The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 22, 2017

2017 Pac-12 Preview

The Pac-12 has not had a member win the National Championship in quite some time. Washington and Oregon made trips to the Playoffs in recent years, but they came up short. USC won multiple national titles earlier in this century, and Washington shared one with Miami back in 1991, but this once toughest conference has come up short ever since Vince Young scored the winning touchdown for Texas against USC in 2005.

The Trojans might have won an additional national title in this century had the four team playoffs been in existence in 2002. While unbeated Ohio State and unbeaten Miami played a memorable championship game, it was USC that was clearly the best team in the nation at the end of the year. The Trojans went 11-2, and 12 of the 13 teams on their schedule went to bowls. The Tojans split the title with LSU in 2003 and won the title outright in 2004. They went 38-2 in a three-year period losing only to Young and Texas and Aaron Rodgers and Cal. Since that time, 11 of the last 12 national champions have come from South of the Mason-Dixon Line. Can this be the year the Pac-12 breaks through with another national champion?

USC and Washington both appear to be contenders for playoff bid during the preseason. In today’s college football world, the quarterback is just as vital as the position in the NFL. The Trojans and Huskies both have top 5 signal callers directing their attacks. Sam Darnold took over a 1-3 Trojan team and guided USC to nine consecutive victories. Washington’s Jake Browning led the Huskies to the Playoff semi-finals, before UW bowed out against Alabama.

There are three other teams with the type of quality QB that can lead a school to a conference championship. Washington State’s Luke Falk is now a senior, and when QB’s under Mike Leach’s tutelage reach their fourth year in the program, they tend to lead the conference and the nation in total offense. Look for WSU to continue to advance forward from the surprise 2016 season.

Josh Rosen leads the UCLA offense, but like so many past Bruin quarterbacks, injuries have sort of derailed his career. A healthy Rosen is capable of leading the Bruins to a record reversal or better in Westwood. A 4- 8 disappointment in 2016, led Coach Jim Mora, Jr. to overhaul his assistant coaching corps.

Oregon is another team that disappointed in 2016. It cost Mark Helfrich his job. Enter new coach Willie Taggart, who turned around programs at Western Kentucky and South Florida. At his two prior stops, Taggart’s first editions have taken their lumps learning to play his style of ball, but he did not have a quarterback with the talent of Justin Herbert at either past school. Look for the Ducks to turn things around quickly and become bowl-eligible again this season. Give Taggart three years, and Oregon will be challenging for the Pac-12 North title again.

Here is how the Pac-12 Media voted in the preseason.

 

Pac-12 North Division
# Team 1st Pl. Total Champ.
1 Washington 49 309 22
2 Stanford 1 247 0
3 Washington St. 1 206 0
4 Oregon 1 163 1
5 Oregon St. 0 101 0
6 California 0 64 0
         
Pac-12 South Division
# Team 1st Pl. Total Champ.
1 USC 49 309 28
2 Utah 1 220 1
3 UCLA 1 209 0
4 Colorado 1 182 0
5 Arizona St. 0 109 0
6 Arizona 0 61 0

The PiRate, Mean, and Bias Ratings agree on the division leaders, but our ratings show a different order to start the season. Bear in mind that our ratings factor depth and other factors that could help a team improve (or decline) in the ratings more than another team with the same results, based on this factor. USC is one of those teams that has a chance to improve more than average, so by late November, the Trojans could be rated higher than Washington, even if both teams go 11-1 and face off in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

Pac-12 Conference
North Division        
Team PiRate Mean Bias Average
Washington 129.3 125.1 130.3 128.2
Washington St. 119.4 116.1 118.6 118.0
Stanford 118.5 116.2 117.1 117.3
Oregon 110.6 107.2 109.6 109.1
Oregon St. 102.5 101.7 101.1 101.8
California 97.8 95.3 95.7 96.3
         
South Division        
Team PiRate Mean Bias Average
U S C 120.4 120.1 120.8 120.4
Colorado 114.1 111.5 111.8 112.4
U C L A 108.6 107.7 108.0 108.1
Utah 105.4 108.1 105.6 106.4
Arizona St. 103.7 103.7 102.5 103.3
Arizona 98.3 97.1 95.9 97.1
         
Pac-12 Averages 110.7 109.1 109.8 109.9

And, here are our not-so-scientific predictions for won-loss and bowl projections.

Pac-12 Conference Projected Standings
North Division
Team Conference Overall Bowl
Washington 9-0 12-1 Fiesta
Washington St. 7-2 10-2 Alamo
Stanford 6-3 9-3 Holiday
Oregon 5-4 8-4 Foster Farms
Oregon St. 2-7 4-8  
California 1-8 2-10  
       
South Division
Team Conference Overall Bowl
USC 7-2 11-2 PLAYOFFS
Utah 5-4 8-4 Sun
UCLA 5-4 7-5 Las Vegas
Colorado 4-5 7-5 Cactus
Arizona St. 1-8 3-9  
Arizona 1-8 3-9  
       
USC to win Pac-12 Championship Game

Coming Tomorrow: The Atlantic Coast Conference–Does Florida State deserve its lofty preseason rating? How much will Clemson suffer without Deshaun Watson, Mike Williams, and Wayne Gallman? Can Louisville challenge the two behemoths? Is there a dark horse team lurking, maybe North Carolina State? In the Coastal, can any team finish better than 6-2 in league play, or will there be a major logjam with four or five teams contending for the division flag?

