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Pac-caP - Grading the Pac-12 Football Season, Part 2

Prepare yourself for the vaunted middle-third of the alphabet

NCAA Football: Washington at Oregon State Craig Strobeck-USA TODAY Sports

Today, we continue the grades for each team’s football season. For Part 1 in the series, click here.

Oregon 11-2 (8-2) – B

Absolutely everything went Oregon’s way, except when they played Washington.

NCAA Football: Oregon at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

I have a personal rule that I will never complain about a 10+ win season for my team in college football. Oregon has 11 wins heading into a winnable NY6 bowl game and has been in the national top 10 for 12 straight weeks. They sent their QB to the Downtown Athletic Club as a Heisman Finalist. That should be a great season, right? I don’t have to remind anyone here that Washington beat Oregon by exactly one FG twice this season, once at Husky Stadium and once in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Those losses in such high-stakes games to such a bitter rival mean so much more than an average loss that it makes it hard for Oregon fans to feel very good about those 11 wins.

Ohio State’s Ryan Day got negative publicity after his team’s loss to Michigan for dominating his entire schedule every year, but nearly always losing to Michigan and in the CFP (ironically, Day’s one head coaching loss outside of those games was to Oregon). Dan Lanning has started a similar trend in his first two years in Eugene. Lanning is 21-2 against Not-Washington and 0-3 against Kalen Deboer’s Dawgs.

Statistically, virtually everything went right for Oregon. Bo Nix piled up insane stats- nearly 4200 yards and 40 TDs to 3 Ints- with the short, horizontal passing attack that forces defenses to tackle in space. Bucky Irving and Jordan James were a terrific RB duo, totaling over 1700 yards and 21 TDs at almost seven yards per carry. The lame duck defense from 2022 became a relative strength. Brandon Dorlus and Jordan Burch caused havoc up front, Evan Williams did a little bit of everything, and a deep, talented DB room locked down most receivers. The Ducks had the balanced statistical profile and overall dominance that usually mark a CFP contender. And, of course, they were a CFP contender despite a regular season loss to UW. All they needed to do was avenge that loss on a neutral field. And they didn’t. In the second loss, they didn’t even have the excuse of fourth-down variance. They just got beat, and those results make the other platitudes ring hollow. Some Oregon fans will probably see a B as underrating a dominant season. Others will probably see it as too kind for a team that failed in its biggest spots. I’ll split the difference.

Oregon State 8-4 (5-4) – B-

The Beavers had a very good season by their standards that felt like a missed opportunity.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Oregon State Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Riley is the measuring stick against which all modern Oregon State coaches are judged. Riley won at least eight games in only six of his 14 seasons at the helm in Corvallis. From that perspective, Jonathan Smith going 8-4 (with a chance at a 9th win pending a Sun Bowl matchup with Notre Dame) is a big success. Indeed, those outside the Pac see it as a great season since Michigan State just wrote a giant check to lure Smith away from his alma mater. And yet, after going 10-3 and beating Oregon in 2022, this season feels like the Beavers left a little bark on the tree.

Hopes were high coming into the year because the Beavers upgraded at their most obvious weak spot, QB. DJ Uiagalelei has so much more raw talent than Ben Gulbranson that even the threat of his downfield passing would free up Damien Martinez and Deshaun Fenwick to run wild in the ground game. That complementary offense, coupled with a dangerous and opportunistic defense, looked prime to contend for a top-two spot in the Pac.

Instead, the defense took a step back (from 16th to 34th in PPG allowed). Disruptive LB Omar Speights transferred to LSU and the Beavers were unable to replace his playmaking ability. The offense was generally a little better with DJU, but not by enough to get over the hump. The Beavers lost to Washington State, Arizona, and Washington by either two or three points. Their only blowout loss of the year was 31-7 in the Civil War. Even if that result was unchanged, one of two more plays in those previous three games could have turned a pretty decent season into one to remember.

