Pac-12 media day storylines: Farewells for USC and UCLA, star QBs galore, and more

After years of parading around Los Angeles movie studios and Hollywood landmarks, Pac-12 Football Media Day has decamped for the equally bright lights of Las Vegas this year for what should be a fascinating preview of the upcoming 2023 season.

The self-titled Conference of Champions has no shortage of storylines to discuss when players, coaches and league staff meet with the media, from a host of top 25 teams capable of ending a long College Football Playoff drought, some of the sport’s true superstars on the field, to existential threats that will change the very future of the league moving forward. 

What will be top of mind heading into Friday in the Pac-12? Here are a few key storylines to track out West as the spotlight turns toward the conference:

Coach Prime’s absence 

One of the most anticipated podium sessions in the Pac-12 will not be happening after all.

Colorado confirmed on Wednesday that head coach Deion Sanders will be having surgery on Thursday and will miss media day this week as a result

While everybody certainly wishes Sanders the best as he continues to deal with blood clots in his legs, the news does sting a little bit for the conference considering how much attention Coach Prime has brought to both his program and the league at large. Not only was the stage in Las Vegas expected to offer up a chance for him to issue a few rebuttals to fellow coaches questioning his methods, but it would also allow for Coach Prime to clearly lay out how the Buffs can return to prominence between the lines.

Instead, we’ll have to get health updates and a look at the state of the program from Sanders’ son Shedeur and the head coach’s replacement at the mic in defensive coordinator Charles Kelly. 

[Deion Sanders will not attend Pac-12 media day]

Quarterbacks, Quarterbacks, Quarterbacks

Seven of the Pac-12 teams are bringing their signal-callers to Las Vegas this season, which helps reaffirm that the Conference of Champions is probably better known as the Conference of Quarterbacks. 

Obviously one can start with the guy who has been throwing up the stiff arm for much of the past seven months in Caleb Williams. The USC QB helped transform the school almost overnight from a mid-tier team to competing for the conference crown and knocking on the door of the playoff. We’ll see what he can do for an encore after throwing for 4,537 yards and an FBS-high 42 touchdowns (against just five interceptions), but safe to say that the Heisman winner will be front and center this week as he reflects on what he’s done so far and how else he can get better.

Expectations for Caleb Williams, USC in 2023?

Williams isn’t the only guy to pay attention to, and the fact that he’s not a shoo-in to repeat as a first-team All-Pac-12 selection speaks to both the quality and quantity of guys on other teams. Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. is a bona fide Heisman contender as well, while Oregon’s Bo Nix is already building buzz as a potential first-rounder with another good season in Eugene. Arizona’s Jayden de Laura and Wazzu’s Cameron Ward are among the most electrifying, YOLO-inspiring signal-callers in the league, while new Colorado QB Shedeur Sanders might have the most attention on him of anybody given the step-up to the Power 5.

And, though his QB is not heading to media day, Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith will no doubt be asked plenty of questions about former Clemson star D.J. Uiagalelei making the move to Corvallis.

The most important position on the field typically gets an oversized amount of attention at events like this but, in the case of the Pac-12, it’s entirely deserved.

The awkward farewell 

Last year at media day, coaches, players and executives around the Pac-12 were still trying to process the announcement that USC and UCLA were leaving for the Big Ten. Truthfully, most still are.

Now things are becoming even more tangible, though. This is the final season teams will play the Bruins and/or the Trojans in league play. The final trip to the Rose Bowl in a month other than January, the final time to see that flame lit up atop the Coliseum. The final time for a lot of things involving two programs with rich and intertwined histories with the other 10 schools staying behind.

While much of the emphasis this week will likely come in the form of asking Lincoln Riley and Chip Kelly how they’re prepping for those trips to the Midwest in 2024, there will be plenty of chatter from the other coaches about respecting the two schools’ final journey up and down the West Coast … that they also hope ends with one last loss. 

USC’s defensive improvement

Speaking of the Trojans, their offseason motto has been ‘Job’s Not Finished’ after getting crushed in the Pac-12 title game and subsequently losing the Cotton Bowl by blowing a late lead to Tulane.

Nobody is going to question Riley’s credentials when it comes to offense, but both he and new linebacker Mason Cobb, who is attending Friday representing the other side of the ball, will be peppered with questions about the biggest flaw in the team getting fixed: the defense. Last year the group ranked 93rd in points allowed per game and 106th in total defense. 

Though coordinator Alex Grinch was retained, the personnel on the field in Los Angeles has experienced a bit of an influx from transfers like Cobb and mammoth defensive tackle Bear Alexander, who arrived from the reigning national champion Georgia. Former five-star Anthony Lucas also headed West after some time at Texas A&M

So, just how good — or at least decent — will USC be defensively in 2023? That’s something that will be an overarching question surrounding the team all season long.

College football’s most Intriguing assistant coaches

Cam Rising’s health

It may be the default choice to bring an upperclassman quarterback to media days for many teams, but the case isn’t entirely straightforward for the current conference champion Utah. That’s because veteran Rising tore his ACL at the Rose Bowl and his status remains uncertain for the opener against Florida in Salt Lake City.

Rising has insisted that he’ll be ready for that game, roughly eight and a half months removed from surgery, and will surely be pestered ad nauseam in Vegas over how he’s feeling and what his status is. The senior missed all of spring practice and has only been doing light work as he builds back toward game shape. It will not only be interesting to hear what he and head coach Kyle Whittingham have to say about the plan for getting the signal-caller ready to play the Gators, but also what happens if he doesn’t feel 100% by Week 1 as well.

Washington’s encore

On top of USC going from four wins to the conference title game and New Year’s Six, Washington was one of the biggest surprises in the Pac-12 a year ago in their first season under Kalen DeBoer. The Huskies not only won 11 games for just the second time in two decades and finished top 10 in the final polls, but they amped up expectations for 2023 by bringing nearly everybody of note back for another run.

So what can U-Dub do for an encore?

Penix, who led the nation in passing yards per game during his first year on Montlake, is already being labeled as one of Williams’ biggest threats to win the Heisman, and the defense has upperclassmen with hefty résumés to lean on like pass rusher Zion Tupuola-Fetui.

Throw in a schedule that features some big non-conference tests against Boise State and at Michigan State, has Oregon and Utah both coming to Husky Stadium, plus one final trip to the Coliseum to face USC, and Washington will not lack for moments in the spotlight during the upcoming campaign. It will be up to the Huskies to make the most of it all.

Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. throws a 62-yard TD vs. Oregon

New names, new places

Sanders is far from the only new big new arrival who will get discussed in Sin City on Friday. Among his fellow new coaches making an appearance at media day are FBS newcomer Troy Taylor taking over at Stanford for David Shaw, and Kenny Dillingham returning to his alma mater to lead Arizona State at the ripe old age of 33.

Media matters

The Pac-12’s future media deal beginning in the 2024-25 season has been a frequent talking point for over a full calendar year and will continue to be one Friday and beyond. Following several reports this week, a conference source confirmed to FOX Sports that a new deal will not be announced in Las Vegas — and it could be several more weeks before clarity is reached on just where fans might be able to watch their teams play games next season and beyond.

Despite yet another delay in the ongoing saga, the specter of a new deal will continue to hover over the remaining 10 members of the Pac-12. Commissioner George Kliavkoff has not addressed the matter publicly for approaching six months now and will most certainly be pushed for some sort of clarity on what happens next. The coaches and various athletic directors hovering around Resorts World at the north end of the Las Vegas Strip will be asked the same.

So until something concrete happens on the broadcast front, the media rights deal will continue to be the most pressing issue facing the league moving forward and will overshadow what should be one of the best college football seasons in modern times.

College football’s new era

It’s not just the conference’s composition that will be changing in 2024, it’s very much a new era for the sport at large. This is the final season of the four-team playoff before expansion takes hold, and coaches and players alike are likely to opine on what it will mean moving forward. Toss in buzz-worthy subjects like name, image and likeness, or the transfer portal, and there’s no shortage of off-field issues that are going to be discussed as college football continues to evolve.

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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