Preseason Power Rankings: Coronavirus and safety be damned—football's on its way
Let's see if anyone included coronavirus management as a criterion for assessment...
Leland: Against all odds, it looks like the Golden Bears and the Pac-12 will finally be playing the 2020 football season. And though we’re nationally at week 10, it’s time for our preseason assessment of the Conference of Champions.
This weekly series will assess the Pac-12 by a combination of factors (including performance and fanbase sentiment) across the whole season, with a particular emphasis towards the most recent result.
Your beloved WFCrew will be submitting individual ballots, which will get averaged out to form the official WFC consensus. Fancy graphs and tables will follow, which will get poached by SBN sites. (Also, this is my first time really getting into graphics on WFC/Substack, so they’re optimized for desktop viewing. Sucks to be on mobile…)
RollOnYouChairs: Since it’s the preseason, Cal gets the #1 spot. After that, I went mostly with ESPN’s preseason FPI, with a bit of editorializing based on coaching transitions. The preseason FPI goes U$C (#13 nationally), Oregon (#14), Utah (#24), Stanford (#28), Washington (#29), Cal (#30), ASU (#41), UC L.A. (#49), WSU (#54), Colorado (#56) Arizona (#63), and OSU (#67).
Nick Kranz: With non non-conference games and only six North vs. South games prior to the interdivision game of the season, our ability to judge the relative quality of one division compared to the other will be completely arbitrary. Not that a lack of evidence has ever stopped me or anybody else from expressing an opinion!
Berkelium97: I haven’t been following the offseason too closely due to all the madness that has unfolded in 2020, so my rankings are even more arbitrary than usual. With all the turnover on rosters (Utah, Oregon, OSU) and on the sidelines (WSU, UW), these rankings have been hard to have much confidence in. The conference mostly seems to be broken down into a handful of categories: the king of the conference (Oregon), solid teams returning lots of talent (ASU, Cal, USC), good teams with some question marks (Utah, UW), some mediocre teams (OSU, UCLA, LSJU, WSU) and two teams with miserable, forgettable seasons in 2019 (Arizona, Colorado).
Christopher_h: By far the most difficult power rankings I’ve had to do. I haven’t been paying to offseason news (until the relatively recent news that the season wasn’t canceled after all), and there are no spring games to watch. I’m basically extrapolating from last season and how I think player turnover might affect each team, but I don’t have any insight as to which players are really going to step up this year (which I might at least have a tiny clue if there were spring games to watch).
Piotr T Le: Mea culpa, work has been crazy so I couldn’t get this in time. My comments reflect how I would’ve voted but did not factor into the general calculus this time. Mea culpa.
Leland (1): Despite losing last year’s starting quarterback to the graduation/the NFL Draft and watching a number of super-talented players decide to opt-out (including the preternatural powerhouse Penei Sewell), they earn the top spot with a fearsome defense, fervent optimism behind Mario Cristobal (who is employed at a bargain price), and one of the top recruiting classes in the nation.
RollOnYouChairs (3): Oregon has a beastly defense and are coming off of great recruiting classes. U$C is first in the conference and #13 overall, while Oregon is second and #14 nationally. Oregon keeps its FPI spot minus one, since the Bears are #1. Oregon doesn’t jump the Trojans in my book, mainly because it sounds like Oregon still hasn’t landed on a starting QB and the season is approaching quickly.
Nick Kranz (1): There are enough question marks on offense and enough early departures on defense to give me pause, but they were the best team last year, brought in the best new recruiting class, drew a weak team from the South, and get UW at home.
Christopher_h (1): This is just about the only rank I feel comfortable giving. Oregon has a lot of extremely talented defensive players returning--I’m particularly fearful of Kayvon Thibodeaux, who was scary as a true freshman and improved dramatically as the season progressed. Yes, they lost Justin Herbert to the Chargers, but I’m a really big fan of the new starter Tyler Shough. No doubt in my mind that Oregon is the team to beat in the Pac-12.
Berkelium97 (1): That they lost Herbert and still remain #1 in most of our rankings is a testament to the incredible amount of talent on this Ducks team.
Piotr T Le (1): There are more questions on the Ducks offense than there are on the GRE, however, their answer key lies in their stellar recruiting. It all comes down to whether this amalgamation of raw talent can gell or till it fall apart.
