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Pac-caP - Grading the Pac-12 Football Season, Part 3

Wrapping up the Pac-12 Grades, with the Best and the Worst

NCAA Football: Washington at Southern California Jessica Alcheh-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last two weeks, I graded the first eight alphabetical Pac-12 teams on the quality of their season. Today, we wrap up the final four, including the best and worst grades in the conference.

If you missed the first two, go back and catch up with them here:

Part 1

Part 2

USC 7-5 (5-4) – F

The Trojans didn’t have the worst record in the Pac, but they definitely had the worst year.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Southern California Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports

In 2022, the USC defense was bad, but the team was very good. They won 11 games and made it to a NYD Bowl Game on the strength of Caleb Williams and the third highest-scoring offense in the country. The defense was the Achilles heel for the men of Troy; they gave up 136 combined points in their three losses, including 90 in two crucial defeats to Utah, the second of which would have put them in the CFP if they had won. The obvious move was the rebuild the defense from the top down. Instead, Lincoln Riley chose to keep DC Alex Grinch and bring in some reinforcements through the transfer portal.

USC entered 2023 as the media pick to win the Pac-12. They were ranked #6 in the country and started 6-0. Once again, they were giving up scads of points (41 to Arizona and Colorado), but had the firepower to consistently win shootouts. Things started to turn in Week 7, when they went to South Bend and played against a defense that could match up with their passing attack. The Irish blew them out 48-20 by stifling the USC offense and taking advantage of short fields. It was almost as if that one loss broke the Trojans. They went 1-5 down the stretch and the only win was a 50-49 squeaker against a mediocre Cal team. Riley finally fired Grinch, but it was too late. The latter part of the season was dominated by shots of Williams crying on the sidelines, pundits calling for Riley’s job, and USC generally looking like a program in complete disarray.

Before this season, Riley had never won fewer than nine games in a season and his career coaching record was a sterling 66-13. He never finished a season ranked lower than 12th in the final AP poll. With Williams off to the NFL and USC moving to the Big 10, what does USC need to do to bounce back? The offensive talent level will remain high. Don’t forget that Riley has coaxed Heisman-level performances out of virtually every QB he has coached- Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts, and Caleb Williams. If he hands the reins to Miller Moss or brings in a bigger name via the transfer portal, I have little concern about the team’s ability to score points. A return to the top-15 in the country will depend on how much progress new DC D’Anton Lynn can make in his first year. Was the lack of tackling and pressure a scheme problem, or does it require a rebuild down to the studs? Lynn and Riley do not have a grace period, so they better hope it is the former.

Utah 8-4 (5-4) – C+

The Utes kept fighting, but injuries derailed any chance of a Pac three-peat.

NCAA Football: California at Utah Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

The question at the start of the season was when, not if, Cam Rising would be back under center for the Utes. The QB had elevated the program from a dangerous defensive menace to a two-time conference champion by providing the offensive spark that was never quite there with previous signal-callers. Utah entered the season ranked 14th with a realistic chance of contending for the conference title alongside the rest of the perceived inner-circle of USC, Oregon, and Washington.

Even without Rising in the lineup, Utah beat Florida and Baylor to open the season, two wins that looked more impressive at the time than they do with the knowledge of where those teams went over the course of the season. The thought was they would be in good shape if they could weather that early storm and get Rising back in the lineup for conference play. Instead, Rising never got healthy enough to play and will take a medical redshirt for the ’23 season. His injury was compounded by more injuries all over the offensive side of the ball. Bryson Barnes put together a respectable season at QB for someone who was supposed to be the backup. Converted QB Ja’Quinden Jackson and converted safety Sione Vaki created a threat in the ground game, but the offensive mash unite was not deep enough to keep up with the conference’s top teams. The defense was good- the defense is always good- led by breakout pass rusher Jonah Elliss. But offensive duds against the top four conference finishers- 7 against Oregon St, 6 against Oregon, 18 against Arizona- spelled their downfall.

Finishing with eight wins and a winning record in conference is a pretty good season. After two conference titles, Utah probably hoped for more. If you offered them this record without their starting QB and many other offensive playmakers going into the season, a Utah fan would’ve said, “wait, what? Rising is coming back in the first few weeks, if not at the start of the season!” Without their dynamic QB, the season looked a lot more like 2012-2018, when Utah perennially had a strong defense but lacked offensive explosiveness, and averaged 7.7 wins per year. If that’s the floor the program is in good shape. With Rising due back next year and Kyle Whittingham showing no signs of slowing down, Utah's future in the Big 12 looks promising.

