Pac-12 Power Rankings, Week 3: Are the Ducks still flying high after the Bruins scare?
Did a new team ascend to the top after Oregon struggled against UC Los Angeles?
Leland: I am having total late-night writer’s block, probably not helped by Cal’s on-field struggles. So, no time for fancy intros.
In the Power Rankings, we’ll be evaluating the conference teams by their performance and morale across the whole, crazy, and shortened season—particularly the more recent results. Here’s the latest slate of games:
#11 Oregon def. UC Los Angeles, 38–35
Oregon State def. California, 31–27
Washington def. Arizona, 44–27
#20 USC def. Utah, 33–17
Positive COVID result: Arizona State, Washington State
COVID cancellation: Colorado, Stanfurd
Nick Kranz: Hey, everybody’s played a game now! We can actually fill these out with some iota of information—however scant!
Berkelium97: It’s a shame to see the effect COVID is having on these games. Even when they’re not missing players due to COVID, teams affected by it have been exceptionally sloppy in their first game back on the field (see Cal last week, Utah this week). The lack of practice seems to have a huge impact on fundamental execution like tackling and QB–WR timing—it’s a much larger effect than I expected.
Ruey Yen: This 2020 season is truly a war of attrition. It’s fairly evident across the conference that players lack the reps either due to COVID prevention measures or last-minute changes of personnel due to quarantine. As unfair as it is to judge coaching in such a weird circumstance, I am sure those rash decisions may still be made.
Christopher_h: I honestly have no idea how to rate some teams this year. With Covid-19 as the great equalizer, I’d almost find it easier to make a bunch of non-transitive diagrams of “I think X can beat Y, Y can beat Z, but Z can’t beat X.”
Last week: 1
Nick Kranz (1): Perhaps a mildly disappointing performance from the Ducks, who let UCLA run all over them despite playing a back-up QB; but four turnovers allowed Oregon to preserve their perfect record.
Berkelium97 (3): Offense continues to look good (albeit frustrated at times due to UCLA’s pressure packages). Defense continues to disappoint.
Ruey Yen (3): Oregon really hurts the already slim chance of the Pac sending a team to the College Football Playoffs this season.
Christopher_h (1): Oregon’s patchwork offensive line looked good for two games, but completely fell apart against a tough UCLA defensive line led by Osa Odighizuwa. More concerning was that their defensive line was completely unable to stop the run at all. Demetric Felton may be coming into his own, but you’d expect a defensive line loaded with talent (5-star DE Kayvon Thibodeaux, potential/late-round NFL talent like DT Austin Faoliu and NT Jordon Scott, and even 5-star LB Noah Sewell backing them up) to do a better job stopping the run. Oregon is definitely down this year—just another reason I thought Cal had a dark horse chance at the North… sigh.
Last week: 2
Nick Kranz (3): A much more convincing performance, albeit against a Utah team that is in fact rebuilding exactly as much as we suspected they would be. Still, after dicking around against both Arizona and ASU, an easy drama-free win counts as impressive no matter the opposition.
Berkelium97 (1): They didn’t need some last-minute good luck to win this week. Now they’re essentially a Colorado loss away from winning the Pac-12 South. Oh look, they host Colorado this week. How convenient.
Ruey Yen (1): A flawed USC is my new number 1 after Oregon’s issue against a shorthanded UCLA squad this week.
Christopher_h (4): USC made far fewer coaching errors against Utah. I suppose in a shortened season with teams rusty after a year of not playing, simply having better athletes is a bigger advantage than usual. QB Kedon Slovis also seemingly fixed whatever was wrong with his arm in the Arizona game. Still, Graham Harrell showed an inability to adjust to defenses when plays are not working—and I am sure that is going to come back and bite USC at some point.
Last week: 4
Nick Kranz (2): Held Arizona to less than 2 yards/play for three quarters and QB Dylan Morris’s stats look significantly more passable when all he has to do is support the best defense in the conference.
Berkelium97 (2): A dominant performance in every phase of the game—at least until going into cruise control in the fourth quarter. The offense and defense look good enough to challenge for the Pac-12 North.
