Pac-12 Football Notebook: Who Was Really Best in This Conference?

Oregon won Pac-12 title, but were the Ducks the best team? And we consider other superlatives for the short 2020 conference season
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We are choosing Pac-12 superlatives in our final regular-season notebook, casting aside presumptions and focusing on what our eyes tell us.

---Who is really the best team in the Pac-12?

If a traditional 12-game season began tomorrow with the same rosters, how would you pick the order of finish in the Pac-12 based on what we saw in 2020?

1. Utah (3-2) – The Utes lost their first game to USC when the Trojans had two games under their belts and Utah had none, and Utah somehow let a 21-0 halftime lead slip away against Washington in the second game. But Utah won its final three games, crushing Colorado and Washington State in its last two. I’d like to see the Utes play USC again now, with Drew Lisk as the Utes’ quarterback.

2. Arizona State (2-2) – The Sun Devils should have defeated USC, and they lost to UCLA by seven after being off for nearly a month. They then won their final two games, including that 70-7 win over Arizona.

3. Stanford (4-2) – The Cardinal won their final four games, including a road win over Washington, and were getting better when the season ended. Stanford was 4-1 with Davis Mills as its starting quarterback.

4. USC (5-1) – The Trojans beat only one team with a winning record (Utah, see No. 1 explanation above). How they beat Arizona State is still a mystery, and they had to pull a rabbit out of a hat to beat an Arizona team that finished 0-6. They are this high only because Kedon Slovis always gives them a chance in the fourth quarter.

5. Washington (3-1) – The Huskies had a knack for playing better in the second half of games, and they did it with a redshirt freshman quarterback (Dylan Morris) who seemed impervious to pressure. But this team did not wow anyone.

6. Oregon (4-2) – Yes, the Ducks won the Pac-12 title, but USC basically gifted them the championship game with two early turnovers that resulted in touchdowns. Oregon was fortunate to beat UCLA, which was playing with a backup quarterback, and then lost its two games before the Pac-12 title game to teams that finished with losing records.

7. Cal (1-3) -- This looks like stretch, and maybe it is, but Cal beat conference champion Oregon and outplayed its opponent in two of its losses (Oregon State, Stanford).

8. Colorado (4-1 overall, 3-1 Pac-12) – The Buffaloes beat Stanford before the Cardinal got going, had games against its two toughest South opponents (USC and Arizona State) canceled, beat two teams that finished with losing records (UCLA and Arizona) and got crushed by Utah.

9. UCLA (3-4) -- It seems the Bruins should be higher than this, based on how well they played late in the season, but here they are.

10. Oregon State (2-5) -- Injuries to quarterback Tristan Gebbia and running back Jermar Jefferson made it hard to tell what the Beavers could have done this year and will do in the future.

11. Washington State (1-3) -- Virus issues ruined Cougars' season, and would have hampered their progress if the season started tomorrow.

12. Arizona (0-6): 70-7.

---Who was really the best running back in the Pac-12 this season?

Colorado’s Jarek Broussard deserved to be named Pac-12 offensive player of the year because he ranks second in the country in rushing yards per game for a 4-1 team. And Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson deserved to be the second-team all-conference pick since he is fourth in the country in rushing yards per game.

But if we’re picking a running back to play a game tomorrow, the selection is Utah freshman Ty Jordan. He did little in his college debut, rushing for just 32 yards against USC, but he got better as the season went on. He had more than 140 rushing yards in each of the Utes’ final three games, two of which were against teams that finished among the top five in the conference in rushing defense. He finished ninth in the country in rushing at 119.1 yards per game and his 7.2 average is mighty impressive.

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---Who was really the best quarterback in the conference?

USC's Kedon Slovis is  the pick almost by default. No Pac-12 quarterback was outstanding this season, and Slovis was better last season as a freshman than he was this season, his passer rating dropping from 167.6 (7th in the country) last year to 144.1 (34th in the country) this year.

But he gets high marks for his ability to make key plays at the end of games (three game-winning touchdown drives in the final two minutes).

