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2019 Pac-12 power rankings: Competitive title race? Absolutely! National title contender? Ehh

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The Pac-12 has depth and intrigue, but perceptions will continue to be hurt by a lack of truly elite play.

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Conference Championship-Utah vs Washington Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

At the end of each conference previews run-through, I take a look at how I perceive the conference’s balance of power heading into the season. This is in no way based on schedules, so they are not predictions. This is just how I would rank the teams after writing thousands of words about each of them. We have already completed the MAC, Conference USA, Sun Belt, AAC, MWC, and ACC.

Bill C’s Pac-12 power rankings

Here’s a link to every team’s data, and each team’s name below is linked to its preview.

Tier 1

1. Washington
2. Utah
3. Oregon

The Pac-12 was almost unanimously renowned as college football’s worst power conference last year, but it wasn’t. In terms of S&P+ averages, that dishonor belonged to the ACC, which featured both more teams ranking worse than 70th (four, to the Pac-12’s three) and fewer teams ranking better than 35th (two, to the Pac-12’s five).

The difference in perceptions came at the very top, of course.

We have turned inclusion in the College Football Playoff into a de facto gauge of conference strength — we talk about conferences being eliminated from the title race as much as teams — and while the Pac-12’s best recent program (Washington) has been strong and consistent of late, the ACC has Clemson. The Pac-12 basically wins every test of strength beyond that, but the ACC gets to claim last year’s national title, and the Pac-12 hasn’t had a CFP team in the last two seasons.

That dynamic probably won’t change in 2019. The Pac-12 is again projected to have a higher average S&P+ rating (at plus-7.2, its average is closer to the third-place Big 12 than the fifth-place ACC), but while it’s got three projected top-20 teams to the ACC’s two, those three (Washington, Utah, and Oregon) are all between 15th and 20th. And even if one or more of them overachieve, they still probably won’t be Clemson.

Perceptions aside, though, this could be a really fun battle for supremacy. Washington, Utah, and Oregon are projected awfully close to each other per S&P+, and each has a pretty good argument for superiority. Washington has the track record and the recruiting depth. Utah has the experience and lives in the inferior division (therefore perhaps providing the best overall odds of a conference title). Oregon has the most high-ceilinged player in the conference (QB Justin Herbert) and an improving supporting cast.

I’m boring — I lean toward track records as much as anything. The three teams above are basically ranked in order of recent reliability. It wouldn’t be a surprise if any of these three won the conference title and/or made a run at 12-1 and a potential Playoff bid, but another 11-2 champion is perhaps likely.

Tier 2

4. USC
5. Stanford
6. Washington State

It only takes a couple of ifs to make any of these teams conference title contenders, but they do still start the year with more questions than the top three.

The wild card, as always: USC. The Trojans have recruiting rankings no one else can match, and they’re no longer fielding a freshman QB. If JT Daniels and new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell click, the offense could pretty easily end up a top-15 unit. That could just serve to highlight how much the defense has underachieved of late, but it could also make them an insta-contender. And it has, after all, been only one year since they won the conference title.

Tier 3

7. Cal
8. Arizona State
9. Arizona
10. UCLA
11. Colorado

I almost put Cal in Tier 2. I feel the Golden Bears are a little more proven than the other teams here, if only because of what they return from last year’s tremendous defense. But the offense was so situationally horrible that I don’t feel comfortable calling them anything close to a contender just yet. Plus, the three teams below Cal here are all entering their respective second years with a new coach. One of the three will likely take a leap forward — your second year is your most likely opportunity to do so.

Tier 4

12. Oregon State

The Oregon State offense really could be solid. But the defense was so atrocious last year, and it is so dependent on new blood for help, that the Beavers start 2019 in need of a second-year leap just to catch a potentially bad Colorado.

How does S&P+ see things?

Here’s how my statistical system has the Pac-12 laid out for 2019, with zero equating to an average FBS team. (You can find full 2019 S&P+ projections here.)

Oregon’s returning production and recruiting have the Ducks positioned for a nice step forward. But the preseason top-10 hype still feels a bit overdone. They were not nearly as consistent as UW or Utah last fall.

2019 projected standings (per S&P+)

Projected conference wins, with overall wins in parentheses.

North Division

  1. Washington 6.6 (9.2)
  2. Oregon 5.9 (8.1)
  3. Stanford 5.3 (6.7)
  4. Washington State 4.8 (7.4)
  5. Cal 3.5 (5.4)
  6. Oregon State 1.3 (2.6)

We’ve got a battle! Stanford gets both Washington and Oregon at home, which gives the Cardinal a chance to make up ground, but the winner of October 19’s UW-UO game in Seattle is your likely division winner.

South Division

  1. Utah 6.4 (8.9)
  2. USC 5.0 (6.5)
  3. Arizona State 4.6 (6.7)
  4. Arizona 4.0 (6.2)
  5. UCLA 3.9 (4.9)
  6. Colorado 2.8 (4.8)

While three teams are projected within 1.3 wins of each other in the North, no one is projected within 1.3 wins of Utah in the South. If USC’s offense ignites, the equation changes. But Utah has earned the benefit of the doubt at this point.

Pac-12 offenses heading into 2019

There wasn’t a lot of different in efficiency from one Pac-12 offense to another last year (only the Washington schools really stood out), but only a few could make big plays. And if Khalil Tate is healthy for the full season, Arizona’s already explosive offense could be more so.

Pac-12 defenses heading into 2019

Oregon State’s defense: the UConn of the power five.

Best 2019 offensive players by team (best overall in bold):

  • Arizona: QB Khalil Tate
  • Arizona State: RB Eno Benjamin
  • Cal: G/T Valentino Daltoso
  • Colorado: WR Laviska Shenault Jr.
  • Oregon: QB Justin Herbert
  • Oregon State: WR Isaiah Hodgins
  • Stanford: QB KJ Costello
  • UCLA: RB Joshua Kelley
  • USC: WR Amon-Ra St. Brown
  • Utah: RB Zack Moss
  • Washington: RB Salvon Ahmed
  • Washington State: WR Dezmon Patmon

Khalil Tate was the Pac-12’s most exciting player in 2017, and while Justin Herbert is getting all the draft hype, KJ Costello might have been better than his green division rival.

The battle for first-team all-conference could be outstanding, but the surest thing in the league might be a receiver. Laviska Shenault Jr. was one of the best players in the country when he was healthy, and he proved himself as both an efficiency weapon (CU’s run game was horrid, so he took a lot of short passes as a substitute) and a massive big-play threat. Since I can’t decide between the QBs, I’ll go with a WR instead.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Colorado
Laviska Shenault Jr. (2)
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Best 2019 defensive players by team

  • Arizona: LB Colin Schooler
  • Arizona State: CB Kobe Williams
  • Cal: LB Evan Weaver
  • Colorado: LB Nate Landman
  • Oregon: CB Thomas Graham Jr.
  • Oregon State: DT Elu Aydon
  • Stanford: CB Paulson Adebo
  • UCLA: CB Darnay Holmes
  • USC: DT Jay Tufele
  • Utah: DT John Penisini
  • Washington: DT Levi Onwuzurike
  • Washington State: S Jalen Thompson

Same phenomenon here — I couldn’t decide between Onwuzurike and Penisini, so I went with a linebacker instead. It’s hard to disagree with that, though, considering what Weaver accomplished last year (nine tackles for loss, eight passes defensed, 17 run stuffs).

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