Mather: Emotional Pac-12 football power rankings, part I

Feb. 17, 2016, 12:40 a.m.

Preseason rankings are often kind of boring. Heck, it’s been 14 years since the preseason media poll picked anyone other than Oregon or USC to win the Pac-12.

It’s not that anybody’s trying to make them predictable and mundane. It’s just that, when you apply the eye test to teams that haven’t even played yet, you usually end up picking out teams that have long pedigrees of accomplishment.

In this article, I’m going to try and break from history and examine what should happen in the Pac-12 this upcoming season based on this season alone. Most of what I say likely won’t come true – it’s totally conceivable that none of it will – but I present it all the same as a challenge for analysts to think outside the box. Stay tuned for Part II – the ever-exciting bottom half – in the near future.

No. 1: Washington State

“He was a man of destiny. He believed it was what he was put on earth to do, and he pursued his convictions vigorously. He personified independence and assertive action. [He] epitomized the American Spirit.”

This quote has absolutely nothing to do with Washington State football. However, it was written by Cougars coach Mike Leach in the introduction to his bestselling book “Geronimo.” As much as he would likely insist he wasn’t, Leach may as well have been writing about himself in the third person.

Leach is among the most unconventional coaches in college football. His air raid is almost unheard of in college football, but with Luke Falk at the helm, it’s already been demonstrated to be quite effective. What Leach has gotten less credit for is his commitment to establishing the run as well. The Cougars ran for more than twice as many yards in 2015 than in 2014 – if that uptick can happen again (and with Gerard Wicks, a former Long Beach Poly running back, leading the way, I think it can) this team is going to be legitimately scary offensively.

For an unconventional play-caller, Leach is also building a rather good conventional defense as well. Washington State returns almost all of a secondary that rated third in 2015 Pac-12 pass defense. Granted, they didn’t have to play the top pass offense in the conference (it was Washington State), but if this unit can keep its opponents largely grounded, I think it’s going to be tough, if not impossible, for them to keep up.

No. 2: Stanford

There’s not a lot to say here that hasn’t been repeated over and over by Stanford writers already. The Cardinal are going to be very, very good next year. Still, I’m going to let history sneak into this column here and say that, as good as I think Stanford should be, odds are that the team will manage to lose a couple games that it shouldn’t, as well.

No. 3: USC

Two things that happened at the end of 2015 may be pivotal in this team’s trajectory in a positive manner. The first was the permanent hiring of Clay Helton as head coach. The second was the team’s defeat by Stanford in the Pac-12 championship and by Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl.

How can both these things help out the Trojans? It’s really quite simple: USC needs to be rebuilt, and this situation has created the perfect opportunity.

In the Sarkisian era, USC was never going to commit to a full scale rebuild. It’s just not the type of coach Sark was. He didn’t really have a concrete system to fit players into; to paraphrase former Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro, who once coached across the street from him, his offensive plan probably would have been best described “Cody Kessler.” This lack of a grand plan could have been effective if the Trojans had simply been the most talented team in the country by far (see 2003, 2004), but by attempting to design his scheme around his various players he failed to find a distinctive style of play that could consistently overpower USC’s opponents.

Based on what I’ve seen from Helton, however, he’s committed to redesigning this team around an ideology, not a bunch of individuals. Helton didn’t hand every ball to Justin Davis just because he was the team’s best rusher statistically, nor was he afraid to play more inexperienced players on defense. And now, since USC lost the two most important games of 2015, the team will have to slow down this offseason and fully adopt all that Helton has planned for them.

If it all works how it’s supposed to, USC may finally return to the top in the way that its fans expect.

No. 4: Utah

The team of mystery in the 2015 rendition of the Pac-12 should return with just as much mystery in 2016. Devontae Booker is gone, but it’s hard to imagine the power run won’t return. The quarterback slot is wide open, but the team has a few highly-touted recruits and one promising junior college transfer to replace the just-okay Travis Wilson so it doesn’t seem bound for disaster. Additionally, the team returns seven defensive starters and avoids Washington State and Stanford. Is this group in the title race? Better believe it.

No. 5: Oregon

I’m going to hold a mock argument with an Oregon fan to illustrate the team’s trajectory.

Me: Oregon’s going to drop off quite a bit this year.

Oregon fan: That’s not true! Didn’t you hear about the new QB we got from Montana State?

Me: Yeah, but who knows if he’ll be as good as Vernon Adams? The graduate transfer rule is basically designed to prevent teams from using it to reload, and the repeated use by Oregon is effectively just an admission that the recruits coming in haven’t been as good lately.

Oregon fan: Well we developed Marcus Mariota from a three-star recruit …

Me: Yeah, but Jeff Lockie was also three stars, and nobody on the coaching staff wants him anywhere near the field. Plus, the defense was awful last year, and it’s losing some of its stars.

Oregon fan: Royce Freeman.

Alright, so I lost. But the bottom line is that Oregon is unproven in more places than it is solidified. Freeman is a stud, but he can only carry this team so far (especially after losing an all-conference tackle in Tyler Johnstone to run behind). The Ducks sneak into the top 25, but only just.

No. 6: UCLA

I’m a little worried for Jim Mora. I think he’s a very good coach, and I’m not sure there’s anyone who’d do a better job than him with the Bruins. But the fact of the matter is that UCLA has been less than impressive lately, and the 2016 team seems to have some pretty gaping holes.

The most worrying thing to me is the offensive line, which was just okay last year and isn’t headed in the right direction with two starters moving on. Defense is a question as well: The lead returning tackler is Jaleel Wadood, who will be remembered most by Stanford fans for lending his back to Francis Owusu when the latter wanted to score a touchdown. Josh Rosen figures to return strong, but can he lift an 8-4 team with even more questions than last season above, well, 8-4? I’m not convinced.

For the record: An earlier version of this article stated that Devontae Booker would return to the Utes in 2016. In fact, Booker, who spent two years at American River College before transferring to Utah, has exhausted his collegiate eligibility. The Daily regrets this error.


Call Andrew Mather out for not placing the Cardinal at #1 by shooting him an email at amather ‘at’

Andrew Mather served as a sports editor and as the Chief Operating Officer of The Daily. A devout Clippers and Iowa Hawkeyes fan from the suburbs of Los Angeles, Mather grew accustomed to watching his favorite programs snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He brought this nihilistic pessimism to The Daily, where he often felt a sense of déjà vu while covering basketball, football and golf.

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