Pac-12 preview: Can anyone make a run at Oregon in the North?

Sports

Change is the watchword in the Pac-12. The conference was the first to drop divisions as part of its championship game determination when allowed to do so this month. It changed commissioners last season, bringing in George Kliavkoff in 2021. Its two biggest current brands — USC and Oregon — changed coaches in the offseason, bringing in one of the most proven young head coaches and young defensive coordinators in the country, respectively. NIL and open transfers have changed pretty much everything for everyone.

The conference probably hopes change will carry over to something else, too — namely, its status among power conferences.

For years, it was unfairly maligned for its lack of title contenders when, on average, it performed better than the ACC at the very least. (It just didn’t have a Clemson.) But in 2021, it was just bad. In terms of average SP+, the Pac-12 ranked a distant fifth among FBS conferences, closer to the sixth-place AAC than fourth-place ACC. Its defensive SP+ average ranked seventh behind both the AAC and Mountain West. BYU and Utah State went a combined 7-0 against the Pac-12.

Change is all around out west, but we’ll find out if or when that’s a good thing. Let’s preview the Pac-12 North!

Earlier previews: MWC West | MWC Mountain | AAC (Nos. 6-11) | AAC (Nos. 1-5) | MAC East | MAC West | Sun Belt West | Sun Belt East | Conference USA (Nos. 6-11) | Conference USA (No. 1-5) | Independents | Pac-12 South


2021 recap

When Oregon beat Ohio State in Columbus in Week 2, it appeared the conference had the contender it has lacked. But Mario Cristobal’s Ducks ceased playing like a contender almost the moment they returned home. They lost to Stanford, nearly lost to Cal and UCLA and finished the season by getting manhandled — twice by Utah, once by Oklahoma — three times in four games.

No one could take advantage of the stumble. With Jimmy Lake flunking his test as Washington‘s head coach — his Huskies went 4-8, and he was fired after shoving a player on the sideline — the second-place team in the North was a Washington State team that lost to Utah State and Central Michigan. Oregon State had the offense to keep up with anyone, but the Beavers’ defense allowed 30-plus points six times during an encouraging but limited 7-6 campaign. Stanford lost seven in a row (its last four by an average score of 43-12) after the Oregon upset and finished 3-9, and while Cal rallied to win four of its last six, that didn’t quite salvage a 1-5 start.


2022 projections

With Cristobal leaving for Miami, Oregon brought in Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning to keep the recruiting machine humming. We’ll see if the Ducks can reestablish last year’s early standard (and if they have the quarterback to do so).

We’ll see, too, if the Ducks have a challenger up north. With division titles now a relic of the past, it’s worth noting that while Oregon is projected at 6.6 conference wins on average, the other three teams projected at 5.5 or higher are from the South. If a team like Washington or Oregon State is able to upset Oregon and finish atop the North pile, that might not mean a spot in the Pac-12 Championship.


Burning questions

Can Oregon’s strength in the trenches offset aerial issues? It was a frustrating experience watching Oregon in 2021. The potential was obvious, but the Ducks played at a plodding tempo that minimized a lot of their per-play advantages (they averaged just 11.0 drives per game, eighth-fewest in FBS), they attempted just 19 fourth-down conversions (87th in FBS), and while Anthony Brown was an efficient quarterback with both his arm and legs, Oregon’s vertical passing and big-play potential were limited. They got to 9-1 and stayed in the CFP conversation for a while, but it felt like a crash was coming well before it came.

Still, Lanning’s first Oregon team will have the most former blue chippers in the conference. The offensive and defensive lines return nine of 12 regulars, and most of an excellent linebacking corps, led by Noah Sewell, is back as well. It’s again likely that Oregon and Utah will stand out in terms of line play. The pass defense will reset without corners Mykael Wright and DJ James and first-round pass-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, but lots of recent star recruits could be ready.

So last year’s strengths will again be strong. What about the weaknesses? We’ll see if Lanning allows coordinator Kenny Dillingham to hit the accelerator a bit or if he follows the analytics properly on fourth downs; we’ll also see if Bo Nix is the answer at quarterback. The Auburn transfer ranked 33rd in Total QBR (Brown was 45th). He escaped pressure better than Brown last year but wasn’t nearly as dangerous in the designed run game. That could be an issue considering backs Travis Dye and CJ Verdell are gone, along with wideouts Devon Williams and Johnny Johnson III.

Can a new skill corps built around sophomore backs Byron Cardwell and Sean Dollars, sophomore pass-catchers Kris Hutson, Dont’e Thornton and Troy Franklin and transfers like Minnesota RB Mar’Keise Irving, UCLA WR Chase Cota and Texas A&M WR Caleb Chapman thrive? And can Nix hold off young former blue chippers Ty Thompson and Jay Butterfield for the starting job?

