Pac-12 Power Rankings, Week 9: The conference is officially cannibalizing itself

Bust out the fork and knife because it's supper time.

Leland: Last week’s Cal game was big. Not just for us as Golden Bears, but also because it provided a key link in the Pac-12’s cannibalism cycle.

(Everyone else is shamelessly patting themself on the back and putting themself over this week, so I guess I gotta join in on the circlejerk and post my own work here.)

With such a wild and unpredictable conference, it’s an absolute nightmare to try and evaluate our kooky conference. Which means that’s exactly what we’re here to do! We’re out here trying to rank the Pac-12 teams by performance and morale across the season, but more recently in particular.

On top of the aforementioned monumental Cal game, here’s the rest of the action from the past week:

  • Washington State def. Arizona State, 34–21

  • #7 Oregon def. Colorado, 52–29

  • California def. Oregon State, 39–25

  • USC def. Arizona, 41–34

  • Utah def. UCLA, 44–24

  • Washington def. Stanfurd, 20–13

Berkelium97:  The Pac-12 has been full of streaky teams this season:  LSJU climbed as high as second in my ballot and now they sit at last place in the North; Utah started slowly and now has a reasonable path to the Pac-12 South title with wins over UCLA and ASU; UCLA’s once-promising season is now a smoldering crater; Wazzu has quietly won four of its last five to climb to second in the North.  The only constants seem to be Arizona’s endless losing streak and Oregon’s ability to squeak past nearly everyone.

Christopher_h: For the past few weeks, each time I anoint a new top team, they are immediately defeated. Week 6 I had ASU in the top spot and they promptly lost to Utah. Then I gave that top spot to Utah, who then lost to OSU. I gave OSU the top spot and now they lost to us (I am smart enough not to move Cal too high this week after winning). Every week I am shuffling teams around—way more so than I ever remember doing in the past. I used to like to rank teams by who I think would win more if the two teams played each other 100 times. This year, I haven’t even been able to do that for one simple reason: injuries. Injuries are a part of football, but I think there have been far more injuries (at least to higher-profile players) this year than any other year I can remember. The teams at the top of my list have been relatively unaffected: Oregon, Utah, Washington State, Arizona State. But at the bottom of my rankings, Arizona is down to their third-string QB. Colorado lost their best defender in LB Nate Landman. Washington has struggled with injuries on defense, losing star LB Edefuan Ulofoshio for the season. UCLA just started a freshman Ethan Garbers at QB. Stanford has had a ton of injuries to their receivers, like star WR Brycen Tremayne. USC just lost WR Drake London, who was—and I’m not exaggerating here—half of the team’s receiving offense prior to his injury. And we all know that Cal has had a ton of injuries on defense. The biggest distinguishing factor after the top few teams is how well teams have coped with the losses of their star players.


Rankings

Last week: 1

Berkelium97 (1):  I’ve been reluctant to rank Oregon #1 all year because they let inferior opponents hang around for too long.  But everyone else I’ve ranked above them—OSU, Utah, ASU, UCLA—has lost in recent weeks while the Ducks have managed to scrape by with wins.  This week’s win was a little more comfortable as Colorado never seemed to get any closer than a two-TD margin.  Oregon has one last game against an inferior team this week before facing a gauntlet of Pac-12 title contenders: vs. WSU, at Utah, vs. OSU.

Leland (1): On the other hand, I have been less reluctant to rank the Ducks at #1 because they’ve at least been able to keep winning—which is more than other teams in this conference can say.

Christopher_h (1): I’m with Leland—a win is a win. They’ve looked really ugly doing it and have escaped multiple weeks by the skin of their teeth, but so far only Stanford has been able to pull off the late-game heroics to beat Oregon (and they did it with receivers who are now injured). It reminds me a lot of 2012 Notre Dame: a team that so often barely won over clearly overmatched teams and were completely exposed in the postseason after facing an actual top team. Yes, Oregon beat Ohio State, but I think Ohio State was similarly overrated and coasting on previous goodwill as they had a freshman quarterback and a bad defense. What kind of playoff team gets beaten by the same exact play over and over throughout the entire game?

Last week: 3

Berkelium97 (2): A dominant win over UCLA and ASU’s blowout loss to Wazzu have given the Utes a huge advantage in the battle for the Pac-12 South.

