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Pac-12 Football: USC, Utah or Oregon: Which Team is the Favorite to Win the Conference in 2022?

Cameron Rising, Utah Utes Football

The Pac-12 could have one of college football's most intriguing title races in 2022, as three teams - Utah, USC and Oregon - appear to be close in the fight to win the conference this fall. The Utes are the reigning Pac-12 champs and return 13 starters from last year's squad, including quarterback Cameron Rising, cornerback Clark Phillips and running back Tavion Thomas. USC is trending in the right direction under new coach Lincoln Riley, and a handful of transfers - including quarterback Caleb Williams - should allow for this team to push for double-digit wins. The North should be Oregon's to lose, and new coach Dan Lanning inherits enough talent to push for the conference crown. The Ducks bring back five starters up front, landed quarterback Bo Nix as a transfer from Auburn, and return seven starters on a defense poised to improve in '22.

Is Utah the front-runner to win the Pac-12 once again? Or can Oregon return to the top of the conference under Lanning? Or will USC find the right answers in Riley's first year to claim the Pac-12 title? Athlon editors and college football contributors debate which team will win the Pac-12 in '22.

Pac-12 Football: USC, Utah or Oregon: Which Team is the Favorite to Win the Conference in 2022?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I'll take Utah to win the Pac-12 in 2022. The Utes return quarterback Cameron Rising and running back Tavion Thomas to anchor an offense that averaged 36.1 points a game last season. Also, coach Kyle Whittingham's team paced the Pac-12 by holding teams to 19.2 points in conference play last year. Linebacker Devin Lloyd will be missed, and a few other voids need to be filled, but Utah consistently finds the right answers on defense. USC should show significant improvement under new coach Lincoln Riley, and if the defense is better than anticipated, pushing for the conference title isn't out of the question. New Oregon coach Dan Lanning inherits 14 returning starters, including five along the offensive front and standout linebacker Noah Sewell. The Ducks are a heavy favorite in the North, and without another top-25 team coming out of that division, Lanning's squad has a favorable path to Las Vegas. USC's improvement should be rapid but playing on the road against Utah might decide the division. The Utes have won the South in three out of the last four years and claimed the conference title last fall. Right now, the path to win the Pac-12 goes through Salt Lake City.

Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
Understandably there's plenty of buzz surrounding USC with Lincoln Riley's arrival along with a host of high-profile transfers. But before the Trojans can get back to winning national championships they need to win their own conference and right now the king of the Pac-12 is Utah. The Utes are the defending champions and while they have lost some big pieces (namely All-American and conference defensive player of the year linebacker Devin Lloyd), the cupboard is far from bare in Salt Lake City. Also, head coach Kyle Whittingham gives Utah something that USC doesn't have, coaching continuity. The Utes are loaded in the backfield with quarterback Cameron Rising and running back Tavion Thomas leading the way while the defense has a much stronger track record than the Trojans in recent seasons. Oregon may be the favorite in the North but the Ducks have a first-year head coach leading them in Dan Lanning and are turning to Auburn transfer Bo Nix at quarterback. There's a reason Utah has won three of the past four South titles and I don't think the Utes are about ready to cede either the division or the conference to any other team just yet.

Related: 3 Reasons for Optimism About the Utes in 2022

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Ben Weinrib (@benweinrib)
They haven't won double-digit games since 2017 — hell, they’ve only won 22 combined games the last four years — but the USC Trojans haven’t had talent like this in a very long time. It may take a while for the offense to fully click, but Caleb Williams’ familiarity with Lincoln Riley’s system is a major plus. The good news is the front half of USC’s schedule is fairly manageable with Oregon State as the hardest game until the pivotal Week 7 matchup at Utah. If the Trojans make it to the Pac-12 Championship Game, they will be the favorites. They just have to make sure they’re on the same page early on enough to avoid trap-game losses. I’ll take a chance on this talent.

Related: 3 Reasons for Optimism About the Trojans in 2022

John Coon (@johncoonsports)
Utah is the obvious choice if you're looking for a team to crown as the 2022 Pac-12 champion. The Utes will likely be an AP top-10 team entering the season. Cameron Rising returns at quarterback and the offense is dynamic enough with him at the controls to keep up with any team on the scoreboard. Utah doesn't need to get into a track meet with opponents though. Defensively, the Utes are flush with talent, depth, and experience at so many positions. Clark Phillips III is a future NFL star in the secondary and Florida transfer Mohamoud Diabate will make an immediate impact at linebacker. USC and Oregon are both going through turnover at key positions and entering year one under new coaching staffs. It will take the Trojans and the Ducks longer than one season to close the gap with the Utes.

Related: 3 Reasons for Optimism About the Ducks in 2022

Kane Webb (@FightOnTwist)
Utah was before the season and the Utes should remain so now. Conferences aren’t won in the offseason, they are one when you play through the injuries and depth chart struggles. USC doesn’t know what’s going to happen with the former and is not prepared for the latter. I also think there are far too many unknowns with Oregon putting together a completely new coaching staff and style of play. The only thing Utah has done is what Kyle Whittingham's team normally does and does well. That’s it. No long writeup, no ballyhoo. The Utes have continued to do what they always do and will be ready when they face the Trojans on Oct. 15 as well as before that game and after. On paper, right now, the intelligent money remains where it was.

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