That’s a wrap folks. With Oregon’s win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, we can finally put a bow around what was otherwise another unremarkable football season for the conference of champions.
Consider the list of transgressions that caught the college football world’s attention:
- Oregon, who boasted a lauded offensive line and a Heisman contending QB in Justin Herbert, lost on opening weekend to Auburn and their true freshman QB Bo Nix
- Washington, ranked in the preseason AP top 15, derped itself to a 7-5 regular season record and was out of contention for the PAC 12 North by the first week in October
- David Shaw and his Stanford Cardinal imploded finishing the season at 4-8
- USC put Clay Helton on the hot seat then proceeded to fire their AD before coming back and choosing to retain Helton just so they could repeat the process again next year
- And then USC went and signed none of the 5-star players out of California during the early signing period
- WSU scored 63 points in regulation of a game against UCLA ... and lost
- Utah carried the banner for the conference until they were blown out at the end of the season ... twice
- The conference overall went 24-12 in regular season out of conference games including an hard-to-swallow 4-4 against MWC competition
- and, of course, PAC 12 refs set a new low when the literally called a penalty on one team and then enforced against the other ... and then never corrected the mistake
That was the PAC 12 in 2019. They put the ‘ugh’ in ‘ugly’.
The good news is that the conference put on a pretty good show in the post season. Utah’s loss to Texas aside, the PAC still managed a winning record (4 wins vs 3 losses) in the post season. Only the SEC had a better overall performance among the Power 5 conferences. Two of those wins - Oregon’s Rose Bowl thrilling win over a top ten Wisconsin and Washington’s dominating win over a ranked Boise State - qualify as “news” and should serve to help counter the wave of negativity that the conference has suffered in the national conversation. In addition, the rise of Chase Garbers in Cal and the ongoing respect that Herm Edwards is earning for ASU both on and off the field are good storylines for the conference.
Whether any of that helps to position the PAC 12 any more favorably in the eyes of national recruits and preseason pundits remain to be seen. Until the conference sees the LA schools rise back to prominence, gets itself into a couple of straight CFPs and pulls off a few wins over college football blue bloods (looking at you Jimmy Lake given that Michigan is the next team on your schedule), I expect that enthusiasm around anything happening in the PAC 12 will be at best tempered and at worst continued to be viewed as “fraudulent” in the eyes of the skeptical media.
The Cool Chart
The PAC 12 Power Rankings - after Week 13
12. Stanford (4-8, 3-6) ▼
no bowl game
I can hardly recall any program not going through a coaching change having a worse offseason than the Stanford Cardinal. At last count, no fewer than 14 players had declared their intention to enter the transfer portal. That list includes several starters and significant contributors including QB KJ Costello, DE Jovann Swann, DL Michael Williams and LB Andrew Pryts. On top of that, key contributor TE Colby Parkinson has opted to forego his final season of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft.
While the transfer epidemic can be mostly explained by the difficulties that Stanford student athletes have in getting eligible for admission into many of the university’s graduate programs, it does not change the fact that David Shaw is facing an all out overhaul of his roster just as he copes with a disastrous four-win season that ended conspicuously with a blowout at the hands of Brian Kelly and his Fightin’ Irish.
The only real question I have is will Shaw himself become a surprise defection to another job? Rumors have circulated for some time and I, personally, have a hard time dismissing them.
11. Arizona (4-8, 2-7) ▲
no bowl game
Kevin Sumlin, apparently, had a short run on the coaching hot seat after seemingly mishandling his quarterback situation for most of the year and producing a disappointing 4-win season that saw just two wins in conference. That Sumlin was given a mulligan by his athletic department at the end of the season just means that he goes from a short run to a long run on the hot seat in 2020.
It’ll be interesting to see where Sumlin goes with his team. Though QB Khalil Tate is gone, he does seem set with Grant Gunnell (67% completion rate, 8 YPA, 9 TDs, 1 INT). Similarly, the loss of RB JJ Taylor to the NFL draft seems manageable. What is of more urgency is addressing the couch fire that is his defense. The ‘Cats were last in both scoring and total defense thanks to finishing 11th in both passing and rushing defense. A new DC is all that Sumlin can do at this point. That and hope another Scooby Wright comes walking through his door soon.
10. UCLA (4-8, 4-5)
no bowl game
The Bruins ended the season on a down note. They lost their last three in a row including a two game stretch where they surrendered 101 points combined to Utah and to USC. It was such a lame finish that rumors were flying following the loss to Cal that Chip Kelly, just two seasons removed from being labeled the savior of Westwood, was on his way out.
