Pac-12 Conference 2023 preview
Caleb Williams, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, returns to quarterback USC and plays the role of college football’s biggest star. The Trojans are fit for Hollywood, with coach Lincoln Riley directing a high-payroll cast with soaring expectations. USC was 11-1 and a win away from the four-team playoff last season before falling to Utah in the Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas. The Utes, who have lost back-to-back Rose Bowls, bring back quarterback Cameron Rising. Veteran quarterbacks are a theme in this conference, as Oregon’s Bo Nix and Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. return for league title contenders. The Pac-12 is loaded with quality teams and star power, at least until USC and UCLA depart for the Big Ten in 2024.
The conference welcomes three new coaches, none more hyped nationally than Deion Sanders. “Coach Prime” cleaned house at Colorado and turned over the roster from top to bottom through the transfer portal, yet oddsmakers don’t believe the hype and set the Buffaloes’ win total at 3.5. Arizona State’s Kenny Dillingham, 33, is the youngest head coach of a Power Five program. The David Shaw era finally ended at Stanford, which hired Troy Taylor to launch a rebuilding job. The conference has a surplus of big-name coaches, elite quarterbacks and fascinating storylines, but will it produce a playoff team for the first time since 2017?
This should be the Trojans’ year, assuming Williams stays healthy and the defense improves. Heisman repeats are extremely rare, but Williams is the obvious favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. USC is the league favorite at +190, according to DraftKings, with Oregon (+300), Washington (+320), Utah (+600), Oregon State (11-1) and UCLA (14-1) in the hunt. The Trojans are getting 16-1 odds to win the national championship and have a legitimate shot if Williams remains a dynamic playmaker and resembles the college version of Patrick Mahomes.
Entering last season, Arizona had lost 23 of its last 24 games, but coach Jedd Fisch was eyeing a turnaround after going 1-11 in his first year in Tucson. The Wildcats got off to an encouraging start by beating San Diego State 38-20 as 6-point road ‘dogs in the season opener. While much progress was made in Fisch’s second year, Arizona fizzled against a tough Pac-12 schedule and finished 5-7.
Fisch, a former NFL assistant who was quarterbacks coach for the Patriots in 2020, found the right guy to run his offense last year. Washington State transfer Jayden de Laura was an immediate upgrade and passed for 3,685 yards and 25 touchdowns. The offense made a major leap from 17.2 points per game in 2021 to 30.8 points per game, as the Wildcats scored 20 points or more in all nine conference games. Eight starters are returning this year. De Laura’s top target is Jacob Cowing, who transferred from UTEP and totaled 85 receptions for 1,034 yards and seven touchdowns. Cowing and Tetairoa McMillan, who had 18.0 yards per reception and eight touchdowns, lead a deep group of receivers. Senior running back Michael Wiley returns after leading the team with 771 yards. The bottom line is the offense was not the problem last year and should be better in 2023.
With eight starters returning a year ago, Arizona still allowed 36.5 points per game and surrendered 45 points or more in each game of a four-game midseason losing streak against Oregon, Washington, USC and Utah. Only three starters return this season, but that’s not necessarily bad news because Fisch and his staff hit the transfer portal for reinforcements. Senior defensive end Taylor Upshaw, a transfer from Michigan, should be an impact player along with sophomore linebacker Jacob Manu. It’s tough to say if the defense will improve, but it’s unlikely to improve enough.
Fisch’s first year was a disaster, but he penned a signature win in 2022, a 34-28 victory over UCLA as a 20-point ‘dog in Pasadena. After getting humiliated in the rivalry with Arizona State and losing the previous two meetings by a combined score of 108-22, Arizona defeated the Sun Devils, 38-35. The Wildcats topped their season win total of 3 posted at DraftKings, but the win total is now 5. While the schedule presents a few winnable games in September, there are no soft spots at home the rest of the way. With five wins seemingly the ceiling, look Under or pass.
Pick: Under 5
Arizona State Sun Devils
Out with the old (Herm Edwards) and in with 33-year-old Kenny Dillingham as Arizona State’s new coach. Dillingham has worked under some sharp offensive head coaches and shows promise as a program leader and recruiter. The Sun Devils are facing a tough road through the Pac-12, but do not underrate Dillingham and his chances of overachieving this year.
