Though conference realignment is at the forefront of college athletics at the moment, the college football season begins in a little over a month.

The last season in the Pac-12 as it stands today — USC, UCLA and Colorado will depart after the season — is shaping up to be one for the ages.

USC, Washington, Utah, Oregon and Oregon State all have a good chance at the Pac-12 title, and the amount of quarterback talent in the league may be at an all-time high. Utah’s Cameron Rising, USC’s Caleb Williams, Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. and Oregon’s Bo Nix have all proven they can lead electric passing attacks in the Pac-12. Add in Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders and Oregon State’s DJ Uiagalelei, and this is going to be a fun season to watch.

Utah plays one of its hardest schedules to date, competing against every team projected to finish in the top six of the Pac-12.

As Utah tries to three-peat, here is a breakdown of the schedule, ranked from toughest to easiest.

1. At USC

Expect yet another classic in what will probably be the last regular-season matchup between these two teams for a long time. Utah finally won at the Coliseum in 2021, beating USC 42-26. Last season, the Utes defeated the Trojans twice — once at home in a 43-42 shootout and the second time in a 47-24 blowout in Las Vegas to clinch the Pac-12 championship.

The Trojans are picked by many in the media to win the Pac-12 this year and will likely debut in the Top 10 in the first Associated Press poll.

USC will have one of the nation’s top offenses, led by quarterback Caleb Williams, the 2022 Hesiman Trophy winner and projected 2024 NFL Draft No. 1 draft pick. We know Lincoln Riley’s offense will be phenomenal, but what sunk the Trojans two times last year against Utah was their porous defense.

USC, which retained defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, lost cornerback Mekhi Blackmon to the NFL, but made some upgrades via the transfer portal — Georgia transfer linebacker Bear Alexander, Oklahoma State linebacker Mason Cobb and Arizona defensive lineman Anthony Lucas.

If the Trojans’ defense can be average and the offense lives up to the hype, USC could be a College Football Playoff contender. The Oct. 21 game vs. Utah is circled as one of the games to watch in the Pac-12 this season.

It will be a tough task for the Utes to go on the road and knock off the Trojans.

2. At Washington

After closing the season with seven straight wins, including a win at Oregon and an Alamo Bowl victory over Texas, the Huskies finished 11-2, but missed out on the Pac-12 championship game due to Utah winning a four-step tiebreaker that sent the Utes to the title game.

With quarterback Michael Penix Jr. running the offense, the Huskies will have a potent passing attack. Washington averaged 39.7 points per game last season, with Penix Jr. throwing for 4,641 yards, 31 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Add in wide receivers Rome Odunze (1,145 yards, seven touchdowns) and Jalen McMillan (1,098 yards and nine TDs) and the Huskies’ offense will be humming.

Like USC, the Huskies will have to improve their defense and added Oklahoma State transfer cornerback Jabbar Muhammad and Oregon cornerback Darren Barkins this offseason.

The Nov. 11 game in Seattle could have big implications.

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3. Vs. Oregon

The Ducks have had the Utes’ number more often than not since Utah joined the Pac-12. 2021 bucked the trend, as Utah trounced the No. 3 Ducks 38-7 at home, then beat them a couple weeks later to win the program’s first Pac-12 championship.

Last season, a loss to the Ducks in November threatened to derail Utah’s season. This stretch of Utah’s schedule — at USC, vs. Oregon, vs. Arizona State and at Washington, will define the season.

Quarterback Bo Nix, who threw for 3,593 yards and 29 touchdowns in 2022, is back for the Ducks. With Williams, Penix Jr., Cameron Rising and Nix in the mix in the Pac-12, the league has plenty of talent at the quarterback position.

With the two toughest tests of the season coming on the road, this will be the premier home game for the Utes.

4. At Oregon State

Head coach Jonathan Smith has catapulted the Beavers into the national conversation. The Beavers finished No. 17 in the final AP poll of the season after finishing 10-3 overall and capping their season off with a bowl win against Florida.

Clemson transfer DJ Uiagalelei could inject life into Oregon State’s passing attack, and the Beavers return an excellent run game. The majority of the Beavers’ offensive line is back and running back Damien Martinez, who rushed for 982 yards and seven touchdowns and a freshman, and Deshaun Fenwick, who rushed for 553 yards and seven touchdowns, will ensure that the Beavers’ run game is in top shape.

The Beavers had one of the top defenses in the Pac-12 last season, and though cornerbacks Rejzohn Wright and Alex Austin were drafted and top linebacker Omar Speights transferred, Oregon State’s defense should be solid again.

5. At Baylor

Baylor is projected to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big 12 this season by many experts, but it will be Utah’s first road test of the season, coming in just the second game of the year.

Baylor opens up with Texas State, so it will have a lot of time to focus on Utah, much like Florida in the season opener a year ago.

The Bears will be trying to rebound from last year’s 6-7 record. Quarterback Blake Shapen will need to take steps forward and they will have a new offensive line, featuring Clark Barrington of BYU, but running back Richard Reese, who ran for 972 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, and Qualan Jones are good backs.

If this game was at Rice-Eccles Stadium, it may have ranked lower in the difficulty scale, but it will be a true test for the Utes in their first road game of 2023.

