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Preseason Power Rankings: Purple Reign’s Prince to be king of the conference

Expect a repeat of last year’s champions.

46th Annual Grammy Awards - Show Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Leland Wong: Oh, how my heart has longed for you, football. But at long last, you are back.

And it’s long since been habit here to copy the rest of the sportswriting world by generating low-effort content in the form of Power Rankings. Much like I’ve seen some of you other sites copy our style of graphs. Don’t think I didn’t notice.

But I digress. We are gathered here today to pretend that we have any idea of how good the Pac-12 teams are based on a sample size of no games. Going on such an ample wealth of data, you can be certain that we’re certain of the conference outlook. After all, our preseason rankings last year were uncannily prescient with the primary exceptions being Arizona finding gold with Khalil Tate, Colorado severely regressing, and Willie Taggart having a good first (and only) year in Eugene (see Table 3).

Personally, I found it difficult to rank the mid-to-poor conference teams; I could see all of these teams (including Cal) once again cannibalizing each other en route to the bowl eligibility.

Alex Ghenis: I just went the lazy route and copied ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), except I put Cal above Oregon because we are pretty close on their rankings (23 vs. 26) and I’m extra-optimistic about the second year under Wilcox with our personnel (and maybe a bit of a homer… But for now, why not?).

Berkelium97: I like to rely heavily on results on the field in these rankings and I’m already not a big fan of preseason rankings, so I didn’t put a ton of thought into this (after re-reading this I guess “didn’t put a ton of thought” means writing an essay for half these teams). I used a combination of returning starters, last year’s performance, and coaching shake-ups to construct these preseason rankings.

Joshua.Morgan: Go Bears.

Ruey Yen: It’s hard to not be influenced by all the other preseason polls out there. There are several programs breaking in a new head coach this year—which gets them a spot or two lower in my rankings.

The rankings

1. Washington Huskies

Leland Wong (1): This team will be a behemoth and even improved over last year. The offense will be running just fine with QB Jake Browning and RB Myles Gaskin returning for their senior years. On the other side of the ball, I have no doubt that the defense will terrorize the conference and that begins with the secondary—which returns all starters. I was skeptical of them last year, but they will dominate this year—unfortunately.

Berkelium97 (1): 17 returning starters (including the QB) from the best team in the Pac-12 in 2017. I think the Huskies will be just fine this year.

Joshua.Morgan (1): This team plays football good. Nuff’ said.

thedozen (1): It’s not enough that Seattle was awarded the next NHL franchise. The Emerald City’s citizens also get to watch the West Coast’s consensus best college football team. Don’t sleep on senior TE Drew Sample.

Ruey Yen (1): Can the Huskies beat Auburn in their first game? They should, but probably won’t. I think Washington is a great team, but not great enough to get through the Pac-12 season unscathed a.k.a. no playoff team from the Pac yet again.

2. USC Trojans

Leland Wong (3): Even though they will be breaking in a new starting quarterback—a true freshman to make matters worse for them—we all know that USC recruits enough top-shelf talent for them to still be a force. Defensively, I’m quite the fan of coordinator Clancy Pendergast since his time in the blue and gold and he has plenty of weapons at his disposal—most notably, linebacker Cameron Smith.

Berkelium97 (3): I’m still not sold on Clay Helton. Partway through last season, I said that they’ll end up as the worst 10–3 team in the nation. They’ll probably win 9 or 10 games this year, but they’ll lose a head-scratcher or two.

Joshua.Morgan (2): So. Much. Talent. All they have to do is put it together and they will be a contender for—if not the absolute—best team in the conference.

Ruey Yen (2): Someone has got to win the Pac-12 South—it might as well be USC. Sam Darnold might be gone, but the hype surrounding true-freshman JT Daniels is growing. I am kind of disappointed that Cal does not get to play USC earlier on the year when Daniels and company are still getting their footing. Then again, if the Golden Bears can break through in November, that win will really mean something.

