The Pac-12 gets a bad rap sometimes. The conference is generally regarded as the worst of the power conferences thanks to the fact that it hasn’t produced a College Football Playoff participant since 2016, but evaluating a conference solely by how many losses its best team has is a pretty flawed approach.
On average, the Pac-12 can be trusted to at least exceed the average production of the ACC.
Average SP+ rating, 2018-20:
• 2018: Pac-12 +6.1, ACC +5.3
• 2019: Pac-12 +5.3, ACC +3.0
• 2020: Pac-12 +5.9, ACC +5.2
The only reason the ACC is generally held in higher regard is that it has Clemson. And in 2021, after last year’s abbreviated season, the Pac-12 will boast a higher average of returning production than any other power conference. Lots of teams have top-20 potential, but can one break through and threaten a CFP bid?
The two most likely candidates are in the North. Mario Cristobal’s Oregon has recruited like a playoff contender for a few years now, and Washington has top-10 potential and loads of experience. But they both have questions to answer on offense and tricky schedules to navigate. Let’s dive into the Pac-12 North.
Every week through the summer, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 130 FBS teams. The previews will include 2020 breakdowns, 2021 previews and a brief history of each team in one handy chart. The series has thus far covered the Conference USA East and West, the MAC East and West, the MWC Mountain and West, the Sun Belt West and East, the top and bottom half of the AAC, the seven Independents, the ACC Atlantic and the ACC Coastal.
Credit Stanford for this: With five down-to-the-wire finishes in six games, the 4-2 Cardinal packed a full season of drama into half a season.
Projected SP+ rank: 68th
Average projected wins: 3.7 (2.2 in the Pac-12)
Likely wins*: at Vanderbilt (75%)
Relative tossups: vs. Kansas State (48%), California (48%), at Oregon State (38%)
Likely losses: at Washington State (31%), Notre Dame (27%), UCLA (25%), Utah (22%), Washington (16%), at Arizona State (14%), at USC (12%), Oregon (12%)
* Likely wins are games in which SP+ projects the scoring margin to be greater than seven points, or above about 65% win probability. Likely losses are the opposite, and relative tossups are all the games in between.
David Shaw’s squad has to replace most of its best players while taking on a schedule with seven projected top-25 opponents and only one gimme.
What we learned about Stanford in 2020
The offense can be efficient. After relying on explosive players like Bryce Love and JJ Arcega-Whiteside to create gashes to make up for an inefficient run game, Stanford made headway in 2020. Davis Mills completed 66% of his passes, big-play receiver Simi Fehoko and slot receiver Michael Wilson were each super-efficient, and the run game, relied upon less than ever, held its own. There weren’t enough big plays, but the growth was solid.
To continue that growth, coordinator Tavita Pritchard will have to find replacements for Mills, Fehoko and all-conference center Drew Dalman. RBs Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat both return, as do Wilson and receivers Elijah Higgins and Brycen Tremayne. But can either junior Jack West or blue-chip redshirt freshman Tanner McKee immediately pick up where Mills left off? Will he have a true WR No. 1? If the answers are yes, and I think they could be, the Cardinal should exceed projections.
What we didn’t learn about Stanford in 2020
When they might have a good defense again. From 2012 to 2016, the Cardinal ranked 12th or better in defensive SP+ four times. But they fell to 44th in 2017, 87th in 2019 and 93rd last year. They created minimal disruption, and opponents ran the ball all day against a defensive front they could push around. The Cardinal ranked 118th in rushing success rate allowed and 112th in points allowed per drive.
They have decent playmakers in tackle Dalyn Wade-Perry, linebacker Gabe Reid and safety Jonathan McGill, but despite loads of juniors and seniors on the 2021 two-deep, it’s hard to make the case that we’ll see a sudden turnaround. It took a few years to fall this far, and it might take a few years to rebound.
Stanford’s history in one chart
From 1968 to 1970, Jim Plunkett threw for 7,809 yards, 53 touchdowns and an incredible 48 INTs, won the Heisman, took Stanford to the Rose Bowl and went first in the NFL draft.
Bill Walsh dropped to the college level to prove his head-coaching ability, won 17 games, earned two top-20 finishes and left for the 49ers. (He returned briefly in the 1990s.)