It appears Dillingham’s first starting quarterback will be Drew Pyne, who was a highly-touted recruit at Notre Dame and had 22 touchdown passes in 10 starts for the Irish last season. Dillingham’s future starter at QB is expected to be five-star recruit Jaden Rashada, who backed out of a commitment to Florida. Dillingham is using transfers to rebuild the offensive depth chart, adding Sacramento State running back Cameron Skattebo, UNLV center Leif Fautanu and several others. The line looks strong and led by veterans, so this offense could be surprisingly good. Dillingham, a 2012 graduate of Arizona State, coached under Mike Norvell at Florida State and Memphis and Gus Malzahn at Auburn before becoming the offensive coordinator at Oregon last year. He hired Beau Baldwin, a former head coach at Eastern Washington, as his offensive coordinator.
Dillingham and his staff, including new defensive coordinator Brian Ward from Washington State, brought in more than 30 transfers. The defense returns only five starters but adds transfers from Tennessee, Texas, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Washington State, and many of those players will contribute or start immediately. The Sun Devils were involved in a lot of high-scoring games last season, highlighted by a 45-38 win over Washington, and that theme should continue until this defense matures.
With eight home games, Arizona State will have plenty of opportunities to get to five or six wins. The Sun Devils open at home against Southern Utah, Oklahoma State, Fresno State and USC, giving Dillingham a realistic shot to be 3-0 before facing the Trojans. The other league home games are against Colorado, Washington State, Oregon and Arizona. Cal is probably the only winnable road game in conference play. The win total (5) is depressed because of last year’s 3-9 debacle. Edwards was fired after an embarrassing loss to Eastern Michigan, and NCAA penalties for recruiting violations were a distraction. Dillingham is young, yet he’s rebuilding the right way and has a potential surprise team with a good shot to reach six wins.
Pick: Over 5
California Golden Bears
Entering his seventh year in Berkeley, coach Justin Wilcox needs to turn around a Cal program in decline. The Golden Bears are a combined 10-18 the past three years. Wilcox is an outstanding defensive coach, but he has been unable to find a star quarterback, and Cal’s offense will remain one of the worst in a conference stacked with explosive offenses and veteran quarterbacks.
Wilcox has had solid quarterbacks — four-year starter Chase Garbers preceded Jack Plummer last year — but needs one to take the offense to a higher level. TCU transfer Sam Jackson, who is mobile with a live arm, will compete against North Carolina State transfer Ben Finley. The job opened when Plummer, who passed for 21 touchdowns, opted to transfer to Louisville. Aaron Rodgers and Jared Goff are not walking back through the door. The Bears do return their leading rusher, Jaydn Ott, and leading receiver, Jeremiah Hunter, and four starters return for a good line. There is optimism surrounding the return of coordinator Jake Spavital, who was offensive coordinator for the Bears under Sonny Dykes in 2016 before becoming the Texas State head coach.
Nine starters return for Wilcox, who’s among the few defensive-minded head coaches in a league full of offensive wizards like USC’s Lincoln Riley, UCLA’s Chip Kelly and Washington’s Kalen DeBoer. Cal will count on two veterans — tackle Brett Johnson and linebacker Jackson Sirmon — to lead a unit that allowed 27.8 points per game, an unusually high number for a Wilcox defense.
Aside from a home game against Idaho, the schedule is brutally tough. Cal will face all of the Pac-12’s power teams (USC, Utah, Washington, Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA) and miss two of the weakest teams (Arizona, Colorado). The Bears open at North Texas before hosting Auburn. Last year, Cal went 4-8 with home victories over UC Davis, UNLV, Arizona and Stanford, and only the Cardinal return to the schedule. Wilcox is 3-1 against Stanford in the “Big Game” the past four years, so he’s got that going for him. Under the total of 5.5 was an easy call last year, and Under 5 is the obvious call this year. The quarterback position is a big question mark, and the schedule has only one soft spot. A five-win season seems to be the ceiling.
Pick: Under 5
The national media might buy the Deion Sanders story, but sharp bettors don’t believe the hype. “Coach Prime” talks about winning a Pac-12 championship while oddsmakers are doubting Colorado’s chances of winning four games. Sanders is using transfers in a total roster makeover that he thinks will be a boom and many others think will be a bust because of a lack of depth. The Buffaloes, 1-11 a year ago, will likely field another losing team, but no other losing team will be more fascinating to fade or follow.
Shedeur Sanders, the coach’s son, passed for 70 touchdowns in two seasons at Jackson State. How good he truly is will go a long way in determining this team’s success. Is Sanders a legit NFL prospect or a product of his dad’s hype machine? The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle, and Sanders will be a mid-level quarterback in his debut season in the Pac-12. There is no doubt he’s surrounded by high-level talent.
