Preseason Pac-12 Power Rankings: We got a lotta homers placing Cal at the top

Check out who's pumpin' the most sunshine to start the year.

Leland: With football upon us, it’s time for me to squeeze that content sponge with our Preseason Power Rankings—even getting an early start thanks to a Week 0 game in the conference.

The Power Rankings are our annual endeavor to rank the conference teams, but with a slight twist compared to your typical Top 25/125 lists or win-loss comparisons. In the Power Rankings, we’re evaluating teams by both performance and morale—and with a bit of a bias towards recent weeks.

We’ve got a cast of far more knowledgeable and compelling writers who are excited to get to writing (and the obligate nagging and micromanaging from me for this series), so let’s get to the good stuff.

RollOnYouChairs: Those who saw the Power Rankings in 2019 might have noticed I put each team’s ranking for a couple data-based rankings (ESPN’s FPI and Bill Connelly’s SP+). Both were free online in the past, but SP+ is now on ESPN and behind the ESPN+ pay wall, so I’ll only list FPI here. I’ll also note the percent chance each team has against their coming opponent, per FPI. (FWIW in 2019, SP+ was more accurate for Pac 12 games—and more Cal-friendly—than FPI was… And Bill’s preseason rankings this year are notably different than FPI’s). 

I’ve also attached the season’s schedule and the win chance that FPI gives in each game. On the right side is the predicted record for each team overall and in-conference. The regular win/loss is the sum of the percentage chances for each game. The “raw” win/loss is the total games that a team is favored to win (i.e. >50% chance) or lose. So although the win percentages for Arizona add up to a 3.3–8.7 record, they are only favored in one game (against lowly Northern Arizona, with a 92.6% chance). As for the divisions, the South is ever-so-slightly stronger, winning 12.47 out of 24 cross-division games; the raw win-loss is even, with each division taking 12 games.

If FPI’s predictions play out, the end-season standings (using win chances, not raw win-loss) in the North would be 1) Oregon, 2) Washington, 3) Stanfurd (“Furd”), 4) Cal, 5) WSU and 6) OSU; the South would be 1) U$C, 2) ASU, 3) Utah, 4) UC L.A., 5) Colorado and 6) Arizona. Pac 12 teams ranked from best to worst using FPI are: 1) UO, 2) U$C, 3) UW, 4) ASU, 5) Utah, 6) Furd, 7) UC L.A., 8) CU, 9) WSU, 10) Cal, 11) OSU, and 12) AZ.

As for MY preseason rankings… I’m going to use a combo of the computer numbers and adjust based on what I know of each team—plus add some good preseason Cal homerism because at 0–0, why not? I also haven’t been following Pac 12 too much recently outside of Cal’s program, so the descriptions will be a bit simpler this week.

Nick Kranz: It’s always hard to do this, but when we’re trying to project based on a mere 32 Pac-12 games played last year vs. the usual 55 plus non-conference games . . . well, it’s even more of a crap shoot than usual. Even worse, of the 32 Pac-12 games played last year, 19 were one-score games that more or less could have gone either way. If the 2021 season is anything like the 2020 season, expect everybody in the conference to pick up at least two wins and two losses and nobody even sniffing the CFB playoffs.

Alex Khalifa: It’s going to feel great to enter a football stadium again.

Berkelium97: It’s tough to rely on last year’s data, so this exercise is even sillier than usual this preseason.  I know Oregon will be good and Arizona will be bad.  Everyone else will probably experience some great highs and depressing lows because the Pac-12 is bizarre and unpredictable thanks to so much parity.

The rankings

RollOnYouChairs (1): FPI (Nat’l/Pac12): 12/1. Next week: vs. Fresno State (93.2%). I’d love to rank the Ducks lower, but for now they have a loaded roster, a proven coach and a well-balanced team between offense and defense. Until they give me reason to question their performance (or lose a game, even if it’s Ohio State), I’ll leave them with the top spot.

Nick Kranz (1): They’re the most talented team in the conference by a not-insignificant margin. Yeah, even out-recruiting USC. A North title is far from pre-ordained, but pretending like they’re not the favorites feels silly.

