As far as the PAC-12 is concerned, the season is over. Sure, there’s still a national championship to be played, but given that neither Alabama or Clemson are from the PAC-12, I think we have enough to formulate the final PAC-12 power rankings of this wild and crazy 2015-2016 season. In case you missed it, here are the preseason power rankings and the midseason power rankings. Now, let’s get started.
#12: Oregon State Beavers 2-10 (0-9)
This one wasn’t much of a surprise. Oregon State, for the first time since 2002, was being coached by someone other than Mike Riley. The new head coach, Gary Andersen, has shown an ability to build up a program, as he took a 4-8 Utah State team and turned them into an 11-2 team in his four years there. Andersen may very well do the same to Oregon State, but it will take at least four years.
After a mass exodus of talent from the previous season, Andersen was forced to alternate between two freshmen quarterbacks in Seth Collins and Nick Mitchell, and the results were predictably awful, as the Beavers averaged 18 points per game. Worse yet was their defense, which surrendered an average of 37 points per game and allowed their opponents to score 50+ points in each of their last three games. Oregon State is firmly at the bottom of the PAC-12 right now and it’ll take some recruiting miracles by Andersen to get them out of the cellar.
#11: Colorado Buffaloes 4-9 (1-8)
The perpetually bad Colorado Buffaloes were bad again in 2015, though they really shouldn’t have been. Head coach Mike MacIntyre was entering his third year as head coach and had a talented senior QB in Sefo Liufau and a WR who catches nearly everything in Nelson Spruce, as well as a couple of powerful running backs with Phillip Lindsay and Christian Powell. On the other side of the field, the new defensive coordinator was Jim Leavitt, a man who not only brought the University of Southern Florida into the NCAA but also turned them into perennial bowlers, as well as becoming a trusted assistant coach of Jim Harbaugh’s staff for the San Francisco 49ers.
Needless to say, Colorado was supposed to have their best season in decades. Yet, they only managed one win against the PAC-12, and that win was against the aforementioned Beavers. Liufau himself showed no improvement from his promising 2014 campaign, as he completed 62% of his passes for 2,418 yards, an average of 7 yards per attempt, and threw only 9 touchdowns to 6 interceptions. In the running game, something Liufau had always contributed greatly to, he averaged 2.5 yards per carry, a pedestrian number for him. However, he did manage 5 rushing touchdowns. Spruce, their top receiver, was underutilized. He caught 89 passes, an impressive figure, but barely managed to earn over 1,000 receiving yards, thereby diminishing his deep threat capabilities.
The defense seemingly refused to improve in Leavitt’s first year, as they gave up 33 points per game to PAC-12 opponents. Granted, the defense had strong showings in their non-conference appearances, but when your non-conference schedule consists of Nicholls State, Hawaii, UMass, and Colorado State (a game that went into OT), you’re absolutely expected to do well against those teams. And for the record, Colorado lost to Hawaii.
The Buffaloes will lose several of their best players, including Liufau, Spruce, and Powell, which means we’re likely to see an even worse unit in 2016. Regardless, Colorado Athletic Director Rick George has said that MacIntyre’s job as head coach is safe for at least the next season.
#10: Arizona State Sun Devils 6-7 (4-5)
After coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons and narrowly missing out on a PAC-12 championship game appearance in 2014, head coach Todd Graham spent most of the offseason talking about how great his 2015 team was, even calling them “the best team [he’s] ever coached.” To match his big talk, the Sun Devils were kicking off their season against a talented Texas A&M team (back when the Aggies actually had quarterbacks) and even had a full closet of shiny new Adidas uniforms to show off each week. ASU was even becoming a trendy playoff pick, as both Kirk Herbstreit and Tom Luginbill picked the Sun Devils to make the College Football Playoff.
This past weekend, ASU played in the Cactus Bowl, hosted in Phoenix, AZ, and promptly lost. You see, Herbstreit and Luginbill knew that ASU would play their final game of the season in Arizona in January. Their only error was thinking it’d be in Glendale, AZ (for the National Championship game) rather than Phoenix. Oh well.
ASU started out with an embarrassing performance against Texas A&M on national TV that dropped them from #15 in the preseason Top 25 to some number that doesn’t register on the polls. At the start of PAC-12 play, they underwent a full throttling at the hands of USC, who would fire their coach a week later for underperforming. ASU had a slight resurgence when they knocked off then #7 UCLA in Pasadena, blew out Colorado the next week, and then went to play then #4 Utah. After three quarters of leading against Utah, the Sun Devils blew it and lost 34-18. This was the start of a three game losing streak. The saving grace was a blowout 52-37 win against hated in-state rival Arizona, but the very next week the Sun Devils lost to Cal in a manner that encapsulated the entire 2015 season.
