Ranking WSU's o-line isn't about sacks

IT’S THAT time of the year when Pac-12 and college football lists are seemingly everywhere, ranking everything from position groups to the best stadium napkins. One recent Pac-12 ranking in particular caught our eye, both for where it slotted the Cougs and the rationale for doing so.

ESPN’s David Lombardi ranks Washington State's offensive line next to last in the Pac-12.

“The Cougars return virtually all of their offensive line, but pass protection must improve. Washington State allowed 36 sacks last season, and quarterbacks took a beating -- especially against the stronger pass rushes of the Pac-12,” says the article.

Washington State actually returns all five starters, but what was most puzzling was the sacks rationale.

First off, UCLA (41) Arizona (40) and ASU (39) all gave up more sacks than WSU did last year. Plus, each did so with a far more mobile quarterback than Washington State.

Second, the Cougs attempted 771 passes last season. That’s not only the most ever in Pac-12 history, it’s also the NCAA all-time record for most attempts in a season (WSU: 64.25 per game; Houston: 63.1, 1989). If UCLA, whose o-line is ranked No. 1 on ESPN’s list, had attempted the same amount of passes as WSU and their sacks allowed rate remained the same, the Bruins would have allowed 73 sacks last season.

Last, a more accurate way to judge sacks allowed is in terms of sacks per pass attempt. UCLA, for example, was the worst in the conference last year in allowing a sack once every 10.6 passes. Washington State, on the other hand, allowed a sack once every 21.42 attempts, No. 2 in the conference.

What this also suggests (strongly) is that while sacks of course matter, they are in and of themselves, a poor predictor when it comes to wins and losses. Colorado (23.7) and WSU finished 1-2 in the Pac-12 in sacks allowed per attempt. Meanwhile, UCLA and ASU were the league’s worst in sacks allowed per attempt and both went 10-3.

The Cougar o-line, with all five starters returning, needs to improve its ability to finish off drives and score in the red zone far more than they need to improve on the number of sacks allowed.

Something tells me if three plays in three games go differently last season (two of them on special teams) and WSU goes 6-6 in the regular season instead of 3-9, the ESPN list would have characterized all five returnees up front at Wazzu in a whole new light. And that's the problem with many of the preseason lists that come out: they're so heavily based on last year.

As for the bottom line -- pegging the Cougs’ o-line as 11th best in the Pac-12, something also tells me there are undoubtedly myriad arguments to be made on the message boards this offseason as to why that’s a crock.

Sacks allowed per pass attempt
1.Colorado: one every 23.7
2.Washington State: one every 21.42
3. Cal: one every 19.1
4. Stanford: one every 16.57
5. Oregon: one every 15.3
6. USC: one every 14.38
7. Washington: one every 14.29
8. Arizona: one every 14.1
9. Oregon State: one every 13.11
10. Utah: one 12.19
11. ASU: one every 11.97
12. UCLA: one every 10.6

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