Preseason Pac-12 Power Rankings: uncertainty at the bottom, clarity at the top
On Friday, the Pac-12, its dozen coaches, and two dozen players will take the stage at Pac-12 Media Day, signaling the unofficial start of the 2022 college football season. Players and coaches will spend the day discussing scheme changes and new faces and team goals—and almost assuredly conference realignment—and when they leave to head back home, they’ll prepare for the start of fall camp.
With the season almost upon us, Saturday Out West columnist Jon Gold and editor Derek Peterson are getting together to argue over how the league should be ranked to begin the season. These rankings will be updated throughout the season, as well.
Jon Gold: Colorado Buffaloes
I hate that we both start with the same team – discord drives clicks! – but, yeah, the Buffs are rough…s. Colorado lacks high-end talent, medium-end talent, pretty much talent altogether. The Buffs put five players on the preseason all-conference team – all honorable mention, with nary a first- or second-teamer. Plus, the passing game is in flux. Colorado showed promise in 2020, earning an Alamo Bowl bid (their first postseason game since 2016 and just second since 2007), with Karl Dorrell securing conference coach of the year honors after a 4-2 COVID-19-shortened campaign. But that was with Mike MacIntyre and Mel Tucker’s players, and a 4-8 record last year was a huge regression. With the improvements of some other teams in the conference, Colorado’s in trouble.
Derek Peterson: Colorado Buffaloes
CU was a clear No. 12 in my post-spring power rankings. Jon uses the phrase “regression,” and while last season was that for CU, I think it served as the program’s last stage of detox from the Mel Tucker drive-by. This offseason has brought with it a ton of turnover in Boulder. It’s Karl Dorrell’s group now, through and through. He gets to build up from the ground level or flatline and then make way for someone else. What happens with Colorado’s passing game is going to go a long way toward determining the direction. Brendon Lewis was safe last season. If he has the job to open the year—JT Shrout is expected to push for it during camp—he and the offense need to be more aggressive. CU had an Eckel rate last season (quality drives; drives that crossed the opponent’s 40 or ended in a big-play touchdown) of 31.4%. That was the third-worst clip in college football. I like Baylor transfer wideout RJ Sneed, but one player doesn’t immediately fix everything.
JG: Stanford Cardinal
Here’s where we really start to diverge, Derek. On a personal level, David Shaw is my favorite coach in the Pac-12 – thoughtful, prudent, wise, always level-headed. I’d love to be a student in one of his classes. But it’s hard to ignore what has happened to Stanford on the field and on the recruiting trail. I never thought I’d see the day when the Cardinal lacked toughness, but they’ve been meek over the last few years. That’s maybe the worst word I can think of to describe a David Shaw team. In 2019: 11th in scoring, 11th in rushing, 11th in total offense. In 2021: 10th in scoring, 12th in rushing, 11th in total offense. This was a team with some of the best, brightest offensive linemen and running backs in the country. What happened?
DP: Arizona State Sun Devils
I like what the Sun Devils are saying. I do. I do not, however, like what’s going on at the top. ASU has a big early-season test going to Stillwater, Oklahoma. That game could break something with this program. Maybe not the locker room—they’re projecting a united front—but if ASU gets shelled, a fractured fan base will fully turn on the head coach and the athletic director and it gets ugly from there. The Sun Devils have too much in flux to know what they’ll look like.
JG: Washington Huskies
I like what Kalen DeBoer’s doing on the recruiting trail, but I don’t like what’s going on in the passing game – will the Huskies go with incumbent starter Dylan Morris or Indiana transfer Michael Penix? – nor the offense in general. Washington has some talent up front on both sides of the ball, but a dearth of skill position stars will be their undoing. I’m also of the general opinion that when an emotional leader departs, and Jimmy Lake was certainly emotional, it takes some time for players to adjust to playing under less pressure. At least they’ll get to settle in at home – UDub’s first four games are at home, including a big matchup with Michigan State.
DP: Arizona Wildcats
I am genuinely surprised to see Washington this low! I can’t really argue with anything Jon has stated—Michael Penix Jr. needs to get through a full season healthy… just one—but I’ve still got UW a few spots higher.
I have Arizona here at No. 10, one spot ahead of the Sun Devils, which feels a little wrong considering the way that series has gone in recent years, but it’s once again the same spot I had the UA at in the post-spring update. The offense will be much better. Jacob Cowing and Jayden de Laura will be a fun pair. I don’t know if the Cats make a bowl, but I do think they’ll be in enough games to where when the season ends you could point to a 5-7 record and say, “This here goes differently and that’s your bowl game.” They’re trending up. ASU is trending opposite.
JG: Arizona State Sun Devils
Turmoil has set in in Tempe, and that’s hard to shake. So is a pedestrian offense. Jayden Daniels wasn’t exactly electric for the Sun Devils last year, passing for 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions after entering his third year with 22 touchdowns and three interceptions. He’s at LSU now, but new QB Emory Jones, who arrives in the desert by way of Gainesville, was also relatively uninspiring for the Gators last season. ASU won 8 games last year on the strength of a league-best defense. But that defense lost six all-conference first- or second-team members.
