Pac-12 Conference Team Tiers Heading into Week 2
Icon Sportswire / Getty Images. Pictured: Zach Charbonnet
It's finally football season, and after a full slate's worth of football in Week 1, we break down every Pac-12 team into four tiers – (1) Teams to Beat, (2) Other Contenders, (3) Middle of the Pack, and (4) Needs Improvement.
Let's jump in and see what we've learned about the Pac-12 heading into Week 2.
Tier 1 – The Teams to Beat
UCLA has been the most impressive team in the Pac-12 so far this season, and they picked up the conference’s marquee win in Week 1’s 38-27 home victory over LSU. The Bruins ran for 210 yards (4.5 yards per carry) while only allowing 49 total rushing yards (2.0 yards per carry) as Chip Kelly picked up the biggest win in his four years in Westwood.
The Bruins are absolutely loaded around senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. They have possibly the best tight end in the Pac-12 with Greg Dulcich, one of the elite receivers in the league in Kyle Phillips, and an emerging star in running back Zach Charbonnet.
DTR has limitations as a passer, but if the UCLA running game can keep him out of obvious passing situations, this team has the talent to win the Conference of Champions.
Kyle Phillips took his ankles😤
UCLA +2.5 is running away with it.pic.twitter.com/jyc2dFnomd
— Covers (@Covers) September 5, 2021
Defensively, the Bruins took a leap from outside of the top 100 units in 2018 and 2019 combined to 60th per PFF in 2020. They have sustained that improvement and furthered it this season as their stout run defense has stymied opponents in consecutive games after allowing just 1.2 yards per carry against Hawai’i in Week 0.
In a year where the Pac-12 is relatively down at the quarterback position, their run defense and opportunistic secondary led by Quenton Lake and Jay Shaw will have a say in who wins the league. The Bruins have a bye in Week 2 before hosting Fresno State’s underrated offense in Week 3.
Unfortunately we didn’t learn much about Utah in Week 1 as they defeated Weber State 40-17. Baylor transfer quarterback Charlie Brewer completed 19 of 27 passes for 233 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception in his debut as a Ute.
Brewer had a QBR of 69 or higher in 2018 and 2019 for Baylor, but he regressed to a QBR of 52 in 2020 as the Baylor offense had switched to a more spread based scheme than one more heavy in RPOs and play action – which better suits Brewer’s play style.
Week 1 Quarterback Grades from @PFF
89.3—C. Brewer, Utah
82.9—C. Nolan, OSU
80.3—K. Slovis, USC
70.9—B. Lewis, CU
68.6—J. Daniels, ASU
63.6—A. Brown, UO
62.4—J. de Laura, WSU
61.6—C. Garbers, Cal
61.6—G. Cruz, UA
60.3—T. McKee, Stan
51.6—D. Morris, UW
— SportsPac12 (@SportsPac12) September 6, 2021
If the Utah offensive line (which returns all five starters) can improve enough after a poor showing in last year’s abbreviated season, the Utah offense should have success as they have plenty of depth at the skill positions. Brewer has a trio of talented pass-catches in tight end Brant Kuithe and wide receivers Britain Covey and Jaylen Dixon.
Stud linebacker Devin Lloyd leads a deep and experienced Utes defense that finished first in the conference in EPA each of the last three seasons. Edge defender Mike Tafua picked up in Week 1 where he left off after a breakout 2020 season as he picked up a half sack and tallied 1.5 tackles for loss in the opener. The Utah defense will be rock solid again this season, but Brewer’s performance as a passer will determine whether this team can win the conference or stay in the middle of the pack.
Utah follows up their Week 1 cupcake with a physical battle in the Holy War against new-look rival BYU who just took down Arizona.
The Trojans took care of business in Week 1 against San Jose State by a final score of 30-7, but the game was closer than the final score would indicate as USC led just 16-7 entering the fourth quarter.
Kedon Slovis completed 24 of 36 passes for 256 yards and two touchdowns, but he finished with a middling QBR of 54.0 as the Trojans scored only three points in the second and third quarters combined.