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August 22, 2016

2016 Pac-12 Conference Football Preview

Filed under: College Football — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — piratings @ 5:45 am

The Pac-12 was the odd league out last season in the NCAA Playoffs, as league champion Stanford saw their chances to earn a bid end before they started last year. An opening week loss at Northwestern in which the Cardinal could not run the ball and could not average even 4.5 yards per pass attempt. After that game, Stanford averaged more than 40 points per game the rest of the season and almost 10 yards per pass attempt. It culminated with a blowout win over Iowa in the Rose Bowl.

This season, Stanford begins the year as our choice to be the fourth seed in the 2017 FBS Playoffs, but their path to the conference championship is cluttered by nine additional teams fully capable of beating anybody else in this league. The Pac-12 will be as competitive as it has ever been, and the PiRate believe that 10 teams will earn bowl elibility this season, including the entire South Division. Yes, even Colorado is improved enough to go 6-6 and earn its first bowl bid in nine years.

The North Division has the two bottom-feeding teams to begin the 2016 season. California must start over with a major rebuild after losing top draft selection Jared Goff and the top six pass receivers on offense and their top three defensive stars. The Golden Bears and Oregon State, which has returned to their familiar position of the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s, will fight it out in Corvallis in early October to see which team will avoid a possible 0-9 conference record.

The other four teams in the North Division will make for an excellent race this year. Stanford is the favorite to begin the season, but the Cardinal are not a shoo-in to win their division, much less the overall league championship. A new quarterback must be found to replace Kevin Hogan, but Coach David Shaw has a happy decision to make in replacing him. Both Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns are highly talented and able to put up better overall stats than Hogan.

Of course, whoever wins the starting job, or even if it becomes a platoon, the number one job for the QBs will be handing the ball off to Christian McCaffrey 25 times a game and getting out of the way. McCaffrey begins the season as one of two top candidates for the Heisman Trophy (Clemson’s DeShaun Watson being the other). McCaffrey led the Cardinal with more than 2,000 rushing yards in 2015, and he also led the team in receptions and receiving yards. A reloaded offensive line should allow SU to stay consistently strong all year, and hopefully for fans on The Farm, the team will not lay an egg in September, when most of the difficult games will be played.

Washington is the sexy pick of many pundits to win the North this year, as the Huskies return a lot of talent from a 7-6 team, including two capable quarterbacks and a running back that scored 14 rushing touchdowns and who will be running behind an experienced and talented offensive line.

The Huskies have a chance to be 4-0 when they face Stanford on Friday night, September 30, but they could also be 0-1 in the league and looking at elimination with a loss to SU.

Oregon missed Marcus Mariota enough to lose four games for the first time since 2007. The Ducks look to be in the same boat again this year, lacking enough offensive consistency to win games 52-42 every week, while having a defense that could give up 40 points per game in conference play. Adding a road game in Lincoln against Nebraska plus facing USC and Utah on the road from the other division means the Ducks are likely to lose four games again this year.

The Pirate worked his magic again last year. Coach Mike Leach guided Washington State to its first nine-win season in a dozen years. The Cougars shaved 11 points per game off their 2014 defensive average, while continuing to pass the ball better than any other team in the land. Luke Falk completed nearly 70% of his passes in his first year as a starter in Pullman with a TD/INT ratio of 38 to 8. Most of Falk’s receivers are back, and the pass blockers are talented enough to allow Falk time to find them. The WSU offense should be even better this year, and after averaging around 31 points per game for three years running, this team should top 35 per game this season. Keep an eye on this team: they could be the dark horse to challenge Stanford.

There is no clear-cut favorite in the South Division, and it would not be at all surprising if multiple teams finished tied for first at 6-3 or even 5-4. Home field advantages in Boulder, Salt Lake City, Tempe, Tucson, and Los Angeles are enough to turn underdogs into favorites, and no team in this division has the talent to be a prohibitive favorite over another team.

Somebody has to win a trip to the Conference Championship Game, and our choice from among the six fairly equal teams is USC. The Trojans must replace Cody Kessler at QB, but their offense is deep and talented, albeit not dominating everywhere else. Max Browne is the new starting quarterback. He has played sparingly in two seasons, but the former top QB in the 2012 class has a rifle arm and can throw the ball 50-60 yards with ease.

The Trojan defense will be suspect at the start of the season, especially up front where there will be an entirely new starting defensive line and two new linebackers. If any type of pass rush can be generated, the secondary could lead the league in interceptions, as the Trojans are loaded in the back of the defense.

UCLA has the missing the experienced quarterback in Josh Rosen, but the Bruins have a lot of holes to plug everywhere else on the offense. The Bruins lost their star running back and top two receivers, as well as three star offensive linemen. Rosen might be running for his life a bit too much for the Bruin offense to excel this year.

Defensively, The Sons of Westwood could lead the division in fewest points and yard allowed. 15 of the top 17 tacklers from 2015 are back including the entire front four and six of the front seven.

