (2nd season at Washington, 9th as a head coach. 90-11 overall.)

Last season: 11-2 overall, 7-2 Pac-12

Postseason: Beat Texas in Alamo Bowl

Players to Watch: QB Michael Penix Jr. — Led the nation in passing yards per game, throwing for at least 300 in 10 games in 2022. WR Rome Odunze — All-American caliber receiver after leading the Pac-12 in receiving yards, forming a dangerous tandem with fellow wideout Jalen McMillan. DL Bralen Trice—– Had a team-high nine sacks and led the country in quarterback pressures (70) last season.

What we’re excited to watch: This offense might be one of the most fun to watch given the way they throw the ball around. 

What success looks like: A Pac-12 title and potential CFP appearance in the final year of the Pac-12 is a lofty but attainable goal for the Huskies.

Achilles’ heel: Despite getting to the quarterback, the UW pass defense ranked 100th last year and will be replacing safety Alex Cook.

X-Factor: Penix Jr. stayed healthy for the first time in his career after suffering four season-ending injuries while at Indiana. If he can stay healthy, Washington remains a dangerous threat out West. 

Coach: Kyle Whittingham (19th season, 154-74 overall)

Last season: 10-4 overall, 7-2 Pac-12

Postseason: Lost to Penn State in Rose Bowl

Players to Watch: QB Cam Rising — 18-6 as a starter in leading the Utes to back-to-back Pac-12 titles, he’s coming off an ACL injury suffered in the Rose Bowl. TE Brant Kuithe — three-time All-Pac-12 selection forms a dangerous duo with fellow TE Brant Kuithe. DB Cole Bishop — Led the team in tackles a year ago and is a key member of one of the Pac-12’s top defenses the past few seasons. 

What we’re excited to watch: The offense returns eight starters and virtually every key contributor from last season. 

What success looks like: The Utes have a chip on their shoulder getting overlooked in the conference race but nothing would delight fans in Salt Lake City more than ending their time in the league with a third straight title.

Achilles’ heel: Health for key players like Rising, Kuithe, and more will be a key factor early in the year.

X-Factor: Converted quarterback-turned-running back Ja’Quinden Jackson averaged nearly seven yards per carry as a freshman and provides a ton of versatility out of the backfield.

Utah among teams that could make CFP for the first time in 2023

Utah among teams that could make CFP for the first time in 2023

Coach: Dan Lanning (2nd season, 10-3 overall)

Last season: 10-3 overall, 7-2 Pac-12

Postseason: Beat North Carolina in Holiday Bowl

Players to Watch: QB Bo Nix — Heisman Trophy candidate led the Pac-12 in completion percentage and recorded 44 touchdowns against just seven total turnovers. RB Bucky Irving — Averaged nearly seven yards per carry and topped 1,000 yards in his first year as a starter after transferring in from Minnesota. DE Brandon Dorlus — Earned all-conference honors each of the past two seasons and finished with the second most sacks for the Ducks (along with 9.5 TFL) last year.

What we’re excited to watch: New offensive coordinator Will Stein takes over Kenny Dillingham and had some impressive success while at UTSA (36.8 points per game). 

What success looks like: The expectations around Eugene start at a Pac-12 title but would ideally include a final season in the league ending with a CFP appearance. 

Achilles’ heel: On top of allowing nearly four touchdowns per game in 2022, the Ducks had issues getting off the field on third down and didn’t pressure opposing quarterbacks all that much. 

X-Factor: Lanning was extremely aggressive in several situations that backfired several times in late losses to Washington and Oregon State so it will be notable to see if he alters course on crucial 3rd and 4th down calls. 

Oregon State
Coach: Jonathan Smith (5th season, 26-31 overall)

Last season: 10-3 overall, 6-3 Pac-12

Postseason: Beat Florida in Las Vegas Bowl

Players to Watch: QB DJ Uiagalelei — The Clemson transfer won the ACC last season despite some shaky play but is hoping the move to Corvallis can put the former five-star back on track to become a first-round pick. RB Damien Martinez — Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year after topping 1,000 yards from scrimmage and rushing for 100+ yards in six of the last seven games of 2022. WR/PR Anthony Gould — Speedy wideout is also among the most dangerous punt returners in the nation after averaging nearly 20 yards per return and taking two back for a touchdown last season. 

What we’re excited to watch: The Beavers won 10 games for the third time ever despite some mediocre quarterback play so what impact Uiagalelei can make on a very good team is an overriding storyline out of the Pacific Northwest. 

What success looks like: In the final year of the Pac-12 and having been left behind by their conference brethren, why not win the league? 

