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Pac-12 football: Previewing each team as they enter conference competition

Entering conference football play, the Pac-12 does not have a clear-cut favorite to win the conference, but here's what we know about how the teams stack up

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Redshirt junior quarterback Emory Jones (5) throws the football at the ASU vs. Eastern Michigan football game at Sun Devil Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. ASU lost 30-21.

Entering conference play, the Pac-12 does not have a clear-cut favorite to win the conference, but some teams have a better chance than others. Here's a preview of every team's offseason and how they've performed in three weeks of competition as they head into Pac-12 play. The Sun Devils face off against Utah Saturday for their first Pac-12 match up of the season.

Tier one: Real contenders

USC (3-0)

Head coach Lincoln Riley's offense is averaging 50.7 points per game behind a slew of transfers. Projected 2024 first-round draft pick sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams, graduate student running back Travis Dye and 2021 Biletnikoff Award winner for outstanding receiver junior Jordan Addison highlight the nation-leading 20 transfers that Riley recruited. 

Riley, who is in his first season as USC's head coach, never held together a strong defense at Oklahoma, and with a defense that allowed 409 yards and 32 points per game last year, USC's defense could be the team's kryptonite. 

Utah (2-1)

Last year, the Pac-12 defending champions averaged 36 points per game and returned junior quarterback Cameron Rising and junior running back Tavion Thomas, who led the Pac-12 in rushing touchdowns with 21.  

Utah fell to the Florida Gators in its season opener 29-26 at The Swamp but Rising put the team in a position to win the game if not for a fourth-quarter interception at the six-yard line with 0:22 seconds. 

"It's been (three) games but I don't think it's crisis mode right now or time to panic," said Utah's head coach Kyle Whittingham on the team's start to the season. "It is just a couple of games where we didn't start like we wanted to." 

Despite the opening loss, Utah still looks like it will be close to the top of the conference. The Utes are not going anywhere.

Oregon (2-1)

Oregon bounced back after a humiliating 49-3 loss to the Georgia Bulldogs with back-to-back blowouts, including a 41-20 victory over No. 12 BYU. 

The Ducks will compete for a conference championship with defensive-minded head coach Dan Lanning joining from Georgia, where he was the defensive coordinator and whose defense held Alabama to 18 points in the National Championship Game. 

With no USC on the calendar and UCLA and Washington at home in Eugene, the Ducks are set up to potentially return to the Pac-12 championship game. 

Washington (3-0)

Burn the footage from last year. A Washington team that threw for more interceptions than touchdowns last year brought in head coach Kalen DeBoer from Fresno State, who boasted the 14th-ranked offense last year. 

Through three games, the Huskies lead the Pac-12 with 1,645 yards on offense behind Indiana transfer junior quarterback Michael Penix, Jr. who has thrown for over 300 yards per game and notched a 39-28 victory over No. 11 Michigan State. 

If the Huskies figure out a defense that allowed 193.7 defensive rushing yards per game last season, they're a team in the Pac-12 championship mix with a schedule that avoids USC and Utah.   

Tier two: Middle of the PAC

UCLA (3-0)

UCLA squeaked out an undefeated start in its weak nonconference play. 

The Bruin offense behind fifth-year senior Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who led the conference in total touchdowns last season, and senior star running back Zach Charbonnet will have to overcome the team's question marks on the other side. 

UCLA only had two defensive starters return from 2021, the lowest in the conference. The defense that allowed South Alabama to convert on nine of 14 third downs will have to step up against Utah, Oregon, Washington and USC. Head coach Chip Kelly will have to beat Utah and Oregon for the first time during his stint at UCLA if he wants to propel this team to the Pac-12 championship mix. 

Oregon State (3-0)

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Chance Nolan's hot start began when he orchestrated a game-winning touchdown drive against a feisty Fresno State team before throwing four touchdowns against Montana State last Saturday. 

Oregon State will know how they stack up with the big dogs because the team faces USC and then Utah up next. With only four road conference games, eight starters returning on defense, three retooling the offensive line, plus facing Oregon at home, the Beavers feel like a fun dark horse conference championship team. 

Washington State (3-0)

Sophomore quarterback transfer Cameron Ward proved himself in the big leagues after taking down No. 19 Wisconsin on the road. 

Ward threw 47 touchdowns last year at Incarnate Word University to earn the Jerry Rice Award for the best freshman season in the FCS. He followed his head coach at IWU, now WSU offensive coordinator Eric Morris, to Pullman. WSU has a chance in every game with this offense. 

Stanford (1-1)

Stanford is regarded as one of the best engineering schools in the country, but don't ask them to engineer a favorable schedule. 

A week three bye and nonconference games against Notre Dame and No. 19 BYU doesn't make life any easier for projected first-round NFL draft pick junior quarterback Tanner McKee

Even though the Cardinals brought back a Pac-12 leading 17 starters from 2021, it only had one transfer addition. With arguably the worst schedule in the conference, Stanford will ride or die on McKee's shoulders, who will face Washington, Oregon and Utah all on the road.     

California (2-1)

Maybe head coach Justin Wilcox knows something everyone else doesn't after turning down the head coaching job at Oregon, his alma mater, to stay at Berkeley. 

"If we continue along this path, we can do some great things here and things that haven't been done before," Wilcox said last December after deciding to stay. 

Last year the Golden Bears finished 5-7 but were 0-5 in one-score games and had to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak. Wilcox hopes first-year starter redshirt senior transfer quarterback Jack Plummer is the difference maker this year but with a rushing attack that is second to last in rushing yards and points per game so far in the Pac-12, Cal will have to win some ugly games with a defense that allowed the second-fewest points per game last year in the conference. 

Tier three: The bottom

UA (2-1)

The Wildcats have already doubled their wins from last year thanks to an aggressive and successful offseason with the No. 27 transfer recruiting class and the Pac-12's No. 3 recruiting class for 2022. 

Sophomore transfer quarterback from Washington State Jayden de Laura appears to be the answer, but with a suspect defense, the Wildcats still have ways to go. At least the team will have a chance at exacting revenge in the Territorial Cup.  

ASU (1-2)

Following Herm Edwards' exit this past weekend, interim head coach Shaun Aguano said all the right things in his introductory press conference, but that doesn't change the fact that the Sun Devils returned the lowest number of starters in the Pac-12 with six. 

"I think it's a chance for us in a new season, with the conference coming about, that we can prove a lot of the naysayers wrong," Aguano said. 

Seventeen players from last season entered the transfer portal, while eight are competing at the next level. Graduate student transfer running back Xazavian Valladay is 12th in the nation in rushing yards with 361, but redshirt junior quarterback Emory Jones needs to step up after only throwing two touchdowns through three matchups. 

READ MORE: Xazavian Valladay is the 'X-factor' for ASU football offense this season

Colorado (0-3)

After Colorado became the first Power 5 football program to lose 22 players, no wonder CU has been outscored 128-30 in nonconference play. 

With no competent quarterback play through three games, true freshman Owen McCown saw the field last week for 12 snaps and led the team in passing yards with just 52. The Buffaloes appear to be on the brink of setting records for all the wrong reasons. 

Edited by Walker Smith, Wyatt Myskow and Piper Hansen. 

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