Mailbag: Which Pac-12 teams are set for success in the Big Ten and Big 12, Trent Bray’s bar, Pac-12 refs and more

The Hotline mailbag publishes each Friday. Send questions to and include ‘mailbag’ in the subject line. Or hit me on Twitter: @WilnerHotline.

Please note: Some questions have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Which departing Pac-12 schools will have success in their new conference and which will struggle? — @CamKode

Great question, and let’s start with this: The Hotline will dive deep into the Big 12, Big Ten and ACC states-of-play once following the 2023 postseason.

We’ll project the conference races, examine the schedules, the quarterback depth and more — everything Hotline readers want to know about those conferences in 2024.

But first, the transfer portal, NFL Draft decisions and coaching changes need to play themselves out.

There’s no way to project the trajectory of next season, in any conference, before knowing the depth charts and coaching staffs.

The month-long window for transfers officially opens Monday, although the roster churn is well underway with two high-profile quarterbacks, Oregon State’s D.J. Uiagalelei and UCLA’s Dante Moore, leading the exodus.

Depth charts will look vastly different by the middle of January than they do now, so let’s watch the proceedings unfold over the next six weeks — the NFL Draft deadline is Jan. 15 — and then plunge into the projections for next season.

That said, we can offer several two broad comments:

— Utah is always a smart bet for success, whether it’s the Pac-12 or the Big 12, because of coach Kyle Whittingham’s talent foundation and locker room culture.

Since the late 2010s, only two things have interrupted Utah’s string of nine-win seasons: The pandemic (2020) and an off-the-charts series of injuries (2023).

It’s not like the Big 12 is stocked with obstacles. The conference has four teams in the CFP rankings, and two (Texas and Oklahoma) are headed to the SEC. The others are No. 18 Oklahoma State and No. 25 Kansas State.

The Utes are entering a winnable league with a proven quarterback, as Cam Rising has already announced his return for 2024.

— As the rosters currently stand, Oregon is better equipped to thrive in the Big Ten than Washington, USC or UCLA.

This should be clear to anyone who doesn’t bleed purple.

The Bruins are a mid-level program in the Pac-12 (last title: 1998); their relative position will only worsen in the Big Ten.

USC’s immediate success depends on overhauling the defensive staff and personnel. At this point, consider us deeply skeptical the Trojans will compete for a spot in the Big Ten championship game.

Washington loses quarterback Michael Penix Jr., just as Oregon will enter the Big Ten without Bo Nix. But the Ducks have a deeper roster than UW — they are less susceptible to a performance backslide resulting from NFL departures and transfers.

Also, the Hotline needs to see that Kalen DeBoer has agreed to a contract extension before presuming he’s back for 2024.

How do you predict the Pac-12 teams will do in the Big 12 next year? Can Arizona keep it up? Will Colorado further improve? Will Arizona State stay bad? — @vakaviti

We touched on Utah above, and the same aforementioned concerns (the transfer portal and NFL Draft) apply here in terms of deep dives into the other rosters.

Of the three, Arizona clearly is best positioned to compete because it possesses the critical combination of returning quarterback and solid lines of scrimmage.

There are plenty of talented backs and receivers in the Big 12. Success hinges on the degree of skill and depth up front. At this point, the Wildcats project well compared to the existing Big 12 programs. Six weeks from now? Who knows.

While the public’s view of Colorado likely has changed over the past two months, the Hotline’s outlook has not: We never believed CU was as good as it looked in September; Deion Sanders needs several recruiting cycles to craft a competitive depth chart.

Also, we’re monitoring his staff. Sanders demoted offensive coordinator Sean Lewis during the season, and his offense got worse. Who calls the plays in 2024? (Lewis is the new head coach at San Diego State, a shrewd hire by the Aztecs.)

Arizona State’s situation is impossible to predict without knowing the timing and severity of the NCAA sanctions and the impact any penalties might have on Kenny Dillingham’s roster makeover.

At best, the Sun Devils need two seasons to build a competitive roster.

They won’t occupy the Big 12 cellar, but a mid-level finish might be beyond their scope in ’24.

Do you see new Oregon State coach Trent Bray being closer to a Kyle Whittingham at Utah or a Jimmy Lake at Washington? — @MeyersMustache

Those are reasonable ends of the spectrum given that, like Bray, Whittingham and Lake were promoted to the top post  from the defensive coaching staff.

Whittingham went on to a Hall of Fame career; Lake was fired after two seasons.

I’m hesitant to make any projections about the Bray era due to the unprecedented circumstances in Corvallis.

Generally, the Hotline prefers head coaches with offensive expertise because the quarterback position is so important (and increasingly difficult to manage with the transfer portal). But the Beavers were in no position to take chances with the hire — stability and security were absolutely essential within the storm.

Here’s another consideration: How will Oregon State fans define success over the next three-to-five seasons?

The program (probably) will compete in a two-team league in 2024-25 and then a merged entity with the Mountain West starting in 2026.

Is Bray’s tenure successful only if he wins whatever titles are available? Or would 8-4 seasons be enough?

