It was a wild week one for the Pac-12. I am still in shock UCLA pulled off that stunning 34-point comeback. While week one featured a slate largely full of overmatched FCS opponents and Group of Five teams, this was the first full week of football, so let's breakdown what we learned about the Pac-12.
1. The Pac-12 went undefeated in week one and why it is a good thing
First, we have to touch on the fact that no Pac-12 team lost in week one, a feat that has not happened to open the season since the conference expanded to 12 teams. WSU actually beat an FCS opponent after falling to one the last two years. Given the quality of opponents, this seemed possible, but it did require one upset: Cal winning at North Carolina. UCLA completed a massive comeback in the final game of the week to preserve the Pac-12’s unbeaten opening week. Now, some of you may be thinking, "why should I care about the other teams in the conference?" Well, a strong Pac-12 helps Utah. The more out of conference wins the Pac-12 has, the better. It means more Pac-12 teams will be ranked and more respect for the conference as a whole. It is also worth noting that the Pac-12 has not had a team go undefeated since the conference expanded to 12 teams (and only two teams finished undefeated in the Pac-12 1991 Washington and 2004 USC). This means that the Pac-12 will likely rely on the committee to put a team in the College Football Playoff since the conference is unlikely to produce an undefeated conference champion. A stronger Pac-12 makes that more likely to happen.
2. UCLA gets another point in this because of that crazy game
We would be remiss if we did not spend a little more time talking about the Bruins, who completed the second-largest comeback in college football history after scoring 35 unanswered points to comeback from a 44-10 deficit (the largest comeback is from 35 points down). UCLA looked dead and gone before switching up their offense and unleashing a furious passing attack from quarterback Josh Rosen and tight end Caleb Wilson. They abandoned the power rushing attack that was getting them nowhere and instead instituted modern pro-style offense concepts. The comeback was mightily impressive, but let’s not forget, they still fell behind by 34 points. They could not stop Texas A&M’s rushing attack, especially when they utilized two back sets with misdirection. For all of the credit UCLA deserves for getting the win, Texas A&M should maybe receive even more blame. The Aggies moved away from running the football late in the game and instead tried to throw the ball with a true freshman quarterback who was playing due to injury to the starter. Why did head coach Kevin Sumlin abandon the run when it was working, especially when he should have been trying to burn clock to seal the win? Decisions like this may be more to blame for the outcome of this game than UCLA’s offensive scheme switch.
3. The two teams at the top looked shaky
The preseason favorites in the Pac-12 North and South were Washington and USC respectively. Each team looked less than impressive to start the 2017 season. Both teams were favored by more than 20 points in their games. UW beat Rutgers on the road 30-14, while USC beat Western Michigan 49-31. UW only led by three at halftime while USC was tied with Western Michigan halfway through the fourth quarter. Both teams finished strong to seal their wins, but they did not dominate from start to finish like many expected. This could have just been week one jitters and/or a lack of enthusiasm about the opponents, but it also could signal that the preseason favorites may not live up to the preseason hype.
Stanford on the other hand, who did not play in week one after playing Rice in Australia in week 0 looked dominate in that performance. We will learn more about the Cardinal and the Trojans when they meet in L.A. on Saturday.
4. The teams at the bottom may be different than originally predicted
Before UCLA made their comeback and were down 44-10, they looked like they might be the worst team in the South. They however bucked that by scoring 35 unanswered points. Arizona State on the other hand struggled to beat New Mexico State, a team projected to be at the bottom of the Sun Belt Conference, while Arizona, the team to finished sixth in the preseason, handled one of the top teams in the Big Sky, Northern Arizona. It is still too early to tell who will sit at the bottom of the Pac-12 South, but it may not be Arizona like many thought. The Pac-12 North seems like it has a much clearer picture of the team who will finish sixth: the Oregon State Beavers. The Beavers finished 2016 strong and were projected to take another step forward in year three under head coach Gary Andersen. They however got embarrassed by Colorado State in week 0 (who followed up that 58-27 win over OSU with a 17-3 loss to rival Colorado). Oregon State followed up that miserable performance by scraping out a 35-32 win over Portland State, and they needed a late touchdown drive to secure the win. Cal on the other hand, the team picked to finish sixth, travelled across the country and beat North Carolina 35-30.
5. The middle is equally convoluted
The top of the conference looked shaky, the bottom looked like it could be different than expected, so why should the middle of the conference look any less convoluted? Teams like Colorado, Oregon, Utah, and Washington State all doing some nice things in wins over Mountain West or FCS teams. Each team won against a team they were supposed to beat. Colorado knocked off rival Colorado State. Oregon’s offense exploded for 77 points against Southern Utah. Utah’s young roster took down Big Sky favorite North Dakota 37-16. Washington State as mentioned earlier actually beat their week one FCS opponent, shutting out Montana State 31-0. UCLA looked like one of the worst teams in the conference and one of the best in the same game against Texas A&M, so we have no idea how the Bruins will look this season. Will they be the Bruins who were gashed on the ground or the team that threw for 292 yards and four touchdowns in one quarter, or will they fall somewhere in the middle? UCLA takes on Hawaii next, so it will be a little while before we know more about UCLA. The same is true with Colorado who faces Texas State. With the other teams in the middle, we will get a little more clarity in week two. Oregon hosts Nebraska and will look to get revenge after losing in Lincoln, Neb. last year. Nebraska struggled defensively against Arkansas State in week one, but they are still a Big Ten team that has a lot more talent than Southern Utah. Utah has to travel to rival BYU and will look to win the seventh game in a row against the Cougars. BYU will provide more of a challenge for the inexperienced Utah roster than North Dakota did. Washington State will host Boise State, like Oregon, hoping to avenge a 2016 loss.
Given this was the first week of the season, we do not want to read too much into these games (remember when everyone thought Texas was back last season after beating Notre Dame in week one, then they both finished with losing records). Opponents who appeared weak on paper in the preseason may actually end up being better than expected, and the reverse may also be true, teams we thought would be strong end up failing to achieve expectations, making those wins less impressive in hindsight. There also could have been varying levels of motivation. Teams with big week two match ups (like USC and Stanford who play each other, Utah, Arizona, and Oregon) might have held back part of their respective playbooks. It really takes a few games before we get a feel for how good or bad each team in the Pac-12 is, but it is nice to have some real game data and not just projections. What did you learn about the Pac-12 in week one?