Those rumors did not pan out and, indeed, Chip Kelly gets to continue the task of rebuilding his team around the young nucleus he has assembled. Despite the three losses to end the season, I see real promise in that nucleus. I’m particularly encouraged by a couple of offensive stars who had breakout campaigns in Demetric Felton and Kyle Philips. If Dorian Thompson-Robinson can start taking a trajectory similar to the one that we saw Utah’s Tyler Huntley take once he became an upperclassmen, UCLA could turn the corner rather quickly.
But those are just hopes and dreams at this point. We’ll have to wait to see it come together.
9. Colorado (5-7, 3-6)
no bowl game
While asking them to string together wins against Washington and Utah to close the season and get bowl eligible might have been a little much for Mel Tucker to ask of his Buffs, getting a win over Washington was more than enough to allow him to continue to sell his message. Tucker wants his team to be built from the LOS on out and he is going to play physical no matter who he has on the roster.
Looking ahead, Tucker will have his hands full replacing superstars in WR Laviska Shenault and QB Steven Montez. But with guys like WR KD Nixon (he decided to stay after flirting with the idea of declaring), LB Nate Landman and DL Mustafa Johnson all returning, I would expect that Buff fans are feeling good about being on the right track.
8. Oregon State (5-7, 4-5) ▲
no bowl game
Speaking of ‘being on the right track’, I present you with Jonathan Smith and his scrappy Oregon State Beavers.
The Beavs made a spirited run at bowl eligibility after having put up an epic disaster of a season in Smith’s 2018 debut. The offense hummed with one full-time starter - Jake Luton - at quarterback and with a defense that out of nowhere became one of the best in the league at pressuring the quarterback. In fact, the Beavers more than doubled their sack output going from 15 to 32. Hamilcar Rashed alone nearly equaled his team’s entire 2018 output as he led the league with 14 sacks this season.
While Luton, stud OL Blake Brandel and star receiver Isaiah Hodgins are all moving on, the Beavs do bring much of their nucleus back in 2020. Rashed, star running back Jermar Jefferson and up-and-coming linebacker Omar Speights all figure to be key contributors next year.
It’s a good time to be a Beav.
7. USC (8-5, 7-2) ▼
Holiday Bowl: #16 Iowa 49, #22 USC 24
Things are a mess at USC right now. The controversial decision to retain Clay Helton has fans seething. The inability by the staff to bring in any of California’s 5-star rated players for the first time since the rating services started tracking such things is being viewed as a recruiting disaster. Getting blown out by Iowa in what was essentially a home game in the Holiday Bowl has soured the mood of fans and alums alike.
It feels like there’s a storm brewing over Los Angeles.
The good news is that there is still a nice cadre of talent headlined by QB Kedon Slovis coming back next year (assuming his health - Slovis was knocked out of the Holiday Bowl with another concussion). The retention of offensive coordinator Graham Harrell also has to be viewed positively given how in demand he was around the country. We will see what happens with USC and the transfer portal, but it isn’t all bad for USC. At least not yet.
POG: S Talanoa Hufanga (14 tackles, 1 sack, 2 TFLs)
It’s never a great sign when your safety leads the team in tackles. But it is probably a little easier to accept when that safety is a stud like Hufanga. He has clearly established himself as the leader of that Trojan defense and figures to be a 1st team All PAC 12 kind of talent going into his junior year.
6. Washington State (6-7, 3-6) ▼
Cheez-it Bowl: Air Force 31, Washington State 21
Sometimes games are decided by talent disparities and sometimes they are more a matter of poor matchups. The Cheez-it Bowl was definitely more of the latter than the former for Mike Leach and his Cougars.
Rush defense has been a bane for the Cougs all season. WSU finished last in the PAC 12 in overall rush defense surrendering nearly 5 yards a play for the season. That a disciplined triple option team like Air Force was able to show up and average nearly 5.5 yards per carry, run for 371 yards was hardly surprising. The consequence of all of that rushing success, of course, was a massive 43 minute to 17 minute time of possession advantage that limited WSU to just eight offensive possessions for the game. It really doesn’t matter the quality of your offense when your team doesn’t get the ball.
Matchup disadvantages aside, Coug fans are feeling some angst about the prospects of their team going forward. The ascensions of Oregon and Cal coupled with their ongoing struggles with UW raise questions about where WSU stands in the PAC 12 North pecking order. That yet another new QB has to get broken-in is a second source of discontent. What comes of that Coug D is the subject of its own post.