Alex Khalifa (1): In addition to first round–lock Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon has an embarrassment of riches at wide receiver including freshmen Isaiah Brevard and Troy Franklin. Suffice to say that it could be tough for the Bears to defeat the Ducks for a second-straight campaign.

Berkelium97 (1):  The most talented team in the conference got a huge upgrade with the hiring of Tim DeRuyter, who should easily fix the defense’s issues with looking a little lost at times last year—I recall seeing communication issues on several occasions.

Christopher_h (2): Oregon is going to have a scary defense this year with the likes of DC Tim DeRuyter, Thibodeaux, Noah Sewell, Mykael Wright, and so on. But I couldn’t justify giving them the number one spot with a relative question mark at QB. Anthony Brown did alright in a pinch, but I expect Oregon will trot out some younger, higher-ceiling talent at some point. I think Oregon’s QB play will largely determine the success of their season—particularly if they have aspirations beyond the Pac-12 title.

RollOnYouChairs (2): FPI (Nat’l/Pac12): 21/2. Next week: vs. SJSU (93.1%). Recruiting juggernauts like the Trojans can only fall so far down the ladder any given year. The computers and prognosticators are labeling them as the best team in the South and second in the conference, so I’ll just roll with the trend.

Nick Kranz (3): USC is, as one would expect, talented. But they lost some impact players on both sides of the ball so they are far from a sure thing. The defense was at times iffy and they lost important players from both the line and the secondary. I still think they’re favorites in the South, but I’d take the field over them.

Alex Khalifa (2):Kedon Slovis has dealt with questions about his arm strength, but the 70% career completion rate has certainly helped the Trojans and Drake London is a great receiving weapon for him. Drake Jackson is always a threat to make tackles in the backfield.

Bereklium97 (2):  That 5–1 record last year obscures a couple miraculous plays that bailed them out of near-certain losses to ASU and Arizona.  So as long as Helton is still wandering around on the sidelines, they can and will lose some head-scratchers.  But the talent level gives them a pretty high floor.

Christopher_h (1): Honestly, USC is probably the closest thing to a complete team in the Pac-12 right now. I’m not buying the “Kedon Slovis as a top draft pick” QB hype as I think he has a lower ceiling (relative to the other hyped 4- and 5-star recruits), but with the talent USC has year in and year out at wide receiver, it doesn’t really matter. He can be a game manager tossing lobs to Drake London and most defenses will struggle to stop it. They also have a ton of talent along the defensive line to terrorize opposing QBs. Plus, I hope that by putting them number one preseason that it jinxes them and they Helton themselves out of a championship.

RollOnYouChairs (3): FPI (Nat’l/Pac12): 25/3. Next week: vs. Montana (94.4%). I debated putting the Huskies first in the North or even first overall, but I’m still in wait-and-see mode for Coach Lake, given the funkiness of last year. Regardless, the battle between the Huskies, Ducks and Bears for first in the North should be a fun one—and Washington gets the advantage of hosting its two closest competitors in Seattle.

Nick Kranz (2): This is the team I’m most intrigued to watch this year. On one hand, UW has plenty of talent and the weaker side of the ball in particular has basically everybody back. You could imagine UW’s defense reloading without missing a beat while an experienced offense leads them to a really strong season. On the other hand, the offense is still unproven and there are questions about their offensive coordinator—what if the offense falls flat and the defense can’t replace four NFL draft picks?

Alex Khalifa (3): OL Jaxson Kirkland told me that he looks forward to the view of Husky Stadium every day as he drives over a nearby bridge. He has made plenty of good memories there over the years, culminating in a first-team All-Pac-12 selection last season. Don’t sleep on tight end Cade Otton, who amassed 208 receiving yards in a span of two games last season.

Christopher_h (4): Washington is still a bit of a question mark. It’s hard to draw too many conclusions from last year after the loss of Coach Petersen (although they were still nearly the Pac-12 champ anyway), but UW has a surplus of talent which should still give them the upper hand in most matchups. The biggest question mark for Washington this season will be what they have at quarterback. Most intriguing will be how well 5-star true freshman QB Sam Huard plays. His dad and uncle both played for the Huskies and in the NFL, so there’s no shortage of talent there—but he may take some time to develop.

