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PAC 12 Round up and Power Rankings: 2018 Final

Washington comes up just short for a conference that has a long way to go.

Oregon State v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Washington’s loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl capped another difficult and disappointing postseason for the Conference of ex-Champions. The PAC 12 finished with a bowl record of 3-4, finishing ahead of only the AAC (2-5) and the MAC (1-5) in terms of overall win percentage among FBS conferences.

The state of the PAC 12 is certainly a topic worthy of its own deep dive. Suffice it to note, for now, that the Power 5 is pretty much the Power 4 with the PAC 12 on the verge of slipping down a notch and joining the Group of Five in the minds of the viewing public. In fact, the damage that the PAC has absorbed to its reputation based on the everything that has happened over the last three years—Washington’s “cupcake season” playoff appearance, the demise of USC, the 2017 bowl season massacre, and evaporation of offensive football in 2018 (and I haven’t even gotten to the conference governance clown show)—will essentially make the PAC an underdog to even whiff another playoff selection opportunity for the foreseeable future.

Don’t believe me? Consider the fact that the only two ranked PAC 12 teams to show up on the AP’s final top 25 list reside in the state of Washington. What’s worse is that the next highest ranked team in the “others receiving votes” group (Stanford effectively ranked #27) finished behind stalwarts like Cincinnati, Fresno State, Utah State, Army (?!?), and Appalachian State (?!?!?).

Washington was the conference’s last/best hope to cap that decline and put a stopper in the bursting dam that is the conference’s bona fides. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the national viewing audience witnessed only the dull-knife disembowelment that UW suffered at the hands of the Buckeyes over the course of the first three quarters of the Rose Bowl before they turned the game off altogether. The fervent comeback by UW was seen only by the small handful of regional fans who were committed to the entire broadcast and who were fortified with sufficient doses of alcohol to numb the horror.

Thus, our final power poll of 2018 will be akin to crowning some lucky team the Kings of Shit Mountain. The PAC 12 isn’t very good, so being the most powerful team in the conference doesn’t amount to much in terms of added credibility or reputation. Still, the conference won’t always wallow in this manner. The PAC 12 rebuild will have to begin at some point. It might even be right now.

The end-of-season Power Rankings, keep in mind, are not a regurgitation of final records. I try to take into account a variety of factors including how they finished, what their offseason prospects look like, and how difficult their open issues will be to overcome as we look ahead to 2019. I’m sure I’ll have to repeat these points later, but at least the most dutiful of our readers have that context now established.

Let’s dive in.

The Cool Chart

2018 Final PAC 12 Power Rankings
2018 Final PAC 12 Power Rankings

Power Rankings - 2018 FINAL

12. Colorado (2-7 / 5-7)

The Buffs are in rebuild mode having been the only conference team to turn over a head coach in this cycle. New coach Mel Tucker (which is way easier to type than ‘Mike MacIntyre’; yay!) is going to overhaul the Buffalo style of play. Coming out of the SEC, he is expected to emphasize player size and a physical brand. His first recruiting class certainly looks the part.

Tucker is almost certainly going to have to rip apart his current roster as there are likely very few pieces that fit his mold. Combine that with the terrible taste left in the mouths of players and fans following a season that saw a red-hot start get nullified with seven straight losses and you can see why Colorado is an easy pick for the bottom of the Power Rankings.

11. Oregon State (1-8 / 2-10)

Jonathan Smith had a mixed result to his first year on the job at Oregon State. On one hand, the two total wins (with the one PAC 12 win coming over the Buffs) has to be viewed as a disappointment. On the other hand, there were very few people who expected Oregon State to take such big steps forward with their offensive game. Big plays on the backs of young players like Jermar Jefferson and Isaiah Hodgins helped Oregon State generate 32 plays of +30 yards from scrimmage on the year, second only to Arizona among PAC 12 teams.

That’s good.

