Pac-12 Power Rankings, Week 2: Cal crumbles and crashes

And I do something completely unprecedented.

We all know what happened this past week.

When you seek to rank the Pac-12 conference by performance and fan morale, what happened to Cal is gonna be bad. When your system tries to have an emphasis on the recent results and there are only two weeks of results—really, one week for Cal—it’s gonna be extra bad.

Here’s the slate of Pac-12 games:

  • #20 USC def. Arizona, 34–30

  • Colorado def. Stanfurd, 35–32

  • #11 Oregon def. Washington State, 43–29

  • Washington def. Oregon State, 27–21

  • UC Los Angeles def. California, 34–10

  • Positive COVID result: Arizona State, Utah

This depressing slate of results forced my hand—personally—into doing something unprecedented with my ballot. Something that wasn’t even fully justified and yet it was entirely justified. Let’s dig in.

Berkelium97:  Two weeks into the season and I’m pretty underwhelmed with the teams I expected to contend for the conference crown.  This week, they ranged from underwhelming (Washington, Oregon) to utterly abysmal (Cal)—and it’s not at the expense of some unexpectedly strong performances from the middling or bottom-feeder teams.  So far, it looks like plenty of mediocrity across the conference.

Ruey Yen: Perhaps the restart plan was too rushed as all the Pac-12 teams that have played (everyone other than Utah) have looked flawed. Then again, one can make the same claim for just about every college football team this year.

Christopher_h: I’m with Berkelium97—teams at the top of the conference are as beatable as ever, while teams at the bottom have done surprisingly well. The pandemic, extended off-season, no spring training, and lack of games has been a great equalizer.


Rankings:

Last week: 1

Berkelium97 (2):  I only watched the first half (so I may be overly negative) and, wooo, that was rough.  I expected Oregon to have an excellent defense this year and was willing to give them a mulligan for last week’s performance against LSJU, but they looked very mortal on Saturday.  The D-line is full of star playmakers, but if they can’t blow up the play at the LoS then the secondary is either going to 1) have to make a tackle because the runner is getting to the next level or 2) lose a receiver in coverage because they can’t seem to keep track of anyone.  On the other side of the ball, every drive down the field felt like a grind for the Oregon offense.  And they weren’t helped by some silly turnovers—all of which magically went into the arms of WSU’s Ayden Hector.

Ohio Bear (1): Maybe the slow start is their thing.  They were down 19–7 late in the first half at WSU and then it all turned on a dime.  The Ducks were clearly better than WSU and could have won by more if they’d just started better.  

Ruey Yen (1): I considered punishing the Ducks in my ranking due to their slow start, but every other Pac-12 team had bigger flaws. 

Nick Kranz (1): Had basically everything go wrong for the first 28 minutes of the game and still won easily on the road. A strong point in favor of the idea that Oregon is clearly the best team in the conference.

Christopher_h (1): It was an ugly first half from Oregon, but they kept it within 5 despite turning the ball over three times in the first half—and it’s hard for anyone to win when you keep gifting the other team the ball. The 29–10 second half was more in-line with what you’d have expected from Oregon, even against a surprisingly tough Washington State team. Still, Oregon’s secondary is by far the most overrated in the conference. I am still high on QB Tyler Shough though, who makes correct reads at a much higher clip than the rest of the Pac-12’s young QBs. 

Last week: 2

Berkelium97 (1):  I hate putting them at first because they deserved to lose both games.  How can they be lucky enough to have consecutive weeks where a fourth-quarter drive hinges on a deflected pass that somehow finds another USC receiver? The problem with a shortened season is that those instances of good luck have an outsized effect on the trajectory of the season.  Being a lucky 2–0 is huge when it’s only a 6- or 7-game season, rather than a 12-game season where their luck has a better chance of balancing out

Ohio Bear (2): They’re 2–0 after squeaking out two victories against the AZ schools. What can I say?  They’ve won. It’s better than losing. And perhaps they’ve underwhelmed, but they have the talent to be great if Clay Helton doesn’t mess it up. 

