USC’s defensive questions and Utah’s quest for three straight: Connelly breaks down the former Pac-12 South


Give the Pac-12 credit: Be it hiring coaches willing to test all logical boundaries when it comes to the transfer portal … or taking a very, very long time to figure out a new media rights deal … or returning a ton of experience and upside at quarterback in a year when seemingly everyone else doesn’t … this conference can’t help but do things a little differently. That’s not always a good thing, but it could be quite a bit of fun for viewers in 2023.

Per Total QBR, four of the top eight returning quarterbacks in college football play in the Pac-12. There are six Pac-12 teams in the projected SP+ top 30 and, more importantly from an entertainment standpoint, there are five projected 13th or better on offense.

The competition levels among the top half of this conference could be absolutely dynamite, doubly so if you enjoy a good track meet. In a future that includes a 12-team CFP, super fun conference races like the Pac-12’s, which could result in a top-four seed and playoff bye, will become even more significant, something that will be true even with USC and UCLA out of the picture. In 2023, however, it might once again mean loads of entertainment and a two-loss, CFP-less conference champ. Per SP+, no team has a greater than 6% chance of getting to 12-0, and only USC and Oregon have a greater than 10% chance of reaching 11-1.

But hey, it’s June. Playoff talk is for November. This is going to be a ridiculously fun and frequently prolific conference in 2023. Let’s preview it. The Pac-12 helped to take the lead in the new trend toward division-less conferences, but today we’ll talk about the six teams that previously made up the Pac-12 South. Conveniently, that means we’ll talk about three of the projected top-30 teams this week and three others next week.

Every week through the offseason, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 133 FBS teams. The previews will include 2022 breakdowns, 2023 previews and burning questions for each team.

Earlier previews: Conference USA, part 1 | Conference USA, part 2 | MAC East | MAC West | MWC Mountain | MWC West | Sun Belt West | Sun Belt East | AAC, part 1 | AAC, part 2 | Independents | ACC, part 1 | ACC, part 2

2022 recap

Granted, it almost seems quaint now with what Deion Sanders has done this offseason at Colorado, but USC, with new coach Lincoln Riley and the 20 transfers he brought in — including the reigning Biletnikoff winner (Jordan Addison) and the soon-to-be Heisman winner (Caleb Williams) — was rather unprojectable heading into 2022. SP+ threw its hands up and projected 7-8 wins, but the Trojans predictably exceeded that, scoring loads of points and reaching the Pac-12 championship game at 11-1. But dreadful defense eventually caught up to them. Utah gained 1,095 yards and scored 90 points over two games against USC, and a 47-24 title game win made the Utes champs for the second straight year.

Elsewhere, the Karl Dorrell and Herm Edwards eras in Colorado and Arizona State, respectively, ended with crashes — the two teams went a combined 4-20 and hired coaches who quickly gutted their respective rosters. Arizona showed progress in Jedd Fisch’s second season but fell short of a bowl bid thanks to a midyear four-game losing streak. And for the second straight season, UCLA exceeded expectations in a way that felt slightly disappointing: Chip Kelly’s Bruins lurched out to an 8-1 start before losing three of four. But 9-4 was still another overall step forward.

2023 projections

Teams in today’s preview are in bold.

Pac-12 title odds, per SP+: USC 29%, Oregon 22%, Utah 15%, Washington 15%, UCLA 8%, Oregon State 8%. The other six teams are at or below 1%.

This year, Colorado has become the most unprojectable team of the bunch, earning commits from 50 transfers. And while the Buffaloes are all but guaranteed to exceed their two-win projection, iffy depth, line play and a brutal schedule should keep the win total tamped down.

Sanders’ work has distracted us from talking more about Kenny Dillingham’s ultra-heavy transfer load at Arizona State (30 commits and counting). That gives the Sun Devils a wide array of potential outcomes, too. Arizona could again struggle to hit .500 unless the defense shows life, and speaking of defense: Among USC, Utah and UCLA, whoever actually shows the most interest in playing it will have a pretty good shot at reaching the Pac-12 championship.

