Pac-12 Power Rankings, Week 6: The ole Washington–Oregon bait and switch

Do we reward Washington for backdoor-ing into the North Champion title? Did we even have time to recognize Oregon then leapfrogging into the Pac-12 Championship? Does anything even matter this year?

Leland: Although California’s season has come to a close, we’ve still got a few more agonizing and morally-questionable weeks of Pac-12 football to enjoy and overanalyze.

The subject of this post is overanalysis—collecting an uneven amount of data from each Pac-12 team under a range of different circumstances and then trying mightily to draw conclusions and make comparsions between teams. These rankings are already contentious enough during normal years—with disagreements on how much to interpret on-field results and how to weigh early vs. recent results—but it’s significantly more complicated under COVID rules with smaller sample sizes and uncertainty about evaluating a team’s “true” (read: COVID-unaffected) ability vs. what they output in reality.

Here’s the latest set of games, which was the final set of prescheduled games.

  • Arizona State def. Arizona, 70–7

  • Utah def. #21 Colorado, 38–21

  • #15 USC def. UC Los Angeles, 43–38

  • Stanfurd def. Oregon State, 27–24

  • Positive COVID result: California, Washington

  • COVID cancellation: Oregon, Washington State

Note that a number of our voters assessed and wrote about teams before Washington pulled out of the Pac-12 Championship and was replaced by Oregon.

Berkelium97:  I’m finding it harder to care about who finishes where in the conference standings.  I’m still interested in individual games, but some of the most compelling games in the conference (USC vs. Colorado, Oregon vs. Washington) have been cancelled and have rendered the division titles rather meaningless.  Meanwhile, one-win teams like ASU and Cal are almost certainly better than their records indicate but we’ve seen very little of those teams when they’re healthy.

Nick Kranz: If any of you readers want to get a sense of what a jumbled joke of a ‘season’ this was, seriously sit down and try to decide how to rank these teams after putting USC first and Arizona last. After that, it’s a mess of limited information and contradictory evidence. Nobody deserves to be secpnd, but somebody has to go there.

Christopher_h: I originally thought I’d ignore game results and just rank teams according to who I thought would be the favorite, but then it resulted in some kind of unfair rankings where teams that outperformed expectations (Colorado, OSU) were still sitting near the bottom. Expectations are what determine odds—and yet I disagree with odds all the time (and hence, sports betting was born). The top three according to oddsmakers are USC, Oregon, and Washington, then there’s a giant cluster nearly interchangeable in the middle (Stanford, Cal, Utah, ASU, UCLA), and then Colorado, OSU, Wazzu, and finally Arizona. Remember, Colorado was an 11.5-point underdog to UCLA—whom they ended up beating—so it’s a bit unfair to stick strictly to odds as pretty much everyone has Colorado above UCLA. So instead I started with that and moved teams up and down a little bit from there. 

Piotr T Le: USC at 1 and Arizona at 12 the only certains. Ten other teams haven’t played nearly enough football to really un-cluster themselves from the chaos that is 2020. Any of the teams from the 2–11 range could beat another and it would be all the same.


The rankings:

Last week: 1

Berkelium97 (1):  I’m still trying to figure out which outcome I’d prefer—USC makes the playoff and gets blown out in the first round or USC fails to make the playoff and their insufferable fans pout and complain for the next month.

Ohio Bear (1):  USC is clearly the best team in the conference, but they sure do find a way to not look like it for an entire game.  But give credit where credit is due—they are a tough team to put away.  Ask ASU, Arizona, and now UC L.A.  I’ve seen enough. Extend Clay Helton! 

Nick Kranz (1): Will lose to Washington—not because of any insight I have involving talent or coaching or match-ups, but because nobody is allowed to go undefeated in this conference.

Erik Johannessen (1): Almost certainly the best team in the Pac-12, but I doubt they’re one of the Top 10–15 teams in the country, which says a lot about where this conference is as a whole.

