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PAC 12 Power Rankings: an old pecking order re-emerges

Washington and USC reprise their legacy roles as standard-bearers for the conference.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

2016 is in the books. As we take stock of the status of each PAC 12 team, we consider both how they closed the season and what their momentum going into the off season feels like.

The top end of the rankings will be no surprise to anybody. When you look at the top two spots, it is hard to not harken back to a different era. Between 1976 and 1995, either Washington or USC won the old PAC 10 conference 15 times (counting the tie in 1995 as one). Both seemed poised to embark on a new era of competitiveness that will only be amplified by the fact that they reside in different divisions of the new PAC 12.

Here are my final power rankings for the 2016 season.

The Cool Chart

Final PAC 12 2016 Power Rankings
USC ends the 2016 team at the top of the UWDP Power Rankings.
Chris Landon

The Power Rankings

12. Arizona 3-9 / 1-8

Last Result: IDLE

It’s going to be a rough off season for Rich Rod and his Arizona Wildcats. Not only did they finish the season with just one conference win, but they now face the prospect of seeing some of their key performers graduate. Players such as WR Trey Griffey, WR Samaje Grant, LB Michael Barton and LB Jake Matthews are all moving on. To complicate things, former star QB Anu Solomon has already announced his transfer to Baylor while starting LB Cody Ippolito is taking his talents to Utah.

The good news for the Wildcats is that Rich Rod does seem to have the depth of talent - particularly at RB and QB - to establish his preferred rush-first style of spread offense. What he can manage to do with his defense remains a big question.

11. Cal 5-7 / 3-6

Last Result: IDLE

The Cal Bears are a giant mess and may, in fact, be ranked too high here.

In typical Cal fashion, they botched the firing of Cal head coach Sonny Dykes by waiting so deep into the off season that most of the high profile candidates were already committed elsewhere (I’m sure you can thank the UC Board of Regents for that mess). They might still be able to score if, by chance, a guy like Chip Kelly falls into their lap. More likely is that they will be forced to go with an up-and-coming coordinator. Justin Wilcox, Jimmy Lake and Jonathan Smith are all coaches with UW connections that have been rumored.

No matter who gets the job, they will have the challenge of molding some pretty decent offensive skill talent bred for an air raid style attack into something new. They will also have the challenge of resurrecting what looks like a historically awful defense in a North division characterized by some strong and diverse offenses.

10. Arizona State 5-7 / 2-7

Last Result: IDLE

Todd Graham had a year to forget in 2016. Injuries, a bad offensive line and a defense that simply didn’t have the horses to execute a high-risk blitz-first strategy conspired to deliver Graham’s worst performance as a PAC 12 head coach. Whether or not he can reverse his fortunes over this off season remains to be seen.

There are some talented pieces to build off of. WR N’Keal Harry comes back as one of the most exciting receiver prospects in the conference. The addition of former Alabama QB Blake Bortles creates some intrigue at the quarterback position.

But uncertainties remain along both sides of the line of scrimmage and, until those are resolved, its hard to be optimistic about the Sun Devils.

9. Oregon State 4-8 / 3-6

Last Result: IDLE

The Beavers closed 2016 on a high note with their big win over the Oregon Ducks and some positive all-around momentum. The general feeling among fans and analysts alike is that head coach Gary Andersen has the team on an upward trajectory and that 2017 will be a year of improvement.

That the Beavs return star RB Ryan Nall is a good starting point. However, this is still a team with no established quarterback and one that will struggle to score points. However, their young defense returns just about everybody outside of LB Caleb Saulo and S Treston Decoud. There is reason for hope.

8. Oregon 4-8 / 2-7

Last Result: IDLE

NCAA Football: Central Florida at South Florida
Willie Taggart is bringing his own culture and a new staff to Oregon.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Taking Husky fan emotions about Oregon out of the equation, you have to admit that the Ducks are establishing some good momentum in the offseason. Not only were they able to score some recruiting coups by persuading stars Royce Freeman and Darren Carrington to forego the NFL Draft, but they’ve done a nice job stocking up on assistant coaches. New head coach Willie Taggart has nabbed Colorado DC Jim Leavitt, WSU DL coach Joseph Salavae’a, former UW WR coach Jimmie Doughtery and former UW defensive backs coach Keith Heyward in what is shaping up to be a pretty good-looking staff.

What they do about locking down their recruiting class and installing new schemes remains to be seen. My sense is that Oregon is going to bounce back fairly quickly given the pieces that are in place.

7. UCLA 4-8 / 2-7

Last Result: IDLE

I only rank UCLA ahead of Oregon because of the Josh Rosen situation. There is definitely an asterisk next to the UCLA 2016 record given the unavailability of Rosen for parts of the season. When healthy, a quarterback of his stature can have a dramatic impact on the fortunes of a program.