3. Stanfurd Cardinal

Leland Wong (2): Another year, another strong Stanfurd team—unfortunately. Despite losing several defensive players to the draft, they’ve been recruiting well enough that I have little doubt that they’re ready to replace those guys. Offensively, I think they found the right formula with K.J. Costello at quarterback, but he doesn’t even need to be that spectacular for them to win games—they’ve got all they need with the unholy union of RB Bryce Love and legendary coach Ron Gould.

Berkelium97 (2): I, for one, am expecting to mock them for needing a last-second field goal to beat SDSU in their opener, only to watch them turn into a juggernaut by November.

Joshua.Morgan (3): Who cares about how LSJU will actually do this year? We care about whether or not we have a shot at the Big Game this year. In my opinion, I think this could be the year. However, that has more to do with us being a good football team than LSJU being bad.

thedozen (4): When people ask about Berkeley, they usually want a story about hippies and politics. That’s too bad because they are going to hear about Big Game Week and getting to annoy Furdies with loud music. Unfortunately, a Stanfurd offensive line that allowed the fewest sacks in the Pac-12 last season is also annoyingly intact coming into 2018.

Ruey Yen (3): RB Bryce Love might win the Heisman this year because Cal fans know how good Ron Gould is with running backs. Stanford will likely have success again despite not necessarily having a fanbase.

4. Oregon Ducks

Leland Wong (5): Last year was a fluke for the Ducks and I project they will begin their warpath back to the top of the conference. Their record last year comes with a huge asterisk for the injury to QB Justin Herbert—projected to be a top-ten or even a top-overall pick in the NFL Draft. Herbert is back to lead the offense along with a slew of talented and experienced running backs; the defense is only going to get better under mastermind coordinator Jim Leavitt with linebacker and preseason All-American Troy Dye back.

Berkelium97 (6): Justin Herbert is one of the best QBs in the conference, but it’s hard for a team to overcome the challenge of three coaches in three years. Even with Herbert’s injury, I think this was still only a 7- or 8-win team last year—no way they would have beaten Wazzu, Washington, and furd. So I’m not going to give them much of a pass for the injury.

Joshua.Morgan (4): I think Herbert is sooooo overrated by NFL folk, but he should be pretty awesome for Oregon this year. I also think they could have a very strong defense. We saw first hand how good this team could be last year as it was the only game besides UW in which we got purely dominated. I think #4 is their ceiling, but the fact that they have a great chance to reach it makes me put them there.

Ruey Yen (5): Another new head coach for Oregon. Instead of taking that one step forward to challenge UW and Stanford to be the best in the Pac-12 North, I see them potentially just treading water this year. They do have a very good QB in Justin Herbert, who may make some noise in the Heisman Trophy race.

5. Arizona Wildcats

Leland Wong (4): I think most of the nation is sleeping on the Wildcats—and that’s dangerous. We all know that QB Khalil Tate is an exceptional player, so I’m guessing most of the skepticism is due to the coaching change. I think Kevin Sumlin is stepping into a great situation for him with plenty of pieces in place and by keeping defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, there’s even some continuity on that side of the ball. The Wildcats will surprise some of those fools who are underestimating them.

Berkelium97 (5): I’m not sold on Arizona and I think I may be overrating them. We may be biased because Tate was scorching the earth when the Wildcats visited the Bears. He averaged an utterly insane 13.5 yards per play in his first four games as a starter; in his final five games as starter, he only averaged 6.3 yards per play. While I think Sumlin will build a decent offense at Arizona (probably about as successful as RichRod), I don’t think Tate can sustain the kind of production we saw midseason (perhaps because defenses figured out how to stop him). I’m not expecting much from Arizona’s defense, which returns nine starters from the 109th-ranked scoring defense in 2017.

Joshua.Morgan (7): To me, it feels like everyone is way too enamored with Khalil Tate. Was he amazing last year? Yes. Is that production sustainable into this year? I’m going to go with no. I think he is very talented, but I also believe that Pac-12 teams will be able to stop him this year because now they have finally gotten a look at him. Tate aside, I think Arizona’s talent puts them in the middle of the conference—and that makes me put them all the way down at 7. Fight me.