6. Vs. UCLA

The Bruins handed the Utes their first conference loss last year, hanging 42 on the Utes.

UCLA has their work cut out for them on offense, having to replace Dorion Thompson-Robinson at quarterback. The Bruins will likely start five-star freshman Dante Moore, who will be aided by running back Carson Steele and TJ Harden. Wide receiver transfers J. Michael Sturdivant and Kyle Ford will give Moore targets.

Though UCLA’s defense wasn’t great last year, they return nine starters and should be improved on that side of the ball.

The Utes open up Pac-12 play against the Bruins on Sep. 23.

7. Vs. Florida

Utah is looking to get revenge for the three-point loss suffered in Gainesville a season ago.

Athletic director Mark Harlan managed to get the Gators to travel to Salt Lake City for their first out-of-conference true road game (not at a neutral site) since 1991, when Florida played at Syracuse.

The revenge aspect, plus the rarity of seeing Florida in person, has this shaping up to be a very exciting opener for the Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium

The Gators have to replace quarterback Anthony Richardson, who torched Utah a season ago and was selected fourth overall in the 2023 NFL Draft. 

Wisconsin transfer quarterback Graham Mertz could be the Gators’ starting quarterback when the season starts. Florida had to rebuild its offensive line with transfers, but return running backs Montrell Johnson Jr. (841 yards) and Trevor Entienne (719 yards). Ricky Pearsall will be the go-to receiver for the Gators.

Florida has a new defensive coordinator, Austin Armstrong, and a rebuilt defense — returning just three starters from last year. The Gators’ defense needs to improve from last season’s struggles.

After an ACL injury in the Rose Bowl, Utah quarterback Cameron Rising’s status is still up in the air for the opening game, and will likely remain that way right up until the opening huddle. Without Rising, this game becomes much more difficult.

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8. Vs. Cal

The Bears return eight starters on offense and nine on defense from last season’s 4-8 campaign, and it seems like the record is going to improve a bit this year, potentially sending Cal bowling.

The No. 1 question mark for the Bears is offense. They need to break in a new quarterback following the Chase Garbers’ four seasons in Berkley and lose their No. 1 receiver, Sturdivant. Running back Jaydn Ott, who rushed for nearly 900 yards, should lead Cal’s offense.

The Bears’ defense is their strong point, highlighted by a strong linebacker core.

Utah plays Cal for the first time since 2019, when the Utes beat the Bears 35-0.

9. At Arizona

There was nowhere to go but up after the Wildcats went 1-17 over the 2020 and 2021 seasons before getting to 5-7 last year.

Starting quarterback Jayden de Laura is back for another season after throwing for 3,685 yards, 25 touchdowns and 13 interceptions a year ago.

The Wildcats also return starting running back Michael Wiley, who rushed for 771 yards last season, and wide receiver Jacob Cowing is back.

On defense, Arizona is rebuilding, returning just three defensive starters. The Wildcats added linebacker Justin Flowe from Oregon, but this unit will need to prove themselves if the Wildcats hope to be bowl eligible.

10. Vs. Arizona State

After Herm Edwards’ disastrous exit at ASU, the rebuild begins for new head coach Kenny Dillingham — the youngest coach in college football at 32.

Notre Dame transfer Drew Pyne will compete for the starting quarterback job and transfer running back Cameron Skattebo, from Sacramento State, could be the Sun Devils’ starting running back.

They do have wide receiver Elijhah Badger, who led the team with 866 yards and seven touchdowns in 2022.

On defense, Arizona State has a strong secondary, but needs to improve elsewhere.

11. Vs. Colorado

Coach Deion Sanders has his work cut out for him at Colorado.

The Utes have dominated the Buffaloes for most of the time in the Pac-12 and have won six straight in the “Rumble in the Rockies.”

Don’t expect that streak to change this season in the schools’ final matchup as Pac-12 members, even with Sanders at the helm.

One of the worst teams in all of FBS last season, Sanders is going to need more than one year to turn this program around.

His son, Shedeur Sanders, will be the starting quarterback. He threw for 3,732 yards and 40 touchdowns at Jackson State last season.

After cleaning out nearly the entire roster, bringing transfers in and having more players transfer out after spring ball, no one is quite sure what to expect out of Colorado this season.

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Travis Hunter, the top recruit in 2022, followed Sanders from Jackson State. A phenomenal talent, Hunter can play wide receiver or cornerback. Another freshman, Dylan Edwards, could be a star at running back.

Cormani McClain, the top cornerback in the class of 2023, will make an instant impact on defense. The defense, like the offense, is completely rebuilt.

They have raw talent and could make a jump to bowl eligibly if everything goes right this season, but there’s also a chance the Buffaloes could limp into Salt Lake City after a tough season.

12. Vs. Weber State

Even with coach Jay Hill at the helm leading the Wildcats to FCS playoff appearances, the Wildcats haven’t come close to beating Utah, losing 41-10 and 40-17 in their last two appearances. Expect that trend to continue this season with new coach Mickey Mental at the helm after Hill departed to become BYU’s defensive coordinator.

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