Leland (2): Bearing in mind that their opposing quarterback was a back-up (and the inferior Garbers brother), the Utes still put up a lot of points and a lot of rushing yards against the Bruins.

Christopher_h (2): After some early season (fumbling) struggles, RB Tavion Thomas is back—and he’s been a hard man to bring down recently. A lot of credit belongs to the still very young offensive line for holding their own against a tough UCLA defensive line. This is the easiest thing in the world to see coming, but as Utah’s lines get more experience, they become more and more dangerous on both sides of the ball. Utah’s defensive line is almost entirely freshmen and their offensive line is mostly first- and second-year players. I was really hoping they’d take longer to develop than this, but at least we aren’t playing them any time soon.

Last week: 6

Berkelium97 (4):  The D-line hassled Jayden Daniels all game and helped stifle a solid ASU offense.  They’ve won four of their last five and now sit at second in the Pac-12 North.  A win over Oregon in their next outing would give them an improbable inside track to the Pac-12 Championship game.

Leland (3): It initially feels wrong to me to have the Cougs so high, but their resume is actually pretty solid and there’s just no one else due to the Pac-12’s cannibalism. They struggled early in the season against tough opposition (including a surprisingly feisty Utah State), but are surging now and made a big addition-by-subtraction move off of the field.

Christopher_h (3): It’s a lot easier to root for Washington State these days after dumping Nick Rolovich and while I still don’t like QB Jayden de Laura, I’m glad Washington State’s new apparently sane coach Jake Dickert is having success even after Rolovich is gone, showing that maybe Rolovich’s coaching wasn’t the sole reason for them starting to win games. Wazzu played tough against BYU (just a two-point conversion away from tying the game and likely sending it to overtime) and Washington State’s defense looked very tough against a powerful ASU rushing attack. They had some early season struggles, but they’re playing some of the best football in the Pac-12 right now. It’s the same turnaround I hope we see with Cal this season.

Last week: 2

Berkelium97 (3):  Heading into the Cal game, OSU could afford to lose only one game if they want to force the Platypus Bowl to be a battle for the Pac-12 North (actually, that scenario doesn’t account for the surging Cougs who have a tiebreaker win over OSU).  Now they’ve lost that game and are in a must-win situation for the rest of the year.  Fortunately, the next two games look winnable before a tough pair of games against ASU and Oregon.

Christopher_h (7): Oregon State has played well this year and I wouldn’t be too bummed if I were them—I think Cal just played a fantastic game. Cal definitely had a beat on their run plays and I couldn’t relax at all during this game until the final buzzer sounded. I don’t think anyone really thought they’d compete for the Pac-12 title, but they’re still on their way to a pretty good season. 

Last week: 4

Berkelium97 (5):  Their Pac-12 South title hopes are dead thanks to a bad habit of completely self-destructing in games.  Wazzu scored 21 points off three first-half turnovers and ASU never recovered. Two weeks ago, they were riding high at #1 in my ballot.  Now? Stuck in the maddening middle.

Leland (5): One of many Pac-12 teams amidst a losing streak, but it’s coming against tough competition, so it’s tough to truly evaluate. But this game was ugly with all their turnovers and would have been even uglier if not for a garbage-time touchdown at the end of the game.

Christopher_h (4): It’s hard to win games when you turn the ball over that many times. The ASU–Wazzu game and Cal–OSU game both started similarly with the ball being ripped from the RB on the first or second play of the game. ASU tried to emulate BYU’s gameplan against Wazzu (power running, wear out the defensive line, etc), but even though I think ASU has better personnel to do so, they didn’t do a particularly good job of it. Washington State seemed better prepared for it and the -4 turnover margin certainly doesn’t help when you ultimately lose by two possessions. ASU is usually a team that doesn’t turn the ball over or make a ton of risky plays, but this season they’ve had a lot of dumb penalties and mental mistakes, and it’s costing them games. Not sure what’s going on over there, but I am going to go with my hot take of internal turmoil and ASU is soon to implode due to some sort of scandal.

Last week: 5

Berkelium97 (6):  Even if DTR had started that game, I have a hard time believing UCLA would have scored 45 or more points to defeat Utah. At 3–3, their Pac-12 South hopes are completely dead and it’s looking like yet another disappointing year for Chip Kelly’s Bruins.