Houston transfer running back Alton McCaskill is a key addition, and wide receiver/cornerback Travis Hunter is a legit first-round NFL prospect who could be the best player on the field in several games. The line looks good enough on paper and transfers are filling the holes. The best coach on the new staff is probably offensive coordinator Sean Lewis, who was the head coach at Kent State. The Buffaloes have lots of doubters, but there are lots of reasons to believe in their offense.
The number of returning starters is irrelevant with this team, especially with the defense. The new staff recruited edge rushers from Arkansas, Florida State, Mississippi and West Virginia. Linebacker Demouy Kennedy and defensive back Jahquez Robinson were highly-ranked recruits at Alabama, and middle linebacker LaVonta Bentley is from Clemson. Hunter, from Jackson State, is a two-way star who will start at one corner. The defense is improved across the board, yet most of the pieces are new, and the unit needs time to develop.
Where are the soft spots on the schedule? Colorado State, Stanford and Arizona are opponents the Buffaloes need to beat at home. Colorado will not be favored in any of its road games against TCU, Oregon, Arizona State, UCLA, Washington State and Utah. It’s not absurd and out of the question to think the Buffaloes can win four, five or even six games, but the reality is “Coach Prime” will probably have to accept 3-9 and find ways to put a positive spin on it.
Pick: Under 3.5
Last season was called a make-or-break proposition for coach David Shaw, who was a broken man after a 3-9 finish. Shaw went 14-28 in his last four years and resigned. New coach Troy Taylor was a big winner at Sacramento State and brings a fresh offensive philosophy. But Taylor is facing a total rebuild with only six returning starters and no proven quarterback.
Running back EJ Smith, son of former Dallas Cowboys great Emmitt Smith, could be the star Taylor’s offense needs. Smith was off to a hot start last year, carrying 30 times for 206 yards before going down to a season-ending injury in the second game. Taylor is a run-first coach, and that’s good because Smith and backup Casey Filkins are his best players.
The quarterback competition is apparently wide open with freshman Myles Jackson, sophomore Ari Patu, sophomore Ashton Daniels and Syracuse transfer Justin Lamson in the mix. The bad news for Taylor is the offensive line requires a total rebuild. Stanford won three games last year and averaged 15.5 points in back-to-back victories over Notre Dame (16-14) and Arizona State (15-14). The offense could be dismal, though Taylor has a track record of success, so he provides some hope.
Sophomore linebacker David Bailey is one of three returning starters and will lead a unit that yielded 32.2 points and 224 rushing yards per game. The Cardinal allowed 40 points or more in five conference games. While most teams are rebuilding through the transfer portal, Stanford is in a different situation and lost the transfer game in the offseason.
The season opener on September 1 at Hawaii, which is picked to finish 10th in the Mountain West, will tell a lot about where Stanford is headed. The Cardinal will get blown out at USC in the second game before hosting Sacramento State and Arizona, so it’s possible Taylor could win three games in September. It’s also possible he could be 1-3 or 0-4 and headed for a disaster. Stanford’s other opportunities to get a win will come against Colorado and Cal. This is all about Taylor, who should eventually prove to be a great hire, and how quickly he can develop an inexperienced roster that has the least talent in the Pac-12. It’s tempting to bet on Taylor to go Over a low win total, but he needs more talent and time.
Pick: Under 3
First impressions are not everything. The Dan Lanning era at Oregon started with a disaster, a 49-3 loss to Georgia. Lanning, a former defensive coordinator under Kirby Smith with the Bulldogs, turned things around quickly with an eight-game winning streak. The Ducks went 9-3 in the regular season, slipping Over their win total of 8.5, and beat North Carolina 28-27 in the Holiday Bowl. Lanning has an experienced team returning, but the Pac-12 schedule is a little tougher this time.
The top defenses in the SEC are unforgiving, and the Pac-12 is a different world that tilts more toward the offenses, as Bo Nix found out in his first year at Oregon. Nix transferred from Auburn, where he struggled to find consistency, and suddenly started to fulfill his promise as a quarterback. Nix completed 72 percent of his passes with 29 touchdowns and seven interceptions, while also running for 510 yards and 14 TDs. He’s one of eight returning starters, along with leading rushers Bucky Irving and Noah Whittington and top receiver Troy Franklin.
