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Pac-12 Power Rankings: Upsets, Comebacks, & Rivalry Mayhem

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And in the end, Washington left no doubt about the new Pac-12 power structure.

NCAA Football: Washington at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

That’s a wrap, folks.

Rivalry games always provide fans with the climatic finale to an emotional season. This year’s crop was no disappointment. We had a few comebacks, a few blowouts, a few upsets, and a pair of first-time divisional winners emerge from the rest of the PAC.

As the dust settles, we now know this much:

  • There is still a strong hope for a Pac-12 team to reach the college playoffs (Washington) and a darkhorse hope (Colorado).
  • Only one team (Cal) finished in the exact same spot in the standings as a year ago, while no team finished with the same record.
  • 2016 will become the first year since 1998 (UCLA) where Oregon, Stanford, or USC didn’t outright own or share in the title of Pac-12 champion.
  • Oregon’s four wins is their worst showing since 1991.
  • UW’s 11 wins is their best showing since 2000.
  • Colorado’s journey from “worst to first” has never been done since the conference separated into divisions. I tried to find a time when it actually happened in the Pac-10, but I couldn’t after a quick perusal.
  • UW’s 205 (389 points for, 184 points against) point spread differential is the most in the conference since Oregon in 2012. UW came within five points allowed (USC had 180 PA) of joining the rarefied air of teams that led the league both in points scored and fewest points allowed.

The Cool Chart

The Power Rankings

12. Arizona State 5-7 / 2-6

Last Result: ASU 35, Arizona 56

Usually when a coach calls out his team as putting up the “worst performance ever seen,” you can count on a certain amount of hyperbolic creativity being present. Not in this case.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

I would agree with Todd Graham in that I’m not sure that I’ve seen a worse performance by any Pac-12 team in any game against any opponent this season. In fact, I’m not exactly sure that the roster from NAU couldn’t have made the two-hour trek down the mountains, put on ASU uniforms, and put up more of a fight than Graham’s team.

Consider the evidence. Arizona passed the ball eight times...EIGHT TIMES!...for the entire game and won. Handily. Arizona had three players run for over 100 yards each in the game, two of whom are not even running backs. Arizona tallied a grand total of 511 yards rushing against an ASU defense that wouldn’t or couldn’t deal with the Wildcat rushing attack.

This loss was particularly bitter in that it eliminated ASU from bowl eligibility and put into question the future of the Sun Devils under the Todd Graham regime.

11. Arizona 3-9 / 1-8

Last Result: ASU 35, Arizona 56

I’m happy for the Wildcats. While it is true that they will go down as the worst team in the PAC for this season, I never really saw this team quit or check out on head coach Rich Rodriguez. ‘Zona survived injury disasters all across their roster and yet continued to show up every weekend with their ragtag roster ready to put up a fight.

In their last opportunity to do something special, they delivered a performance for the ages. QB Brandon Dawkins and WR Samajie Grant (the latter playing exclusively at RB) delivered huge performances in helping Arizona tally over 500 yards in rushing offense and putting up eight offensive TDs.

It’s a shame that Trey Griffey’s last game will have come and gone without him catching one last pass—Dawkins was a paltry 3 of 8 passing for the entire game—but I think Arizona players and fans can feel good about how their team comported themselves and the bragging rights that they’ve claimed in the state.

10. UCLA 4-8 / 2-7

Last Result: UCLA 10, Cal 36

There is no defending the Bruins. Their season got way off the rails pretty early on and never got back on course. Sure, the injury to Josh Rosen was a blow, but this thing was sidetracked before he went down. That Jim Mora couldn’t do anything to right the ship (or even beat Cal) given all the talent that he has on the roster has to raise an eyebrow or two.

The comedy of the situation in Westwood is compounded by the fact that reports are now circulating that Mora is shopping for a new offensive coordinator. I wonder if anybody is shopping for a new Mora.

9. Oregon 4-7 / 2-7

Last Result: Oregon 24, Oregon State 34

There are not too many ways to sugarcoat the situation for the Ducks. They will finish 2016 in the cellar of the Pac-12 North division. They are facing an onslaught of questions regarding the job security of their beleaguered head coach (a well-connected guy I know swears to me that the Les Miles rumors have merit, though my BS meter has kicked into high gear). They also face the prospect of losing key contributors such as junior RB Royce Freeman, junior WR Darren Carrington, and/or junior DB Arrion Springs to the NFL Draft. Dark times seem to be descending on Eugene.

NCAA Football: Oregon at Oregon State Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Mark Helfrich can point to some bright spots. Freshman Justin Herbert, despite a poor game against the Beavs, goes into the offseason in clear control of the QB position. His young offensive line will return every starter and can point to some talent. Finally, Duck fans can take pride in knowing that Freeman was able to knock UW great Napoleon Kaufman out of the #9 spot on the Pac-12’s all-time rushing leader list.

8. Cal 5-7 / 4-5

Last Result: UCLA 10, Cal 36

What was more surprising: Cal finishing their last game of the season with a win, or holding their opponent to just 10 points?

I’m going for the latter.

Regardless, the Bears will have some soul-searching to do as they go into the offseason. Many questions remain unanswered, chief among them who will play QB and how the defense will get rebuilt. I don’t expect the coaching situation to be one of those questions, but you never know.