Slovis leads a Trojans offense stacked with talent at the skill positions. Six-foot-four receiver and former Trojan basketball player Drake London picked up where he left off in 2020 as he snagged 12 receptions for 137 yards in the opener. The Trojans return Vavae Malepaei and add Texas transfer Keontay Ingram at running back while also adding two impact receivers through the transfer portal in KD Nixon and Tahj Washington.
While the offense was underwhelming overall in Week 1, the defense stepped up and held Nick Starkel and the defending Mountain West champs to just seven points. Starkel threw for 306 yards, but it was quantity and not quality production as he finished with a 36.0 QBR, no touchdowns, and two interceptions.
The Trojans had the highest coverage grade in the Pac-12 per PFF in Week 1. Star edge defender Drake Jackson led the defense and had an impressive interception while limiting the Spartans to just 3.6 yards per carry.
Drake Jackson is the truth pic.twitter.com/bCzmP7p5yW
— Pac-12 Apostles Podcast (@Pac12Apostles) September 4, 2021
We will learn more about the Trojans when they face a physical Stanford team in Week 2 at the Coliseum. The Trojans need Slovis to be the best quarterback in the conference in order to win a loaded Pac-12 South and emerge as a playoff contender. USC needs to crack the opposing defenses’ “drop eight” scheme against their air raid which stymied them in the Pac-12 championship against Oregon last season.
Tier 2 – Other Contenders
The Ducks survived a Week 1 scare as they were tied with Fresno State at Autzen with just under six minutes remaining. The Ducks marched down the field on a six-play, 63-yard drive capped off by a 30-yard touchdown run by quarterback Anthony Brown to give them a 31-24 victory.
4th-down conversion 🤝 Touchdown
— Oregon Football (@oregonfootball) September 4, 2021
Brown is the X-factor for this Ducks team that has a plethora of talent around him. If he can improve as a pocket passer and push the ball downfield more frequently, this team can defend its Pac-12 title and will easily be the best team in the North. He will need the running game to improve on just 3.8 yards per carry when they face Ohio State in Week 2.
The Ducks allowed former Washington quarterback Jake Haener to throw for 298 yards in Week 1, but this Fresno State offense is no joke — it had the most efficient offense in the Mountain West last season. The Ducks had more success defensively, holding the Bulldogs to just 2.5 yards per rush.
There is great talent on all three levels on defense led by Kayvon Thibodeaux, Noah Sewell and Mykael Wright, and these three must step up if they hope to cover or pull the upset at Ohio State.
Thibodeaux left the Fresno State game with an ankle injury, but X-rays came back negative, and many expect him to play against Ohio State. This sets up an intriguing matchup against possibly the best tackle duo in college football (Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere).
We didn’t learn much about Arizona State in its 41-14 Week 1 win over Southern Utah. The defense, led by corners Chase Lucas and Jack Jones, looked impressive as they held the Thunderbirds to 3.0 yards per rush and 4.7 yards per pass while snagging three interceptions. Arizona State will challenge Utah and Washington (and maybe UCLA?) for the best defense in the Pac-12.
The Sun Devils dominated on the ground as they averaged 5.6 yards per carry and rushed for six touchdowns, but the big question for Arizona State this season is if quarterback Jayden Daniels can take a step forward as a pocket passer.
The Sun Devils picked up where they left off last season running the football. In 2020, the Sun Devils led the Conference of Champions in average yards before contact per rush, and they dominated on the ground in Week 1 as they averaged 5.6 yards per carry and rushed for six touchdowns.
RBs looking scary.
😱 4 touchdowns on 9 attempts 😱 pic.twitter.com/xqMfqbMANS
— Sun Devil Football (@ASUFootball) September 3, 2021
Daniels was efficient in Week 1 as he completed 10-of-12 passes for 132 yards. Daniels won’t be tested for a few weeks as the Sun Devils are heavy favorites against a UNLV team that is coming off a loss to an FCS team.
If Daniels can be more accurate and elevate the mediocre receiving group, the rest of the team is talented enough to jump into the top tier of Pac-12 contenders.
Tier 3 – Middle of the Pac(k)
No Pac-12 team has gotten off to a more disappointing start than the Huskies. Before the season started, star edge defender Zion Tupuola-Fetui tore his Achilles, and then they went out and laid an egg in their 13-7 Week 1 home loss to Montana.