RollOnYouChairs (4): FPI (Nat’l/Pac12): 30/5. Next week: vs. Weber State (94.7%). An easy choice for second place in the South (though ASU is a threat), the Utes should have a dominant defense and a good enough offense to carry them to plenty of wins. I’m pretty sure Washington will be the better team, thus Utah gets fourth in the conference.

Nick Kranz (6): I’ll be honest, I think I maybe watched 15 snaps of Utah football last year. The stats say that they were thoroughly average on both sides of the ball, which is fine considering it was supposed to be a rebuilding year. They’ll probably be a more typical Whittingham team—which is to say tough, low scoring, and inconsistent on offense. Bold predictions only around here!

Alex Khalifa (5): After missing last year, wide receiver Britain Covey will play his final season at 24 years of age. The Utes caught a break when linebacker Devin Lloyd decided not to turn pro.

Berkelium97 (6): I feel like I don’t know anything about Utah this year.  But Kyle Whittingham is still their coach, so they’ll be solid in all phases of the game.

Christopher_h (3): When is Utah ever not good? I thought Cameron Rising looked solid at QB in their spring practice two years ago (he started Utah’s first game last year, but immediately suffered a season-ending injury against USC), although he was beaten out for the starting job by Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer. I also saw Brewer play a couple games a couple years ago (the year Cal played TCU) and he was an impressive and athletic quarterback, although I’ve heard he may have taken a step back last year. Regardless, Coach Whittingham has always developed a solid defense each year—even without the 4- and 5-star recruits that litter the Pac-12’s other top defenses. 

RollOnYouChairs (5): FPI (Nat’l/Pac12): 74/10. Next week: vs. Nevada (66%). The Sturdy Golden Bears of the flagship University of California should have one of the top defenses in the conference, but are being discounted by the computers (and most pundits) because of question marks on the offense. Maybe it’s my gold-colored glasses, but the roster on that side of the ball—playing in year two of Bill Musgrave’s system and with a full playbook—will almost certainly surprise pundits and programmers alike. The entire roster has added pounds and the offense has a real diversity of skill sets—something valuable for keeping opponents off guard. If the pieces fall in the right place, Cal could break into the rankings in the first few weeks and even win the North. The biggest troubles will be our road schedule featuring TCU, Washington, Oregon and a possibly-dangerous UCLA.

Nick Kranz (7): Will the Cal offensive line without Michael Saffell and the Cal defensive line without Brett Johnson play well without keystone players? Replacing those two players (alternatively: when is Brett Johnson back?) are the defining questions of the offseason for a team that has, at times, struggled to control the point of attack on both sides of the ball.

Alex Khalifa (6): Call me partial, but Chase Garbers and Kuony Deng exuded an air of confidence when speaking with the media about the season ahead. I’m looking forward to seeing Jeremiah Hunter in games again after he was sidelined with a shoulder issue last campaign.

Berkelium97 (7):  The defense should be solid enough to help the Bears contend for a top-half finish in the division.  For the nth year in a row, I’m guardedly optimistic that the Toyota Tercel offense can maybe—just maybe—transform into a Toyota Camry offense.

Christopher_h (5): While most teams in the Pac-12 have question marks on offense, Cal’s biggest question mark is on defense. Obviously the Cal defense has enormous shoes to fill (and you can’t reasonably expect the defense to carry games the way they did a couple years ago) and I am a bit concerned about some of the depth issues we saw last year. Personally, I am hoping to see the offense make some strides forward with some of the heralded freshman offensive recruits (Jermaine Terry, J.Michael Sturdivant, Mavin Anderson, etc) and a reasonably solid (but maybe not as elite as in years past) defense.

RollOnYouChairs (6): FPI (Nat’l/Pac12): 29/4. Next week: vs. Southern Utah (99%). I understand the optimism about ASU, especially with a more veteran squad and with a talented QB. But the team will need to show it’s not distracted nor negatively affected by ongoing NCAA investigations; the team was also ravaged by COVID last year and the lasting effects of the virus have hit other athletes (even pros like Jason Tatum), so I’m curious if team health/performance will be affected on that front.