The offensive line loses four veterans, but Lanning hit the transfer portal for reinforcements, and the line still ranks among the league’s strongest. The Ducks, who averaged 501 yards and 38.8 points per game, scored 41 points or more in each game of an eight-game winning streak. The numbers are not as impressive as they look because Nix and the Ducks feasted on several bad defenses after getting dominated by Georgia.
Lanning has SEC roots and is attempting to build a more physical defense. The Ducks had difficulty stopping the run and allowed 37 points to Washington and 38 to Oregon State in late-season losses. Eight starters are back, led by senior edge rusher Brandon Dorlus. The downside is Lanning loses star linebackers Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe.
The Ducks play five road games and probably will be big favorites in two (against Stanford and Arizona State) and underdogs at Washington and Utah. A September 9 trip to Texas Tech could be trouble because the Red Raiders are Big 12 title contenders. Oregon could sweep its home schedule due to the only tough games coming against USC, Washington State and Oregon State. It can be argued Lanning has a 10-win team on paper, but the same can be said about USC, Washington and Utah, so this projection is more of a lean to 9-3 because the Ducks seem vulnerable to slipping up in a few tricky spots on the schedule.
Pick: Under 9.5
Oregon State Beavers
Most of the media hype will focus on USC, Washington, Utah and Oregon, but don’t overlook an under-the-radar Oregon State team. Jonathan Smith has been a magician in Corvallis while coaching the Beavers from 2-10 in his first year to 10-3 in his fifth year. Smith draws a favorable schedule and a shot to crack the league’s top four.
It’s not a lock that Clemson transfer DJ Uiagalelei will win the quarterback competition, but he’s the favorite over sophomore Ben Gulbranson. The higher ceiling belongs to Uiagalelei, who went 22-6 as the Tigers’ starter yet was inconsistent and flopped in some big games. Gulbranson went 7-1 in eight starts last year, but he passed for only nine touchdowns while the running attack carried the offense. Eight starters are back, highlighted by running back Damien Martinez, who finished with 982 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground in what amounted to about a half a season of action. Starting with the sixth game, Martinez recorded six straight games with 100 or more yards. The driving force for the offense will be a line that ranks in the nation’s top 10, with four returning starters who are all juniors and seniors. If Uiagalelei turns into the real deal, the Beavers could top last year’s 32.2 points per game.
Nine starters returned last year, and the defense lived up to expectations by allowing 20 points per game and limiting USC to 17 points. There might be a slight decline with only five starters coming back, but the Beavers are experienced up front and will remain strong enough.
Over the win total (6.5) was an easier call a year ago, and the Beavers won nine due to dramatic comeback victories over Fresno State, Stanford and Oregon. With three-point losses to USC and Washington, Oregon State was competitive in 11-of-12 games before blowing out Florida, 30-3, in the Las Vegas Bowl.
The schedule is softer this year without the Trojans. The Beavers, who went 12-1 at home the past two years, host UCLA, Utah and Washington. It’s not safe to assume Oregon State will beat the Utes and Huskies in Corvallis, and the Beavers have not won the “Civil War” game at Oregon since 2007. The call to go Over 8.5 is only a lean this year, with 9-3 slightly more likely than 8-4. Smith has been a consistent overachiever.
Pick: Over 8.5
Chip Kelly still has a losing record (27-29) after five years at UCLA, where he has not won a bowl, but he went 17-8 the past two years to dig out of a hole. The Bruins took advantage of a favorable schedule to go Over 8.5 wins last year. This schedule is a little tougher, and the quarterback situation is a mystery, but UCLA could have its best defense of the Kelly era.
Kelly’s quarterback throughout most of his Westwood tenure was Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who arrived in 2018 and started 48 games in five seasons. Thompson-Robinson’s career ended in disappointment with a Sun Bowl loss to Pittsburgh, and he was drafted in the fifth round by the Browns. Kelly’s new starter will be junior Ethan Garbers, Kent State transfer Collin Schlee or hyped freshman Dante Moore. Zach Charbonnet also went to the NFL, as a second-round pick by the Seahawks, after rushing for 1,359 yards and 14 touchdowns.
The Bruins should be fine at running back thanks to the addition of Ball State transfer Carson Steele, who rushed for 1,556 yards and 14 scores for the Cardinals. Kelly’s new-look offense will not approach last year’s 39 points per game, but with one of the top lines in the Pac-12, the decline in the numbers should not be dramatic.