But the truth remains that Smith still has a long way to go. OSU is at the bottom of the resource pool when it comes to recruiting, it still has a mile to go in terms of establishing a halfway competitive defense, and it now faces the prospect of having to replace its quarterback going into next season. There is much work left to do here.

10. Arizona (4-5 / 5-7)

Khalil Tate is not a happy camper in Tucson. Reportedly dissatisfied with Noel Mazzone and the manner in which he is being utilized, Tate nevertheless made the decision to return to the Wildcats for his senior year. That is certainly good news.

Arizona v USC
Khalil Tate may get all the headlines, but the real question is what will Colin Schooler and his defensive teammates do in the offseason to take the proverbial next step?
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

But one can’t overlook just how disappointing a bowl-less debut season is for Kevin Sumlin. Ironically, the issue wasn’t offense or defense. Arizona managed to lead the league in total offense with 457.7 yards per game for a second straight season. And they managed to finish 10th in total defense, just like the year before.

The real issue for Arizona and Kevin Sumlin is that it doesn’t feel like the team has a direction that is consistent with the talent on hand. The fall from grace for Khalil Tate is as rooted in how Mazzone wanted to use him as in whatever myriad of injuries Tate suffered through. Fortunately, there is a baseline of talent remaining with players like Tate, RB J.J. Taylor, LB Colin Schooler, and LB Tony Fields. That’s a lot to work with and it brings hope that the future might be brighter.

9. USC (4-5 / 5-7)

A bowl-ineligible team. A coach receiving one of the more bizarre “endorsement” tweets that we’ve ever seen. A QB controversy following a QB controversy. A recruiting class 5-star studs. A near-complete overhaul of the assistant pool. The arrival of a new offensive coordinator who went 5-7 as the head coach of Texas Tech and somehow finds himself not only coveted by NFL teams but also a natural successor to the embattled incumbent. And then the loss of said offensive coordinator just days later.

Drama is high in La-La Land.

The Trojans are a team in tumult, no doubt. They also remain a team stocked full of NFL talent and one that could conceivably put the pieces back together again really quickly. But until I see it, I won’t believe it.

8. Arizona State (5-4 / 7-6)

Las Vegas Bowl: #21 Fresno State 31, Arizona State 20

Herm Edwards proved in his first full season that the game hasn’t passed him by. Pundits expected a collapse of epic proportions in Tempe upon his arrival. What they got was a team that was remodeled into something that looks more like an NFL squad. A focus on running the ball and preventing opponents’ big plays became a new identity for a team that from a personnel perspective looked much like the team from the year prior.

Still, the Sun Devils have what I consider the most difficult job of any PAC 12 team ahead of them in replacing their departing stars. QB Manny Wilkins, WR N’Keal Harry, LT Quinn Bailey, and DT Renell Wren were all critical contributors helping to lead the Edwards transition. The good news is that the total number of graduating players is relatively low and maybe the brightest new star of them all, RB Eno Benjamin, is just getting started.

I’ll be interested to see how Herm’s squad responds to their disappointing bowl loss to Fresno State. It could either serve as a signal to the players that the Edwards plan is not destined for success or it could incite the team to come together and focus on the next step in their evolution. I’m 50/50 on it as I think that the “rah-rah” stuff only goes so far.

7. UCLA (3-6 / 3-9)

I don’t think any team in the PAC comes out of 2018 with a greater sense of optimism about the future than Chip Kelly’s Bruins. Though his team struggled to put up wins, everyone can take solace in the fact that Kelly’s young team—one that saw 21 true freshman get playing time over the course of the season—was able to hold its own and even pull off a few impressive wins, including a 34-27 victory over USC to close the year.

There are questions. Chief among them is whether or not Chip Kelly’s move from his “blur” offense roots to a much more Chris Petersen-esque “multiple” strategy can really take hold. There is also concern that the Bruins defense, in particular its defensive front seven, is still a long way away from competence. Nevertheless, the presence of a multi-tool QB in Dorian Thompson-Robinson, the talent available, and the steady stable of coaches has fans believing that the best is ahead.