Ohio Bear (3): After the dominant win, I thought about putting them in second place behind Oregon and/or USC. For now, I will put them here.
Ruey Yen (4): It’s hard to say how close that canceled Cal–Washington game would have been in Pac-12 Week 1.
Christopher_h (2): Oof. They took the shackles off QB Dylan Morris—and he looked good. I’ve always had a low opinion of Arizona’s secondary and their frequent coverage busts (and we just hired their DB coach, oh boy), but Morris made some gorgeous throws this game. Washington is probably the only team with a defense looking sharp instead of rusty. Linebackers Edefuan Ulofoshio and Zion Tupuola-Fetui look like stars in the making, which is slightly inconvenient because of how difficult it is to quickly write their names down in my notes when I’m watching games.
Last week: 3
Nick Kranz (4): It’s a shame their game against Arizona St. was cancelled—I really wanted another piece of data to try to determine exactly how real Karl Dorrell’s Buffalo are. Well, now it’s time to travel to LA and try to knock off USC in a game that will almost certainly determine who wins the Pac-12 South.
Berkelium97 (4): Wins against UCLA and OSU looked even better this week.
Ruey Yen (2): I had Colorado at second last week. The good performance by UCLA just made that win look even more impressive. A lot is on the line this weekend when USC and Colorado play for the control of the Pac-12 South.
Christopher_h (5): I still think it’s a bit early to declare that Colorado has arrived, but it looks like Karl Dorrell is on track for Coach of the Year if he can keep this up. If Colorado can sneak by USC (and that’s a pretty big “if”—they’re two-TD underdogs), they’re in control of the Pac-12 South. It’s the classic USC question: can the well-coached, scrappy underdog overcome the uber-talented but completely mismanaged favorites? I expect it’ll be close, but the bad guys usually win.
Last week: 8
Nick Kranz (6): Is UCLA, like, good? At least, on offense? I don’t like contemplating this possibility. Why did we have to play them this year?
Berkelium97 (5): They lose DTR, then go up to Eugene and hang with the Ducks for 60 minutes? I wasn’t expecting that. Not only were they competitive with the Ducks, but they outgained them and only lost by 3 despite giving up 21 points off turnovers. Like Nick, I’m a bit concerned that UCLA might be...kinda good. That D-line was giving Oregon fits and the run game is the most productive in the conference (though second in efficiency to the Ducks).
Ohio Bear (5): The Bruins were dealt a bad blow before the game, but managed to overcome it and make this game competitive. They deserve a great deal of credit. If this game told me anything, it’s that both Colorado and Ucla are good teams.
Ruey Yen (5): Was the Chip Kelly hiring an actual good move for the Baby Bears? Probably not and maybe the UCLA fans should be happy that they didn’t upset the Ducks in this game to earn Kelly more good will in the grand scheme of things.
Christopher_h (6): Their defensive line has been surprisingly good and RB Demetric Felton is having a breakout year. Freshman QB Chase Griffin showed a surprising ability to read a defense—a skill he obviously learned before UCLA. Still, UCLA turned the ball over four times (and I reckon Oregon only forced 2.5 of them—Griffin forced that fourth-down throw in the third quarter, but the ultra-aggressive halftime Hail Mary resulting in a pick-6 where Griffin was hit as he threw should probably be blamed on Chip Kelly) and those turnovers may have been the difference in the game. I hope UCLA stays just competitive enough to lose a close game to USC—and both LA schools remain content with their choice in coaches.
Last week: 5
Ruey Yen (8): Washington State vs. Stanford was canceled last weekend. The upcoming Apple Cup is also already canceled due to COVID cases on the Cougs’ side.
Christopher_h (8): Wazzu on the Apple Cup cancellation: “Stop. Don’t. Come back.”
Last week: 6
Berkelium97 (6): Not playing games for the last two weeks, they’ve dropped from second to sixth in my ballot. Just as well, as they’ll probably be a rusty, sloppy mess when they hit the field again.
Christopher_h (3): It’s a shame ASU–Colorado was cancelled, because they’ve played some great games these past couple years. I think ASU would have taken it in a nail-biter and avenged their loss from last year.