Can Washington reopen a window? With Oregon wobbly, it would have been a perfect opportunity for Washington to step in and snare its fourth North title in six years. The Huskies finished in the SP+ top 20 every season from 2016 to 2020, and while their rating slipped slightly in every year of that run, they still seemed to have top-25 potential in 2021.

Instead, they fielded their worst team since 2008. The defense slipped to 45th in defensive SP+, and the offense plummeted to 101st thanks to a combination of overly-safe playcalling and almost no big plays. Lake was legendary head coach Chris Petersen’s hand-picked successor in Seattle, so with Kalen DeBoer now taking over, the window on the Petersen era officially closes.

DeBoer’s been good at pretty much every job he’s had. He won three NAIA national titles in five years with Sioux Falls and improved offenses as coordinator at Southern Illinois, Eastern Michigan, Fresno State and Indiana before taking the Fresno head coaching job the past two seasons. His Bulldogs were a rickety 3-3 in his first season before leaping to 10-3 last year. This is the biggest job he’s had, but he’s aced most of his tests thus far.

DeBoer made a few transfer moves to spruce up the offense, most notably bringing in Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr., but for the most part he’ll be relying on last year’s ultra-young core — in particular, the sophomore receiver trio of Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Taj Davis — for improvement. Penix, sophomore Dylan Morris and blue-chip redshirt freshman Sam Huard will keep battling for QB1, and the Huskies got a boost when star left tackle Jaxson Kirkland elected to return to the team in early May. We’ll see what sort of improvement Deboer and longtime right-hand man Ryan Grubb can engineer.

Defensively, things are more encouraging. Edge rusher Zion Tupuola-Fetui is further removed from a 2021 Achilles injury and could thrive again, and a couple of ace transfers — Cam Bright (Pitt) and Kris Moll (UAB) — could stem attrition at linebacker. Tuli Letuligasenoa is one of the best tackles in the conference, and while last year’s starting corners are gone, UC Davis transfer Jordan Perryman is impressive, and the safety corps is experienced.

Would Oregon State and Cal be willing to join forces? Both Cal’s Justin Wilcox and Oregon State’s Jonathan Smith have built half of a good program in their five and four years in charge, respectively. Cal peaked at 13th in defensive SP+ in 2018, and after a stumble in 2020 and early 2021, the Bears rebounded last season, allowing 14 or fewer points in four of their last six games. They must replace half of the 14 players who logged 250-plus snaps, but safety Daniel Scott and corner Lu-Magia Hearns III are stars, and Wilcox did astute work in adding Washington linebacker Jackson Sirmon and Utah end Xavier Carlton, among other transfers. This should be a top-40 unit again.

Smith, meanwhile, has turbocharged the OSU offense. The Beavers averaged a 72.3 offensive SP+ ranking in the four years before his arrival but improved to 35th in 2019, then 16th in 2021. They weren’t particularly explosive but ranked fourth nationally in success rate and 17th in points per drive, and they return quarterback Chance Nolan, backs Deshaun Fenwick and Trey Lowe, high-ceilinged receivers Tre’Shaun Harrison and Tyjon Lindsey and potential all-conference tackles Brandon Kipper and Joshua Gray.

A team with OSU’s offense and Cal’s defense would be a Pac-12 contender. But per SP+, the OSU defense has never ranked higher than 87th under Smith, and the Cal offense has never ranked higher than 73rd under Wilcox. Wilcox brought in Purdue quarterback Jack Plummer, but the Bears return only two offensive starters. The OSU defense is much more experienced, and the secondary is active and sometimes exciting. But it’s also glitch-prone, and the run defense is inefficient. SP+ gives both the Beavers and Bears solid odds of bowling, but anything more will require a unit with a terrible track record to suddenly surge.

Can Cameron Ward save the Wazzu offense? Logistically, it’s never easy to get recruits to Pullman, Washington, much less convince them to stay there. Washington State has fielded plenty of salty and solid teams through the years, but it usually has done it with overlooked, chip-on-shoulder recruits and, sometimes, transfers. Even by Cougar standards, though, the 2022 team lacks from the standpoint of recruiting rankings. Using 247Sports’ Composite rankings, I counted not only zero former blue chippers on the roster, but only about seven recruits you might qualify as high three-star.

Still, despite both that and the drama that followed Nick Rolovich’s midseason firing for refusing to get a Covid vaccination, the Cougs proved they were fighters. They won three in a row on the verge of Rolovich’s firing, then won three of four down the stretch, too, finishing the regular season by pummeling Washington in the Apple Cup. That earned interim coach Jake Dickert the full-time job.