Nick Kranz (4): I’m placing my bet on ASU’s talent winning out over the drama of NCAA punishment, in part because I think the NCAA is mostly toothless and in part because my guess is that the locker room is behind Herm. ASU really should cruise to 4–0 with an easy early schedule—and if they struggle in any of those early games, that’s a sign that something isn’t right in Tempe.

Alex Khalifa (4): QB Jayden Daniels is expected to show improvement this season, but his durability will be tested if he runs the ball too often. 

Berkelium97 (3):  ASU was a miracle pass against USC and some boneheaded nonsense against UCLA (I vaguely remember something absolutely asinine happening near the end zone late in the game) away from being 4–0 last year.  If not for the cloud of the NCAA investigation (which I’m cynically expecting to have no real impact on a program that deserves a severe punishment), I’d have them at #2.  That offense is stellar and they’re returning all their starters from a decent defense.

Christopher_h (6): I haven’t really paid too much attention to the NCAA violations and all that hoopla, but shady business or not, ASU has greatly improved their recruiting and is probably the second-most talented team in the South (but with much better coaching than that team at the top). They are a definitive dark-horse contender for the South. I’ve never been sold on QB Jayden Daniels’ passing, but they have an extremely solid run game (especially with Daniels) and they keep adding talented young wide receivers. They also have an experienced group of talented players on defense, so I almost feel bad placing them at #6 here, but I don’t know how else to calculate the drama factor here.

RollOnYouChairs (7): FPI (Nat’l/Pac12): 54/7. Next week: vs. Hawaii (88.3%) (NOTE: Week 0 game.) Last year was funky, but let’s just say I’m not sold on Chip to keep the ship together enough to break to an elite level. Somewhere in the middle of the conference seems about right this year, considering the Bruins’ experience and talent and the state of the other teams.

Nick Kranz (5): UCLA is arguably the most experienced team in the nation. The operative question is whether or not that translates into wins. Both the offense and defense were good-but-not-great last year and it’s not clear to me if the 2021 team is going to take a step forward or merely be good-but-not-great again.

Alex Khalifa (7): While everyone else frets about the future of the Rose Bowl game, the Bruins are just hoping to put together their first winning season since 2015. It’s certainly possible when you consider the veteran defensive corps featuring Caleb Johnson, who posted 5.5 sacks in 2020.

Berkelium97 (4):  They return just about everyone from an offense that averaged over 230 rushing yards per game last year and DTR miraculously found a way to stop making several comically bad errors per game.  All four losses last year were by a single possession and turnovers played a big role in three of those losses.  If they can clean it up, they could make some noise in the South.

Christopher_h (7): This is as good as it is going to get for UCLA this year, and I am still betting against them. They’ve already had their “rebuilding seasons” and this is their peak. These are Chip Kelly’s recruits, he’s been developing them for years, and he’s all out of excuses now. Personally, I’d love to see Ethan Garbers take over at quarterback just so that Chase Garbers and Cal can remind UCLA who the little brother school is.

RollOnYouChairs (9): FPI (Nat’l/Pac12): 52/6. Next week: vs. Kansas State (59.5%). Given the downward trajectory on the Farm under David Shaw in recent years, I’m not expecting anything spectacular from the Cardinal in 2021. Assuming Furd ends the year in the bottom half of the North (I think they will end up there), their place in the standings might depend more on what happens in Corvallis and Pullman than what happens in Palo Alto.

Nick Kranz (10): Stanford last year was a bad defense and a mediocre offense—and they lost their QB, their best WR, their two best offensive linemen, and their only good defender in Paulson Adebo to the NFL. In short, this is on paper the worst Stanford team since 2007 or 2008 and I’ll be bitterly, bitterly disappointed if they don’t play like it.