Christopher_h (1): I expect USC will win the Pac-12 (I wrote this when I thought UW was in the championship, but I am less sure that USC will beat Oregon) and we’ll have to hear endless chatter from the talking heads about whether or not USC deserves a playoff spot. Spoiler—they absolutely, 100% do not. Remember in 2016 when Clay Helton and USC were pantsed by Alabama on a national stage, 52–6? It would be like that, but worse. LSU did that last year to an actually good Oklahoma team (led by Jalen Hurts) and I’d rather the Pac-12 pretend to be offended at being left out rather than being included and completely embarrassed and ruin all credibility for future years. USC has talent at most positions, but if there was one thing the UCLA game showed, it was that QB Kedon Slovis’s physical limitations are holding USC back. Sometimes I find myself giving too much credence to certain opinions when everyone is saying it (I believe the announcer, former Alabama QB Greg McElroy, guaranteed that Slovis would be a first-round pick) and playing for a blue-chip school definitely puts you at the forefront of everyone’s minds, but I have to go with my eyes here. Here’s my hot take—you can hide a lot of Slovis’ limitations with future NFL wide receivers, but he lacks the arm strength necessary to make all the throws. It’s one thing to put so much air under a ball and count on your receivers to win any individual match-up (and in the case of USC’s late comeback, even double teams), but you don’t get a roster filled with Julio Joneses and DeAndre Hopkinses at the next level, too. It would be interesting to see how a USC QB would do with less talent around him, like how former starter JT Daniels is now tearing it up after he transferred to… Georgia, where all his receivers are also 5-star recruits. Hmm. 

Ruey Yen (1): Although they don’t deserve it, USC managed to turn its early season good luck into a potential College Football Playoff berth (a.k.a. a possible “Rose Bowl” that’s played somewhere else). I also would not be shocked if they lose to Washington Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship game.

Last week: 3

Nick Kranz (4): Three coin-flip games and a blowout over Arizona does not a conference champion make—except in this stupid, stupid season.

Christopher_h (2): I’ve said it before, but no team has ever looked good after coming back from a coronavirus-related hiatus. Otherwise, I would have completely expected UW’s defense to shut down USC’s Air Raid and to get enough done to take advantage of USC’s weaknesses on defense. Instead, they’ll probably look slow and lethargic—and maybe even miss key players—and USC will luck their way into a Pac-12 title with a big fat asterisk on it. Or, USC will play the #2 team in the North—even better.

Last week: 2

Berkelium97 (2):  I’m tempted to drop them further because they looked awful in that second half against Utah—I only saw some of the fourth quarter—but they still have a pretty good resume with wins over UCLA and LSJU.

Ohio Bear (4): I was surprised to see Utah go into Boulder and knock off Colorado like that. The Buffs were looking like they had a good case for having the Pac-12 match them up with USC in the conference championship game, but the Utes gashed them for almost 200 yards rushing and outscored CU 28–7 in the second half. 

Nick Kranz (3): They probably weren’t all that close to actually being in the conversation for best team in the conference this year—that win over UCLA in particular relied on Bruin self-destruction—but they’re clearly solid and clearly ahead of schedule.

Christopher_h (5): What a difference linebacker Nate Landman makes, eh? In college, MVP awards usually go to the best player on the best team, but I always wished they went to the player who is clearly the most valuable to their team—where that player is the difference between winning and losing (like in 2015, I think the best player in college football was a guy named Jared Goff, and although the NFL agreed with me, the Heisman went to the Alabama running back instead—a great player, sure, but I’m sure Alabama would have survived just fine with one of their other 5-star RBs, while Cal would be lucky to have won any games without Goff). Anyway, Landman is clearly the MVP of this defense. With Landman, Colorado built a 21–10 lead in the third quarter, while Utah averaged 2.6 yards per carry. After Landman was injured, the other linebackers (minus Carson Wells) were frequently out of position; Utah then averaged 7+ yards per carry and the run game then opened up the pass game for Utah, as they came back to score 28 unanswered points and win the game. The other dagger in Colorado’s heart was when Utah LB Nephi Sewell (yep, same Sewell) blew up QB Sam Noyer on a scramble and slammed him to the turf. Noyer landed hard on his shoulder, and his passes were all off the rest of the game—I believe he was 0/6 after the hit and the back-up QB Tyler Lytle had to come in for the final drive. Keep an eye on Noyer’s health as well for their upcoming match-up against Oregon (update: nevermind, this game was canceled and it’s unclear at the time of this writing if Colorado will opt for a bowl).

Last week: 5

Berkelium97 (4): I’m hoping the Pac-12 decides to send the Ducks to the Pac-12 title game because 1) I think Oregon is the better team and 2) UW will probably be a mess when they get back on the field, just like all other teams that have missed time due to covid.

Nick Kranz (2): This is probably more of a protest vote against UW getting into the conference title game with a 1–1 North record, but Oregon does actually have two convincing North wins, a solid win over UCLA, and two pretty unlucky losses. I think a second-place ranking can be justified.

