Every August, yours truly takes on the absurd task of trying to forecast every game in the upcoming Pac 12 season. Every year, sometime around Halloween, I take a look back at those predictions and try to keep from laughing at myself. Or from leaping off of a tall building.
This annual exercise in self-flagellation is not without its merits. Not only does it provide a reason for a few healthy chuckles, but it also serves as a reminder of how quickly the fortunes of any team in the Pac 12 can change for the better or the worse. In this season alone, we've seen some remarkable comebacks with both Utah and Cal greatly exceeding expectations. We've also seen some teams not meet standards and disappoint their fan bases greatly. You can count Stanford, OSU and Washington in that group.
Going back to August, here is what I had as a projected finish for each team in the Pac 12.
With this Gekko File update, we take a look at the whole picture in order to explain what has changed and to put an eye on what can be expected to come. Each team is rated below with a report card on the quality of Gekko's forecast (not on the team itself), a note on what the "surprise" of the year for that team is and a re-forecast for the team going forward. Let's start with the South.
Pac 12 South
Report Card: B-
I went into 2014 really liking the talent across the board at USC and not really all that concerned about the "Sark factor". For the most part, Sark's playbook has parlayed well into the USC talent base. The Trojan offense is well-balanced, explosive and efficient. However, we've also seen depth and discipline issues affect USC much more than I had projected to start the year.
Surprise of the Year: S Su'a Cravens (42 tckls, 12.5 TFLs, 4 sacks, 7 PBUs 2 INT, 1 TD)
I think most people expected Su'a Cravens to continue on his upward trajectory. However, I think even the most optimistic among us have to be impressed with his ascension into the upper stratosphere of football players - not just defensive players - in the conference. He's been terrific in both coverage and supporting the run. He's also logged a few sacks and become a weapon as a blitzer. He's the total package.
Updated Projection: pre-season 7-2 (1st in South); now: 6-3 (3rd in South)
With two to go in the South, I'm projecting a split for the Trojans. With them down to 50 scholarship players and missing key pieces like LT Chad Wheeler, I feel it is just too hard for them to close the gap with UCLA in this season. Nevertheless, finishing 6-3 is a pretty good campaign for Sark in Year 1.
Report Card: B+
UCLA is panning out pretty much exactly as we projected they would - a good team racking up some wins but also demonstrating some painful flaws. The only thing keeping me from getting a "solid A" in my forecast for them is that predicted Brett Hundley as an A-list player. While he has certainly been the "all-everything" guy for the Bruins this season - and, don't get me wrong, he is a stud - he's reverted to his 2012 form in that he has become much more dependent on the lateral passes and his wheels in order to generate his offense. He's still going to hit the big down-field pass on occasion, but I had expected him to really challenge Marcus Mariota as the top QB in the PAC by demonstrating a complete QB repertoire. That just hasn't happened.
Surprise of the Year: UCLA Defensive Line (13 sacks, 158 yds rush surrendered per game)
Most of the pundits had expected better play out of the UCLA Offensive Line than what has been seen, but that really isn't a surprise for those of us on this blog. On the flip side, I was expecting to see a rapid maturation and return to health of key pieces on that Bruin D-Line. 11th in sacks and 7th in total rush defense just are not where we expected the Bruins to be at this point in the conference. They've been a disappointment.
Updated Projection: pre-season: 6-3 (2nd in South); now: 5-4 (4th in South)
The Bruins have a tough road to hoe the rest of the way. I'm projecting 1-2 with losses to both Washington and Stanford and a win over USC. Given the concentration of Southern teams near the top of the standings, a 5-4 record will not look great in the overall pecking order as I expect it will end with them in 4th place.
Report Card: C-
ASU is stringing together wins by hook and by crook. Apparently, every negative break that they were going to suffer this season happened against UCLA. Every other turn of fortune that the Devils have seen since then has been in their favor and put them in a position to run away in the South over the next few weeks. Whether we are talking about badly covered hail marys, inclement weather or opponent health, ASU has been swimming with the current and has handily beaten my expectations for them, even if my eyeballs tell me that they are about where we expected them to be production-wise.