Burning questions

How good (or not terrible) does USC’s defense need to be? Thirty-eight, 54, 48, 45, 48, 63, 38, 37, 27, 37, 43, 47 and 46. That’s the number of points opponents have scored in Lincoln Riley’s 13 losses as a head coach. That’s an average of 43.9 points per loss.

In his six seasons at Oklahoma and USC, Riley is 46-1 when his team allows under 30 points, but they’ve done so less than 60% of the time. They’ve allowed 40 or more points 18 times — three times per year! — and while they’ve won 10 of those games, that’s still a ridiculous onus to put on your offense. Riley teams have averaged an offensive SP+ ranking of 2.5 and a defensive ranking of 67.7, only once topping even 63rd.

In other words, offense assures Riley teams will win tons of games, while defense assures they won’t win as many as it feels they could.

USC’s offense will be as good as you assume in 2023. Caleb Williams returns after throwing for 4,537 passing yards and 42 touchdowns. With an uncertain Heisman race in the balance, Williams went a combined 50-for-65 for 702 yards and three touchdowns against UCLA and Notre Dame, the Trojans scored a combined 86 points, and the dazzling and often Mahomes-esque Williams rolled to the Heisman.

The details of the supporting cast barely matter — Williams plus Riley will equal loads of points once again — but Riley has assured that it will be excellent again. Leading receiver Jordan Addison is gone, so he brought in Arizona’s (Dorian Singer). Leading rusher Travis Dye is gone, so he brought in South Carolina‘s (MarShawn Lloyd). He did the same with three departing starting linemen. Between veterans like slot men Tahj Washington and Mario Williams, running back Austin Jones and wideout Brenden Rice and blue-chip freshmen like receivers Zachariah Branch and Makai Lemon and tight end Duce Robinson, stars will emerge, and USC will rank at or near the top in offensive SP+. (Another five-star freshman, Malachi Nelson, comes to town to back up Williams, too.)

The defense, as you’ve probably guessed, is the question mark. Riley remained loyal to coordinator Alex Grinch, keeping him in town for another year, and while he doesn’t tend to land nearly as many blue-chippers on D as on O, there’s more talent on that side of the ball than there was in 2022. More experience, too. Of last year’s 19 players with 200-plus snaps, 14 return, including solid havoc creators like Tyrone Taleni and safeties Calen Bullock and Max Williams (combined: seven INTs, eight PBU). Riley also brought in more intriguing defensive transfers than he did a year ago, including young, former blue-chip linemen Bear Alexander (Georgia) and Anthony Lucas (Texas A&M) and sure-tackling Oklahoma State linebacker Mason Cobb (13.5 TFLs, 26 run stops!).

Grinch had one solid defense with Riley at Oklahoma — the 2020 unit that featured three high-level pass rushers and allowed 17 points per game and 4.9 yards per play over its final seven games — and it evidently offered just enough proof of concept to earn Riley’s trust. He still might not have the pass rushers he needs, but if this is even a top-40 or top-50 unit, USC is probably the conference favorite. Barring a run of injuries, that’s how good the offense should be.

What’s preventing Utah from a three-peat? Utah’s journey since joining the Pac-12 in 2011 has been shockingly linear.

  • 2011-2014: 6.8 wins, 42.8 average SP+ ranking

  • 2015-2018: 8.8 wins, 25.8 average SP+ ranking

  • 2019-2022 (minus 2020): 10.3 wins, 15.7 average SP+ ranking

Over their first four seasons in the league, Kyle Whittingham’s team managed a pair of bowl bids and a pair of 5-7 seasons. Over their last three full seasons, not including their five-game 2020 campaign, they’ve gone 11-3, 10-4 with a conference title and 10-4 with another conference title. The offense has improved quite a bit of late, and each year obviously has its own unique personality. But the trajectory has been incredible.

When quarterback Cam Rising announced he was returning for his senior season after rumors of either pro entry or transfer, things clicked into place for a possible three-peat. Rising, three-quarters of a four-headed RB corps (led by junior Micah Bernard), all-conference offensive tackle Sataoa Laumea and 12 of the 17 defenders with 200-plus snaps are all back, and Utah’s looking at another top-15 projection.

