Roundtable: Making sense of wild season of Pac-12 parity
To get a sense of just how crazy a season it has been in the Pac-12, just take a quick look at the conference standings. Arizona is the lone remaining undefeated team and sits ahead of preseason Pac-12 South favorites UCLA and Arizona State. In the North, Cal somehow leads the pack while Oregon and Stanford play catchup. Two Pac-12 games have already been decided on Hail Marys, and of the five conference games last week, the road team won every matchup, including two upsets of ranked opponents.
It's chaos on the West Coast, and after six weeks, we're no closer to knowing who will come out on top. SI.com's Ben Glicksman, Lindsay Schnell and Martin Rickman attempt to make sense of the bizarre parity the Pac-12 has displayed this season and offer some predictions for how it'll all sort out.
Ben Glicksman: Entering this season the Pac-12 was widely regarded as the deepest league, from top to bottom, in the country. Oregon and UCLA were lauded as College Football Playoff frontrunners. Stanford and Arizona State had question marks but appeared dangerous. Washington, under first-year coach Chris Petersen, seemed like the type of program poised to make the leap from the middle of the pack to the elite.
Well, through six weeks, we have one remaining Pac-12 unbeaten: 5-0 Arizona. A storm of injuries, Hail Marys and flat-out chaos has barreled through the conference, and Rich Rodriguez was apparently the only person to invest in a bunker.
The season is young, but the madness is real. Heck, people are passing for 734 yards in a single game and losing. Lindsay, you live in the Pacific Northwest. Please tell me what to make of the league’s strange, new state of affairs.
Lindsay Schnell: Remember a few years ago, when Rodriguez, Mike Leach, Jim Mora and Todd Graham joined the Pac-12, and people started talking about how much better the league got and how tough it was going to be for every team to win games? Well, here we are. Parity for all!
I'm as confused as the next person regarding the state of the West Coast, but there's no doubt that the influx of coaching talent has played a major role. Clearly it's not an influx of defensive talent. (Personally, I'd like some proof that Cal and Washington State actually recruited defensive players.)
I thought what Rodriguez said to FoxSports.com after Arizona's shocker over Oregon was spot on: "One of the factors is, we have the same philosophy as them as far as offense goes -- go up-tempo, like to run. What they do offensively, we’ve been doing it since before Oregon thought about doing it. We’re comfortable in that uncomfortable world.”
It's the perfect assessment. When the Ducks were cruising through the Pac-12, they brought something to the table (tempo) no one knew how to deal with. Now, what they do doesn't surprise anyone. I'm not sure anyone surprises anyone in this league -- unless it's with a Hail Mary. (Seriously, every coach better practice defending that.) You know that old coaching cliche, "anybody can beat anybody"? In this league, it looks like it's true.
I have no idea what's going to happen in the Pac-12, but I know that betting on a good defense is often safe. It's just that Stanford's offense is so, so bad. With that in mind, I think it's time to get on board with my dark horse CFP semifinalist, the 5-0 Arizona Wildcats. My hunch is they'll play Marshall for the title. You heard it here first.
In all seriousness, Martin, which Pac-12 team are we not talking about enough?
Martin Rickman: Honestly? It might be Arizona State. The Sun Devils got blasted by UCLA on a Thursday night working in a new quarterback, but with all the other losses in the conference, they're no worse the wear for it. As we also saw with Arizona, a Hail Mary may be part luck and part destiny, but when successful it still counts as a win.
The Sun Devils were seven seconds and a batted ball away from being 1-2 in the Pac-12 and all but buried in the South. Instead they're 2-1 in the conference, get a bye before playing a reeling Stanford team and still avoid Oregon. With the rise of backup quarterback Mike Bercovici (who has thrown for 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns in his first two starts) coupled with the offensive talent of players like Jaelen Strong and D.J. Foster, there's just enough here for Todd Graham to make things interesting.
I'm not saying Arizona State is going to win the league. I'm just saying we can't forget about the Sun Devils.
What about you, Ben? Which dark horse are you riding into the sunset? It wouldn't be Utah, would it?
Glicksman: It would not, though thank you for giving me a chance to link to this video of Utes fans storming the field three times against BYU in 2012. My pick would be Stanford. The Cardinal have two losses, against USC (13-10 on Sept. 6) and at Notre Dame (17-14 on Oct. 4). They would have won both games if their red-zone offense wasn’t so reliably inefficient. In fact, coach David Shaw’s team would be unbeaten even with its struggles if not for Kevin Hogan’s costly fourth-quarter fumble against the Trojans and Everett Golson’s beautiful touchdown pass in the waning moments of last week’s matchup.
Consider this: Stanford ranks first in the nation in yards per play allowed (3.72) and tied for 117th in red-zone scoring percentage (66.7). The former figure isn’t a fluke, and the latter seems mostly correctable. Stanford has made a living out of flying under the radar before rising up to win the Pac-12 North. Although the Cardinal stand at 3-2, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if they made another rise this fall.
