No doubt, the 2023 football season marks the end of a long and distinguished era for the Pac-12 Conference.

“Well, I think it speaks to just that: our program. I think we’ve got a very good football program. That’s what you want. You don’t want to have a good team every now and then. You want to have a good program. I think that’s the point we’re at right now.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham on the Utes’ success

USC and UCLA are entering their final season in the league ahead of jumping to the Big Ten in 2024.

The Trojans joined the Pac-12 in 1922, while the Bruins became members of the conference in 1928. 

That’s a lot of history, tradition and memories. But the two programs from Los Angeles are moving on

And amid those schools’ farewell tours, there should be a fierce fight for the Pac-12 football championship. 

Certainly, the league is in much better shape than it was after the 2021 campaign, when the Pac-12 posted an 0-5 record in bowl games and saw Washington lose at home to Montana and Arizona fall at home to Northern Arizona, and watched BYU go 5-0 against Pac-12 foes. 

But in 2022, five Pac-12 teams finished ranked in the final Associated Press poll — Washington (8), Utah (10), USC (12), Oregon (15), Oregon State (17) and UCLA (21).

This year, those same six teams have a legitimate shot at capturing the title. The Utes have won back-to-back championships and are eyeing a third. 

With the Trojans and Bruins departing the league, and leaving behind a massive void, the Utes are working to fill that void, and become the face of the Pac-12 in football. 

After beating USC in the Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas last December, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham was asked about the standard that the Utes have established since joining the league in 2011. 

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“Well, I think it speaks to just that: our program. I think we’ve got a very good football program. That’s what you want. You don’t want to have a good team every now and then. You want to have a good program,” he said. “I think that’s the point we’re at right now.

“We have a program that’s got some momentum now, a great deal of pride, a great deal of talent on the roster, excellent coaches. That’s what you strive for, to be an outstanding program. Thanks to the hard work of our assistant coaches and players, we’re closing in on that.”

But the Utes will certainly be challenged this fall, as USC, Washington, Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA are all expected to be in contention.  

The league could be even better this year than it was last year. 

Meanwhile, Pac-12 doormat Colorado, which went 1-11 last season, is suddenly a team to watch with the arrival of coach Deion Sanders. His program has been almost completely overhauled through the transfer portal. Fans in Boulder are responding by gobbling up season tickets. 

Arizona is a program that seems to be on the rise under third-year coach Jedd Fisch and don’t underestimate Washington State, which has two new coordinators. 

Cal has a new offensive coordinator, while Stanford has a new head coach in Troy Taylor, replacing David Shaw.

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Coaches Lincoln Riley (USC), Kalen DeBoer (Washington) and Dan Lanning (Oregon) each had tremendous debut seasons with their new programs, while Arizona State’s Kenny Dillingham is hoping to find success in his first season at the helm of the Sun Devils. 

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The league has gained national attention thanks to its talented group of quarterbacks, headlined by USC’s Heisman Trophy winner, Caleb Williams. Utah’s Cam Rising returns though he didn’t participate in spring practices due to a major knee injury he suffered in the Rose Bowl. 

There are other explosive QBs in the league — Michael Penix Jr. (Washington), Bo Nix (Oregon), Cameron Ward (Washington State) and Jayden de Laura (Arizona). 

And there are intriguing newcomers at QB in the league, like Oregon State’s DJ Uiagalelei, a transfer from Clemson, and Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders. They’re expected to make an immediate impact.

In the final season of the Pac-12, before it changes forever, there are plenty of intriguing storylines to follow. 

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (1) heads in for a touchdown as USC linebacker Ralen Goforth (10) tries to stop him Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, in Pasadena, Calif. The two longtime Pac-12 foes will be moving onto the Big Ten beginning in 2024-25. | Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press
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