The demise of the Pac-12 has been greatly exaggerated. Well ... at least for now.
Even though the conference can barely be discussed without delving into the shocking departures of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten in a few years, there's still football to be played this season and plenty of intrigue. The Pac-12 is still trying to make only its third College Football Playoff appearance, and there's an argument to be made it has three teams this season with the talent to do so. Unlike teams at top conferences like the Big Ten and SEC, though, the Pac-12's elite will find getting there a much tougher challenge.
USC is the splashy headliner after poaching coach Lincoln Riley and quarterback Caleb Williams from Oklahoma, but Utah's steady continuity makes the Utes the favorite. Oregon decided on Georgia's Dan Lanning to lead the Ducks after coach Mario Cristobal waved goodbye and still has arguably the most talent in the conference. UCLA held on to coach Chip Kelly, but unless a big leap is coming this season, there might be more questions about his job status. Both Washington and Washington State have new coaches too (Kalen DeBoer and Jake Dickert), which has brought positive energy after tumultuous seasons. Oregon State is a quiet sleeper as Jonathan Smith continues to build the program, and Cal is hoping to do the same with Justin Wilcox, while Stanford's claim to fame this season is its potential first-round quarterback in Tanner McKee. The Arizona schools seem to be heading in opposite directions (up for the Wildcats, down for the Sun Devils) and Colorado, well, unlike the L.A. schools, it might be happy just to be here.
Storylines to watch
Which first-time coach will have a better debut season?
The name of the game in the Pac-12 this season is new faces. There are four new head coaches, including two first-time coaches as well as several new quarterback additions. Expectations are all over the place: Riley has not shied away from the hype that USC's free agency-type summer has brought. Lanning has the tough task of following a coach at Oregon who had success in recruiting, but where he might be able to make his name is in the results on the field, especially if he can get the Ducks' offense rolling. DeBoer and Dickert, on the other hand, are in a position where the bar is low given their predecessors. There's plenty of room for improvement, and both seem capable of surprising right away.
Can Utah's continuity trump USC's (and Oregon's) talent?
Even if the chatter might not revolve around them, the Utes are in the conference's driver's seat heading into kickoff. Their returning talent -- led by Cameron Rising at quarterback -- gives them a foundation to rely on during tricky matchups against the likes of USC and Oregon, which boast more talent on paper. And the tough defensive mindset Kyle Whittingham has been able to instill in the program over the past few years has become a reliable trait of Utah, no matter the personnel. This is a team that went toe-to-toe against Ohio State in the Rose Bowl and trounced Oregon twice during the season. What will it do for an encore?
Which long shot team could surprise?
Given the state of the middle to bottom of the conference, the term "surprise" here is relative. Yet perhaps the most intriguing team in the middle of the pack is Washington State. The addition of quarterback Cameron Ward and now-offensive coordinator Eric Morris, both from Incarnate Word, is alone an intriguing development to watch as the season progresses. How much of the success they had there will translate to a Power 5 schedule? If everything clicks, there's a world where they play spoiler and keep one of the top three teams out of the championship game.
Five must-see games
Oregon vs. Georgia in Atlanta, Sept. 3
What a way to begin the Dan Lanning era. He'll take the Ducks back to Georgia to play the program he helped lead to the national championship last season. A win would defy expectations and set the tone for both Oregon and the Pac-12.
USC at Stanford, Sept. 10
After a century as conference rivals, USC and Stanford games could become few and far between in the future. This one starts off USC's conference goodbye tour while also introducing new Trojans coach Lincoln Riley.
Michigan State at Washington, Sept. 17
There are some other Pac-12 vs. Big Ten matchups to look forward to, but bringing the Spartans to Seattle in September has the potential to make for an incredible atmosphere. Will the Huskies be up to the task under new coach Kalen DeBoer?
USC at Utah, Oct. 15
After winning its first Pac-12 title last year, there is reason to believe Utah will be better this time around. If things progress as expected, both teams will have a chance to make a statement.
Utah at Oregon, Nov. 19
With this game being played so late in the year, it's easy to envision there being clear playoff implications. After being dominated by the Utes twice last year, Oregon will have a lot to prove.
Preseason All-Pac-12 team
Now that players have the ability to transfer without sitting out, preseason all-conference teams are going to have a different flavor. The Pac-12 is a good example in that several high-profile players who joined the conference are immediately expected to make major impacts at key positions. Can Caleb Williams, Jordan Addison, Mario Williams, Jacob Cowing and Darius Muasau replicate their success with their new teams? (We're going with 12 on each side of the ball to both reflect the reality of how teams often line up while also recognizing the best at each position.)
QB Caleb Williams, USC
RB Tavion Thomas, Utah
RB Zach Charbonnet, UCLA
WR Jordan Addison, USC
WR Mario Williams, USC
WR Jacob Cowing, Arizona
TE Brant Kuithe, Utah
OL Jaxson Kirkland, Washington
OL T.J. Bass, Oregon
OL Andrew Vorhees, USC
OL Alex Forsyth, Oregon
OL Braeden Daniels, Utah
DL Brandon Dorlus, Oregon
DL Kyon Barrs, Arizona
DL Ron Stone Jr., Washington State
DL Tuli Tuipulotu, USC
LB Noah Sewell, Oregon
LB Omar Speights, Oregon State
LB Jackson Sirmon, Cal
LB Darius Muasau, UCLA
DB Clark Phillips, Utah
DB Kyu Blu Kelly, Stanford
DB Daniel Scott, Cal
DB Cole Bishop, Utah
Championship game prediction
Utah over USC.