Ruey Yen (3): The Trojans are 2–0 somehow. They have been more lucky than good.

Nick Kranz (2): I mean, it hasn’t been pretty, but they’re one home win against Colorado away from virtually clinching the Pac-12 South. Their WRs paper over all kinds of other weaknesses.

Christopher_h (4): Like Berkelium97 mentioned, they once again needed luck (a should-be INT deflecting to a USC WR) on their side to beat an overmatched team. USC’s secondary is awful and basically relies on refs looking the other way while they maul opposing receivers trying to catch the ball (and then of course flexing over their amazing pass defense). If you let every game come down to a coin flip, eventually the coin flip doesn’t fall your way. 

Last week: 7

Berkelium97 (3):  They had a multi-TD lead for much of the game thanks to a solid—but inefficient—run game and a pass attack that took advantage of a lost LSJU secondary.  I’m not sure what happened in those final few minutes (I didn’t catch the second half), however.  Nevertheless, they’re sitting at a healthy 2–0—albeit with wins over two of the conference’s worst teams. 

Ruey Yen (2): Colorado has two close wins over UCLA and Stanford, which Cal fans will soon find out if they are good or not in the next two weeks. In a topsy-turvy college football season, I would be mildly amused by Colorado near the top of the Pac.

Nick Kranz (4): A good young QB, some exciting WR talent, and just enough defense to make it stand up? There’s still the possibility that Colorado is a mirage with two close wins over bad teams, but it’s just as possible that Colorado really is the dark horse good team that will sneak up on everybody this year.

Christopher_h (5): I can’t say I’m all-in on Colorado yet—and I’m a bit concerned about them allowing both UCLA and Stanford to claw back into games—but they’re the best first-half team in the Pac-12. Stanford tried to get back to their old power-running ways and Colorado shut them down in their tracks. Colorado’s defensive line completely mauled what should be a talented Stanford offensive line.

Last week: 6

Nick Kranz (3): Third is probably a generous ranking considering how bad their passing game looked against Oregon State. Still, their secondary is the best in the conference and their offensive line looked excellent. Maybe they kept the training wheels on so that Dylan Morris can unleash the dragon against other teams?

Christopher_h (6): It was a rainy day, but they didn’t ask much from redshirt freshman QB Dylan Morris. There’s also something to be said about why uber-talented UW receivers suddenly get a case of the drops once they enter the starting lineup. And other than their freshman long snapper, UW simply had too much talent for OSU to overcome. UW even played backups at one point in the third quarter despite only being up 3, which gave me the impression that they weren’t all that concerned with OSU to begin with.

Last week: 5

Berkelium97 (5): The offense looked pretty good in the first half. Jayden de Laura was doing a great job of finding holes in the Oregon defense and striking those receivers with solid accuracy.

Nick Kranz (5): Their defense is still a liability, as Oregon amply demonstrated by scoring five touchdowns in six drives that spanned the end of the first half and most of the second half. And while I like what I saw from de Laura, he did eventually start to get bothered by the pressure Oregon was able to bring later in the game. Encouraging, but WSU is clearly a step below Oregon.

Christopher_h (8): I think Wazzu is doing a good job playing up to their potential—a credit to their new coach—I just happen to think that ceiling isn’t very high. They have some real talent at the RB and WR positions left over from the Leach era, though. Once Oregon stopped turning over the ball, they knifed through Wazzu’s defense like butter.

Last week: 3

Ruey Yen (8): Given their COVID outbreak that supposedly infected an entire half of the team, it’s hard to imagine that ASU will be playing any games soon. 

Nick Kranz (6): And their game next week vs. Colorado is already cancelled. After that they play Utah, which seems unlikely since that’s the matchup of the two teams hit hardest right now. Might ASU’s season be over after one crushing loss to USC?

Christopher_h (2): Get well soon, Herm Edwards and ASU.

Last week: 8

Berkelium97 (8): Hello? Is anyone there?

Ruey Yen (5): I had Utah fifth in my preseason ranking. I had considered moving them up because everyone else who played all looked bad, but kept them at the same spot. Chances are that the Utes are another mediocre team.

