Pac-12 power ratings: Oregon’s on top, Utah slips and USC staggers through another week

What’s the matter with the Trojans? Our theory about their ailment

Even for USC, the noise is at an all-time high these days.

The Trojans have only two losses, but they’re being treated as if they have six.

Fans and pundits alike are wondering whether defensive coordinator Alex Grinch will be fired, quarterback Caleb Williams is ready to call it quits for the season, and coach Lincoln Riley is looking for redemption in the NFL.

Did we mention USC only has two losses?

The problem isn’t one of performance. The 24th-ranked Trojans (6-2) are exactly what we expected: dynamic on offense, shaky on defense, and dependent on breaks and bounces.

That brings us to the subject of this column: breaks and bounces.

Despite all of the finger pointing at Grinch and Riley, as well as the offensive line, the Hotline believes a critical component has been overlooked.

What if we told you the Trojans outperformed last year in some of the most important efficiency metrics?

— USC’s offense averaged 7.2 yards per play last season. The Trojans are averaging 7.5 yards per play this season. (Both averages are among the top five in the country.)

— Last season, their defense allowed an average of 6.5 yards per play, ranking 124th in the country, just behind Louisiana Tech and Georgia Southern. This season, the defense allows 5.9 yards per play, ranking 95th in the country (bad but better).

Why does the current situation feel so dissimilar?

As a result of the breaks and bounces.

As a result of the turnovers.

Last year, USC was flawed in the same areas, but the Trojans had an out-of-this-world turnover margin that compensated for their shortcomings.

They had 28 takeaways and only seven turnovers, for a turnover margin of +1.5 per game.

How awesome is that? It was the best turnover margin by a Power Five team since Oregon had one in 2014, when the Ducks made the College Football Playoff. (Note: We excluded 2020 because some teams only played a few games.)

This year, USC’s turnover margin is a meager +0.22, ranking it 54th in the country and fifth in the Pac-12.

The Trojans have 11 turnovers in nine games, which is four more than they had in 14 games last year.

The turnover situation has also changed dramatically: USC has only generated 13 turnovers, which is less than half of the total (28) from last year.

Turnovers are not solely determined by chance. Talent, tactics, and fundamentals all play a role. However, you would expect the turnover trajectory to correlate with metrics such as yards per play to some extent. If the personnel is improved, the coach remains unchanged, and the metrics improve, the turnover margin should improve as well.

However, USC’s metrics are better while its turnover total is lower.

Blind luck occurs where the components diverge.

That is, at least, our point of view.

In terms of coaching and personnel, the Trojans aren’t significantly different from last year. However, they were extremely fortunate with turnovers in 2022.

This year, the unavoidable reversion to the mean has robbed them of that critical advantage, exposing their flaws against both top-tier and mid-tier competition.

The Trojans have two losses and are on pace for three or four more; after all, the toughest stretch of their schedule begins this week, with Washington, Oregon, and UCLA combining for a 21-3 record.

They finished the regular season with just two last year.

The breaks and bounces fall within that range.

In terms of power ratings…

(All times are in Pacific)

1. Oregon (7-1/4-1)

Last week: 2 Result: won at Utah 35-6 Next up: vs. Cal (2:30 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks)

Comment: Ignore the head-to-head result against Washington, which was, by the way, a three-point loss on the road. Oregon has reclaimed the top spot in the Hotline power rankings as a result of its outstanding performance at Utah, UW’s struggles against Stanford (and ASU), and our firm belief that if the Ducks and Huskies played ten times on a neutral field, Oregon would win seven of them.

2. Washington (8-0/5-0)

Last week: 1 Result: won at Stanford 42-33 Next up: at USC (4:30 p.m. on ABC)

Comment: Are the recent shaky performances the result of 1) a prolonged Oregon hangover; 2) Michael Penix Jr.’s illness and/or injury; 3) sheer boredom as heavy favorites against unranked foes; or 4) the inescapable, longstanding struggles in the series against ASU and Stanford? All of the above, in our opinion. However, we anticipate UW’s best effort this week.

