Way-too-early Pac-12 power rankings: who can catch Utah in 2022?
There’s plenty to be hopeful for in the Pac-12 as the college football calendar turns squarely to the next season.
Arguably the conference’s two most visible programs—USC and Oregon—changed head coaches and brought individuals on board who have inspired what seems to be a palpable level of excitement within their respective fanbases. UCLA and Arizona State return their quarterbacks after eight-win seasons, Washington State and Oregon State will be looking for more. Utah, the league’s defending champion, will bring a quarterback-tailback pairing into 2022 that has the look and feel of a darkhorse Heisman run.
Here’s an early look at how the conference shakes out now, in mid-January. Reminder: a power ranking is not an end-of-year prediction, it’s a snapshot at the moment.
No. 1: Utah (10-4, 8-1 Pac-12)
Average national ranking (using FPI, SP+, and Sagarin): 12.7
Pythagorean wins: 10.5
Utah is the defending league champion. In 2022, it’ll have back quarterback Cameron Rising—who finished sixth nationally in total QBR—and running back Tavion Thomas—third nationally in rushing touchdowns. With the right kind of campaign push over the next seven months, either could enter the 2022 season with some Heisman Trophy buzz. Though it might seem a little far-fetched on the surface to think someone from Utah could win that award when it has been dominated by the more “traditional” powers, the reality is that Utah has been one of the most consistent teams in all of college football under Kyle Whittingham’s stewardship and as Utah looks to fill some new roles on defense, it’ll likely turn to either Rising or Thomas to become the face of the program in 2022. A big step from Rising could see him become the premier quarterback in the conference. More modest growth could have the Utes leaning once again on the ground game. Either way, they have the goods, and they beat up the rest of the South by an average of nearly 15 points a game in 2021.
No. 2: Oregon (10-4, 7-2 Pac-12)
Average national ranking: 25.0
Pythagorean wins: 8.3
Oregon was better in 2021 than it statistically should have been—one of the biggest differences between actual and expected W/L in the country—and better at turning takeaway opportunities into actual takeaways than most in the Pac-12. The Ducks picked off 31% of their defended pass attempts when any team can normally expect to get 20%. Having to replace key pieces in the secondary like Verone McKinley III will be an interesting thing to watch. The Ducks will also be breaking in a new quarterback, replacing their leading rusher, and working in an entirely new coaching staff. There’s a lot of moving pieces in Eugene. But there are a few things working in the Ducks’ favor.
Whatever happens against Georgia in the opener won’t impact their ability to win the Pac-12 North. They went 7-0 at home in 2021 and UCLA, Washington, and Utah all come to Autzen in 2022. And, perhaps the biggest, virtually the entire offensive line is returning for a team that ranked ninth nationally in the 247 Talent Composite in 2021. No one in the North is even in the same recruiting zip code as the Ducks, and when you have the offensive line sorted out and can reasonably expect to have a decent defensive floor (Dan Lanning is pretty good on that side of the ball), the bottom isn’t in danger of falling out even with so much change. They’re the No. 2 until anyone not named Utah actually beats them. (*Stanford waves*)
No. 3: UCLA (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12)
Average national ranking: 33.3
Pythagorean wins: 8.1
The eight-win season was legitimate. The embattled defensive coordinator is gone. The head coach has a firm commitment from the university. The quarterback and running back that powered the best Bruin season since 2014 are back. It’s understandable to be guarded when discussing UCLA in 2022 considering the way the Bruins have toyed with hope before, but there’s also reason to think that if certain things break right the Bruins could be the biggest threat to Utah in 2022. Chip Kelly has to build off his best season so far in Westwood and has accordingly made significant changes to his defensive staff. But really all of this hinges on the backfield combo of Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Zach Charbonnet. The duo combined to produce 43 of the Bruins’ 54 offensive touchdowns in 2021. Kelly being able to lean on that ground game again will help a remade offensive line and reloaded receiving corps have time to gel. Defensively… I mean, it can only go up, right?
No. 4 Oregon State (7-6, 5-4 Pac-12)
Average national ranking: 45.7
Pythagorean wins: 8.0
The middle mush…
Special teams play is a pretty good window into coaching. How strong is your culture? How invested is your team? If you’re getting strong special teams play, you probably have a pretty good foundation in place. Oregon State, entering into its fifth season under head coach Jonathan Smith, ranked 15th nationally in special teams efficiency, per Football Outsiders. When you’ve got that working for you, plus you produced about an eight-win expectation in 2021 (7.96 rounded up) to go with one of the more productive offenses Oregon State has had in a while, you’re going to be a trendy offseason team.
Quarterback Chance Nolan (2,677 yards; 19 touchdowns to 10 picks; 64% completion rate) is back, as are three of his five starting linemen. A healthy Tyjon Lindsey could be one of the conference’s upper-echelon wideouts. Tailback BJ Baylor and linebacker Avery Roberts are tough losses to replace. Oregon State beat USC and Utah and didn’t allow itself to get the doors blown off by anyone; four of the five regular-season losses came by single digits, which makes me less inclined to worry too much about the 14-point loss to Cal. Oregon State is a team growing, not a team arrived, and those kinds of teams will have those kinds of games. Smith should have legitimate expectations in 2022.
