Pac-12 Power Rankings, Week 1: The humiliation of the North

Farewell to the halcyon days of the Pac-12 North lording over the South.

Leland: I’ve been running our Power Rankings since the 2014 season, but this week is a bit unique.

The Power Rankings, you see, is a weekly feature wherein your dysfunctional team of WFC writers rank the Pac-12 on their on-field performance and fanbase morale over the entirely of the season, but with a bit of a focus on recent history. Keeping that in mind, here’s the latest set of games and the first uncommon aspect this week:

  • UCLA def. Hawaii, 44–10

  • #24 Utah def. Weber State, 40–17

  • #25 Arizona State def. Southern Utah, 41–14

  • Colorado def. Zach Angelillo & Northern Colorado, 35–7

  • Kansas State def. Stanfurd, 24–7

  • #11 Oregon def. Fresno State, 31–24

  • #15 USC def. San Jose State, 30–7

  • Purdue def. Oregon State, 30–21

  • Montana def. #20 Washington, 13–7

  • UCLA def. #16 LSU, 38–27

  • Nevada def. California, 22–17

  • BYU def. Arizona, 24–16

  • Utah State def. Washington State, 26–23

You may have noticed you were painfully subjected to a double dose of UCLA—while not totally unprecedented, they played a Week 0 game this year, meaning our 12-team conference has played 13 games since we last met.

The Pac-12 North was riddled with underwhelming performances and upsets, which means the South is ruling over the North—making for an unusual week considering the fact that North has won the Pac-12 Championship nine times in our ten-year history as a 12-team conference.

All of those upsets coupled with a complete lack of reliable information last year made this to be an unusual week for me—I try to avoid being too volatile with my vote, but how could I not with such a crazy slate of results?

Nick Kranz: As a general rule, I tend to try hard not to overreact to Week 1 results—but how can you not overreact to what happened in Week 1? When 75% of the conference wasn’t even really trying to challenge themselves and yet the conference picked up six losses, maybe overreaction is warranted. 

Berkelium97: This was the worst weekend in the Pac-12 North’s brief history.  Oregon barely survived against a mediocre MWC team and the rest of the division lost in a variety of humiliating ways: the Lobsterbacks were embarrassed by a lousy Kansas State team, the Cougs couged it yet again, and Washington managed to lose to a gatdang FCS team. Meanwhile, the South looked pretty solid; even the bottom half of the division looked better than I expected.

Christopher_h: I had a busy weekend, so I am still catching up on games and don’t want to comment too much on individual matchups, but it’s embarrassing how poorly the Pac-12 North did against Mountain West teams. Utah State was one of the worst MWC teams last year—they beat Washington State. Hawaii beat Nevada last year and is roughly on par with them in my view; UCLA blew Hawaii out of the water (not to mention, followed that up with a win over LSU), while Cal struggled against Nevada’s subpar defense. The 2020 Pac-12 Champ Oregon struggled against a similarly-talented (to Nevada and Hawaii) Fresno State. Meanwhile, USC handily disposed of last year’s MWC Champ, San Jose State. Washington (my dark-horse pick to challenge for the Pac-12 title), not to be outdone, decided to upstage everyone and lose to an FCS school—Montana. There’s something in the water here and I don’t like it.

Ruey Yen: Obviously, it was a tough weekend for the Pac-12 North. Despite playing at home, Cal, Washington, and Washington State all lost and Oregon barely won by one score. Even after dominating Hawaii in an empty-ish Rose Bowl, I did not expect the Bruins to beat LSU. The majority of the rest of the Pac-12 South followed the script of beating up on lesser teams in their home openers. I am not sure I like the neutral site openers, but both Stanford and Arizona lost those matchups. It is still a small sample size of just mostly just one game for each team, of course, and I would wager that the Pac-12 once again has a lot of parity that’s not ideal for sending a team to the college football playoffs.

