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Final Pac-12 Power Rankings: Where does Cal fall after a lackluster bowl season?

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With most teams losing their bowl games and some mad WTF-ery in the Cheez-I(n)t Bowl, can Cal finish in the top half of the conference?

Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual - Washington v Ohio State Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Leland Wong: Better late than never? That’s a thing, right?

Life got in the way, so we’re a bit delayed in our final Pac-12 Power Rankings for the 2018 season. We’re here to rank the Pac-12 teams based on overall 2018 performance, bowl performance (or lack thereof), and outlook for 2019.

But given how long it’s been since the end of the season, it’s only fair to refresh everyone’s memories with a quick recap of the Pac-12 bowl season:

  • No bowl: Arizona, Colorado, Oregon State, UC Los Angeles, USC
  • Las Vegas Bowl: #21 Fresno State def. Arizona State, 31–20
  • Cheez-I(n)t Bowl: TCU def. California, 10–7 OT
  • Alamo Bowl: #13 Washington State def. #24 Iowa State, 28–26
  • Holiday Bowl: #22 Northwestern def. #17 Utah, 31–20
  • Sun Bowl: Stanfurd def. Pitt, 14–13
  • Redbox Bowl: Oregon def. Michigan State, 7–6
  • Rose Bowl: #6 Ohio State def. #9 Washington, 28–23

Nick Kranz: I’ll be honest—I didn’t change a single ranking from my pre-bowl power rankings because I didn’t see anything in bowl season that made me radically reevaluate any particular team. Washington’s loss to Ohio State didn’t make me think that the Huskies weren’t still the best team in the conference. Utah’s (pretty fluky, turnover-fueled) loss to Northwestern doesn’t change much. Cal is still very, very much Cal. These teams were all who we thought they were—for better or for worse.

So for that reason I’m mostly going to use my blurbs to talk about 2019 expectations because that’s more interesting at the moment.

Ruey Yen: Similar to Nick, I opted to not change my post-bowl ranking too much from my pre-bowl ranking. Oregon ends up being the biggest mover (leapfrogging both Cal and Stanford) due to the Ducks eking out a win and the news of them getting QB Justin Herbert back. I was really hoping for optimism to boost the rank of Cal from the offense getting more reps leading to the bowl game, but then the historic Cheese-INT Bowl happened.

Berkelium97: I was tempted to rank the teams based on the 2018 season and how they ought to be feeling moving into the 2019 season, but I ended up ranking them on a more traditional “who finished the season on a strong note?” (spoiler: almost no one) ranking strategy. Had I used the former, I probably would have dropped WSU a spot or two (I doubt they find another Gardner Minshew II this offseason), moved Oregon up another spot thanks to Herbert’s return, moved Cal up (because the 2019 offense cannot possibly be worse than this mess), and dropped ASU because they’re losing much of their production on offense.

The rankings

In the event of a tie, those teams are listed alphabetically. The parenthetical number next to each voter’s name is where they ranked that team.

1. Washington Huskies (9–4, 7–2 Pac-12; eight first-place votes) ↔

NCAA Football: Washington at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Last week: 1

Nick Kranz (1): There are some arguing that the departure of Jake Browning is addition by subtraction, which I’d buy into more if I hadn’t seen UW’s back-up QB against the Cal defense. Washington’s bigger issue is the decline in their WR talent and the loss of six defensive starters. It’ll be a heck of a coaching job from Petersen and company next year if Washington doesn’t take an obvious step back.

Ruey Yen (1): The Washington Huskies are the clear top team in a down year for the Pac. While the early 2019 forecast for the Pac is again gloom, Huskies are going to be in a rebuild cycle. Then again, as much as Chris Petersen has not brought the UW program to the promised land, his teams will be consistent and hard to beat.

Berkelium97 (2): The offense was surprisingly mediocre given the tremendous experience of four-year starters Myles Gaskin and Browning.

Rob Hwang (2): They had a plethora of issues with on-field performance and yet maintained a good enough record to get them to the Rose Bowl—speaks to the recruiting and coaching of the staff up in Seattle. They probably would not have made it that far any other year that the Pac-12 is more competitive. Solid year though.

