College football roundtable: Will USC or UCLA win the Pac-12 title?

USC coach Lincoln Riley and UCLA coach Chip Kelly talk at the Rose Bowl before their teams face off during the 2022 season
Will USC coach Lincoln Riley, left, or UCLA coach Chip Kelly win a Pac-12 championship this season?
(Harry How / Getty Images)
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USC and a few other teams got a head start, but the rest of the college football world will kick off the 2023 season this week.

Times reporters Ben Bolch, J. Brady McCollough and Thuc Nhi Nguyen weigh in on what to expect for UCLA, USC and the rest of the Pac-12.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly stands on the field near players during a preseason football practice
UCLA coach Chip Kelly and the Bruins will rely on a new starting quarterback as they push to win their first Pac-12 title since 1998.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

What are the key things that have to go right for UCLA this season?

Bolch: A few things have become givens about the Bruins under Chip Kelly. Their offense will score enough points. Their run game will be elite. But will their defense finally click? And will Kelly be able to quickly identify a top quarterback after deciding to extend the battle between Ethan Garbers, Collin Schlee and Dante Moore into the season? If both of those questions are answered in UCLA’s favor, the Bruins have enough going for them to contend for their first Pac-12 title since 1998.

Nguyen: This will be the first time in Chip Kelly’s UCLA tenure that Dorian Thompson-Robinson isn’t in the building. There’s not only a big hole to fill at quarterback, but I’m also keeping an eye on the running back position. Kelly has had no problem producing top backs: a UCLA running back has heard his name called in the NFL draft for four straight years, including Zach Charbonnet in April. It’s just a matter of who will emerge to help the new signal caller stabilize the offense.

Veteran UCLA quarterback Ethan Garbers will start the Bruins’ season opener, but coach Chip Kelly says Dante Moore and Collin Schlee will get snaps.

Aug. 28, 2023

McCollough: If the Bruins knew they would be breaking in a new starting quarterback when they created this schedule, they probably would have done it differently. Coastal Carolina and San Diego State are both very capable of making this feel like the early Kelly years — which means early losses to “Group of Five” schools. For Kelly’s program to remain in stable condition, UCLA has to show that it can at least reload quickly enough in Year 6 to not get off to a horrid start against programs it should be able to outclass. If the Bruins can somehow start 2-0, that will be a very good sign for how the program has evolved under Kelly.

Southern California wide receiver Zachariah Branch (1) runs toward the end zone.
USC receiver Zachariah Branch (1) gets away from San Jose State linebacker Jordan Pollard on the way to the end zone Saturday at the Coliseum.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

What are the key things that have to go right for USC this season?


Nguyen: Caleb Williams will cook. We know that to be sure. The defense just has to be good enough to not get in the way. Much like their rivals across town, the Trojans need a defense that can step up in the big moments and carry their weight. Alex Grinch’s scheme needs pressure on the quarterback to be successful, so the Trojans especially need edge rushers like Solomon Byrd, Jamil Muhammas and Romello Height to step up.

Bolch: Everyone’s talking about USC’s defense — and rightfully so after that clunker in the season opener — but let’s remember that the Trojans would have been so much worse on that side of the ball last season without all the takeaways. They’re not going to be able to count on that again, meaning their defense must be much better across the board and not rely on interceptions and fumble recoveries. Also, Williams’ availability will be a seasonlong story line given the dropoff behind him should he get hurt. He’ll need to stay on the field for the Trojans to make the College Football Playoff.

Heisman winner Caleb Williams’ summer included taking his mom on a European vacation, but he says he is now focused on leading USC to a championship.

Aug. 24, 2023

McCollough: Depth, depth, depth. USC has a brutal stretch of games the last half of the season, and, for the Trojans to get through it with their playoff hopes intact, they’re going to have to be able to play through injury scenarios that inevitably pop up. They couldn’t last year, but the hope is that two years of transfer portal additions will make the two-deep a much more competitive group.