John Elway, 1980-82: 8,805 yards, 71 TDs, 36 INTs, a No. 2 Heisman finish and another Stanford No. 1 pick.
Stanford averaged just 3.2 wins in the five seasons before hiring Jim Harbaugh in 2007. He flipped the Cardinal from 1-11 to 12-1 before, as with Walsh, leaving for the 49ers.
Shaw kept the good times rolling for a while, winning 10 or more games five times and nearly making the 2015 CFP. But the Cardinal are only 8-10 the past two years.
During a 2-5 campaign in 2020, an exciting offense gave OSU a chance in quite a few games, and a spotty defense cost the Beavers dearly. Just like in 2019.
Projected SP+ rank: 60th
Average projected wins: 5.0 (2.8 in the Pac-12)
Likely wins: Idaho (97%), Hawaii (84%)
Relative tossups: Stanford (62%), at California (43%), at Colorado (41%), at Washington State (37%)
Likely losses: at Purdue (34%), Utah (27%), Arizona State (26%), Washington (21%), at USC (16%), at Oregon (10%)
With five projected top-20 opponents, the Beavers will have to figure out how to succeed in close games to reach bowl eligibility.
What we learned about OSU in 2020
Smith knows offense. Despite an all-hands-on-deck passing game — two QBs with 90+ passes, seven players with between 18 and 34 pass targets — OSU ranked in the offensive SP+ top 40 for the second straight year. Smith, a former OSU quarterback and Washington offensive coordinator, has crafted a strong identity around tempo, quick passes and avoidance of negative plays. With every quarterback and starting lineman and nearly every receiver back, this won’t change.
The Beavers won’t have Jermar Jefferson, though. Jefferson averaged 143 rushing yards per game as OSU ranked third in rushing success rate. He leaves a high bar for some combination of B.J. Baylor, Trey Lowe, freshman Isaiah Newell and South Carolina transfer Deshaun Fenwick to clear.
Smith’s still trying to figure out defense. Smith and coordinator Tim Tibesar inherited a defense that had averaged a 103.7 defensive SP+ ranking from 2015 to 2017 and produced an average of 107.0. The 2020 unit showed occasional promise in the secondary but got mauled up front. The Beavers were dreadful against the run and produced no pass rush whatsoever.
Twelve of 17 defenders with 100+ snaps return, along with Kansas corner transfer Elijah Jones and Minnesota tackle transfer Keonte Schad. Inexperience won’t be an issue, but it’s fair to maintain concerns about the talent level up front.
What new didn’t learn about OSU in 2020
Who will win THE GREAT QB BATTLE ROYALE? When Tristan Gebbia tore his hamstring against Oregon, Chance Nolan filled in with less consistency but more pop, in both the run and passing games. They’re back and getting pushed by youngsters Ben Gulbranson and Sam Vidlak. It was a crowded race before Colorado starter Sam Noyer announced he was transferring. Noyer might be the new favorite, but not a heavy one.
Oregon State’s history in one chart
Behind Heisman-winning QB Terry Baker, Tommy Prothro’s Beavers went 9-2 in 1962. Two years later, a top defense drove a Rose Bowl bid and their first AP top-eight finish.
Prothro left for UCLA in 1965, and a slow slide turned into an extended rock bottom: zero winning records and 17 years with 0-2 wins from 1975 to 1996.
Dennis Erickson took over for Mike Riley in 1999. In his second year, Smith, Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Ken Simonton led OSU to 11-1 and a No. 4 finish.
Riley returned in 2003 and drove prolonged success: eight bowls, four seasons with 9 or more wins and four ranked finishes from 2003 to 2013. Then came the tailspin.
Smith took over in 2018 with OSU having won only seven games in three years. He has shown promise but needs a defense.
Three combined wins over Washington and Oregon, five losses to UCLA and Oregon State. It’s really hard to figure out what kind of progress Justin Wilcox is making in Berkeley.
Projected SP+ rank: 54th
Average projected wins: 5.4 (3.5 in the Pac-12)
Likely wins: Sacramento State (88%), Nevada (69%), at Arizona (69%)
Relative tossups: Oregon State (57%), Colorado (54%), at Stanford (53%), Washington State (50%)
Likely losses: at TCU (30%), USC (25%), at Washington (14%), at Oregon (11%)
Three of the Golden Bears’ four games were decided by single digits during a 1-3 season in 2020. Looks like there will be quite a few more close games this fall.
