Utah won its first Pac-12 title last season, and that's where the path to the conference championship begins in 2022. The Utes are Athlon's pick to win the Pac-12 this fall, but USC should be much improved behind new coach Lincoln Riley. Oregon is a clear favorite in the North Division and a good schedule (no USC and Utah at home) gives new coach Dan Lanning a favorable path to a spot in the Pac-12 title game.
UCLA needs to reload along the offensive line and improve its defense to push Utah and USC in the South, but coach Chip Kelly's team could finish in the top 25 if those areas are resolved. Arizona State faces a significant amount of uncertainty entering coach Herm Edwards' fifth season, while Arizona and Colorado will look to improve after combining for a 5-19 record last fall. Oregon State, Washington and Washington State aren't separated by a ton in the North, with California and Stanford rounding out the division. However, the Beavers are trending in the right direction under coach Jonathan Smith and should edge the Huskies for second in the North. There's intrigue with new coaches at Washington (Kalen DeBoer) and Washington State (Jake Dickert). Cal should have a standout defense but question marks remain on offense. Stanford needs a big year from quarterback Tanner McKee to rebound from last year's 3-9 mark.
How does Athlon Sports project the Pac-12 for 2022? Steven Lassan predicts and ranks the North and South Divisions in the Pac-12 for this fall:
Pac-12 2022 Predictions
New coach Dan Lanning inherits one of the best situations for any first-year coach. The Ducks bring back 14 starters off last season’s 10-4 squad that won the Pac-12 North title. Although Lanning and his staff will put their stamp on the program and make schematic changes, Oregon should be a heavy favorite in this division and catches a scheduling break by missing USC and getting Utah and UCLA in crossover play at home. The strength of Lanning’s first team should be a standout offensive line with five returning starters, along with an intriguing cast of playmakers at the skill spots, including Byron Cardwell and Sean Dollars at running back, with Kris Hutson, Troy Franklin and Dont’e Thornton at receiver. Auburn transfer Bo Nix and talented redshirt freshman Ty Thompson will battle for the starting nod under center – with Nix expected to take the first snap against Georgia. Lanning’s arrival is good news for a defense that allowed 27 points a game and 5.4 yards per snap last fall. Even though edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux is off to the NFL, the cupboard is not bare. Linebacker Noah Sewell and lineman Brandon Dorlus lead the way up front, and Colorado transfer Christian Gonzalez is a key pickup with the secondary losing three full-time starters from ’21.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2022
2. Oregon State
The 2021 season marked a big step forward for coach Jonathan Smith at his alma mater. The Beavers won nine games over his first three years (2018-20) but improved to 7-6 – the program’s best win total since ’13 – and finished 5-4 in league play. More progress is within reach in ’22. Oregon State led the Pac-12 in yards per play (6.4) last fall and returns quarterback Chance Nolan (227.9 total yards a game) and three starters to form one of the league’s top offensive lines. True freshman Damien Martinez is a rising star and could become the No. 1 running back over Deshaun Fenwick (448 yards) in the battle to replace B.J. Baylor. The bulk of the receiving corps returns, but if there’s an area to improve, it’s the big plays on the outside. In nine Pac-12 games last fall, Oregon State managed only four completions of 40-plus yards. Trent Bray took over as defensive coordinator in early November, and the unit’s progress down the stretch earned him the full-time job. The former standout Oregon State linebacker has work to do after the Beavers managed only nine sacks in league play, struggled to get stops on third down, and gave up too many big plays on a unit that surrendered 25.8 points a game and 6.1 yards per play (Pac-12 games). The return of Isaac Hodgins from injury is a boost to the trenches, and Florida transfer Andrew Chatfield Jr. will help off the edge to bolster a linebacker unit already returning standout Omar Speights. There’s a ton of experience back in the secondary but improvement is needed after finishing ninth in the league in pass efficiency defense.
