The Pac-12 is back in the spotlight, for all the right reasons

By Bryan Fischer
FOX Sports College Football Writer

George Kliavkoff has been in something of a public blackout lately.

After making the rounds at Pac-12 Media Day eight weeks ago, the conference’s commissioner has been in sharp contrast to his peers — mostly out of sight and completely out of mind as college football has returned. It’s a plausible position to take on the heels of USC and UCLA’s announced departure for the Big Ten that, in turn, brought about a furious slate of media rights negotiations lately.

But now the silent treatment is over. And for good reason.

“We’ve been heads down, trying to get our work done,” Kliavkoff said this week in a podcast appearance for his first public comments since late July. “I’d rather put our heads down, get our work done, and share things when we have it.”

The Pac-12 certainly has a story to tell again — hence the commissioner’s reemergence — and to the relief of many inside the footprint, it’s a positive one out on the gridiron. After years of spin surrounding the league’s early chances at making the College Football Playoff, or even having an impact on the national picture down the stretch, there’s some fresh wind in the sails out West as conference play begins in earnest on Saturday.

“It was a good weekend overall for the Pac-12,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham noted during his weekly press conference. “Not for everybody, but in general for the conference, it was a positive.” 

Breaking down Oregon’s statement win over BYU

RJ Young discusses Oregon’s victory over BYU and breaks down the play of quarterback Bo Nix.

Indeed. Four teams are ranked in the top 20 of the latest polls, and several others have good arguments to have a number next to their name after a 3-0 mark in non-conference play as well.

No. 18 Washington and No. 15 Oregon each notched top-15 wins of their own at home last week, routing then-No. 11 Michigan State and No. 12 BYU, respectively. They help form what is an impressively strong Pacific Northwest contingent that is a combined 11-1, including victories at Wisconsin (Washington State) and over Boise State (Oregon State) thrown in for good measure.

The lone loss wasn’t one to tease about either, coming in the backyard of the reigning national champion Georgia (who have since ascended to No. 1 in both polls). That wasn’t a pleasant trip to Atlanta for the Ducks in Dan Lanning’s first game as a head coach, but since returning to the Pacific Time Zone, Oregon’s looked like a different beast. Quarterback Bo Nix has accounted for 10 touchdowns the past two games and the first-team defense has clamped down on things entirely. 

The rival Huskies might be the bigger surprise to those both inside and outside the Pac-12. Signal-caller Michael Penix Jr. appears healthy (an issue during his time at Indiana) and is currently second in the country in passing yards, and top-10 in touchdowns and yards per attempt. A resurgence on Montlake helps reinforce the conference’s depth in a year where the top two teams based on winning percentage will make it to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 Championship Game. 

The current darling to emerge with a trophy in hand however is a familiar name in USC. The seventh-ranked Trojans have typically been the standard-bearer for the Pac-12 but their turnaround in 2022 under Lincoln Riley has been nothing short of remarkable given the amount of roster turnover the team went through in the offseason.

Things have gone so well, so quickly, that it’s allowed even the most ardent of skeptics from Norman to Northern Washington to admit that things in Los Angeles are looking vastly ahead of schedule. 

Caleb Williams to Jordan Addison!

USC quarterback Caleb Williams connects with Jordan Addison during Saturday’s game against Fresno State.

Sophomore QB Caleb Williams stands as a prohibitive favorite to make it to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony and is leading an offense that has been so productive that it’s barely even made it to third down (27 attempts is the fewest of any team that’s played the past three weeks).

We all knew that Riley’s squad would be good on that side of the ball, but it’s taken things to another level three weeks in and been even more productive racking up yardage than some of his old Oklahoma teams that reached the College Football Playoff.

Still, what really lands SC in the category of final four contenders might just be the advances they’ve made on defense. The cardinal and gold lead all of FBS in turnover margin thanks to their 10 takeaways and have given up the same number of 20-plus yard plays as No. 3 Ohio State.

“These guys are talented,” Oregon State head coach Jonathan Smith underscored on Monday ahead of hosting the Trojans in Corvallis. “They’re ranked really high, and it’s well deserved.”

The Beavers won’t be afraid, however. They’re 3-0 in their own right for the first time since 2014 and will be playing with confidence after thrashing USC in the Coliseum last season.

Speaking of 2021, the reigning conference champions have typically started off slow in September before making it to the top of the standings — something that might not be the case for Utah this time around. An end zone interception on the road at Florida has been their only blemish, and the Utes have since returned home and gone on a 108-14 scoring run in a pair of victories.

The early loss has largely allowed the workmanlike program to once again fly under the radar beyond the shores of the Great Salt Lake. That’s a sentiment that might be shared by a UCLA team under Chip Kelly that is 3-0 for the first time since 2015 and winner of eight of its past 10. The Bruins have been largely vanilla against three lower-level opponents in September but have the benefit of fifth-year starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (72.6% passing, six TDs) and elusive tailback Zach Charbonnet (5.6 yards per carry) as the competition level is amped up in the league. 

Heck, even Arizona and Stanford (4-20 combined last season) look much improved on both sides of the ball and will be much tougher outs than those East of the Mississippi will give them credit for. You can toss Cal in the same boat, especially after coming mere inches away from being undefeated after a tough loss at Notre Dame.

As far as winless Colorado and an Arizona State program in disarray after firing head coach Herm Edwards? Well, they might be the lone stories trending in the wrong direction as the only obvious weak points across the Pac-12.

Still, the early returns out West are as good as they have been in some time. There are bona fide College Football Playoff contenders, several Heisman Trophy challengers, and a slew of fun teams worth staying up late to watch as playmakers do their thing long after the sun sets.

Perhaps it’s no wonder then why the commissioner is starting to speak up after two months on the sidelines. 

The Pac-12 is back to work and authoring quite the story out on the football field. Who knows how it will end, but it’s looking very much like it will be worth sharing.

Read more:

– CFP, Heisman and other predictions from FOX Sports staff 

– The Ultimate College Football Road Trip hits Tennessee

– Maryland-Michigan and more: Week 4 by the numbers

– Oklahoma on the rise: Joel Klatt’s top 10

– USC, Oklahoma on a CFP collision course?

Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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