6. California Golden Bears

Leland Wong (7): I’m a total homer and in full preseason-hype mode, but I’m expecting a big jump for the Bears. The offense will miss some of their weapons at receiver, but have talent in all other positions—including stunning continuity at offensive line. The defensive backs will be an absolute asset, but may have to carry the front seven—which has some questions about depth. The Bears did surprisingly well in their first year of the Wilcox era and should do even better with a second year in the system, but subpar recruiting for the past few years may limit their growth.

Berkelium97 (7): A downfield passing game will be the difference between a Cal team that wins eight regular-season games and one that struggles to achieve bowl eligibility. The loss of Demetris Robertson certainly won’t help, but hopefully another year of experience will give Ross Bowers (assuming he’s the starter) some improved downfield accuracy. At the very least, the abundance of tight end talent will give the Bears plenty to work with in the short-and-midrange passing game. The defense should be serviceable and could a strength against some potentially vulnerable Pac-12 offenses this season.

Joshua.Morgan (6): I put them at six in order to not be an ultra homer, but I think we could easily finish the year as good as #4. Also, I see #7 being our worst-case scenario. Call me optimistic, but I think it’s more accurate to call this team good. I think we also had a good team last year and if you read the site you should know that we were 10 points away from 8–4. With so many returners, especially on the offensive side, I think we could have a pretty good year this year. #endthedrought

Ruey Yen (6): As much as I like Wilcox and the trajectory of the program, I simply think that it will take another year for the Golden Bears to become a conference contender. Not having Demetris Robertson limits the upside of the 2018 season. Still, I see the Golden Bears as spoilers to the top Pac-12 teams with college playoff ambition. An upset win is the recipe for the Bears to go bowling at the end of the year.

thedozen (6): Patrick Laird’s reading challenge was a really inspirational thing to see. Laird was also one of the most-exciting Cal players to watch last season.

7. Utah Utes

Leland Wong (6): The typically-stout Utah defense might actually take a minor step back in 2018 as they only have four of 2017’s starters back on the team, but Kyle Whittingham’s track record tells me that there’s little reason to doubt his ability to field a disruptive defense. His shortcomings since joining the Pac-12 have generally been on the offense, but a second year under OC Troy Taylor and a second-year quarterback in Tyler Huntley means they should improve here as well.

Berkelium97 (4): I expect Utah to bounce back from what I consider to be an aberration last year. This is what I wrote about Utah last season after Week 12, and I still fully stand by it: “I’m now convinced that this Utah team is an incredibly unlucky version of the same Utah teams we’ve seen over the last several years. Utah is a team that wins close games with strong defense, solid special teams, and just-good-enough offense. Statistically, this team isn’t that different from recent Utah teams that won 9, 10, and 9 games over the last three seasons. Over the past several years and in no particular order, Utah has scored and allowed (respectively) an average of 29.8 and 23.8 points, 31.3 and 24.9, 29.1 and 24.9, and 30.6 and 22.3. Utah won 9 or 10 games in all those seasons except for this one. This season fits in with what Utah usually does, but the record doesn’t reflect that. Their respective offense and defensive yards per play tell largely the same story: (again, in no particular order) 5.35–5.34, 5.78–5.56, 5.11–5.18, 5.67–5.21. You might be tempted to think that this season is the only one in which they surrendered more yards per play than they accumulated. Nope. In fact, this season they have the largest positive difference between the two. And yet this is quite obviously not another 9 or 10-win Utah team. Turnovers and special teams aren’t meaningfully different this year. Instead, this looks like some bad luck.”

Joshua.Morgan (5): ^what he said

Ruey Yen (7): Cal does not play Utah in 2018.

thedozen (5): Britain Covey caught 43 passes in 2015, but hasn’t suited up since thanks to a mission trip in the interim. His performance will help determine how far the Utes will go.

