USC is the pick to win the Pac-12 Football Title in 2023
July 27, 2023
Despite having won only one Pac-12 football conference title in the past 14 years, the USC Trojans are favored by the Pac-12 media writers to win their first Pac-12 conference title since 2017. The Trojans received 25 of 36 votes first place votes. The Washington Huskies were 2nd in the voting, the two-time defending conference champion Utah Utes were 3rd, and the Oregon Ducks were selected 4th the Oregon State Beavers 5th and the UCLA Bruins are predicted to finish 6th in the conference.
USC head coach Lincoln Riley enters his second season at the helm, after going 11-3 in his first season in 2022. Riley inherited a team that went 4-8 in 2021 and had holes throughout the roster. Riley was able to rebuild the roster on the fly by utilizing the transfer portal to bring in key starters, with the most significant transfer being quarterback Caleb Williams.
Williams played his freshman season for Riley at Oklahoma. He followed Riley to USC and won the Heisman trophy in 2022 as the best player in college football. Riley has had three Heisman trophy winners at quarterback (Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and Williams) in his six seasons as a head coach. A fourth quarterback, Jalen Hurts, led the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl last season.
Riley certainly understands how to find and develop quarterbacks and will have Williams at quarterback for one more season. Riley feels the quarterback position is the most important on the field and at the Pac-12 football media day celebration, which was held on Friday, July 21st at the Resorts World in Las Vegas, he talked about what makes Williams so special.
"There is no one that I would rather go to war with than that guy," Riley said. "His toughness, ability to lead, his ability to continue to want to climb, the hunger to do that is very apparent on a day-to-day basis. Great quarterbacks at the end of the day get defined by their team's success, their championships. I know he's very hungry to go close out this year with both."
Williams led the nation in touchdown passes in 2022 with 42 while throwing just five interceptions. The Trojans led the nation in turnover ratio with a +22-turnover ratio, which was due to an opportunistic big play defense and the command that Williams had of the offense, which had just seven turnovers on the season. With back-to-back top ten recruiting classes, the Trojans should be the favorite in the Pac-12.
The Bruins are in a different place going into the 2023 season. They went 17-8 the past two seasons, with impressive wins over LSU and USC in 2021, and impressive wins over the Huskies and the Utes in 2022. But they have lost ten key players in the NFL draft the past two seasons. They also lost their two leading receivers from last season, Jake Bobo and Kazmeir Allen.
Both went undrafted, but Bobo looked good in mini camp with the Seattle Seahawks and Allen has impressed as a kick/punt returner for the Washington Commanders to this point. But the loss of quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and running back Zach Charbonnet will be the most difficult to replace.
Thompson-Robinson departs as the UCLA career leader in passing touchdowns with 88, in total touchdowns with 116, and in total offensive yardage with 12,522. Charbonnet led the nation with 168.0 all-purpose yards per game in 2022, averaging 135.9 rushing yards per game and 32.1 receiving yards per game. He was fourth in the nation at 6.97 rushing yards per carry. Charbonnet was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2023 NFL draft by the Seahawks. Thompson-Robinson went in the 5th round to Cleveland.
Head coach Chip Kelly talked at the Pac-12 media day meeting about replacing his stars. "Well, the quarterback spot, I think we have to replace a quarterback for the first time since George Bush was president," Kelly said. "I mean, George Herbert Walker Bush, not the other one. We had Dorian for 48 games. I started my career with Dorian. I anticipate going to fall camp and him still being there because he was around so much."
The quarterback position is the most interesting position for the Bruins. Ethan Garbers, a four-star quarterback out of Corona Del Mar high school in Newport Beach, could be the starter after two seasons as the backup to Thompson-Robinson. Senior transfer Collin Schlee was a third team All-Conference pick at quarterback for Kent State. Schlee rushed for 489 yards last season and brings a strong arm.
Five-star quarterback Dante Moore, the No.1 rated player in the state of Michigan, should be the starter. He only lacks experience, and he will not get the experience he needs on the sidelines. At the Pac-12 football media day event, Kelly said of Moore, "He's an old soul. He's the oldest 17-year-old I've ever met. He's got a unique quality about him. He's always thankful. He's really wise beyond his years."
"We have a lot of depth at that position (quarterback)," Kelly said. "We feel really good about how our players played in the springtime, are excited about that group. It's as deep a group as we ever had. We feel the same way about running back. T.J. Harden is back, great bowl game for us, really came along. We took a transfer in Carson Steele, excited about that." Steele rushed for 1,556 yards last season at Ball State. Steele has two years of eligibility remaining.
"There is an experience factor that we don't have losing Zach and Dorian, but I think depth will shine through for us." The depth on the roster is impressive but the question is, who will start and lead the offense?
The bigger question is on defense, where new defensive coordinator D'Anton Lynn will take charge. Lynn is the son of former Los Angeles Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn. He has spent the last nine seasons coaching with five different NFL teams, including the 2017 season with the Chargers. The Bruins struggled in pass defense and red zone defense in 2022, ranking in the bottom 25 in the nation in both categories. The challenge for Lynn is to get improvement in those areas and give the offense a chance to win games.
Whoever wins the Pac-12 championship this year will not have an easy road to the title. Six of the 12 conference teams finished in the top 18 of the final CFP rankings. In November, USC has a three-game stretch at home against Washington, at Oregon, and back at home against UCLA. The Bruins have to go on the road to Utah, where they have 76 consecutive sellouts and a 14-game home winning streak, and travel to Oregon State, where they are 11-1 the past two seasons. The 2023 Pac-12 conference season should be entertaining.