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Pac-12 football preview: what are the major storylines?

There are plenty of intriguing storylines for the Pac-12 entering the 2022 football season.

For starters, there’s the change in the championship game format, effective immediately. The league recently announced that when it comes to crowning a champion, divisions don’t matter anymore.

Starting this season, the Pac-12 championship game will feature the two teams with the highest conference winning percentage instead of two division winners.

That policy would have resulted in a different championship game matchup in five of the 11 years since the conference expanded in 2011.

“Our goal is to place our two best teams in our Pac-12 football championship game, which we believe will provide our conference with the best opportunity to optimize CFP invitations and ultimately win national championships,” said Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff.

The decision was announced just moments after the NCAA Division I Council removed the requirements that dictate how conferences can determine a champion.

It’s expected that the Pac-12 will eventually eliminate divisions for football. When that happens, the league will need a change in its scheduling model. Currently, it’s based on divisional play.

Jon Wilner of the Mercury News offered a glimpse at what Pac-12 schedules could look like in the future.

“The Hotline espoused the benefits of a pod schedule several weeks ago, when the Pac-12 announced that division winners would no longer have automatic berths into the championship game,” Wilner wrote. “We expect the current schedule rotation, which is based on division alignment, to be eliminated in the next 24 months. When a new model is crafted, the conference should use pods as the foundation:

Pod A: Washington and Oregon schools

Pod B: California schools

Pod C: Mountain/Desert (or Four Corners) schools

The pod system creates three annual opponents for every team. It’s the only model that would allow the California schools to play each other annually, preserve the Oregon-Washington game and guarantee the natural rivalries.”

Since he was hired as commissioner a year ago, Kliavkoff has been adamant about enhancing the Pac-12’s profile and winning championships. The College Football Playoff began in 2014 and in that time, only two Pac-12 teams, Oregon and Washington, have qualified.

The last time a Pac-12 program won an NCAA football championship was by USC in 2004, though that title was later vacated by the NCAA.

The Pac-12 has a lot of work to do to build up its national reputation. It sits near the bottom in terms of Power Five conferences, having failed to send a team for the CFP for five consecutive seasons.

In many ways, the Pac-12’s overall performance in 2021 was uninspiring.

The league posted an 0-5 record in bowl games and an 0-5 mark against BYU during the regular season. Washington fell to Montana at home and Arizona lost to Northern Arizona at home.

Trojans turning heads

The Trojans have garnered substantial national attention during the offseason. USC made a big splash by hiring Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma.

After a 4-8 season in 2021, the Trojans are going through a major rebuilding process. Riley added quarterback Caleb Williams and wide receivers Mario Williams and Jordan Addison from the transfer portal. Will those additions be enough for USC to contend for a Pac-12 title?

New Look Ducks

Another program to keep an eye on is Oregon, which lost coach Mario Cristobal to Miami. His replacement is Dan Lanning, the former defensive coordinator at Georgia, which won the national championship last season. The Ducks also added a quarterback from the SEC — Bo Nix, who previously played at Auburn.

Utes on a roll

Utah, the defending Pac-12 champions, is eyeing back-to-back titles. In 2021, the Utes posted an 8-1 record in the Pac-12, throttled Oregon not once, but twice, and fell by three points to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. Utah returns quarterback Cam Rising, several key offensive playmakers, and it will certainly field one of the league’s toughest defenses.

Certainly, the Pac-12 needs to change its national perception. One way to do that is by winning big non-conference games.

Key nonconference matchups

Among the biggest ones facing the league this fall: Oregon vs. Georgia; Utah vs. Florida; USC vs. Notre-Dame; Oregon vs. BYU; Arizona State vs. Oklahoma State; Washington vs. Michigan State; Oregon State vs. Boise State; Stanford vs. BYU; Stanford vs. Notre-Dame; California vs. Notre-Dame; and Washington State vs. Wisconsin.

The Utah Utes football team and Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham pose for a photo at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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