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Pac-12 Football Relegation

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Which teams have been the most consistently among the Best in the West since the Pac-12’s inception?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 21 Las Vegas Bowl - Boise State v Washington

Last week I looked at what the past decade might have been like for men’s basketball if the Pac-12 relegated underperforming teams and elevated better teams in the West to take their place. Since I had so much fun looking up the results I decided to go ahead and play out the same scenario for football. Obviously there are a lot fewer other FBS teams in the West region than D1 for basketball so this is essentially just movement between the Pac-12 and the Mountain West conferences.

I used the same guidelines I did for basketball. Up to 3 teams can get relegated down if another team not already in the upper Pac-12 had a better season last year. Since win/loss records aren’t comparable because of strength of schedule I am using an advanced stat ranking instead. I chose to use FEI because it’s a solid stat in its own right and the results are extremely easy to look up all the way back to 2011. Choosing a different advanced efficiency metric might change the results slightly on the margins but it shouldn’t completely skew the data.

We assume that the first year of the Pac-12 (2011) happened just as it did and that relegation began using those results for the 2012 season. So for example when it says 2017 below it’s what the conference would’ve looked like in that year based on the 2016 season’s results. I didn’t forget what year the Huskies made the College Football Playoff, I promise.

The eligible schools are any in a state that already has a current Pac-12 school plus any FBS school in Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, or New Mexico. Let’s get to it.

2012

IN: Boise State (7), BYU (38), Air Force (49)

Out: UCLA (82), Oregon State (86), Colorado (102)

Just Missed: Utah State (53), San Diego State (67)

Final: Oregon (4), Stanford (5), Boise State (7), USC (10), BYU (38), California (43), Air Force (49), Arizona State (50), Washington (58), Utah (61), Arizona (78), Washington State (79)

We begin with what we may one day look back on as the last peak West coast football season (depressing, I know). 4 teams from the West region finished in the top-10 which hasn’t happened since and there haven’t even been 4 in the top-15 since that time. If we didn’t cap the number of teams that could be relegated then the top half of the Mountain West would’ve essentially replaced the bottom half of the Pac-12. Utah State and San Diego State don’t make it in for Arizona and Wazzu because of the 3 team limit.

2013

IN: Fresno State (18), Utah State (23), San Jose State (26)

OUT: California (87), Air Force (95), Washington State (100)

Just Missed: Oregon State (27), UCLA (44), San Diego State (40), Nevada (62)

Final: Oregon (3), Boise State (14), Stanford (20), BYU (22), Utah State (23), San Jose State (26), Arizona State (36), USC (39), Arizona (45), Washington (63), Utah (69)

Welcome to a chaotic bloodbath in what has to have been one of the best seasons in Mountain West history. 3 new teams joined Boise State in the top-26 overall along with independent BYU. Out of the 7 best teams out West that year the original Pac-12 only had 2 of them!!!

That resulted in some crazy finishes. Cal, Wazzu, and Air Force easily dropped out as the bottom 3 teams to be relegated since each finished 85th or worse overall. But with FSU, USU, and SJSU all jumping at least 30 spots it resulted in a pair of deserving Pac-12 teams getting left out in the cold. Oregon State finished 27th at FEI (3rd best in the original Pac-12) and yet the rules here prevent them from getting back into the club. The same is true for UCLA who finished above 3 other Pac-12 teams that stayed in the rankings. The Huskies and Utah are fortunate that’s the case as they would’ve been the next schools on the cutting block.

2014

IN: UCLA (19), Oregon State (40)

OUT: Utah (53), San Jose State (77)

Final: Oregon (3), Stanford (15), Washington (16), UCLA (19), Arizona State (20), USC (27), Arizona (28), BYU (29), Fresno State (34), Oregon State (40), Boise State (46), Utah State (48)

This is about as calm a year as you get and also may have been the strongest middle-class out West that the region has had in a long time. 12 teams finished inside of the top-50 which is the only time that’s happened in the last decade. However, 7 of them finished between 15th and 30th so it was a year with a bunch of very good teams and only one elite team.

Utah barely squeaked by last year but get the boot this time around while San Jose State’s one year blip as a borderline top-25 team turned out to be just that. UCLA and Oregon State were thwarted by the relegation limits after finishing in the top-12 the year before and not earning a promotion. But perseverance sometimes does pay off and by both finishing in the top-45 overall again they move up a league.