The defense held up on its end as it allowed just 3.7 yards per rush and 4.6 yards per pass. Despite the loss of Tupuola-Fetui, the defense is talented and may feature the best secondary in the conference (again).
The offensive line was supposed to be a big strength for the Huskies, but Washington mustered just 2.4 yards per carry in the opener. The receiving group is mediocre at best, but it does have possibly the best tight end in the Pac-12 in Cade Otton.
The offense was supposed to take a step forward with the vast majority of starters returning in offensive coordinator John Donovan’s second season, but quarterback Dylan Morris had his worst game of his career (five starts) in the opener. Morris threw a career-high three interceptions and finished with a horrific QBR of 8.4.
Morris was reluctant to throw the ball more than 15 yards down the field last year, and without many reliable targets besides Otton, it looks like the offense will have trouble again this season with making dynamic plays.
The Huskies desperately need Morris to improve and receivers to step up, especially if they hope to cover or upset Michigan as underdogs going unto The Big House.
The Stanford offensive line was supposed to be a strength after resurrecting the run game in 2020 following a disappointing 2019 campaign littered with injuries.
That wasn’t the case in Week 1 as the Cardinal ran for just 1.8 yards per carry with no run longer than 15 yards. Tanner McKee and Jack West split time at quarterback in the 24-7 loss to Kansas State, but McKee has been named the starter going forward (West is not expected to rotate in) after West threw two interceptions against the Wildcats.
Once McKee gets comfortable and the Cardinal get top receiver Michael Wilson back from injury in a few weeks, the Cardinal offense’s ceiling will rise considerably.
Ridiculous play from Stanford CB Kyu Blu Kelly pic.twitter.com/G3nc3NwDxv
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) September 4, 2021
The defense looked improved as they recorded a higher pass rushing grade in Week 1 than they did in any of their six games last season, but conversely, the Cardinal were gashed on the ground as they allowed 6.5 yards per carry. Cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly had an impressive opener and fantastic interception, but outside of him, the secondary lacks playmakers and will be without two starters as they head to the Coliseum to face the USC Air Raid.
The Golden Bears ran over the Nevada defense and jumped out to a 14-0 first quarter lead. Then, the offense got away from the run and Carson Strong made some impressive throws into tight windows for the Wolf Pack, and Nevada escaped with a 22-17 road win.
The Cal defense, led by a strong secondary, looks solid, but the offense has a low ceiling. Chase Garbers has been relatively inaccurate, and he lacks playmakers around him. Garbers threw for just 4.7 yards per pass in Week 1, and although he has the ability to run the ball, the Golden Bears chose to limit his rushes as he has struggled to stay on the field due to injuries throughout his time in Berkeley.
Cal @ TCU this weekend
A rematch of the greatest game ever played: 2018 Cheez-It Bowl.
— The Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) September 6, 2021
Garbers will need to make more plays with his legs going forward, and Cal must open up its offense more vertically if it hopes to upset TCU on the road this week or eventually make a bowl game. Garbers will be looking for revenge against TCU as he threw a career-high three interceptions against TCU in the infamous 2018 Cheez-It Bowl.
Last year’s starter, Tristan Gebbia, is still recovering from a hamstring injury, so last year’s backup, Chance Nolan, and Colorado’s 2020 QB1, Sam Noyer, split time under center in the 30-21 Week 1 loss at Purdue. Noyer started the game but struggled as he passed for just 4.5 yards per attempt and finished with a 7.8 QBR.
Nolan replaced him and was more efficient in about a quarter’s worth of action as he averaged 9.8 yards per attempt and finished with an impressive 88.4 QBR. Nolan established himself as a legitimate threat to run as a freshman last year, but if he can continue efficient play as a passer, the ceiling for this Beavers team rises significantly, and Gebbia might have a tougher time winning his job back than expected.
QB stats from the Beavs loss to Purdue:
Sam Noyer: 10-21, 94 yards, 1 INT
Chance Nolan: 10-16, 157 yards https://t.co/uKMzyXw85n
— Kate Rogerson (@KateRogersonTV) September 9, 2021
Oregon State’s biggest strength this season was expected to be the running game as it returned an offensive line that ranked among the top-20 run blocking units last season. The Beavers rushed for just 3.1 yards per carry in Week 1, but they should be more efficient on the ground going forward.