Surprise of the Year: RB DJ Foster (55 yards rushing per P12 game, 2 rushing P12 TDs)
Count this as a "disappointing" surprise. Foster was expected to step in for former RB Marion Grice and create a more explosive run game for ASU. Instead, he's averaged less than 3 YPC for ASU in P12 games and has watched his carries get taken by freshman Demario Richard. This isn't to say that he isn't still a weapon in the passing game - he clearly is - but this wasn't how it was supposed to turn out.
Updated Projection: pre-season: 5-4 (3rd in South); now: 8-1 (1st in South)
As flawed as I think ASU is, they are clearly through the difficult part of their P12 schedule. They get OSU and WSU before closing up with Arizona. By that point, I expect Taylor Kelly to be really humming and the breaking in of Richard to be a success. The Sun Devils should really be on a roll by the time they get to the Pac 12 Championship game. Their OOC matchup versus Notre Dame ought to be an interesting side note along the way.
Report Card: C
I liked Arizona coming into the season and wrote about how I expected that they'll beat a few big name teams along the way. What I failed to account for was just how excellent guys like Anu Solomon, Nick Wilson, Scooby Wright and Tremayne Boudrant would turn out to be. They've exceeded expectations up to this point.
Surprise of the Year: QB Anu Solomon (2605 yds, 60% comp pct, 21 TD, 5 INT)
While his YPA of just over 7 is "average", there can be no denying how impressive and surprising Solomon has been as a redshirt freshman. He had to beat out three serious challengers even to get to this point. What he has done in his short time as a starter is Willie Tuitama-like in Tuscon.
Updated Projection: pre-season: 4-5 (4th in South); new: 5-4 (5th in the South)
It is hard to understate how impressive Arizona has been to date. However, if you look closely, you see a lot of nagging little issues that are not surprising for a team that is both young and somewhat undermanned on one side of the ball. I do like Arizona to finish the season 5-4, ahead of the projection, with a win over UW likely. However, the way that the tiebreakers fall in my scenario leaves them as a disappointing 5th place finisher in the surprisingly competitive South.
Report Card: D+
Sometimes, I totally whiff. Utah is simply the latest example. They've been playing at a high level all season - powered by an aggressive defensive scheme and strength on both sides of the line of scrimmage. I'll give myself a "+" qualifier on my D grade because I at least had the foresight to call out the fact that Utah should have strengths on the D and O lines. However, I clearly failed to account for how robust those strengths would be.
Surprise of the Year: RB Devonte Booker (988 yds, 8 TDs, 5.4 YPC)
I almost went with "Special Teams" until that got blown up last weekend. RB Devonte Booker has stepped up and not only wrestled the job away from incumbent Bubba Poole, but has established himself as one of the top three backs in the Pac 12 right now.
Updated Projection: pre-season: 3-6 (5th in South); new: 6-3 (2nd in South)
Though their remaining schedule is difficult and they have their challenges on offense, I do like how things are shaping up for Utah. Call it "a feeling" if you will. Their strengths on defense and behind the running of Devonte Booker seem to bode well in the match-ups that are before them. The one prediction that I'm making that might be completely unjustified is an upset for Utah over Oregon next week. If that transpires, that could challenge Oregon's bid for a playoff nomination. Still, I have a feeling ... If Utah does go 3-1 the rest of the way, they'll have the tiebreaker over USC and finish in 2nd in the South.
Report Card: A-
We (meaning me and that Gekko fella) were pretty much spot on with our assessment of Colorado. We had noted that this was a team that was trending upwards, but doing so at a time when the rest of the PAC was also trending upwards. In the South, that conundrum is even more acute and has created a very tough slog for Mike MacIntyre's gritty Buffalo team. They've put scares into just about everybody that they've played, but have not yet been able to close the deal on a conference win. Missing WSU is turning out to be a real downer for Colorado this season.
Surprise of the Year: WR Nelson Spruce (90 recs, 1002 yds, 11 TDs)
Spruce has put up numbers worthy of not only conference but also national attention. He's been a reception machine, highlighted by a 19 catch day a few weeks back. Many wondered how Colorado would replace Paul Richardson's production. While Spruce isn't going to blow the top off a secondary, he's far and away the most productive player on that Buffalo offense.