Dickert’s first full season will be defined by either massive turnover or a massive transfer. The Cougs are currently 117th in my returning production rankings, and the offense returns just five of the 14 players who logged 300-plus snaps. Former Nevada defensive coordinator Brian Ward inherits disruptive edge players Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson, and he brought a couple of exciting Nevada defenders with him in linebacker Daiyan Henley and safety Jordan Lee. But for the Cougs to match or exceed last year’s seven wins, it will require an FCS star to become a P5 star.

Dickert hired former Incarnate Word head coach Eric Morris as offensive coordinator, and Ward brought Cameron Ward with him to Pullman. In 19 total FCS games, Ward threw for a staggering 6,908 yards, 71 touchdowns and only 14 interceptions. He is a physical marvel, he’s already generated 2023 draft buzz, and he’ll be playing in a familiar system. If he can torch FBS defense like he did in the second division, Wazzu will have an awfully fun season, recruiting rankings or no.

What on earth is happening on The Farm? On paper, Stanford should still be a solid force. David Shaw has continued to sign sporadically strong recruiting classes — No. 12 in 2022, No. 21 in 2020, No. 20 in 2019, No. 14 in 2017 — and the Cardinal are loaded with former star recruits at quarterback (Tanner McKee), running back, receiver, offensive line and linebacker.

With all this raw talent, the Cardinal went 3-9 last season, finishing in the triple digits in both offensive (104th) and defensive SP+ (107th). McKee had some exciting moments before getting dragged down by nagging injuries, but even when he was 100%, the whole was dramatically less than the sum of the parts. The offense is outdated by design — run-heavy overall (even though they haven’t had a good run game in years) with a slow tempo and a passing game loaded with safe and inefficient passes like fade routes — but still has its moments when execution is strong. (The Cardinal were 31st in offensive SP+ in 2020, after all.) But the defense’s collapse has been years in the making. The Cardinal haven’t ranked better than 85th in defensive SP+ since 2018; it’s probably not a coincidence that they’re 11-19 in the past three years. Shaw’s loyalty to defensive coordinator Lance Anderson is admirable, but it hasn’t paid off in a while.

Despite the fact that recruiting rankings are factored into SP+ projections, the Cardinal are projected favorites in just two games this fall; one of those games is against FCS’ Colgate, and the other is by just 0.5 points at home over Wazzu. If they once again begin playing to their talent levels, they could quickly become a disruptive force in the North again. But Shaw and his staff bear a massive burden of proof in 2022.


My 10 favorite players

QB Chance Nolan, Oregon State. Much more mobile than the typical Jonathan Smith quarterback, Nolan averaged 6.8 yards per (non-sack) carry, took few sacks and completed 64% of his passes in 2021. If he can improve his downfield accuracy a smidge, look out.

QB Cameron Ward, Washington State. The FCS-to-FBS jump brings a high variance of outcomes, so we’ll see if Ward’s skills translate. But you can’t watch 15 seconds of his Incarnate Word highlights without getting excited about the possibilities.

RB Trey Lowe, Oregon State. All-conference back B.J. Baylor is gone, but Lowe is explosive — 6.9 yards per carry outside the tackles — and a sure-handed checkdown option. Lowe, Deshaun Fenwick and well-touted freshman Damien Martinez should fill in for Baylor just fine.

TE Benjamin Yurosek, Stanford. We’ve seen Stanford field plenty of great tight ends through the years, and Yurosek could be the next one. He averaged 15.6 yards per catch as a redshirt freshman and grew into a larger role as the season progressed.

LT T.J. Bass, Oregon. You already know about Washington’s Jaxson Kirkland, but Bass is his equal at left tackle. The 6’5, 318-pounder earned first-team all-conference honors with nearly perfect run blocking and only two sacks allowed.

DE Ron Stone Jr., Washington State. The junior from San Jose has the size and stats of an edge rusher (247 pounds, five sacks, 19 forced incompletions), but he’s also one of the most disruptive run defenders in the conference, taking part in 14 run stuffs.

ILB Noah Sewell, Oregon. He’s everywhere. The sophomore and former top-30 prospect made 134 tackle attempts in 2021, one every 7.6 snaps and nearly double that of anyone else on the team. He’s equally good in run defense and pass rush, too.

OLB Zion Tupuola-Fetui, Washington. Few made a bigger impression during the Pac-12’s abbreviated 2020 season. In just 86 pass rush attempts, Tupuola-Fetui recorded seven sacks and forced three fumbles and six incompletions. Here’s hoping he’s back to 100% after an Achilles tear last spring.

CB Lu-Magia Hearns III, Cal. The wonderfully-named corner forced incompletions on 21% of his targets in primary coverage and enjoyed a tackle success rate of 82%, excellent for both a cornerback and a redshirt freshman.

CB Kyu Blu Kelly, Stanford. The two best names in the conference are also two of the best corners. Kelly was successful on 85% of his tackle attempts and defensed 11 passes (two interceptions, nine breakups). Amid all of Stanford’s defensive woes, Kelly still thrived.

