It’s a rough time to be a Pac-12 fan at the moment. On the AP poll, the highest ranked Pac-12 team is Washington at ten, who has already lost in its week 1 match-up with Auburn.
News flash: number eight Auburn trails three SEC teams in the rankings. In the AP Poll, the Pac-12 can only boast of four teams: Washington, Stanford, Oregon, and Colorado. None of the three seems to have playoff potential.
If the season ended today, these would be the best Pac-12 teams:
Currently, the Colorado Buffs are the only undefeated team in the Pac-12. Problem is, they’ve faced two group of five teams in Colorado State and New Hampshire. The two Power 5 teams they have defeated are Nebraska and UCLA, both programs that have been anemic since the onset of this season.
The Washington Huskies stand out from the one loss teams: a crowd including Stanford, Oregon, Washington State, and Cal. Of these teams, Washington lost to the toughest opponent, and lost in a tight, defensive battle. The Huskies forced a defensive battle against Auburn, who supposedly features bigger and stronger SEC athletes.
Washington is powered by the dynamic QB-RB duo of Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin. Just two years prior, Browning was a dark horse Heisman candidate. Myles Gaskin trails only Bryce Love as the second best runner in the conference.
Gaskin and Browning play behind a line with All-Pac-12 players along the front. With ample time to throw and great blockers in the run game, it’s no surprise that Washington has averaged just under 30 points per game.
The only unit capable of matching Washington’s offense in the Pac-12 is Washington’s defense. As great as it’s offense has been, the Husky defense has been suffocating. Washington is giving up fewer than 12 points per game, and held a BYU team that beat Wisconsin to just one score.
In a conference more favorable to offense, a great QB-RB duo can bring a team to great heights. In KJ Costello and Bryce Love, the Stanford Cardinal pair the best runner in the conference with an emerging thrower.
Everybody knows Love, last year’s Heisman runner up despite having a nagging ankle injury through the last third of the season. Since last season, however, Costello has stepped up and has allowed the Stanford offense to be less reliant on just the star power of Love. The Costello to JJ Arcega-Whiteside connection has been electric five games into the season, and Stanford has quality wins over USC and Oregon.
Costello’s one flaw is consistency. Against a quality Notre Dame defense, Costello’s completion percentage was just 55.6 percent, throwing for one TD and one interception. Against opponents like Notre Dame, these performances will not do.
Stanford’s offense is supported by a a veteran, bend don’t break defense. Other than Arcega-Whiteside and Love, nothing about Stanford is flashy or electric. The Cardinal just play with discipline and consistency on both sides of the ball. On a team laden with experienced upperclassmen such as Costello and Love, that’s pretty darn good.
Sometimes, a college player’s pro potential overshadows his own college dominance. This may be the case with Justin Herbert, the Oregon Ducks’ best player.
After the departure of now embattled Willie Taggart, Mario Cristobal was called upon to be the head coach of this high-scoring Oregon team. As the co-offensive coordinator and run-game coordinator under Taggart, Cristobal brings with him an understanding of the Oregon offense, and it shows.
Oregon has continued it’s brand of high pace, high scoring, air-it-out offense. They average over 40 points per game, which is crazy even factoring in their play against three group-of-five teams. Oregon’s Achilles heel has always been its defense, which gives up more points than comfortable, but never enough to cause panic. Oregon surrendered 24 and 22 points to Bowling Green and San Jose State respectively.
Those those scores may not seem to be cause for alarm, against greater competition, these habits manifest into giving up 38 points against Stanford.
4. Colorado Buffs
The only undefeated team in the Pac-12 is ranked fourth of Pac-12 teams in the AP Poll, and fourth in this ranking of Pac-12 teams. Colorado’s victories, however, have been against group-of-five teams and struggling UCLA and Nebraska. The trio of Steven Montez, Travon McMillan, and Laviska Shenault have the potential to be the best QB-RB-WR triumvirate in the Pac-12.
In fact, they may already be. Colorado has scored at least 30 in every game. In order for the trio to receive more national attention, and in order for Colorado to move up these rankings, they must show that they can still be dominant against higher profile opponents. Without a marquee win to the Colorado name, the Buffs lag behind at number four in the Pac-12.
5. USC Trojans
USC is the first two loss team ranked thus far. USC is the most talented team in the Pac-12, but is young at many key positions, especially QB. Coming into the bye week, USC’s resume is nothing to sneeze it: it boasts quality wins against UNLV, Washington State, and Arizona. In each of these three games, true-freshman QB JT Daniels played with poise and lead a potent USC offense.
