The 2023 Pac-12 QB class is giving us a farewell tour like no other

ByPaolo Uggetti ESPN logo
Thursday, October 12, 2023

NEARLY SEVEN FULL weeks into the college football season, it wouldn't be too difficult to rank your top Heisman Trophy contenders and find yourself only listing Pac-12 quarterbacks. Michael Penix Jr. Caleb Williams. Bo Nix.

Earlier in the year, you could have added Colorado's Shedeur Sanders -- who still leads the nation in total passing yards -- and until this past week, you could have also made a case for Washington State's Cameron Ward too. And those are just the headliners.

Cameron Rising -- winner of the past two Pac-12 championships at Utahand the MVP of the 2022 game -- has yet to play this season.Oregon State'sDJ Uiagalelei, who transferred fromClemson,had his best performance of the season with five touchdowns in a game. Dante Moore is shining through some freshman growing pains and, alongside a menacing defense, has UCLAlooking like a conference contender.

Then something like Saturday night happens, when Arizona's Noah Fifita walks into the Los Angeles Coliseum as the Wildcats' freshman backup and proceeds to nearly pull off an upset over Williams and USC. With Jayden de Laura out with an injury, Fifita has stepped in and shown to be plenty capable of going toe-to-toe with the conference's best.

From the sheer depth of talent, to the thrilling matchups, to the Heisman contenders, the Pac-12's identity this season has been clear: Led by some of the best quarterbacks in the country -- a historic class-- the conference boasts seven ranked teams in the AP Top 25 poll and some of the best offenses in the nation.

For a conference that is dissolving at the end of this season, what we're witnessing is not so much a swan song, but more like a farewell tour for a rock band led by a handful of the most electric frontmen in the country.

ONE OF THE few reasons Fifita was unable to secure an upset on Saturday was because of Williams. Despite having a lackluster performance in the passing game by his standards, the reigning Heisman winner still managed to show his versatility and resilience, using his legs to get into the end zone three times, including in the third overtime.

With the game on the line, and a play that was drawn up to be a pass before two receivers ran into each other, Williams made a beeline for the pylon. At first glance, there didn't look to be much room for Williams to score, but as he's done over and over throughout the past two seasons, Williams found a way. His hesitation move stopped a defender long enough for him to find a crease that he used to get the ball across the goal line and secure the win for USC.

"I know I haven't ran this year much," Williams said after the game. "I don't really like to run to be honest with you, but you got to do whatever you got to do to win the game. It doesn't matter whether it's me running, whether it's me passing 400 [yards], whether it's me running for 200 and handing the ball off, having good play fakes, just doing my job."

Although he's only played three full games this season due to blowouts, his numbers have been as impressive as last season.

Through six games, no quarterback has thrown more touchdowns than Williams (22), who is clear of the field by three scores. Add in the rushing touchdowns (six) and Williams has accounted for more than half of USC's total points this season. His 28 touchdowns are the most by a Pac-12 player through his team's first six games in the past 20 seasons.

This week, however, Williams will take a backseat toWashington's Penix and Oregon's Nix.

Penix and Nix will meet in Seattle this weekend in one of the conference's highly anticipated matchups.

Like Williams, both are transfers in their second year with their teams. And with a year of familiarity, they both have their respective teams to 5-0 starts.

Nix, who isn't that far removed from an up-and-down campaign at Auburn, where he never reached 3,000 passing yards in a season and threw 16 interceptions over three seasons, has evolved significantly as a quarterback and become a paragon of consistency and efficiency for the Ducks. After deciding to forego the NFL draft following an impressive first season in Eugene, Nix leads FBS in completion percentage at 80.4. He is only the third quarterback in the past 20 seasons to maintain a completion percentage above 80 through the first five games.

Nix's evolution has been a sight to behold. As Dan Lanning, who has said Nix is the best quarterback in the country, explained after the Ducks' drubbing of Colorado, Nix is so comfortable in the offense now that he even called a few touchdown-scoring plays during that game.

"I want to demand perfection for myself," Nix said.

Nix's counterpart this weekend in Seattle has been seemingly perfect every time he drops back for the Huskies. Last year, Penix transferred from Indiana to play under Kalen DeBoer in his first season at UW and the effect was immediate. Both turned around a program in need of a fresh start and were likely one loss from a chance at a Pac-12 title and a shot at the College Football Playoff.

This season, so far, has felt like an extension of their success last season. And at the forefront of it all is Penix, who like Williams has also been able to take off several quarters thanks to the Huskies' dominance, while still putting up gaudy numbers. Through five games, Penix leads FBS in passing yards per game (399.8) and per attempt (11.2 yards) with three games over 400 passing yards already -- most of any signal-caller in the country.

"He's a great quarterback so he puts it right where I need to get it," Washington wideout Rome Odunze said.

