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Pac-caP - Grading the Pac-12 Football Season, Part 1

Let the Alphabetical Countdown Begin

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Championship-Oregon at Washington Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

With the Pac-12 regular season fully completed, let’s take a look back at the progress (or lack of progress) that the programs made in the conference’s final season. There will be no grade inflation here- with 12 teams, my average grade will be about a C, so consider that average. I will evaluate the teams in alphabetical order, spread out over three installments.

Arizona 9-3 (7-2) – A

The Cats finished the season on a six-game win streak that has changed the vibe and perception of the entire program.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Arizona Zachary BonDurant-USA TODAY Sports

No team exceeded expectations by as much as Jedd Fisch’s Wildcats. Fisch took the helm of the program in 2021 after a winless, Covid-shortened 2020 under Kevin Sumlin. The first season was dire; the Cats went 1-11 and were outscored 377-206. The lowest point was probably the 21-19 home loss to Northern Arizona. Fisch quickly raised the talent level, won five games in 2022, and looked like they had a reasonable shot at bowl eligibility for ’23. Their start to the season didn’t show any great reversal. They stood at 3-3 through six weeks and one of the wins was a 21-20 escape against bottom-feeding Stanford.

But even at 3-3, the seeds of improvement had already been planted. Noah Fifita took over as the starter at QB against UW and kept the Cats within a score of the Dawgs and Trojans. Fifita keyed the subsequent six-game (and counting!) winning streak. They dominated WSU 44-6 on the road and also chalked up wins against ranked Oregon State, UCLA, and Utah teams. Fifita was a big part of the turnaround, cutting previous starter Jayden De Lauran’s interception rate in half while increasing his adjusted yards per attempt. RB Jonah Coleman started his breakout as the full-time back against USC and scored all five of his TDs during the winning streak. The defense, the clear weak link of the ’22 team, even showed progress. They gave up 25+ points only once in the final six games after allowing at least that many points in three of the first five games against FBS opponents.

Arizona now heads to the Alamo Bowl to play Oklahoma. It’s the most prestigious and important game the Cats have played since the 2014 Fiesta Bowl. Arizona even remained in the Pac-12 Championship picture until the season’s last weekend when Oregon knocked them out by beating Oregon State. Fisch will be a popular name for bigger jobs if this level of success continues, but Arizona fans would probably be happy just to have a coach they didn’t have to fire for the first time this century. On their way to the Big 12 with strong HS and transfer recruiting, Arizona looks likely to stay in the top half of the newly refreshed conference with a chance to even compete for a conference title in the next few years.

Arizona State 3-9 (2-7) – C

Getting out of the cellar was the main objective in Kenny Dillingham’s first season. The Devils achieved it, but just barely.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Kenny Dillingham came into a difficult situation in Tempe after Herm Edwards was fired mid-season in 2022 and most of the team’s top talent ran for the hills. The Sun Devils and Stanford looked like preseason contenders to finish last in the Pac, so anything other than embarrassment would be at least a mild success. Things looked pretty dire at 1-6 with their lone win by three over an FCS team, but they rebounded with wins over Washington State and UCLA late to pull themselves out of last place and clear the threshold of utter embarrassment.

Still, it’s hard to get too excited about a team that was outscored 382-213 for the season. They used four different QBs and none of them were good. Trenton Bourguet had by far the most attempts and threw a total of one (1!) TD for the season. RB Cameron Skattebo, a transfer from the FCS, was the only real playmaker on offense, but defenses knew that he was the target and it compromised his effectiveness as they loaded up against him later in the season. The defense played very aggressively. At times, such as the 15-7 loss to UW, it disrupted opposing offenses. At other times, like giving up 108 points in the final two games, they got badly burned for their aggression.

Dillingham is now approximately where Fisch was after his first season. He did nothing to take away the presumption that he is a good QB developer and play-caller, but he has to dramatically raise the team’s talent level and build a more sound and sustainable defensive foundation. ASU has been aggressive early in the transfer portal and has also seen a high number of players ready to exit. Ideally, they would rather get to a point where the transfer portal is less active, but for the time being, we will have to see if Dillingham can get this group to take a step toward consistent competitiveness.

