Preseason prognostication: Pac-10 Standings

The Bootleg's crack team of prognosticators is back at it again – see their takes on this year's final Pac-10 standings. Plus, which teams are we most unsure of, which teams have the easiest schedules and which teams return the most starters at a very key position? Read on!

If you somehow missed the ten-question portion of our preseason predictions, it is here (premium). In it, Stanford recruiting guru Matt Squeri, yours truly, football BootPowerRatings writer TreeBoy, football recruiting reporter Andy Drukarev, football columnist (and ESPN's very own) Troy Clardy and publisher Lars Ahlstrom predict Stanford's final record, Stanford's Player and Rookie of the Year, the Pac-10 Champion and Player of the Year, the Heisman trophy winner, and the national surprise story and champion. However, we intentionally saved the juiciest part of our roundtable for its own story…

All six of us predicted the final Pac-10 standings, which we've averaged into one set of rankings for the sake of clarity. Next to each team is where each prognosticator ranked them.

Projected final 2009-10 Pac-10 standings
1. USC (Avg: 1.3. MS: 1, DN: 1, TB: 1, AD: 1, TC: 2, LA: 2)
2. Oregon (Avg: 2.3. MS: 5, DN: 3, TB: 2, AD: 2, TC: 1, LA: 1)
3. California (Avg: 3.3. MS: 2, DN: 2, TB: 4, AD: 3, TC: 6, LA: 3)
4. Oregon State (Avg: 3.8. MS: 3, DN: 4, TB: 5, AD: 4, TC: 3, LA: 4)
5. Stanford (Avg: 5. MS: 6, DN: 5, TB: 3, AD: 6, TC: 5, LA: 5)
T6. UCLA (Avg: 6.7. MS: 4, DN: 8, TB: 7, AD: 7, TC: 8, LA: 6)
T6. Arizona State (Avg: 6.7. MS: 8, DN: 6, TB: 6, AD: 9, TC: 4, LA: 7)
8. Arizona (Avg: 7. MS: 7, DN: 7, TB: 8, AD: 5, TC: 7, LA: 8)
9. Washington (Avg: 9. MS: 8, DN: 9, TB: 9, AD: 8, TC: 9, LA: 10)
10. Washington State (Avg: 9.8. MS: 10, DN: 10, TB: 10, AD: 10, TC: 10, LA: 9)

Four bonus thoughts:

1. The wisdom of crowds
I didn't know what to expect when I started to tabulate the results, but I was pleasantly surprised. The standings above look like a demonstrating of the wisdom of crowds at its finest. By that, I certainly don't mean, go to Vegas and bet that this is exactly how the Pac-10 will look after the first Saturday of December. Field goals, touchdowns and first downs made or missed by inches, last-second plays, a rash of injuries (or, in today's game, arrests and suspensions), a new quarterback or an entire freshman class performing much better or worse than expected – all of these create the randomness that makes the games worth watching and makes it all-but-impossible for the best team on paper in May to finish first, the second-best team on paper in May to finish second and all the way down through tenth.
But what I am saying is this: maybe you swap Oregon and Cal, and maybe you drop Stanford below UCLA and Arizona State, as the national perception of Stanford is likely less bullish than a bunch of Cardinal diehards. But with a minor tweak or two, what you see above is mighty close to what August's Pac-10 media poll is going to look like, and is mighty representative of the best conventional wisdom on how the Pac-10 looks right now.

2. Certainty, or lack thereof
Unlike in the preseason media polls, where each voter's individual ballot is unknown, we can also calculate the standard deviation of each team's ranking here. (For the non-nerds among us, standard deviation in this context can be thought of as how far off the average voter was from the team's actual ranking. For example, Stanford was ranked fifth on average, so if each individual voter ranked Stanford fifth there would result a standard deviation of zero, while if half the voters ranked Stanford fourth and half sixth, there would be higher deviation, and if half ranked Stanford first and the other half ninth, there'd be far higher deviation yet.)