All of that said, it is still Mike Leach we are talking about here. He’s demonstrated an ability to reload with his program. So I think it is fair to not jump to worst case assumptions as we close out a tough year.
POG: WR Brandon Arconado (11 catches, 167 yards, 1 TD)
What a great year for WSU’s senior WR. After racking up just four catches as a junior, the 6’0” receiver busted out with over 1100 yards receiving and 7 TDs to close out his WSU career. He had a huge game in the Cheez-it Bowl and was the lone bright spot in a dismal offensive effort.
5. California (8-5, 4-5) ▲
Redbox Bowl: Illinois 20, Cal 35
Yes, it was essentially a home game for Cal. And, yes, Illinois isn’t really all that good of an opponent. Nevertheless, it is getting harder and harder to ignore the arc that QB Chase Garbers is traversing as he grows into an experienced starter in that Cal offense. Garbers accounted for all five touchdowns (four in the air, one on the ground) that the Bears scored in their route of the Fightin’ Illini in the Redbox Bowl.
With wins over Stanford, UCLA and now Illinois to close out the season, Justin Wilcox and his crew have to be feeling pretty good about where the program stands. While backfilling for studs like LB Evan Weaver, DB Ashtyn Davis and DB Jaylinn Hawkins will be challenging, the reality is that the Bears bring many of their key players on both sides of the ball back. The only real question is whether there is enough depth among the younger players who will see more snaps to find a few definitive playmakers.
We shall see about that. But, for now, things are looking up for the Bears.
POG: QB Chase Garbers (22 of 31, 8.8 YPA, 4 TD passes, 1 TD rush, 0 INT)
Given the fact that this bowl featured a match-up between the nation’s two leading tacklers in LB Evan Weaver and LB Dele Harding, I was really hoping to be able to pick Weaver one more time. While the Cal senior surely did enough to win the national tackling title for 2019, it was Garbers who stole the show. He was essentially perfect in this game and, as such, probably raised the bar for expectations going into 2020.
4. Arizona State (8-5, 4-5) ▲
Sun Bowl: Florida State 14, Arizona State 20
There is a lot going on in Tempe right now. Herm Edwards is breaking in a bunch of new coaches and will soon be getting ready to develop his next set of playmakers as he replaces studs such as RB Eno Benjamin and WR Brandon Aiyuk (both of whom sat out the bowl and are headed to the NFL). One has to think that all of this churn may have had something to do with ASU’s somewhat up-and-down performance against a not-good FSU program in the Sun Bowl. Forcing your opponent into six turnovers normally results in more than 20 points scored and a six point victory.
Still, the Sun Devils found a way to win thanks to a fourth quarter pick-six and a Jayden Daniels 2-point conversion. That will set a positive feeling into motion as will the fact that so many key players such as LB Merlin Robertson, CB Chase Lucas and QB Jayden Daniels are will be back next year just as they enter into their prime years. Once the dust settles on the staff changes, I expect many people are going to start chatting up ASU as a 2020 dark horse in the PAC.
POG: LB Merlin Robertson (8 tackles, 1 sack, 2 TFLs, 1 fumble recovery)
Robertson figures to be one of the top breakout candidates in the conference going into his junior year next season. Against FSU, I thought he was the best player on the field for either team.
3. Utah (11-3, 8-2) ▼
Alamo Bowl: Texas 38, #11 Utah 10
I had long contended in this column that Utah’s unfortunately weak schedule (not really their fault given the weakness of the PAC 12 slate they inherited) would be a factor when the competition improved. Lo and behold, the Utes - who were the standard bearers for the Conference of Champions much of the season - were completely blown away by their last two opponents in #11 Oregon and the unranked Texas Longhorns. The latter of which was a real wake up call for observers given the fact that the Longhorns were playing without most of their coaching staff and had put up, along with Washington, one of the most disappointing seasons among preseason ranked Power 5 teams.
Now the Utes have to contend with noise coming from the outside asserting that their success this year was more about their schedule than their talent. In addition, they will have to work through the exits of nine starters including stars QB Tyler Huntley, CB Jaylon Johnson (who along with S Julian Blackmon did not play in the Alamo Bowl), DE Bradlee Anae, and RB Zack Moss. Add into that a disappointed and vocal fanbase and you can see that there is a great deal of negativity around the program as they go into the offseason.