Leland (7): They drop because COVID is apparently so widespread throughout their team and because their one data point was hanging close with USC. The latter looks far less impressive after Arizona was able to do the same—and we saw what happened to Arizona this week.
Last week: 11
Nick Kranz (8): I don’t think it says anything great about this conference that I could plausibly put OSU eighth in these rankings, but to OSU’s credit they don’t make mistakes and they run the ball well—and not shooting yourself in the foot takes you a long way in this conference. Hell, OSU’s maybe one awful spot away from a 2–1 record!
Berkelium97 (8): What a gritty, resilient win for the Beavs. Despite being outplayed for most of the game, they were able to win the game by scoring on two drives that lasted one play each, forcing two turnovers in the red zone, and blocking a critical fourth-quarter punt.
Ohio Bear (8): After the season opening loss to WSU, I wondered if the optimism in Corvallis was unfounded. But the last two weeks, this team has gotten better. I honestly don’t think the Beavers would have beaten Cal if the Bears had not been dealt the COVID blow on Friday, but they deserve credit for overcoming a game—albeit undermanned—Cal team. They made plays to win the game.
Christopher_h (9): The game unfortunately went about how I expected it would go—with another heart-breaking loss like last year. It would be easy to make excuses about missing the entire offensive line, Christopher Brown Jr., etc., but the Cal offense wasn’t really the problem. When OSU needed to score, they did—and Cal couldn’t stop them. That’s a credit to RB Jermar Jefferson and the OSU offense.
Last week: 7
Nick Kranz (9): They miss Zack Moss, they miss Tyler Huntley, and they very much miss all of the excellent defenders that graduated last year. Still reasonably well coached, still reasonably competent, but lacking the experience and/or talent to really make good teams sweat.
Berkelium97 (9): I saw a couple turnovers and many missed tackles in the bit of the first half that I watched. Whether that sloppiness is due to inexperience or rust after missing two games remains to be seen, but I’m guessing it’s the latter based on Wittingham’s record of having fundamentally sound teams.
Christopher_h (7): After seeing how rusty Cal was, it probably should not be a surprise that Utah struggled in their first game back. Nick Kranz is right—last year, Utah had an elite defensive line to panic QBs and NFL talent in the secondary to pick off those errant throws. This year, their defense has taken a big step back. I’ve been high on QB Cameron Rising since last year and he looked sharp before his injury, but I lost pretty much all faith in Utah’s offense after QB Jake Bentley (the South Carolina transfer) took over. Players from the SEC are overhyped and sometimes overrated simply because they play in the SEC. Utah is going to need a strong QB on offense this year after the departure of RB Zack Moss.
Last week: 10
Nick Kranz (11): Only the Axe can save us now.
Berkelium97 (11): The offense looked much better this week. At least, until it went extremely conservative in the second half. Chase Garbers was accurately tossing deep balls to receivers who consistently found separation. RBs continually picked up yards after contact. However, the defense continued to show some weaknesses—covering tight ends remains an issue (like last year, ILB pass coverage is a weakness), some poor tackling, and odd coverages (defensive playcalling seems to have taken a step back since TDR became co-coordinator). Special teams had its worst day in years—a 24-yard punt, a couple penalties negating huge returns, and a blocked punt to set up OSU’s game-winning TD.
Ohio Bear (11): Cal was dealt a bad hand again before this game even began (before they even left for Corvallis, as we’ve learned). Yet, Cal managed to put up a fight on the road against an OSU team that has gotten better each week. Not only put up a fight—Cal really should have won this game, but mistakes doomed the Bears. (Read: special teams.) Given the circumstances of the first two games, it is difficult to figure out just how good this team is. Hopefully, the Big Game will give us more of an indication. And while we’re at it, hopefully Friday's game will give us the Axe to retain.
Ruey Yen (10): Please hold on to the Axe!