UCLA quarterback Ethan Garbers throws during a 2022 game against Alabama State
UCLA quarterback Ethan Garbers is set to start the Bruins’ season opener.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Can UCLA make a run at a conference championship with a new starting quarterback?

Bolch: Like everything else involving the Bruins, it’s complicated. The short answer is yes, but it comes with a few asterisks. UCLA will have to defend at a much higher level than it has previously under Kelly and the quarterback will need to be a net positive for a run-heavy offense, meaning no games with three or four interceptions. It would also help if Kelly can identify his primary quarterback as quickly into the season as possible.


Nguyen: As Kevin Garnett says: “Anything is possible!” But there are more variables with the Bruins than, say, their crosstown rivals. Both teams are facing major defensive questions, but UCLA is also breaking in new starters at quarterback and running back. Considering Kelly’s track record on offense, it’s more likely than not that the Bruins will keep things churning on that side of the ball, but there are too many things that have to go just right.

UCLA running back Carson Steele is fearless when it comes to linebacker contact, and growing up with a pet alligator may have something to do with that.

Aug. 29, 2023

McCollough: I’m not seeing it. This is a very strong Pac-12. Looking at the roster construction, there isn’t any reason to think that UCLA should be strongly favored to beat Washington State, Oregon State and Arizona, much less USC and Utah (and both of those are road games). The Bruins do catch a break avoiding Washington and Oregon.

What does USC quarterback Caleb Williams have to do to repeat as the Heisman winner?

McCollough: Simple. Lead USC to its first College Football Playoff and he’ll win back-to-back Heismans, short of another player having some type of record-breaking season on a team that’s also playoff bound.

Bolch: Stay healthy, young Caleb! That’s going to be the No. 1 factor, his playing in every game during his historic repeat bid. It also might be easy to get a little bored during some of these mismatches the Trojans figure to be in, potentially making Williams lose his edge. And the more blowout victories, the earlier he’ll get pulled and the less impressive his stats might look.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams looks for wide receiver Dorian Singer before passing for a 13-yard touchdown.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Nguyen: Last year’s performance was exceptional, but just repeating it won’t be enough. Last year, he got the benefit of helping lead USC’s massive turnaround. Now that’s the bare minimum. He has to surpass what he did last year and get the Trojans into the Big One.

Who will win the Pac-12 title?

McCollough: I’ve already picked USC to the playoff, so it would be pretty hard for them to do that if they’re not Pac-12 champs. Who will be the Trojans’ biggest challenger? While Washington or Utah seems like the logical pick, keep an eye on Oregon State. The Beavers could take a big jump at quarterback with DJ Uiagalelei and they play very sound football under head coach Jonathan Smith. Oregon State also will have the nation rooting them on as the best of the remaining four Pac-12 teams. The Beavers get Utah, UCLA and Washington in Corvallis. At the very least, they’re going to spoil some teams’ hopes.

USC football is the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12 in the conference preseason poll released Thursday.

July 20, 2023

Bolch: I’m going to go contrarian — and risk looking like a homer — but I think UCLA is going to be a huge surprise. In 28 of the last 30 years, there has been at least one team that has gone from unranked to the top 10 of the Associated Press rankings, and I’m picking the Bruins to do it in 2023. Their running game is going to be as good as always under Kelly (hello, T.J. Harden and Carson Steele), their new primary quarterback will be more than capable (greetings, Garbers, Moore or Schlee) and their new defensive coordinator is going to bring the juice that’s been missing on that side of the ball (all hail D’Anton Lynn). The Bruin buzz could be so intense by season’s end that both tarps have to come off inside the Rose Bowl.

Nguyen: I’m not going to leave Ben as the only homer here. My alma mater Washington went from four wins in 2021 to 11 in 2023 under first-year head coach Kalen DeBoer and also returns an elite quarterback in Michael Penix Jr. Circle that matchup in the Coliseum on Nov. 4.