Nine starters are back, led by edge rusher Laiatu Latu and linebacker Darius Muasau. Kelly runs the offense and leaves the defense to his coordinator, and the new DC is D’Anton Lynn, who was an NFL assistant with the Ravens and looks like an upgrade. The Bruins were bad defensively in the final five games last year, but this unit will be better.
Kelly saved his job in 2021, when he upset LSU and USC and finished 8-4. He has started scheduling easier nonconference games to boost his record and added Coastal Carolina and North Carolina Central this year to go along with a trip to San Diego State. The Bruins avoid Oregon and Washington in Pac-12 play, but they hit the road to play Utah, Oregon State, Arizona and USC. UCLA was a 20-point home favorite in a 34-28 loss to Arizona late last season. The Bruins are breaking in a new quarterback and lost way too much offensive production to predict a nine-win season, so this is a lean Under 8.5.
Pick: Under 8.5
With a returning Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback and an innovative offensive coach, USC has what it takes on one side of the ball to be a national title contender. Is the defense tough enough? Lincoln Riley coached Oklahoma to three playoff appearances in five years, and he’s using the transfer portal and NIL resources to his advantage in Los Angeles, so a playoff appearance for the Trojans is realistic in his second year.
In 14 starts as a sophomore, Caleb Williams passed for 4,537 yards and 42 touchdowns with only five interceptions. He completed 333-of-500 passes and also rushed for 10 touchdowns. Williams is the college version of Patrick Mahomes and the likely No. 1 pick of the NFL Draft. Williams is as good as it gets as a starting point, and the former Oklahoma transfer is surrounded by seven more returning starters. Tahj Washington and Mario Williams highlight a big-play receiving corps, senior Austin Jones leads a backfield deep with talent and the line looks stronger. Riley will be dialing up plays in a video-game offense.
A unit that surrendered 29.2 points and 424 yards per game returns nine starters and adds several transfers, including tackle Bear Alexander (Georgia) and linebacker Mason Cobb (Oklahoma State). The defense excelled at forcing turnovers last season, as USC finished +22 in turnover margin, yet that number is probably unsustainable. The returnees and transfers indicate coordinator Alex Grinch’s defense will be dramatically improved.
The Trojans will be 6-0 going into their October 14 date at Notre Dame, which is followed by a home game against Utah. USC went 11-3 last season with a one-point loss at Utah, a 47-24 loss to the Utes in the conference title game, and a one-point loss to Tulane in the Cotton Bowl. The toughest spot on the Trojans’ schedule figures to come November 11 at Oregon. USC topped its win total of 9.5 last year, and DraftKings wisely bumped this total to 10, but look Over. It’s always risky to bet Over a high win total because an injury to the quarterback could wreck the season. Still, assuming Williams stays healthy, all of the pieces are in place for at least a 10-win regular season and a spot in the four-team playoff. Williams gives the Trojans a significant advantage over other elite teams such as Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State.
Pick: Over 10
Kyle Whittingham is a bet-on coach — until his quarterback goes down to injury in the Rose Bowl. Utah finished 10-4 in the past two seasons and won the Pac-12 Championship Game in a blowout each year. Unfortunately for Whittingham, he had bad injury luck with his QB in Pasadena and lost to a Big Ten opponent on both trips. With the Utes facing road games against USC and Washington this season, a Pac-12 three-peat is unlikely.
Senior quarterback Cameron Rising suffered a torn ACL in the Rose Bowl loss to Penn State — a year after he was knocked out of a Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State — and made the wise decision to return to school. Whittingham recently said he “absolutely” expects Rising to be ready for camp in early August and start the Aug. 31 opener against Florida. Rising is a true dual-threat QB, though the knee injury could limit his running game. Redshirt freshman Brandon Rose is the current No. 2 quarterback and is followed on the depth chart by Bryson Barnes and Nate Johnson.
The running back spot is in good hands with Ja’Quinden Jackson and Micah Bernard. Tight ends Brant Kuithe and Thomas Yassmin are part of a line that Whittingham said might be the best he has had in depth and talent in his 19 years. This has the potential to be a great offense with Rising and still a good one without him.
Nine starters return from a unit that allowed 21.4 points per game. A line led by Junior Tafuna is arguably the toughest in the conference, and the same could be true about the defense as a whole because there are no weaknesses on any of the three levels. The Utes were too physical for USC and quarterback Caleb Williams in the league title game.
