The quarterbacks in the Pac-12 are going to throw the conference the ultimate going away party.
Because, ironically,, the Pac-12 probably has never had this much collective quarterback talent at the outset of a singular season. The conference is saturated with NFL-caliber passers. Here's a look at the best of them.
Caleb Williams, USC
USC's Caleb Williams is the unequivocal headliner, a rarity who's drawn genuine comparisons to Patrick Mahomes after a dazzling Heisman-winning campaign in his first season in Southern California that featured 42 touchdowns to five interceptions at 9.1 yards per attempt.
The raw numbers alone didn't catalyze the extraordinary hype and perceived on-field resemblance to the two-time Super Bowl winner and NFL MVP. The Mahomesian parallels for Williams originated when the Trojans passer repeatedly demonstrated the ability to find space for himself off-script to uncork rockets down the field through rapidly closing windows from a variety of arm angles.
While not nearly as physically imposing as Mahomes, Williams does have plenty of arm strength and Mahomes-like athleticism -- not threatening enough to necessarily gameplan for but just enough to be make him annoyingly elusive against most pursuing defenders. In Lincoln Riley's offense, an attack that's quickly become legendary after housing three Heisman winners a pair of pair of No. 1 overall picks from relative obscurity and, oh yeah, Jalen Hurts, Williams is bound for another monstrous, buzz-generating season at USC.
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In any other season, a star of Williams' brightness would be enough to attract all the attention. But in this unique year, the Pac-12 offers so much more at the position. And some of the passers came the way Williams entered the conference, through the ubiquitous transfer portal.
Another interesting trend here too -- the Pac-12 has become a haven for quarterback reclamation projects with the conference on the brink of complete dismantlement.
Bo Nix, Oregon
Oregon's Bo Nix was a mega recruit from the state of Alabama who originally stayed close to home but painstakingly fizzled out at Auburn after three seasons as the Tigers starter. With a fresh start across the country in Eugene in 2022, Nix appeared to be a different player.
Gone were the frantic, ill-advised throws and awkward, ultimately unsuccessful scramble attempts. Suddenly, Nix was an uber-confident game-manager with a flair for the dramatic, on-target deep ball. His completion rate jumped from 61.0% at Auburn to 71.9%. He tossed 29 touchdowns, ran for 14 more, only threw seven interceptions, and avoided fumbling while scampering with the football.
Nix's arm looked stronger than ever -- like a mega recruit's arm should, to be honest -- and the Ducks went 10-3. Add in that Nix is a springy athlete with impressive speed, and it's easy to realize he's on the early-round draft radar. I would like to see more challenging tosses in the game plan each week for Nix. In theory, the natural talent is there for him to connect on those type of game-altering throws with more regularity. I want to see if he can actually do it.
Michael Penix, Washington
Nix's de facto bitter rival, Washington's Michael Penix, has a similar story. While not nearly as sought after of a recruit as Nix, Penix started early in college at Indiana. Despite some fun flashes with the Hoosiers, none more iconic than his pylon dive to upset Penn State in overtime in 2020, he too flamed out at his first stop due to bad decision-making and wayward accuracy.
Then Penix arrived in the Pac-12, and -- poof! -- total transformation. Operating Washington's high-octane, spread offense, he averaged 357 passing yards per contest, threw 31 touchdowns to eight picks and was sacked a mere four times on more than 575 drop backs. The lefty has a live arm, particularly when stretching it vertically and plays with precisely zero fear of ripping it deep. There's some functional athleticism to Penix's game too.
He'll have the luxury of targeting potential first- or second-rounders at receiver, Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan.
D.J. Uiagalelei, Oregon State
Three years ago, Oregon State's D.J. Uiagalelei would've received top billing in an article like this one. He was the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the 2020 class, the seemingly appropriate heir apparent to Trevor Lawrence. While not abysmal with the Tigers, Uiagalelei's effectiveness slowly deteriorated, and ironically, he too was replaced by a five-star recruit at Clemson. So he transferred all the way Corvallis, Oregon to lead the Beavers program after a sneaky-good 10-3 campaign.
Uiagalelei will team with offensive coordinator Ben Lindgren, who's two years removed from orchestrating a Beavers offense that averaged 32.2 points per contest.
With Uiagalelei, it's always been about the fundamentals, and how quickly he can identify and diagnose coverage. Because from a physical perspective, Uiagalelei has No. 1 overall pick goods. He's enormous, has a rocket-launcher arm, and can run away from defenders with long, fluid strides.
If he is to be taken seriously by the NFL, Uiagalelei's ball placement must improve and his processing has to be faster.
Shedeur Sanders, Colorado
And I don't want you to think for a second I forgot Colorado's Shedeur Sanders. It would've been impossible to. His dad's hiring to run the Buffaloes program sparked a media frenzy unseen at the school since the days of Kordell Stewart 30 years ago. Deion was a unicorn athletically, so it's not surprising Shedeur doesn't move as dynamically, although he's far from a pocket statue. There will be plenty of NFL eyes on him in 2023 after 70 touchdowns and a mere 14 interceptions across two seasons at Jackson state.
And those eyeballs will be monitoring Sanders' development as he makes the jump from the SWAC to the Pac-12. His arm and accuracy look to be close to normal NFL level. Does Sanders acclimate quickly to the intensified speed of defenses he'll face? If so, he garner plenty of nationwide buzz, as the Sanders family typically does.
Cam Rising, Utah
Defending conference champion Utah returns super senior Cam Rising after a gritty, 26-touchdown, eight-interception season that had the opposite of a storybook ending, when he tore his ACL during the always gorgeous aesthetic of the second half of the Rose Bowl. There's more split opinion on Rising because he's not an incredibly gifted passer nor is he going to run away from many NFL defenders. But there is something to be said for his toughness, willingness to lay his body on the line for a first down, and 46 touchdowns to 13 interceptions in two seasons at Utah's starting quarterback.
Three others in the mix
Heck, Washington State's Cameron Ward, Arizona's Jayden de Laura, and Arizona State's Drew Pyne, the latter of whom transferred from Notre Dame, could conceivably build on strong 2022 campaigns en route to NFL consideration. They're all springy scramblers who flashed a year ago. Ward is still 21 years old, De Laura had three 400-yard plus outings last year.
In South Bend, Pyne settled nicely into his role as the Notre Dame starter and quietly registered a Big-Time Throw rate of 6.0%, higher than the likes of Bryce Young, J.J. McCarthy, and Anthony Richardson.
From Dan Fouts to John Elway to Troy Aikman to Aaron Rodgers to Andrew Luck and Justin Herbert, the Pac-12 has a long, storied history of sending decorated, eventually tremendous quarterbacks to the NFL.
In what feels like the final season of the more than century-old Pac-12, we've probably never seen a group of fascinating quarterbacks this rich in legitimate NFL talent coexisting within the conference at the same time.
Should make for one hell of a season-long sendoff.