Still, the formula that Kyle Whittingham has established works. There are more upperclassmen ready to step into key roles. The coaching staff is stable. The incoming recruiting class is one of Utah’s best ever. Things may feel a little bleak around the program, but those feelings will pass. All in all, things are good in Salt Lake.
POG: LB Devin Lloyd (6 tackles, 1 sack, 2 TFLs)
One of the up-and-coming stars for the Utes is this 6’3” sophomore linebacker. He really popped against Texas in spite of what was a poor defensive effort by the team overall. Get used to hearing this young man’s name if you are a PAC 12 fan. You’ll be hearing it often.
2. Washington (8-5, 4-5) ▲
Las Vegas Bowl: Washington 38, Boise State 7
In my previous full power rankings column following the loss to Colorado, I wrote this about Washington:
The reality is that UW’s culture is either a) broken or b) a work in progress (depending on what half of the glass of water you focus on). ...
I don’t know what the fix is. Maybe CCP is overcoaching and these guys need to be given more of a chance to just play. Maybe this team needs an overhaul of the offensive philosophy. Maybe the program needs new voices on the staff.
Little did I know that we were just days away from Chris Petersen stepping away from his position as head coach triggering the most disruptive turnover on the staff since the day he was originally hired.
And, yet, here I am ranking the Huskies as #2 in the PAC 12 end of season power rankings.
As far as coaching transitions go, you couldn’t ask for a more stable situation than the one the Huskies find themselves in right now. New head coach Jimmy Lake is already incredibly popular among both the players and the fans. The Huskies are coming off two of their most impressive wins of the season in both the Apple Cup and the Vegas Bowl. And all 23 of the recruits making up the highest rated class that UW has ever landed kept their commitments during the transition. Oh, and on top of that, the entire nucleus of players that the team is looking to build around, save for QB Jacob Eason, is coming back next year.
Despite the disappointing 8-5 record, this certainly feels like we are heading into a conference ruled by UW and Oregon not so dissimilar to how Oregon and Stanford dominated in the Harbaugh / Kelly eras. There are a lot of positive vibes around Washington right now.
POG: S Elijah Molden (9 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT)
After a bit of a midseason slump, it is hard to argue against the fact that Molden has ascended to not only the best player on the UW defense but also the MVP of the entire team. He was literally perfect in the Vegas Bowl as Boise State passers had a 0.0 passing rating throwing in his direction for the game - easily the best performance by any DB so far in the post-season. It was a spectacular display of defensive mastery for the game’s MVP.
1. Oregon (12-2, 9-1) ▲
Rose Bowl: #6 Oregon 28, #8 Wisconsin 27
Give the Ducks their due. Ever since their opening week loss to Auburn - a game that they at one point were dominating - they’ve been scratching and clawing to win back some semblance of national respect. On New Year’s Day, they won a Rose Bowl still scratching and clawing.
Oregon forced Wisconsin into four turnovers including one that went for an Oregon touchdown in a rousing victory over a quality B1G opponent that is sure to put Oregon, if not the rest of the PAC 12, back into the national conversation. That it was Oregon’s defense that was the difference in the game is all that much more interesting. In fact, one could argue that the defense had to overcome one of the least impressive offensive performances that QB Justin Herbert, the vaunted Oregon O-Line and RB CJ Verdell put on tape all season. In contrast, Oregon’s defense was fast, aggressive and physical in standing toe to toe with Wisconsin’s huge offensive line and star RB Jonathan Taylor. While the Badgers were able to generate 322 yards and 38+ minutes of time of possession, Oregon’s ability to hold on third down and then force turnovers was the difference in the ball game.
Coach Mario Cristobal now gets to spend the whole year showing off his Rose Bowl trophy to prospective recruits as he attempts to add to his burgeoning stock of talent. And though he loses big time players like Herbert, LB Troy Dye and four of his five starting offensive linemen, the Ducks have a lot more coming back than they have going out the door. OL Penei Sewell might be the best player in the nation period while freshman DL Keyvon Thibodeaux looks like the fastest rising defensive player in the conference. Expect the Ducks to be very active in the transfer portal attempting to woo a new starting QB (Jamie Newman of Wake Forest seems like a good bet to end up in Eugene) and position themselves as the favorites in the PAC next year.
POG: S Brady Breeze (11 tackles, 1 PBU, 1 FF, 1 TD)
Breeze’s scoop and score on a botched punt attempt was probably the most important play of the game for Oregon. That play and the fact that he led the team in tackles earned him easy POG honors in a game where only half the Ducks showed up ... and it was still enough to win.