6. California (4-5 / 7-6)

Cheez-It Bowl: Cal 7, TCU 10

Whether you approve of it or not, Justin Wilcox over two years has established an unmistakable identity for his program. The Bears are a drag-’em-into-the-mud, punch-them-in-the-mouth, control-the-ball-and-the-clock kind of team now. Even in defeat, a 10-7 loss to TCU in the Cheez-It Bowl, that identity was apparent.

Identities of this nature are imperative in program building. They allow coaches to credibly sell the vision for their program to recruits and provides them a blunt instrument to wield in driving buy-in among current players. Each of the teams on the Power Rankings below Cal is still struggling to get to an identity as crystallized as the one that Cal has now established.

The problem that Cal now grapples with is getting the talent to match the identity. In their bowl game, their QB struggles continued. Chase Garbers was once again benched. But instead of going with backup Brandon McIlwain, Wilcox surprised us all by tapping seldom-used backup Chase Forrest. Perhaps Wilcox was treating that as a preview of the future. Or, perhaps, it was simply a sign of his exasperation as he waits for former UCLA QB Devon Modster to complete his transfer and arrive on campus.

Beyond QB, Wilcox does have some rebuilding to do. The big losses from this team include LB Jordan Kunaszyk, RB Patrick Laird, and WR Vic Wharton. But those are manageable losses, especially once you consider that guys like LB Evan Weaver, WR Jordan Duncan, DL Tevin Paul, and DB Elijah Hicks are all coming back. Cal is clearly in a position to compete in an already crowded PAC 12 North as we head into 2019.

5. Utah (6-3 / 9-5)

Holiday Bowl: #17 Utah 20, #21 Northwestern 31

I might be overreacting a tad bit to what was a stunning example of snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory in the Holiday Bowl, but it is hard to overlook Utah’s epic loss in their last game as I assemble this final Power Ranking. It should be the case that a few weeks out the shock of blowing a 17-point halftime lead thanks to four third-quarter turnovers would have passed. But it hasn’t.

Utah v Arizona State
A healthy return by Tyler Huntley is critical to Utah’s hopes of repeating as South champs.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

That said, Utah still looks to be in solid shape going into the offseason. Just like any other team, they have their key losses to replace including LB Chase Hansen (yes, he’s finally out of eligibility), LT Jackson Barton, K Matt Gay, P Mitch Wishnowsky, and LB Cody Barton. There are also questions about the long-term prospects for star WR Britain Covey following the ugly leg injury he suffered in the PAC 12 championship. All that being said, Utah was a young team in 2018.

Most encouraging is that the Utes return just about everyone of import along both sides of the line in 2019. RB Zack Moss and QB Tyler Huntley should be back to help anchor an offense that some new offensive coordinator will have the chance to improve. There are questions to be sure, but Utah looks to be in good shape going forward.

4. Stanford (6-3 / 9-4)

Sun Bowl: Stanford 14, Pitt 13

The Cardinal won the Sun Bowl against a resilient Pitt team in a very Stanford-y way. And by that, I mean the “old Stanford,” not the air-it-out, pray-on-D “new Stanford.” You won’t find too many rank-and-file college football fans who will look at the results from El Paso and think that it was entertaining football. But I know that coach David Shaw was on the sideline trying to hide his smile.

Stanford’s 2018 was an aberration that I don’t believe we will see again. The perfect storm of a constantly injured Bryce Love, turnover on the offensive line, a young defensive line, and a tall/strong receiving corps conspired to force Shaw to make his team a chuck-it-down-the-field affair in 2018. But the game tape from the Sun Bowl shows that Stanford might still have it in them to win games with their defense when the need arises.

The Cardinal in 2019 return not just their entire starting defensive line, but their entire starting two-deep on that defensive line. And while they do turn over all four of their starting linebackers including star LB Bobby Okereke, the next wave of defensive back seven starters are all seniors and juniors. Stanford clearly looks like a team ready to take a defensive step forward.