2. Washington State Cougars (11–2, 7–2 Pac-12; three first-place votes) ↔

NCAA Football: Washington at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Last week: 2

Nick Kranz (2): Who is the quarterback—and does it even matter in Leach’s system? The Cougars return all of their skill talent and have enough offensive-line continuity that if they can find a QB, they should do the usual air raid thing. But having to dip into the transfer market for Minshew adds perhaps more doubt than usual. Meanwhile, the defense was good enough to support the Leach offense, but might have issues replacing the disruptive play of Peyton Pelluer.

Ruey Yen (2): It was a historically great year for Washington State. Unfortunately for them (and it is the kind of fate that Cal fans expect for the Bears), the Cougars did not even get to go to a major New Year’s Day bowl. Is Mike Leach going to get another grad transfer in QB to lead his attack? Probably not. Cougs fans may rue the 2018 season as a special missed opportunity to make it back to the Rose Bowl (not that they will get much sympathy from this Cal fan since they were just there in 2003).

Berkelium97 (1): It’s a shame they turned in their worst performance of the season in the Apple Cup because this team otherwise spent much of the year looking like the Pac-12’s best team. If they played UW again on a neutral field (and not in a snowstorm), I’d pick the Cougs to win. For that reason and because of their 11–2 record, I give them the top spot in my final Pac-12 rankings.

Rob Hwang (1): In my eyes, they were the most complete team in the Pac-12 and if not for some weather conditions, could have easily won the division and possibly the conference. They also were snubbed by the selection committee for a better bowl game.

3. Utah Utes (9–4, 6–3 Pac-12) ↔

Oregon v Utah Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

Last week: 3

Nick Kranz (3): The Utes are losing their four leading tacklers and the bulk of their offensive line, but are returning all of their offensive skill position talent. Whittingham has proven his ability to restock on defense and the D line might be the best in the conference, but there are just enough question marks that I’m hesitant to peg the Utes as clear South favorites.

Berkelium97 (4): They weathered a number of injuries at key positions on offense, but Troy Taylor’s departure stings.

Rob Hwang (3): There wasn’t a real team that separated themselves in the Pac-12 South, but Utah won in the latter weeks that mattered and finished as the top team in the division. They had a solid offense under Troy Taylor—the question is if they can sustain with his departure as HC of Sac State.

4. Stanfurd Cardinal (9–4, 6–3 Pac-12) ↔

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl - Stanford v Oklahoma State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Last week: 4

Nick Kranz (4): As of the date of my writing, JJ Arcega Whiteside and KJ Costello haven’t announced if they will return for their final seasons of eligibility. If they both come back, then Stanford continues to be a perpetual Pac-12 North contender. If they don’t, then there’s huge uncertainty on both sides of the ball for the first time since Jim Harbaugh was relying on Tavita Pritchard at quarterback.

Ruey Yen (6): Stanford has a tough 2019 schedule on paper. I think it is a long overdue setback year for the Cardinal down at The Farm. I am also hoping that one of the many NFL vacancies may end up being David Shaw’s.

Berkelium97 (3): The defense was less consistent than we’ve come to expect from the Lobsterbacks, but Costello led an offense that was surprisingly productive despite Bryce Love’s injury. Every year, it’s tempting to say that they’ll regress next season, but we all know it’s going to be another nine-win season in 2019.

Rob Hwang (5): Yeah. It’s them. That is all.

5. Oregon Ducks (9–4, 5–4 Pac-12) ↔

National Championship - Oregon v Ohio State Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Last week: 5

Nick Kranz (5): Oregon is going to get a ton of buzz next year because Herbert and a ton of other starters are back and they’re adding a top-10 recruiting class. But it’s worth wondering how high the ceiling really is when you consider how mediocre Oregon was on both sides of the ball for much of the year. Herbert lacked targets to throw the ball, the run game was iffy, and the Ducks are losing a few impact starters from a defense that put up some iffy performances. If I were an Oregon fan, I might be more excited about, say, the 2021 season when their last two recruiting classes really start paying dividends.

Berkelium97 (5): I agree with Nick that Oregon is going to be massively overrated going into next season (although he said it more diplomatically and analytically than I did). Herbert will likely be the Pac-12’s best QB next season, but Oregon needs to figure out how to sustain an offense for four quarters. The inconsistency on offense plagued them all season. Against the Lobsterbacks, they blew a 24–7 lead and scored just one TD in the second half and OT; against Cal they took a 35–10 lead and then went 22 minutes before scoring a decisive TD; they were down 27–0 at halftime against the Cougs; the offense didn’t even make the trip to Tuscon; they took a 21–0 lead against UCLA, then went silent for 22 minutes; they scored one first-half TD against Utah; they took a 28–13 lead into the half against ASU and never found the end zone again; and they scored a whopping 7 points against Michigan State.