Alex Khalifa (8): Before the Stanford players arrived at their media session back in July, I was warned that DE Thomas Booker had very large arms which are especially notable when he’s sitting right in front of you. This assessment proved to be accurate. Yes, I put Cal two spots above the Cardinal. We all deserve a Big Game victory after the last year and a half.

Berkelium97 (8):  David Shaw always finds a way to prevent the Lobsterbacks’ seemingly inevitable slide into mediocrity.  This may be his toughest challenge yet, however…

Christopher_h (8): You know, I really wish Stanford would crash back to the bottom of the Pac-12 a lot faster, as it’s already been over a decade of this nonsense. I’ve been very critical of a lot of the Pac-12’s quarterbacks, but KJ Costello and Davis Mills were very respectable passers. Mills left a bit too early for the NFL and I think Stanford is finally going to regress a bit in the passing game. David Shaw has long relied on a superb offensive line and a boring slog-it-out run game, so it was supremely frustrating to see them lose that, but still have a 5-star QB making ridiculous passes to pull out wins anyway. I’m expecting that to end.

RollOnYouChairs (10): FPI (Nat’l/Pac12): 62/8. Next week: vs. Northern Colorado (98.5%). It’s hard to learn much from last year’s 4-2 season, especially since the two losses were ugly. On the bright side, the Buffs return plenty of starters balanced between offense and defense - but recruiting has been so-so for the past several years, so talent development will be just as big of a factor there. The biggest thorn in Colorado’s side will be an underwhelming QB competition and not too much depth at that spot.

Nick Kranz (8): Colorado’s 4–0 start last year was a little bit smoke-and-mirrors, with a bunch of narrow, turnover-fueled wins before reality hit against Utah and Texas to end the season. Then QB Sam Noyer transfers to . . . Oregon State?!? Weird off-season in Boulder and I can’t say I’m sure what to expect from the Buffs.

Alex Khalifa (9): The quarterback situation still appears to be muddled; however, the Buffs have a plethora of options if Karl Dorrell decides to keep the ball on the ground.

Berkelium97 (10): Linebacker Nate Landman returns from injury to help anchor the defense—they really missed him after he went down last year.  The QB situation is concerning, however.

Christopher_h (9): Colorado is a tough one to gauge. They have a very solid linebacking corps and secondary, but an enormous question mark at QB with freshman Brendon Lewis. I expect they’ll lean heavily on their talented running backs, but I didn’t want to rate them too lowly here as I thought new coach Karl Dorrell did very well last year, so that should earn them some points. 

RollOnYouChairs (11): FPI (Nat’l/Pac12): 85/11. Next week: at Purdue (19.7%). OSU has featured a sneaky good offense under Jonathan Smith and I’m expecting the Beavers will be explosive again this year. The biggest question is defense, which returns a good chunk of experienced players and got a couple transfers to plug some holes in the roster. With OSU’s subpar recruiting, I don’t see that experience being enough to transform the D enough to lift the Beavers from 11th place. If we know anything, though, it’s that OSU can be a trap game for nearly any opponent.

Nick Kranz (9): The Beavers have almost everybody back from a squad that played everybody close last year, so I almost feel like I’m undervaluing them in 9th place. Still, they were really reliant on Jermar Jefferson, who is off to the NFL, and the defense and QB are still pretty iffy, so 9th is probably about right.

Alex Khalifa (10): The Beavers expect Teagan Quitoriano to take a step forward at tight end, while linebacker Avery Roberts returns after leading the Pac-12 with 69 tackles last season.

Berkelium97 (9): Coach Jonathan Smith is reliably churning out good offenses at OSU and the defense was merely mediocre for the second year in a row. If the offense can keep humming without Jefferson (that’s a big if), they may take another incremental step forward.

Christopher_h (10): I’m always hyping up OSU to finally leave the cellar, but it’s hard to keep justifying that. I liked Sam Noyer when he was the QB at Colorado, but I think the loss of Jermar Jefferson can’t be understated. OSU has some underappreciated linebackers (because they are OSU), but they’re one of the best groups in the Pac-12.