That is good news because the offense is sure to turn over despite the return of QB K.J. Costello. Receivers J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (draft declaree) and Trenton Irwin are moving on as is RB Bryce Love (who we now know suffered a torn ACL at the end of the regular season). There might be some adjustment as Shaw turns his offense to something more in line with his vision for the program and as he breaks in new playmakers such as Osiris St. Brown, Colby Parkinson, and Connor Wedington. Regardless, a return to form of Stanford is good news on the Farm.

3. Oregon (5-4 / 9-4)

Redbox Bowl: Oregon 7, Michigan State 6

Yes, yes, yes. That was an ugly bowl game. And yes, yes, yes, it is fair to ask yourself what the heck happened to the idea of Justin Herbert becoming the next big thing. Undoubtedly, those are a couple of the many questions you can ask yourself about the Ducks as you ponder why I have them ranked #3 in my end of season power rankings.

The truth is that Oregon checks all the boxes that I arbitrarily evaluate in this process. They won their last game—against a legit Big Ten team, no less. They crushed it with recruiting on early signing day. They avoided any major coaching turnover (finally) issues. They exited the season with the vast majority of their key players in positions to return next year and pick up where they left off.

One might lament the loss of Dillon Mitchell who (curiously? unwisely?) decided to move on to the NFL. In addition, the losses of guys like Jalen Jelks and Ugo Amadi are significant. But with the return of Herbert and their entire offensive line, key players on D like Troy Dye, Jordon Scott, and Thomas Graham position Oregon to be one of the early “darlings” of prognosticators and analysts as we go into next season.

2. #10 Washington State (7-2 / 11-2)

Alamo Bowl: #13 Washington State 28, #24 Iowa State 26

I think that there will be many fans of other teams—and maybe a few Huskies fans too—who think WSU ought to be ranked #1 in the end-of-season rankings. I hear you. In fact, I was pretty close to pulling that trigger.

Valero Alamo Bowl - Iowa State v Washington State
Gardner Minshew leaves behind a big hole in WSU’s offense after a magical 2018 campaign.
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Certainly, based on how the season closed with WSU winning the Alamo Bowl and UW getting beat up by tOSU, one could make that argument. But the Power Rankings also take into account unanswered questions going into the offseason, among other things. And filling the gap left behind by Gardner Minshew certainly qualifies as an unanswered question.

I understand that WSU’s offense is seen by some as “plug and play.” But if you didn’t notice that Minshew brought a certain “it” factor to the table, I don’t think you were paying attention. Players who have a way of elevating the play of those around them are rare commodities and not easily replaced. Think “Marques Tuiasosopo” and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

That said, we should acknowledge the obvious in that WSU doesn’t lose much of anything else. Sure, Peyton Pelluer is finally on his way out. Now that he has qualified for social security, it is a requirement. But the core of what WSU relied upon in going 11-2 on the season all comes back for Mike Leach next year. I even suspect that there will be some who see WSU as their pick to win the North in 2019. I don’t really blame them.

1. #13 Washington (7-2 / 10-4)

#9 Washington 23, #6 Ohio State 25

I realize that we are never going to align as a fan base around a single notion of just how bad UW got beat in the Rose Bowl. Some will continue to believe that the Huskies would have won the darn thing if the game was 65 minutes long instead of 60 while others will argue that no team that enters the fourth quarter down by 25 to any opponent has the right to claim that their ass was anything but beaten to a pulp.

Regardless of where you stand in that argument, it is undeniable that UW has failed to win a game against a similarly ranked out-of-conference opponent over Chris Petersen’s tenure. But it is just as undeniable that three straight New Year’s Six appearances are indicative of the competitiveness that Petersen has established for his program within the PAC 12. And this just happens to be a PAC 12 Power Ranking.

With Jacob Eason leading the race to take over at QB and with a boatload of offensive and defensive line talent in the offing, it is hard to look at UW and see any significant questions unanswered. As reigning PAC 12 champs and almost certain favorites to repeat, I still have UW at the top.