Penix's 16-to-2 touchdown to interception ratio, coupled with his 1,999 total passing yards, can only encapsulate his dominance this season. Surrounded by a slew of skill players, Penix has shown off his playmaking and deep ball plenty. Perhaps the biggest sign of Penix's success can be found by watching and hearing how he's felt this year.

"It's been very fun, I'm not even going to lie," Penix said. "It takes me back to my young days."

DEPENDING ON YOUR perspective, the aforementioned three quarterbacks at the top of the sport have been thriving in the shadow of a quarterback in their own conference.

That would be Sanders.

For reasons both within and outside his control, Sanders has become one of the conference's -- well, the sport's -- marquee players. And though the noise that surrounds him is saturated, the junior has met the frenzy with impressive play. Outside of having more passing yards than any quarterback in the country, Sanders is completing 72.7% of his passes and has thrown 16 touchdowns to just two interceptions.

It's evident how much Colorado relies on Sanders' passing to carry the load offensively -- so far he's averaging over 42 attempts per game (third-highest in the country) -- but watching the Buffs play, it's hard to argue they should be opting for any other strategy. During what was supposed to be a transition year for Deion Sanders, Shedeur's play has carried them to four wins. Shedeur's ability to perform under pressure despite being sacked 23 times -- more than any quarterback in the country -- has also played a factor.

"He always does this," Deion said of Shedeur after the Buffs beat out Arizona State last week thanks to a Shedeur drive. "You see it every week, this ain't new for him. You've seen this every week. We've seen him do this every week. It's like we wait for him to put on his cape and do what he does. That's what he does every week. You guys should be accustomed to it by now."

It's true. At Jackson State, Shedeur had multiple winning drives and clutch throws on his way to back-to-back 3,000-plus-yards seasons. The transition to a Power 5 conference hasn't stopped him, and one could say the same for Washington State's Ward, who last year transferred from Incarnate Word.

Ward was more of an unknown than many of his Pac-12 counterparts, but his stats at Incarnate Word (4,648 yards, 47 touchdowns in 2021) leaped off the page. After a transition season last year, when he still threw for over 3,000 yards, Ward has looked more comfortable and effective in the Cougars' offense this season, putting together two performances of over 400 yards and two games of at least four touchdowns. Through five games, he is on pace for over 30 touchdowns.

Numbers aside, Ward is one of the more entertaining quarterbacks to watch in the conference. When he drops back, he is not only never still, but it looks like he's on a trampoline, bouncing on his feet while he surveys the field.

"He's just such a difficult player to defend," UCLA's Chip Kelly said of Ward. "And he always scrambles to throw. So that means you have to stay in coverage for a really, really long time."

Kelly's vaunted UCLA defense limited Ward last week, and while the Bruins' head coach has been able to rely on a defense led by D'Anton Lynn, he's also decided on the team's starting quarterback after a tight quarterback competition: true freshman Moore.

The Detroit native lacked experience but was clearly the most talented of UCLA's quarterbacks. His youth has shown this season (four interceptions, 53% completion percentage) but the flashes he's shown (nine touchdowns, five throws of 60 yards or more) have been enough for Kelly to keep starting the 19-year-old in hopes of establishing a foundation.

"He's going to be a hell of a player," Wazzu head coach Jake Dickert said of Moore. "I mean that. He's just a few games into his career and you see the talent. ... I think that kid is just scratching the surface."

IT'S HARD TO believe that, somehow, this Pac-12 quarterback lineup could have been better this year. And yet, while the names above shine from week to week, one of the conference's best at the position is still sitting on the sidelines watching his team struggle.

Rising is still recovering from offseason surgery after, according to him, suffering a torn meniscus, MPFL and MCL in the Rose Bowl. While Rising has receded to the background, a return for him this season could add to the conference's stable of elite quarterbacks and prove fortuitous for a Utah team with a staunch defense and plenty of tough tests on the horizon.

Now the fun begins. After getting off to scorching starts, the Pac-12's best quarterbacks will face each other as league play begins in earnest. What awaits are some of the season's most anticipated matchups. Penix against Nix. Nix against Williams. Williams against Penix. Penix against Ward. Ward against Sanders. And so on. Whoever emerges unscathed will likely be in the drivers' seat to win the conference, potentially make the playoff and be one of the front-runners for the Heisman Trophy.

Currently, the Allstate Playoff Predictor suggests the Pac-12 has a 70% chance of sending one team to the College Football Playoff. If one of those teams makes it, it will be the first time a conference team makes it into the final four since 2016. This year may not just be the Pac-12's last shot to get a team in the final four, but it may also be its best. The self-proclaimed conference of champions is going away after this season, but not without making a last stand as the conference of quarterbacks.