The PAC 12 failed to meet expectations in 2015, and key out-of-conference losses combined with the conference’s tendency to cannibalize kept teams out of the National Championship race. Whether or not the conference can return to national prominence is an open question. We’ll use advanced stats to project performance and figure whether these teams are headed in the right direction or the wrong one. This week we will focus on the North and see which cream rises to the top.
We’re going to use two approaches to sort the PAC 12 North. The first is advanced team metrics; FPI, F/+, Massey, and the AP will give us a sense of how good these teams really were in 2015. The second is calculating percentage returning stats in key areas, which will give us an idea of whether we can expect them to improve or take a step back. I’ve sorted the teams into four categories:
Win a Game?- This category is reserved for teams that could conceivably lose every conference game. They lack talent and coaching in a way that calls the team’s basic competence into question.
Win Some Games- These teams fill out the middle of a conference. They aren’t expected to win national accolades, but should beat truly bad teams most of the time and have a shot to pick off better teams.
Win Any Game- These teams are a threat to anyone in the conference when they step on the field, even the powerhouses. Although they aren’t expected to compete for a conference title, no one is sleeping on them.
Win Every Game?- These teams usually start out the season ranked and end it the same way. They have a decent shot of not losing a single game, and that puts them in the playoff hunt.
On to the analysis:
Win a Game?
Progress: Step Forward. The Beavers were shockingly bad in 2015. They gave up 18 more points than they scored, on average, by far the worst in the PAC 12 (Colorado was the only other team with a negative differential, and it was -2.9). There’s really nowhere to go but up, and with over 70% in most key categories returning, they should take that step.
Projection: We’ll know the answer by the first day in October. The schedule starts off fairly soft for the Beavers, but if they don’t win one or two of those games they aren’t going to win another all year. I project another year where they score less than they allow, but I think they close the gap. I’ll give them 3-9 with 70% confidence. 3-9
Win Some Games
Progress: Step Back. Cal put together a good effort last year that flagged once they got to their conference schedule. This year, the passing game has been gutted and the defense took some substantial losses as well. 2015 was the year where Cal had all the pieces in place to win the division, and they couldn’t put it together. 2016 won’t have the same opportunities.
Projection: A downward trend in experience plus a tough non-divisional schedule that features the Texas Longhorns and the three best teams in the South put a low ceiling on where advanced metrics project this team. I’ve got 70% confidence that the Bears get to 5 or 6 wins… but there’s a big difference between 5 and 6 and it’s hard to say where they will wind up. 5.5-6.5
Win Any Game
Progress: Step Forward. Like Cal last year, WSU returns the majority of their production from an impressive season. Also like Cal, the question is whether or not the coaching staff can take advantage of that returning talent to create the improvement in defense they need to go to the PAC 12 championship game. Odds are against that kind of transformation, but if the offense takes a step forward it might not matter.
Projection: Boise State is the lone stumbling block in the early going, and the Cougars get a soft landing in the South, which helps this projection. The PAC 12 is a gauntlet though, and the Cougars have yet to demonstrate they can get through it unscathed. I’ve got 70% confidence in 7 or 8 wins for WSU. 7.5-4.5
Progress: Stand Firm. Oregon returns a lot of talent from a good-not-great team with serious defensive problems. They lost a prolific quarterback but get a bit of pass since there’s a transfer coming in who is a known commodity. It’s going to take something unexpected for the Ducks to experience the defensive improvement they need to change their destiny.
Projection: An uninspired but by no means easy out of conference slate (with Nebraska and Virginia featured) coupled with being on road at USC and Utah this year tamps down expectations quite a bit. I’m putting them ahead of WSU by a nose, but that’s based on historical performance, not statistical projection. 70% confidence in 7 or 8 for the Ducks, with a little lean towards 8. 7.7-4.3
Progress: Step Back. Stanford loses a lot this year, although they do retain stud (and significant % of their offense) Christian McCafferty. Coach Shaw has proven he can reload, but statistical analysis doesn’t give a lot of weight to that kind of soft metric. I’m projecting a step back and a tier down for Stanford, who were a Win Every Game in 2015.
Projection: Stanford is a very good team year in and year out, and they shouldn’t slip too far. However, the schedule doesn’t have a soft spot in it until Oct. 22, and that will take its toll. The Cardinal are on the road at key points in the season and it’s hard to see them reaching the same heights as last year, with all the talent they have to replace on offense. I’ve got 70% confidence they get to 8 wins. 8-4.
Win Every Game
Progress: Step Forward. A good team returns almost all of their critical talent. The running back and quarterback are both, and the majority of the very nasty defense returns as well. The coaching staff is reliable and impressive (although I’ll take Coach Whit over Coach Petersen, personally). The Huskies should get a lot better in 2016.
Projection: It’s hard for me to put Washington up this high; I don’t see this kind of performance as likely. However, the advanced stats are extremely favorable to the Huskies this year and although I tossed and turned, I couldn’t justify placing them any lower. The nonconference slate is downright doughy, and the South division slate is middle-of-the-road. I wouldn’t project them to go undefeated, but I’ve got 70% confidence they pick up 10 wins, and 12 is certainly possible. 10-2.
This analysis is intended to be a pure performance approach; I expect it will deviate a bit from my votes in BlockU’s power rankings, where I use soft analysis. Still, the discrepancies are interesting. I like to use these charts as a way to check my instincts. Like most, I want to throw Oregon and Stanford to the top of the conference. Their advanced metrics call that into question, though, and suggest that the Washington hype is backed up by more than just blind Petersen-worship. That’s why they play the games.