Leland (4): It’s tempting to drop them further after a big loss to Utah and while they’re on a two-game skid, but those losses came against the current leaders of each Pac-12 division. But on the other hand, their wins are all aging pretty poorly—including the once-big win over LSU.

Christopher_h (5): I actually liked what I saw out of Ethan Garbers—he’s got an arm and some accuracy, but he’s still going through freshman growing pains (locked on to first read, telegraphing the play, etc). UCLA’s real problem is that anyone who can stop their run game can stop UCLA. I’m a lot more worried that Ethan Garbers has the tools to succeed through the air (compared to DTR) even when the run game is spinning its wheels. But he’s not there yet.

Last week: 9

Berkelium97 (7):  Despite facing one of the hottest teams in the conference, the Bears were in control from the first play of the game as both the offense and defense consistently excelled for the second game in a row.  Cal was a dropped–Jeremiah Hunter pass and an overturned–Damien Moore TD away from doing the unthinkable and dropping 50 points.  If the Bears can overcome the house of horrors that is Tucson next week, they face three struggling, depleted teams in a battle to get two wins and secure bowl eligibility.

Christopher_h (6): This was an incredibly solid performance by both the offense and the defense. Cal was a few dropped TDs away from making the score even uglier—and probably could have scored a bit more if that’s what they wanted. Cal ran Oregon State’s gameplan better than Oregon State did and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by how well the Cal backups played, particularly Isaiah Young. Without star linebackers like Kuony Deng and Cameron Goode, I was sure that Oregon State was going to be the team to put up 250+ yards rushing on Cal, so a huge amount of credit needs to go to the Cal defense and the younger players who really stepped up on Saturday. I think this win over OSU is a sign that Cal is finally playing up to their potential—and I hope Cal can keep it up.

Leland (8): The Bears are surging and on the rise, but I’m in wait-and-see mode considering one of those wins was just over the Buffaloes. Still, a boost is merited because the fanbase and team have to feel energized with a big win and bowl eligibility suddenly looking like a possibility again.

Last week: 8

Berkelium97 (8):  Weird game from USC: they nearly blew a 21-point lead against the worst team in the conference, they decided to play both quarterbacks (and the coach didn’t tell Kedon Slovis about that plan!), and they surrendered four TDs to an Arizona team that had scored two TDs over the last month.  But the big takeaway is that Drake London suffered an apparent season-ending injury.  That loss really hurts the USC offense.

Christopher_h (8): Welp, there goes my entire USC offensive preview article. Drake London is an enormous loss for USC as he was basically the entire offense—just too big, too strong, and too technically proficient for any defensive back to cover. Kedon Slovis would just throw in London’s direction and that was all that was needed—it was just their defense that USC needed to worry about. I’ve never been very high on Slovis, but I have to say that early signs point to freshman QB Jaxson Dart being pretty darn good. I don’t know what USC is planning to do at QB, but I’m guessing their best chance is for Dart to develop a non-London-based passing offense—and stat.

Last week: 10

Berkelium97 (9):  A week after looking completely inept against Arizona, the offense moved the ball reasonably well this week.  That is, until they reached the red zone, where they settled for field goals on their first four trips.  This was a huge win for their bowl hopes and they now need two wins in the remaining weeks: vs. Oregon, vs. ASU, at Colorado, vs. Wazzu.  That’s doable.

Leland (10): An ugly win over a struggling team—it’s as simple as that. I’m making the controversial move to still place them below Stanfurd because they’re struggling through an easier schedule—including still carrying the stank from their loss to FCS Montana.

Christopher_h (9): Still a struggling offense, and a defense that’s looking a bit soft outside of the corners. Freshman defensive tackle Voi Tunuufi looked promising though.

Last week: 7

Berkelium97 (10):  With three losses in a row, the Lobsterbacks now sit alone at the bottom of the Pac-12 North.  With five interceptions in the last three games, Tanner McKee has not been able to offset LSJU’s 125th-ranked rushing attack.  Of course, this team is just absurd enough to shock everyone and beat Utah this week.