Achilles’ heel: The defense was the best in the Pac-12 last season but returns just five starters, with a near complete secondary overhaul keeping DC Trent Bray up given the QB’s he’ll face this year.

X-Factor: Corvallis is always one of the more difficult road trips for opponents and that will be especially true this year as a renovated Reser Stadium will be back to full capacity. 

Is the Pac-12 the best QB conference in the country?

Is the Pac-12 the best QB conference in the country?

Coach: Chip Kelly (6th season at UCLA, 10th as a head coach. 73-36 overall.)

Last year: 9-4 overall, 6-3 Pac-12

Postseason: Lost to Pitt in Sun Bowl

Players to Watch: RB Carson Steele — Led MAC with 1,556 yards rushing before transferring in from Ball State. WR J. Michael Sturdivant — Freshman All-American in 2022 recorded seven touchdowns and 65 catches despite playing in a tough offensive situation at Cal. DE Laiatu Latu — 10.5 sacks was second most in the Pac-12 a year ago while earning first-team all-conference honors. 

What we’re excited to watch: It’s a newlook offense for the Bruins as Kelly has to replace veteran QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson plus the team’s leading rusher and top two receivers.

What success looks like: After slowly building toward nine wins the past few years, there’s a path toward reaching double-digits in the win column if the offense comes together quickly. Even if that lofty mark isn’t reached, sweeping the in-state rivals before departing for the Big Ten would be a massive accomplishment.

Achilles’ heel: UCLA hasn’t had a top 50 scoring defense in a decade and had one of the worst pass defenses in the league last year.

X-Factor: New defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn is young and calling a defense for the first time but could provide a big boost on that side of the ball.

Washington State
Coach: Jake Dickert (2nd season, 7-6 overall)

Last season: 7-6 overall, 4-5 Pac-12

Postseason: Lost to Fresno State in LA Bowl

Players to Watch: QB Cam Ward — The former FCS All-American had 28 touchdowns and nine picks after making the jump up to the Power 5. RB Nakia Watson — Dangerous threat out of the backfield led the team in scrimmage yards and touchdowns last season. DE Ron Stone Jr. — All-Pac-12 selection is a constant threat to get to the quarterback off the edge and son of the NFL Pro Bowler of the same name.

What we’re excited to watch: New offensive coordinator Ben Arbuckle had one of the best offenses in the country while at Western Kentucky and gets a solid group of returnees to work with. 

What success looks like: Beating Wisconsin in the biggest non-conference game in two decades in Pullman while finishing with at least eight wins for the first time since 2018.

Achilles’ heel: The offensive line allowed the third most sacks in FBS and lost key starters like LT Jarrett Kingston. 

X-Factor: Ward is dynamic with the ball in his hands but has to avoid negative plays in order for the Cougars to improve on offense.

Coach: Jedd Fisch (3rd season, 6-18 overall)

Last season: 5-7 overall, 3-6 Pac-12

Postseason: None

Players to Watch: QB Jayden de Laura — Electrifying scrambler who recorded 29 total touchdowns after transferring in from Washington State but must take care of the ball better (17 total turnovers led the Pac-12). WR Jacob Cowing — UTEP transfer led the Pac-12 in catches last season and forms a dangerous combo with fellow receiver Tetairoa McMillan. LB Justin Flowe — Talented former five-star recruit who transferred in after three injury-plagued seasons at Oregon.

What we’re excited to watch: You really can’t take your eyes off de Laura when he drops back to pass and he’s one of the few quarterbacks in college football where every outcome — from a touchdown to a turnover — is possible on every play. 

What success looks like: A bowl game. The Wildcats haven’t reached the postseason in six years and will be looking for continued signs of progress under Fisch.

Achilles’ heel: The defense ranked outside the top 100 in most statistical categories and finished dead last among Power Five teams in the red zone.

X-Factor: A favorable schedule sees most of the toughest conference games in Tucson, including ranked sides Washington, Oregon State and Utah all visiting the desert. 

Coach: Deion Sanders (1st season at Colorado, fourth as a head coach. 27-6 overall)

Last season: 1-11 overall, 1-8 Pac-12

Postseason: None

Players to Watch: QB Shedeur Sanders — One of the best players in the FCS ranks while at Jackson State, he had a 46-6 touchdown/interception ratio last year. WR/CB Travis Hunter — The do-everything former top recruit will play both ways for the Buffs after turning into a lockdown corner in the SWAC at the same time he earned all-conference honors at wideout. RB Kavosiey Smoke – Kentucky transfer averaged over 5.5 yards per touch and provides a unique threat in the red zone.