Leland (2): Basically a vote of confidence for their raw talent and little more than that.
RollOnYouChairs (2): The Trojans are first in FPI, but get jumped by the invincible Cal Bears. Second place for the spoiled children.
Nick Kranz (3): The USC offense is probably the single best unit in the entire conference and their schedule is pretty light. But I don’t trust their defense, their special teams, or their coach--and I’m guessing that, per usual, it will cost USC a game or two.
Berkelium97 (2): They should be in for another strong season despite Clay Helton’s presence on the sideline.
Christopher_h (4): USC is the betting favorite to win the Pac-12 South, but who cares… It’s not really a surprise--the rest of the Pac-12 South has been lagging behind the North and the only consistently good team in Utah has experienced significant turnover. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before--a USC team loaded with talent, future NFL prospects, and top-rated recruits led by Clay Helton. They’ll beat some hopelessly overmatched teams and inexplicably lose to less-talented teams thanks to self-inflicted mistakes and a lack of discipline. They may very well win the Pac-12 South, but only because I anticipate the South being the weakest it’s ever been in recent memory.
Piotr T Le (2): The marriage of the sheer athletic talent in the SC skill position and an aggressive air-raid scheme poses quite the challenge to any Pac-12 defense. With a returning QB and WR corps the Trojans look to stomp all over the Pac-12 South with only the Utes and Sun Devils as their possible enemies.
Leland (3): The Bears started trending upward last season. They have to replace talent on defense and are breaking in a new offense, but returning an absurd number of offensive players from last season should help offset that.
RollOnYouChairs (1): The season hasn’t started yet… So why not put the Bears in first place? There’s some youth on defense, but experience on offense and the coaching changes should make a big positive impact.
Alex Khalifa (3): There is certainly reason for optimism about this Golden Bears roster. The shortened schedule also makes me a bit nervous, but that’s an issue with which every Pac-12 team must contend.
Nick Kranz (5): I’m expecting stability on defense, which means how far the Bears go very much rests on the extent to which Bill Musgrave can guide Cal’s returning talent on offense with minimal time to install a new offense.
Berkelium97 (3): Other than depth at DL, the defense should again be solid. The offense is loaded with experience. If Musgrave can show a meaningful improvement over last year’s offense, the Bears could become division contenders.
Christopher_h (2): Cal is returning just about the entire offense and we still have a Wilcox defense. There are some significant departures on defense--we’ll definitely miss Evan Weaver, Ashtyn Davis, Jaylinn Hawkins, et al--but I trust this team to find new players to grow into the big shoes left behind.
Piotr T Le (3): At my hypest I am team #Chase-ingTheHeisman, at my rational I am “alright, we gotta see how Musgrave’s offense on a contracted schedule adapts and how lack of Weaver affects inside run stopping” to make a call, and my doomscrolling anxious Asian heart “4-3 cause it’s Cal football.” There is a lot of key unknowns on this team (offensive scheme, Covid, lack of practice trime, randomness of #CollegeKickers) but what buoys my rating is that the key knowns are that the defense will fight to the bitter end to keep the game at reach, that Wilcox’s steady demeanor will make every deficit surmountable and any lead steady, and that the caliber of players can achieve it all.
Leland (4): They return an electric young quarterback and a once-ridiculed head coach who has the team performing consistently at a solid level--albeit not any better than the coach he replaced... I think they’re getting a tad overhyped right now, but they made a splashy hire for OC and have no glaring dings right now.
RollOnYouChairs (4): A promising young QB, a coach that has more than earned his chops, and several solid recruiting classes the past few years put the Sun Devils in a good position. The Trojans get the top spot in the South, but it’s a close battle between ASU and Utah for second place. I’m giving ASU the nod over Utah because ASU has a strong returning QB, while Utah lost the core of its grind-them-down offense with the departure of Zach Moss.
Nick Kranz (4): The defense should be strong--and maybe the best in the South. They have an exciting, established quarterback. There are legitimate questions at the offensive skill positions, but if they find answers there then they could challenge USC for the South title. On a side note, it’s a weird wrinkle that maybe the most important game in terms of deciding the South will be played at 9:00 a.m. in week “1.”
Berkelium97 (4): Jayden Daniels’s breakout year bodes well for ASU this year. Eight of their games last year were decided by a touchdown or less--can they finally break through and start winning comfortably?
