Spring practice has already started or will soon for all 12 teams in the Pac-12 for the 2022 college football season. Although it's tough to get an accurate read on teams from practices in the spring, this is the first set of official workouts and provides some insight into the upcoming year.
Utah - the reigning Pac-12 champion - tops the spring power rankings for '22. Coach Kyle Whittingham's squad can lean on quarterback Cameron Rising and running back Tavion Thomas for a run at a repeat, and as usual, the Utes will piece together one of the Pac-12's strongest defenses. USC is arguably the most intriguing team in the conference. The Trojans are poised to improve under new coach Lincoln Riley, and the transfer portal additions of quarterback Caleb Williams and a handful of players only bolster their chances of contending for the Pac-12 crown. UCLA headlines the next group of teams in the South, with Arizona State, Arizona and Colorado up next. Oregon should be the team to beat in the North, with Oregon State, Washington and Washington State anchoring a strong middle tier in the division. Stanford and California should fight for bowl eligibility this fall.
What are the early storylines to watch and how do the teams stack up in the Pac-12 going into '22? Here are Athlon's top things to watch on both sides of the ball for the conference going into spring practice:
Pac-12 Football: Spring 2022 Power Rankings
What to Watch on Offense: The Utes return the bulk of last year’s offense, including quarterback Cameron Rising and running back Tavion Thomas. All-conference linemen Bam Olaseni and Nick Ford and receiver Britain Covey leave the biggest shoes to fill on offense.
What to Watch on Defense: Coach Kyle Whittingham’s defense allowed the fewest points per game (19.1) in Pac-12-only matchups last fall. Maintaining that production will hinge on how fast this unit can find replacements for Devin Lloyd (LB) and Mika Tafua (DL). Also, starting safeties Vonte Davis and Brandon McKinney departed.
What to Watch on Offense: How fast can Lincoln Riley put all of the pieces into place? The Trojans return four starters up front and brought in a handful of transfers, including quarterback Caleb Williams. This offense should show marked improvement in ’22.
What to Watch on Defense: Major help is needed here after USC allowed 6.6 yards per play and 34.2 points a game in Pac-12 games last season. Just three starters return for new coordinator Alex Grinch and question marks remain about depth along the defensive line and at linebacker.
What to Watch on Offense: There’s a void in the backfield with Travis Dye and CJ Verdell both leaving Eugene, but the biggest storyline is at quarterback. Will redshirt freshman Ty Thompson win the job over Auburn transfer Bo Nix?
What to Watch on Defense: New coach Dan Lanning helped assemble the nation’s No. 1 defense during his stint at Georgia. How big of an impact on this side of the ball can Lanning make in his first year in Eugene? Three starters are gone in the secondary.
What to Watch on Offense: The return of quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and running back Zach Charbonnet is enough to keep UCLA in the mix to be a top 25 team this year. However, the Bruins lost three key linemen in the trenches and must replace their top two receivers (Kyle Philips and tight end Greg Dulcich).
What to Watch on Defense: New play-caller Bill Sheridan has a busy spring on tap. The Bruins return only three starters for ’22 and major losses were suffered up front and in the secondary. The staff hit the portal for help, but this spring is all about transitioning to the new scheme and figuring out which players can step into starting roles.
5. Oregon State
What to Watch on Offense: Replacing center Nathan Eldridge and guard Nous Keobounnam off a standout offensive line tops the list of concerns for coach Jonathan Smith. The Beavers also lost running back B.J. Baylor to the NFL and need quarterback Chance Nolan to take a step forward to pilot an offense that averaged 6.4 yards per play in ’21.
What to Watch on Defense: The Beavers have allowed more than six yards a play in conference games for five consecutive seasons. Can new coordinator Trent Bray stop that streak in ’22? In order to do so, replacing standout linebacker Avery Roberts is a priority.