A fresh start for the program under new coach Kalen DeBoer should get Washington back on track in ’22. Although the Huskies are coming off their worst season since ’08, DeBoer’s track record on offense and success as head coach at Fresno State should mix well with a roster that has more talent than last year’s 4-8 mark would suggest. Improving the offense – DeBoer’s specialty – is the top priority this offseason. The Huskies averaged a paltry 4.8 yards per play and 21 points a game in Pac-12 action last fall. Indiana transfer Michael Penix Jr. has battled injuries throughout his career but thrived under DeBoer in Bloomington and is the front-runner over Dylan Morris and Sam Huard to start at quarterback in ’22. The Huskies also have capable playmakers on the outside in Jalen McMillan and Rome Odunze. The return of left tackle Jaxson Kirkland is huge for an offensive line that underachieved last fall and needs (along with the running backs) to do a better job of improving the rushing attack (3.2 yards per carry in ’21). Despite last year’s offensive issues, Washington limited teams to 5.02 yards per play and 22.7 points a game. New defensive co-coordinators William Inge and Chuck Morrell should be able to keep this unit performing at a high level, especially with a healthy Zion Tupuola-Fetui coming off the edge and rising stars like Carson Bruener anchoring the linebacker unit until Edefuan Ulofoshio returns from an offseason injury. The Huskies do have some work to do to maintain a stingy pass defense (first in the Pac-12) after the departures of cornerbacks Kyler Gordon and Trent McDuffie.
4. Washington State
After guiding the Cougars through a chaotic second half of the season amidst a coaching change, Jake Dickert gets a much-deserved chance at the full-time gig. Dickert wasted no time putting his stamp on the program, hiring FCS Incarnate Word head coach Eric Morris to call plays among a handful of other staff changes. Morris’ arrival was also huge in the pursuit (and eventual commitment) of transfer quarterback Cameron Ward. The Texas native shined at UIW from 2020-21 and was a second-team FCS All-American last fall after throwing for 4,648 yards and 47 scores. The dynamic sophomore has plenty of weapons to throw to with Renard Bell back from injury, along with De’Zhaun Stribling on the outside. The biggest concern for Morris is the offensive line after three starters departed from a unit that allowed 31 sacks last fall. Washington State’s defense showed marked improvement under Dickert’s watch in ’21. After allowing 6.7 yards per play in ’20, this unit allowed only 5.5 last year. The strength of this unit is a pair of active ends in Ron Stone and Brennan Jackson (combined for nine sacks last season), while transfers Daiyan Henley (linebacker) and Jordan Lee (safety) will help to fill voids in the back seven.
Just seven starters are back from a team that went 5-7 for coach Justin Wilcox last season. Although there’s a massive amount of turnover in the lineup, contending for a bowl trip should be well within the reach of the ’22 squad. As usual, defense should be the strength of this team. In Pac-12-only games, the Golden Bears ranked second in scoring defense (20.1 points a game) and tied for first in yards per play (5.03) last season. The return of Brett Johnson from injury boosts the line, while Washington transfer Jackson Sirmon is an impact pickup at linebacker. A defense that ranked fourth in the league in pass efficiency defense last season must replace safety Elijah Hicks, but Daniel Scott (safety) and Lu-Magia Hearns III (CB) are back. California’s offense averaged 21.6 points a game in Pac-12 action last season and features big questions in ’22. Purdue transfer Jack Plummer is the favorite to start under center, with Kai Millner also in the mix. Damien Moore (518 yards) returns at running back, but just two starters return up front and the receiving corps lost its top four statistical options from ’21. How fast the offense jells with the new faces will determine just how high this team can climb in the Pac-12 North.
Can the Cardinal get back on track in 2022? Under coach David Shaw, Stanford won at least eight games every year from 2011-18. However, this program is just 11-19 over the last three seasons. Returning to a bowl game won’t be easy with crossover matchups against USC, UCLA (road) and Utah (road), along with non-conference matchups versus BYU and Notre Dame, but if Shaw’s team is going to get to six wins, it will have to be on the right arm of quarterback Tanner McKee. The junior is a rising star after throwing for 2,327 yards and 15 touchdowns last season and returns one of the Pac-12’s top receiving corps with Michael Wilson, Brycen Tremayne and tight end Benjamin Yurosek in place. All five starters are back on an improving offensive line (32 sacks allowed in ’21). It’s a good thing Stanford has plenty of firepower in ’22. A defense that surrendered 32.4 points a game (last in the Pac-12) and more than 200 rushing yards (235.7 per game) is shifting to a four-man front after utilizing a three-man look. The move also comes as the unit is in transition with just four returning starters. This unit has major turnover up front, but the secondary should be a strength thanks to the return of cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly and safety Kendall Williamson.
