FILE - Utah quarterback Cameron Rising runs during the first half in the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game against Ohio State on Jan. 1, 2022, in Pasadena, Calif. Rising returns to the Utes after throwing for 2,493 yards and 20 touchdowns as a sophomore last season. Utah was picked to repeat as Pac-12 champions in the preseason media poll. (AP Photo/John McCoy, File)

Getting to Know the Top PAC-12 Teams in 2022

Gator football is right around the corner and so is Pac-12 football.

In eight days, about 88,000 will flock to The Swamp to witness Billy Napier’s debut. The task at hand for the Orange and Blue is no other than No. 7 Utah, the defending PAC-12 Champions. Although expectations have mostly revolved around Napier and how the new-look Gators will fare against ranked competition, there has been some uncertainty around the PAC-12 teams’ preseason rankings.

Here’s a breakdown of the conference’s top teams.

No. 7 – Utah

Among PAC-12 teams ranked in the AP Top-25 College Football Poll, Utah places the highest at No. 7. The program is coming off its most successful season since joining the conference in 2011. Last season, the Utes, led by 19-year veteran head coach Kyle Whittingham, defeated Oregon 38-10 in the PAC-12 championship game to cap off a 9-3 regular season. Utah played in the Rose Bowl, but eventually lost 48-45 to Ohio State.

In addition to an experienced coaching staff, Utah relies on a pair of young stars: quarterback Cameron Rising and running back Tavion Thomas. Rising guided Utah’s offense last year with 20 passing touchdowns and 2,493 passing yards. Thomas broke the Utah single-season rushing touchdown record with 21 and amassed 1,108 rushing yards in 13 games. The duo will be a force to be reckoned with among team defenses in the league.

PAC-12 Network analyst Yogi Roth offers an insight into Utah’s highly anticipated season.

The Gators will be the first major test on the Utes’ schedule. Utah will face Southern Utah and San Diego State before starting conference play on Sept. 24.

No. 11 – Oregon

Despite having similar stats, Oregon trails Utah in the preseason rankings at No. 11. Last season, the Ducks won the PAC-12 North with a 7-3 conference record and finished their season with an Alamo Bowl loss to Oklahoma. One of the reasons why Oregon stands behind Utah could be its new coaching staff. Dan Lanning, 36, was named head coach in December following Mario Cristobal’s departure to Miami. Lanning’s prior experience as a defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach at Georgia could land the Ducks into championship contention.

A drawback in Oregon’s side is the void of star quarterback Anthony Brown. The 24-year-old signed with the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent in April, leaving the QB1 job up for grabs. In 2021, Brown led the PAC-12 in passing yards and completions with 2,989 and 250, respectively. Former Auburn quarterback Bo Nix and redshirt freshmen Ty Thompson and Jay Butterfield are in the battle for the starting job.

No. 14 – USC

USC finished the 2021 season with a 4-8 record, its worst since 1991 when the Trojans finished 3-8. The disappointing year resulted in the firing of head coach Clay Helton after seven seasons in charge. As a replacement, the Trojans brought in Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma to overturn the bad results. In addition to Riley, USC added Oklahoma transfers Caleb Williams and Mario Williams to bolster the offense.

Caleb Williams transferred to USC after totaling 21 passing touchdowns and 1,912 passing yards in his freshman season in Norman. The expectations around his transfer will be put to the test when the Trojans face Utah on Oct. 15.

Switch the Script

With three programs inside the top-15, it will be interesting to see how PAC-12 teams fare against other Power Five conferences.

The result of the Florida-Utah game on Sept. 3 could be a measuring tool for teams like Oregon and USC for the rest of the season. Roth believes non-conference games can change the narrative of PAC-12 teams heading to the College Playoff selection show.

PAC-12 teams have not appeared in the College Football Playoffs since 2017. The last team to reach the playoff was the Washington Huskies, who lost to Alabama in the Peach Bowl, 24-7.

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