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What’s Wrong With The Traditional Pac-12 Powerhouses?

Stanford, Oregon and USC have dominated the Pac-12 for the better part of two decades. What happened to them this season?

Stanford and Oregon have combined to win the past seven Pac-12 titles. Before that, USC won it six years in a row. Not since Washington State in 2002 has a team other than Stanford, USC, or Oregon claimed the moniker of Pac-12 champion. However, barring a major upset, that is all bound to change this season.

In the Pac-12 North, both Washington and Washington State sit at 3-0 in conference play while Stanford checks in at 2-2 and Oregon rounds out the bottom of the division at 0-3. On the other side of the conference, Utah and Colorado are tied for the South division lead at 3-1, while USC trails in third place with a conference record of 3-2. So how did three perennial powerhouses who combined for six conference losses already surpass that number this year, in less than half the season, no less? And how did all three of them drop off so quickly at the same time?

The common denominator in all three teams is poor quarterback play. When these three teams were dominating the Pac-12, they each had their own set of standout quarterbacks. USC had Heisman trophy winner Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez, Oregon had a plethora of dual-threat quarterbacks including Heisman trophy winner Marcus Mariota, while Stanford was led by Andrew Luck and Kevin Hogan. This season, things are a little bit different. USC and Stanford lost Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan respectively, both to the Cleveland Browns, and previous Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. is in the CFL. But for each of these teams, the problems go deeper than just subpar play from their quarterbacks.

Oregon: The glaring weakness for Oregon is their defense. While they haven’t had a standout defense in recent memory, this season they are truly appalling, ranking 127th out of 128 FBS teams in total defense. 

Year   Total Defense Rank
2012   44

They haven’t held a single team under 25 points and have given up more than 40 points three times including 70 to Washington. 

In past seasons, even if their defense was a sieve for the most part, their offense was still good enough to the point where the defense only needed a stop or two per game. Yet Oregon has relied on graduate transfers at quarterback the past two seasons, and they’re simply not good enough to overshadow the defense. A program like Oregon should have no trouble recruiting a top quarterback for their high-octane offense. Instead, choosing to start a graduate transfer two seasons in a row will mean Oregon will have their third different starter in as many years next season. 

While starter Dakota Prukop has not been horrible, he has only thrown for eight touchdowns on the season, six of those coming in Oregon’s two wins over UC Davis and Virginia. In Oregon’s three losses, he threw for only two touchdowns and added two interceptions. These numbers simply don’t cut it for an offense that expects to be up there with the best in the nation. Oregon’s offense still has its prototypical dynamic playmakers, but their porous defense and substandard quarterbacking has them reeling.

USC: From 2002-2008, USC went to a BCS bowl game every season, winning the Rose Bowl four times and the Orange Bowl twice. Since then, they have not been back to a BCS/New Year’s Six bowl and have only won the Pac-12 South once. Coaching stability has not been USC’s strong suit as they have gone through Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron, Clay Helton, Steve Sarkisian, and now back to Clay Helton in the six seasons since Pete Carroll left for the NFL

Unlike Oregon and Stanford, USC saw their weakness at quarterback and addressed it early this season. Junior Max Browne started the Trojans’ first three games of the season, and led the team to a 1-2 start in which the offense put up a combined 16 points in losses to Alabama and Stanford. Sensing a need for change, Head Coach and Quarterbacks Coach Clay Helton turned to freshman quarterback Sam Darnold. In his four games as starter, Darnold has posted a higher QBR (in each game) than Browne did in any of the games he started. 

Although the quarterback situation seems to have been settled for the time being, the Trojans are still a program without an identity. After a 1-3 start to the season, many fans were questioning whether Clay Helton was the right man for the full time job. If USC doesn’t win out, don’t be surprised if they go out and try and land a big-name head coach. With the recent news that the Big 12 will not be expanding, Houston head coach Tom Herman is expected to be on the move, and USC will certainly be interested. 

Backlash from the sanctions of the Reggie Bush scandal has taken a long time to wear off (USC suffered a postseason ban, forfeited victories and lost 30 scholarships over three seasons), but USC remains a top recruiting school. Even though their chances of winning the Pac-12 South are slim, they are in no danger of becoming anything besides a perennial college football powerhouse.

Stanford: Of these three teams, Stanford has certainly been hurt the most by poor quarterback play. Last year’s quarterback, Kevin Hogan, was by no means a world-beater, but he was consistently solid. Maybe most importantly, solid enough to where defenses could not sell out to stop backfield dynamo Christian McCaffrey. This season, with Ryan Burns at the helm, things are a little bit different.

Burns has thrown for under 200 yards in five out of six games this season, eclipsing 200 with a 222 yard performance against only Washington State to go along with only five touchdowns and four interceptions on the year. 

However, even with all the struggles at quarterback, many fingers are being pointed at Head Coach David Shaw as part of the reason for Stanford’s downfall. Stanford has arguably the greatest “play-action bait” in college football in Christian McCaffrey, yet they only complete two play-action passes per game on average. Shaw has been oft-criticized for his play-calling, especially after going ultra conservative in Stanford’s Rose Bowl loss to Michigan State in 2014. With playmakers that include former Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey, speedster Michael Rector, and dependable tight end Dalton Schultz, Shaw should be able to game plan effectively, even with a mediocre quarterback. 

Stanford has finished the challenging part of their schedule, so a 10-2 finish, although unlikely, is not out of the question. But still, they would need both Washington State and Washington to finish with three conference losses in order to win the division, which is highly unlikely.

The bottom line is it’s really hard to build a team like Alabama that contends year in and year out. The Pac-12 — while certainly not the strongest conference — has many different teams that can contend, making it hard for one team to establish a dominant reign like USC did in the 2000s. Stanford, Oregon, and USC all have their flaws this season, but all are all fixable, so don’t be surprised to find them all vying for the Pac-12 title next year.

Edited by Joe Sparacio, Vincent Choy.

Who was the Washington State quarterback when they last won the Pac-10?
Created 10/18/16
  1. Jason Gesser
  2. Ryan Leaf
  3. Drew Bledsoe
  4. Matt Kegel

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