Gustav (12): The quarantine affected Cal’s defensive line pretty hard and it showed. Imagine how rusty and ineffective Utah will be if they ever get to play. I don’t see them just suddenly being decent—and if they do I’ll just rank them better then.

Christopher_h (3): I hope Utah fares better than Cal does after the cancelled games, as USC is the first one up to the plate.

Last week: 12

Berkelium97 (7): Did their defense make a magical one-game turnaround or is Cal’s offense really that bad? It’s encouraging for UCLA fans that DTR is having fewer mind-bogglingly bad turnovers.

Nick Kranz (7): I hope when we look back on this season, we’ll see the win over Cal as a gift from the COVID gods and nothing more.

Christopher_h (10): I don’t really view this game as a UCLA win so much as I do as a Cal loss. I still think they’re one of the worst teams in the conference.

Last week: T9

Nick Kranz (8): The held up better than I expected against USC—largely on the strength of Grant Gunnell’s passing.

Christopher_h (7): Grant Gunnell is not a dual-threat quarterback, but you could be forgiven for thinking that based on USC’s defense completely failing to account for him repeatedly. A strong showing overall from Gunnell and signs of improvement at the QB position—something that was missing ever since coach Kevin Sumlin took over Khalil Tate’s development.

Last week: 4

Berkelium97 (12): Cal is the only team that has been wholly uncompetitive this season, so I feel they fully deserve a 12th-place ranking. That was a shockingly bad performance. The offense was unable to muster anything against a UCLA defense that gave up 250+ yards on the ground last week and was one of the worst pass defenses in the nation last year. The defense lacked the precise and consistent execution we’ve come to expect under Wilcox; players missed tackles all over the field and the secondary regularly lost receivers in coverage. The only positive is that the punting unit schemed up an effective means of consistently preventing returns.

Ohio Bear (12): Based on what we have seen on the field, Cal is clearly the worst team in the Pac-12. The Bears were uncompetitive against Ucla in an ugly loss. Sure, there are extenuating circumstances. But Cal has to show something beyond ineptitude to prove that they are worthy of anything more than 12th at this point.

Ruey Yen (9): Bears looked bad on both sides of the ball, but some of this may be due to the lack of preparation—particularly for the Cal defense against a gimmick offense of UCLA. Then again, enough guys on this team had the better 2019 season performances that I can’t quite ignore yet.

Gustav (11): Missing Week 1 clearly had its toll on the team, but they should be better going forward. However I’m still putting them low on the list because of the disadvantages of having several starting players unavailable.

Nick Kranz (10): I was kinder than perhaps the Bears deserve because of the circumstances of the game, but if the Bears aren’t massively improved against Oregon State then they will quickly fall further than just 10th place.

Piotr T Le (10): PAIN. Well not really. One-game sample in a high variance scenario wherein the things that can be attributed to the peculiar situation of the game and world itself can also be attributed to the structural issues that may lurk underneath it all. It’s a lot of noise drowning out the signal and thus making the evaluation hard. The low ranking is due to the fact that I have a negative outlook on life and thus am perceiving the flaws as structural: lack of cohesion on the OL, the lack of veteran presence in the DB/LB position, and failure of the WRs to gain separation.

Christopher_h (12): I could almost forgive the defense for that performance and pin the blame for all that terrible tackling on Covid-19—has Cal forgotten their fundamentals with the lack of full-contact practices or something? We haven’t seen tackling like that since Dykes’ defenses; Wilcox took over, tackling made a 180, and the defense nearly immediately improved. Generally, the defense diagnosed plays correctly—they just couldn’t stop UCLA from turning negative plays into positive ones. But what the hell was that offense? Chase Garbers looked more 2018 than he did 2019, in which I dreaded any game where we fell behind by more than a touchdown (I always trusted the defense could score at least one TD). Receivers had to fight way too hard for short gains and hence were completely unable to sustain a drive. I could see the defense turning it around, but I’m not very confident about that offense. I can’t justify putting Cal over any other team in the conference. OSU fought tough games against solid Washington teams. UCLA blew us out of the water. Stanford looked at least competent against Oregon and a surprisingly tough Colorado squad. Arizona nearly upset USC. Colorado sits tied at the top of the Pac-12 South. The Cal team we saw Sunday wouldn’t beat any of those teams.