Rising is reportedly ahead of schedule in his knee rehab, and he needs to be ready with Florida and Baylor looming the first two weeks. Aside from road games against USC and Washington, the Utes play at Oregon State, so betting Over 8.5 is not an easy decision. Still, going Over is the lean due to faith in Whittingham and the culture of toughness in his program. Utah probably boasts the best offensive and defensive lines in the league. If Rising’s health becomes an issue, the backups are capable of winning. The Utes are likely to lose at least two road games, but they will be solid favorites in all seven games in Salt Lake City.
Pick: Over 8.5
In his first year in Seattle, coach Kalen DeBoer took over a four-win team and turned it around to 11-2, including an Alamo Bowl victory over Texas. DeBoer’s success was not surprising to those who followed his teams at Fresno State. He has a creative offensive mind, and he’s got the quarterback to take it to the next level. The Huskies are a legit threat to win the conference, so circle their November 4 game at USC as the Pac-12 season’s biggest game.
Michael Penix ranked second in the nation with 4,641 passing yards last season, when he raised his NFL stock and still opted to return to school as a Heisman Trophy contender. Penix again will be targeting Jalen McMillan and Rome Odunze, who combined for 154 receptions, 2,243 yards and 16 of the star quarterback’s 31 touchdowns. While the offensive line is mammoth in size, it is lacking some experience, with only two starters returning. But DeBoer took an offense that averaged 21.5 points the previous year and ramped it up to 39.7 points per game. In late-season road wins at Oregon and Washington State, Penix put up 37 and 51 points, respectively. Respect this offense as one of the nation’s best.
DeBoer is focused on the other side of the ball yet obviously knows the defense must improve a lot, and it helps to have eight starters back. The Huskies allowed 40 points in a loss at UCLA, 45 in a loss at Arizona State and 39 in a win at Arizona. There is plenty of talent on a unit led by edge rusher Bralen Trice, linebacker Alphonzo Tuputala and cornerback Jabbar Muhammad, a transfer from Oklahoma State.
The schedule is much tougher than last year, when Washington avoided USC and Utah. The Huskies will play the Trojans and Utes on back-to-back Saturdays in early November prior to a trip to Oregon State. However, the Huskies will be favored in their first eight games, including Boise State and Oregon at home, and Michigan State and Arizona on the road. This team should win nine to at least push the win total. An injury to Penix would be a major problem, and that’s always a risk when playing an offensive-oriented team to top a high win total. It’s a square bet, but Washington has the coach, quarterback and improved defense to get to 10-2, so lean Over.
Pick: Over 9
Washington State Cougars
Washington State was the definition of a middle-of-the-pack team in the Pac-12 last year. The Cougars went 4-0 against their weakest league opponents and 0-5 against the top half of the league (Utah, USC, Washington, Oregon and Oregon State). The end result was a 7-5 record in the regular season and second bowl appearance in coach Jake Dickert’s second season. Expect more of the same and maybe a little less.
In a conference stacked with star quarterbacks, Cameron Ward ranks on the fringe of the top five. Ward proved he belongs. He was a transfer from Incarnate Word in San Antonio, where he totaled 77 touchdown passes in two seasons in the Southland Conference. In his first year at Washington State, Ward completed 64.4% of his passes for 3,231 yards and 23 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He also ran for five touchdowns. Behind an improved line, Ward’s numbers should improve.
Nakia Watson, a former Wisconsin transfer, returns as the top running back, and junior wide receiver Kyle Williams will be a go-to target after transferring from UNLV. Offensive coordinator Eric Morris left for the head-coaching position at North Texas, and new coordinator Ben Arbuckle from Western Kentucky is another pass-happy play caller.
If the Cougars crumble, the defense will probably be the reason. A unit that allowed 23.0 points per game returns only five starters. Senior Brennan Jackson does return as one of the elite defensive ends in the league. One positive is USC quarterback Caleb Williams is not on the schedule.
Washington State went 3-0 in nonconference play last year and upended Wisconsin 17-14 as a 17-point road underdog. The Cougars open at Colorado State, an improved Mountain West team, before hosting the revenge-minded Badgers. USC and Utah are not on the conference schedule, so that’s a big break, but the Cougars play five league road games and will likely be a ‘dog in four. Ward and the offense might have to carry a heavy load for Washington State early before a rebuilt defense catches up. Dickert, the team’s former defensive coordinator, has a lot of work to do on that side of the ball. Unless the Cougars upset Wisconsin again — and don’t bet on that — they are unlikely to win seven games. The crystal ball shows 6-6, which could be optimistic.
Pick: Under 6.5