7. Oregon State 4-8/ 3-6

Last Result: Oregon 24, Oregon State 34

Christian McCaffrey aside, is there a more valuable player to his own team than Oregon State’s Ryan Nall? The OSU junior was the difference in OSU’s upset win over Oregon in the 115th Civil War game. His 155 yards and 4 TDs paced the Beavs and put an exclamation point on Gary Andersen’s rebuilding job in Corvallis.

Give the Beavs credit. They had to mount a comeback in this one. They scored the final 20 points of the game on their way to their third conference win of the season.

With their season officially over, the Beavs go into the offseason feeling pretty good about themselves. They won their final game in front of the first sellout crowd in two seasons. They beat their rival and ended an eight-year losing streak. They also happen to return almost all of their key players in what is sure to be one of the more interesting “teams on the rise” in 2017.

6. Utah 8-4 / 5-4

Last Result: Utah 22, Colorado 27

The Utes’ continued November struggles continue to confound just about anybody that analyzes this league. Against Colorado, the Utes basically cratered and gave the game away. What makes it hard to digest is the number of unforced errors. I counted at least ten drops from receivers, perhaps more, on pretty well-thrown balls from Utes QB Troy Williams.

NCAA Football: Utah at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Utes will go to a bowl game, but do so knowing that they let a golden opportunity slip away this season. What they will return on defense doesn’t look as strong top to bottom as what they have this year (goodbye to Hunter Dimick, Kylie Fitts, and Lowell Lotuleilei). They also do not appear to have any new up-and-comers ready to raise that offense.

5. Stanford 9-3 / 6-3

Last Result: Rice 17, Stanford 40

Don’t look now, but the Stanford Cardinal just concluded their regular season with a 9-win campaign. Under normal circumstances, most teams in the PAC would call that a very successful season. For Stanford, it seems like a letdown that was rooted in their mini losing streak against UW, WSU, and Colorado (really, it was three losses in four games, but who is counting?) early in the season.

Nevertheless, Stanford seemed to rediscover its mojo as the season wore on. It is not surprising that this seemed to coincide with the return of star RB Christian McCaffrey, who missed a few games due to injury.

McCaffrey had another stellar performance in Stanford’s romp over Rice. Thirty carries and 204 yards in what may have been his last performance in front of a very sparse home crowd certainly seals his claim to the title of best back in program history.

4. WSU 8-4 / 7-2

Last Result: Washington 45, WSU 17

The Cougs have had a tough go of it the past few weeks as they’ve fallen to both of the PAC’s highest ranked teams. In the process, WSU’s pass rushing and run defense shortcomings have been sorely exposed. The inability to generate big plays in the passing game has also shown up as a difficulty for Mike Leach’s squad.

Nonetheless, the Cougs still rate #4 in this week’s power poll. They are well positioned for the Holiday Bowl and are exiting the season with most of their key players healthy and/or reinstated. The only drama facing this team is whether or not Mike Leach becomes a target for a team in another conference.

3. USC 9-3 / 7-2

Last Result: Notre Dame 27, USC 45

It was the Adoree’ Jackson show in what was probably the star defensive back’s last home game as a Trojan. He caught a TD pass, returned a punt for a TD, and returned a kickoff for a TD in a performance that reminded a lot of Heisman voters that Jackson, not Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, is truly the most versatile player in all of college football.

The Trojans now look ahead to a postseason that will not include them in a New Year’s Six game. Though they finished as perhaps the hottest team in the nation, the experiment with Max Browne at QB to start the season just created too big a mountain for Clay Helton’s team to climb.

2. Colorado 10-2 / 8-1

Last Result: Utah 22, Colorado 27

A vintage performance for senior QB Sefo Liufau put a capper on what I would consider to be the finest “out of nowhere” story that we’ve ever seen out of the newly constituted Pac-12 conference. Sefo captained another gutsy performance with his arm and legs in leading his team to their first divisional championship ever.

NCAA Football: Utah at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo defense, anchored by their exceptional secondary, has been the real story for Colorado all season. It was again the case against Utah. Senior safety Tedric Thompson, who himself is a great comeback story, was the star of the show with two INTs, four PBUs and four tackles. The Buffs held Utah QB Troy Williams to just 13 completions on 40 attempts (!).

Colorado now gets to contend with Washington in the Pac-12 title game and, with a little luck, a darkhorse run at a college football playoff spot.

1. Washington (#4) 11-1 / 8-1

The last game of the season looked a lot like the first game of the season. Although nobody would confuse a quality WSU team with Rutgers (though the uniforms bear a striking resemblance), the formula was the same for the Huskies. Offensively, it was all about multiple sets, sudden chunk plays, and efficiency. Defensively, it was strong interior play and a smothering secondary. The results looked very familiar: an easy victory in a game that was more or less decided before the first quarter even concluded.

Husky fans have to be heartened by both the overall play of a defense that was missing two key contributors in Azeem Victor and Joe Mathis as well as the resuscitated play of QB Jake Browning. Per Softy Mahler, the defense made UW the only team in the Pac-12 not to surrender a 30-point game this season. They join Ohio State as one of only two teams in the nation who can make that claim.

Browning also picked a great time to get back on track. The UW sophomore was masterful, throwing for 72% accuracy, over 10 yards per attempt, and three TDs. Jonathan Smith called a heavy dose of screens early in the game to get his QB rolling and it seemed to have worked nicely. The end result was a reappearance of the Jake Browning who set the NCAA record on TDs per pass attempt at 12.2.

The next step for UW is the conference championship game, which they will enter with a clear line of sight to the college football playoffs.