The rankings

Nick Kranz (1): Didn’t see a second of this game, but when you get explosive play after explosive play against a team expected to compete in the SEC and everybody else spends the week slogging up and down the field, you get first place. Sigh.

Berkelium97 (1): Last week, I couldn’t tell if they were great or if Hawaii was awful. This week they looked about the same against LSU: the O-line was dominant, the running game was unstoppable, and the D-line was disruptive. As an added bonus this week, DTR found huge holes in a terrible LSU secondary. This was closer to last year’s 5–5 LSU team than the championship-winning LSU team of 2019, but this was nevertheless an impressive performance by UCLA. The Pac-12 South needs to be worried about this team.

Alex Khalifa (1): Good on the Bruins for representing the Pac-12 well in an otherwise miserable week for the conference. With Zach Charbonnet rushing for 117 yards and Greg Dulcich adding three receptions for 117 of his own, UCLA was off to the races. If LSU’s ground game doesn’t improve, I doubt that the Tigers live up to their preseason ranking at any point.

Christopher_h (1): My gut tells me that LSU is overrated, but they’re still a team loaded with future NFL talent. If UCLA can beat a team loaded with talent but not much coaching, they can definitely beat USC again—and doing so this year might mean a Pac-12 South title.

Nick Kranz (3): It’s weird to say that San Jose State is a decently tough opponent, but this year they probably are, so I’m not going to downgrade USC for struggling to pull away until late in the game.

Berkelium97 (2):  The Trojans didn’t put this game away until the fourth quarter, but this was a solid win over last year’s MWC champion—a strong start to the year.  The passing game was crisp, the run game was strong, and the defense was stingy.  

Christopher_h (2): I still think most people are giving too much credit to last week’s MWC opponents. Every single Pac-12 opponent should have won—most of them by a lot. Instead, I was more disappointed by the Pac-12’s play than I was impressed by the MWC’s play. Only explanation I have left is that this is the difference between teams playing full seasons last year and teams playing a COVID-shortened quarter of a season… more rust to shake off?

Alex Khalifa (2): This one wasn’t over until Greg Johnson’s pick six of Nick Starkel with about 13 minutes left in regulation. I want to know how many fans tell their friends that they are headed to United Airlines Field at the LA Memorial Coliseum.

Nick Kranz (2): Oregon gets a one-spot demotion from me for their relative struggles to beat Fresno State and I’m a bit skeptical of their chances to really compete with Ohio State, but on the bright side, their status as early favorites in the Pac-12 North look very, very safe. Immediate concerns: the health of Kayvon Thibodeaux, getting better production from new QB Anthony Brown, and tightening things up in the secondary.

Berkelium97 (6):  Am I punishing them too much for having to rally in the fourth quarter to defeat a mediocre Fresno State team? Perhaps.  But the team that is supposed to be the class of the conference should not be in the position where it has a +2 turnover margin at home and still barely scrapes by against a MWC team.  Anthony Brown looked great in goal-line packages last season.  In this game? He was merely okay, as was the rest of a surprisingly pedestrian Oregon offense.  Meanwhile the D was okay, but not to the standards set by both their talent and their coaching acumen.

Christopher_h (4): So this is what an elite Pac-12 defense looks like, eh?

Alex Khalifa (3): The Ducks were staring down a three-point deficit late in the contest and totaled 19 fewer yards than visiting Fresno State. They emerged victorious, but may have lost linebacker Dru Mathis for significant time after he suffered a knee injury.

Nick Kranz (4): Congratulations and due credit for beating an FCS team the way you’re supposed to beat an FCS team. ASU’s soft early schedule means that we may not learn much of value about an intriguing team until October.

Berkelium97 (3): Jayden Daniels was lethally efficient and the Devils were able to ride a productive ground game to an easy victory. On the other side of the ball, the defense did its job. We didn’t learn too much about ASU, but an FCS win is a much bigger accomplishment than some of their miserable conference mates can claim this weekend.