Leland (9): I hate providing excuses for the reprehensible Stanfurd Cardinal, but let’s not discount that their schedule has been a grind—all Power Five opponents with seven of the eight sitting at 0.500 or above. Losing to an admittedly down opponent like Washington is a bad sign, but they only scraped out a win with a final-minute touchdown. Still, morale must be down among their few fans, so that does merit a low rank.

Christopher_h (10): I agree with Berkelium97—Stanford might be struggling now, but they’re the type to suddenly beat anyone for no reason. Their run game stinks, Tanner McKee is struggling with back-up receivers, and their defense is meh at best. But every once in a while, they pull it all together and play a mistake-free game—and they’re hard to beat when they do so (see: Oregon).

Last week: 11

Berkelium97 (11):  For the second game in a row, the defense was blown off the field—but at least the offense managed to recover from last week’s awful outing.  A three-win season still seems like the most likely outcome for Colorado.

Christopher_h (11): Losing Nate Landman again really calls back to the end of their 2020 season, with the defense just completely imploding and giving up 50+ points to decent teams. When you build an offense or defense around a player, you can’t really just plug-and-play as effectively with someone else. 

Leland (11): Getting beat down by the top team in the conference isn’t enough to move any needles—or justify moving them in the rankings. But making Oregon quarterback Anthony Brown look like an elite weapon is something else.

Last week: 12

Berkelium97 (12):  The losing streak is now 20, but it’s not from a lack of trying.  Arizona has a habit of dragging opponents down into the slop before letting them escape with humbling victories.  Let us pray to the almighty Oski that next week I can reference their 21-game losing streak…

Leland (12): They seem to be settling in with Will Plummer at quarterback after an injury to their starter (Jordan McCloud) and they put up a good fight against USC. Perfect timing for us to go down to Tucson!

Christopher_h (12): They keep losing, but they’re still fighting hard. They’re desperate for a win and Cal has historically played terribly in Arizona. I wouldn’t take anything for granted here.


Data

With such a massive byline for the authors, let’s take a look at how we each contributed—that is, how we each voted (Table 1). There’s a lot of agreement at the two extremes of the Pac-12. We unanimously put Oregon at first place and eight out of nine of us placed Utah at second. At the other end of the spectrum, we have total agreement for the eleventh and twelfth spots; the one outlier who didn’t place the despicable Stanfurd at tenth was… me. Oops.

The season’s rankings are shown below in Figure 1. As a sign of some semblance of stability, an interesting phenomenon has emerged—for the past three weeks, there has been a set of teams at the top half of the conference (Oregon, Utah, Wazzu, Oregon State, Arizona State, and UCLA) and in the lower half (California, USC, Washington, Stanfurd, Colorado, and Arizona). There’s been shuffling within those groups, but no mixing between the groups.

In terms of the net movement up and down the rankings, these past three weeks have been had fairly similar net movement (Table 2). Stanfurd was tied for the biggest movement this week, which just means they further extended their lead as the Maddest team of the Pac-12 (Figure 2).

The precise rankings obtained by compiling this week’s votes is graphed in Figure 3. The error bars show you the standard deviation, which is a measure of how inconsistent our assessment was for that team. You’ll see small error bars at the two edges of the conference because we are mostly in agreement about those ranks. But good golly Molly—what a mess we find ourselves in when it comes to the middle of the conference. The standard deviations are huge because we just couldn’t agree on how to rank these teams. Hooray for the Pac-12’s self-destructive parity…

The precise rankings for the season are graphed in Figure 4. This graph really highlights how close and undistinguishable the middle of the conference is. The Beavers, Sun Devils, Bruins, Golden Bears, and Trojans are five teams all basically within two spots of one another.

And as a minor, meaningless note, I find it funny to see how Oregon State and Cal have practically mirrored movement after our game.

Next week seems like it should be fairly quiet in the Pac-12—particularly for extending that top-and-bottom divide out to a fourth week. All of the match-ups appear to pit a favored team from the top against a much lower team from the bowels of the west coast. The one exception is California–Arizona, but even if—god forbid—the home team can pull off the upset, it’s still unlikely to shake up the top-and-bottom balance.

Now let’s just wait a week and see how poorly that paragraph above ages when the Pac-12 does good Pac-12 things with upsets to continue destroying ourselves from within. The call is coming from inside the house!