What we learned about Cal in 2020
They had a bad recipe from the start. The Bears neither made nor allowed big plays, which turned games into efficiency battles they weren’t prepared to win. They went three-and-out on 42% of possessions (120th in FBS), while opponents did so only 25% of the time (94th). That created a massive field position disadvantage, which obviously costs you in close games.
Cameron Goode needs help. After exploding in 2019, Goode kept things going with six TFLs and three sacks in four games in 2020. He’s one of the best OLBs in the country, and corner Josh Drayden is awesome too. But they could help the Cal defense only so much — in two years, the Bears have sunk from 13th to 78th in defensive SP+. Cal ranked 93rd and 119th, respectively, in rushing and passing success rate allowed. It was a bend-don’t-break with too much bend. Nine starters return, but some new blood might not be a bad thing.
What we didn’t learn about Cal in 2020
Chase Garbers‘ potential. It was easy to assume big improvement for the Cal offense last fall. The Bears were 7-0 in 2019 when Garbers played an entire game at QB (he got hurt a couple of times), and he produced a solid 70.5 Total QBR. With Garbers, receiver Kekoa Crawford and a seasoned line back, that meant big things, right?
Actually, it meant a No. 112 ranking in passing success rate and a slide to a 52.2 Total QBR, 78th in FBS. Opponents blitzed a lot, and both Garbers and his line handled it poorly. The Bears ranked 73rd in offensive SP+; almost no offense in the country produced fewer big plays.
Nine starters return, and many are multiyear starters, including Garbers and Crawford. The run game is semi-efficient, but does Garbers have a second breakthrough in him?
Cal’s history in one chart
Pappy Waldorf’s post-war Bears were rampant: from 1947 to 1951, they went 46-6-1 with three Rose Bowl appearances and three top-five finishes.
The 1980s were mostly forgettable for Cal, but one thing wasn’t: The Play.
Tony Gonzalez, 1995-96: 81 catches, 1,240 yards, 7 TDs, and, oh yeah, 6.0 points and 4.6 rebounds per game for the Cal basketball team.
Jeff Tedford engineered an immediate turnaround in 2002, then nearly brought the Bears to a BCS bowl with Aaron Rodgers in 2004. (Don’t say the words “Mack Brown” around a Cal fan.)
The Sonny Dykes era wasn’t rampant with success, but the Bears were good enough for Jared Goff to throw for 4,714 yards in 2015 and earn the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.
Two encouraging games, two weeks of cancellations, two bad performances, and that was that. Wazzu’s first season under Nick Rolovich didn’t get a chance to tell us much.
Projected SP+ rank: 46th
Average projected wins: 6.3 (3.7 in the Pac-12)
Likely wins: Portland State (99%), Utah State (95%), Arizona (82%), Stanford (69%)
Relative tossups: Oregon State (63%), BYU (61%), at Cal (50%)
Likely losses: USC (30%), at Utah (24%), at Arizona State (23%), at Washington (18%), at Oregon (14%)
Wazzu plays only five road games, but four are against projected top-20 teams. That reduces margin for error, but there are still plenty of winnable games.
What we learned about Wazzu in 2020
The Leach-to-Rolovich offensive transition should remain smooth. With freshman Jayden de Laura taking most of the snaps, handing to the explosive Deon McIntosh and throwing more frequently to slot receivers (primarily Renard Bell and Travell Harris) than anyone in the country, Wazzu was able to produce plenty of efficiency with what was mostly predecessor Mike Leach’s personnel.
Eight starters return, including everyone mentioned above and potential all-conference tackles Abraham Lucas and Liam Ryan. RB Max Borghi (1,414 rushing and receiving yards in 2019) is also back after missing most of 2020 with a back injury. The offense should be prolific, and de Laura might not be the only Rolovich recruit in the mix this time: Rolovich brought in Tennessee QB Jarrett Guarantano, Wisconsin RB Nakia Watson, Hawaii WR Lincoln Victor and lanky juco WR CJ Moore, most of whom could make early contributions.