Arizona State, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado could play each other 100 times each and all win 50 times. There is very little separating these four teams, as each has its own strengths and exploitable weaknesses. Home field advantage should allow the quartet to pick up key conference wins in their paths to bowl eligibility. Other than Colorado’s September 17 game at Michigan, these teams should win all their remaining non-conference games this year. Hosting Oregon State, Arizona State, UCLA, Washington State, and Utah should give the Buffaloes a 50-50 chance at finding four additional wins after securing two against Colorado State and Idaho, so CU has a fighting chance to give 4th year coach Mike MacIntyre his first bowl team in Boulder.

Here is how the Pac-12 Media predicted the standings.

Pac-12 North Division
# Team 1st Pl. Total Champ.
1 Stanford 24 186 20
2 Washington 8 163 4
3 Oregon 1 132  
4 Washington St. 0 112  
5 California 0 67  
6 Oregon St. 0 33  
         
Pac-12 South Division
# Team 1st Pl. Total Champ.
1 UCLA 19 180 3
2 USC 12 173 5
3 Utah 2 127 1
4 Arizona 0 87  
5 Arizona St. 0 85  
6 Colorado 0 63  

Here is how the PiRate Ratings show the league at the start of the season.

Pac-12 Conference
North Division        
Team PiRate Mean Bias Average
Stanford 121.3 112.8 120.4 118.2
Washington 119.4 110.4 119.1 116.3
Oregon 112.8 111.8 111.7 112.1
Washington St. 112.3 107.6 112.0 110.7
California 104.7 93.3 101.0 99.7
Oregon St. 97.8 93.0 95.0 95.3
         
South Division        
Team PiRate Mean Bias Average
USC 119.7 114.3 118.0 117.3
UCLA 110.9 110.2 110.3 110.5
Arizona St. 108.7 109.2 107.7 108.6
Utah 111.4 105.3 108.9 108.5
Arizona 107.2 105.2 106.1 106.2
Colorado 107.0 102.1 107.0 105.4
         
Pac-12 Averages 111.1 106.3 109.8 109.1

 

The PiRate Ratings are meant to be used only to predict the outcomes of the next week of games, and are not best used to predict beyond that point. Because we use algorithms that include automatic adjustments by each team based on depth and experience, two different teams can win by the exact score we predict, and their new ratings might change differently.

Thus, using our ratings to predict won-loss records and bowl projections is a bit comical, but then we all need some laughs every now and then. So, laugh away at our projected standings and bowls.

Pac-12 Conference Projected Standings
North Division
Team Conference Overall Bowl
Stanford 8-1 12-1 * Playoffs–Peach
Washington 7-2 10-2 Rose
Oregon 6-3 8-4 Holiday
Washington St. 5-4 8-4 Foster Farms
California 1-8 2-10  
Oregon St. 0-9 1-11  
       
South Division
Team Conference Overall Bowl
USC 7-2 9-4 Alamo
UCLA 6-3 7-5 Sun
Arizona St. 4-5 7-5 Las Vegas
Colorado 4-5 6-6 [St. Petersburg] *
Arizona 3-6 6-6 [Armed Forces] *
Utah 3-6 6-6 Cactus
       
* Colorado’s and Arizona’s bowl bids are at-large invitations

 

Coming Tomorrow: The Atlantic Coast Conference was once the weakest of the Power 5 leagues and arguably only on par with the old Big East Conference.  Now, the ACC is number two for the first time ever.

August 20, 2015

2015 Pac-12 Conference Preview

The Pac-12 Conference almost made the leap to the top Power 5 league in our preseason ratings this year.  At number two, the Pac-12 was just a few tenths of a point behind the perpetual powerhouse known as the Southeastern Conference.  However, a couple of key injuries in the SEC in recent days has actually catapulted the Pac-12 a few tenths of a point ahead.

The Pac-12 schedule is a little stronger this year than its chief competitor league, as this league plays far fewer FCS schools than the SEC, and because it plays nine conference games, the Pac-12 teams have more difficult road games than the SEC.  That said, the power rating averages for the two leagues are virtually identical (although the ratings will not be fully updated until the end of the month).

Like the SEC, the Pac-12 is not all that balanced in quality between its two divisions.  The North Division has two top teams in Oregon and Stanford, one team on the rise but still not powerful in California, and three rebuilding teams in Washington, Washington St., and Oregon St.

In the South, with Colorado returning a lot of experience and depth, it is possible that all six teams will become bowl eligible.  Also, since the nine-game schedule means inter-divisional games include four of every team’s nine total league games, with all the parity, it appears that no team will go undefeated in the league and probable that the winners of both divisions could be 7-2.  And, at 7-2 in league play, there will be little chance that the actual toughest conference will send a team to the playoffs.

In the North Division, Oregon and Stanford will battle it out to see which team advances to Levi’s Stadium to play in the Pac-12 Championship Game.  These two rivals have won the conference championship for six consecutive seasons.  Stanford was a bit down last year, while Oregon had its best squad since the 2010 team played in the National Championship Game.

Both teams suffered major personnel losses from last year.  Stanford must replace seven starters on defense including their front three (two were NFL Draft picks) and the two of the top defensive backs in the league (also NFL Draft choices).  However, Coach David Shaw had a lot of depth on this side of the ball, and we do not see the Cardinal becoming generous when the other team has the ball.  After giving up just 16 points per game last year, SU may give up 21 to 23 this year.

