Pac-12 media day: Five questions for the 2023 season

ByKyle Bonagura and Paolo Uggetti ESPN logo
Friday, July 21, 2023

The Pac-12 heads to the desert Friday in its new, unofficial home -- Las Vegas -- for media day to kick off the 2023 season.

It's a pivotal year for the Pac-12 with the most loaded group of quarterbacks in college football, an important media rights deal on the horizon and the goodbye tour for UCLA and USC after nearly 200 combined years in the conference.

But before we get to Friday, here are some of the most pressing questions surrounding the conference worth diving into.

What's the latest on the Pac-12 media deal?

Paolo Uggetti: Nothing seems to have materially changed -- the Pac-12 needs a new deal and hasn't announced one, though Tuesday sources told Heather Dinich the deal would come in the "near future." The longer this drags on, the more the pressure builds on commissioner George Kliavkoff to deliver something, anything. Perhaps the delay turns out to be well worth it and the conference gets a great deal. But there's also a good chance the deal will be unsatisfactory and panned throughout the college football world. Kliavkoff will certainly get asked about this on media day, and though I don't expect him to exactly divulge anything of substance, it's been an overall bad look for the conference to not have something already in place given how much it keys everything else, most importantly, expansion.

Kyle Bonagura: We've been hearing about "near future" for nearly year. What's still not clear is exactly how to define what that means. Days? Weeks? A month? End of the season? This was a topic last season and, at the time, it seemed plausible that a deal could be done in 2022. The media rights deal is important because it will be instructive about what the conference's future looks like, but I can't remember a more yawn-inducing storyline that has carried an offseason. Most fans couldn't care less about the play-by-play of media rights negotiations. It always made sense the deal would be worth somewhere in the range of what the ACC and Big 12 got and any difference in the per-school financial distribution -- more or less -- wouldn't be a meaningful amount. Nothing that's agreed to is going to end continued conference realignment in the future. More is inevitable.

What does the final year for USC and UCLA look like?

Uggetti: Anticlimactic? The announcement of their departure to the Big Ten already feels so long ago that this season might feel like just a formality. USC will surely be in contention for the conference championship yet again, and I can't imagine the Pac-12 will feel great about sending them out the door with a trophy. But ultimately, the decision has already been made, and both parties seem eager to move on. There will surely be plenty of bemoaning the death of certain matchups once they come and go this season, but beyond that, the fuss will likely be minimal until the very end.

Bonagura: It's really a matter of perspective. The Pac-12 has been a good home for UCLA and USC for a long time, so bittersweet feelings will be natural for UCLA and USC fans, coaches, players, etc. An understandable business decision was made to leave, but just because that's the case, it shouldn't diminish the history the two schools have in the conference. Everyone left behind has reached the stage of indifference. The most pressing issue is what impact will UCLA and USC's departures have on the other 10 schools long-term -- an issue that still lacks much clarity.

Can anyone unseat Utah?

Uggetti: In short, definitely. But the reality is many didn't expect Utah to repeat last season, and then they went out and beat the second-best team in the conference twice in resounding fashion. Doubting them to win a third Pac-12 title in a row feels silly considering they have plenty of talent on the team, Kyle Whittingham is still coaching and Cam Rising will be under center. It won't be easy. Leading the charge to unseat them will be USC, who lost twice to the Utes last season, and will certainly be looking to have some revenge in quarterbackCaleb Williams' final season, with a whole new crop of talented transfers as well.

Bonagura: Are we sure Washington shouldn't be considered the favorite? How about Oregon? The only thing clear going into this season is that there isn't one clear favorite. I even like Oregon State's chances of remaining in the championship game hunt until late in the season. Still, it's hard to bet against Utah. It's a machine and, like Paolo pointed out, those two wins against USC -- especially the rout in the Pac-12 title game -- made a lasting impression.

Who's the second-best quarterback in the conference?

Uggetti: While the conference is deep with quarterbacks, I think the top two are very clear: Caleb Williams and Michael Penix Jr. Washington was a bad week away from not just being in the conference title game, but perhaps contending for a playoff spot as well in Kalen DeBoer's first season in Seattle. DeBoer's quick overhaul of the program was spearheaded on the field by Penix Jr., who posted video game numbers (4,641 yards, 31 touchdowns) and should have an equal or better season with a year in that offense now under his belt. On a week-to-week basis, he's also arguably as compelling of a watch as Williams is.

Bonagura: I would lean toward Penix, too, but we should definitely acknowledge those monster stats benefit from Washington's offensive approach. What I found interesting last year, though, was that even though Penix had an incredible year, ESPN's QBR stat only ranked him as the fifth-best QB in the Pac-12: 1. Williams 87.6; 2. Bo Nix 85.1; 3. Cam Rising 83.1; 4. Dorian Thompson-Robinson 82.1; 5. Penix 81.1 There was a steep drop-off after that. This isn't a definitive way to rank these guys, but what it tells us is that they are all in a similar tier. DTR is gone, but few conferences ever have this type of elite QB talent returning in the same season.

Can Deion Sanders' roster rebuild at Colorado work?

Uggetti: Even if Sanders is missing media day due to a medical procedure, his news conferences may all be appointment TV this season, not to mention every one of Colorado's games. It's been a chaotic offseason, but if Sanders and Co. show small incremental improvements, it will be a positive sign for his tenure given where Colorado was last year. None of the hoopla will matter if Sanders wins, but as evidenced by their schedule, that is not going to be easy.

Bonagura: Colorado is going to be better. Part of that is because it's almost impossible to be worse, but there is more high-end talent on this roster and that should pay dividends. But let's look at the schedule: TCU, Oregon and USC all in the first month (plus Nebraska and Colorado State). The expectation here is that Colorado will have a losing record as September ends and start conference play in an 0-2 hole. Coach Prime is going to command attention either way, but as for Colorado being a serious player in Year 1? That seems unlikely.

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