Christopher_h (3): Oregon was favored to beat Washington—and they have completely dominated the series in recent history—but I think UW is the better team. I wish the Pac-12 North title were decided on the field and not a “win by default”, but Oregon and Washington are ultimately very similar—led by first-year quarterbacks who are surrounded by a solid run game and talented receivers—but I gave the edge to UW because of their defense. UW lost to Stanford and Oregon lost to Cal, so these losses are about equivalent; but UW beat OSU while Oregon didn’t. But also, Oregon beat Stanford. So, you know, whatever. Should have been decided on the field.

Last week: 4

Berkelium97 (5):  The Bruins took an improbable 28–10 lead after their first drive of the second half.  Then it all went downhill in a flurry of fumbles, interceptions, and failed fourth downs.  Let us all bathe in the tears of angry commenters on Bruins Nation (now TMB—that’s The Mighty Bruin, not Trojan Marching Band).

Ohio Bear (5):  Their euphoria at taking the lead with less than a minute left lasted two plays.    

Nick Kranz (5): Beat the bad teams on their schedule pretty easily, but lost three close games to the good teams. I don’t like considering the possibility that Chip Kelly has turned things around.

Erik Johannessen (5): One of only two Pac-12 teams (aside from the Beavers) to actually play every week this year (so far)!

Christopher_h (8): Honestly, UCLA looked like the better prepared team in this game. They are fully aware of Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s limitations and have stopped asking him to make difficult throws—and DTR has done a good job with his ball security issues, cleaning up the completely unforced fumbles. Despite showing up with a solid gameplan, USC ultimately just has the ability to out-talent most teams and this left UCLA with a razor-thin margin of error. Just one example: UCLA noticed that USC frequently didn’t line up with the correct numbers to stop the run on the left side of the formation. So, UCLA had Demetric Felton run it with two blockers ahead of him and USC’s defensive end Drake Jackson beat both of the blockers (one-on-two) to tackle Felton for a loss. It was absolutely the correct play call, but it just didn’t work because USC has freakish athletes like Drake Jackson. With not much margin for error, UCLA made some critical errors late in the game—a bad read by DTR resulting in an interception (it was a pick-six, but was called back for an unnecessary block in the back by USC, as per USC custom), some sort of botched punt (I can’t tell if it was supposed to be a fake or not—the punter pulled it himself, but may have thought his kick was about to be blocked) to give USC a short field, and UCLA twice turned it over on downs on 4th and 1 because they rushed to the line to run the next play without everyone being on the same page (the first time, an offensive lineman missed his blocking assignment and the second time, the center and right guard opened up a hole for RB Keegan Jones, but he instead decided to try to run it to the edge). You can also point fingers at the defense and lack of adjustments. Although UCLA probably has the best defensive line in the conference, their secondary has some serious liabilities, and they consistently played with two deep safeties even as USC started taking the easy yards in the running game. So UCLA may not be terrible at everything (as much as I want them to be), but I still think the main reason this season has gone so well for them is that they’re the team that’s been the least affected (if at all) by the pandemic.

Ruey Yen (2): After saying a few times this season that I won’t punish teams for missing games, I have opted to reward UCLA for somehow playing six games. They also probably should have beaten USC.

Last week: 6

Berkelium97 (6): Their go-ahead field goal late in the fourth was set up by a ridiculously lucky catch. Why must the most hated teams in the conference have so many absurdly lucky catches on pivotal, fourth-quarter drives?

Ohio Bear (6): The vagabond Cardinal won again, taking advantage of a little luck and also getting to play an OSU team that lost QB Tristan Gebbia for the season.

Nick Kranz (6): Played four games decided by a combined 12 points and went 3–1 in those games because God is Dead.

Christopher_h (9): This was one of the hardest games to watch on TV—it felt like an early 90s game without the projected yellow first-down markers on the screen and I constantly had to pay attention to which yard line they were on and how many yards they had to go (the TV broadcast didn’t help much either, sometimes simply displaying just “3rd down” instead of something like “3rd and 7”). If you could hear the announcers over the muffled sounds of their masks, you’d have heard how unfamiliar they were with the Pac-12, saying stupid things like: Stanford tight end “Musgrove” (referring to Tucker Fisk, but accidentally looking at the OSU roster’s TE Luke Musgrave), Simi “Feehayko” (Fehoko), Calvin “Taylor” (Calvin Tyler), and so on. I was really hoping Stanford football was dead, but their offensive line play has greatly improved in the past two games, so we may be seeing the return of classic Stanford “BoringBall” Football. Stanford has some good defensive ends (Thomas Booker, Thomas Schaffer), but holes all over the secondary. However, I was really impressed with some of the throws QB Davis Mills made and he went up in my book—I think he’s probably the best passer in the Pac-12.