The Stanford offense was a bit inconsistent last year.  In losses to USC, Notre Dame, Arizona St., Oregon, and Utah, the Cardinal rushed for just 115 yards per game.  In their eight wins, SU rushed for 186 yards per game.  It led to Stanford dropping to its lowest rushing output since before Jim Harbaugh brought the smashmouth style of ball to Palo Alto in 2007.  With nine starters returning on this side of the ball, the Cardinal should be a little more consistent this year.  This will never be an offense that wows like Oregon, but the SU attack unit better helps the Cardinal defense by controlling the ball more and keeping the defense off the field.
Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan almost decided to transfer as a 5th year senior, but he thought twice and remained on the farm.  Hogan is considered the most underrated passer in the conference, and having the veteran return is worth an extra touchdown per game.  Hogan completed nearly 2/3 of his passes last year for nearly eight yards per attempt.

Hogan’s heroes on the other end of his passes are talented.  Even with the departure of incredible possession receiver Ty Montgomery, the Cardinal are deep with receiving talent.  Tight end Austin Hooper is NFL ready as a true sophomore.  Wideout Devon Cajuste will stretch the field vertically with his breakaway ability.

The running game relies more on depth than one star, as there are no Stepfan Taylor’s on the roster.  Remond Wright, Christian McCaffrey, and maybe a true freshman or too will rotate in the lineup.  Wright can run straight ahead a little better ,while McCaffrey is the better pass receiver.  True freshman Cameron Scarlett has the potential to be the multi-purpose back Stanford likes to use, but he is a true freshman.

Stanford has the best offensive line in the division with two potential high draft choices in guard Joshua Garrett and tackle Kyle Murphy.

As stated earlier, the Cardinal defense will take a minor step backward this season, but there is still talent on this side of the ball.  Inside linebacker Blake Martinez will contend for 1st team All-Pac-12 honors this year after leading SU with 102 tackles in 2014.  Outside linebacker Kevin Anderson is a better blitzer than pass defender, but he has all-conference potential as well.  Outside linebacker Peter Kalambayi is not as strong of a blitzer as Anderson, but he is a better pass defender, so the SU linebacker unit will be strong this year.

The keys to the success or lack thereof of this defense will be in the rebuilt front wall and in the secondary.  Somebody will have to step up to replace the efforts of departed stars Henry Anderson, James Vaughters, and David Perry, who combined for 22.5 sacks and 33.5 total tackles for loss.

Stanford’s schedule helps and hurts their chances to become a playoff team.  The Cardinal host Oregon this year and figures to be the favorite in this game.  They also host Notre Dame, a team that could be 11-0 when they come to the farm.  On the other hand, SU plays road games against Northwestern and USC early in the year, and it might be difficult if not impossible to win both games.  Then, of course, in order to get to the playoffs, they would have to win the Conference Championship Game.  In a balanced league with five or six teams good enough to win the league crown, we don’t see Stanford or any other Pac-12 team making it to the Final Four this year.

Oregon is the clear cut other contender in the Pac-12 North.  The Ducks may have been the best team in the nation until numerous injuries forced them to go with backups late in the year.  Ohio State had to replace their starting quarterback twice, and they had incredible depth at that position, but Oregon lost multiple offensive linemen and did not have the equivalent of multiple Cardale Jones’, and it cost the Ducks in their regular season loss against Arizona (a dozen sacks against Marcus Mariota!)

The Heisman Trophy winner is rarely easily replaceable, and in this case, replacing a quarterback that threw 42 touchdown passes with just four interceptions, while amassing 4,454 yards through the air and another 770 on the ground (more than 900 without the sacks), is totally impossible.  Transfer Vernon Adams might be one of the top five QBs in the league, whereas Mariota was the best in college football in years!

The Duck offensive line is not going to be as strong as last year’s as well, so Adams is going to face more pressure than Mariota did, with the exception of when the injuries left Mariota running for his life.  The running game will go down as well, as run blocking will be harder to learn than pass blocking.  Expect Royce Freeman’s numbers to go down some this year, if not in total yards gained, then in yards per carry.

The Oregon defense took some heavy losses, but there is talent in all three units.  End DeForest Buckner is a capable run stopper and pass rusher.  The secondary is a tad suspect this year, as no current player can replace Erick Dargan or Troy Hill.

The Ducks’ schedule should bring them back to the pack and more than likely behind Stanford in the standings, if only due to the tiebreaker.  Oregon must make a road trip to a revenge-seeking Michigan State team that may be playing for a chance to get into the playoffs if they can run the table against the other 11 opponents on their schedule not wearing scarlet and gray.  The Ducks play at Stanford and at Arizona State, and they also draw USC from the South, so this team will find great difficulty winning 10 regular season games.

California improved from 0-9/1-11 in 2013 to 3-6/5-7 last year under second year coach Sonny Dykes.  The Golden Bears added more than two touchdowns per game to their pass it all over the field offense, but their defense still gave up 40 points and 500+ yards per game.  This year, Cal should add points to its offensive average and shave off points on its defensive average, but they won’t challenge the top two in this division.  Look for the Bears to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2011, but with road games against Texas, Uta, UCLA, Oregon, and Stanford, as well as a home game against USC, Cal will become bowl eligible and play in one of the minor bowls, maybe even having to replace a team as an at-large candidate.