Standard deviation
1. Arizona State (1.8)
T2. Oregon (1.5)
T2. Cal (1.5)
T2. UCLA (1.5)
T5. Stanford (1.1)
T5. Arizona (1.1)
7. Oregon State (0.7)
8. Washington (0.6)
9. USC (0.5)
10. Washington State (0.4)

The results here are highly intuitive – everyone thinks the Washingtons are going to be awful, USC will be excellent and Oregon State good but not great – so there's little disagreement among voters on those four schools, and hence little deviation. At the top of the list, meanwhile, are the four biggest enigmas in the conference for all of recent memory. Oregon, Cal, UCLA and, of course, Arizona State have each fielded teams in recent years with enough talent to win the Pac-10, only to faceplant into a disappointing .500 – or worse. Stanford and Arizona are left in the middle. As with our final standings, I do think these results represent today's best conventional wisdom on these teams.

3. Returning offensive line starts
The Wall Street Journal ran an in-depth article on the predictive value of experience on the offensive line and managed to complete the Herculean task of counting each BCS school's returning offensive line starts as a means of predicting next year's results. Here are the Journal's numbers on the Pac-10:

Returning offensive line starts
1. (1) USC 91
2. (9) Washington State 82
3. (10) Washington 67
4. (5) Arizona 66
T5. (8) UCLA 56
T5. (T6) Arizona State 56
T7. (T6) Stanford 53
T7. (4) Cal 53
9. (3) Oregon State 37
10.(2) Oregon 20

In parenthesis next to each team's rank is their placement in last year's final Pac-10 standings. Take away USC and there's a very strong trend above, a trend that does not exist in other conferences: the more OL starts a team has returning this year, the worse it finished last year.
These results suggest a few things. First, assuming that teams with more OL experience continue to do better than those with less experience, all else being equal, which has been true in years past and is intuitive, look for an incredibly bunched Pac-10 after USC. This is because the teams you'd expect toward the bottom of the conference, like the Washingtons, should better than expected, and teams you'd expect toward the top of the conference, like Cal and the Oregons, should do worse than expected, by this measure. Given USC's wealth of returning experience then, the above table points strongly toward a "USC and the Little Nine" type of season, where the Trojans are undefeated and the rest of the league finishes at least three games back.
Of course, this measure completely ignores the main reason USC could be down this year – the mass exodus of its defensive stars. So take the USC prediction with a grain of salt, but I would indeed expect the rest of the league to be pretty bunched up, with no individual team consistently covering itself in glory. Looks like another year of ESPN et al. hating on the league for a lack of elite teams, save for the 600-pound gorilla.
The above numbers also aren't terribly heartening stat for Stanford fans hoping for a finish in the upper half of the conference. The Card, at least in this respect, will be working against history, and they could well be working against another factor too…

4. Strength of schedule
Phil Steele, aka the God of college football prognostication, has ranked the 2009-10 Pac-10 schedules from toughest to easiest. We've reproduced that list below, with the teams' ranks corresponding to their national strength of schedule ranking:

2009-10 Strength of schedule rankings
35. Oregon
51. Washington
57. Arizona
59. Stanford
76. Cal
80. OSU
87. USC
94. ASU
98. UCLA

The system is slightly skewed in that it only uses last year's win-loss records. It doesn't take into account home versus away, teams expected to be far better (or worse) this year than last or, most glaringly, that 6-6 in the Sun Belt and 6-6 in the SEC are two very different things. That, plus the two Washingtons going a combined 2-23, is why most of the Pac-10 is projected to have such easy schedules, when most of the league is in the top-20 on SOS difficulty by other measures, so subtract the above difficulty rankings by 50 or so.
Still, for all its flaws, the measure is the best we have and it confirms what us Stanford fans long expected – the Cardinal's schedule is one of the hardest in the Pac-10. Add in that Notre Dame should be far better than last year, that the Card play five away games and that Stanford's last two "home" games should be 50-50 in terms of fan support, at best, and Stanford's schedule looks more difficult yet.
After the progress of the last two seasons, most Card fans I know are expecting nothing less than 6-6 and a bowl berth this year, but as our last two metrics show, that may be easier said than done. If Jim Harbaugh does somehow lead this team to a bowl, it might just be his most impressive coaching job yet.

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