8. UC Los Angeles Bruins

Leland Wong (8): Chip Kelly will ultimately be a great hire for the Baby Bears, but he won’t bring greatness to Westwood as quickly as he did in Eugene. Although he lucked into a commitment from Dorian Thompson-Robinson—the second-best dual-threat quarterback of his class, who committed to the Mora staff—and the Bruins have generally recruited mind-bogglingly well, it will take time to transition these athletes to his style and to bring his own guys in. They’ll be potent in 2018, but need a little more time marinating before they break into a higher tier.

Berkelium97 (8): I’m skeptical that Chip Kelly will recapture what he had in Oregon. I’m expecting that he’ll be pretty good with the Bruins, but I doubt they’ll be contending for Rose Bowls and national titles.

Joshua.Morgan (8): Kelly was a fantastic hire, but I agree with Leland that it will take a while. I also doubt he ever gets them to the powerhouse level that he got Oregon to, but that is a topic for another day. As far as this year, we could see some promising games, but they are going to finish on the lower end of the middle of the Pac-12.

thedozen (9): Chip Kelly (not Baskets) finds himself in a situation not dissimilar to the one Wilcox inherited last campaign. Intriguingly, the Bruins face off against Jeff Tedford’s Fresno State Bulldogs squad in Week 3. Josh Rosen is no longer the QB, but the Bruins still have junior WR Theo Howard as a target.

Ruey Yen (9): With Rosen gone, I think UCLA will take a step back in 2018. Chip Kelly should have more success back in college than he did in the NFL, but it will take time.

9. Washington State Cougars

Leland Wong (10): While plenty may be questioning the quarterback position, I think we should all laugh at the thought of Mike Leach’s system not helping his quarterback look like a superstar. Instead, Wazzu’s struggles will come from perhaps the most underrated part of the Leach turnaround—their defense. Leach uncovered a grand treasure in then–safeties coach Alex Grinch. With Grinch defensively coordinating the defense, they became an asset. With Grinch headed to Ohio State, I’m not sure if Wazzu can continue to impress on that side of the ball in the first year of a new system.

Berkelium97 (10): I’m surprised Leach came back this year. His excellent DC left, his AD left, and Luke Falk’s 12k career passing yards left. After his team plateaued in a disappointing 9-win season (when 9 wins at Wazzu is a disappointment, you’re doing a fantastic job), he certainly had opportunities to take a promotion elsewhere. This will be a tough rebuilding year for the Cougs.

Joshua.Morgan (9): The fact that Leach is back gives me some hope for this team, as I don’t expect them to fully drop to the bottom of the conference. However, the losses of Luke Falk and others are going to make sure that this team doesn’t come near their recent successes.

Ruey Yen (8): QB Luke Falk has graduated. Leach’s Air Raid might be more grounded this year. I am also not sure how the tragic suicide of QB Tyler Hilinski will affect that program.

10. Colorado Buffaloes

Leland Wong (9): I think the biggest question for the Buffaloes will be defense. Losing defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt—who revitalized that unit—was a huge problem last year. This will be the second year under youthful DC DJ. Eliot, so they must show growth from experience in the system to stay competitive.

Berkelium97 (9): They might be better this year. But after losing seven starters on offense and five on defense, I’m not expecting much improvement.

Joshua.Morgan (9): The least-exciting team in the conference. Yes, even less than OSU because at least we are excited to play OSU.

Ruey Yen (10): Colorado had the same record as Cal last year and decisively beat the Golden Bears (the game was in Boulder). Why do I have them this low in the rankings? The program simply doesn’t have the track record of success. They do have an experienced QB in Steven Montez.

thedozen (8): Evan Worthington is a really nice piece at defensive back, but I am betting that the Buffs finish behind the Golden Bears.