Granted, there are also some particularly impressive players gone — first-round tight end Dalton Kincaid, all-conference tackle Braeden Daniels, linebacker Mohamoud Diabate and perhaps the single best defender of the Whittingham era, corner Clark Phillips III. The offense continues to have a bit of a big-play issue (as in, not enough of them and the easy points they provide), and last year the defense had one too (as in, too many of them). Plus, there’s the matter of the ACL injury Rising suffered in the Rose Bowl. He has vowed to get to 100% by the start of the season, but you aren’t in total control of that no matter how hard you vow. Utah begins the season with a pair of challenging non-conference battles — Florida in Week 1, at Baylor in Week 2 — and if Rising is anything less than 100%, an iffy start could damage confidence.

Still, the potential within the conference is obvious. Another great tight end, Brant Kuithe, is back after injury, and Utah broke in a number of youngsters who flashed significant promise last year, including sophomores like defensive tackle Simote Pepa, linebacker Lander Barton and nickelback Sione Vaki.

When you don’t recruit at a top-15 level, you can end up hostage to your conference mates that do. Whittingham’s recruiting continues to improve, but if USC or Oregon in particular live up to their recruiting status, it could be difficult for the Utes to keep up. Still, Utah has gotten to this point by producing the highest floor in the Pac-12, and it should have that once again in 2023. And who’s to argue with the trajectory that Whittingham has established?

Can newcomers clear a high bar for the UCLA offense? Though not quite as sustained as Utah’s, UCLA has seen its own stages of growth during the Chip Kelly era. After going 10-21 in his first three seasons (average SP+ ranking: 79.7), the Bruins went 17-8 in 2021-22 (average ranking: 29.5). The offense jumped to 20th in SP+ in 2020, then grew into an elite unit that ranked seventh in 2021 and third in 2022. But as with their crosstown (and soon-to-be Big Ten) rivals, the defense has never even come close to coming around. UCLA has ranked between 89th and 98th in defensive SP+ for every year of the Kelly era; consistency is generally admirable, but not that kind.

The 2023 season feels like an inflection point for Kelly and the Bruins. The offense has enjoyed wonderful continuity in recent years, but quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, running back Zach Charbonnet, receivers Jake Bobo and Kazmeir Allen and all-conference guards Atonio Mafi and Jon Gaines II are all gone.

There are plenty of exciting players remaining, of course. Kelly brought in Ball State‘s 1,500-yard rusher Carson Steele and former blue-chip pass catchers J. Michael Sturdivant (Cal), Kyle Ford (USC) and tight end Moliki Matavao (Oregon). He’s got both a high-floor veteran (Kent State‘s Collin Schlee) and high-upside youngster (five-star freshman Dante Moore) at QB, and youngsters like running back T.J. Harden (7.4 yards per carry) and tight end Carsen Ryan have hinted at high ceilings. Kelly’s offensive mind is still awesome, and a seemingly optimistic SP+ projection is a reminder that the cupboard is still pretty well-stocked.

With any offensive drop-off, however, the defense will need to pick up slack. They’ve got beef up front, particularly that of 330-pound tackle Jay Toia, and the two-deep is loaded on the edge thanks to players like Laiatu Latu and Grayson and Gabriel Murphy. Bowling Green nickel Jordan Anderson is an intriguing addition as well. (Kelly is evidently prepping for Big Ten life by recruiting all of the MAC’s good players). But they had Toia, Latu and the Murphys last year and allowed at least 28 points in eight of their last nine games. Last year’s bend-don’t-break approach produced results far too bendy to succeed. New defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn needs to find an aggressive streak.

Lynn, the former Baltimore Ravens safeties coach, took over as DC when Bill McGovern opted for an administration role because of declining health. McGovern, 60, died from cancer in May.



Which CFB teams could be a surprise early in the season?

Heather Dinich and Sam Acho name their teams that could make some College Football Playoff noise early in the season.