USC has certainly improved under new coach Lincoln Riley, but the path to a Pac-12 title still runs through Salt Lake City. The Utes won their first Pac-12 championship last year by pounding Oregon 38-10 in the conference title game and lost by three to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. A repeat of that success – or perhaps even more – is within reach in ’22 for coach Kyle Whittingham’s team. Utah led the Pac-12 in conference-only matchups in scoring (37.3 points a game) and yards per play (6.6) last fall and returns quarterback Cameron Rising, running back Tavion Thomas and a pair of standout tight ends in Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid. Finding a receiver to replace Britain Covey and restocking the offensive line are the top priorities for coordinator Andy Ludwig. As usual, Utah will be strong on defense. Whittingham’s group returns five starters, including cornerback Clark Phillips III, ends Van Fillinger and Karene Reid and Florida transfer Mohamoud Diabate at linebacker. A return to full health by cornerback JaTravis Broughton and safety R.J. Hubert bolstered a secondary that ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense last fall. Linebacker Devin Lloyd will be missed, however. The Utes have a tough road trip to Florida to open the season but get USC in Rice-Eccles Stadium in mid-October. With few holes and an experienced roster, Whittingham’s team can make another run at the CFB Playoff.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2022
A new era will begin at USC in ’22 with Lincoln Riley’s arrival after an impressive run at Oklahoma. The Trojans were 4-8 last fall and struggled mightily on defense, so a quick jump into CFB Playoff consideration would take a lot to break in USC’s favor. However, Riley has flipped the roster in a big way, landing impact transfers in quarterback Caleb Williams (Oklahoma) and receiver Jordan Addison (Pitt) among a bevy of new additions. Those two pickups, along with Riley’s scheme, should result in a much-improved offense. The backfield is also headlined by two transfers (Travis Dye and Austin Jones), while the Trojans won’t lack for other playmakers in the receiving corps to team with Addison. The line brings back four starters and could potentially be among the best in the Pac-12. Defense is where Riley has more concerns in ’22. This unit was pushed around on the ground (167.1 rushing yards a game allowed last year), ranked 11th in the Pac-12 against the pass, and struggled with big plays allowed (13 of 40-plus yards) and a lack of a pass rush (21 sacks). New coordinator Alex Grinch won’t fix all of the issues in one offseason. However, a handful of transfers have added depth and talent, and a scheme change should bring some improvement. The schedule is manageable. Road trips to Oregon State, Utah and UCLA are on tap, but Notre Dame visits the Coliseum.
The Bruins had a breakthrough year in coach Chip Kelly’s fourth season in Westwood. After a 10-21 mark from 2018-20, UCLA went 8-4 and defeated LSU, Washington and USC en route to its best season since ’15. Building off last year’s is a reasonable expectation with quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (274.4 total yards per game) and running back Zach Charbonnet anchoring an offense that averaged 36.5 points per contest. Duke transfer Jake Bobo (74 catches in ’21) should be Thompson-Robinson’s No. 1 receiver after the departure of tight end Greg Dulcich and receiver Kyle Philips. Three starters are back up front, but the tackle spots are a concern going into the fall. Last season marked the first time UCLA allowed less than 30 points in a game since ’16. However, the depth chart experienced a hefty amount of turnover and is under the supervision of a new play-caller (Bill McGovern). The Bruins alleviated some of the losses by dipping into the portal for help, including ends Grayson and Gabriel Murphy (North Texas), tackle Gary Smith III (Duke), linebacker Darius Muasau (Hawaii), and cornerback Azizi Hearn (Wyoming). Addressing a pass defense that allowed too many big plays (11 of 40-plus) is a priority. UCLA catches the top team from the North (Oregon) in crossover play, but Utah and USC both visit the Rose Bowl in the regular season.
