Who will emerge as the top contender to USC in the Pac-12?

There’s been so much craziness in the world of realignment, it has been easy to forget how close we are to the 2023 college football season.

As part of our preview of this season, we will be rolling out the Yahoo Sports Top 25 in the lead-up to the seven FBS games being played in Week 0.

Here is Nos. 15 through 11. (Starting Monday, we count down from No. 10 to No. 1 in the days leading up to the season openers on Aug. 26.)

Previously: Nos. 25 through 21, Nos. 20 through 16

SOUTH BEND, INDIANA - APRIL 22: Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Sam Hartman (10) throws the football during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring Football Game at Notre Dame Stadium on April 22, 2023 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Sam Hartman is Notre Dame’s new starting quarterback. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

15. Notre Dame

Can Notre Dame avoid the embarrassing losses that soured an otherwise solid debut season for head coach Marcus Freeman?

At 9-4, Notre Dame’s first season of the post-Brian Kelly era wasn’t a total disappointment. Losses to Ohio State and USC were acceptable. But home losses to both Marshall and Stanford were odd developments.

After Drew Pyne took over for the injured Tyler Buchner (Buchner played in the bowl game), former Wake Forest QB Sam Hartman arrives in South Bend to take over as the starter. Hartman has been incredibly prolific in Wake Forest’s RPO-based offense and will be in an entirely different system in offensive coordinator Gerad Parker’s first season. Hartman had more receiving talent around him at Wake Forest and how well Hartman does in his new environment will largely dictate how well Notre Dame does this season.

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The defense returns seven starters but has to replace DE Isaiah Foskey. Ohio State transfer Javontae Jean-Baptiste could help that pass-rushing group and former Oklahoma State safety Thomas Harper could immediately contribute in the secondary alongside the stellar cornerback duo of Benjamin Morrison and Cam Hart. Ohio State comes to South Bend this season along with USC, while the Irish have to go to Clemson. But Notre Dame will likely be favored in every other contest.

Tennessee is coming off the breakthrough season its fan base had long been craving. The Vols won 11 games, including a thriller over Alabama and a beatdown of Clemson in the Orange Bowl. The Vols had one of the top offenses in the country but won’t have quarterback Hendon Hooker or receivers Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman this year.

All three moved on to the NFL, as did all-SEC tackle Darnell Wright. Despite those losses, the Vols should still have an excellent offense as long as Joe Milton plays like he did in the Orange Bowl. Milton has a lot of upside, but will he be as efficient and elusive in the pocket as Hooker? Milton has lots of talent around him. Even without Hyatt and Tillman, the receiving group is excellent, with Bru McCoy, Ramel Keyton and Squirrel White all back and Dont’e Thornton in from Oregon.

The offensive line may not be quite as good without Wright and there are some concerns on the defense. The Vols need their veteran secondary group to play better than it did a year ago and have somebody to step up off the edge to reach the heights they did in 2022.

KNOXVILLE, TN - APRIL 15: Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Joe Milton III (7) throws a pass in warmups before the Tennessee Volunteers spring game on April 15, 2023, at Neyland Stadium, in Knoxville, TN. (Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Joe Milton takes over for Hendon Hooker at QB for Tennessee. (Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

13. Oregon

Bo Nix is back after an incredibly successful first season in Eugene.

Nix went from former Auburn starter to midseason Heisman contender with his performance in Kenny Dillingham’s offense in 2022. Nix completed 72% of his passes for nearly 3,600 yards and 29 TDs to just seven interceptions. With Dillingham now the head coach at Arizona State, Nix will have his fourth offensive coordinator in as many seasons of college football.

Much like Dan Lanning and his staff did a season ago, Oregon recruited a lot of high-profile transfers who can make an immediate impact. WRs Traeshon Holden (Alabama) and Gary Bryant Jr. (USC) could see playing time right away with Troy Franklin and Kris Hutson coming back in 2023. The defense was the weaker of the two units a season ago and adds ex-South Carolina DE Jordan Burch, DB Evan Williams (Fresno State) and LB Jestin Jacobs (Iowa), among others.

A road game at Texas Tech in Week 2 is an intriguing non-conference test before a Pac-12 schedule that incudes visits to Washington and Utah and a home game against USC. It’s a tough schedule, but Oregon should again be in the mix for the Pac-12 title.

12. Washington

Washington had an incredible turnaround in its first season under head coach Kalen DeBoer, going from 4-8 in 2021 to 11-2.

DeBoer’s offense in Seattle was excellent and most of that unit is back in 2023. Michael Penix is a legitimate Heisman candidate at quarterback and the Huskies have one of the best receiver groups in the country with Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Ja’Lynn all returning. One concern, though, is the three departed starters on the offensive line. Both tackles are back, but UW must replace all three starters on the interior.

Washington wasn’t very good defensively last fall, but the personnel up front is very promising. The edge duo of Bralen Trice and Zion Tupuola-Fetui is excellent and the Huskies are very deep on the interior of the D-line. The secondary struggled in 2022 and may be a weakness again in 2023. It’s probably the biggest concern on the team and could ultimately cost the Huskies a chance to compete for a College Football Playoff berth.

SAN ANTONIO, TX - DECEMBER 29:  Michael Penix Jr. #9 of the Washington Huskies throws a touchdown pass in the third quarter in the Valero Alamo Bowl at the Alamodome on December 29, 2022 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

Michael Penix Jr. and Washington are contenders in the Pac-12. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

11. Utah

How healthy will Cam Rising be in 2023?

The Utah QB suffered a torn left ACL in the Utes’ Rose Bowl loss to Penn State and is aiming to be ready for the season opener against Florida on Aug. 31. It was the second-straight year Rising had been injured in the Rose Bowl — and the second straight time Utah’s fortunes in the game had flipped when he left the contest.

In addition to rehabbing his knee, Rising has also been tweaking his throwing motion to be a better downfield passer. The Utah offense loses TE Dalton Kincaid but brings back TE Brant Kuithe, WR Devaughn Vele and RB Ja’Quinden Jackson, who could be a breakout performer in the Pac-12.

The defense needs to replace lockdown CB Clark Phillips III but returns three starters on the defensive line and added players like CB Miles Battle (Ole Miss), Logan Fano (BYU) and Levani Damuni (Stanford) in the transfer portal. Utah will once again be an extremely physical team on both sides of the ball.

Games against Florida and Baylor to start the season are tough but winnable before a break against Weber State ahead of the Pac-12 gauntlet. The Utes have to go to Oregon State, USC and Washington and host UCLA and Oregon. If Rising is fully healthy, Utah will be near the top of the conference with a chance to win the Pac-12 title for a third consecutive season.

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