Washington took a small step backwards last year under first year coach Chris Petersen.  Like the other former Boise State coaches, Petersen was unable to work the magic at his new school, and the Huskies lost six times, while going just 4-5 in the league.  This year’s squad has been decimated by graduation, and UW will lose more than they win.  To make matters worse, the Huskies begin the season at the blue turf in Boise, and the Broncos will prevail with an easy win.  A game three match at home against Utah State will be tough, and then the next seven games (Cal, at USC, Oregon, at Stanford, Arizona, Utah, and at Arizona St.) will take its toll on this young team.  How they come out of that tough stretch will determine if UW can win at Oregon St. or at home against Washington St. for the Apple Cup.

The Pirate has been grounded ashore in Pullman, Washington.  Coach Mike Leach has not pilfered wins at Washington St. like he did at Texas Tech.  The Cougars have put up incredible passing numbers, but sacks and no running game has allowed defenses to force a lot of turnovers.  70-yard drives that end without points have become the norm here, and decent but not spectacular defenses have worn down having to play upwards of 75 plays per game.  This year, WSU returns a veteran offensive line that should provide better pass protection for the passing game.  However, an adequate passer has to be found.  Luke Falk saw action last year, but he averaged an interception for every 34.7 attempts.  When you pass the ball as much as 70 times in a game, two interceptions are enough to give you an “L”.

Oregon State starts over from scratch with a new coach, a new quarterback, and practically an entirely new defense.  The Beavers have seen their win total drop from nine to seven to five in the last three years, and it is easy to believe the trend will continue this year.  New head coach Gary Andersen has won at every stop he has made in his head coaching career, so he should eventually bring OSU back to where they were for most of this century and not take the program back to where it was for the 30+ years before that.

Andersen has not yet named a starting quarterback, but true freshman Seth Collins may have the edge.  Collins is not your typical true freshman candidate to start at quarterback, and this means the Beavers are lacking a Pac-12 caliber passer this season.  Whoever ends up at QB will have at least one star and one near star receiver at his disposal.  Victor Bolden (star) and Jordan Villamin (near star) should combine for 100+ receptions again after teaming for 108 last year.

The defense is in a major rebuilding mode and can be considered in disarray at the start of the year.  The top six tacklers from last year are gone.  Also gone are all of the players that intercepted a pass.  Among those expected to start this year, one has been dismissed.  So, it could be a long year in Corvallis, and OSU could go 0-9 in league play.

The South Division is going to be wide open, as five of the six teams could possibly contend for the division crown, while the sixth should be improved enough to become bowl eligible.

How do you separate USC, UCLA, Arizona St. Arizona, and Utah?  Picking one of these five teams to win the division is tough, and you would not be criticized for choosing any of this quintet.  What it means is that the winner of this division is sure to have multiple losses.  We believe the division champion will be 7-2, but it would not shock us to see a logjam of 6-3 teams.

One team must be the South Division representative in the Pac-12 Championship Game, so we will go with the chalk and choose USC to win the tiebreaker at the top.  The Trojans have the best quarterback in the league, and in recent years the Pac-12 team with the best quarterback has won the conference championship.  Cody Kessler is not only the top QB in the league, we rate him as the top QB in college football.  Had it not been for Mariota playing in the same conference, Kessler might have earned 1st team All-America honors last year when he completed 70% of his passes with 39 TDs and just 5 INTs, while averaging nearly 8.5 yards per attempt.

Had the Trojans not had to replace most of the receiving corps and their star running back, we might have picked USC to go 9-0 in the league and win the Conference Championship Game.  However, the Trojans’ cupboard is closer to bare than stocked at the wideout and running back positions.  JuJu Smith is the loner holdover contributing receiver, while Justin Davis takes over as the featured back.  Davis should top 1,000 yards rushing thanks to the league’s premier offensive line that returns all five starters from a year ago.

The USC defense should be somewhat stronger this year than last, when the Trojans surrendered 25.2 points and 408 yards per game.  Sam linebacker Su’a Cravens could be the next Trojan defender to grace the 1st Team All-American squad.  Cravens is a former safety.  His quickness means that most offensive linemen cannot stop him, while his strength means most blocking backs cannot move him.  Expect up to 20 stops for loss this year and a good number of picks from this star.

The only weakness in the USC defense might be in the pass rush.  USC dumped enemy quarterbacks 33 times, which is pedestrian in the pass-happy Pac-12.  If the Trojans are to become the USC of old, that number must go up about 30-35%.  Losing the best defensive lineman in college ball, Leonard Williams, to the NFL means it isn’t going to happen, and thus USC becomes a leading contender in the South Division rather than the clear-cut choice.

Jim Mora, Jr. took over a UCLA program that had struggled for several years, and in his first three years, the Bruins finished 9-5, 10-3, and 10-3.  The Bruins’ big conference nemesis has not been rival USC.  Stanford has their number, and until UCLA can top their northern rival, the Bruins are going to continue coming up a game short.  This year, the Stanford game is on the road, so it will take an incredible effort to end the long losing streak.

The first problem the Bruins will have this year is trying to replace Brett Hundley at quarterback.  Hundley was a dual threat QB, and his running and passing numbers will not be replaced by the returning QBs on this roster.  True freshman Josh Rosen is the nation’s top incoming quarterback, but no true freshman will match an NFL Draft pick.  Expect some mistakes with some incredible passing days, but it should keep the Bruins in the same spot in the pecking order–just behind first place.

