With a week remaining in 2022, the storylines are already set for the Pac-12 in 2023.
The last season with USC and UCLA shapes up as the Year of the Quarterback — the uncertain future serving as a backdrop to what could be a riveting present jammed with talent at the glamour position.
Yet another tantalizing piece fell into place Saturday when Oregon State secured a commitment from coveted transfer DJ Uiagalelei, the former five-star prospect whose career flatlined at Clemson.
He joins what might be the most talented top-to-bottom lineup of quarterbacks in conference history:
— USC’s Caleb Williams is the star among stars, fresh off his Heisman Trophy-winning season and destined for the first round of the NFL Draft in the spring of 2024.
— Two elite veterans who eschewed the NFL Draft are listed just below Williams on the Pac-12 marquee: Washington’s Michael Penix, who finished eighth in the Heisman voting; and Oregon’s Bo Nix, who was a candidate until the stretch run.
— The next tier is stocked with gifted, albeit unproven newcomers: Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders, the dynamic transfer from Jackson State who followed his father, Deion, to Boulder; freshman Dante Moore, the five-star UCLA signee; and Uiagalelei, a huge talent in need of a reset in Corvallis.
— The supporting cast includes two incumbents in Washington State’s Cam Ward and Arizona’s Jayden de Laura, along with two transfers who started elsewhere: UCLA’s Collin Schlee (from Kent State) and Arizona State’s Drew Pyne (from Notre Dame).
At this point, only Stanford and Cal lack quality options, although Utah’s outlook hinges on Cam Rising’s decision. (The two-time conference champion has not revealed whether he will return in ’23.)
USC, Washington and Oregon should carry top-15 rankings (at worst) into September with Utah, UCLA and Oregon State not far behind and Colorado leading those poised for an upswing … if the quarterbacks manage to approach their potential.
Recruiting stars and Heisman buzz make for great talking points during the offseason and should generate desperately needed attention for the conference. But final judgment will be left to 13 unforgiving Saturdays.
Will Moore and Uiagalelei approach their potential?
Will Nix and Penix remain healthy?
How will Sanders handle the transition to the Power Five level?
Are Ward, de Laura and Pyne capable of elevating their efficiency?
Can Williams deliver an encore?
The modern standard for Pac-12 quarterback play — for elite performance combined with first-rate depth — was set back in 1988, when USC’s Rodney Peete and UCLA’s Troy Aikman finished second and third in the Heisman voting, respectively, while Washington State’s Timm Rosenbach was seventh.
In addition, three other 1988 starters were good enough to eventually play in the NFL: Washington’s Cary Conklin, Cal’s Troy Taylor and Oregon State’s Erik Wilhelm.
Since Peete and Aikman dueled for supremacy, the conference has generated Heisman winners (Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Marcus Mariota), No. 1 overall picks (Drew Bledsoe, Andrew Luck and Jared Goff) and a future NFL Hall of Famer (Aaron Rodgers).
But rare is the season in which Pac-12 quarterback depth matches the lineup we expect to see in 2023.
The standard to beat nationally, it seems, was set in 2008 by the Big 12, which produced three of the top four finishers in the Heisman race. Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford won the award, with Texas’ Colt McCoy finishing second and Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell fourth.
But the Big 12 quarterback room also featured a future Heisman winner (Baylor’s Robert Griffin III), future first-round pick (Kansas State’s Josh Freeman) and 12-year NFL veteran (Missouri’s Chase Daniel).
It’s a lofty bar that the Pac-12 will be hard-pressed to clear.
But the process itself, cast against the backdrop of defection and uncertainty, will make for a fascinating year.
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