2015

IN: Colorado State (30), Utah (41)

OUT: Oregon State (78), Fresno State (104)

Final: Oregon (2), USC (16), Stanford (17), Boise State (22), UCLA (27), Arizona (29), Colorado State (30), Arizona State (31), Utah (41), BYU (54), Washington (56), Utah State (57)

It’s not a surprise that Kyle Whittingham got his Utes back into the fray after dropping off for only one season and they immediately swap places with Oregon State. Meanwhile Fresno State fell off a cliff which made room for Colorado State’s quick ascent. This is where we get Chris Petersen’s first season and it’s only up from here after he didn’t clear the bar to remain in the Pac-12 by very much. Further good news is we’re done seeing Oregon as the first name listed on the final list. This is the last time they finished with the best FEI in the West region.

2016

IN: California (30), San Diego State (48), Air Force (59)

OUT: Utah State (63), Arizona (81), Colorado State (89)

Final: Stanford (7), USC (20), Washington (24), BYU (28), Boise State (29), California (30), Oregon (32), UCLA (33), Washington State (34), San Diego State (48), Arizona State (53), Air Force (59)

Once again the middle class out West was quite strong with 9 schools finishing between 20th and 37th. California took a leap up to enter that pack after several down years in a row behind Jared Goff’s season which resulted in him earning the #1 overall pick in the draft. They traded places with Arizona where things started to fall apart for Rich Rodriguez on his way out of town. Mike Leach finally saw some success in Pullman as the Cougars climbed back into the Pac-12 for the first time in several seasons.

The region having so many average to good teams meant that a few hangers on from the Mountain West like Utah State and Colorado State ended up getting bumped.

2017

IN: Colorado (17), Air Force (46), Colorado State (57)

OUT: California (77), Oregon (89), Arizona State (95)

Final: Washington (3), USC (11), Boise State (14), Washington State (16), Colorado (17), Stanford (31), Air Force (46), San Diego State (48), BYU (49), Utah (54), Colorado State (57), UCLA (58)

What a year for college football in the state of Colorado! All 3 FBS teams from the state got promoted to the Pac-12 in the same season which seems quite a feat. Of course Husky fans know this season as the magical run to the College Football Playoff. And it’s interesting to see how the shape of the region evolved in that year. That was the only time this decade that the West had 5 teams finish within the top-17 of FEI. However only 1 team finished between 20 and 40 after 9 teams had done so the previous season. It turned out that a few of those teams got a little better to become legitimate top-20 teams while some got worse to become merely average but very few remained in just the “good” category.

That ascent for the Colorado schools was made possible by 3 of the aforementioned programs from the middle falling off cliffs to become truly bad. Oregon 89th. Good stuff.

2018

IN: Arizona (52), Oregon (53), Arizona State (54)

OUT: Colorado (83), Air Force (91), BYU (109)

Just Missed: New Mexico State (71)

Final: Washington (10), USC (20), Stanford (23), Boise State (25), Washington State (31), San Diego State (43), Utah (49), Arizona (52), Oregon (53), Arizona State (54), UCLA (59), Colorado State (72)

The Huskies once again top the region in FEI and the original schools in the conference get back up to 9 as they reclaim 2 spots. The Arizona schools take the spot of 2 of the Colorado schools as Colorado and Air Force both sank back down to below average. Oregon gets the other spot as they rebounded in Willie Taggart’s only season in Eugene to replace BYU which gets relegated for the first time.

If you read the basketball article you’ll note that New Mexico State was my mom’s alma mater and is a school I’ll always have a fondness for. They actually finished as the 12th best team in the West in what was undoubtedly the best season in recent program history but the 3 team limit knocks them out of a chance for glory. It’s probably for the best as they went right back to being the worst team in the region the following season.

2019

IN: Utah State (8), Fresno State (10), BYU (55)

OUT: USC (79), UCLA (82), Colorado State (110)

Just Missed: Air Force (64), Nevada (65)

Final: Utah State (8), Fresno State (10), Washington (14), Boise State (22), Washington State (26), Utah (27), Stanford (36), Arizona State (43), Oregon (48), BYU (55), San Diego State (72), Arizona (75)

If I’m being completely honest, I have absolutely no memory of Utah State or Fresno State being remotely close to top-10 teams via either traditional or advanced metrics this season. Both schools lost only 2 games with 1 loss each to Boise State plus a 7-point road loss to a Big 10 team in the non-conference. I don’t know if those years were truly deserving of a top-10 finish but they certainly deserve to get promoted so welcome back to the club (along with BYU).