Cal 6-6 (4-5) - C-

The Bears tried something new on offense and ended with a very familiar record.

NCAA Football: California at Stanford Robert Edwards-USA TODAY Sports

Cal did not fall far short of expectations, but despite approaching the season in a very different way than they had previously under Justin Wilcox, they didn’t find much traction out of the mushy middle, either. The Bears brought in Air Raid specialist Jake Spavital as the OC and TCU transfer Sam Jackson V to play QB. The moves generally worked, moving the Bears from 96th to 39th in scoring offense. And yet, in Justin Wilcox’s sixth (non-Covid) season as Head Coach, Cal went 4-5 in the Pac for a fourth time.

The biggest letdown for Cal was the defense. Usually one of the strong spots under Wilcox’s watchful eye, the unit regressed to 113th in the country by giving up almost 33 points per game. The gave up at least 50 four times on the season, including 59 against UW and 63 against Oregon, both games where the teams looked like they were from different divisions. And yet, the Bears closed with wins over Washington State, Stanford, and a UCLA team that had mostly packed it in for the year to get to 6-6 and back to bowl eligibility. Due to injuries, freshman Fernando Mendoza took over at QB and looked generally competent, if not a world beater. Still, as a freshman in a difficult situation, he profiles to become the kind of steady force that Chase Garbers used to be in Berkeley. Jaydn Ott piled up 1200 yards and 11 TDs, but has developed a reputation as a flat track bully. Ott ran for 150+ yards five times (great!), but those games were against North Texas, ASU, Washington State, Stanford, and USC. That’s four teams from the gutter and a USC defense that was long overdue to fire its coordinator.

Cal now heads to the ACC in a bizarre arrangement that came as one of the Pac teams left out of the Big 12/10 game of musical chairs. Their recruiting remains in the lower third of their new conference. Since we have seen good offenses and good defenses under Wilcox, it’s not so hard to dream on a combination of the two coalescing into eight or nine wins. But Spavital has left for Baylor, the institutional hurdles in Berkeley remain, and the road trips are about to get a lot longer. I don’t see a far better choice than Wilcox as the Cal coach, but it’s hard to get very excited about where the program will go for the next few years.

Colorado 4-8 (1-8) – D+

Despite gratuitous hyperbole from the media- positive and negative- the Buffs ended up right about where forecast.

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

The 2023 Colorado team will go down as one of the loudest and most followed four-win team in college football history. The combination of Deion Sanders’s blustery charisma and the sports media world’s magnetic attraction to the team’s hot start put the Buffs under a sweltering spotlight under which they quickly melted. I maintain that the entire season would look very different if it opened with a win over five-win TCU rather than a win over CFP finalist TCU. The Horned Frogs were both of those things, but with the benefit of hindsight, it looks more like a nice road win than a statement of arrival on the national stage.

At the start of the year, I pegged Colorado for four wins, which is exactly where they ended up. With an entirely new roster, a one-win season a year before, and an injection of enthusiasm into the program, why does the year still merit a grade as low as a D+? It mostly has to do with the downward trajectory over the course of the season. After a 4-2 start, which included a very competitive loss against USC, the Buffs lost their last six. The home loss to Stanford (after leading by 29) and 38-point loss to a Washington State team with little left to play for did not show a positive trajectory. Shedeur Sanders was good to the end with a sparkling 27/3 TD/Int ratio. The line in front of him, however, crumbled as the season went on. Sacks piled up and they could not run the ball. Deion has already rebuilt most of the line through the transfer portal in its opening days. The defense also needs tons of work after surrendering 34.8 PPG (122nd out of 133).

In many ways, the season was a small victory. People cared about Colorado for the first time in a generation. They played well enough to show that Sanders can credibly coach in a power conference, yet they were not so good that he is an imminent risk of being poached. The return to the Big 12 will be a good fit for the Buffs, even if some of their historical rivals are scattered elsewhere. I’m sure Sanders would be the first to tell anyone that he wants the team to reach a baseline where he doesn’t have to turn over more than 50% of the roster through the transfer portal. Until he reaches that point, the incremental progress is a fine consolation prize.