Rob Hwang (4): I was curious to see how Cristobal would do without the services of future first-round NFL QB Justin Herbert, but with his decision to return, we won’t see that hypothetical for another year. They should still be a solid team with much more talent coming in on the offensive side along with arguably the #1 recruit in the 2019 cycle in DL Kayvon Thibodeux. They should be the favorites to win the North next season.

6. California Golden Bears (7–6, 4–5 Pac-12) ↔

Oregon v California

Last week: 6

Nick Kranz (6): Cal ended up finishing in the top 10 of the S&P+ defensive rankings and they have the majority of the players on that side of the ball coming back. A top-10 defense! This concept shatters my mind. If the Cal coaches can’t find a way to get enough offense to allow next year’s team to compete for a Pac-12 North title, there will be significant dissatisfaction in Berkeley.

Ruey Yen (5): The outlook is fairly bright that Cal will retain both the great defensive coaches as well as the key players like Evan Weaver, who still has eligibility. The sunshine pumper in me is buying that the UCLA QB transfer Devon Modster may be the answer. The derivative of Cal’s ascension in this Justin Wilcox rebuild era may not be as great as before, but the program is still heading up.

Berkelium97 (7): I am as surprised that the Bears fielded the Pac-12’s best defense as I am that they fielded the worst offense (by a large margin). A merely average offense would have propelled this team into contention for a conference championship. However, it’s hard not to be optimistic for 2019 based on the level of returning talent on the defense and the belief that it is nearly impossible for the offense to be any worse than it was this season.

Rob Hwang (6): We should be higher—A LOT HIGHER—but a historically bad offense for the Bears was the Achilles heel in reaching some of the potential of this season. It will be a tough task for Beau Baldwin and the offensive staff to turn around their image in the fanbase after such a season.

7. Arizona State Sun Devils (7–6, 5–4 Pac-12) ↔

NCAA Football: Southern California at Arizona State Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Last week: 7

Nick Kranz (7): Manny Wilkins and N’Keal Harry are gone, along with a couple of offensive linemen. It’s hard not to think that ASU will take a step back on offense and the Devils are unlikely to have a defense good enough to make up the difference.

Berkelium97 (6): The Devils played in a shocking number of one-score games. They won four of them and lost five, which seems pretty fair. With as much firepower as they had on offense, it seems like they ought to have averaged more than 29.9 points per game. Next year may be a rough adjustment to the loss of Wilkins and Harry.

Rob Hwang (7): Did anyone think year one of the corporation model and Herm Edwards would go this well? Added to that a stellar recruiting class? Man we were all wrong. Next year will be the big test for that staff after having to reload at many key positions, but I expect them to rely on RB Eno Benjamin for the majority of their offense.

8. Arizona Wildcats (5–7, 4–5 Pac-12) ↗

NCAA Football: Arizona at California Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Last week: 9T

Nick Kranz (8): Khalil Tate is, somewhat surprisingly, back for another year in Arizona, as is JJ Taylor and a solid offensive line. The defense is returning mostly intact. If you squint, you could maybe imagine Arizona as a 2019 dark horse. But they need to keep Tate healthy and find a way to integrate his skills as a runner back into the offense while simultaneously improving what was a pretty bad defense.

Berkelium97 (8): This was a bizarre season for Arizona. The blowout loss to Houston set the tone for a disappointing year as the coaching staff didn’t seem to know what to do with Tate’s nagging injuries. A shocking blowout win over Oregon gave them some life at the end of the season, but a one-point loss in the Territorial Cup left them bowl-less. I’m not sure what to expect from them in 2019: it might be a bounce-back year or it might be another disappointment.

Rob Hwang (8): Preseason Heisman candidate (and favorite for some) Khalil Tate severely underwhelmed—partly due to injury—but regardless, this team went as he went. Sumlin worked it out with his QB as Tate will be back in Tucson next season. Arizona is still changing its identity from RichRod to Sumlin, but with so many returners, they should be improved from this season going into next year.

9. UC Los Angeles Bruins (3–9, 3–6 Pac-12) ↘

UCLA v Utah Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

Last week: 8

Nick Kranz (9): Most everybody is back on a defense that was pretty bad and UCLA recruiting has been more than a little screwy over the last few years. So, hope in 2019 largely rests upon whether or not Chip Kelly can recreate his Oregon Death Star offense at UCLA. He’s got a solid start with Josh Kelly and the running game, but it’s unclear if he has a quarterback and TE Caleb Wilson declared early.