The defense, however, is a cause for concern. The Beavers don’t have many playmakers outside of linebacker Avery Roberts, and they will likely have to outscore opponents in order to get to bowl eligibility. Oregon State is an 11-point home favorite against Hawai'i this week, and should have no trouble scoring against the Rainbow Warriors' defense.
The Buffaloes got off to a strong start in Week 1 with a 35-7 win over Northern Colorado. We didn’t learn much about the Buffaloes against their FCS foe, but they face a stiff test in Week 2 when they play Texas A&M at Mile High in Denver.
The strength of this team is the defense. The Buffaloes have underrated talent all over the field defensively, and this was why they contended for a Pac-12 title in last year’s abbreviated season despite a poor passing offense. Last year’s QB1, Sam Noyer, transferred to Oregon State, and freshman Brendon Lewis made his first regular season start as he completed 10-of-15 passes for 102 yards and a touchdown.
Lewis had the training wheels on last week but will need to let it fly if the Buffaloes hope to be competitive against an elite Aggies team. The Aggies were underwhelming in Week 1 against the run, so Colorado must be successful on the ground to open up play action for their young quarterback. The offensive line’s pass blocking isn’t a strength, so limiting obvious pass situations will be imperative going forward this season.
Tier 4 – Needs Improvement
Jared Guarantano started Week 1 at quarterback for the Cougars, but he was replaced by last year’s starter, Jayden de Laura in the second quarter after an injury. Washington State trailed 5-3 when de Laura entered, and he stayed in for the rest of the game as the offense was more successful with him both passing and running the ball.
The Cougars should have a fun offense this season assuming de Laura is the starter going forward as he is paired in the backfield of the run-and-shoot offense with star running back Max Borghi. De Laura is the more talented quarterback and the returning starter, but he was suspended during spring ball following a DUI arrest.
"He definitely brings some energy. I thought he was mature in his decisions, in his presence.”
Rolovich figures he'll probably stick with soph Jayden de Laura when #WSU plays host to Portland State on Saturday.https://t.co/W0r9gTYMfH
— Colton Clark (@SpokesmanClark) September 7, 2021
The defense for Washington State, however, is a work in progress. De Laura led the Cougars to a 23-11 lead with 12:11 remaining in the fourth quarter, however, the defense allowed consecutive 10+ play touchdown drives of 70+ yards to lose the game 26-23 at home to Utah State. The defense did not record a single sack and recorded just four tackles for loss the entire game.
The run-and-shoot will be fun to watch, but the Cougars will need to outscore their opponents in order to win games in the Pac-12 this year. The defense was horrendous last season and needs to improve if Washington State hopes to be bowl eligible. The Cougars should have an easier matchup this week against FCS opponent Portland State before facing USC and Utah in consecutive weeks.
Arizona started the Jedd Fisch era with a 24-16 loss in Las Vegas to BYU. The Wildcats fell behind 14-0 as the offense couldn't get going, but they finally got on the board in the second quarter and moved the ball more consistently after that.
After a training camp quarterback battle, Washington State transfer Gunner Cruz emerged as the winner over Will Plummer. Cruz completed 34-of-45 passes for 336 yards along with a touchdown and an interception against BYU, while Plummer completed 2-of-3 passes for nine yards and also had one rush for one yard.
Cruz looked serviceable, but the running game needs significant improvement as they averaged just 2.3 yards per carry in Week 1 to help out the young quarterback.
A few more tidbits from Arizona’s loss to BYU: Stanley Berryhill III was elite with the ball in his hands, Gunner Cruz threw a ton of short passes, Rashie Hodge II was extremely effective in limited playing time, the pass rush didn’t show up. https://t.co/aMzVOIat8i
— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) September 7, 2021
Arizona looks to be playing hard for its new head coach, but it occupies the Pac-12 basement as it has a lack of talent across the roster after an exodus of transfers in the offseason, including promising quarterback Grant Gunnell. The defense is improved from last season, but it was going to be hard to be any worse.
The Wildcats need to get more pressure on the opposing quarterback going forward, especially if they hope to avoid falling into an 0-2 hole when they host San Diego State in Week 2.