Christopher_h (3): ASU played really sloppy with a lot of self-inflicted wounds (penalties, turnovers, blown plays), but it didn’t really matter all that much because the ASU run game just had way too much talent for Southern Utah to handle. At least they’re getting these sloppy games out of the way now, against a team that had no hope of beating them.

Alex Khalifa (4): At least there was actual football to distract from the investigation of recruiting violations under Herm Edwards.

Nick Kranz (4): Congratulations and due credit for beating an FCS team the way you’re supposed to beat an FCS team. Wouldn’t be at all surprising if Utah is a kind of mysterious 4–0 heading into an October 9th road game vs. USC.

Berkelium97 (4):  Other than surrendering an uncharacteristic special teams TD, this was a typical Utah FCS win: ball control, stingy run defense, and general statistical dominance.

Christopher_h (5): Weber State is actually a pretty good FCS team—possibly even the best this year. I think some people tend to lump all FCS schools together, but there’s a big difference between playing some Carson Wentz–esque NDSU and Dixie State or Houston Baptist. The best FCS schools can definitely win against a non-trivial percentage of bad FBS schools. Weber State has underrecruited and/or undersized recruits, but they play good football. Utah has a young secondary that definitely needs to improve and I’d be a bit concerned with how the defensive line struggled to get pressure at times. However, I was very impressed with the way Baylor-transfer QB Charlie Brewer played. He looked more like 2018 than 2020 and I suspect Utah is going to start having a much heavier passing attack than in previous years. 

Alex Khalifa (5): An efficient Tavion Thomas rumbled for a pair of touchdowns and Dalton Kincaid caught two of his own. That was more than enough for the Utes to roll to a 40–17 win. I’m trying to resist the temptation to make a Weber Gaming reference, but my Big Love fandom is winning out.

Nick Kranz (6): Congratulations and due credit for beating an FCS team the way you’re supposed to beat an FCS team. We will learn much much more about Colorado next week when they play Texas A&M in Denver.

Berkelium97 (5): The Buffs turned in a respectable performance in which they rather easily dispatched an FCS foe. They mostly rode a productive ground game to an easy victory. I have to give props to their leading receiver for having one of the best names in the conference: Montana Lemonious-Craig.

Christopher_h (10): Haven’t seen this one yet, but Northern Colorado isn’t exactly a top FCS team, so I’m not ready to draw any conclusions from this one yet.

Alex Khalifa (6): Brendon Lewis barely cracked 100 passing yards, but the Buffs kept the ball on the ground and profited in a big way.

Nick Kranz (9): It says something that Cal could get pretty comprehensively outplayed at home by a MWC team and stick at nine in the rankings. More relevantly for the season at large, Cal fans pinned their hopes on the 2020 offense being a function of COVID impacts . . . but it appears that COVID wasn’t really the problem. Bummer.

Berkelium97 (7): Same as it ever was. The offense manages to put together two to three sustained drives per game while doing absolutely nothing on the other drives. The defense is decent, but not on the 2018 level of holding teams to one or two TDs in order to allow the woeful offense to scrape its way to victory. My hopes of a Cal team on an upward trajectory were quickly dashed. This looks like a 6-win team.

Alex Khalifa (7): The running game looked so good as the Bears jumped out to a 14–0 lead. Then again, Nikko Remigio was targeted 10 times, made seven catches, and totaled just 17 yards. Yes, Carson Strong should have a nice pro career ahead of him. Nevertheless, the only silver lining I took away from this game was that it gave me an excuse to reconnect with my former college roommate via text message.

Christopher_h (7): Come back, 2019 Garbers—we miss you. The offensive play-calling was baffling and it feels like an offense shoehorning in a QB instead of building a system around one that plays to Garbers’ strengths. Plus, I was expecting a whole lot more out of our talented tight ends in this “pro-style” system. If Cal can’t score on Nevada, they are going to struggle to score on anyone in the Pac-12 and I really don’t feel good about our chances. TCU is going to be even tougher. We need to see a 2019 Cal–Ole Miss type of turnaround from the Cal offense and stat.

