Posted on October 3, 2023
Washington, Oregon, and USC have distinguished themselves as the top teams in the league, although the jury is still out on Washington State.
The results from last weekend reiterated the perception, with both the Huskies and Trojans posting road victories over respectable opponents.
Entering Week Six, the Power Ranking of the league feels relatively settled based on the results to date. The list below is how I view all 12 teams as we near the halfway point of the season.
1. Washington (5-0, 2-0) ◄►The code to Kalen DeBoer’s offense may have finally been cracked. In the second half, Arizona defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen introduced a three-linemen, one-linebacker, and seven-defensive back formation.
The unorthodox 3-1-7 scheme dared the Dawgs to run the ball, forcing Washington well outside of its tendencies. At the same time, the extra defensive backs prevented the Husky receivers from finding open space downfield.
The result was UW’s fourth-fewest scoring output of the DeBoer era and Michael Penix Jr. failing to throw a touchdown pass. But the Huskies found a way to win nonetheless.
The game film might have the Oregon defensive staff salivating. Whether or not any other coordinators are willing to risk running the highly unusual formation remains to be seen. Regardless, Washington has shown it has the talent and moxie to overcome it.
2. Oregon (5-0, 2-0) ◄►Overcoming a slow start in Palo Alto, Will Stein and the Oregon offense handled their business against Stanford. But the 42 points scored wasn’t the most impressive feat of the game.
The Duck defense held the Cardinal to just six points, tying for the fewest points UO has allowed in the series since 2004.
The primary concerns around Oregon during the preseason surrounded its defense. Through five games, the Ducks are No. 16 nationally in points allowed per game and No. 7 in total defense.
While the numbers may be somewhat skewed based on the schedule, it’s clear that Tosh Lupoi’s group has taken a step forward in 2023.
3. USC (5-0, 3-0) ◄►There’s a substantial risk that Lincoln Riley’s decision to retain Alex Grinch could end up costing USC a shot at the Playoff.
The issues on the Trojan defense have been prevalent since Riley arrived and the addition of numerous impact transfers over the offseason hasn’t changed the results. That indicates coaching is the problem, not the players.
Caleb Williams and the offense were dominating Colorado through the middle of the third quarter when the score was 41-14. But, the USC defense collapsed, allowing the Buffs to rattle off 27 points over the final quarter and a half.
Whether the problems are schemes or culture, changes have to be made.
4. Washington State (4-0, 1-0) ▲1Jake Dickert and the Cougar defense used their bye week to prepare for Chip Kelly’s offense. A substantial portion of that time was probably spent studying the film from UCLA’s matchup against Utah.
The Utes held the Bruins to just nine yards rushing and brought heavy pressure on Dante Moore to force seven sacks. Dickert and his staff likely poured over the film to identify the playcalling, formations, and techniques Utah used to get it done.
The extra week should pay dividends for the matchup in Pasadena on Saturday.
On the other side of the ball, Ben Arbuckle’s offense is fifth nationally in points per game and Cam Ward is No. 8 in passing efficiency.
5. Oregon State (4-1, 1-1) ▲1It might not have been perfect, but Oregon State got back on track with a win over Utah.
The Beaver defense held the Utes to just seven points, tied for the fewest points OSU has allowed in a Conference game since 2012. The victory put Jonathan Smith’s team back on track for a shot at the Pac-12 Championship game.
Taking a step back and viewing the trajectory of the program under Smith, the win over then-No. 10 Utah marks the final transition of the team into the upper echelon of the league.
The Beavers are no longer a “dark horse” or an up-and-coming program in a rebuild. Instead, Oregon State Football is a power brand in the Pac-12 and should be talked about with the best.
6. Utah (4-1, 1-1) ▼2Injuries and a woefully ineffective offense finally caught up to Utah. With Cam Rising still sidelined, the Ute offense scored just one time for the second straight weekend.
The defeat to Oregon State was a barometer result for the program that showed where it stands in the Pac-12. Elite defense will only get Utah so far this season.