Rosen will have a lot of support in the skill positions, as the receivers and backs are talented and deep.  Paul Perkins might lead the conference in rushing for the second year in a row, while the quintet of Jordan Payton, Thomas Duarte, Devin Fuller, Eldridge Massington, and Mossi Johnson (combined for 202 receptions, 2,504 yards, and 16 TDs) welcomes true freshman phenom Chris Clark to the fold.  Clark hopes to recover in time for the season from a bout of mononucleosis.

The entire offensive line returns intact this year, so Rosen will have all the tools needed to shine.  Center Jake Brendel might be the league’s top Rimington Award contender if it weren’t for his counterpart across town.  Tackle Caleb Benenoch will play on Sunday either next year or 2017.  The other tackle, Conor McDermott is still growing at 6-8 and 300+ pounds, and he could eventually become a first round pick in the draft.

The UCLA defense has been somewhat of a liability, but it is difficult to dominate on this side of the ball in the wide open conference.  One defensive player that shines is linebacker Myles Jack.  According to our player ratings, which we use to make the team ratings, Jack is the highest-rated player in the Pac-12 and the highest rated linebacker in college football.

UCLA did not have an exceptional pass rush last year, and this tested the secondary, leading to some poor pass defense days.  This year, the secondary figured to be much improved with five experienced starters returning,  but cornerback Priest Willis decided to try his trade in the SEC and transferred to Texas A&M.

Utah, Arizona, and Arizona State figure to challenge the two LA schools, but at the start of the 2015 season, we rate this trio a few points back and in the second tier.  The margins are close enough that with just a little improvement, any of these three teams can move up to the first tier.  We expect the unexpected in the Pac-12 South, so figure on at least one of these three teams to beat either USC or UCLA (or both) and be in the race in late November.

Arizona State head coach Todd Graham actually rates in the top five tier with Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, James Franklin, and Brian Kelly in our PiRate Ratings coaching factor.   We calculate that Graham gives his team about 6.5 points more per game than the average coach, and 15.5 points more than the equivalent of a “replacement coach” similar to a replacement player in baseball.

The 2015 Sun Devils return the bulk of the team that went into the final game against Arizona with a shot at winning the division, after winning the flag in 2013.  Quarterback Mike Bercovici takes over the reins of the offense in a full-time capacity after seeing spot starting duty last year.  He merely guided the Sun Devils to wins at USC and at home against Stanford, so ASU will continue to top 250 passing yards and 35 points per game this year.

All Pac-12 receiver Jaelen Strong took his 82 catches to the Houston Texans, but fret not for the Devils.  With D. J. Foster, Ellis Jefferson, Gary Chambers, and Kody Kohl returning, and with JUCO Gump Hayes joining this group, ASU will move the ball through the air with success again this year.

Demario Richard took over at running back as the season progressed, while Foster saw more and more playing time at receiver, and the Sun Devils have capable backups without Foster having to return to this spot.

The offensive line is what may prevent ASU from challenging USC and UCLA.  The unit is down a bit and lacks enough quality depth to keep pressure off Bersovici.

Defensively, the Sun Devils will be much improved this year with the return of 14 of their top 16 tacklers from 2014.  The strength of this side is an interior front that returns three starters including gargantuan nose tackle Mo Latu, a human Rock of Gibraltar.  Latu will not make many tackles, but offenses don’t really try to run at him, since he cannot be moved out of the way.  His presence allows linebackers Antonio Longino and Salamo Fiso to roam freely and make the plays.

The secondary features a couple of players with all-conference potential.  Cornerbacks Lloyd Carrington and Kweishi Brown and free safety Jordan Simone form a formidable trio.

Arizona State will get a good gauge on how talented they are when they open the season in Houston against Texas A&M.  The Sun Devils then face USC and UCLA in back-to-back weeks.  They could be 5-0 and in control in the South or as low as 2-3 at this point, and the early advancement of that offensive line is crucial.

Utah is starting to get more respect as one of the two new members of the league.  The Utes posted their first winning record in Pac-12 play last year, including wins over UCLA, USC, and Stanford.  If not for an upset loss at home to Washington St., Utah would have played Arizona in November with a chance to take the South Division title.

The Utes’ defense was a little better than their offense last year, but the stop troops lost three stars that will be hard to replace.  Nate Orchard recorded 18.5 sacks, and Eric Rowe was credited with 14 passes defended.  Both were high draft picks this Spring.

Fortunately for Coach Kyle Whittingham, defensive end Hunter Dimick returns.  Dimick dumped enemy quarterbacks 10 times last year.  Jason Fanaika added five sacks, but his spot in the lineup may be taken up by Kylie Fitts, a transfer from UCLA.  Last year, the Utes recorded 55 QB dumps, creating the moniker of “Sack Lake City.”  Expect the sacks to drop to the 40’s this year.

The back seven is led by multi-talented hybrid linebacker Gionni Paul and Mike linebacker Jared Norris.   Paul finished second in the league with four interceptions, while making 61 tackles, all the while playing on an injured leg.  He is healthy to start the season, so expect even better play from him.  Norris led the Utes with 116 tackles last year, including 13 for loss.