Of course, the icing on the cake was a 43-42 loss to West Virginia in the Cactus Bowl, which was largely due to a simple math error, when coach Todd Graham decided not to attempt a two-point conversion that would have put ASU up by a full touchdown’s score. Instead, West Virginia drove down the field and took a one point lead, leaving the Sun Devils offense with a minute and a half to score, which they were unable to do.
Next year, ASU is due for a sharp increase in performance, as Chip Lindsey (whose 2015 offense ranked 5th in the nation) replaces former offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, the cause of many of ASU’s issues this season. Still, a 6-7 season takes a very considerable amount of shine off Graham’s ASU tenure, as fans have already begun questioning if he can take the program to the next level.
#9: Arizona Wildcats 7-6 (3-6)
Let me be clear: Arizona’s conference record was worse than Arizona State’s and they even lost to Arizona State – by a considerable amount – in their annual head to head matchup. Why, then, are they ranked ahead of the Sun Devils? Two reasons. 1) Arizona won their bowl game, against New Mexico, and 2) More importantly, Arizona State struggled because of incompetency from the coaches and physical limits from the players, but Arizona struggled largely because of injuries.
Star linebacker Scooby Wright III missed multiple games throughout the season with various recurring injuries and QB Anu Solomon, the Wildcats’ breakout player of the year in 2014, also missed time. Head coach Rich Rodriguez was then forced to alternate between Jerrard Randall and Brandon Dawkins in Solomon’s stead, neither of which were particularly impressive. When Solomon did play, he was still clearly hampered by the injuries, as well. At the very least, Rodriguez got some great contributions out of his two starting running backs, Jared Baker and Nick Wilson, who combined for 1,523 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. Baker graduates this year, but Wilson will return and should be able to embrace his role as workhorse back.
But perhaps the biggest win for the Wildcats was keeping their coach. Rodriguez traveled to South Carolina to interview for the head coaching job, in which he would have replaced legendary coach Steve Spurrier. According to reports, Rodriguez turned down their offer and chose to stay in Tucson. This is good news for Wildcats fans because, sure, Rodriguez may have a losing record against PAC-12 teams during his tenure at Arizona, but the job of replacing Rodriguez would have been much harder to do. As a native of the state of Arizona, I can tell you that it’d be pretty difficult to convince someone to spend any amount of time in Tucson.
Additionally, Rodriguez has already set about the process of improving his team. In the time it took me to write this article, Rodriguez announced the dismissal of defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Jeff Casteel and defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich. Perhaps this move will bring about some better results for the Wildcats defense in 2016.
#8: Cal Golden Bears 8-5 (4-5)
You may be surprised to see the Golden Bears so low on this list. To be honest, I’m a bit surprised too. But the Golden Bears fall in these power rankings because of all the wasted potential that was their 2015 season. With potential top-10 draft pick Jared Goff at QB, the Golden Bears were expected to be in the race for the PAC-12 North divisional title. And through the first five weeks, they were. After beating out the surprisingly competitive Washington State Cougars, Cal reached a 5-0 start and had sole possession of first in the North. They snuck into the Top 25 rankings at 23 as they traveled to Utah to take on the then #5 Utes. It was a knock-down, drag-out brawl between the two and, down by six points, Goff was driving the Golden Bears down the field with less than a minute left. However, a failed 4th down conversion sealed the 30-24 win for the Utes. Still, the Golden Bears were very much in the driver’s seat of their division, but the Utah game served as the kickstarter for a four game losing streak. Ultimately, Cal lost five of their final seven games to finish 7-5 overall, 4-5 in conference play. Their only wins over that disappointing post-Utah stretch were against Oregon State and Arizona State.
Of course, Cal went to the Armed Forces Bowl and enjoyed a 55-36 win, largely on the shoulders of Goff, who threw for 467 yards and 6 touchdowns with no interceptions. Over the course of the whole season, Goff was one of the nation’s best, completing 65% of his passes for 4,719 yards and 43 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, with 5 of those picks coming in the Utah matchup. And that’s the point: Jared Goff was the one who was supposed to take the program to new heights, and he was on his way early in the season. But a deflating loss to a vastly superior team had a much more lasting effect on the team than it should have, and head coach Sonny Dykes is responsible for letting that happen.
Now, with Goff leaving for the draft, the Golden Bears are left with a team that will undoubtedly take some steps back next year. In the history books, the 2015 Cal Golden Bears will be described as the team of “What-Ifs?”, a disappointing legacy to leave after such a hot start to the season.