What we’re excited to watch: Literally everything involving Coach Prime and the most unprecedented roster turnover in modern college football history.

What success looks like: After being one of the worst teams in the country last year and with a difficult early schedule, reaching a bowl game would be a massive step forward in Boulder.

Achilles’ heel: Depth along both the offensive and defensive lines is perilously thin going into the season and will only get worse as injuries mount. 

X-Factor: How will Sanders handle losing, which he didn’t do much of at JSU, and how can he keep his team focused if some early season losses dampen momentum?

Colorado cracks RJ Young’s preseason Top 25

Colorado cracks RJ Young's preseason Top 25

Arizona State
Coach: Kenny Dillingham (1st season)

Last season: 3-9 overall, 2-7 Pac-12

Postseason: None

Players to Watch: QB Jaden Rashada — Highest-rated quarterback recruit in ASU history was subject to an offseason of NIL drama but arrives with a terrific deep ball and massive upside as a first-time starter. RB Cameron Skattebo — The Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year at Sacramento State, he is a three-down threat after notching over 1,700 total yards in 2022. DL BJ Green — Led the team in sacks each of the past two seasons and forced 37 quarterback pressures a year ago.

What we’re excited to watch: A new era in Tempe gets underway as Dillingham, an alum and the youngest head coach in FBS, takes over and does so with a massively overhauled roster. 

What success looks like: A bowl game and positive momentum would be a welcome sight for the Sun Devils after a tumultuous few years under Herm Edwards. 

Achilles’ heel: The amount of change on the roster and with the coaching staff could lead to some growing pains that’s complicated by a challenging early schedule. 

X-Factor: New defensive coordinator Brian Ward is one of the best at maximizing the talent he has on hand to get big stops and will need to do that with a slate of players who have the ability to force turnovers. 

Coach: Justin Wilcox (7th season, 30-36 overall)

Last season: 4-8 overall, 2-7 Pac-12

Postseason: None

Players to Watch: QB Sam Jackson V — TCU transfer gets the opportunity to start after being a backup on the Horned Frogs’ CFP run. RB Jaydn Ott — One of the best tailbacks on the West Coast, he notched 1,218 total yards and 11 TDs as a freshman. LB Jackson Sirmon — All-Pac-12 selection is a tackling machine who recorded 104 tackles, 3.5 sacks in 2022.

What we’re excited to watch: The Bears have had one of the worst offenses in the country (less than 25 PPG the last five years) for the bulk of Wilcox’s tenure, but there’s hope that new OC Jake Spavital can help juice the attack as the team looks to become much more wide open.

What success looks like: Finishing in the top half of the league offensively and reaching a bowl game are reasonable expectations for a program that has struggled to adapt to the necessities of modern college football. 

Achilles’ heel: Cal has played teams tough but are 2-10 in one-possession games the past two years and failed to close things out against four bigname opponents last season when things got close.  

X-Factor: Spavital’s return to Berkeley gives the Bears a veteran play-caller who knows how to scheme things open but will need to figure out a way to get some of the seven returning starters used to being in an Air Raid attack after so many years in a pro-style system.

Coach: Troy Taylor (1st season at Stanford, 5th as a head coach. 30-8 overall)

Last season: 3-9 overall, 1-8 Pac-12

Postseason: None

Players to Watch: RB E.J. Smith — The son of Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith, he averaged 6.9 yards per carry before getting injured early last season. TE Benjamin Yurosek — Primary pass catcher who notched 1,103 yards for an offense that was overly reliant on his production. DE David Bailey — 8.5 tackles for loss as a freshman last season who has big time burst off the edge.

What we’re excited to watch: Taylor’s offenses at Sacramento State were some of the most prolific at the FCS level and equally interesting to watch. Given the quarterback battle on his hand, playing two QBs in a game regularly is on the table at the FBS level.

What success looks like: The Cardinal have not won five games since 2018 so even if they fall short of a bowl game, reaching five in the win column would be a massive step forward. 

Achilles’ heel: After being a calling card for the program for a decade, the offensive line must replace four starters and return only three other key contributors from a year ago.

X-Factor: The quarterback competition is likely to extend into the season but how well either Ari Patu, Ashton Daniels or Myles Jackson do as the starter will go a long ways in determining the ultimate ceiling and floor for this Stanford side.


  • USC
  • Washington
  • Utah
  • Oregon
  • Oregon State
  • UCLA
  • Washington State
  • Arizona
  • Colorado
  • Arizona State
  • Cal
  • Stanford

Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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