Besides, who else would you consider?

If you just look at the numbers you would say Oregon’s Tyler Shough was the best quarterback. Afterall, he led the conference in passer rating and rushed for 263 yards for the conference champion. Well, sometimes statistics just don’t jibe with what you see.

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---Who was really the best receiver in the Pac-12?

Three of the four wide receivers selected to the first-team and second-team all-conference team were from USC, and that's probably about right. But the one interloper, Stanford's Simi Fehoko, gets the nod as the best receiver.

The 6-foot-4, 227-pound Fehoko beat UCLA virtually by himself, and the Bruins' inability to stop Fehoko was probably the reason Chip Kelly tried a two-point conversion (and failed) after getting within a point in the second overtime. Technically, Fehoko was not even a starter in Stanford's first two games, but he ended up leading the conference in receiving yards per game (94.7) by a sizable margin. And his 15.5 yards per reception reflects his big-play capability.

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---Who was really the best defensive player in the conference.

It’s hard to argue with USC’s Talanoa Hufanga being named the Pac-12 defensive player of the year; however, the pick here is Colorado linebacker Nate Landman.

Landman was second in the conference in tackles per game and tied for third in tackles for loss (9.0), but his selection is based on one game. Utah could not do much on the ground in the first half against Colorado when Landman was on the field, gaining 47 yards rushing. But the Utes rolled up 145 yards on the ground in the second half when Landman was sidelined with an injury.

---What individual statistic was really the most impressive?

The knee-jerk reaction is to say Jarek Broussard’s 301-yard rushing game or Simi Fehoko’s 16-catch, 230-yard receiving game or Amon-Ra St. Brown’s four first-quarter touchdown receptions would take this prize, but the choice here is the average yards per carry by Arizona State’s Rachaad White for the season: 10.0.

Granted White only played four games and had just 42 carries, so it’s unclear how that number will be reflected in the Pac-12 record book.

But White’s 10.0 yards per attempt easily betters the conference single-season record of 8.7 yards per carry set by Reggie Bush in 2005 (a record later vacated, leaving LaMichael James’ 7.3 yards per rush in 2011 as the official conference record). White’s mark is the second-best single-season per-carry average by any FBS player since 1956, bettered only by the 10.1 yards per carry of Houston’s Anthony Alridge in 2006.

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---Who really did the best coaching job in 2021?

Karl Dorrell deserves the coach-of-the-year honor he received for taking a team picked to finish last in the Pac-12 North to the Alamo Bowl. And Jimmy Lake’s steady hand led Washington to a North Division title.

Both did it in their first seasons as head coaches at their respective schools, but it’s foolish to judge a coach’s value based on his first season.

Mark Helfrich looked like a coaching genius when he went 11-2 and 13-2 in his first two seasons as Oregon coach, but he was fired after going 4-8 and finishing last in the North in his fourth season.

Joe Kapp was named Pac-10 coach of the year in 1982, when Cal went 7-4 in his first season as a head coach. He did not have another winning season and was fired after going 2-9 in 1986.

Meanwhile, Jim Harbaugh (Stanford), Mike Leach (Washington State), Don James (Washington) and Pete Carroll (USC) struggled in their first year or two before developing winning programs.

With all that in mind, the selection here for best coaching performance goes to Stanford’s David Shaw, who took a team that started 0-2 to a 4-2 finish despite not having a home field to practice on or play on for its final two nomadic games because of health restrictions in Santa Clara County.

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---How does the Pac-12 really stack up against the other conferences?

Without nonconference games in 2020 it’s impossible to know where the Pac-12 stands, but neither USC nor Oregon was particularly impressive in the Pac-12 title game, and no Pac-12 team stood out during the season. The question is not whether the Pac-12 was as good as any of the other four power conferences, but whether the Pac-12 was better than the American Athletic Conference or the Mountain West.

Who would win if Oregon faced Cincinnati or San Jose State tomorrow?

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Cover photo of Ty Jordan by Jeffrey Swinger, USA TODAY Sports

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