Berkelium97 (10): That win over USC was the difference between an utterly dreadful season and a “maybe we’ll be okay next season” type of year. The Bruins have a steep climb and I’m not sure Chip Kelly will be able to hoist the Bruins beyond mediocrity.

Rob Hwang (9): More like UC LOL. amirite?

10. USC Trojans (5–7, 4–5 Pac-12) ↘

USC v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Last week: 9T

Nick Kranz (10): USC still has question marks—among them an iffy defense replacing solid producers and a shaky offensive line. It might take more than one offseason to turn it around, but a USC resurgence would not surprise me.

Ruey Yen (10): I certainly don’t mind this Kliff Kingsbury’s USC tenure ended up being zero-games long.

Berkelium97 (9): The Kliff Kingsbury saga was the cherry on top of a terrible year for the Trojans. Thankfully, we are all blessed with another year of Clay Helton.

Rob Hwang (11): LOL. JUST. LOL.

11. Colorado Buffaloes (5–7, 2–7 Pac-12) ↔

Colorado v Colorado State Photo by Joe Mahoney/Getty Images

Last week: 11

Nick Kranz (11): Steven Montez and Laviska Shenault are a good enough tandem to give Colorado fans some hope, but a mediocre defense is losing five starters and the offensive line just wasn’t good enough—it’s hard to envision an immediate bounce back unless Mel Tucker is a savant.

Berkelium97 (11): The only way to have a worse season than Colorado’s 5–0 start followed by a 7-game losing streak is to do whatever the Beavers were doing on defense this year.

Rob Hwang (10): After starting the season undefeated, the elusive sixth victory never came, which resulted in a bowl-less season and HC Mike MacIntyre getting fired a few weeks before the season’s end.

12. Oregon State Beavers (2–10, 1–8 Pac-12) ↔

Utah v Oregon State Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Last week: 12

Nick Kranz (12): Optimistically, OSU fans can point to some interesting young talent on offense and general youth everywhere and hope that the youngsters got their lumps and will be ready to play more competitive football next year. But the gap between OSU and the rest of the conference is just so, so large. Multiple conference wins would be a triumph.

Berkelium97 (12): OSU is in the same place Cal was heading into the 2014 season. A woeful defense overshadowed the accomplishments of a decent offense. If OSU can solve its defensive woes next season, they might be decent. That’s not going to happen, however.

Rob Hwang (12): Jonathan Smith had a big task ahead of him—and it showed this season. As a son of OSU, he’ll have plenty of leeway to rebuild that program and build it back up to a competitive program.

The data

The first step of our data-driven journey was to poll our CGB writers for our individual views of the conference. Those votes are collected in Table 1.

Table 1. Our final ballots for the 2018 Pac-12 season

rk Alex atoms Bk97 Joshua Leland Nick K. Nik Jam ragnarok Rob Ruey thedozen
rk Alex atoms Bk97 Joshua Leland Nick K. Nik Jam ragnarok Rob Ruey thedozen
1 Wash Wash WSU Wash WSU Wash Wash Wash WSU Wash Wash
2 WSU WSU Wash WSU Wash WSU WSU WSU Wash WSU WSU
3 Utah Stanfurd Stanfurd Stanfurd Stanfurd Utah Stanfurd Utah Utah Utah Utah
4 Stanfurd Oregon Utah Utah Oregon Stanfurd Oregon Stanfurd Oregon Oregon Stanfurd
5 Oregon Utah Oregon Oregon Utah Oregon Utah Oregon Stanfurd Cal Oregon
6 ASU Cal ASU Cal Cal Cal ASU ASU Cal Stanfurd Cal
7 Cal ASU Cal ASU ASU ASU Cal Cal ASU ASU ASU
8 Arizona Arizona Arizona Arizona Arizona Arizona Arizona Arizona Arizona UC L.A. Arizona
9 UC L.A. UC L.A. USC USC USC UC L.A. UC L.A. USC UC L.A. Arizona USC
10 USC Colorado UC L.A. Colorado Colorado USC USC UC L.A. Colorado USC UC L.A.
11 Colorado USC Colorado UC L.A. UC L.A. Colorado Colorado Colorado USC Colorado Colorado
12 OSU OSU OSU OSU OSU OSU OSU OSU OSU OSU OSU

For each team, our individual rankings are taken and two calculations are made: the mathematical average (a rough estimation of the middle value in the data) and the standard deviation (how significantly varied these responses are). Figure 1 shows the average rankings as the columns and the standard deviations as error bars.