Nick Kranz (7): By far the least embarrassing loss of the weekend, so congrats to Oregon State for topping the list of teams that blew it. To be clear, Purdue is unlikely to be particularly good and the Beavers seemed to miss the explosive running of Jermar Jefferson as much as expected, but a relatively competitive road loss to a P5 team is about what I’d expect for the Beavs.

Berkelium97 (8): Jonathan Smith’s array of clever and entertaining offense was on full display in this game, but it never felt like the Beavs really threatened to win despite the closeness of the score. Encouragingly, the defense didn’t look like a liability. The offense has taken a step back without Jefferson, however.

Christopher_h (9): I don’t know much about Purdue (other than that DE George Karlaftis looked like a beast), but this OSU team doesn’t look to be as strong as it was in years prior. The offense has no one to replace the explosiveness of Jermar Jefferson and no one on defense to replace the havoc caused by Hamilcar Rashed Jr. OSU was burned repeatedly by the same plays all night, even after they should have made halftime adjustments (long, slow-developing crossing routes over the middle, with the OSU defensive line not being able to pressure the QB in time to disrupt these). I’m usually pumping OSU, but this game was not as close as the score indicated. Colorado transfer QB Sam Noyer looked disappointing in his debut as well, but he was being terrorized by Purdue’s defensive line all night.

Alex Khalifa (8): Purdue was favored by seven points and won by nine. The Beavers rolled the dice and lost, turning the ball over on downs in the third quarter and setting up an important field goal for the Boilermakers.

Nick Kranz (10): They looked awful—and again it says something that I’m ranking two teams below them. If I wanted to be generous, it’s true that they at least played a P5 team more or less on the road (I’m sure the citizens of Dallas were truly abuzz over Kansas State and Stanford coming to town), but being outgained by more than 3 yards/play against a team that packed it in in the second half is humbling. And in case you don’t remember, Kansas State was decidedly mediocre last year.

Berkelium97 (11): The defense did a decent job of getting pressure while rushing only three. That’s about the only good thing I can say about the Lobsterbacks this week. They were likewise under siege when K-State rushed only three. QB Jack West looked terrible and QB Tanner McKee looked mediocre. The O-line was a sieve. And LSJU didn’t make it into the red zone until garbage time. This was an abysmal performance.

Alex Khalifa (9): Hey, at least the entire Bay Area is miserable this week. Austin Jones—Stanford’s leading rusher against Kansas State—ended with just 25 rushing yards. The entire squad totaled 41 yards on the ground, which helps to explain why they scored only once.

Christopher_h (8): It’s crowded at the bottom of my rankings and I don’t know whom to drop where. I’m giving Stanford a little bit of credit for the talent they still have left on the roster, but they will always be #12 in my heart.

Nick Kranz (8): It looks to me like Arizona was pretty competitive with BYU and nearly completed an impressive comeback. BYU probably isn’t as good as last year, but they’re generally a credible opponent. On the Week 1 embarrassment scale, Arizona is low on the list. But for two missed field goals and an interception in the end zone, Arizona may well have won the game. 

Berkelium97 (9):  It was a slow start, but Arizona managed to put up some pretty respectable numbers on offense.  The defense wasn’t great, but wasn’t terrible.  Maybe this Arizona rebuild will be slightly shorter than I expected…

Christopher_h (12): Losing Grant Gunnell hurts, but Gunner Cruz (from Washington State) certainly softened that blow. They still don’t have much of a running game or much going for them on defense, so they’re still on the bottom of my rankings. 

Alex Khalifa (12): Stanley Berryhill III tried to put the Wildcats on his back by making 12 catches good for 102 yards, but this was a game that Cougars actually won.