DP: Stanford Cardinal
The defense fell off a cliff. The Cardinal haven’t ranked better than 85th in defensive SP+ since 2018; Stanford finished the 2021 season 107th in that regard. It is 11-19 over that stretch. Shaw has recruited well enough to be better than they’ve been, specifically on offense. The scheme is outdated, but when the defense doesn’t hemorrhage points, merely an effective group can make it work. Stanford ranked 92nd last year in points per play allowed.
The high school classes haven’t been a problem. Factoring out transfers, Stanford signed the 19th-ranked class in the country last season. The class ranked 21st in 2020, and 19th in 2019. The Cardinal has been hurt by the explosion of the transfer portal as it is just never going to be a player in that space, but that also doesn’t excuse the drop-off mentioned above when you’re working with the talent Shaw has added. Stanford sits at No. 9 for me for a few reasons. More talented than Colorado and Arizona. More continuity than Arizona State. With every snap back on the offensive line and a quarterback draft scouts love, I’m hesitantly buying the offense. Defensively, it’s a make-or-break year.
JG: Arizona Wildcats
Jedd Fisch is starting to build some buzz down in Tucson for the first time in a long time. He is engaged in the community and on the recruiting trail in a way far surpassing his predecessors. A dark cloud loomed over Rich Rodriguez’s program even in good times, always a furled brow. A monsoon formed during the Kevin Sumlin era, as he was completely checked out. Fisch is a breath of fresh air, and it shows in Arizona’s recruiting rankings, which are stunning, considering just how absolutely bad the team has been. But Fisch is building for the now and for the future, and the arrival of former Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura and UTEP star wideout Jacob Cowing will deliver instant results in the win column. It’s not like I expect the Wildcats to win 10 games – maybe 4 or 5 – but I expect ASU, WSU, Stanford and Washington to be right around there, as well.
DP: California Golden Bears
I love how high Jon is on Arizona. He’s making me rethink where I have the Cats slotted. We seem to be in the same boat on potential, we’re just starting in different spots. I have Cal here out of respect to Justin Wilcox’s defensive chops. Cal will be solid again on that side of the ball. It has a corner I love (Hearns), a safety I love (Scott), and a linebacker I love (Sirmon). Cal just has an offense I have no faith in. I’ve got them under Washington because of the DeBoer factor.
JG: California Golden Bears
The Bears are well-represented on the preseason all-conference team with 10 total members, in all three phases of the game. It appears Justin Wilcox has restocked the cupboard after regressing big-time in 2020 and ’21. Cal had clear momentum in Wilcox’s first three years, going from 5 wins in 2017 to 7 wins in ’18 and to 8 wins in ’19. If the Bears can keep it close or even upset Notre Dame in South Bend on Sept. 17, they’ll have momentum once more heading into the Pac-12 season.
DP: Washington Huskies
Defense should be fine. Offense… should… be… OK? My brain is at war with Washington. Kalen DeBoer is awesome and wins everywhere he goes and produces quality offense everywhere he goes. Penix scares me. I get the appeal, reuniting with a guy after breaking through in 2019 at a place that doesn’t usually break through. But 2019 was two major injuries ago. If I must, I’ll die alone on the hill that Sam Huard is their best option at quarterback. I like the potential of the skill talent. I like the potential of the talent on defense. They can’t get run over again the way they did last season, but that season sort of imploded before it ever got started so you have to wonder if it really was that bad a front seven or if circumstance played a role. Long story short: UW is one of the teams throughout college football that is a complete and utter question mark to me. I’m keeping them at No. 7.
JG: Oregon State Beavers
There was some dissension in the lower half of our rankings, but now it’s all kumbaya from here on out. Except for one ranking (foreshadowing). How boring.
The same can’t be said about the Beavers.
In three years, Oregon State has emerged from the muck. In 2019, the Beavers ranked 10th in the conference in scoring defense; last year, fourth. Oregon State also had the fourth-most touchdowns scored and the third-most offensive yards, while leading the league in offensive yards per play. With stud linebacker Omar Speights, a preseason first-team selection, and seven other second-team selections, the Beavers are ready to make some noise.
DP: Oregon State Beavers
Maybe I should drop USC down to five just for some drama…
I like the Beavers to produce another elite offensive line and another potent rushing attack. We’ll see if Oregon State can figure out how to play in the opponent’s backfield a bit more. It ranked 94th nationally in havoc rate (tackles for loss, passes defended, fumbles forced) last season and has found it very tough replacing what Hamilcar Rashed Jr. brought to the table a couple of seasons ago. Trent Bray as the new voice of the defense brings about a new sense of energy. Are we buying that Chance Nolan is going to lose this job to Tristan Gebbia? I’ve seen some buzz that this will be a legitimate quarterback battle in fall camp. I don’t know why.