Picking the Wildcats fourth in the South may seem like a stretch after a 1-11 mark in coach Jedd Fisch’s debut last fall. However, the Wildcats have upgraded the roster through a solid recruiting haul, and the transfer portal brought impact additions in quarterback Jayden de Laura (Washington State) and receiver Jacob Cowing (UTEP). Also, both Colorado and Arizona State come to Tucson, so the door is open to piece together a couple of wins in Pac-12 play. Four-star freshman Tetairoa McMillan is another new playmaker for de Laura on the outside, while the Wildcats also bring back four starters up front and a solid collection of running backs. Arizona’s defense made progress under veteran play-caller Don Brown last season by cutting its yards per play allowed from 6.7 in ’20 to 5.87 in ’21. Brown departed to be the head coach at UMass, prompting Fisch to hire Johnny Nansen away from UCLA to call plays. A struggling rush defense (10th n the Pac-12) and pass defense (last in pass efficiency defense) leave Nansen with a lengthy to-do list this offseason. A secondary led by cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace and safety Christian Young does provide optimism for improvement on the back end.
5. Arizona State
Uncertainty surrounds Arizona State this year. The Sun Devils lost (but restocked some) players to the portal, underwent a significant staff overhaul, and also remain under NCAA investigation. If the pieces fall into place, there’s potential to return to a bowl and six-plus wins. However, there’s also the potential for the dark clouds hanging over this program to turn into a major distraction. New play-caller Glenn Thomas can lean on a couple of transfers – quarterback Emory Jones (Florida), running back Xazavian Valladay (Wyoming) and receiver Cam Johnson (Vanderbilt) – to spark a unit that averaged 28.4 points a contest last year. The Sun Devils are also relying on transfers to restock a line that returns only two starters. Defense was a strength last fall after giving up only 20.8 points per game and 4.97 yards per snap. But similar to the offense, this unit suffered major personnel losses to the portal, including linebacker Eric Gentry and lineman Jermayne Lole. Just three starters are back for new coordinator Donnie Henderson, and the entire secondary is new for ’22. Linebackers Merlin Robertson and Kyle Soelle should be the strength of this group.
After a promising 4-2 finish in coach Karl Dorrell’s first year (2020), the Buffaloes took a major step back last fall. Colorado went 4-8 in ’21 and lost six Pac-12 games by 15 or more points. Also, the offense averaged 20.3 points and just 4.5 yards per play in conference action, while the defense surrendered 6.1 yards per play. The Buffaloes need significant improvement on both sides of the ball to contend for a bowl trip. Dorrell hopes a new coordinator (Mike Sanford Jr.) is what the offense needs to get back on track, but major personnel concerns remain going into ’22. The line struggled mightily (32 sacks allowed) and key playmakers in receiver Brenden Rice and running back Jarek Broussard opted to transfer. Quarterback Brendon Lewis returns after accounting for nearly 1,800 total yards last year, but he will be pushed by JT Shrout for the starting job. Only four starters are back on a defense that ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 against the run and pass. Linebackers Carson Wells and Nate Landman and cornerbacks Mehki Blackmon and Christian Gonzalez top the list of key departures for coordinator Chris Wilson to address. West Virginia transfer Josh Chandler-Semedo was a key pickup at linebacker. A non-conference slate featuring games versus TCU, Minnesota and Air Force is challenging for a team in rebuild mode.
Pac-12 Championship: Utah over USC
Pac-12 2022 Superlatives and Season Predictions
Offensive POY: Caleb Williams, QB, USC
Defensive POY: Noah Sewell, LB, Oregon
Coach of the Year: Kyle Whittingham, Utah
Top Freshman: Damien Martinez, RB, Oregon State
Top Offensive Newcomer (Transfer): Caleb Williams, QB, USC/Jordan Addison, WR, USC
Top Defensive Newcomer (Transfer): Jackson Sirmon, LB, California
Sleeper Teams: Oregon State and UCLA
Key Position to Watch: USC DL
Best Coordinator Hire: Eric Morris, OC, Washington State
Hardest Teams to Evaluate: Washington and UCLA
Coach on the Rise: Jonathan Smith, HC, Oregon State
Must-See Game: USC at Utah (Oct. 15)
Breakout Player: Tanner McKee, QB, Stanford
Comeback Player: Zion Tupuola-Fetui, LB, Washington/Justin Flowe, LB, Oregon
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