11. Arizona State Sun Devils

Leland Wong (11): The low ranking is not an indication that I’ve joined the rest of the college-football world in mocking the Herm Edwards hire; I actually think that move (or a similar one) could work in the long run in the right conditions. Despite having Manny Wilkins (a quarterback entering his third year as a starter) and N’Keal Harry (one of the best receivers in the nation), the Sun Devils lost a lot on defense. They’ll be more competitive than the ranking suggests, but it’ll be a rebuilding year in Tempe.

Berkelium97 (11): The low ranking is definitely an indication that I’ve joined the rest of the college-football world in mocking the Herm Edwards hire.

Joshua.Morgan (11): This team sucks. Also, Herm Edwards.

thedozen (11): Yes, Herm Edwards! When I’m not following Cal football, I masochistically watch New York Jets games. These days I hope Chad Hansen gets more reps, but years ago I was aboard for the full Edwards experience. The long and short of it was a couple of playoff losses to the Raiders. Still, nothing prepared me for the wacky press conference announcing his hiring by the God Evils, which is what you see when the Sun Devil band attempts to form “Go Devils.” Hello? You play to win the game!

Ruey Yen (11): Herm Edwards played two years at Cal in college (I am a bit confused by why he played at a Junior College for his sophomore year or why he switched to San Diego State for his senior year), so I will try to badmouth him too much. Nothing that he’s said since taking over the ASU job makes me feel like that he grasps the difference between college and NFL. I see a long learning curve there.

12. Oregon State Beavers

Leland Wong (12): If Oregon State weren’t such a perpetual thorn in our side, I’d almost feel bad for them. Rebuilds aren’t always painful, but there’s just not enough talent on the roster and not enough experience in the coaching staff. Jonathan Smith—despite being a local legend—is a first-time head coach. Tim Tibesar only has four years of experience as DC at the FBS level or above, but it was last in 2012; Tibesar does have two ties to Cal as he was a grad assistant here in 1999 and he served under Wilcox at Wisconsin in 2016. This might be the right hire in the long run, but 2018 won’t be there year yet.

Berkelium97 (12): I’m still bitter that they gave away that win against LSJU last year. That was awful.

Joshua.Morgan (12): Lol.

thedozen (12): I will gladly eat Reser potato salad at any Golden Bear tailgate. Also, someone needs to explain why Oregon State scheduled the more famous OSU—the Buckeyes—as their first road contest. The Beavers will be counting on senior defensive back Dwayne Williams especially given their injury situation.

Ruey Yen (12): Another Pac-12 school with a new head coach. It will take time for Jonathan Smith, in his first head coaching job, to turn this program around.

The data

Here’s a look at how exactly your esteemed experienced willing coercible CGB contributors. We’ve got a big group of 13 voters, but only got written responses out of five; let’s hope that we can up the participation when we have actual football to discuss.

Table 1. Our individual preseason votes

rk Alex atoms Bk97 Joshua Leland Nick K. Nik Jam Mike Piotr ragnarok Rob Ruey thedozen
rk Alex atoms Bk97 Joshua Leland Nick K. Nik Jam Mike Piotr ragnarok Rob Ruey thedozen
1 Wash Wash Wash Wash Wash Wash Wash Wash Wash Wash Wash Wash Wash
2 Stanfurd USC Stanfurd USC Stanfurd USC USC Stanfurd Stanfurd USC USC USC USC
3 USC Stanfurd USC Stanfurd USC Stanfurd Stanfurd USC Arizona Stanfurd Stanfurd Stanfurd Oregon
4 Cal Oregon Utah Oregon Arizona Arizona Oregon Oregon Oregon WSU Oregon Arizona Stanfurd
5 Oregon Cal Arizona Utah Oregon Oregon Arizona Utah USC Arizona Cal Oregon Utah
6 Utah Utah Oregon Cal Utah Utah Cal Arizona Cal Oregon Utah Cal Cal
7 Arizona UC L.A. Cal Arizona Cal Cal UC L.A. Cal Utah Cal Arizona Utah Arizona
8 UC L.A. Arizona UC L.A. UC L.A. UC L.A. UC L.A. Utah UC L.A. WSU UC L.A. ASU WSU Colorado
9 ASU Colorado Colorado WSU Colorado WSU Colorado Colorado Colorado ASU Colorado UC L.A. UC L.A.
10 WSU ASU WSU Colorado WSU ASU WSU ASU UC L.A. Utah UC L.A. Colorado WSU
11 Colorado WSU ASU ASU ASU Colorado ASU WSU ASU Colorado WSU ASU ASU
Table 1. If you ever wanted to peer into the mind of just one or two of us.