Honorable mention: WR Tre’Shaun Harrison (Oregon State), WR Jeremiah Hunter (Cal), LG Ben Coleman (Cal), LT Jaxson Kirkland (Washington), C Alex Forsyth (Oregon), DE Brandon Dorlus (Oregon), DT Tuli Letuligasenoa (Washington), ILB Ricky Miezan (Stanford), LB Kris Moll (Washington), S Kitan Oladapo (Oregon State)


Anniversaries

In 1992, 30 years ago, Don James coached his final season at Washington. After a run of merely decent performances — James’ Huskies averaged just 7.2 wins per season from 1985 to 1989 after nearly winning the 1984 national title — Washington rebounded with a top-five finish and Rose Bowl win in 1990, then an unbeaten national title run in 1991.

The Huskies reached No. 1 again with an 8-0 start in 1992, but they lost three of their last four games amid allegations that players had received improper benefits. The NCAA found no wrongdoing from James or his staff but banned the program from the postseason for two years and reduced its scholarship count due to “lack of institutional control.” James resigned in protest, ending a legendary 22-year coaching career earlier than most imagined.

In 1997, 25 years ago, Ryan Leaf happened. In 1996, Leaf took over as Washington State’s full-time starting quarterback and threw for 2,811 yards and 21 touchdowns. The Cougars began the season quickly but faded to 5-6, leaving little impression of what was to come.

The next year, everything clicked. Throwing primarily to Chris Jackson and Kevin McKenzie, Leaf went for 3,968 yards and 34 touchdowns, and Wazzu beat USC early and Washington late to go 10-1 and clinch its first Rose Bowl bid in 67 years. The Huskies damn near beat national co-champion Michigan in Pasadena, too, and finished in the AP top 10 for the first time ever.

Also in 1997, Mike Riley’s first Oregon State tenure began. When the former USC offensive coordinator took over in Corvallis, Oregon State was one of the direst jobs in the country. The Beavers hadn’t won more than four games in a season in 26 years and hadn’t bowled in 33. A 3-8 record in Riley’s debut was a definitive step forward, and going 5-6 in 1998 was such an achievement that Riley was offered the San Diego Chargers job. Dennis Erickson took the building project even further in Riley’s absence — they went 7-5 in 1999, then exploded to 11-1 in 2000 — and when Riley returned in 2003, he led the Beavers to their longest sustained run of success since Tommy Prothro was head coach in the 1960s.

In 1997, Riley also welcomed a walk-on quarterback named Jonathan Smith into the program. Now Smith is trying to reestablish that consistent success as head coach.

In 2002, 20 years ago, Jeff Tedford and Cal pulled off an incredible turnaround. Cal wasn’t as dire as Oregon State, but it had gotten pretty close when Tedford, Oregon’s offensive coordinator, took over. The Golden Bears had averaged just 3.2 wins per season over the five years before his arrival and were 1-10 the year before. But Tedford immediately thrived. Cal beat three ranked teams on the way to a 7-5 record in 2002 and, with help from a quarterback named Aaron Rodgers, improved to 8-5 in 2003 and 10-2 in 2004. The Bears were the only team to beat USC in 2003 and nearly did so in 2004 as well. Rebuilding jobs are rarely this fast or comprehensive.

In 2007, 15 years ago, Stanford beat USC. If there’s hope for the Pac-12 overall, just look at all of these turnaround stories we’re talking about. Stanford fell into a major rut in the 2000s, averaging 3.2 wins per year in the five seasons before Jim Harbaugh took the job in 2007. The Cardinal didn’t immediately rebound like Tedford’s Cal, but they did upset USC as a 41-point underdog.

Tavita Pritchard and Mark Bradford connected for the game-winning touchdown with 49 seconds left, and while it would take a couple more years for Stanford to emerge as a genuine heavyweight — six AP top-12 finishes in a seven-year span under Harbaugh and Shaw — the upset was a mission statement of sorts.

In 2012, 10 years ago, Stanford beat Oregon. At a national level, most remember the 2012 season for Johnny Manziel’s emergence and Alabama’s BCS Championship blowout of Notre Dame. But Alabama only got a shot at the title because Stanford pulled another crushing upset.

Oregon was No. 1 and 10-0, but the Ducks’ unstoppable offense turned the ball over on downs twice in Stanford territory and managed just 14 points despite 405 yards. Stanford forced overtime with a 10-yard Kevin Hogan-to-Zach Ertz strike, and after Oregon’s Alejandro Maldonado missed a 41-yard field goal in overtime, Jordan Williamson’s 37-yarder clinched a 17-14 win. Oregon would finish a gut-wrenching 12-1, three points from perfection, and head coach Chip Kelly would leave for the NFL the next year.

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