The offense is a bit shaky, not spectacular, but not incompetent.  Utah was the only Pac-12 team not to average 200 or more passing yards per game last year, and this could continue to be a problem in 2015.  As of this writing, the starting quarterback job is still undecided.  Three-year starter Travis Wilson is a decent run/pass option, but decent doesn’t win Pac-12 titles.  Challenger and former Oklahoma Sooner Kendal Thompson appeared to be winning the job last year until an injury ended his season.  In August drills, neither has stepped up to win the job, and the old saying “If you have two quarterbacks, you have none” could prove true (don’t tell this to Urban Meyer).

Utah’s running game helped their defense more than their passing game last year, as the Utes were the only team in this division not to average 150 total scrimmage plays in their conference games (Arizona topped 160).  Devontae Booker will challenge for the conference rushing title after coming in a close second last year.  Booker combines power and speed in the mold of an Eddie George or Eric Dickerson.

The receiving unit lacks a star.  It is partly because there isn’t a stud passer throwing the passes, but this unit also is partly responsible for there not being a star QB.  The one true deep threat from 2014 is gone, and it leaves a pair of possession receivers as the top two returnees.

The offensive line has talent but little depth.  Former defensive lineman Sam Tevi immediately moves into the starting lineup here, and he will need some real game play to learn how to play tackle.  Center Siaosi Aiono might contend for all-conference honors in another conference, but in the Pac 12, he is not even in the top three in this division.

Utah has one of the toughest schedules in the nation this year, as they play no cupcakes out of conference.  They begin with a home game against Michigan in Jim Harbaugh’s debut with the Maize and Blue.  A Friday night tilt against rival Utah State follows, and then a trip to Fresno State closes out the pre-Pac-12 slate, which begins at Oregon.  If Utah can win nine games again this season, Whittingham should receive some national coach of the year votes.

Arizona took the Pac-12 South flag last year with a perfect November, but after upsetting Oregon in the regular season, the Wildcats took a punishing loss in the conference title game, followed by a Fiesta Bowl loss to Boise State.  Coach Rich Rodriguez always has an explosive spread offense, and when he has an experienced quarterback, his teams’ numbers go up.  Anu Solomon returns after earning Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 honors as a freshman.  Solomon threw for almost 3,800 yards last year, while leading UA to almost 35 points per game and 463.6 yards per game.  Another year of experience could lead to some scary numbers, like 40 points and 500 yards per game.

Nick Wilson came in fourth in the league with 1,375 rushing yards, while crossing the goal line 16 times, doing so while injured for part of the year.  If healthy, Wilson could challenge the 1,800 yard barrier this year.

Most of the receiving corps from 2014 is back, led by Cayleb Jones and Samajie Grant.  Jones led the ‘Cats with 73 receptions and 1,019 yards, while Grant averaged 16 yards on his 45 catches.

Like their intrastate rival, Arizona’s liability is in their offensive line.  Inconsistent play last year led to breakdowns in their losses, and there appears to be little chance that this issue will be resolved in 2015.  Arizona cannot afford to surrender 40+ sacks, which might happen this year.

Defensively, the Wildcats did not put fear in many opponents.  UA gave up 450 yards per game, proving to be mediocre against the run and worse against the pass.  They won six of their games by outscoring the opposition, and they will have to repeat that again this year to have any chance of repeating as division champ.

One unit on this side that takes a back seat to no rival is the linebacker unit.  With Scooby Wright in the middle, some plus plays will always be made.  If tackles were votes, Wright would have won the Pac-12 race by a landslide last year.  He brought down enemies 163 times.  His 14 sacks were third best in the league, and his 29 total tackles for loss headed the league.

Will Parks leads an inexperienced secondary.  UA relies on a 5-man backfield, and Parks proved to be equally adept at covering the run and the pass last year playing the toughest defensive position in the game; the “spur” position is much like the old “monster” position from days gone by.  Parks must be a linebacker and a safety at the same time, and he proved he was up for the job last year.

Arizona will be competitive once again this year, but it will be difficult to repeat their feats of last year.  The Wildcats should be 3-0 when UCLA comes to Tucson in late September, and the entire season could be riding on getting the win in that game.  Even if UA wins that one, they have a major disadvantage with a schedule that finds them playing 12 games in 12 weeks (the only contender in the division saddled with this issue).

Colorado has yet to become a threat in the Pac-12.  The Buffaloes have been down since Gary Barnett was forced to vacate the coaching position a decade ago.  We believe CU has found the answer to their malaise in Coach Mike MacIntyre.  Coach Mac has been building toward this season, and with a favorable schedule that includes an extra game against Hawaii, our “experts” on the PiRate ship believe the Buffs are looking at a possible 14th game in December this year.

The CU offense averaged just 18 points and 300 yards before MacIntyre took over the reins.  In his first year, the output jumped to 25 points and 370 yards.  In year two, it moved up to 29 points and 440 yards.  If the progression continues, expect CU to top 30 points and 450 yards per game this year.  With experience returning at quarterback, running back, and receiver, as well as a majority of the offensive line, we believe those numbers are obtainable.

Start with Sefo Liufau, an exciting quarterback who only needs to cut down on his interceptions to become a budding star.  With two years of starting experience, Liufau should top 3,500 passing yards while reducing the picks (15 last year).  His top two targets from 2014 are back.  Nelson Spruce and Shay Fields caught a combined 150 passes for 1,6084 yards and 16 touchdowns, while showing that they both could break the long gainer.  Depth is a bit of a concern here, so they must stay healthy if CU is to reach bowl eligibility.