What we didn’t learn about Wazzu in 2020
Whether or when Rolovich might field his first good defense. Rolovich won 18 games in his last two years as Hawaii’s head coach despite defense, not because of it. His Warriors never ranked higher than 113th in defensive SP+, and his first Wazzu D ranked 108th.
The Cougs created plenty of havoc plays — especially from tackle Ahmir Crowder, linebacker Jahad Woods and corner George Hicks — but opponents landed more blows than they did: They ranked 117th in success rate allowed and 112th in points allowed per drive. Rolovich brought in four transfers, including star ODU cornerback Kaleb Ford-Dement, but as with most of the teams discussed so far, there’s plenty of reason to question the talent level on defense.
Washington State’s history in one chart
Wazzu kept making good hires in the 1970s — Jackie Sherrill in 1976, Warren Powers in 1977 — and they kept leaving. Instability meant a lot of forgettable seasons.
After yet another brief stint from a good coach (Dennis Erickson, who left for Miami after going 9-3), Wazzu found a long-termer: Weber State head coach Mike Price.
Price’s peak came in 1997: 10 wins, a No. 9 AP finish, a trip to the Rose Bowl and 3,968 passing yards from eventual No. 2 pick Ryan Leaf.
Price left in 2002, and Wazzu fell into a massive funk, going 5-32 from 2008 to 2010. But in 2012 it formed a great marriage with Leach.
The Leach era peaked in 2018: 11 wins, the Cougs’ first AP top-10 finish in 15 years and 4,972 passing yards from folk hero Gardner Minshew. Leach was off to Mississippi State in 2020.
Of all the incomplete seasons in the Pac-12, Washington’s felt the most unfulfilled. The Huskies won the North at 3-1 but couldn’t play in the title game because of COVID, and the season just … ended.
Projected SP+ rank: 11th
Average projected wins: 9.3 (6.8 in the Pac-12)
Likely wins: Arkansas State (97%), Montana (97%), at Arizona (92%), California (86%), at Stanford (84%), Washington State (82%), at Oregon State (79%), at Colorado (77%), UCLA (68%)
Relative tossups: Arizona State (63%), at Michigan (58%), Oregon (49%)
Likely losses: none
Jimmy Lake’s first full season at Washington offers massive opportunity — the Huskies play only one road game against a team projected higher than 50th.
What we learned about UW in 2020
John Donovan remains John Donovan. Washington’s offense was efficient in 2020 — 25th in success rate, fifth in three-and-out rate. Freshman QB Dylan Morris completed 61% of his passes, the Huskies avoided negative plays … it was all fine. Good, even.
It was also painfully predictable. UW ran 70% of the time on standard downs (13th most in FBS) and threw 75% of the time on passing downs (15th most). Half the passes went to backs and tight ends. Big plays were minimal, as was red zone creativity. The line was strong, but that was the only thing that separated Donovan’s offense from the stodgy one that got him fired at Penn State in 2015.
Morris and tight end Cade Otton return, as do every starting lineman and running back; the transfer portal delivered receivers Ja’Lynn Polk (Texas Tech) and Giles Jackson (Michigan), and Lake signed blue-chipper Sam Huard to potentially usurp Morris at QB. We will see the best possible version of the Donovan offense at UW this fall, but the ceiling might be lower than it should be within this structure.
What we didn’t know about UW in 2020
How will things work without Pete Kwiatkowski? For the past seven seasons, Kwiatkowski, the new Texas defensive coordinator, served as either DC or co-DC under first Chris Petersen, then Lake. In the past five years, UW finished in the defensive SP+ top 20 four times.
Now, Lake was responsible for that, too. There’s a reason Petersen promoted him to DC (and proverbial head coach-in-waiting) in 2018. And with Bob Gregory, another longtime assistant, taking Kwiatkowski’s place, there’s plenty of continuity. That’s doubly true with seven starters returning, including terrifying linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio. even as Zion Tupuola-Fetui recovers from an Achilles injury. So while this is a noteworthy change, it’s possible nothing changes, and the great defense train keeps chugging along. Any defense with Tupuola-Fetui on it has the potential to be elite. So does Washington with a few more big plays on offense.
Washington’s history in one chart
The peak of the 18-year Jim Owens era came in 1959-60, when the Huskies went 20-2 with Rose Bowls and top-10 finishes.