We take the numerical responses that each team received and calculate the mathematical average to determine the... average ranking. We can take a look at these precise rankings as well as the standard deviations for each team. The standard deviation tells you how varied the perceptions for each team were. A small standard deviation (and thus, a small error bar) suggests that we were in general agreement about that team; a large standard deviation indicates a range in responses for that team. We see total agreement for the best and worst teams in the conference, but all of the teams in between have pretty hefty standard deviations, meaning there’s a considerable amount of wiggle room in how these teams could be placed.

Figure 1. A more-precise look at ow we rated each team. Error bars represent 1 standard deviation.

Even without getting all deep into the math, we can still learn a bit from these precise rankings. Figure 1 also shows us when there are large gaps between teams (e.g., between ASU and OSU, demonstrating a clear consensus in which team we ranked the worst) or when teams that appear to have a normal distance between them are nearly tied (e.g., Stanfurd and USC are tight because like attracts like and evil attracts evil). It’s a bit easier to visualize this when the precise rankings are stacked vertically rather than the bar graph that is Fig. 1.

By vertically stacking this week’s rankings (Fig. 2), it becomes apparent that we have a few classes—five by my count (although two of them are, much like my Friday nights, all alone). Up at the top, we have the bane of my existence—Washington; a unanimous #1 among us. The second tier is the aforementioned marriage between vile and heinous—two teams that have recruited well and have a strong track record of success, but aren’t ready to break into the top tier. The third tier’s quartet—Oregon, Arizona, Cal, and Utah—look to be strong and on the up-and-up again. Conversely, there are more questions for the fourth class, including coaching questions. And bringing up the rear is hapless, rebuilding Oregon State.

Figure 2. A graph that ha way more horizontal real estate than necessary.

But just for funsies, let’s compare our preseason rankings to our end-of-2017 Power Rankings. We see that most teams are within up to two spots of their placement last year with a few key exceptions. Wazzu is turning to a first-year starter as well as a brand-new defensive coordinator and we all expect a rough transition in Pullman. On the flip side, we have a huge bump for Cal; sure, we absolutely have a wealth of continuity from last year, but is this really fair or are we just a bunch of homers?

Table 2. Progression from 2017 to 2018

Team 2017 final 2018 preseason Offseason change
Team 2017 final 2018 preseason Offseason change
Arizona 7 5 2
ASU 9 11 -2
Cal 10 6 4
Colorado 11 10 1
Oregon 5 4 1
OSU 12 12 0
Stanfurd 3 3 0
UC L.A. 7 8 -1
USC 2 2 0
Utah 5 7 -2
Washington 1 1 0
WSU 4 9 -5
Table 2. A comparison of our 2017 end-of-season Power Rankings and our 2018 preseason Power Rankings.

Check back next week and we’ll take a look at some real data!


Where is Cal on your personal preseason Power Ranking?

This poll is closed

  • 12%
    1. Because I’m a Cal homer and not interested in being objective or contributing meaningfully to data collection or conversation.
    (15 votes)
  • 2%
    1. My honest opinion without homerism.
    (3 votes)
  • 2%
    (3 votes)
  • 5%
    (7 votes)
  • 17%
    (22 votes)
  • 25%
    (32 votes)
  • 17%
    6. Just like the rest of you.
    (22 votes)
  • 8%
    (11 votes)
  • 4%
    (6 votes)
  • 0%
    (0 votes)
  • 2%
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    12. Because doom et al.
    (0 votes)
125 votes total Vote Now