Let’s not get too far ahead. Lindsay, there are four Pac-12 games this week, including a de facto playoff elimination game in Oregon’s visit to UCLA. What are you expecting? Which players should fans keep an eye on?
Schnell: First of all, even though Colorado is off this week, let's just state here and now that the Buffaloes are going to beat someone they're not supposed to, which will throw an even bigger wrench into this mess. As for this weekend, a lot of eyes will be on Pasadena, and rightfully so. With both teams’ horrific offensive lines, I'm not sure what to expect. CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm jokingly predicted more sacks than points, and I think he might be on to something.
If I were a betting woman, I'd put my money on Oregon to top UCLA. The Ducks are more accustomed to the spotlight than the reeling Bruins, and they have experience bouncing back. I also think that while Brett Hundley's offensive line is pedestrian, Hundley is occasionally guilty of holding onto the ball too long. Mariota has a better feel, and I still think he's the best player in college football. However, if UCLA wins by two touchdowns, I won't be surprised.
The game I'm more interested in this Saturday is USC at Arizona. How do the Wildcats handle the Trojans' defensive line, especially 6-foot-5, 300-pound defensive end Leonard Williams? He's so big it usually takes two players to block him. Anu Soloman has been very impressive for the Wildcats so far, but if Soloman gets flattened by Williams a time or two, how does that change things? I'm still picking Arizona -- after all they're my new CFP underdog -- but I'm curious to see how this game goes.
Ben, I'd like to know which team or player you're most disappointed with and why?
Glicksman: As far as team performance goes, I’m most disappointed with UCLA. It’s not just the last-minute loss to Utah. It’s that outside of a 62-27 drubbing of Arizona State on Sept. 25, the Bruins have looked more like an average Pac-12 outfit than the playoff threat they were supposed to be. UCLA’s porous offensive line has been its biggest concern, but the problems go beyond that. Its ballcarriers are averaging just 3.96 yards per attempt, and its defense is a allowing a 41.8 percent third-down conversion rate, 84th in the FBS.
Regarding players, I’d say I’m looking to see more out of Oregon tailback Thomas Tyner. I fully expected the five-star prospect from the class of 2013 to emerge as a star this year. That has yet to materialize. Part of his struggles can be attributed to the Ducks’ offensive line attrition and the emergence of dynamic freshman running back Royce Freeman. (Freeman has 67 carries for 346 yards and five touchdowns, while Tyner has 50 carries for 221 yards and one score.) Still, for a player with as much buzz as Tyner, the early returns have to be considered a bit of a downer.
Turning to you, Martin, who is your Pac-12 MVP at this point? And who do you feel is primed to shape this tangled knot of a conference race the rest of the way?
Rickman: It's not a guy who would immediately jump to the forefront, but I'm going with Washington's Shaq Thompson. The junior can do just about everything, as evidenced by his four total touchdowns (two off fumble recoveries, one off an interception and one as a running back). It's not a stretch to say the Huskies wouldn't be 4-1 without the individual efforts of Thompson, a guy who gets overshadowed a bit by the two-way prowess of UCLA's Myles Jack.
If we're going for an offensive player, I've been really impressed with the play of Arizona freshman running back Nick Wilson. Wildcats associate head coach Calvin Magee told SI.com last week that Arizona greatly prefers to run with two backs rather than going with a single back as it did with Ka'Deem Carey a year ago. Wilson (574 yards, six touchdowns) and Terris Jones-Grigsby (267 yards, three touchdowns) have helped pace the Wildcats so far this season and have taken a lot of pressure off of the quarterback Solomon.
It's hard to say who'll win the Pac-12 this year just because we're still right in the thick of it. All these teams have a loss already, except Arizona, and we haven't even reached the big tilts like Oregon-UCLA (this Saturday) or Oregon-Stanford or UCLA-USC. Things will sort themselves out pretty quickly I'd imagine, but I wouldn't be stunned to see someone we weren't expecting (maybe it is Arizona!) steal the conference away.
Lindsay, am I missing something? Should we just expect Oregon or UCLA or Stanford to figure this thing out?
Schnell: Since August, I've asked one question about the Pac-12 to almost anyone who would listen (and a few who wouldn't): When are we going to learn to stop doubting Shaw and Stanford?
I'm continually amazed at Stanford's success and subsequent lack of coverage and respect. This program has won a lot of big games but still manages to fly under the radar. For all the talk about Pac-12 QBs -- a conversation that is often dominated by Mariota and Hundley -- Kevin Hogan usually gets left behind. The bottom line is that he has won more big games than any other signal caller in this conference. Yes, Stanford's offense is painful to watch, especially in the red zone. But the Cardinal have the best defense in the league, and the second best defense in the nation. Almost everyone in the Pac-12 can score, so I think the league title will come down to who can stop these prolific offenses. Stanford’s red zone issues can get worked out, and I won't be surprised if the defense gets even better. It makes sense to pick Stanford.
Of course, Cal is sitting pretty at 2-1 in the conference right now, tops in the North Division. Like almost everything else in the Pac-12 this season, I can assure you no one saw THAT coming.