Which chemistry experiment clicks first, Arizona State’s or Colorado’s? In this week’s piece on Colorado’s roster-building experiment, I expressed extreme unease at the idea of a coach being able to more-or-less cut 80% of a roster in the name of bringing in “his guys” for a rebuild, like Deion Sanders just did. But if nothing else, we’re going to see some grand chemistry experiments in the coming years. Coaches will all tell you how important culture is for a program; we’re about to find out just how right they are because new coaches like Sanders and ASU’s Kenny Dillingham are going to be attempting to win games with no established culture, and almost no “What are my teammates names?” familiarity whatsoever.

Eighty! Colorado and Arizona State have brought in 80 combined transfers this offseason! Nearly half of their combined scholarship allotment!

Only Sanders can make Dillingham’s 30-man haul look less than extreme. ASU could end up starting new transfers at quarterback (Notre Dame’s Drew Pyne), running back (Cal’s DeCarlos Brooks), receiver (Colorado’s Jordyn Tyson and/or Colorado State‘s Melquan Stovall) and a majority of spots on both lines. The Sun Devils do have a few potentially strong players who actually lived in Tempe last fall — receiver Elijhah Badger, tight end Jalin Conyers, safety Chris Edmonds, nickelback Jordan Clark, maybe corners Ro Torrence and Ed Woods — but ASU fans will likely need to study the roster Friday nights to make sure they know who the heck is on the field Saturdays.

Of course, for as extreme as this amount of portal usage is, if the bar for a first-year coach is simply “Improve off of last year,” both coaches have excellent odds of success. Colorado, after all, was absolute dreck in 2022, and ASU wasn’t much better. The Buffaloes went 1-11 and ranked 124th in SP+, the Sun Devils 3-9 and 83rd; per SP+, this was the worst Colorado team since 1962 and the worst ASU team since 1954. If both Sanders and Dillingham are able to use 2023 progress to create culture-building momentum, then lean on more long-term recruiting in the future, these roster flips might turn out useful. But wow, is this a wild amount of change to keep track of.

Dillingham was an intriguing hire. Despite the fact that he only recently turned 33, the ASU alum has put together a half-decade of offensive coordinator experience, plus experience at three different major programs (Auburn, Florida State, Oregon). Both of his coordinator hires bring useful experience to the table — offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin was an FCS head coach for 12 years and a Pac-12 OC (at Cal) for two, and defensive coordinator Brian Ward has been DC at both Nevada and Washington State.

Both Dillingham and Sanders bring loads of energy to the table, and it’s fair to assume that both of these rosters will be far more talented than last year’s editions. That’s especially true for a Colorado roster that now boasts far more former blue-chippers than before. Quarterback Shedeur Sanders is an upgrade, and both the linebacking corps and secondary have quickly become among the most talented in the Pac-12. Five-star corners Travis Hunter (sophomore) and Cormani McClain (freshman) might be among the best in the country by 2024.

Depth and line play, especially on offense, could be massive issues, and Colorado’s potential could vanish with a run of injuries. But upgrades are upgrades. We just have to see how much of an impact a lack of culture has out of the gate.

Will Arizona ever field a good defense again? The Rebuilding Arizona checklist has basically two parts: (1) Make the Wildcats fun again, and (2) make them actually good. It took a year, but Jedd Fisch can officially check the first item off the list. The second might still take a while.

Over the last 15 seasons, under four different head coaches, the Wildcats have ranked in the offensive SP+ top 25 seven times. They are reliably entertaining late-night programming, and after a genuinely dire stretch in 2020-21, in which Arizona lost 16 of 17 games and ranked in the triple digits on both offense and defense, the Wildcats began scoring points again last fall. Quarterback Jayden de Laura threw for 3,585 yards, two different receivers topped 1,000 yards and the Wildcats topped 30 points in eight games; they had done so just once in the previous two seasons.

Fisch was brought to Tucson in 2021 thanks to his offensive coordinator experience, and he’s certainly generated progress there. With de Laura, running back Michael Wiley (6.8 yards per carry) and both veteran slot man Jacob Cowing and big-play sophomore wideout Tetairoa McMillan returning, Arizona will entertain again this fall. Unfortunately, it’s hard to think there will be massive defensive progress.