Christopher_h (11): I feel like Cal squandered their elite defense of the past two years—Evan Weaver, Ashtyn Davis, Jaylinn Hawkins, Cameron Goode, Cam Bynum… and now that we finally have a serviceable offense, we can’t count on the lockdown defense of years prior. We always trade one problem for another. On a positive note, I was glad to see Chase Garbers return to 2019 form—that touchdown pass to WR Kekoa Crawford near the end of the second quarter was absolutely beautiful. Now imagine we had THIS offense with last year’s defense!
Last week: 12
Nick Kranz (10): Ruin their seasons—for the love of all that is good and holy.
Ohio Bear (10): I didn’t know where to put Stanfurd in relation to Cal. But so as to err on the side of good JuJu, I put them 10th—right in front of the Bears.
Christopher_h (12): I have trouble picturing Cal beating anyone in the Pac-12 right now... with one notable exception. Stanford is going to make like a Hoover and suck.
Last week: 9
Nick Kranz (12): For three quarters before Washington let their foot off the gas, Arizona was given the most comprehensive beatdown anybody in this conference has received in at least a couple years.
Berkelium97 (12): Don’t let the final score fool you—Arizona was completely outmatched on both sides of the ball. This game felt like it was over at the end of the first quarter.
Ohio Bear (12): I was surprised to see the 44–27 final score because Washington was laying the hurt on Arizona for the first three quarters of that game. After being competitive against USC a week ago, maybe the Wildcats are what we thought they were.
Christopher_h (10): Or perhaps we gave too much credit to Arizona for playing USC close? USC has some serious flaws on defense that Arizona was able to take advantage of (like completely failing to account for Gunnell throughout the entire game), but Washington made no such mistakes. I don’t think Arizona is the worst team in the Pac-12, but the South is looking tougher each day.
With physical distancing, we’re no longer allowed to assemble at Twist’s South Bay cottage to compile these votes. Instead, we get on an awkward Zoom call and each writer submits their individual ballots for the week (Table 1).
The responses for each team are combined and averaged to give the main rankings listed above. Figure 1 shows how these rankings have progressed over the season, with Oregon and USC holding steady at their top spots for the fourth-straight week. At the bottom of the ladder, Arizona shows some fearful symmetry by starting the season at twelfth, spending two weeks at ninth, and then coming back down to the bottom.
In Figure 2a, we’ve charted how many spots up and down the rankings each team has moved. Week 3 was the quietest week we’ve seen all season by a pretty healthy margin—a 30% decrease compared to Week 2. This is possibly an indication that we finally have enough data on most of these teams to have a fair assessment. These values are graphed in Figure 2b to show how each team’s total Madness is changing over the year. USC is one of two teams with a Madness score of 0—which in and of itself is mad as USC typically exhibits high Madness due to their unique combination of elite talent, mind-boggling inconsistency, and underwhelming coaching.
We can also take a closer look at those precisely averaged scores for each team (Fig. 3). The precise scores are shown as columns and the error bars represent one standard deviation—how inconsistent our opinions were for that team. The Sun Devils have a huge standard deviation because they received votes as high as third and as low as tenth as a consequence of their unusual season in which they’ve only played one game—a should-have-won loss to South frontrunner USC—but have been hampered by a rampant coronavirus outbreak in the program.
These precise scores are charted over the season in Figure 4. Oregon’s grasp on the number one spot is the flimsiest it’s been all season after a close call against a former Duck. Meanwhile, it’s probably fair to say there are three tiers in the conference. The top consists of Oregon, USC, Washington, and Colorado—I don’t think anyone expected Karl Dorrell to have this much success this year. The middling teams are UC Los Angeles, Wazzu, Arizona State, Oregon State, and Utah. The basement consists of the Bay Area baddies and Arizona.
This upcoming schedule of games has a few rivalries—though the Apple Cup was cancelled, the other teams in the Pacific Northwest will be playing for the Platypus trophy. In terms of a contest between two closely-ranked teams, we turn to the South where USC—having just dispatched the main challenger for the South crown according to preseason expectations—faces the unexpected upstart that is Colorado.
And there is one game that combines these components—a rivalry game between two teams in close battle for the upper hand in these rankings.
The 123rd Big Game. To decide the basement.