Pac-12 top 10: Key players return for Utah and Washington, a Big Ten exit, a USC legend passes and other top stories from the week

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Our quick-hitting recap of the top Pac-12 storylines from the week …

1. Utah’s band is back together

Quarterback Cam Rising and tight end Brant Kuithe announced they’re returning for the 2023 season, instantly elevating the Utes to contender status in what should be a loaded conference.

There is one significant unknown in Salt Lake City, however: Rising’s health. He suffered a serious leg or knee injury in the Rose Bow that, according to coach Kyle Whittingham, will require a prolonged recovery.

Utah should open the season in the top-25, and perhaps in the top-15. If Rising is near (at) 100 percent when conference play begins (Sept. 23), the Utes have a real chance to become the first team in the Pac-12’s expansion era to win three consecutive titles.

2. More good news for Washington

Star receiver Rome Odunze became the latest Husky to announce his return in ’23, following the path of fellow wideout Jalen McMillan, edge rushers Bralen Trice and Zion Tupuola-Fetui, left tackle Troy Fautanu and some dude named Penix.

Odunze was a first-team all-conference selection and, with McMillan, forms the best receiver tandem in the Pac-12. (They combined for 16 touchdowns and more than 2,000 yards.)

UW was the hottest team west of Fort Worth at the end of the season and, with so many key players returning, should start ’23 in the top-10, with designs on the College Football Playoff.

3. Big exit from the Big Ten

After three uneventful years (massive sarcasm), commissioner Kevin Warren is leaving the conference to become president of the Chicago Bears — a move that carries repercussions for near-term realignment.

Warren made no secret of his desire to continue expanding the Big Ten, potentially with Washington, Oregon and the Bay Area schools to form a West Coast division that would kill off the Pac-12. But he was at the mercy of the university presidents, who don’t have the interest, and the league’s media partners, who don’t have the money.

There’s little chance of the Big Ten making another expansion move in the coming months as it searches for a commissioner, giving the Pac-12 room to breathe.

4. Pac-12 schedule on hold

Fans across the footprint are awaiting the release of the 2023 conference schedule, which has been delayed for unspecified reasons. However, external developments suggest the process is nearing completion.

Both the ACC and Big 12 are expected to unveil their schedules before the end of January. Because ESPN and Fox make programming decisions for all the Power Five conferences — each network slots games into a master grid across four time zones — resolution for two leagues indicates the puzzle is almost solved.

5. Week Zero plans nixed

Clarity came to one aspect of the ’23 conference schedule after the NCAA reportedly denied a Pac-12 request to switch the Colorado-Arizona State game to the final Saturday in August (aka: Week Zero).

The conference wanted to move the game in order to prevent one, or both, of the participants from having to play nine consecutive weeks. (That case wasn’t strong enough for the NCAA, which is forever worried about precedent.)

Whether the ASU-Colorado situation was the final snag in the Pac-12’s scheduling process is not known.

6. Transfer portal mayhem

The movement of players has slowed, but hardly stopped, since the chaotic stretch in early December.

This week, Cal grabbed a little-known quarterback, Sam Jackson V, who spent this season as TCU’s third stringer, while Washington lost a high-profile passer: Sam Huard, the former mega-recruit with deep UW bloodlines, will seek playing time elsewhere.

But the most impactful move came in Corvallis, where all-conference linebacker Omar Speights bid adieu to Oregon State and entered the portal. Without the tackling machine as an anchor, the Beavers must retool their linebacking unit.

7. Pac-12 Networks on the move

The conference announced last spring that it would seek an alternative location for its production studios once the pricey lease in San Francisco expired in the summer of 2023.

On Wednesday, the location of the new facility became public: The East Bay city of San Ramon, which isn’t far from the Pac-12’s former, longtime home in Walnut Creek.

The 42,000-square foot office space will house the production studios needed for the networks, in whatever form they take — a streaming-only platform seems likely — during the next media rights cycle.

8. March Madness expansion on hold

The NCAA’s Board of Directors on Thursday approved a recommendation to expand the size of championship events to match the number of schools that sponsor the particular sport.

For the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, the fields would need to expand to 90 teams (approximately) to meet the recommended threshold for the 360-something programs in Division I.

However, the governing board referred the final decision to each sport’s specific oversight committee. In the case of March Madness, the men’s and women’s selection committees will ultimately determine whether or not to expand.

We expect a verdict on the highly-nuanced issue sometime this summer.

9. A legend passes

Former USC running back Charles White passed away Wednesday, at the age of 64, following a fight with cancer.

White won the Heisman Trophy in 1979, was the headliner on several of the greatest teams in conference history — the Trojans were 42-6-1 during his four seasons — and remains the Pac-12’s career rushing leader with 6,245 yards.

Nobody is close.

10. Key deadline approaches

Monday is the final day for early-entry candidates to declare for the NFL Draft.

Thus far, the Pac-12 has received more good news than bad, but there are typically a slew of last-minute decisions that carry a wallop. And in some cases, players don’t reveal their decisions until the deadline has come and gone.

Be ready for a Pac-12 surprise, or three.

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