Christopher_h (7): ASU is probably the most hyped team in the South--but I’m just not a believer yet. They have a young (but exciting) dual-threat QB behind a young offensive line (at least partially replenished by grad transfers), but they no longer have a stellar running back after the early departure of Eno Benjamin and no obvious top receiving targets after the departure of Brandon Aiyuk (maybe Frank Darby?). If this team is going to succeed, the burden is going to now firmly rest on the shoulders of QB Jayden Daniels, who will need a vintage Khalil Tate–like season if they’re to contend with the top of the Pac-12. At least they have a competent coach in Herm Edwards, who won’t Clay Helton or Chip Kelly his way through the Pac-12 South.
Piotr T Le (5): Good ol’ times when Sumlin hire was hailed as a coup and the Herm hire was derided across the Pac-12. Herm has created a very good team recruiting very well across the west, Jayden Daniels looks to be the next great QB (after Chase Garbers) but with the loss of back to back 1st round WRs and a 1000 yard rusher there isn’t enough at ASU to put them above the top 4.
Leland (5): They’re the lucky beneficiaries of a promotion for head coach, presumably keeping a lot of continuity overall and on the defense. The offense, however, will be led by a questionable hire at offensive coordinator.
RollOnYouChairs (6): Early reports are the offense is underwhelming, though the head coach is very good on defense. I have a feeling Washington might be heading toward a season similar to Cal in 2018… A pretty darn good defense that’s hampered by a bumpy offense with a so-so offensive coordinator.
Nick Kranz (2): If USC’s offense isn’t the best unit in the conference, Washington’s defense might be. And Washington is probably due a few 17–16 wins after their bad luck losses over the last two years. But also that’s the gambler’s fallacy, and an inexperienced offense with a questionable OC and an unclear QB situation are very real concerns.
Berkelium97 (5): Continuity with Jimmy Lake at the helm will help ease the transition, but I’d be surprised if they can maintain the same level of play without Chris Petersen.
Christopher_h (5): Washington suffers a lot of the same issues as Utah this year, but I penalized UW for it only because they lost their coach and Utah didn’t. I’m not impressed with any of their quarterbacks, and they lost a significant amount of their strength on defense. I think they’ll be a run-heavy team with at least a solid defense, which is a step down from a defense that had consistently been churning out NFL Draft picks. This might be a rebuilding year for them, but they still do have a lot of young talent on the roster.
Leland (7): Let the record show that I think they’re being overhyped and will regress this year after all the talent loss from last year’s Southern Championship team.
RollOnYouChairs (5): This team loses a lot of talent—especially QB and RB—although they have lots of replacement on the roster. Third in the conference per FPI—and 24th nationally—says that there are enough returning pieces where the Utes shouldn’t drop down too far, though. And Kyle Whittingham is a quality coach.
Nick Kranz (6): It would be a tremendous statement about Kyle Wittingham’s coaching ability and talent development if Utah were to even compete for the South title this year--let alone win it--considering how much production (literally last in the nation!) they lost. I’m just wary enough of the rest of the South to believe it might be possible.
Berkelium97 (6): Wittingham is a great coach who reliably assembles tough teams, but they lost so much talent this offseason. A shortened season isn’t going to make the reloading effort any easier.
Christopher_h (3): It seems I’m a bit higher on Utah than the rest of the panel--and looking at their roster, it’s hard to be too optimistic about their chances. However, I’m putting them at the top of the Pac-12 South for one reason: Kyle Wittingham. Wittingham is a great coach and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching Chris Petersen at Washington, it’s that a great coach develops his players and that the next crop of players is just as ready to replace the starters the team lost. Wittingham hasn’t had a losing record at Utah since 2013. Although they have a concerning amount of youth on the roster, I expect this to be like every other Utah team we’ve seen--a strong defense anchored by a strong defensive line with just enough oomph on offense to win games. Also putting this here for posterity--I really liked what I saw of QB Cameron Rising in last year’s spring game; he had a rocket for an arm and looked comfortable in control of the offense. However, I’d be a little less optimistic about the strength of Utah’s offense if QB Drew Lisk did indeed win the starting battle.
