"Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then"
The first playoff rankings come out in eight days, so the kvetching inside the CoC has begun. Ted Miller of ESPN went Nervous Nellie all over the WWL in response to Utah's loss to USC, concerned that the Pac-12's best Playoff hopes now rest on the broad shoulders of Stanford, who already sports a loss but remains unbeaten in Pac-12 play. Of course, now the Cardinal heads to the Palouse for a treacherous #Pac12AfterDark date in the Pirate's Lair (which should be the title of a singles bar) to tame some feisty Cougars. It seems likely that if Stanford slips in Pullman, the idea of the Pac-12 being left without an invite to the playoff gets put squarely in play.
But here's the thing. Missing the playoff is also squarely in play for every other Power 5 conference plus Notre Dame. The Irish would need to win out to be included. One more slip-up and they're done. (Spoiler Alert: They're gonna slip up Nov. 28). Everybody assumes an undefeated Ohio State is in the playoff, but what happens if they get Khaki'ed in their final game? Clemson still has to play Florida State, who by then will surely have figured out how to defend a blocked field goal. The point is that no matter where your rooting interest lies, you can focus on the fact that your team needs "help," or you can trust that with all the football still left to be played, your team's biggest obstacle is its own schedule, and there's no point in sweating out the results of other teams before yours handles its own business.
So what happened in the CoC this week? As usual, the only thing we really learned is how little we know for certain about any team any given Saturday. Chaos and cannibalization are the only norms in the Pac-12. 'Twas ever thus, and shall thusly forever be. It's fun to watch, unless your team is on the wrong end of the chaos stick. Utah's road to Pac-12 supremacy is not gonna be as smooth as it may have seemed a week ago. In fact, the entire Pac-12 South has turned into a Jackson Pollack painting. Just when UCLA appeared Dunzo, they flattened the Golden Goff on Thursday night. Reports of USC's demise were apparently greatly exaggerated, at least for a week. And don't think that all is quiet on the northern front, either. Outcast Oregon is one Stanford win away from controlling its destiny once more in the division, presuming Washington State doesn't win out. So all we know is that we don't know, and we don't know even know what we don't know yet, only that there is that which we don't know. Got it? Good, then let's get to the week that was in the Pac-12.
UCLA 40, Cal 24-The in-state Bear Brawl ended with youth serving up a can of whuppin' on experience. Dr. Rosen Rosen carved up a Golden Bear defense we have been told all season is vastly improved. Rosen earned his hot tub time this week with 8.5 YPA, 399 yards, and three touchdown passes. For the second straight game, the Golden Goff struggled under the glare of the primetime spotlight. Goff slogged his way to a 5.5 YPA mark, and combined with Cal's inability to run the ball, left Sonny Dykes with few options to match the Bruins' revitalized offense. Kicker Ka'imi Fairbarn blasted a 60-yard kick along with three others, and UCLA essentially controlled this game for four quarters. The Bruins did lose Paul Perkins to a leg injury, but Soso Jamabo picked up the slack just enough (4.4 YPC) to keep Cal honest. The two teams went a combined 9-9 in the Red Zone, with touchdowns on six of those drives. The Golden One was also betrayed by his offensive line, which allowed five sacks, while Cal's D only got to Rosen once.
Washington State 45, Arizona 42- The Cougars accomplished a great deal in Tucson by victimizing an Arizona defense that has been simply erased by injury. Luke Falk continues to have an outstanding season running the Air Raid, averaging 8.3 YPA and throwing for 514 yards and five touchdowns. The Cougars had a ten-point lead at halftime and then held off the 'Cats in the second half to escape with a road win that set them up for a first-place showdown in Pullman with Stanford. Arizona's two-headed QB beast simply wasn't able to keep up with Falk. Anu Solomon and Jared Randall combined to throw for 7.7 YPA, but it wasn't enough. As in, literally not enough. WSU ran 93 plays to Arizona's 69 so while the Wildcats' averages all matched the Cougars, they Wildcat offense just wasn't on the field enough to win the game. Luck played a huge role here as well, as four WSU fumbles went un-recovered by the Wildcats. Cougar receiver Gabe Marks ran amok in the Arizona secondary on his way to grabbing four touchdown passes and 97 yards. River Cracraft also caught 102 yards worth of passes from Falk. WSU now gets some shine in advance of a potential GameDay appearance while Arizona must move on was the walking wounded without the oasis of a bye week in the desert.