3. Oregon State (6-2/3-2)

Last week: 3 Result: lost at Arizona 27-24 Next up: at Colorado (7 p.m. on ESPN)

Comment: OSU fans are blaming the loss on Jonathan Smith’s ill-advised trick play (a fake field goal), and Smith himself admitted it was a bad call. The Beavers, in our opinion, are good enough to beat good teams at home and mediocre teams on the road, but not good enough to beat good teams on the road (and Arizona is a good team at home). Imagine writing it if your mind is racing after reading it.

4. UCLA (6-2/3-2)

Last week: 5 Result: beat Colorado 28-16 Next up: at Arizona (7:30 p.m. on FS1)

Comment: The following teams are not on our Pac-12 2023 bingo card: I’m looking forward to the line of scrimmage matchup between UCLA and Arizona. Both teams are strong up front.

5. Utah (6-2/3-2)

Last week: 4 Result: lost to Oregon 35-6 Next up: vs. Arizona State (11 a.m. on Pac-12 Networks)

Comment: Kyle Whittingham rides his motorcycle to the set of the Pat McAfee Show — wearing a sleeveless hoodie, no less — and arm-wrestles the host. Just something to keep an eye on in the future.

6. USC (7-2/5-1)

Last week: 6 Result: won at Cal 50-49 Next up: vs. Washington (4:30 p.m. on ABC)

Comment: Due to the staggered start times in Berkeley and Stanford, the Hotline saw USC and Washington in person over the weekend and has the following insight to offer: The colossal Over/Under posted by Las Vegas oddsmakers for Saturday’s clash in the Coliseum (75.5 total points) is comically low.

7. Arizona (5-3/6-2)

Last week: 7 Result: beat Oregon State 27-24 Next up: vs. UCLA (7:30 p.m. on FS1)

Comment: We considered including the Wildcats on our AP top-25 ballot this week, but decided they didn’t have the credentials. (Washington State has imploded, and Mississippi State is floundering in the SEC.) But Arizona is closer than we imagined and will almost certainly have a spot if they win on Saturday.

8. Colorado (4-4/1-4)

Last week: 9 Result: lost at UCLA 28-16 Next up: vs. Oregon State (7 p.m. on ESPN)

Comment: The Pac-12 record book does not include a statistic for the most sacks allowed in a single season, but we can tell you this: the Buffaloes are on pace to allow the most sacks per game (5.3) by any Power Five team since at least 2009.

9. Cal (3-5/1-4)

Last week: 10 Result: lost to USC 50-49 Next up: at Oregon (2:30 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks)

Comment: The defense is worse than expected, the offense is better than expected, and the sum of the parts equals the whole. This season, the Bears simply do not have the personnel to compete in a conference as talented as the Pac-12. But what about the ACC next season? That’s a different story and a different chapter.

10. Arizona State (2-6/1-4)

Last week: 12 Result: beat Washington State 38-27 Next up: at Utah (11 a.m. on Pac-12 Networks)

Comment: I never expected ASU to be ranked higher than 11th in the power rankings, but here we are. This position is based in part on the victory over WSU and in part on strong performances in losses to Washington and USC. The Sun Devils are best described as a stout opponent.

11. Washington State (4-4/1-4)

Last week: 8 Result: lost at ASU 38-27 Next up: vs. Stanford (6 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks)

There are must-win games, and then there are MUST-WIN games. And the latter does not even begin to describe WSU’s assignment this week.

12. Stanford (2-6/1-5)

Last week: 11 Result: lost to Washington 42-33 Next up: at Washington State (6 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks)

Comment: The Cardinal have now allowed at least 40 points in four consecutive games, a level of play that the program did not achieve during the worst seasons of David Shaw’s tenure.

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