Nick Kranz (11): It really has been sobering to see how quickly poor Wazzu fans went from “hey, we hired Mike-Leach-but-without-the-annoying-off-field-controversies!” to “oh-no-his-off-field-controversies-are-worse-and-also-he’s-a-worse-football-coach.”

Berkelium97 (10): Ben Franklin once said “in this world nothing can be said to be certain but death, taxes, and Cougin’ it.” Up 23–11 with six minutes to go, the Cougs did what they always seem to do—give up a 14-play TD drive, go three-and-out, give up an 10-play TD drive (with a bonus 2 point conversion), and then fumble the ball away on the next offensive play.

Alex Khalifa (10): A few months ago, I noticed that somebody in my apartment complex decorated his or her car with Washington State stickers. I’ve been meaning to check whether they got removed at any point on Saturday. WSU kicker Dean Janikowski is apparently of no relation to former Raider Sebastian Janikowski, but I had to research it anyway.

Nick Kranz (12): You lose to an FCS team—even a really good one that might compete for an FCS title—you get last place. Them’s the rules. Washington ran 72 plays and had ONE play longer than 16 yards. Flabbergasting. 4.9 yards/passing attempt. Stunning. Relative to roster talent, one of the worst Pac-12 offensive performances I can ever recall.

Berkelium97 (12):  Woof.  That was an all-around atrocious performance by the Huskies.  At least Wazzu’s cute habit of losing to FCS teams under Mike Leach was accompanied by six- and seven-win conference slates en route to solid seasons.  That’s not happening this year for the Huskies.

Alex Khalifa (11): I did a double take when I saw the final score. Then again, why should anything in this crazy world surprise me anymore? The Huskies avoid the basement only because of my preseason expectations for them.

Christopher_h (6): I meant to watch this game immediately after the Cal game to make me feel better about Cal losing, but it doesn’t really seem all that fun to watch.

The data

While not quite as important as voting in the California recall election, we’ve still got a pretty monumental vote here, with eight writers submitting ballots and three deciding to enjoy their Labor Day weekend. Use Table 1 as a handy guide to know which of us you’ll be pointing and laughing at. Spoiler alert—it won’t be Nick because he’s as wise as he is charming.

Our consensus rankings over the course of this very short year are collected in Figure 1—which also highlights how absurdly dominant the South is at this point in time. Five of the top six teams—including the two at the very top—come from that land down under and even their worst team made a notable move upwards and above last year’s North champions. I certainly don’t expect this exact pattern to hold over the course of the season, but it’s certainly noteworthy for now.

While I find Arizona’s rise to be interesting due to how abysmally low their expections were this year, by no means did they have the biggest moves by pure magnitude. Our biggest riser was UCLA for topping LSU while our biggest fall-er was the trash school of Washington for collapsing against an FCS opponent. All of these little movements up and down the rankings is collected in Table 2 and known lovingly as Madness per our beloved readers.

As a fan of resolution in all things (be it data, video quality, or logos), I do like to dive in a bit closer to our actual perception of the teams rather than the broad rankings of first or seventh. We can do this by studying the precise averaged scores from our votes. These averages are shown in the columns of Figure 2; the error bars are the standard deviation, where a larger error bar means more disagreement among voters. The precise scores are graphed across the season in Figure 3.

These precise scores can reveal more information about the distances between teams. For example, we had just one official tie this week (Cal and OSU), but we had two more nigh-ties in Stanfurd-Arizona and WSU-Washington. We also see there’s a pretty sizable gap between Cal-OSU and Stanfurd that I can’t quite explain. While Stanfurd did have a (hilarious and amazing and) big loss, it did come at a neutral site game to a Power Five opponent; is that really so much worse than the deflating home loss to a Group of Five opponent that we suffered or is it just homerism?

Check back next week as we might be back to look at two Pac-12 teams facing top-ten opponents and the start of conference play as the two red-clad Californian schools battle in a game with no winners.