#7: Washington Huskies 7-6 (4-5)
The second season under new head coach Chris Petersen was supposed to be problematic. Their starting QB from 2014, Cyler Miles, retired due to a chronic hip injury, and their top four defenders from a season ago (CB Marcus Peters, pass rusher Hau’oli Kikaha, NT Danny Shelton, LB/S/RB/anything you ask him to do Shaq Thompson) all got drafted to the NFL. And yet, the Huskies opened up their season with a narrow 3-point loss to then #23 Boise State.
A 7-6 finish is a miracle given all of the challenges this team faced. The best part of it all, though, was the emergence of two true freshmen, QB Jake Browning and RB Myles Gaskin. Browning became the starter and threw for 2,955 yards and 16 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, while Gaskin averaged 5.7 yards per carry on his way to 1,302 total rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. Washington went on to win the Heart of Dallas Bowl by outscoring the nation’s 5th best offense of Southern Miss 44-31.
When you consider that five of Washington’s six losses were to teams that finished with a winning record, it indicates how close this team is to becoming a divisional title contender. And the potential of the Browning-Gaskin duo should be scary to any team that has to face the Huskies over the next three years. This is a program that is very much on the rise.
#6: UCLA Bruins 8-5 (5-4)
The 2015 Bruins were a lot like the 2015 Golden Bears: wasted potential. There was a point where the Bruins were 7-2 and looked like the eventual winners of the PAC-12 South. True freshman QB Josh Rosen was emerging as the best freshman QB in the nation and RB Paul Perkins was burning defenses left and right, while the defense was playing some of its best football despite missing their star linebacker and likely top 5 draft pick Myles Jack. All the Bruins needed to do was avoid falling into the trap that was Washington State, and then beat both Utah and USC. They only did one of those things, beating Utah 17-9, but were blown out by USC 40-21 for a third place finish in the division a mere three weeks after being in first.
Now, the impending graduation of Perkins and Jack, as well as several wide receivers, defensive linemen, and a couple offensive linemen, have put the Bruins in a bind. They had a huge mass of talent at every position this year, with the biggest preseason question mark revolving around how well Rosen could adjust to NCAA play. Well, Rosen adjusted very well, throwing 3,670 yards and 23 touchdowns to 11 interceptions, as well as running in for 2 touchdowns. The injury to Jack was supposed to destroy UCLA’s chances, but they powered through. Why, then, were they unable to win three winnable games and clinch their division?
As murky as their roster looks for next year, it may get even worse for UCLA, as NFL Insider Michael Silver reported that UCLA head coach Jim Mora is one of two college head coaches (along with Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin) looking to jump to the NFL. Meanwhile, UCLA fans wait with baited breath to see what their football team’s prospects in 2016 will look like.
#5: Oregon Ducks 9-4 (7-2)
Prior to the start of the season, I predicted the impending downfall of the Oregon program under head coach Mark Helfrich. I said that this year, now that Marcus Mariota is gone, would be the tip of the iceberg for the program’s doomsday process. I’m here to proclaim that I was right. After losing to Washington State in OT, Oregon fell to 3-3 and fell out of the Top 25 for the first time since 2009, Chip Kelly’s first season as head coach in Eugene. Of course, the Ducks then went on a six game winning streak to finish the regular season, but only two of those six wins were against Top 25 schools (Stanford and USC).
Not to mention that many of their early struggles were due to the absence of QB Vernon Adams Jr. due to injury. Their two backups, Jeff Lockie and Taylor Alie, were heavy contributors to the Ducks’ struggles over that period of time. This past weekend, Oregon played TCU and took a 31-0 lead into halftime. Adams got hurt just before halftime, and it led to a complete self-destruct as TCU, playing with a backup of their own for the whole game, outscored Oregon 31-0 in the second half, took the game into three OT’s and ultimately won 47-41, which tied a record for largest overtime comeback in the history of any bowl game.
Given that Oregon this year was 3-4 without Adams and 6-0 with Adams, it would seem that the senior QB’s departure will severely hurt the Ducks next year, as Helfrich will have to pick his poison between Lockie and Alie. But that’s not the worst part for Oregon: offensive coordinator Scott Frost, the coach who Chip Kelly personally took under his wing during his days at Oregon, has left the Ducks to become the head coach at UCF.
Oregon was able to peek over the edge and step back from oblivion this year, but the beginning of the end may have just happened. Stay tuned for the 2016 season.
#4: Washington State Cougars 9-4 (6-3)
Talk about a huge surprise. After finishing 3-9 a year earlier, not much was expected from the Cougars, and they even landed the 11th spot on my preseason PAC-12 power rankings. Yet, the Cougars managed an impressive 9-win season, including marquee wins over Oregon and UCLA, as well as a narrow 2 point loss to Stanford. The stellar season led to a contract extension for head coach Mike Leach through the 2020 season.