Do the 10 schools have to stand together in the legal case, or might we see an individual or group cut their own settlement with Oregon State and Washington State? — @bogeycat85

The Hotline has a better understanding of the legal process today than we did three months ago thanks to reading through dozens of court filings and speaking to a slew of attorneys.

Nothing in our reporting suggests the outbound schools could, or will, reach separate settlements with Washington State and Oregon State.

The legal foundation for the case isn’t money, which would be the focus of any settlement. It’s about governance — specifically, representation on the board of directors.

Any settlement would seemingly require a school to relinquish its board position. If one school capitulates on that issue, it undercuts the argument for the other nine.

Our sense is that they stick together in all-or-nothing fashion.

Is there a penalty for teams to leave the Mountain West after 2026, when the media deal expires? — @fakepaulblood

Not that we are aware.

The departure fee for leaving the Mountain West before the 2024 season would be about $34 million. That’s not an option.

Leave before the 2025 season, and the price drops to $17 million. That’s slightly more manageable, but we don’t expect anyone to depart.

The TV contracts with Fox and CBS expire in the summer of 2026, so any changes in conference affiliation for the ’26 season (and beyond) would come without a cost.

However, we don’t know the details of the schedule agreement between WSU and OSU and the Mountain West that was announced this morning. (The Cougars and Beavers will play six games against MW teams.) It’s possible the deal includes stipulations for a future merger.

Oh, and before we forget: The absence of any departure penalty from the Pac-12 bylaws is just one more example of the presidents’ abominable oversight of the conference.

What is the potential reconfiguration for bowl games with all of the conference changes next year? — @LawDawgPod

Generally, whatever significance the bowl games currently carry — outside of those in the New Year’s Six lineup — will be sliced in half with the expansion of the playoff following the 2024 season.

The games specific to the Pac-12 have an added challenge: They must find new partners within a suboptimal landscape. The elimination of a power conference leaves fewer opportunities to match one league against another.

For example, the Alamo Bowl currently matches the Pac-12 against the Big 12. One conference lost 10 members; the other lost its top-two draws (Texas and Oklahoma). An arrangement with the Big Ten makes sense in the new era, but the Alamo is reportedly “scrambling” to rewrite its strategy.

The bowl system isn’t going away. It means too much to athletic directors and coaches, who have performance bonuses in their contracts, and ESPN values the programming. (More people will watch college football than billiards on a Tuesday in late December.)

But the expanded playoff will diminish the vast majority of games.

I assume USC and UCLA not being on the Pac-12 board has no bearing on the dispersal of Pac-12 reserve funds, correct? — Mike

That is correct, because there will be no dispersal. As the Hotline reported in October, the emergency reserve fund has been exhausted.

The presidents approved tapping the reserves to help schools offset unexpected expenses related to the Comcast overpayment mess and the Pac-12 Networks move to San Ramon, which went over budget.

“There’s nothing left,” one source said.

If, by chance, you’re referring to the Pac-12’s assets, not the emergency reserves, that’s a different issue entirely — and one at the center of the lawsuit over control of the governing board.

Has any D-I football team ever been victorious against three undefeated opponents in a row during December and January? — Duck Dreamer

I see where you’re headed and appreciate the optimism. We are not aware of a single team beating three consecutive undefeated opponents, at least not in the playoff era.

The issue isn’t so much the CFP results; it’s the lack of matchups against unbeaten teams in the conference championship games.

But Oregon might have the chance to hit the trifecta. If the Ducks beat Washington in the Pac-12 championship and then topple two undefeated teams in the playoff, it would make for an incredible finish.

What happens to all the Pac-12 referees and officials? Do other conferences pick them up, or are they out of jobs? @BrayMb1

The process began earlier this year when the Big Ten hired a handful of Pac-12 referees to build out its officiating crew for games on the West Coast starting next season.

Our assumption is other Pac-12 officials will have opportunities with the Big Ten and Big 12; others might join Group of Five conferences.

I chuckle each time Pac-12 fans and media members express relief on social media about no longer having to endure Pac-12 officiating.

Many of them will work games in the Pacific Time Zone for the Big Ten and Big 12.

What’s the best Sportsbook in Las Vegas? — @mjhusky

If we had to pick one book as a place to camp out all day for college football or March Madness viewing, it would be the MGM.

But there are a handful that would serve the purpose just fine.

Do you think football will separate into select conferences with other sports going back to traditional leagues? — @rob123454321

Funny you should ask. The Hotline addressed that very issue on Thursday with what stands as our 3,000-word magnum opus on the future of college football.

Set in December 2033, the column sketched a framework for the collapse of the power conferences, the formation of a Super League (fronted by private equity) and the subsequent rebirth of the Pac-12.

Except it’s the Pac-14.

And Brigham Young’s involved.

In our vision, a series of legal challenges to the NCAA economic model result in revenue-sharing with the athletes, a massive cash crunch and the creation of regional conferences.

While we’re only guessing at the details, the Hotline is convinced college football will change dramatically over the next eight or 10 years.

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*** Pac-12 Hotline is not endorsed or sponsored by the Pac-12 Conference, and the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conference.

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Author: Jon Wilner