Last week: 11

Berkelium97 (10): I’m impressed by how close they kept this game given that they can’t pass and they can’t defend the run. Fortunately, they have Jemar Jefferson and that ground game to keep them afloat.

Nick Kranz (12): Maybe I’m being unduly harsh, but were it not for an insane blocked punt, they probably wouldn’t have even been in the game vs. Washington, which would have meant two pretty uncompetitive defeats. And as Cal demonstrated quite ably on Sunday, when you can’t throw the ball, it’s really really hard to win football games.

Christopher_h (11): Tristan Gebbia is not going to test the Cal secondary and Jermar Jefferson is my favorite non-Cal running back in the conference. Cal will need to fix their tackling issues in a hurry or we’re going to see a huge game from Jefferson, as Jefferson is a tough guy to bring down even in normal circumstances.

Last week: T9

Berkelium97 (11):  That botched coverage on the corner blitz that gave Colorado a 28–9 lead was enough for me to put them in 12th.  Then the Bears had to go and take a dump in the Rose Bowl.

Nick Kranz (11): There’s a tiny part of me that’s a little bit afraid that Stanford will figure out their red zone woes against Cal, but the offense is still pretty limited and the defense is just plain bad.

Christopher_h (9): Stanford had their power run game completely shut down by Colorado, but started to make a comeback once they let QB Davis Mills start slinging it. Thankfully, they don’t have the NFL-caliber receivers that they used to have. We saw the same evolving strategy out of Stanford these past two years—classic Stanford ball doesn’t work, so they have the QB throw up jump balls for their OPI machines, who either catch it or whine for a flag, but it seems that Simi Fehoko isn’t as good at drawing flags as JJ Arcega-Whiteside was.


Data:

Here’s how your group of depressed and despondent voters ranked the teams—look at all those “Cal”s at the bottoms of the ballots and the crazy thing that I did.

The Pac-12 is such a mess that I had to acknowledge it in some way. Other than Oregon, the other teams are all so flawed that it didn’t feel right to me to put any team at second. I openly acknowledge that the Ducks have looked underwhelming and disappointing this year—but the other teams have struggled so mightily at this point that it still felt right.

My votes aside, all legal votes are counted and the responses for each team get averaged to arrive at our main rankings, listed above. Figure 1 shows how those rankings have evolved over this early season. We actually have plenty of stability at the top—and then a mess below that. Our third-ranked team started the season as the second-worst. The team that entered the preseason third-best is now third-worst—and that’s California, of course. The last time Cal was ranked 10th (or lower) in our Power Rankings was Week 10 of the 2019 season, when won the bye week to rebound from getting routed by Utah.

The movement up and down the ladder is quanitified as the Madness score (Fig. 2). Week 2 is but a hair more stable than Week 1. The Golden Bears now hold the greatest one-week move this season by dropping six spots (Fig. 2a) Curiously, USC is one of two teams with no Madness despite traditionally being one of the less-consistent and more-Mad teams (Fig. 2b). To be fair, if luck didn’t go their way for just one or two plays for either game, their rankings would probably have some hefty Madness to them.

If we want to take a closer look at our perception of the teams, we can simply look at the precise averaged scores instead of the rounded values given in the body of this article. Figure 3 captures these precise scores along with error bars for standard deviation—which tell you how varied the responses were for each team. Figure 4 shows how these precise rankings have changed over the season.

For the first time this season, the clear and cavernous divide between the basement teams and the rest of the conference is gone. We do see that California was just a smidge away from the Pac-12 having a Bay Area Bottom—a loss to Oregon State next week would certainly be us doing our part to make that happen.

The other Pac-12 games don’t look to be too competitive in theory, but the 2020 season has made so little sense that any game could go any way at this point.