Colorado 17, Oregon State 13- This game had ugly written all over it well in advance, but by rule it had to actually be played, and it was one by a Colorado team enjoying its first Pac-12 victory since a November 2013 win over Cal. The Buffs' slump lasted 14 games and included a winless 2014 in Pac-12 play. Four Pac-12 teams scored 40 or more by themselves this week, whereas it may have taken 12 quarters for these two teams to get to that total individually. Let's be positive, though, and say it was a "defense-dominated" game, rather then focus on the mutual ineptitude of both offenses (COUGH!! 5.2 Combined YPP). These pass defenses created 26 incompletions while only allowing 29 completed passes total (COUGH!! COUGH!! Awful Quarterbacking). The Beavers had chances to win but could only muster one touchdown on three Red Zone trips. On a day when points were scarce (thanks to GREAT defense #NoSarcasmFilter) the Red Zone was the Dead Zone for the Beavs, and that made the difference.
USC 42 Utah 24- The question facing the Trojans headed into their game against the undefeated Utes was simple: "Who will defend the Walls of Troy?" If we learned anything to start 2015, it wasn't gonna be Justin Wilcox. However, Freshman Linebacker Cameron Smith stood up and thwarted the Ute invasion with three interceptions, one of which he took to the house to propel the Trojans to a resounding victory that put the Utah Pac-12 South Coronation on hold and maybe in doubt for the first time all year. After weeks of doubling down on SC's talent and Utah's vulnerability, ironically I was proven right when the two played each other. Travis Wilson, who'd been enjoying a splendid season whilst confounding my own estimations of his ability, was an absolute mess in the Coliseum. Wilson was 24-36 but was picked four times and sacked thrice. This was the margin, as neither team was able to run the ball effectively and Trojan Quarterback Codiferous Kessleritrix won his Bestie Battle with Ute Linebacker Jared Norris by going 21-28 and averaging 9.4 YPA with no interceptions. Utah's not suddenly done, and USC's not suddenly fixed, but this result raised questions good and bad about both, and the Loud and Furious maelstrom that is the Pac-12 South only grew more vexing at this one's conclusion.
Stanford 31, Washington 14- A game and improving young Husky squad was left up way past its bedtime against a Stanford team looking more and more like the class of the conference. The Cardinal put 31 and held the ball for over 40 minutes in running 72 plays, 27 more than the neutered Husky offense could manage without starting Quarterback Jake Browning. Stanford as a team put up 6.6 YPP, almost a full yard more than the Huskies in-season average against Pac-12 competition. Christian McCaffrey hurt Washington from all over the field, gaining 100 yards both rushing and receiving and putting up 300 all-purpose yards. Kevin Hogan once again completed more than 70% of his throws and threw for 12.1 YPA. It wasn't the romps of the previous weeks, but Stanford still has yet to play a team in conference that has come within 10 points of the Cardinal.
Teams That Go Kaboom + The Big Picture
||OFEI (National Rank)
|Arizona State||12||Bye||-.12 (74)|
|Washington State||9||1||.39 (32)|
This week's "guest" column is the Adjusted Fremau Efficiency Index. Essentially, it's points per possession adjusted for quality of opponent. You can see the complete list here. If you do click over, note how much of a gap there is between some teams who have gaudy unadjusted numbers but lose ground once the quality of opposition becomes a factor. Team Number One in this category is Stanford's Saturday opponent, Washington State. The Cougs rate as the 15th best offense nationally when it comes to un-adjusted FEI, but their 1.12 becomes significantly more pedestrian (though still pretty good) when we factor in opponents.
Overall, we can see that there are basically three tiers to the Pac-12 offenses. There are the Elite (Stanford, USC, Arizona), a bunch of similarly effective and good (UCLA, Cal, Oregon, Utah, WSU), and the wretched (ASU, Colorado, and Oregon State). Now, the first thing we'd want to do is cross-check it with our Kaboom count. Not surprisingly, we see the Trojans and the Wildcats at the top of the Kaboom list, and we also see them as elite offenses based on OFEI. Stanford, the best offense in the country, rates in the middle in terms of explosiveness, but there are some mitigating circumstances. First, the rigidity of the definition of explosive drives (Those that average 10+ YPP) has cost Stanford, who for example last Saturday had drives that went for 8 plays and 75 yards and nine plays for 80, plus an 50-yard TD reception. It's not like Stanford hasn't been combustible, but rules are rules.