You will not see Christan Powell blazing the all-conference list, but you can expect him to top five yards per carry and protect Liufau from the blitz.  Look for Phillip Lindsay to contribute more this year as well.

The offensive line has improved greatly in the last two years, and it will be even better on the whole this year, but it is not up to the standards of USC and UCLA.  In a division of stars at the center spot, Alex Kelley will get little mention, but Kelley is the leader of this group and a capable blocker too.

Before the Buffs can become a legitimate threat in the South Division, the defense has to improve by leaps and bounds.  Expect some improvement this year, but not leaps and bounds.  With eight starters returning, CU can hope to get their statistics under 35 points and 450 yards per game for the first time since 2010.

The defensive line will be the number one concern for MacIntyre and new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt.  The man expected to lead this unit, nose tackle Josh Tupou, was dismissed, and then a freak off-field injury to end Tyler Henington left this unit in utter disarray.  It will be difficult to develop a decent pass rush, and this team only made 22 sacks last year.

The farther back you go in this defense, the more talent you find, but the linebackers and defensive backs will not be confused for Stanford’s.  Addison Gillam, Kenneth Olugbode, and Chidobe Awuzie all return as starters at linebacker, while Kenneth Crawley leads two other returning starters in the backfield.

The Buffs should begin the season 4-0 before facing a grueling stretch of conference games against Oregon, Arizona State, and Arizona.  The key then becomes the October 24 game at Oregon State.  If CU can win to improve to 5-3, then with Washington State still on the schedule, the Buffs will need just one upset win to become bowl eligible.  While 6-7 seems more likely, we have a lot of faith in MacIntyre, and we credit Leavitt with molding defenses.  Therefore, we believe that CU will find that one upset that gets them into a bowl for the first time since 2007.

Pac-12 Media Preseason Poll

Pac-12 Conference Media Poll
Pos. Team 1st Place Total Champ. Votes
North Division
1 Oregon 37 262 17
2 Stanford 8 231 1
3 California 0 174 0
4 Washington 0 129 0
5 Washington St. 0 89 0
6 Oregon St. 0 60 0
South Division
1 USC 32 254 21
2 Arizona St. 0 200 3
3 UCLA 6 180 2
4 Arizona 0 155 0
5 Utah 0 105 0
6 Colorado 0 46 0

Pac-12 Media Preseason All-Conference Team

Pac-12 Preseason All-Conference Team
Offense Player School
Quarterback Cody Kessler USC
Running Back Devontae Booker Utah
Running Back Paul Perkins UCLA
Wide Receiver D. J. Foster Arizona St.
Wide Receiver Nelson Spruce Colorado
Wide Receiver Caleb Jones Arizona
Tight End Austin Hooper Stanford
Tackle Tyler Johnstone Oregon
Tackle Kyle Murphy Stanford
Guard Joshua Garnett Stanford
Guard Chris Borrayo California
Center Max Tuerk * USC
Defense Player School
End Hunter Dimrick Utah
End DeForest Buckner Oregon
Tackle Kenny Clark UCLA
Tackle Eddie Vanderdoes UCLA
Linebacker Myles Jack ^ UCLA
Linebacker Scooby Wright Arizona
Linebacker Su’a Cravens USC
Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson USC
Cornerback Fabian Moreau UCLA
Safety Budda Baker Washington
Safety Jordan Simone Arizona St.
Special Teams Player School
Punter Tom Hackett Utah
Kicker Andy Phillips Utah
Return Specialist Adoree’ Jackson USC
Return Specialist Charles Nelson Oregon

PiRate, Mean, Bias, and Average Ratings

Pac-12 Conference
North Division
Team PiRate Mean Bias Average
Oregon 127.0 118.6 126.8 124.1
Stanford 119.3 115.6 120.3 118.4
California 116.1 109.9 116.4 114.1
Washington 102.5 100.6 102.3 101.8
Washington St. 102.1 95.6 100.3 99.3
Oregon St. 94.2 91.8 93.2 93.1
South Division
Team PiRate Mean Bias Average
UCLA 125.4 117.9 123.7 122.3
USC 122.8 117.6 122.8 121.1
Arizona St. 119.3 113.6 118.8 117.2
Utah 119.3 111.9 118.9 116.7
Arizona 118.8 108.9 118.2 115.3
Colorado 108.2 102.6 107.6 106.1
P12 Averages 114.6 108.7 114.1 112.5

PiRate Ratings Predictions and Bowl Projections

PiRate Ratings Predicted Records
Pos Team Conf. Overall Bowl
North Division
1 Stanford 7-2 10-3 ^ Holiday
2 Oregon 7-2 9-3 Foster Farms
3 California 5-4 7-5 At-Large
4 Washington 2-7 4-8 None
5 Washington St. 1-8 3-9 None
6 Oregon St. 0-9 2-10 None
South Division
1 USC 7-2 10-3 * Rose
2 UCLA 7-2 10-2 Alamo
3 Utah 5-4 8-4 Las Vegas
4 Arizona 5-4 8-4 Sun
5 Arizona St. 5-4 7-5 Cactus
6 Colorado 3-6 7-6 At-Large
* Wins Title Game
^ Loses Title Game

Coming Next: The Southeastern Conference

Will the toughest league in college football cannibalize itself out of a playoff spot this year?

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