Last week: 8

Berkelium97 (7):  Same ol’ Utah—control the clock with a productive ground game, force a few turnovers, and make some big special-teams plays.

Nick Kranz (9): Utah was certainly the better team against Colorado; it probably would’ve been a close game, except Utah fumbled three times and recovered it themselves all three times, while Colorado fumbled twice and lost both of them. Five fumbles in one game and Utah fell on all of them!

Christopher_h (4): This is a team that’s far better than their record indicates. They’ve been playing the entire season with their back-up quarterback (a South Carolina native who was obviously not prepared to throw the ball in snowy/cold conditions) and freshmen all over the defense, but they have still hung in there against probably the toughest Pac-12 schedule (USC, Washington, Colorado, OSU—what do we have these four teams ranked?). They will definitely be tough in the coming years.

Last week: 7

Nick Kranz (8): This year the Cardiac Beavs played five games that all came down to the final possessions of the fourth quarter—but even more improbably, they played their entire schedule!

Christopher_h (10): That’s five games in a row now that have been decided by a touchdown or less. With Jermar Jefferson seemingly struggling with injuries (although he was an effective decoy, as Stanford’s defense often overcommitted to whichever side Jermar Jefferson was on), I was actually very impressed with how well QB Chance Nolan played—and I think he has to be their QB of the future. Nolan both showed off his arm strength when he launched a 55-yard rocket downfield for WR Tre’Shaun Harrison (an FSU transfer who became eligible for this game due to the wacky game scheduling as he became eligible one full academic year after transferring and OSU’s fall quarter just ended on Dec 11) and his touch when he dropped a throw in the bucket for a touchdown to WR Tyjon Lindsey. OSU may not have the blue-chip recruits that other schools do, but they keep finding overlooked recruits and developing their talent. I’ve been predicting that OSU would turn a corner every year, but I really think they’re only going to get better.

Last week: 11

Berkelium97 (9): I’m trying not to read too much into the win because Arizona is a dumpster fire, but in a season without all sorts of covid-related disruptions, this ASU team may have been a strong contender for the Pac-12 South title.

Nick Kranz (7): What do you do with a team that lost closely to two solid teams and then blew out the worst team in the conference? ASU came closer than anybody else to beating USC, but they’re ending the ‘regular’ season with as many wins as Cal.

Christopher_h (6): Pretty much every ASU game is a close game. Last season they won pretty much all their coin-flip games and this season, they regressed to the mean a little bit. However, this was not a close game. It’s like when a team starts gaining momentum, the home crowd is going nuts, and they keep making good plays. Even though the stadium was empty, that was pretty much the entire game for ASU, which started off the game with two touchdowns in under a minute. Had Cal beaten Washington State, I think Cal–ASU (or Cal–Utah) would have been a good match-up. Way better than Cal–Arizona anyway.

Last week: 9

Berkelium97 (10):  It’s looking like the season is over—and that seems fine.  The Bears had some misery, enjoyed a win over Oregon when finally playing at full strength, and may now miss a couple meaningless games against Wazzu and possibly Arizona or ASU.

Ohio Bear (10): Why does it feel like we lost? 

Nick Kranz (11): This is probably a harsh ranking, but again somebody had to go here and Cal’s only win was pretty lucky. The honest truth is that the difference between Cal, WSU, OSU, and Stanford is ridiculously thin.

Christopher_h (7): This season was a sample size of games, with a team frequently short-handed due to coronavirus-related restrictions. Of course I believe Cal should have finished better than 1–3, but it was a pretty meaningless season in the first place. When Cal was completely healthy, they took down Oregon. When they weren’t, they were embarrassed by UCLA. I wouldn’t look too deeply into it.

Piotr T Le (10): I wish I could stack us up higher, however, we are what our record is—a 1–3 team with special-teams foibles and unfortunate Covid lottery outcome winners. Two plays go differently and we’re probably in the 3–5 range. But those are what ifs and this highly technical poll does not deal with hypotheticals.

Last week: 10

Nick Kranz (10): Played three games, but barely feel like I know anything about them. I guess 10th—whatever, who cares?