The stakes were higher for Oregon State this year. It wasn’t just that the stars were aligned with DJU joining Smith and the powerful run game. It was also the last season of the Pac-12 conference, which also made it the last season- for now- in which Oregon State will play in a national power conference. The Beavers were primed to go out on a high note, but those close losses left a pretty good season feeling a lot like a missed opportunity.

Stanford 3-9 (2-7) – C-

The Cardinal weren’t quite totally inept, which counts as a small victory.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Stanford D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

Despite David Shaw’s great reputation, Troy Taylor took over a program that had been in a steady state of decay. The Cardinal had gone 3-9 in each of the two preceding seasons with a grand total of three wins in the Pac-12. More than the record, Stanford had lost the brand that made them successful under Jim Harbaugh and the early Shaw years. They still played a deliberate, pro-style offense, but they were not attracting and developing the same dominant linemen, running backs, and possession receivers that made it click. Even more, the transfer portal was bleeding players that the program could not easily replace due to strict admissions standards and timelines.

With a thin and unsuccessful roster that was ill-fitted to his up-tempo style, Taylor appeared to be set up for a very bad first year. The schedule gave him Hawaii and his old team, Sacramento State, in the first three weeks, but it was hard to find any probable wins against Notre Dame or the conference opponents. From that perspective, a three win season does not look so bad, especially considering they lost at home to FCS Sac State. In fact, all three wins came away from Palo Alto, against Hawaii, Colorado, and Washington State. They have to be the first team to ever win games 46-43 and 10-7 within a few weeks of each other. On top of those games, Stanford kept it close with conference heavyweights UW and Arizona. A team that looked set to be a complete failure stayed out of the cellar and even produced a memorable win by coming back from a 29-0 deficit in Boulder.

There are still huge questions about how Stanford can return to success. While Taylor looks like the sort coach with X’s and O’s mastery that can win games, he has gigantic institutional hurdles to overcome in roster building. He has a talented, young QB entrenched in Ashton Daniels, and Elic Ayomanor as a playmaking receiver to complement him, but the line is a shambles and the entire defense is even worse. As the Cardinal move to the ACC, they look even more like a nomad program that lacks an identity outside of their academics. Although Taylor gets a passing grade for year one, it’s hard to see a clear path to better days in the near future.

UCLA 7-5 (4-5) – D

Rather than building on a strong 2023, Bruins regressed to mediocrity with a weak finish.

NCAA Football: California at UCLA Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe it should have been obvious that the Bruins were due for some regression after a very strong 2022. Chip Kelly worked his way off the hot seat by gradually progressing a roster built around Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Zach Charbonnet. I didn’t necessarily see UCLA springing from that result to a significantly better 2023, but the talent looked good enough that they didn’t look like a risk to recede too far.

Interestingly, UCLA’s defense improved al lot, from 90th to 15th in PPG allowed. But the offense backslid to a nearly identical degree, from 8th to 80th. The losses of so many skill position players were too great for the coaching staff to overcome. The QB depth looked like a position of strength, with dynamic freshman Dante Moore battling experienced transfer Collin Schlee and steady veteran Ethan Garbers. Instead, they exemplified the old axion that when you have two QBs (or three), you don’t have one QB. Moore was too erratic, Schlee couldn’t complete a pass to save his life, and Garbers did not make enough big plays. Carson Steele and TJ Harden stabilized the running game, but it was not enough to offset the subpar passing attack. In four of the team’s five losses, they scored 10 points or fewer, which happened to coincide with every time they played even an average defense. Perhaps the most concerning part of the performance was how they tailed off as the season went on. After a respectable 6-2 start, the offense cratered for a 3-4 finish, including home losses to ASU and Cal.

Can things improve from here? UCLA clearly looks like the weakest of the four teams headed to the B1G next year. Head coaching whispers creeped back into the rumor mill at the end of the year, though Chip still has the job for now. D’Anton Lynn, the DC responsible for the sudden turnaround, moved across town to take the same job at USC. The developmental time spent on Moore will not pay off as he has entered the transfer portal. Altogether, it looks to me like the Chip Kelly era has peaked at UCLA and things won’t get much better until they find a new and better direction.