Against Stanford and Texas, however, the wheels fell off the bus. Over the course of those two games, USC totaled just 17 points. JT’s poise and calm demeanor came off as Jay Cutler-esque and detached, and rumblings emerged about USC lacking a leader during practice. A simple two play sequence of a non-safety call and roughing the punter flipped the momentum during USC’s trip to Texas. Even though these plays had nothing to do with offense, Daniels failed to lead the offense to any score from that point. In order to compete for a conference championship, USC cannot allow momentum to shift on plays so dependent on random variation.
USC’s is stacked with talent at every position. The only glaring weakness in USC has been discipline and penalties.
6. Washington State
The Washington State Cougars were not supposed to be this good this fast. After Luke Falk left for the NFL, Washington State did not have high-scoring expectations. Gardner Minshew has changed that.
A transfer from East Carolina, Gardner Minshew has reignited Mike Leach’s prolific air-raid offense. Standing behind a good offensive line, Minshew has put up more than 28 points per contest in every game.
Washington State’s defense bends often and breaks occasionally. Even against a far more talented USC offense, Washington State’s defense allowed the Cougars to lead for more than half of the game.
7. Arizona State
Lead by dynamic receiver N’Keal Harry, who may be the best WR in college football, Arizona State has performed exceptionally against college football powerhouses Michigan State and Washington. Arizona State’s upset over Michigan State was the upset of the year before BYU defeated Wisconsin, and the Sun Devils pushed a dominant Husky team to a one possession game.
Consistency has been the problem for the Sun Devils. Teams should not upset Michigan State, push Washington, and then lose in a lopsided game to SDSU.
The problem with rankings in a young season is the evaluation of quality wins and losses. The California Golden Bears defeated UNC and BYU. These victories have different meanings now versus when they happened, and they will have different meanings by the end of the season.
With the beat-down BYU took from Washington, however, Cal’s victory over BYU is looking less and less impressive. BYU’s upset over Wisconsin may have just been a fluke, or maybe Wisconsin just isn’t that good. Either way, as the season develops, Cal’s victory over BYU and UNC will probably look less and less impressive.
Cal looks more like the team that lost 42-24 to Oregon than anyone else. Against an above-average defense, Brandon McIlWain lead the Golden Bears in both passing and rushing, for just 128 yards through the air and 123 on the ground.
To put it bluntly, even the most ardent college football fans don’t know who Brandon McIlwain is. For now, Cal’s rankings are buoyed by quality wins against UNC and BYU.
The Utah Utes play a similar brand of ball to Stanford. They pride themselves on the basics, and play good, smart, tough, fundamental football. Utah should feel no shame having lost to Washington State and Washington.
Utah isn’t higher on this list, however, due to a lack of quality wins. Utah did blow out Weber State to open the season, but winning an ugly 17-6 slog against Northern Illinois is no way to impress.
Utah is having a very stereotypical Utah season: they hum along playing as well as they can expect, but fail to be dynamic enough to garner national attention.
Arizona is the sleeping giant at the bottom of these rankings. The Khalil Tate, J.J. Taylor tandem could be the best in the Pac-12, but Tate has been hampered by an ankle injury and Kevin Sumlin’s scheme.
Arizona’s early losses to Houston and BYU look less disastrous in retrospect, but Arizona’s sole win over Oregon State means next to nothing.
UCLA football is trash. They’ve lost every game by multiple scores, including losses to Cincinnati and Fresno State. Chip Kelly’s system doesn’t mesh perfectly with the skill set of Dorian Thompson-Robinson, and Thompson-Robinson’s father has been outspoken in his criticism of Chip Kelly.
UCLA’s horrible record is not necessarily a product of horrible playing: UCLA starts more underclassmen than any other Pac-12 team, and Chip Kelly’s attempt at a culture change has pushed some of UCLA’s previous performers to the wayside.
Still, UCLA manages to escape the dubious distinction of being the worst team in the conference on player talent and faith in Chip Kelly alone.
12. Oregon State Football
The Oregon State Beavers are currently a group-of-five team masquerading as a Power Five team. Under Jonathan Smith, the Beavers are attempting to turn around a program that went 1-11 and 4-8 in 2017 and 2016, respectively.
Oregon State will inevitably bounce back, but they currently do not wield the talent or ability to field a team comparable to the rest of the Pac-12.