Updated Projection: pre-season: 1-8 (6th in South); new: 0-9 (6th in South)
I tried hard, but I couldn't find another win for the Buffs among their final three games - all of which are coming against ranked Pac 12 teams. This looks like it is going to be another winless conference season for Colorado.
Pac 12 North
Report Card: B
Picking Oregon, in hindsight, looks like a no-brainer. However, there were many pundits who thought that Stanford had the edge in the P12 North coming into the season and that Oregon was never going to be able to figure the Cardinal out. With Oregon's blowout of the Cardinal last weekend, that notion has gone out the window as the Ducks are firmly in control of the Pac 12 North division and are looking like the class of the conference. As I called it in August, I'm giving myself an "A" for this projection.
Surprise of the Year: RB Royce Freeman (846 yds, 5.5 YPC, 13 TDs)
Everybody knew that Royce Freeman was going to be a man amongst boys as a true freshman. However, most also expected him to simply be part of a three-headed rushing rotation along with Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall. Instead, Freeman has become a feature back with double the number of carries of Tyner and has rescued Oregon's inside rushing attack. He looks like Jonathan Stewart out there, which is bad news for the rest of the PAC.
Updated Projection: pre-season: 7-2 (1st in North); now: 7-2 (1st in North)
While there really is no way to keep the Ducks from winning the North, I do see one more loss on their schedule and it may come as early as next week against Utah. The altitude may really sap the Ducks' energy level and give that tough Utah D just enough of an advantage to challenge the Ducks and their up-tempo attack. Otherwise, I like Oregon to run through the rest of their schedule, including the championship game, and - possibly - on to the College Football Playoffs.
Report Card: Incomplete
Technically, the Huskies are still in a position to deliver on the 6-3 record that I had forecasted in the pre-season. The problem is that I had predicted the Dawgs to handle both Oregon and Stanford with a team that I had expected to be more competent on offense than they have demonstrated. I think just about everybody has been surprised by the ineptness of this squad in Chris Petersen's first season. Still, the schedule ahead is manageable and, unlike last season, the Huskies have a way of hanging around in ball games. Second place is still firmly within their control. We shall see if the Gekko's predictions can be fulfilled.
Surprise of the Year: Quarterback Play (1651 yds, 63% comp pct, 6.7 YPA, 13 TDs, 3 INTs)
The Huskies have, hands down, the worst passing attack in the Pac 12. This is an obvious surprise to fans who expected that the athletic assets of Cyler Miles, Troy Williams and Jeff Lindquist coupled with the offensive ingenuity of Chris Petersen would certainly lead to an upgrade in the QB department. While this may still happen in time, it has been a surprising disappointment to date.
Updated Projection: pre-season: 6-3 (2nd in North); now: 5-4 (3rd in North)
This is a close one for me. UW could own second place if they win out given that another Stanford conference loss is still probable. However, I find the more likely scenario being that the Huskies and Cardinal both get one more loss each on the season leaving the Huskies in third place (again) in the North.
Report Card: A
They are what I said they would be. Well, what I said they would be two years ago. This is my victory dance. Kirk, Brad, Ryan ... you all can ... !
The big "right-on" prediction was the anticipated struggles of the offensive line. Four new starters is always a difficult thing to manage. And, no matter how high the star-ratings are, offensive linemen are notoriously hard to project. The bust rate can be very high on those kinds of kids. Not to say that Stanford's players are all busts, but the integration of the new players has not panned out either in the rushing attack or in pass protection so far.
Surprise of the Year: Stanford Offensive Line
While I noted in the preseason how difficult it would be to get a new OLine to gel, even I am surprised with how slowly their improvement has come. While their pass protection has been ok, their rushing attack has been flat out bad by Stanford standards. They are 10 in the conference in rush yards per game and are only opening up 4 yards per run for their backs.
Updated Projection: pre-season: 5-4 (3rd in North); now: 5-4 (2nd in North)
Look for Stanford's D to rebound after a BYE week and absolutely smother Utah. Also look out for UCLA to upset Stanford in their last game of the season which, if all goes to form, leaves Stanford in a distant second place in the North.