After hitting the highwater mark of 9 original Pac-12 schools the previous season, the conference immediately gave back 2 spots. The L.A schools were the culprit this time as Clay Helton managed to go 5-7 in his 3rd season at USC and still not get fired because starting QB J.T Daniels tore his ACL in the season opener and he got a hall pass. Air Force and Nevada fall in the just missed category as each was more highly ranked than San Diego State or Arizona but with only 3 spots for promotion they aren’t quite good enough to claim one of them.

2020

IN: USC (28), Wyoming (47), California (54)

OUT: Stanford (91), Utah State (95), Arizona (99)

Just Missed: Oregon State (69), UCLA (76), Colorado (79)

Final: Utah (8), Oregon (9), Washington (24), Boise State (27), USC (28), Washington State (39), Wyoming (47), California (54), San Diego State (57), Arizona State (58), BYU (68), Fresno State (83)

This is a bit of a weird one as 4 of the previous top-12 teams became not just below average but downright awful at 80th or worse in the rankings. However, the least bad of them (Colorado State at 83rd) gets to keep its place despite 3 other original Pac-12 teams sitting in the cold finishing with a better ranking because of the 3-team relegation limits.

Preliminary 2021

IN: San Jose State (20), Air Force (29), Nevada (41)

OUT: Fresno State (88), California (89), Washington State (102)

Just Missed: UCLA (46)

Final: BYU (2), Arizona State (15), San Jose State (20), Air Force (29), USC (32), Boise State (33), San Diego State (36), Nevada (41), Washington (43), Oregon (47), Utah (49), Wyoming (60)

There are obviously a whole boatload of asterisks to put next to this past season which make this a tricky endeavor. The Pac-12 played so few non-conference games that for advanced stats like FEI it was extremely difficult to place teams relative to other conferences. Throw on top of that some teams like Washington only played 4 total games and it’s an absolute mess.

If we take the results at face value though we end up seeing just 5 of the original Pac-12 teams still in the main conference going into the 2021 season. That would be an absolute travesty if it actually were representative of how good the teams were but if I were the commissioner of this imaginary version of the Pac-12 I’d at the very least have allowed UCLA back in over Wyoming for the 12th spot if not just declared the results weren’t usable at all to make relegation decisions.

It seems extremely likely that if a full season had been played that the average Pac-12 team would’ve finished 5-10 spots higher just by virtue of finishing better than 1-2 in out of conference matchups and it’s possible the opposite effect would’ve hit the Mountain West.

FINAL TALLY

10- Washington*, Boise State

9- Arizona State*, Oregon*, USC*, Utah*, BYU

8- Stanford*

7-

6- Arizona*, Washington State*, San Diego State

5- UCLA*

4- Fresno State, Utah State

3- California*, Air Force, Colorado State

2- San Jose State, Wyoming

1- Colorado*, Oregon State*, Nevada

This is a lot more pleasant to look at for Husky fans than the men’s basketball version. Washington and Boise State have been thoroughly intertwined for a variety of reasons and they have been the most consistent standard bearers in the region over the past decade. There is a large group of schools right behind them with 6 other programs getting in the upper half at least 8 of the 10 seasons. Most of those names aren’t surprising. Arizona State is probably the one I least expected of that list but even during the Todd Graham era they only finished in the bottom half of FBS teams once.

Arizona, Washington State, and UCLA (plus San Diego State) being in the middle tier is a study in which of these things is not like the other. From a resources standpoint it’s an embarrassment that UCLA has only been among the 12 best in the West half of the time during the last decade whereas Zona and Wazzu have been about where I’d expect (or better).

Colorado and Oregon State bring up the rear from the true Pac-12 as they’ve only had 1 season apiece where they’ve been in the upper crust. Oregon State had 2 years where they only missed out on promotion because of the 3-team limit and so fell into the just missed category. Close doesn’t quite count but it does mean they’re probably closer to 1.5 or 2 than just 1. But Colorado’s one good year earned them a Pac-12 South title so their peak was higher even though they’ve been more consistently at the bottom.