How the Pac-12 is having record success in what could be its final football season

Eight teams in the US LBM AFCA Coaches Poll, the most of any conference in the Bowl Subdivision. An overall record of 29-5 in non-conference play. With a 7-3 mark against the Power Five, the only league with a winning record against the best of the best in the FBS.

Home to the biggest story in college football, the best quarterback, perhaps the second-best and third-best quarterbacks, the most explosive offenses and the most top-end depth in college football − the list goes on for the most impressive conference in the country through the first three weeks of the 2023 season.

The SEC? Big Ten? Good guesses, but try again. This would be the Pac-12, which just in time and for the very last time has reemerged as a national player with sights set on reaching the College Football Playoff and playing for the national championship.

And not a moment too soon. The Pac-12 has been ravaged by conference realignment, with all but two current members poised to join another Power Five league in 2024. While remaining members Oregon State and Washington State could forge ahead and attempt to remake a new conference under the Pac-12 brand, the two programs are more likely destined to join an existing Group of Five league such as the Mountain West.

"We’re focused with the task at hand, what is right in front of us," said Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith, adding that he was in agreement with Washington State coach Jake Dickert "in regard that Oregon State and Washington State belonging and competing at the highest level."

Yet in this last hurrah, the Pac-12 has turned back the clock and rediscovered the personality and offensive ingenuity that once made the conference impossible to ignore.

"We’ll see how it ends up at the end of the season," said UCLA coach Chip Kelly. "But right now there are some teams that are playing some really good football."

The best and brightest example is No. 19 Colorado, which has captivated the nation under coach Deion Sanders. While without precedent in modern college football history, the Buffaloes' surge from last year's one-win finish to the sport's most popular team − 9.3 million viewers tuned into Saturday's late-night win against Colorado State, making it the fifth-most-watched regular-season game in ESPN's history regardless of time slot − serves as a stand-in for the Pac-12's bittersweet resurgence onto the national stage.

In multiple ways, the Pac-12 has become the league you can't ignore.

  • The Pac-12 has eight ranked teams, representing two-third of the league's total makeup: No. 5 Southern California, No. 8 Washington, No. 10 Utah, No. 11 Oregon, No. 15 Oregon State, Colorado, No. 24 Washington State and No. 25 UCLA.

This is the most of any Power Five league by a wide margin. The SEC and ACC both have five ranked teams, the Big Ten has four ranked teams and the Big 12 has two. The eight ranked teams is a new Pac-12 record in the Associated Press poll, breaking the previous record of six.

And Kelly thinks the league is still one short: "Arizona should be ranked," he said.

  • The Pac-12 is winning reputation-making games against the Power Five and more. The 7-3 mark against fellow Power Five competition stands in contrast to the league's 8-19 mark in these games across the previous three years, including the postseason.

No other league is better than .500 in games against the Power Five. The ACC has gone 8-8 and the Big 12 has gone 6-6, while the SEC is 5-7 and the Big Ten is 5-8. The Pac-12 is also a combined 12-1 against the American and Mountain West, the two top leagues in the Group of Five.

"I think there’s a lot of great teams in this conference and I think that’s really evident with how they’ve performed outside of the conference," Oregon coach Dan Lanning said.

  • The league is home to the best offenses in the FBS. The Pac-12 has seven teams in the top 20 nationally in scoring: USC (59.3 points per game), Oregon (58), Washington State (48.3), Washington (46), Colorado (41.3), Oregon State (41) and UCLA (40.3).

By the even more illustrative metric of yards gained per play, the Pac-12 has the top three offenses in the FBS (Washington, USC and UCLA) and another three ranked in the top 15 (Oregon, Arizona and Oregon State). Overall, Pac-12 teams have averaged 38.7 points per game in non-conference play, with that average pulled down by Arizona State's Power Five-worst average of 13 points per game.

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  • And those offenses are led by the best collection of quarterbacks in the country. Three quarterbacks are at the front of the race for the Heisman Trophy, led by last year's winner, USC junior Caleb Williams. He's hit the ground running in what is expected to his final season, completing 78.6% of his throws with 12 touchdowns on an FBS-best 12.5 yards per attempt.

Washington senior Michael Penix Jr. has thrown for at least 400 yards and three touchdowns in all three starts, including 473 yards and four scores in last weekend's rout of Michigan State. The biggest surprise of all has been Colorado's Shedeur Sanders, who has 1,251 yards and 10 touchdowns to go with Saturday's early Heisman moment in a 98-yard march to tie Colorado State with under a minute left in regulation.

  • There are premier matchups beginning this weekend. The SEC has long cornered the market on can't-miss conference games. But the Pac-12's deep slate of ranked matchups will carry heavy influence on the final playoff rankings and possibly provide the league with the benefit of the doubt with the playoff selection committee when comparing Power Five champions or runners-up with similar records.

Saturday's schedule alone features three ranked games: Colorado at Oregon (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC), UCLA at Utah (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox) and Oregon State at Washington State (7 p.m. ET, Fox).

"There are some great teams," Lanning said. "I think we’ll continue to see that each week. I think we have a really tough schedule and certainly a tough opponent coming up here this week."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Pac-12 football is having record success in likely final season