That said, UCLA was lethargic on offense even with Rosen. They were historically bad in establishing a rushing offense despite the presence of some talented players in Sosa Jamabo and Nate Starks. Whether or not UCLA can tap into their rushing talents in 2017 is a major question mark.

There are also questions on the defensive side given the graduations in the defensive secondary and the losses of stars Jayon Brown and Eddie Vanderdoes among the front seven. These uncertainties paired with the emergence of USC all but ensures that head coach Jim Mora opens 2017 on the hot seat.

6. Washington State 8-5 / 7-2

Holiday Bowl - WSU 12, Minnesota 17

The Cougs certainly didn’t wrap up the season giving fans reason for hope. After mounting a dark horse campaign for the PAC 12 title, they dropped their last two conference games before failing to score a TD in their bowl game against a Minnesota team that would go on to fire their head coach a few weeks later.

But things are not so bleak at WSU. The return of QB Luke Falk stabilizes an offense that will be looking for new receivers to step up. The prospect of a more balanced offense thanks to better running backs and line play has never been more tangible. There are questions, but plenty of reasons to believe WSU will be a factor in 2017.

5. (17) Colorado 10-4 / 8-1

Alamo Bowl: Colorado 8, Oklahoma St 38

Colorado gets a lot of credit for putting up a great season. Head coach Mike MacIntyre also earned his stripes for enduring a long term plan that would have done in most mortal coaches.

Nevertheless, there are concerns about Colorado going into the off season. Chief among them is answering the question as to why their DC would bail on them to take over a far worse defense in Eugene. Money is a factor, to be sure. But could it also be an indication that Colorado’s D simply loses too much to compensate for next year?

I like young QB Steven Montez and I think he’ll have a nice group of receivers to throw to next season. But we cannot ignore all of the departing seniors nor the blowouts suffered in their final two games. What Colorado does to keep the train heading in the right direction is one of the more intriguing situations in the PAC.

4. (22) Utah 9-4 / 5-4

Foster Farms Bowl: Utah 26, Indiana 24

Utah made official last week the hiring of Troy Taylor to replace the retiring Dennis Erickson as the new Utes OC. Taylor held the same position for one season at Eastern Washington after having previously coached Jake Browning at Folsom High School. It will be interesting to see what kind of upgrade he brings to the Troy Williams led passing attack.

Otherwise, Utah gets to bask in the glow of a bowl victory over a decent Indiana team. They know they that have some studs to replace - hello Joe Williams and Hunter Dimick - but this par for the course for a Utah team that looks poised to challenge USC in the South.

3. (12) Stanford 10-3 / 6-3

Sun Bowl: Stanford 25, North Carolina 23

The Cardinal have to be feeling pretty good about themselves going into the off season. They proved that they can beat a good ACC team even having replaced Christian McCaffrey with Bryce Love, they survived a year when their offensive and defensive line depth was unusually low, and managed to pull off a coup by yet again recruiting the top offensive line prospect out of the state of Washington.

There are questions. Chief among them are how they intend to accelerate the development of their QB position. But the fruits of their great recruiting should really start to bear out as they challenge Washington in the North in 2017.

2. (4) Washington 12-2 / 8-1

Peach Bowl: Washington 7, Alabama 24

NCAA Football: Stanford at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

While it was UW who represented the PAC in the college football playoffs, it is hard to argue that they belong atop the final power poll. Their end-of-season loss to USC was a precursor to the throttling that they suffered at the hands of Alabama in the Peach Bowl. That game and ‘Bama’s subsequent loss to Clemson in the national championship really exposed the remaining deficiencies that this surging program still must address including among receivers, tight ends and offensive line units.

Still, UW enters the off season knowing that a ton of talent is coming back, including on the defensive side of the ball, and that young players are waiting in the wings to close gaps in those areas that under-performed in 2016. There isn’t much to not like about the prospects for UW going forward.

1. (3) USC 10-3 / 7-2

Rose Bowl: USC 52, Penn State 49

USC enters the off season riding a wave of confidence both in head coach Clay Helton and the talent he has available to him. The exciting Rose Bowl win over Penn State cemented Sam Darnold’s status as one of the best QBs in the nation - think Johnny Manziel with a better arm.

It will be interesting to see how USC compensates for a slew of graduations and early NFL departures. Their offensive line, which was easily the best in the PAC in 2016, has to replace almost everybody. Their defense, which was really anchored by the backside more than the defensive front, also appears to have a shortage of experienced big men available.

Nevertheless, USC looks to be the favorite in the PAC in 2017.