Friday, January 27, 2012
Season grade: Pac-12
By ESPN.com staff
The 2011 season is over. That means report cards are due.
And our last grade: Pac-12
Offense: The Pac-12 is known for offense and QBs, and 2011 was no different. Stanford's Andrew Luck and USC's Matt Barkley were among the best in the nation, but Oregon again was the conference's top offense in total offense, scoring and rushing. Eight Pac-12 teams ranked in the top 45 in the nation in total offense, including five in the top 25. Seven ranked in the top 45 in scoring, including four in the top 25. Seven ranked in the top 38 in passing efficiency, including four in the top 12. While the conference is known for passing, offenses also typically run well. The results there were mixed in 2011. Oregon and Stanford were both elite running teams, but six teams ranked 80th or worse in rushing. Protecting the QB was a good projector of success in the conference. USC, Stanford and Oregon did it very well. Washington State, Washington, Utah, Colorado, Oregon State and California did not. When you look at the conference's offensive numbers, Oregon, Stanford and USC were good in just about every meaningful category. That should come as no surprise. And the only team that had any success with consistently bad offensive numbers was Utah, which obviously relied on its defense. As far as star quality, the Pac-12 produced All-Americans at every position -- QB, RB, TE, WR and O-line.
Defense: It was not a great year on defense in the conference. No team produced an elite defense. Utah ranked 19th in the nation in scoring defense (without playing Oregon or Stanford), and California ranked 25th in total defense. It's fair to say that five teams were good to solid on defense: Utah, Cal, Stanford, Oregon and USC. And the other seven were middling-to-poor. Perhaps the most telling number: Colorado, Oregon State, UCLA and Washington ranked from 102nd to 110th in third-down conversion defense. Not getting off the field is bad. Seven teams ranked 74th or below in the nation in scoring defense. Seven teams ranked 82nd or below in total defense. Eight teams ranked 75th or below in pass efficiency defense. The numbers against the run were better -- eight teams ranked from No. 4 to No. 67 in run defense -- but that could be attributed to a conference full of pass-first offenses. The A-list offensive talent always needs to be held into account when assessing Pac-12 defenses. Just as good defenses play great in the SEC because of bad offenses, good-to-middling defenses look middling-to-bad in the Pac-12 because of great offenses. In terms of star power, the conference didn't produce many All-Americans, though some recognition was landed by USC safety T.J. McDonald and Stanford OLB Chase Thomas. The two biggest names entering the season -- Arizona State LB Vontaze Burfict and Oregon CB Cliff Harris -- flopped, with Harris getting kicked off the team.
Overall: The inaugural year of the Pac-12 produced three elite teams: Oregon, USC and Stanford. All three finished ranked in the top 7. The conference went 1-1 in BCS bowl games, with Oregon winning the Rose Bowl and Stanford falling a late field goal short of beating No. 3 Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. No season that produces two BCS bowl teams is a failure because that puts extra cash in every team's pocket. And the conference produced a glittering array of offensive talent that should light up NFL draft boards this spring. That's the good news. The bad news is a wide chasm between the three elite teams and everyone else: Eight teams won seven or fewer games. Further, the conference went 2-5 in bowl games and was a middling 7-7 against AQ nonconference foes in the regular season. The Pac-12's only victory over a nonconference foe that ended up ranked was Oregon's win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, though Utah did whip BYU, which finished 25th in the coaches poll. A few years ago, the main gripe centered on the conference producing depth but a lack of multiple elite teams -- a legit alternative to USC under Pete Carroll. Now the conference is producing multiple elite teams without the depth. The ideal scenario is at least two teams in the national picture along with multiple teams with eight or nine wins and seven or eight bowl-eligible teams. Ultimately, the Pac-12 probably rated as the nation's No. 3 conference in 2011, behind the SEC and Big 12. That's not bad. But it could be better.