Another 18-year man, Don James, took over when Owens’ tenure finally ended in 1974. He would have the Huskies back in the Rose Bowl by 1977.
After a mid-1980s lull, James’ Huskies exploded, going 10-2 in 1990 and 12-0, with a share of the national title, in 1991. The ’91 Huskies were one of the best teams of the past 30 years.
In the 2000s, UW lost the plot, going 12-47 from 2004 to 2008 and bottoming out at 0-12 in 2008. Steve Sarkisian came aboard in 2009, and the turnaround came quickly after that.
Sarkisian left in 2013 and UW replaced him with Boise State’s Petersen. The Huskies made the CFP in 2016 and went 32-9 from 2016 to 2018. Lake has a high bar to clear.
After the strangest accomplishment in the strangest year — losing your division but winning your conference — Mario Cristobal’s Ducks will try to achieve bigger, more normal things in 2021.
Projected SP+ rank: fifth
Average projected wins: 9.4 (7.1 in the Pac-12)
Likely wins: Stony Brook (100%), Arizona (97%), Fresno State (95%), Oregon State (90%), Cal (89%), at Stanford (88%), Washington State (86%), at Colorado (82%)
Relative tossups: at UCLA (64%), at Utah (59%), at Washington (51%), at Ohio State (42%)
Likely losses: none
The upside of this schedule: The Ducks are projected underdogs only once. The downside for a potential contender: Four rough road trips mean two losses is more likely than one.
What we learned about Oregon in 2020
Mario Cristobal can recruit. We knew that long before 2020, of course, but he has reinforced it with two classes ranked in ESPN’s top six in the past three years. The Ducks’ 2021 two-deep will have former blue-chippers in every unit, with established stars — rush end Kayvon Thibodeaux, linebackers Isaac Slade-Matautia, Mase Funa and Noah Sewell, cornerback Mykael Wright and receiver Devon Williams — getting tested by a fresh batch of high-end freshmen.
What we didn’t learn about Oregon in 2020
What does DeRuyter change? Oregon averaged a defensive SP+ ranking of 16.0 in two years under coordinator Andy Avalos. Now he’s Boise State’s head coach, replaced by veteran Tim DeRuyter, who inherits an even better linebacking corps than the one he left behind at Cal. (He also gets to work with Thibodeaux, which is just about any coordinator’s dream.)
DeRuyter has a high bar to clear, however, and he oversaw diminishing returns at Cal. The potential on this roster is obvious, but the Ducks have QB questions to work out, and they’ll probably need a top-10 defense to contend for the CFP.
What’s the next Moorhead adjustment? One of the most successful progenitors of the run-pass option, Joe Moorhead arrived as Oregon’s OC with some tweaks in mind. While defenses are evolving to take away some of the bigger RPO gashes, Moorhead flipped things horizontally. The Ducks stretched defenses sideline to sideline with high efficiency and created space for an efficient run game.
Defenses adapted, however. QB Tyler Shough produced a 177.6 passer rating in his first three games but struggled down the stretch. He was benched for BC transfer Anthony Brown late in the year and transferred to Texas Tech.
Either Brown or blue-chip freshman Ty Thompson will be piloting the 2021 attack. Brown is a quick decision-maker in the pocket, and he’s good on designed rushes. Is he good enough to beat Ohio State in Week 2? And what’s the next layer of Moorhead adjustments?
Oregon’s history in one chart
Len Casanova led Oregon to its first post-war Rose Bowl in 1957. The Ducks were mainstays in the AP rankings until trailing off late in his tenure.
The ultimate long-term build began in 1977, when Rich Brooks took over a program that had enjoyed one winning season in 12 years. He would stay in Eugene for 18 years.
Brooks’ successor, Mike Bellotti, raised the bar, going 23-2 in 2000-01. But he saw just one ranked finish in five years before hiring a coordinator named Chip Kelly in 2007.
Oregon from 2008 to 2014 under Bellotti, Kelly and Mark Helfrich: 11.4 wins per year, six top-10 finishes, two national title game appearances. A ferocious run.
Helfrich couldn’t keep things rolling, and Oregon went just 11-14 in 2016-17. But killer recruiting and two straight Pac-12 titles suggest Cristobal’s Ducks aren’t far away from a return to the elite.