What to Watch on Offense: The arrival of new coach Kalen DeBoer should immediately spark a Washington offense that averaged only 21 points a game in conference matchups last year. More production and steady play out of the quarterbacks is a must, which could come in the form of Indiana transfer Michael Penix Jr. The Huskies also need more consistency and production from the offensive line.
What to Watch on Defense: Every level of the defense lost a key starter, but the secondary is arguably the biggest concern for DeBoer. Standout cornerbacks Trent McDuffie and Kyler Gordon, along with nickel Brendan Radley-Hiles, must be replaced.
7. Washington State
What to Watch on Offense: The Cougars have a new look on offense with the arrival of Eric Morris as coordinator and Cameron Ward (FCS Incarnate Word transfer) at quarterback. This unit has the potential to be explosive if Ward quickly acclimates to the Pac-12, but an offensive line that returns only two starters is a concern.
What to Watch on Defense: Improvement was noticeable on this side of the ball last season. After giving up 6.7 yards per play in ’20, the Cougars cut that total to 5.6. Continuing last year’s progression is going to hinge on filling a few voids at linebacker, and especially in the secondary where cornerback Jaylen Watson headlines the loss of three starters.
What to Watch on Offense: With 10 starters returning, the offense should improve on the 20.3 points per game (in conference play) from last season. Quarterback Tanner McKee is poised for a jump in production, but the Cardinal have to replace running backs Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat and develop a line that allowed 32 sacks in ’21.
What to Watch on Defense: Stanford ranked last in the Pac-12 in yards per play allowed (6.5) and scoring defense (32.4) last year. With just four starters back, this spring is all about filling voids and reversing a trend of defensive decline over the last few seasons.
What to Watch on Offense: The passing game. Starting quarterback Chase Garbers is gone, leaving Purdue transfer Jack Plummer, Kai Millner and Zach Johnson to battle for the starting nod. Also, the Golden Bears must replace four of their top five receivers.
What to Watch on Defense: Coach Justin Wilcox’s defense tied Utah for the fewest yards per play allowed (5.03) in the conference last year. But the Golden Bears have a handful of key players to replace, including safety Elijah Hicks, linebacker Cameron Goode and linemen JH Tevis and Luc Bequette.
10. Arizona State
What to Watch on Offense: Significant changes are on tap for Arizona State’s offense in ’22. There’s a new play-caller (Glenn Thomas), quarterback (potentially Alabama transfer Paul Tyson), and three new starters along the offensive line. A handful of transfers will help up front, along with the arrival of former Wyoming standout Xazavian Valladay at running back to bolster the ground game.
What to Watch on Defense: The major changes to Arizona State’s roster aren’t limited to the offense. The Sun Devils return only four starters on this side of the ball and feature a completely revamped secondary. The return of end Jermayne Lole is a boost to the trenches.
What to Watch on Offense: The pieces are in place for Arizona to show marked improvement on this side of the ball. The quarterback position is in good hands with Washington State transfer Jayden de Laura, and former UTEP standout Jacob Cowing is a big-play addition at receiver. This spring is all about getting those two players acclimated, as well as building off coach Jedd Fisch’s offense in his second season in Tucson.
What to Watch on Defense: Can Arizona build off last year’s improvement? After giving up 39.8 points a game in Pac-12 games in ’20, this defense cut that total to 32.7 last fall. With eight starters back, there’s hope for another step forward. However, the Wildcats lost coordinator Don Brown to UMass, with veteran Pac-12 assistant Johnny Nansen taking over the play-calling duties.
What to Watch on Offense: Coach Karl Dorrell hopes a coordinator change (Mike Sanford Jr.) helps to spark an offense that averaged only 20.3 points in Pac-12 play last year. Better quarterback play from either Brendon Lewis and JT Shrout would help, but the Buffaloes also need to show marked improvement in the trenches.
What to Watch on Defense: The Buffaloes have work to do on this side of the ball. The defense gave up 30.3 points in Pac-12 games last year and suffered several key losses, including linebackers Carson Wells and Nate Landman and three starters in the secondary.
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