Those eight games in which Arizona scored 30-plus? It lost three of them. It allowed 43.9 points per game in seven losses on their way to a dismal No. 126 ranking in defensive SP+. In fact, it hasn’t ranked higher than 97th since 2014. Countless coordinators have come and gone, and no one can fix this sieve.

Johnny Nansen will take his second stab at fixing things, however slightly, this fall. The Pac-12 coaching veteran came to UA from UCLA and brought the same bend-don’t-break tendencies. The Wildcats did all right in terms of big-play prevention, but it didn’t matter because they ranked 131st out of 131 FBS teams in success rate allowed. They were 131st against the run and 129th against the pass. Fisch used the transfer portal to bring in some desperately needed power — 300-pound Bill Norton (Georgia), 313-pound Sio Nofoagatoto’a (Indiana), 310-pound Tyler Manoa (UCLA) — plus a pair of former four-star linebackers in Justin Flowe (Oregon) and Daniel Heimuli (Washington). That will almost certainly improve things to some degree. Lord knows this unit probably can’t get worse.

My 10 favorite players

QB Caleb Williams, USC. Good lord, what do you even say about him at this point? After an intriguing but inconsistent freshman debut with Riley at Oklahoma, Williams became the scariest playmaker in the country last year. He makes USC a must-watch every week.

RB Michael Wiley, Arizona. An intriguing pass-catching threat out of the backfield, Wiley erupted late in 2022, averaging 9.2 yards per carry over his final four games and exploding for 214 yards and three scores against Arizona State.

WR Elijhah Badger, Arizona State. A diverse weapon for any offensive system. Badger caught 41% of his passes out of the slot and 49% from out wide, averaging a lovely 2.3 yards per route run via an almost perfectly equal split of short (38%), intermediate (38%) and deep routes (34%).

SLOT Jacob Cowing, Arizona. The UTEP transfer fit in beautifully in his first Pac-12 season, catching 85 balls, dropping very few and serving as a high-end efficiency weapon for Jayden de Laura. He might have a few more big plays in him, too.

C Duke Clemens, UCLA. There’s change afoot for the Bruins’ offense, but in Clemens they’ve got one of the steadiest centers in the country. He was responsible for just one penalty and one sack last season and produced just a 0.9% blown run block rate.

DE Jonah Elliss, Utah. Utah played quite a few freshmen and sophomores on D last season, and none shined more than the 247-pound Elliss, who averaged a havoc play (TFL, pass defensed, forced fumble) on 2.4% of snaps and made a ton of plays near the line.

OLB Laiatu Latu, UCLA. UCLA has plenty of attacking options on the edge, but Latu, with his 13.5 TFLs, 10.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and six run stops, has the highest ceiling of any of them.

ILB Mason Cobb, USC. The former Oklahoma State star adds a hard-nosed presence USC desperately lacked, but he’s also one of the best run defenders in the country. Only NC State‘s Isaiah Moore and Cincinnati‘s Ivan Pace Jr. could top Cobb’s 26 run stops in 2022.

CB Travis Hunter, Colorado. The top cornerback recruit of 2022 could become both a lockdown corner for one of the Pac-12’s better secondaries as well as one of the Buffaloes’ more exciting offensive players in 2023.

NB Cole Bishop, Utah. The nickelback position has become a reliable source of havoc, and Bishop is one of the best you’ll find. He combined the pass coverage of a safety (one INT, four breakups) with the in-the-backfield presence of a dynamite OLB (nine TFLs, 12 run stops).


In 1973, 50 years ago, Arizona State finished in the top 10 for the third time in four years. The Sun Devils just kept beating Pac-8 teams until the conference let them in. From 1970 to 1973, Frank Kush’s team went a combined 43-4 (5-1 vs. the Pac-8) with three AP top-10 finishes; if a 12-team CFP had existed then, they’d have been a nearly annual presence out of the WAC.