Piotr T Le (4): Wittingham never depended on transcendent talent or top tier recruiting classes. I believe that the culture of the program and knowing what the Utes are about and what type of football to recruit, coach, and develop for is something Cal can strive for. I think they are a team that Cal can use as an example in the future, we’re not promised top 15 recruiting classes but we depend on consistent culture, leadership, and knowing oneself to stay in contention year in and year out, just like Utah.
Leland (8): It wouldn’t be hard to argue for them getting bumped up a few spots since they’re at least trending upwards under Jonathan Smith. Ultimately, their defense will likely still be rebuilding and their offense has some key departures, so there’s some doubt about how far they can go this season.
RollOnYouChairs (9): I’m not too familiar with the roster, although being last in the conference and #67 nationally in FPI hints that it’s not a well-rounded team. Still, Coach Smith has them on an upward trend and I believe it will outperform expectations.
Nick Kranz (7): Jonathan Smith managed to wring an average defense out of his talent last year and brings back enough interesting pieces on that side of the ball (i.e. HAMILCAR!) to make me think OSU should be competent and a tough out this year. Doubtful they have enough on offense to make any major waves.
Berkelium97 (7): Jonathan Smith has done a great job building a productive offense over the last couple seasons while finally crafting some semblance of a defense last year. They have some big holes to fill at QB and RB, but I’m reasonably confident that Smith’s offense will only experience a minor regression.
Christopher_h (6): Every year, I’m overly optimistic about OSU (probably the only team that’s more cursed than Cal), but I’ve at least been correct that they were on an upward trajectory. Losing QB Jake Luton and star WR Isaiah Hodgins to the NFL is a big loss, but this is a team that will be very stout defensively with LBs Hamilcar Rashed Jr. and Omar Speights anchoring this defense. I don’t know if they’ll really finish as high as #6 or if lightning will strike their team bus or some other terrible tragedy, but this isn’t the OSU doormat of years past.
Leland (6): Stanfurd is tough to grade right now. Was last year an anomaly or a bad omen? Is morale low for their first down year or can they rally around David Shaw’s overall body of work?
RollOnYouChairs (7): I have no clue what to do with this team, but the ones below it just seem in a not-so-great position that the Furd floats around the middle.
Alex Khalifa (7): I already bought my virtual ticket for the Big Game, buoyed by the fact that the Axe sits on the correct side of the Bay. Davis Mills gives the Cardinal a bit of hope at quarterback, but the squad really could have used cornerback Paulson Adebo, who decided to opt out.
Nick Kranz (8): The complete lack of proven difference-makers is stunning for a program that has been defined by go-to playmakers over the last decade. They will likely be mediocre--and the most uninteresting team to watch in the conference.
Berkelium97 (8): Was last year an aberration or has the Cardinal’s decade of solid football finally come to an end? Let us pray to Oski that it is the latter.
Christopher_h (11): I rated Stanford 11th just so I could have the satisfaction of rating them last later in the season when they truly deserve it. They have QB Davis Mills and… not a whole lot else to be optimistic about. Happy to see KJ Costello tearing it up at Mississippi State though-- there’s nothing I hate more than when I want to root for a player at Stanford.
Piotr T Le (9): Football is about evolution. The pistol went from being an exotic formation practiced by few to a standard formation that is often run when the QB needs depth but doesn’t want to turn their back to the defense on play-action. Offenses in college and NFL have always been about “evolve or perish”, Shaw hasn’t been able to adapt his smashmouth offense (despite adding a wrinkle of a Mills deep ball that would fall into the waiting hands of Scott and Hawkins), and despite the well recruited classes there isn’t anything to indicate that the scheme would lift them above painful irrelevance.
Leland (9): The Bruins probably are in a position to surprise some people—they had a terrible overall win-loss record last season, but each of their out-of-conference opponents won at least 10 games. Still, Chip Kelly has to prove that he can get results and evolve his offense and Dorian Thompson-Robinson has to do a better job of protecting the football.
RollOnYouChairs (8): The Chip Kelly era has been a catastrophe for the Bruins and last year was a rough one for the Baby Bears—though as Leland points out, the schedule was brutal.
Alex Khalifa (9): It should help that Demetric Felton, Kyle Philips, Jaylen Erwin, and Chase Cota are all returning at the wide receiver position. This is likely still an uphill battle for Chip Kelly’s crew.