That may also be why there wasn't much Kaboom going on all over the conference. Explosive plays and drives are hard to come by, and I'd expect them to decrease as the season moves on as defenses get more familiar with offenses, but since I've never tracked it for a whole year, I won't know. One thing is for certain, finding some explosive plays is a great way for teams to improve dramatically. UCLA had two such drives and held Cal, one of the best and most explosive offenses, to none. Given those numbers the result from the last Thursday in Pasadena shouldn't be a big surprise. Finally, among teams in the middle tier, expect Oregon to be the team with the best chance of moving up, as long as the Ducks can keep Vernon Adams, Jr. healthy.
||QB Rating (Pac-12 Rank)
Once more, nothing stands out more than the distance Kevin Hogan has put between himself and everybody else in the Pac-12. Luke Falk, his opposing quarterback this week, passed him by .2% in completion percentage, but based on the crucial metrics above, Kevin Hogan has been by far the best quarterback in the Pac-12 so far. You want context? That 11.4 is bested nationally only by Taylor Lamb of Appalachian State, and the next best Power 5 QB's are Trevone Boykin of TCU and Memphis' Paxton Lynch, both a yard behind him per attempt. Andrew Luck's senior year QB rating was 166, and Matt Barkley was second. If Hogan's lead holds up, we are talking about one of the better seasons in history, here. And yes, feel free to mention that Hogan throws far fewer passes than his colleagues. That doesn't impact the yards per attempt number, which is why it's so good to use when comparing QB's from offenses as varied as say, Stanford and Washington State.
Say what you want about Cody Kessler. Dude knows his game and he executes it on the reg. I get the criticism, but he outplayed Wilson last Saturday, and he was a big part of the Trojans' best victory of the season. Rosen continues to far outshine the rest of his Frosh brethren, though we'll see how well he does without the comforting amenity of his own personal hot tub. Notice that Vernon Adams isn't on here, mainly due to limited attempts in Pac-12 play. We'll have a sharper picture of what's going on here when he joins the leaderboards, as Oregon's year clearly depends on keeping him healthy.
Oregon at Arizona State, Thurs 7:30 PM ESPN- This feels like an elimination game of sorts for teams sporting twin 4-3 overall and 2-2 overall conference records. It's easy to see the winner springing into a contender's spot moving down the stretch, and the loser bracing for a best case scenario of bowl eligibility. Both teams have been limited on offense, with Oregon an uncharacteristically 7th-rated offense and the Sun Devils right behind them at 10th. However, those Duck numbers are skewed by the absence of Vernon Adams, who will be playing Thursday night. It should come down to strength vs. strength, as the best rush offense in the Pac-12 (Oregon at 5.8 YPC) takes on the best rush defense in the league (ASU at 2.2 YPC). Oregon is pretty healthy heading into this game, with Tight End Pharaoh Brown the only key component out for the Ducks, not counting Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, who have been gone for a while. Arizona State is in a more uncertain situation, with hopes that Sophomore Running Back Demario Richard (5.2 YPC) can return and be effective, as well as Safety Armand Perry. Richard seems far more likely to see the field than Perry, at least at this point in the week.
USC at California 12:00 PM Fox- Another interdivisional game that feels like a contender/pretender referendum. Both teams have 2-2 conference records and the Trojans have a game in hand against the first place team in the South while Cal still has a game to play against current North leader Stanford as well as a win in hand against second place Washington State. The Golden Goff needs to step up against a primetime opponent, after completing just 57% of his 100 passes against Utah and UCLA and averaging a mere 6.4 YPA to go with 5 TD's and 5 INT's. He'll be facing a USC pass defense ranked fourth in the conference at 7.1 YPA. USC's wounded O Line may be the biggest issue coming into this game, as both Center Max Tuerk and his replacement Toa Lobendahn are lost for the season, and Tackle Chad Wheeler's status is also questionable. Cal has been able to get after the quarterback this year for 13 sacks, fifth-best in the conference. Expect the Bears to test the Trojan line early, though with Cody Kessler's four-yard crosses and a cloud of dust offense, it may be tough to fully take advantage of a battered Trojan line. It's put up or shut up for the Weekender this year.