Their 1973 run was particularly impressive: They led the nation in scoring (43.2 points per game), quarterback Danny White was second in the nation in passing yards and first in yards per attempt and touchdowns and the Sun Devils finished the season pummeling rival Arizona by 36, then beating Pitt by 21 in the Fiesta Bowl. ASU and Arizona would finally join what would become the Pac-10 in 1978.

In 1988, 35 years ago, Colorado served notice. Colorado had enjoyed just two top-10 finishes in its history and had won just seven games in three seasons when Bill McCartney, a Missouri grad and longtime Michigan assistant, took over in 1982. He installed his take on an Oklahoma- or Nebraska-style option offense and won just seven games in his first three years. But they won 20 games in the next three years, and they began a sustained breakthrough in 1988. Eric Bieniemy rushed for 1,243 yards, and the Buffaloes beat a top-20 Iowa team, cracked the AP poll for first time in a decade and lost a tight rock fight against No. 7 Nebraska, 7-0, in Lincoln.

In 1989 came the breakthrough: They would go 22-2-1 over the next two seasons with two wins over Nebraska, two top-five finishes and a share of the 1990 national title.

In 1998, 25 years ago, UCLA nearly played for the national title and Arizona finished in the top five for the first (and only) time. A number of western programs had moments in the sun in the 1990s and early 2000s. Colorado broke through in 1990, Washington shared the national title in 1991, Arizona State came up just seconds short of a possible title in 1996 and USC’s modern golden era began in 2002. And in 1998, two other intriguing programs nearly put all the pieces together.

At UCLA, third-year coach Bob Toledo followed up on a top-five finish by leading the Bruins to a 10-0 start behind the arm of Cade McNown (3,470 passing yards, 25 TDs). They needed only to beat unranked Miami on Dec. 5, in a game postponed by Hurricane Georges, to secure a likely spot in the BCS championship. They led 38-21 late in the third quarter, but with help from a controversial fumble call, Miami finished the game on a 28-7 run and won by four. A disappointed Bruins team then lost the Rose Bowl to Ron Dayne and Wisconsin, too.

Arizona’s lone disappointment came with a 52-28 loss to UCLA in October. Dick Tomey’s Wildcats were otherwise perfect, winning at No. 20 Washington, pummeling No. 12 Oregon at home (part of a four-game run that saw them outscore opponents by a combined 152-24) and finishing the season with one of the rarest commodities of the mid- to late-1990s: a win over Nebraska, 23-20 in the Holiday Bowl. They finished fourth in the AP poll.

In 2008, 15 years ago, Utah went unbeaten (again). As far as “We’re ready for a power conference” pronouncements go, this was a pretty good one. The Utes already enjoyed one top-five finish in the 2000s — a 12-0 run and No. 4 finish under Urban Meyer in 2004 — and after losing their footing a bit to start the Kyle Whittingham era, they had the pieces for another run in 2008. Utah beat Michigan, future Pac-12 mate Oregon State and ranked TCU and BYU teams to reach 12-0, then scored something about as rare as a late 1990s win over Nebraska: a win over Nick Saban’s Alabama. It jumped out to a 21-0 first-quarter lead on the Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl and made it count, winning 31-17 and finishing second, behind only Meyer’s Florida, in the final polls.

Also in 2008, Pete Carroll fielded his last elite USC team. The USC job is harder than it looks. Outside of the Carroll era, the Trojans have managed just one top-five finish since John Robinson left for the NFL in the early 1980s. But wow, did Carroll find his stride for a while. In the seven years from 2002 to 2008, the Trojans won or shared a pair of national titles and three Heisman Trophies — yes, I’m counting Reggie Bush’s; it happened — and went a combined 82-9 with seven consecutive AP top-four finishes.

The 2008 team didn’t have a Heisman-level offense, but it boasted one of the best defenses of the 2000s. Led by the ridiculously intimidating trio of All-American linebackers Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing and safety Taylor Mays, USC allowed just 9.0 points per game, giving up 10 or fewer points 10 times. A classic upset loss at Oregon State was the only blemish. Had there been a four-team CFP in 2008 (and had they made it in over either Florida, Oklahoma, Texas or unbeaten Utah), they’d have had an excellent shot at another title.

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