Looking at these precise rankings (as opposed to the boring, rounded rankings that you’ll get from our lame-o competition) can often reveal more information, like near-ties and huge gaps between teams. For instance, the Los Angeles schools ended up intertwined with one another. Utah and Stanfurd were also nearly tied—Utah narrowly getting the edge means the Southern champs were the third-best team; if Stanfurd were able to edge them out, then that would make three North teams better than the best South team.

Figure 1. A closer look at our exact rankings of the Pac-12 teams—for the last time this season.

We do this every week, but it seems doubly-appropriate in our final ranking to reflect on the season overall by graphing the precise rankings over the season (Figure 2). This shows that our bottom five have been locked-in since Week 9; Arizona, Oregon State, and UC L.A. have been in said bottom five since Week 1, meaning the writing for these teams has been on the wall for as long as walls have existed.

Figure 2. Look upon our precise rankings for the 2018 season.

For the sake of completion, the rounded rankings are also charted over the season (Figure 3A). After so many voters said they weren’t making changes after bowl season, you will be stunned to find there are few changes since bowl season. Eight teams (Wazzu, Utah, Stanfurd, Oregon, Cal, ASU, Colorado, and Oregon State) have held steady this past week; six teams have actually held the same ranking since Week 12.

Figure 3A. The rounded rankings for the conference this year.

With the season behind us, let’s take a look at how our final rankings have evolved over the preseason rankings (Table 2). Were we any good at predicting the season? (Spoiler: hell no.) We massively overrated USC for their mad recruiting history, despite knowing they would be starting a true-freshman quarterback. We also totes underestimated Washington State; personally, it was due to total uncertainty in how they would perform under their new defensive coordinator. On the brighter side, I’d say that we nailed seven teams by preseason-ly ranking them within one score of their final ranking (California, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanfurd, UC L.A., and Washington); or we just stuck to some bias or something for these teams. The total sum of these differences between the preseason and the final season was a score of 30.

Table 2. The change between our preseason ranking and our final ranking.

Team Final change
Team Final change
Arizona -3
ASU 4
Cal 0
Colorado -1
Oregon -1
OSU 0
Stanfurd -1
UC L.A. -1
USC -8
Utah 4
Washington 0
WSU 7

I hope upon all hopes that hype has been building since I mentioned “Figure 3A”; what in all of Coral Palms could that A be referring to? (After all, very few of us are probably used to seeing As after Berkeley undergrad.) Well, one of the new wrinkles that I’m adding to our analysis (for the final edition of the season) is to look at the season’s average ranking for each team (Figure 3B). Despite Wazzu finishing the season hot, they started so slow (i.e., unproven against poor competition) that their season-average ranking is just fourth, with a massive standard deviation that is struggling to reconcile scores as low as ninth and as high as first. On the opposite side of the same coin, Colorado also has a massive standard deviation for their bipolar performance. For what it’s worth, Cal finishes on average in sixth, meaning we’re the worst of the best half of the Pac-12!

Figure 3B. The average of our averages... The average ranking of each team this year.

But if we return to our regularly scheduled content, we quantify how much the teams have been moving up or down the conference using a stat called the Madness score (Figure 4A). The past two weeks were the least Mad of the season (as already observed in Figure 3A).

Figure 4A. The collection of Madness scores, illustrating how volatile each team was.

But if you lack the ability to learn from the past, then you haven’t noticed that the above is Figure 4A. What, pray tell, is the A for? Another expansion of our data analysis (as recommended by our readers) is to chart the cumulative Madness over the season (Figure 4B). It’s pretty insane to see how unMad Washington was relative to the rest of the conference—and even crazier to see how much more consistent Oregon State was. We’ve got a tie for Maddest team: Cal, USC, and Utah. USC made a final push to get into our threeway by dropping one spot this week.

Figure 4B. Tracking the total Madness score for each team.

Thanks for reading a season’s worth of my drivel. As you can see, reader feedback is always welcome and—if you’re good enough—incorporated into my work. Let me know if you have any thoughts or concerns (or especially praise) and let’s all hope for better rankings for Cal in 2019.