Christopher_h (11): I think Cal would have handled Washington State—and I bet big on this one. I would have felt really dumb if Cal was again missing their defensive line on the same game when Max Borghi returned from injury (he participated in pregame warm-ups), so maybe it’s for the best that the game was canceled. At least Borghi will help them from getting blown out by Utah.

Last week: 12

Berkelium97 (12):  Over the last few games, Arizona has gone from merely bad to historically bad.  I’d love to see who’d win in a match-up with 2020 Arizona and 2013 Cal or 2008 UW.

Ohio Bear (12): Wow.  That was something.  Arizona had been trending downward since the competitive opener it played against USC, but the 70–7 loss to ASU was even lower than I imagined the Wildcats tumbling.  The loss was bad enough for them to turn the page on the Kevin Sumlin era.  And as to Berkelium97’s musing above, I’m puzzled as to why 2001 Cal isn’t in the conversation!

Nick Kranz (12): Perhaps lucky that they only had to play a five-game season, as the full-season results may have been historic in a bad way.

Christopher_h (12): Probably the ugliest rivalry game I’ve ever seen. The only bright spot for Arizona was that this loss was humiliating enough for them to tear it down and start from scratch again by firing Kevin Sumlin. Pretty much anything that could go wrong in this game did go wrong. The only bright spot on this roster—QB Grant Gunnell—returned from injury for this game, but it looked like it was too soon as his usual accuracy was all off. To make matters worse, his running back kept fumbling the ball, their run defense was atrocious, and when Arizona started selling out to stop the run, a safety would be way out of position for an easy completion and huge gain through the air. Arizona looked like an overmatched FCS team, to the point that even ASU’s back-ups were scoring at will in the second half. For what it’s worth (prior to the blowout), I estimate we’d have been 6.5-point favorites over Arizona—which almost feels insulting—but yet I’m not sure I’d be confident enough to place that bet with how poor Cal usually does in Arizona, as we weren’t exactly blowing teams out anyway. 

Piotr T Le (12): 70–7 was the biggest blowout in the history of the Territorial Cup since the 1946 67–0 Arizona win. It was the second largest loss in the 2020 CFB season (Clemson vs. Georgia Southern ended 73–7). It’s not good and the firing of Sumlin coupled with a canceled game against us is just cherry on the top of a terrible season.


The data

If you haven’t been following along with this series and somehow decided that now was the right time to start reading, then let’s discuss how the opinions of our confusingly handsome collection of ten writers get distilled into the above rankings.

We each independently develop our own 1–12 rankings, which are collected in Table 1.

The ranks for each school are collected and averaged to settle upon the primary rankings listed above. The season’s worth of rankings is graphed out in Figure 1.

Not much movement this week compared to the last—the biggest shift belonged to Arizona State, which could only muster up two spots despite obliterating their archrivals. All that stability resulted in 2020’s quietest week in terms of Madness (Fig. 2a), which is simply a measurement of how much the teams moved up and down our rankings.

But while the main rankings tell a neat, packaged story, there is a little more nuance to the data—and numbers don’t lie. The precise mathematical averages reveal some information that is lost in the rounding process, so let’s take a look at the precise values (Fig. 3). Here, the columns represent the precise score that each team received and the black error bar represents one standard deviation—or how varied our responses were for that team. Looking at those standard deviations—and which teams have standard deviations of 0, to be exact—we see that we have total agreement in the top and bottom teams for the first time this year.

An alternative presentation of this rankings—along with the season-long precise rankings—is shown in Figure 4. As the lone undefeated team in the conference (and one that managed to play five of six games), USC stands alone head and shoulders above the rest of the conference. One interesting detail in the precise scores that’s lost in the rounded ranks is that Stanfurd would appear to have idled after their win over Oregon State, but their precise score actually did increase to reflect the win (Fig. 4).

Next week, we’ll have the final set of in-conference games. Hopefully poor Colorado will be able to get into a game or they’ll get screwed by virtue of a second-place divisional finish. But to highlight some poor planning by virtue of the cross-divisional seeding, there are two South teams that need a win next week to meet/exceed 0.500 for bowl eligibility—UC L.A. (third in the South) and Utah (fourth in the South). UC L.A. seemingly has a tougher draw against 3–2 Stanfurd while Utah gets a potentially easier draw of 1–2 Washington State. Not that bowl season—or this season at all—really matters, but facepalms all around if Larry Scott et al.’s decisions to seed next week and keep 0.500 benchmark for eligibility come together to send worse teams as our bowl representatives.