This column reflects the opinion of the writer and does not in any way reflect the views of The Stanford Daily.
Welcome to the second edition of my annual power rankings, an assessment of how things should happen in the upcoming college football season while trying as hard as I can to ignore things like the 10-year history of how a program did in the past. My first go at this wasn’t really all that successful, but did hit at least a few things that others seemed to miss (show me another preseason ranking that had Colorado in the single digits, for instance, or Oregon outside the top four). Stay tuned for part two in the coming weeks.
No. 1: Washington
I certainly erred when I didn’t give Washington enough respect in my power rankings from last year. I was a bit skeptical of how “sexy” of a pick the team was, and this caused me to miss how effective Chris Petersen had become at building the Huskies into a contender. Now that Washington has officially arrived, however, I feel like it’s everyone else who isn’t giving this team enough respect. Despite winning the conference with relative ease and giving Alabama a real test in the College Football Playoff, Washington seems to have lost out to USC in most early assessments of next year’s field.
The Huskies are losing a lot on defense, but anyone who that thinks a bit of attrition is going to make it much easier to score against Petersen’s boys needs to catch up on their history. Meanwhile, offensive playmakers like Jake Browning, Dante Pettis and Myles Gaskin should continue to annihilate the team’s weaker opponents and fight hard against the best.
Washington and USC don’t play each other during the regular season next year so the top two spots in the conference might be a bit arbitrary, but it’s hard for me to see how the Trojans have better odds of making it to a potential showdown in the conference championship game than the Huskies do. Sexy or not, Washington is going to be a tough king to dethrone.
No. 2: USC
How many times has USC “found” the missing formula to return to their days of domination after losing Pete Carroll? At least four, by my count. True, one of those actually did amount to an objectively strong year (their 10-2 performance in 2011), but the more recent “resurgences” in 2012, 2014 and even at the end of 2015 have all attracted a lot of hype before ultimately burning out.
I’m actually quite a bit more optimistic that USC’s most recent rise is for real — Sam Darnold is a stud, and I have always firmly believed that head coach Clay Helton is the right choice for what has proved a quite difficult job. With Adoree’ Jackson, JuJu Smith-Schuster and a number of key linemen departing, however, there won’t be a huge margin of error for Darnold and Helton if they want to top their Rose Bowl showing this year. My bet is on it going less than perfectly.
No. 3: UCLA
As one of my friends put it, last year’s Stanford-UCLA game was really quite costly for both the Bruins and the Cardinal. While Stanford at least snuck away with a win, for the Bruins, it seemed to trigger the self-destruction of what on the surface seemed a quite talented squad. UCLA coaches, players and fans were just exhausted of losing to Stanford, and once their ninth consecutive defeat was secured, I think it took away some of the sense of purpose that the Bruins had going into the season. The team lost four of its next five games by similarly narrow margins before eventually throwing in the towel after its star quarterback got injured and with bowl eligibility only a distant hope.
This year is a new year, however, and if a few things go UCLA’s way, I think the outcome could be dramatically different. The Bruins’ defense will likely take a step back, but if Josh Rosen can find his stride and if new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch can find some answers for the running game, then the Bruins could be a lot more dangerous than people expect.
No. 4: Stanford
You can never complain too much about winning 10 games in a season, but 2016 was still a bit of a mess for the Cardinal. The team did generally manage to sort things out by the end of the year, but the Sun Bowl injury to Keller Chryst and departures of Solomon Thomas and Christian McCaffrey have managed to reopen many of the questions that David Shaw had assuredly hoped to settle before his team entered the offseason. The loss of Solly on the defensive side probably won’t lead to catastrophe, but the Stanford offense is going to face a real challenge in replacing McCaffrey and (at least for much of the offseason) Chryst while simultaneously fixing some of the weaknesses that dragged it to a halt at times this year. The pathway to the very top will still be open if the offensive line comes together and if Bryce Love takes the next step in his development, but at this point I think that’s far from guaranteed.
No. 5: Washington State
Pac-12 fans probably recall that the Cougars were only one game away from winning the Pac-12 North this season. That’s only part of the truth, however. Washington State, in fact, needed wins in just two games in order to win the Pac-12 North in two consecutive seasons. That’s not the type of thing that happens by luck.
The Cougars are losing much of the talent that was critical to this run, like wide receivers Gabe Marks and River Cracraft, but with quarterback Luke Falk and All-American guard Cody O’Connell slated to return, this offense will still pack a punch. All Mike Leach and his boys need are a few key defensive stops to be right back in the thick of things next season.
No. 6: Oregon
Oregon’s 2016 was ghastly. It’s honestly hard to fathom how quickly this team fell off from its national title challenge at the end of the 2014 season. More than most of the conference’s other laggards, however, the Ducks were able to find some answers in their decline with the emergence of Justin Herbert at quarterback and the hiring of Willie Taggart as head coach. Throw in Jim Leavitt, the architect of Colorado’s defensive turnaround, at DC, and Oregon should have a pretty solid cast set for next season.
It is probably too early to ask too much from the Ducks, but I expect them to rise more quickly than most people imagine. The conference undeniably lost a bit of excitement this year without the kings of the spread in their normal place, and I hope for all our sakes that they get quacking again soon.
If Andrew Mather’s duck puns ruffle your feathers, tell him at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu.