What we learned in CFB’s first half: Pac-12 praise, cruising contenders and brands that are ‘back’

The Pac-12 Conference, in its current form, is nearing its end. By the start of the 2024 college football season, USC, UCLA, Washington, and Oregon will have joined the Big Ten. Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah will be members of the Big 12. Stanford and Cal, located close to the Pacific Ocean, will be part of the Atlantic Coast Conference. However, before these schools leave the century-old home for premier West Coast college athletics, they are putting on a remarkable show. This season, the Pac-12 has been the strongest and most competitive college football conference, with six teams currently ranked and at least two teams, Washington and Oregon, looking like they could be contenders for the national championship. The conference boasts star power, from Coach Prime to Caleb Williams, and is well-positioned to send a representative to the College Football Playoff for the first time since 2016. It is ironic and frustrating that the final season of the current Pac-12 is so exhilarating. If a season like this had occurred a couple of years ago, it is likely the Pac-12 could have secured a lucrative media rights deal to keep the conference together. However, that is a story for another time. For now, let’s celebrate the fantastic football being played out west, both during normal hours and under the #AfterDark banner, which often leads to chaotic endings. Earlier this season, the Pac-12 placed eight teams in the AP Top 25 for the first time, with four teams remaining in the top 15 after Week 7. The thrilling 36-33 victory by Washington over Oregon was rightly labeled an instant classic. The matchup between the nation’s top two offenses delivered jaw-dropping plays and high-stakes drama. These two teams could potentially meet again in December with the Pac-12 championship on the line, but there are still plenty of teams on the schedule looking to play the spoiler. Utah and UCLA have impressive defenses, Arizona is on the rise, and USC’s offense should never be underestimated, despite recent struggles. USC’s quarterback, Caleb Williams, won the Heisman Trophy last year, but another quarterback on the West Coast, Washington’s Michael Penix Jr., is the clear leader at the midway point of the season, having thrown for 20 touchdowns and over 2,300 yards in six games. Now, let’s take a look at what stood out in the first half of the 2023 season as we gear up for the remainder of the schedule. The rise and fall of Colorado under Coach Prime was one of the biggest sports stories in September. Colorado’s unexpected 3-0 start generated excitement nationwide and set viewership records. Deion Sanders’ unconventional path to becoming an FBS head coach and his drastic roster overhaul attracted curiosity, scrutiny, and support, even for blowout wins and late-night games. Season tickets sold out, and Folsom Field became the place to be, with celebrities, athletes, and rappers making appearances and adding to the atmosphere. Much of the excitement stemmed from Colorado’s season-opening win over TCU, a team that had played for the national championship earlier in the year. However, it became clear that this Colorado roster is not yet ready to contend for conference or national titles. Sanders himself acknowledged this, stating that teams should take their shots at Colorado now because this is his weakest team. The Buffs have weaknesses on the offensive line, have struggled defensively against strong quarterbacks, lack depth behind their key playmakers, and have had setbacks after a strong start. Despite their early success, the Buffs now face an uphill battle to become bowl eligible with five games remaining, including matchups against ranked opponents and a surging Arizona team. The Buffs’ journey to a bowl game will be an intriguing storyline to watch in the second half of the season. Georgia and Michigan have had relatively uneventful paths so far, but they are both built to contend for their respective conference titles and a spot in the College Football Playoff. Georgia, aiming to become the first team since the 1930s to win three consecutive national championships, has yet to face a significant challenge. Their schedule allowed them to avoid top SEC teams like Alabama and LSU, and their toughest remaining opponent may be Missouri. While they have started slowly in games, their defense remains strong, and they have the potential to peak against top contenders in the SEC championship game. Michigan, similarly, has not faced tough competition but is well-equipped to win the Big Ten and contend for a playoff spot. Their defense is loaded with talent, and they control games with a seasoned offensive line and a poised starting quarterback in J.J. McCarthy. Although their offensive stats may not be overwhelming, their dominance in games has been evident. Both teams are expected to secure spots in the CFP bracket for the third consecutive year. The notion of a program being “back” is often discussed in college football, and this season has seen two programs, Florida State and Oklahoma, make strong cases for their return to national relevance. Florida State has secured significant wins over LSU and Clemson, instilling confidence in coach Mike Norvell’s vision. Quarterback Jordan Travis has made big plays despite battling injuries, and the addition of wide receiver Keon Coleman has had a major impact. The status of their defense is still up for debate, but Florida State has a good chance of playing for their first ACC championship since 2014. Oklahoma has also made a resurgence this season. The Sooners have shown that they are still a force to be reckoned with, defeating top teams and proving they are back in contention. The measure of being “back” varies for each program, but these teams have showcased their ability to contend for conference championships and CFP berths. In conclusion, the Pac-12’s final season is shaping up to be a thrilling one, with intense competition and exciting storylines unfolding. While the conference is undergoing significant changes, the current teams are showcasing their talent and providing fans with unforgettable moments. As the season progresses, all eyes will be on the Pac-12 and its teams as they compete for conference championships and strive to make their mark on college football.


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