Nick Kranz (9): Even if you just look at UCLA’s 2019 Pac-12 performances, they don’t make sense. Beating ASU and losing to Arizona? Doubling up Stanford, but getting badly beaten by Oregon State? UCLA will probably go 2–4, but I just don’t feel remotely comfortable guessing which teams the 2 and the 4 come against.
Berkelium97 (9): I think UCLA may have taken the title of the Pac-12’s random number generator. Scoring 14 three weeks in a row before exploding for 67 against WSU? Beating ASU but losing to Arizona? Obviously I have no idea what to expect from them this season.
Christopher_h (8): If you’re one of the many tens of UCLA football fans out there, this ostensibly should be your year. For the past two years, Chip Kelly has been starting freshmen and sophomores against all rhyme or reason, and they’re finally coming of age--this is the team Chip Kelly has been grooming, i.e. “his players.” Or maybe he’ll decide this is another rebuilding season and start a new crop of freshmen. Who knows?
Leland (10): The Cougs are bringing in new offensive and defensive systems, so there will be a bit of a learning curve. My biggest concern is that their new coaching staff—generally speaking—has little experience at the Power Five level. They’ll be hoping these coaches won’t be struggling with the adjustment like Dykes’s staff did in Year One.
RollOnYouChairs (10): WSU is ninth in the conference in FPI. I had jumped OSU up a couple spots from twelfth, and was debating with OSU and WSU for ninth/tenth. WSU is tenth and OSU is ninth because of coaching continuity. Although I do have pretty decent expectations for Nick Rolovich, as Leland noted he and his staff are making a jump up to the Power 5 level. The first game—WSU at OSU—is nearly a toss-up per FPI, giving WSU a 50.9% win chance and OSU 49.1%. We’ll see how things change after the first game…
Nick Kranz (10): I’m already on record that WSU will finish last in the North. Their defense was probably the worst in the conference last year and I don’t think that Nick Rolovich is going to be able to create instant offense with the personnel turnover he inherited the way you could rely on Mike Leach to do.
Berkelium97 (10): After several years of punching well above their weight, the Cougs may be starting a slide back into the basement.
Christopher_h (10): No more Mike Leach. Nick Rolovich does have experience recruiting to a difficult location (Hawaii), and Hawaii did beat both Arizona and OSU last year, but Rolovich also threatened his players for opting out of the season this year due Covid-19, so I’m rooting for them to hit the bottom of the Pac-12 and fast. They’ve got an awful defense, a new QB, and they’ll be running a new offense. At least they still have RB Max Borghi.
Leland (12): They lost their promising coach in crazy dramatic fashion in February and replaced him with the underwhelming hire of Karl Dorrell. They’re also breaking in a new quarterback, who may or may not be Karl Dorrell in a fake moustache.
RollOnYouChairs (11): No clue what to do looking at this team, but there are so many unknowns that they are pretty far down the list. They were already 10th in the conference per FPI (#56 overall), also sporting a new (not-so-good) coach and new QB. They keep their FPI spot, but get jumped by OSU because Jonathan Smith is a promising coach.
Alex Khalifa (10): Last summer I took a trip to Colorado and marveled at how the train ride from the airport to downtown Denver was basically one big infomercial for CU. Life doesn’t get much easier for the Buffs now that Laviska Shenault departed for the NFL. However, a secondary featuring Mekhi Blackmon looks healthier this season, potentially keeping Colorado out of the conference’s basement.
Nick Kranz (11): Somebody in the South will probably pop up with a better-than-expected season since somebody has to win the UCLA/Arizona/Colorado round robin. I don’t think the Buffs will actually be very good, but they draw a winnable game from the North against Stanford. Why not Karl Dorrell?
Berkelium97 (11): Replacing Steven Montez and Laviska Shenault will be a major challenge for an offense that was already mediocre last season. Hiring Karl Dorrell probably won’t make it any easier.
Christopher_h (12): Sorry, Colorado--it was a close one, but you’re taking my bottom spot. WR Laviska Shenault consisted of about 90% of the offense and now he’s gone, not to mention four-year starter QB Steven Montez. Coach Mel Tucker is a former defensive coordinator in the SEC, but Colorado failed to find any consistency last year on defense, outside of one or two cleverly-coached games (just often enough for me to think they were improving on defense). They still have some solid RBs in Alex Fontenot and Jaren Mangham, but it will be a big shock if Colorado can find anything offensively.