The offensive gameplan for Leach is admittedly simple: throw the ball, a lot. It’s not that creative, but when it works, it’s a beautiful thing to watch, and it worked to great success in 2015. Sophomore QB Luke Falk improved leaps and bounds, accruing 4,561 yards through the air and tossing 38 touchdowns to only 8 interceptions. The running game did its part, combining for 1,046 total yards and 8 rushing touchdowns, and the defense was significantly less porous, allowing only 27 points per game as opposed to the 39 points per game that the defense surrendered in 2014.
With Falk growing more over the offseason and the confidence that Leach’s program must be feeling right now, the Cougars are primed for another great season in 2016 after winning the Sun Bowl to finish the year.
#3: Utah Utes 10-3 (6-3)
By all accounts, the aforementioned slugfest that was the Utah-Cal game midway through the season should have been a mere primer for the PAC-12 title game, assuming that both teams could simply keep their momentum going. We’ve been over Cal’s deconstruction to end the season, but Utah suffered a similar fate, though less painful.
The Utes got off to a hot start, beating Michigan in their season opener in a game that looks a lot better now that we’ve seen how great Harbaugh’s Wolverines were. But the Utes really made a name for themselves when they throttled the Oregon Ducks into near extinction, beating Oregon 62-20 on the Ducks’ home turf. This sent the Utes shooting up the rankings to #5 in the nation, and they eventually reached #3 in the national rankings after beating both Cal and Arizona State. Could Utah make the College Football Playoff? They were certainly in a position to do so.
But a surprising 42-24 upset loss to USC derailed everything. Sure, Utah managed to win the two games after that, but back to back losses to underwhelming Arizona and UCLA put the final nail in the coffin for Utah. But it was their performance against BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl that perfectly summed up the season. After taking a commanding 35-0 lead into halftime and looking every bit like that #3 team, they allowed BYU to score 28 unanswered points in the second half and the Utes just barely held on for the win.
Still, though, it was a significant step forward for a program that is still very new to the PAC-12. In five years, when we look back on the dynasty that is Utah, it will be this season that is remembered as the start of it all.
#2: USC Trojans 8-6 (6-3)
After starting with a 1-2 conference record, including going 0-2 at home, and a head coach with a serious alcohol abuse problem, Steve Sarkisian was relieved of his coaching duties at USC and offensive coordinator Clay Helton was made the interim head coach for the second time in three years. You’d be forgiven if you thought USC was on their way to a terrible record; we all expected an implosion from the Trojans. Except for Helton.
After narrowly losing to Notre Dame in Helton’s debut, USC launched themselves on a four game winning streak and finished with a blowout win against their bitter rival UCLA, a win that clinched the PAC-12 North division for the Trojans. After such a miraculous turnaround, Helton was named the full time head coach for USC, and rightfully so. Some of the shine was wiped off in the shellacking USC underwent at the hands of Stanford in the conference title game, and a narrow defeat by Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl didn’t help much. But that doesn’t change the fact that Helton gives the Trojans something they haven’t had since the days of Pete Carroll: a coach that knows how to win.
#1: Stanford Cardinal 12-2 (8-1)
As if there was any doubt.
What should I talk about first? The PAC-12 title that Stanford won in impressive fashion? The 45-16 demolition they unleashed on Iowa in the Rose Bowl? Or the fact that Christian McCaffrey is hands-down the best all-around player in college football?
I’ll start with McCaffrey. This kid is just finishing his sophomore season and he already broke Barry Sanders’ record for most all-purpose yards in a single season, as well as breaking the record for most all-purpose yards in Rose Bowl history. He averaged 6 yards per carry on his way to 2,019 rushing yards and 8 rushing touchdowns, as well as leading the Cardinal in receptions with 45, which he took for 645 yards and 5 receiving touchdowns. But that’s not all. McCaffrey also threw three passes on trick plays, and he completed two of them, both of which went for touchdowns. If you’re keeping track, McCaffrey is also on pace to save the rainforests and end nuclear proliferation next year.
But Stanford doesn’t owe all of their success to McCaffrey. QB Kevin Hogan did throw more touchdowns, after all. In fact, Hogan rebounded from a mediocre 2014 campaign to complete 68% of his passes and throw 27 touchdowns to only 8 interceptions. The defense was predictably stingy yet again, allowing only 22 points per game. After such a disappointing 2014 season, it was nice to see the Cardinal rebound in such a huge way and take their place as the best team in the PAC-12.
After their absolute domination of the higher-ranked Iowa in the Rose Bowl, it makes you wonder what would have happened if Stanford had made the College Football Playoff over a team like, say, Oklahoma. Oh well. All we know for certain is that Stanford was dominant in 2015 and that Christian McCaffrey is far and away the frontrunner for the Heisman in 2016.