No. 5 USC (4-8, 3-6 Pac-12)
Average national ranking: 68.3
Pythagorean wins: 5.3
Should USC, based on talent, be No. 5? Probably not. Should it be higher based on the pedigree of new head coach Lincoln Riley? I won’t fight you if you say yes. But that talent still lost eight games in 2021. That talent still lost by two scores to a Stanford team that won three games all season, it lost by 15 to Arizona State, gave up a 60-piece to UCLA, and lost by 10 to Cal. Riley has done well to quickly convince talent to join him in Los Angeles, but he has work to do beyond just putting recruiting stars on the roster; USC was the 10th-most talented team in the country this season, per the 247 Talent Composite. Caleb Williams’ potential arrival would provide even more hope for a fast turnaround, but don’t overlook the work that needs to be done from an edge standpoint. There’s a foundational reset happening with the Trojans, and it has just as much to do with the mentality and the physicality of the group. Could they be one of the four best teams in the league next season? Absolutely. I have a hard time giving them that distinction now based on the season they just had, though.
No. 6: Arizona State (8-5, 6-3 Pac-12)
Average national ranking: 33.7
Pythagorean wins: 8.8
There is just too much that needs to be replaced. Jayden Daniels provides some stability at quarterback, but the passing game in 2021 had its lowest full-season output since 1992 and three of the five starting offensive linemen are gone. The program’s top two rushers are gone. The top tight end is gone. The top interior defensive lineman is gone. The top linebacker is gone. The entire secondary is gone. There’s just so much unknown surrounding the Sun Devils at the moment to really have a strong feeling one way or the other. Putting them middle of the pack and below a pair of teams that had worse records in 2021 is hard, but justifying them ahead of a team with the raw talent of USC is just as hard.
No. 7: Washington State (7-6, 6-3 Pac-12)
Average national ranking: 52.3
Pythagorean wins: 7.6
The good: Cameron Ward was one of the most coveted prizes of this transfer class and Washington State landed not only him but also his offensive coordinator. Ward threw for 4,648 yards and 47 touchdowns against 10 interceptions in 13 games this past season, helping Incarnate Word to the second round of the FCS playoffs. He completed 65 percent of his pass attempts. Ward is the total package, and Washington State might have even better quarterback play with him at the controls than it did in 2021. The bad: so much production is leaving. The Cougars are losing their top rusher, top two receivers, top two tacklers, both safeties, and six of their top 11 tacklers from this season in total. I like the Cougs and coach Jake Dickert, but there are some questions that need answering as we move throughout the offseason.
No. 8: Cal (5-7, 4-5 Pac-12)
Average national ranking: 68.7
Pythagorean wins: 6.5
Cal should have gone bowling, but it lost five games by seven points or less. That would point to a team that’ll improve the following season. Cal will also look to a new quarterback in 2022, something that could forecast some early growing pains. We’ll see.
No. 9: Washington (4-8, 3-6 Pac-12)
Average national ranking: 71.3
Pythagorean wins: 5.6
Fade Washington, at least in 2022. The Huskies had one of the best defenses in the Pac-12 last season by yards per play allowed (5.0, second Pac-12) largely due to the best pass defense in the country—5.4 yards per attempt allowed, No. 1 nationally and ahead of college football’s National Champion. Washington produced two of the best corners in the country. And it only mustered four wins because it had one of the most anemic offenses in the country. The Huskies were under 5 yards per play on offense, posting the eighth-worst mark among Power Five teams. The answer new head coach Kalen DeBoer has found at quarterback led the fourth-worst offense in all of college football by the same metric. While that’s not entirely fair to Michael Penix Jr., the Indiana transfer who only played in five games, it was a season to forget for Penix. After completing 69% of his pass attempts in 2019, his completion rate has dropped each year since, to a woeful 54% this past season. Penix threw four touchdowns against seven interceptions and was graded as the 101st overall FBS quarterback (minimum 150 dropbacks) by PFF. DeBoer is getting his first crack at the big job, and Penix is going to have to prove he can stay healthy. With the secondary gone, Washington could be in for a bumpy ride in 2022 as DeBoer tries to establish a foundation.
No. 10: Arizona (1-11, 1-8 Pac-12)
Average national ranking: 111.7
Pythagorean wins: 2.3
Head coach Jedd Fisch has added the Pac-12’s reigning offensive freshman of the year in quarterback Jayden de Laura, college football’s ninth-leading receiver from 2021 in wideout Jacob Cowing, a 4-star transfer tackle and a 4-star transfer defensive lineman from UCLA, and the Pac-12’s second-best freshman recruiting class. Injecting some playmaking into this offense was the clear priority, and Fisch has done an incredible job of doing exactly that. Arizona seems to be on the right track. It might still be a ways off in terms of wins, but the Cats could be a sneakily entertaining team in 2022.
No. 11: Stanford (3-9, 2-7 Pac-12)
Average national ranking: 94.7
Pythagorean wins: 3.0
A 4-2 season in 2020 sandwiched by a 4-8 season in 2019 and a 3-9 season in 2021 has the Cardinal in strange waters. From 2009 to 2018, Stanford won at least eight games every year and hit double-digit wins six times. David Shaw was the head coach for all but two of those seasons, a remarkable run of consistency. Stanford built that success on being physical at the point of attack, but that physicality has been eroded, exiting 2021 at a lowly point. By yards per carry, Stanford’s rushing attack ranked 117th nationally (3.2 yards) and its run defense ranked 122nd (5.7 yards). To get back to where they’ve been, they’ve got to be better on the line of scrimmage. To that end, twelve of the 2022 recruiting class members play in the front seven or along the offensive line, including the top four signees.
No. 12: Colorado (4-8, 3-6 Pac-12)
Average national ranking: 93.7
Pythagorean wins: 3.6
Something isn’t right in Boulder. Fifteen scholarship players have entered the portal since the season ended, and while everyone is dealing with transfers, it’s the who that’s the problem for the Buffaloes. Just to transfer, Colorado has lost its best running back, its best wideout, its two best corners, and the team’s second-leading tackler at safety. The Buffs had a struggling offense in 2021 and the defense is also losing linebackers Nate Landman (out of eligibility) and Carson Wells (NFL Draft).