Leland (11): In his two years there, Kevin Sumlin has a 9–15 record, so he isn’t exactly leaving the fans inspired down in Tucson. That an ultimately underwhelming former Wildcat was able to magnificently troll their archrivals in a football-less October is worth something, I guess.
RollOnYouChairs (12): Arizona is 11th in the conference on ESPN’s FPI (#63 nationally), followed by OSU at #67. But the difference in coaching acumen between Kevin Sumlin and Jonathan Smith made this a pretty easy choice, thus putting the Wildcats in last place. (And I respect Smith enough that OSU is #9)
Nick Kranz (12): Arizona was the worst team in the conference last year and has been recruiting like the worst team in the conference for the last four years. Let’s not overthink this.
Berkelium97 (12): They’ll probably be awful again, but I think we dodged a bullet not playing them because games against Arizona always end in head-scratching heartbreak.
Christopher_h (9): There’s no clear cellar-dweller this year and I couldn’t decide if I wanted Arizona at #9 or #12. Ultimately, I placed Arizona at the top of the cellar because I liked what I saw last year in QB Grant Gunnell and I expect him to continue to make strides. Their defense looks to be a complete mess, though.
Piotr T Le (12): Good ol’ times when Sumlin hire was hailed as a coup and the Herm hire was derided across the Pac-12. After ruining Khalil Tate under his offense Arizona is up to produce another disappointing season
Preseason means there isn’t much data to discuss, which makes for an easier transition for me to get used to sacrificing my Monday nights to put these together.
Here are all of the individual ballots from the voters—quite possibly the least-important votes that any of you will see today:
Table 1. Sorry to Arizona—you don’t have the votes. You don’t have the votes.
For each team, their responses were collected and averaged out to determine the consensus WFC preseason power ranking. However, that method is a little crude and dumps teams into the broad rankings of first, seventh, or eleventh—leaving a little of information on the cutting room floor. Instead of just tossing all of that information, we’re going to delve deeper into those precise scores that came out of the averaging calculation (Figure 1).
Fig. 1. Behold the unexplored depths of information contained within the precise scores.
The columns in this figure represent the precise score that each team achieved. The error bar represents 1 standard deviation, which tells you how varied we responded for each team. California has a large standard deviation/error bar because we received votes as high as first (lolwut) and as low as fifth (also a slight lolwut). Teams with small standard deviations (e.g., USC and UC L.A.) received more consistent responses.
Figure 1 tells us a little more about our perceptions of the teams. While the official results tell you that Arizona State and Washington were tied at fourth with Utah all the way back at sixth, the actual data shows that in actuality, all three teams were nearly tied. (A late ballot actually came in that would have switched up which teams were tied, but came in after all the analysis and had to get thrown out in a non–voter suppression event.)
Furthermore, I’m quite surprised to see that we collectively not only split the conference in two, but where we put that divide. The aforementioned near-threeway-tie at fourth has a precise score closer to 5.0; the next teams (a cluster of Oregon State, Stanfurd, and UC L.A.) have precise scores at 8.0—a whopping drop of three spots. Despite some collective indecision about how to rank ASU, Washington, and Utah, the group felt that OSU was clearly in the next tier.
Let’s also take a look at how the teams evolved since the 2019 final rankings.
Table 2. Like the start of every new school year in high school when you would see how much your classmates changed over the summer, except this summer was absurdly long thanks to COVID.
A whopping seven teams either didn’t move spots or moved just one spot—suggesting either a lot of continuity from last year or a group of writers who are too scared for big hot takes in our predictions. That being said, we did project large improvements of three and four spots for Stanfurd and USC (respectively), predicting that they will improve after tough 2019 seasons. Conversely, our rankings have drops of those same magnitudes for Wazzu and Utah, teams that are looking to regress after a coaching change and a significant loss of talent. Coaching changes weren’t universally linked to significantly falling down our rankings—Colorado only dropped two spots (although maybe that’s more of an indictment that there isn’t much further they can go) and Washington managed to gain a spot for an internal hire coupled with relatively underperforming last year.
We’re finally in a position to get some on-field data—over ten months after the last game involving a Pac-12 team—so check back in to see how incredibly wrong we were with these preseason rankings.