Preston Hiefield's Top 5 PAC-12 Football Spring Storylines for 2023

The best conference of QB’s in America.

Without question, the PAC-12 boasts the best crop of QB’s in all of college football at present moment. Start with reigning Heisman Trophy Winner Caleb Williams at USC, mix in UW all-time single season passing leader Michael Penix Jr., and garnish with dynamic UO QB Bo Nix. Plus you have side ingredients including the slippery and experienced Cam Rising at Utah, former five-star QB DJ Uigalelei in Corvallis, Shadeur Sanders at CU and returning starters Jayden de Laura (Arizona) and Cam Ward (WSU). 

Caleb Williams is of course the headliner. Simply dynamite, he finished last year with a ridiculous 52 total touchdowns against 5 INT. Had his defense been remotely average, USC would have had a chance to make the College Football Playoff. Instead, the Trojans true colors were revealed against Utah in Las Vegas, and then again in the Cotton Bowl against Tulane. Still, the Trojans are an electric watch with Williams behind center and Lincoln Riley on the sticks. Nix, meanwhile, had a very realistic chance at winning the Heisman in 2022 prior to his injury (and UO’s subsequent loss) last November against UW. And if Michael Penix Jr. can repeat his out-of-nowhere 2022 season, UW can contend with anyone in the conference. 

Coach Prime is in the PAC

I hesitated to vault Coach Prime into the second biggest storyline of the PAC-12, but I really do think he’s right there. Deion Sanders is inevitable. He’s a one man reality TV show fit perfectly for this era of viral social media videos. But there is substance to this man. Not only is he a legendary player, he can flat out coach. Better, perhaps, he can flat out ‘croot. Colorado received a transfer portal commitment from five-star DB Travis Hunter (previously with Prime at Jackson State) and a signing day commitment from five-star DB Cormani McClain (Lakeland, FL). Never in a million years at this time last year did anyone think Colorado football would be adding two five-star prospects to its roster in the coming months. That is the power of Prime.

The Buffs hauled in 25 transfers and signed 19 high school prospects, bringing in a total of 46 new players to the roster in Sanders’ first few months on the job in Boulder. CU sorely needed that infusion of talent, no doubt, as they fielded arguably the worst roster in the Power 5 last year en route to a 1-11 record. 

The schedule is spicy to begin Year 1 for Sanders: @ TCU in the opener, home against rival Nebraska (and their new coach Matt Rhule) for the home opener, and then a conference opener at Autzen Stadium on Sept. 23. Prime’s Buffs may not have box office talent just yet, but the coach himself is box office entertainment and it will be fascinating to see how quickly he can turn things around in Boulder.

Is there a national title contender in this conference?

USC returns an electrifying Heisman-winning QB, so they will likely get the nod as preseason favorites to win the PAC-12. That being said, their defense was exposed in front of the nation in the PAC-12 Title Game and Cotton Bowl, so can we really consider them a national title contender? To be fair, can we really consider anyone outside of the SEC a legitimate national title contender at the moment? We’ll have to wait and see with the Trojans. 

Oregon should have a better defense than USC while boasting a remarkably explosive offense, returning the trio of QB Bo Nix, RB Bucky Irving and WR Troy Franklin for another season. OC Kenny Dillingham left for the ASU job, so former UTSA OC Will Stein will be calling the plays. Stein just helped orchestrate a season that saw his QB Frank Harris win CUSA Player of the Year while finishing second in the nation with 4,453 total yards of offense for the Roadrunners.

If the combination of prior year recruiting rankings and 2023 returning starters are any indication, the list of preseason national title contenders from the PAC-12 probably stops after Oregon and USC. Two-time defending conference champion Utah still deserves recognition, though, and UW’s offense will give them a chance in any game.

The final PAC-12 season for USC and UCLA

Before the two LA schools head off to the Big Ten for larger paychecks, they’ll play one final season in the PAC-12. You can bet players and coaches from other schools want to send them on their way, er, properly. 

For USC, notable games include at Notre Dame Oct. 14, home vs. Utah Oct. 21, vs. UW Nov. 4, at Oregon Nov. 11 and vs. rival UCLA on Nov. 18. 

Chip Kelly’s Bruins miss Oregon and Washington out of the North. They have challenging road games at Utah Sept. 23, in Corvallis Oct. 14, and at USC on Nov. 18.

USC and UCLA are slated to become official members of the Big Ten on August 2, 2024.

New Transfer Quarterbacks

For the sake of this talking point, let’s leave out known transfer QB commodities from this conversation and talk newbies. Will DJ U elevate Oregon State from a 10-win team to a potential PAC-12 Champion? Your guess is as good as mine. He is, however, the highest ranked QB recruit that Jonathan Smith has ever worked with in Corvallis. There will be no more “cupboard is bare at QB” conversations at OSU. Smith has his guy now. 

Shadeur Sanders is the other very intriguing new transfer QB in this conference. Deion Sanders’ son, Shadeur was a four-star recruit out of high school and looked very capable at Jackson State. In two seasons at JSU, he racked up 79 total TDs against just 14 INTs while going 23-3 as a starter. Despite being the son of the high-stepping Deion, Shadeur doesn’t run too often, totalling just 156 rushing yards in two seasons at JSU. 

Drew Pyne (Notre Dame) at ASU and Sam Jackson (TCU) at CAL are the two other transfer QB’s who are favorites to start for their programs in the Fall.

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