Colorado at UCLA 12:00 PM Pac-12 Networks-It seems unlikely Colorado's winning "streak" in Pac-12 games continues in Pasadena, as UCLA has too much talent and too much at stake to drop a home game to the Buffaloes. Colorado's biggest challenge will be keeping up with a Bruin offense averaging 38 points per game in Pac-12 play. The Bruins do have issues at running back, with Paul Perkins' status uncertain headed into the game, but Soso Jamabo will be available to take Perkins snaps if P Squared can't go. Colorado's run defense is the worst in the conference, so...GULP. Even sans Perkins, this should be a long day in Pasadena for the Buffs. These are two of the four most penalized teams in the conference, by the way, so it should not only be a long game but also a competitive. But, you know, there's always Pac-12 Chaos Theory....
Oregon State at Utah 4:00 PM Pac-12 Networks-Another one that feels like it would take an entire PR firm to spin into a classic matchup. These coaching staffs are very familiar with each other, with OSU D Coordinator Kalani Sitake and Linebackers Coach Ilaisa Tuiaki returning to Salt Lake City among eight other Beaver staff members with ties to Utah. Coaches Gary Andersen and Kyle Whittingham are also close friends. Among the many things the Beavers do horribly, penalties are a perhaps predictable stand-out. Oregon State is one of the most penalized teams and worst run defenses in the Pac-12 (11th). Expect big numbers from Devontae Booker, and expect Whittingham's friendship with Andersen to be the only thing that prevents the Utes from naming their score.
Stanford at Washington State 7:30 PM ESPN- Both Quarterbacks Luke Falk and Kevin Hogan will be under the spot light, but it's likely that the team that runs the ball is going to emerge the victor in the biggest game to hit Pullman in quite some time. As mentioned above, WSU's offense has put up numbers but not against very formidable competition. That's not the case for Stanford, in a couple of senses. First, if WSU lights up the Cardinal it won't be a fluke, and second, the Stanford offense has proved to be one of the best in the country. Folks are freaking out about Falk and the Air Raid against a Stanford defense that doesn't produce a ton of sacks or turnovers, but what is Washington State's run defense (ranked 9th in the Pac-12) gonna do with the Cardinal's ferocious rush offense and Christian McCaffrey? That's likely to be the real story, as the Cardinal's third-best rush defense will try to make the Cougars totally one dimensional. Expect the weather to matter as well, as the forecast calls for 59 degrees and rain. Falk has proven he can sling it in bad weather, but throwing the ball 65 times in the rain seems like a pretty tall order. So will having the ball enough to make 65 throws if Stanford is able to put a choke hold on time of possession.
Arizona at Washington 8:00 PM- #Pac12AfterTooDark is the reality for Rich Rod, who griped about this kick time and not without reason. He'll be putting his elite offense against a very tough Husky defense licking their wounds from the loss to Stanford. Arizona's got the second best rush game in the Pac-12 behind Oregon, and Washington has the third best rush defense. The udercard features a struggling Husky O vs. a porous and depleted Arizona defense. Coach Chris Petersen says Jake Browning is getting a "little better every day" but it's likely we won't know who starts for Washington until the game begins. The Huskies will have to contend with both Anu Solomon and Jerrard Randall's running at quarterback. This one's tough to figure, but big advantage Arizona if Browning can't go. Washington can only hope that the Husky Stadium crowd can give them a push, though the road teams have shown well in the Pac-12 so far. Running back Nick Wilson is also expected to return for the 'Cats.
This week sets up as a real line of demarcation, with November upon us following the slate of games. Of course, if everything holds to form, chaos will reign and the picture will be even more muddled on Sunday. With a full slate yet only two divisional games, the North and South are going to have plenty to say this week about each other's fates. Who's got time to fret about the rest of the country with everything that's staring Pac-12 fans in the face come Saturday? We'll know plenty about which teams are going to be spending November running against the wind.
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