Report Card: D
I came into this season thinking that WSU was going to turn the corner. I thought that their passing attack would be lights out and that their front seven on defense would be good enough to keep most scores within striking distance for Connor Halliday and that Air Raid passing attack.
Those projections were challenged on the first Thursday of the season when a bad Rutgers team came out and spanked WSU right off the bat. It's gone from bad to worse for the Cougs since then. The greatest indignity came just last week with Halliday breaking his leg in a drubbing at the hands of USC. Now the Cougs face the prospect of a reload season with Halliday and a bunch of key senior contributors on both sides of the ball moving on.
Surprise of the Year: QB Connor Halliday
Halliday throwing like crazy is not a surprise. Halliday setting a NCAA record for yardage with 734 in a single game ... and then losing that game ... has to register as the single most surprising moment in the entire Pac 12 season.
Updated Projection: pre-season: 5-4 (4th in North); now: 1-8 (6th in North)
With backup QB Luke Falk stepping in for Halliday and the prospect of the Cougs rotating in a lot of young players in order to build up their foundation of reps, I'm having a hard time finding another win on the schedule. The best chance may be the Apple Cup, which is the only home game remaining on WSU's schedule. Even that, I find, is very unlikely under the circumstances.
Report Card: B+
In the offseason, we talked a lot about how good Sean Mannion was and how well the D projected, even with JC transfers scattered in key positions. The big question centered around where the playmaking would come from. Unfortunately, none of the "known names" like Caleb Smith or Richard Mullaney has really worked out. To make things worse, the high-upside guys like Victor Bolden and Jordan Villamin have not broken out quickly enough to impact the season's trajectory.
Surprise of the Year: OSU Receivers (2105 yds, 11.2 YPR, 9 TDs, 263 yds/game)
With a precision-oriented QB like Sean Mannion, it is hard to fathom that nobody in that receiving corps has really broken out. Yet, here we are looking at a unit that, before Jordan Villamin grabbed 3 TDs vs Cal, had just six TD receptions on the season. It is surprising that we haven't seen more of a breakout given the man at the controls.
Updated Projection: pre-season: 4-5 (5th in North); now: 2-7 (5th in North)
I like OSU to win their upcoming game against a depleted WSU squad. After that, it is hard to see where the Beavers will get a win with ASU, Washington and Oregon left on the schedule.
Report Card: C-
On one hand, the Gekko did project Cal to have a much-improved offense but a porous defense. Where I failed in the forecast was projecting how much better the offense would be and how that aspect of the team would compensate for said porous defense. QB Jared Goff has had a breakout campaign and the rushing attack has been introduced into Sonny Dykes' Bear Raid with success.
Surprise of the Year: Cal Rushing Attack (1331 yds, 19 TDs, 4.1 YPA, 148 YPG)
Sonny Dykes wasn't kidding when he said that his offense is designed to be balanced between pass and run. While he hasn't been able to get it 50/50, the fact that he's emphasized it so greatly has been a great surprise for Cal fans and has made Jared Goff even better as a passer.
Updated Projection: pre-season 1-8 (6th in the North); now: 3-6 (4th in the North)
The Bears only have two P12 games left before their season finale against BYU. It is hard to project a Cal team that is starting to really struggle with injuries as winners against either USC or Stanford. However, the upcoming BYE week may give Cal an advantage that could make the USC road trip interesting.
As noted, I expect that the Pac 12 championship will come down Oregon and Arizona State based on how things are projecting right now. I really don't think ASU is really in the same stratosphere as Oregon and that it will be a rather anti-climatic outcome to that game. What will be more interesting is to see if a two-loss Pac 12 champion makes the cut for the college football playoffs.
I'm guessing not, but I'm not strong in that position based on how things are shaping up around the rest of college football.
As for the rest of the conference, I think the jockeying for bowl positioning will be interesting, as will be the conclusion to the recruiting season. Everybody will go into the offseason chasing Oregon with a few coaches like Mike Riley and Jim Mora starting to feel a burning sensation under their seat.
We'll be back in another week or two with the first Gekko File forecast for bowl season. Until then, WOOF!