JG: Washington State Cougars
We’re years removed from “Cougin’ It,” but only seven months removed from Washington State’s first winning record since 2018. The Cougars have done it the right way, too, adding star pieces on defense and a massive transfer quarterback in Incarnate Word’s Cameron Ward. He’s driving the preseason pub, but let’s not forget pieces like defensive lineman Ron Stone, defensive back Armani Marsh and more. Wazzu will have to improve its third-down percentage (sub-40 percent last year) if they hope to contend.
DP: Washington State Cougars
The Cougars were a team that rose up two spots in my post-spring update, and I considered moving them up again for this one. I just like quarterback Cameron Ward that much. I recently wrote the defensive front out in Pullman should be one of the best in the league, and with a quarterback who will quickly prove himself to be one of the four or five best in the league, Washington State should be a very real threat to Oregon in the North.
JG: Oregon Ducks
If the Bruins can get past Utah at home on Oct. 8, there’s a good chance they could be unbeaten heading into Autzen Stadium two weeks later, coming off a bye. The Ducks, meanwhile, open with defending-champion Georgia, have a day game with BYU two weeks later. Maybe it’s premature to place the Bruins ahead of the Ducks, but there are other things that worry me. I expect some offensive regression from Oregon after losing Travis Dye to USC and as they are trying to break in Bo Nix. Defensively, the Ducks have some incredible talent, but installing a new defense will be difficult with that early season schedule. The ceiling is high for Oregon, but the floor is surpsingly low for the Ducks, as well.
DP: UCLA Bruins
Getting Oregon at No. 4 makes me think we need to do another roundtable discussion just on the Ducks. I’d disagree with the floor being a low one in Eugene.
I have UCLA here, and I’ll stick with the ceiling/floor talk. UCLA has 10-win potential in 2022. UCLA has “win the Pac-12″ potential in 2022. The offensive combination of Chip Kelly, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, and Zach Charbonnet is enough to put the ceiling that high. That defense, though. The more I dig into it, the more I think that what Bill McGovern wants to do is a little at odds with what he has to work with. The Murphy twins, transfers from North Texas on the edge of the line, are promising. Darius Muasau will be one of the league’s better inside ‘backers. I have reservations about how McGovern makes it all fit, but I believe in Chip. (Famous last words.)
JG: UCLA Bruins
Consider this simply a vote for Chip Kelly. And maybe another vote for Dorian Thompson-Robinson. The Bruins got over the hump last season, winning eight games for the first time since 2015, and there were days last year when they looked like the best team in the conference. UCLA and Oregon both have 10-win potential, but I like how the Bruins’ schedule shakes out a little better. I also believe that Bill McGovern can’t possibly be worse than Jerry Azzinaro, so I expect a big leap for the Bruins on the defensive side.
DP: Oregon Ducks
Giving the man who just constructed arguably the best defense we’ve ever seen in college football the keys to a program that has recruited better than any of its peers for years is a recipe for success. I cannot wait to see this Oregon defense. Noah Sewell is one of the nation’s best off-ball linebackers. DJ Johnson is a breakout candidate on the edge. Brandon Dorlus is a stud on the line. Stealing Christian Gonzalez from Colorado is grounds for a federal investigation. Does Oregon have Georgia-level talent on defense? No. Is Oregon playing an SEC-level schedule? Nope. Slide the scale and I think Lanning rolls out another sensational defensive unit relative to the league he’s going against. I’m dropping the Ducks one spot from my post-spring update, but not because of anything they did.
JG: USC Trojans
With landmines all over the schedule—including road dates at Oregon State, Utah, and UCLA, and a home game against Notre Dame–USC is going to put its talent to the test. In fact, if the Trojans played the Utes and Bruins at home this year, I might just put them ahead of Utah. But talent has never been the problem with USC. Buy-in has been the issue, and a first-year coach who gets the kind of pub that Lincoln Riley gets could cause some hurt feelings. The pressure is on. If the Trojans emerge from the first half unbeaten, voters—including this one—will take notice.
DP: USC Trojans
Love that Jon mentions Oregon State. It’s not a sneaky game because it’s so early in the season, but it is a danger spot for this kind of roster. I suspect Oregon State tries to pound the ball, test the USC front, and play keep-away from Lincoln Riley.
The Trojans move up one spot from my post-spring update because of one player addition. Adding a Biletnikoff-winning wideout to an offense that has a Heisman-caliber quarterback is rude. Riley bashed the door in to the Pac-12’s proverbial home with no compunction about being polite to its residents. (The image is even funnier when you consider he’s going to leave in relatively no time at all after doing so.) Seemingly overnight USC became a team that only a couple of defenses in the Pac-12 appear capable of containing. What happens with the defense determines what USC is playing for at the end of the year.
JG: Utah Utes
I bought into the Kyle Whittingham juice a long, long time ago. The guy knows how to run a program. Watching the Utes navigate almost non-stop tragedy, while continuing to recruit from a well-honed blueprint, has me bullish on them once more.
DP: Utah Utes
We both reached the same conclusion at the top. Keep it simple. Best team in the league, top to bottom. Most complete team. Most accomplished team. Most cohesive team.