The battle to win the Pac-12 in college football's 2022 season starts with the two teams that ended '21 vying for the conference crown. Utah is Athlon's very early favorite as the No. 1 team in the Pac-12 next fall, with Oregon projected atop the North. USC is the conference's biggest wild card under new coach Lincoln Riley, while uncertainty and potential surround two first-year coaches in the state of Washington (Jake Dickert and Kalen DeBoer). UCLA is coming off its best season under coach Chip Kelly, while Arizona is also trending up under second-year coach Jedd Fisch.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2022 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its very early power rankings for the Pac-12 for 2022:
Early Pac-12 Football Predictions for 2022
There’s a new coach (Dan Lanning) in Eugene, but this team should be the favorite to win the Pac-12 North. Auburn transfer Bo Nix is set to battle with Ty Thompson to start at quarterback, and the Ducks return plenty of options at receiver and a solid offensive line. Running back Travis Dye entered the transfer portal, so his production in the backfield will need to be replaced. Lanning’s impact should be felt on a defense that allowed 27.2 points a game in league matchups last year. Linebacker Noah Sewell returns as one of the Pac-12’s top defenders.
2. Oregon State
The Beavers are coming off their best season (7-6) under coach Jonathan Smith. Another step forward isn’t out of the question, but Smith’s team has to replace running back B.J. Baylor and a couple of key starters up front. Quarterback Chance Nolan returns after throwing for 2,677 yards and accounting for 22 overall scores in ’21. Trent Bray took over as the team’s interim defensive coordinator down the stretch and was promoted to the full role for ’22. There were small steps forward (28.2 points a game allowed in Pac-12 games, down from 33.3 in ‘20) on defense but more improvement is needed to win the division.
3. Washington State
Jake Dickert inherited a challenging situation after taking over as the team’s interim coach, but the Cougars responded with wins in three out of their final five games to earn a trip to the Sun Bowl. Can Dickert and a revamped staff keep the momentum going? Incarnate Word transfer Cameron Ward is a dynamic addition at quarterback, and the return of Renard Bell from injury bolsters a receiving corps losing Calvin Jackson Jr. and Travell Harris. Both starting tackles (Liam Ryan and Abraham Lucas) depart up front. Dickert’s defense is trending in the right direction. After giving up 6.7 yards per play in ’20, this unit cut that total to 5.5 last year. A couple of additions through the transfer portal could help ease the concern level after some key departures.
Expect new coach Kalen DeBoer to immediately improve an offense that averaged only 21.5 points a game and 4.98 yards per snap in 2021. Will Sam Huard unseat Dylan Morris for the starting quarterback job? Or will Indiana transfer Michael Penix Jr. emerge as the top signal-caller? Left tackle Jaxson Kirkland and center Luke Wattenberg leave big shoes to fill up front. Washington’s defense has been a strength in recent years, but this side of the ball has holes to fill, including in the secondary where cornerbacks Kyler Gordon and Trent McDuffie will be missed.
The Golden Bears just missed out on a postseason trip with a 5-7 mark, but five of those losses came by one score. Although coach Justin Wilcox’s team wasn’t far from a winning record, getting back to that level in ’22 isn’t going to be easy. Quarterback Chase Garbers must be replaced, with Purdue transfer Jack Plummer expected to enter the offseason as the favorite under center. California’s defense ranked second in the Pac-12 in fewest points allowed (22.3), but linebackers Kuony Deng and Cameron Goode, along with defensive back Elijah Hicks and lineman Luc Bequette are set to depart.
Excluding the abbreviated 2020 season, the Cardinal are just 7-17 over the last two full years of action. Can David Shaw reverse that trend in ’22? The biggest reason for optimism at Stanford starts with quarterback Tanner McKee, along with the return of receiver Michael Wilson and tight end Benjamin Yurosek to bolster the passing game. However, Stanford won’t move up the Pac-12 North pecking order unless the defense takes a big step forward. The Cardinal has allowed more than six yards per play in three consecutive years.
The reigning Pac-12 champs will begin ’22 at the top of the conference. And if the pieces fall into place for coach Kyle Whittingham’s squad, a run at the CFB Playoff is within reach. Quarterback Cameron Rising and running back Tavion Thomas are back to lead the offense, with tight end Brant Kuithe and a solid line providing support. Utah lost star linebacker Devin Lloyd, but Whittingham and coordinator Morgan Scalley will find the right replacements on defense.
Lincoln Riley’s arrival should quickly change fortunes for the Trojans. With USC active in the transfer portal, this roster could look quite a bit different in the next few months – especially at the quarterback position. Look for true freshman Raleek Brown to make an impact right away at running back, with Oklahoma transfer Mario Williams, Tahj Washington and Gary Bryant anchoring the receiving corps. The Trojans are thin on some spots on defense, so this is another place to look for more transfer additions throughout the offseason.
The Bruins’ 8-4 mark in 2021 was the best record under coach Chip Kelly. Exceeding that total in ’22 could be within reach, especially with quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and running back Zach Charbonnet opting for an extra year. Developing more playmakers in the receiving corps and restocking the tackle spots along the offensive line tops the list of concerns. UCLA also will have a new defensive coordinator after Jerry Azzinaro resigned in January. This unit also needs to take a big step forward after struggling against the pass and allowing 26.8 points a contest.
4. Arizona State
Quarterback Jayden Daniels returns to lead the way in 2022, but the Sun Devils need more out of their passing game after the team averaged only 192.4 yards through the air in conference games. Wyoming transfer Xazavian Valladay will help to fill the void left behind by Rachaad White at running back. Coordinator Zak Hill and coach Herm Edwards need to get more out of their receiving corps, while left tackle Kellen Diesch and center Dohnovan West leave a void up front. The Sun Devils paced the Pac-12 in scoring defense (20.8 ppg allowed) but maintaining that level of play could be difficult with several key players off to the next level.
The Wildcats have a ways to go, but coach Jedd Fisch seems to have this program on the right track. Although the final record in Fisch’s debut was only 1-11, Arizona showed improvement on both sides of the ball. Another offseason to develop, along with key additions through the transfer portal, should help this team take another jump in play. Washington State transfer Jayden de Laura is a big-time addition at quarterback, and another transfer (Jacob Cowing) should help fill the void left behind by Stanley Berryhill III at receiver. Not only does the defense need major improvement (6.1 yards per play in conference games), but coordinator Don Brown also left to be the head coach at UMass.
The Buffaloes showed some promise in coach Karl Dorrell’s first year (4-2 in 2020) but only finished 4-8 last fall. An anemic offense (4.5 yards per play) was a primary reason for the win total, and Dorrell hopes a new coordinator (Mike Sanford) helps jumpstart this attack. Quarterback Brendon Lewis could face competition from former Tennessee signal-caller J.T. Shrout, but the offense lost running back Jarek Broussard and receiver Brenden Rice to the transfer portal. Linebackers Carson Wells and Nate Landman leave big shoes to fill on a defense that allowed 6.4 yards per play in Pac-12 games in ’21.
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