RollOnYouChairs (8): FPI (Nat’l/Pac12): 73/9. Next week: vs. Utah State (84.3%). Good offense paired with bad defense makes for an entertaining but unpredictable combo—as many of us are all too aware of. That was the case with WSU last year and it was the case with Hawaii under Rolovich. The question is how much the offense can pull the defense across the finish line… Or if Rolovich will change his ways and both sides will flourish.

Nick Kranz (11): I might be overreacting to a bunch of negative offseason headlines that maybe don’t have a ton to do with how this team will look on the field, but Nick Rolovich isn’t exactly inspiring a ton of confidence even beyond the fact that he’s pretty unproven as a head coach anyway.

Alex Khalifa (11):I don’t have high hopes for the Cougars, but they do feature a nice one-two punch at running back with Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh.

Berkelium97 (11):  The only thing I remember about Wazzu last year is that in the span of 20 minutes, they let a 28–7 lead over Utah turn into a 45–28 loss.  Between that and Rolovich’s dumb antivax stance, I’m not particularly optimistic about things in Pullman this year.

Christopher_h (11): Honestly, Wazzu is probably better than the eleventh-best team in the conference and they will beat some good teams this season. Still, I’ll be rooting very hard against them this season. I’ll root for Borghi again after he’s in the NFL.

RollOnYouChairs (12): FPI (Nat’l/Pac12): 98/12. Next week: vs. BYU (16.1%). Arizona has been crappy for quite a few years now and head coach Jedd Fisch is probably in hardcore rebuilding mode. Arizona took in a lot of transfers in the offseason, but I doubt it’ll be enough to bring them up from the gutter.

Nick Kranz (12): Fisch has been impressively successful on the recruiting trail, but those reinforcements are years away. I guess I wouldn’t be shocked if Fisch returned Arizona to some sort of baseline level of competence, but the talent level just isn’t there for them to be more than a threat for an upset win or two this year.

Alex Khalifa (12): The good news for the Wildcats is that WR Stanley Berryhill III decided against transferring to Ball State. He posted 23 catches, 227 receiving yards, and a trio of touchdowns in five games last season.

Berkelium97 (12):  Arizona has been in a downward spiral for the last couple seasons, culminating in last year’s brutal, season-ending 63-point loss to ASU.  This looks like a multi-year rebuilding project for their uninspiring new hire Jedd Fisch.

Christopher_h (12): I liked QB Grant Gunnell and think he’ll develop into a solid quarterback… but he decided to transfer to Memphis. Not a whole lot to be optimistic about if you’re an Arizona fan—this will be a rebuild.

The data

We’ve got but a morsel of data to dive into, starting with the ballots of our voters (Table 1). You can also identify the two sunshine pumpers who ranked Cal first.

The responses for each team are then collected and averaged out to come to our consensus rankings. But here at Write for Cal, we’re fans (or maybe I’m just a fan) of taking closer looks at the data, beginning with the precise averaged scores for each team—these can give us a better idea if two teams are ranked more closely than the integer values of first or third. Figure 1 shows the average ranks as bars with standard deviations shown as the error bars. Teams with large standard deviations mean they saw a wide range of responses; California has the largest standard deviation as they earned votes as low as seventh and as high as first.

Figure 2 has a slight twist on this data; by stacking the precise ranks vertically, it makes it easier for me to visualize any of the aforementioned potential close-ness of teams). As a collective, we’re fairly comfortable with the placement of the Ducks, Trojans, and Huskies as the conference’s three medalists. After that is a cluster of the Utes, Bears, Sun Devils, and Bruins. Next, the Cardinal stand alone—and deservedly so as they are utterly vile. And at the very bottom of the pile is our basement; despite a strong performance in a wacky 2020, the Buffaloes find themselves here with the Beavers, Cougars, and the Wildcats.

Because of the unusual Week 0 game we’re getting ahead of, it’s going to be a whopping two weeks until you see us again because we’re waiting until we get some actual data on the teams. So, this weekend you’ve got the Baby Bears playing some team somewhere followed by an exciting weekend due to the release of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (oh and something about college football and Memorial Stadium and Write for Cal merch or something). But until then, feel free to give us your preseason rankings and yell at us for being wrong with our assessments.