In a league that currently boasts the nation’s No. 1, No. 2, No. 4, and No. 5 scoring offenses, Andy Ludwig’s offense ranked 117th in points per game isn’t going to get the job done.
Until the scoring issues are fixed, the flashing red light will remain bright in Salt Lake City.
7. UCLA (3-1, 0-1) ◄►Chip Kelly and the UCLA offense had some soul-searching to do during the bye week. The Bruins dropped the ball on the road to Utah and squandered an elite game from their defense.
D’Anton Lynn has raised the bar in Westwood, using his NFL pedigree to revamp the “D.” Still, there are too many question marks to effectively handicap the rest of the season.
UCLA has played just one Power 5 opponent and its top victory is against a 2-4 San Diego State team. The cupcake scheduling arguably holds the program back and relegates the team to national irrelevancy.
Still, if Dante Moore plays to his potential, the Bruins could make noise in Conference play.
8. Colorado (3-2, 0-2) ◄►Two key freshmen emerged for Colorado on Saturday. Wide receiver Omarion Miller went off on the USC secondary and cornerback Cormani McClain flashed his potential on defense.
The Buffs may have lost to the Trojans, but the strong debuts from the freshmen show where the program is heading. It’s one matter to build a roster with transfers, it’s quite another to do it with freshmen.
Deion Sanders had received most of his team’s production from transfers, but the growth of players like Miller and McClain potentially signifies a shift in the team’s composition.
Their performance could open the door to other freshmen on the roster and change the dynamic of CU on both sides of the ball.
9. Arizona (3-2, 1-1) ◄►Playing without their starting quarterback and running back, the Wildcats took Washington down to the wire.
Credit defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen for neutralizing the Husky passing offense with an innovative 3-1-7 formation during parts of the second half.
The adjustments made at halftime worked, limiting UW to just one touchdown in the final two quarters.
The defensive back-heavy scheme took the Dawgs away from their strengths and added additional protection against Kalen DeBoer’s pass-happy offense.
The close defeat at home indicates the status of Jedd Fisch’s program. But the path to six wins remains murky. The Cats could get their with wins over UCLA, Colorado, and Arizona State.
10. California (3-2, 1-1) ◄►Another week, another game stuck in mediocrity. California Football has the pieces on both sides of the ball to reach bowl eligibility. Except at quarterback.
Sam Jackson V did not turn the ball over, but the redshirt freshman completed just 41.4 percent of his passes for only 130 yards. The issues throwing the ball hold the offense back and make the Bears mostly one-dimensional on the ground.
That’s disappointing considering the elite rushing offense that Justin Wilcox has fielded. Cal could be among the top-scoring offenses in the Pac-12 if it had one of the league’s elite quarterbacks.
Instead, it’s stuck in the lower half of the league and seemingly doomed to continue to tread water.
11. Arizona State (1-4, 0-2) ◄►The Sun Devils’ season was arguably over the moment the self-imposed bowl ban was announced. The air was taken out of the program and the injury issues piled on.
Kenny Dillingham actually built a respectable roster via the transfer portal, setting Arizona State up for a successful debut season. Now, the injuries and postseason ban have potentially set the program back at least one year.
Recruiting through the transfer portal should remain strong, but the impact this season has on traditional high school recruiting can’t be overstated.
It’s still far away, but the Territorial Cup game against Arizona is arguably the be-all and end-all of this season.
12. Stanford (1-4, 0-3) ◄►Rome wasn’t built in a day. The Pac-12 is loaded this season and blowout defeats at home against the top teams in the league are to be expected.
Troy Taylor’s players came out of the gates strong against Oregon, jumping out to a 6-0 lead and making the Ducks sweat. But there was no expectation for the matchup to be competitive and this season has always been about building for 2024.
Recruiting and implementing the offensive system will continue to be the name of the game. That won’t stop Taylor and his staff from instilling belief in their players, though, and the Tree have shown the potential to post a surprising upset.
—More from Dane Miller—
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