Washington 13-0 (10-0) – A

The Huskies have made their own luck to the tune of 13 wins and the rewards could get even sweeter in January.

NCAA Football: Oregon at Washington Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

We might be too close, as Husky fans, to truly appreciate what has happened on Montlake in 2023. We spend so much time in the minutiae- is Parker Brailsford better as a guard or center? Can Giles Jackson preserve his red-shirt? Do we have the DT depth to get stuff the run when Tuli rests?- that it’s easy to miss the glorious and verdant forest for the trees. Kalen DeBoer is the National Coach of the Year. Michael Penix Jr. was the Heisman runner-up. The Huskies went from 4-8 to 11-2 to 13-0 over the course of 24 months. Perhaps the fact that the Dawgs eked into the CFP in 2016 makes the accomplishment feel less singular, but right now, the Huskies are closer to a National Championship than they have been in over 30 years.

UW started the year with sky-high aspirations. Despite being picked behind USC (and sometimes Oregon) in the conference, they talked about themselves as CFP contenders. The offense looked completely unstoppable out of the gates, which forced skeptics to reevaluate the assumption that UW’s confidence was all bluster. Those same skeptics raised an eyebrow when the Dawgs needed three fourth-down stops to escape with a three-point win over #8 Oregon in Week 6. From that point forward, the Huskies played to the level of their competition. They won out, but never by more than 10 points, and suffered terrifyingly close finishes against lesser lights Stanford, Arizona State, and Washington State. The wins were so uninspiring that UW was a nine-point underdog for a rematch with Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game. And yet, the Huskies raised their level of play and won once again.

At first, it looked like the prevailing narrative of the season would be the unstoppable offense. Over time, that morphed into a narrative about the Huskies doing exactly what they needed to do to win every week. Some might call it luck, others might call it clutch play or even smart game management. Whatever the cause, UW has found ways to win every game, and nothing in the sport can feel better than that.

Washington State 5-7 (2-7) – D+

Despite an encouraging start, the Cougs leave the Pac-12 with a whimper.

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

It’s easy to forget now, but there was a point in the 2023 season when Washington State was ranked #13 in the country. They opened the season with a dominant road performance against Colorado State, then sandwiched wins over ranked Wisconsin and Oregon State teams around a 64-point drubbing of FCS Northern Colorado. I recall asking some of my fellow UWDP writers at the time if Washington State had replaced Utah in the inner-circle of Pac-12 contenders, alongside UW, Oregon, and USC. I did not foresee at that time that Washington State had exactly one win ahead of them on the schedule.

Hemingway might say that the wheels fell off for WSU slowly at first, then all at once. They only lost to UCLA by eight points in Week 5, but they rushed for 12 yards, completed only 20/40 passes, and turned it over four times. The loss could’ve been much worse. The next week against Arizona, it was. We had not yet learned how good Arizona would become, so losing 44-6 against an unheralded team at home was probably the most shocking result of the Pac-12 season at that point. The turnovers and the losses continued to pile up. There is no shame in losing in Eugene. Following that with losses to ASU, Stanford, and Cal was less excusable. The dynamic Cam Ward who looked like he was on the verge of taking WSU to another level reverted back to being far too erratic and loose with the ball. The 56-14 win over Colorado showed that they hadn’t given up (at least not as much as Colorado had), and they put up a staunch fight in the Apple Cup. Even with that slightly more positive finish to the season, the Cougs are out of bowl season and out of the conference with little to hang onto.

At times, Jake Dickert has looked like an inspired hire in the wake of WSU’s Nick Rolovich mess. At other times, he has looked emphatically like just another guy who doesn’t do much to move the needle. With WSU’s football future more closely tied to the Mountain West than a football power conference, the last thing they need is someone who will cause the program to blend in to the background. Even in a lesser conference, Mike Leach never would have risked becoming bland and unnoticeable. While the Apple Cup will live on for now, I’m skeptical that WSU’s place as a meaningful college football program will live on with it.