Pac-12 Power Rankings: USC and Washington lead the way, Colorado in bottom half

The Pac-12′s final football season is its strongest in recent memory. Where does each contender stack up?

Michael Jackson III runs through the Stanford defense.

“Pac-12 Power Rankings” is a column by Will Camardella ranking the Pac-12 football teams on a week-to-week basis.

If it was not 10 months from completely dissolving, one might argue that the Pac-12 Conference has never been in a stronger position in college football. Through the first three weeks of the season, the Conference of Champions has a collective 7-3 record in non-conference Power Five matchups. No other conference has an above-.500 record in those games. Eight of its teams are ranked in the current AP Top 25, the most of any conference.

After giving each of these programs three games to show their depth, I will be ranking the Pac-12 each week. Unlike some people’s approach to national rankings, I will not be basing these on which team is currently “most deserving” of a spot in the College Football Playoff. The best overall football team will occupy the top spot of my list. Strength of schedule is an important tool for making those determinations, but not the end-all, be-all. With all that said, let’s get into it.

1. USC Trojans (3-0, 1-0 Pac-12)

USC’s competition through the first three weeks will not blow anyone away, but this team has looked flawless on the football field thus far. Caleb Williams has followed up his Heisman season by leading the highest-scoring offense in the nation, averaging a shade under 60 points per game. If that mark does not sound crazy enough, know that Williams has taken a grand total of six snaps in the fourth quarter this year.

The Trojans went into this season with defensive concerns, but after a rocky showing in Week 0, Alex Grinch’s unit has bounced back in a big way. The front seven was an absolute force in wins over Nevada and Stanford against both the run and the pass, and the 10 points allowed to the Cardinal were the fewest since Lincoln Riley took over as head coach. The secondary has appeared vulnerable defending the deep ball early on, but if there’s a defense in this conference that can slow down USC enough for that to matter, I haven’t seen it.

2. Washington Huskies (3-0)

I praised USC for appropriately making inferior competition look like inferior competition through three games, and I can give the same credit to Washington thus far. The Huskies’ 41-7 drubbing of Michigan State in East Lansing is exactly how a college football powerhouse is supposed to handle a program in turmoil. In a week where Georgia, Florida State and Texas all struggled with mediocre opponents, taking care of business like that should not be taken for granted.

Michael Penix Jr. leads the nation in passing yards with over 1,300. He has three receivers with over 300 yards already, and his tight end Jack Westover has been a force in the red zone with four touchdowns. My only concern with the Huskies thus far is that they have not been a great third-down team, but this offense has been so explosive in the passing game that it hasn’t been a significant issue.

3. Oregon Ducks (3-0)

Speaking of explosive offenses, Oregon is averaging 58 points per game so far, good for second in the country. In his fifth college season, Bo Nix’s experience is showing. He can make any throw on the football field, but has yet to turn the ball over. His knock at Auburn was that he could not win big games on the road, but a Week 2 win against Texas Tech has alleviated such concerns for me.

I have also been really impressed with how well the Ducks have run the football. They are averaging over seven yards per carry on the ground and nearly 230 yards per game with Bucky Irving and Jordan James. With a ground game that can wear down a defense and a veteran quarterback who can take the top off it, Oregon will be a formidable challenge to either of the top two teams.

4. Utah Utes (3-0)

The Utes are as well-coached as you will find in college football with Kyle Whittingham, but this team has shown more warts thus far than any of the top three. Their Week 1 win over Florida looks a lot better on paper now that the Gators knocked off Tennessee, but there were a lot of holes in Utah’s performance that I did not like.

Florida had numerous back-breaking penalties that evening and was 1-for-13 on third downs, but only lost by 13 points. The next week, Utah nearly blew a seven-point lead to Baylor despite the Bears having the ball at their own 27 with under 10 seconds remaining.

Utah’s instability at quarterback is my biggest long-term concern. Nate Johnson has appeared to have taken the reins, but he has proved very limited as a passer. If this offense starts humming once Cam Rising returns to the football field, I will not hold the team’s early-season struggles against them. However, that has not yet happened, and this iteration of the Utes is not as good at the three teams above them.

5. Oregon State Beavers (3-0)

The Beavers’ non-conference schedule of UC Davis, San Diego State and San José State will not blow anyone away, but this team has looked rock solid in year six of the Jonathan Smith era. This offense may not be as explosive in the passing game as some of the teams in this conference, but a 41 points per game average is nothing to sneeze at.

The scariest part of Oregon State’s play thus far has been how good its defensive front has been against the run and the pass. The Beavers have the fewest rushing yards allowed in the Pac-12 and lead the conference with 12 sacks. A team that will be facing the sport’s elite quarterbacks on a week in, week out basis is going to need to disrupt them if they want a chance to pull an upset, and this team is well equipped to do just that.

6. Washington State Cougars (3-0)

For a team that won a multi-score victory over a ranked B1G team two weeks ago, Washington State is flying a little under the radar. Cameron Ward has a 9:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a completion percentage above 70. I do have concerns about the Cougars on the defensive side. While their run defense has been comparable to Oregon State this year, they give up a ton of explosive passing plays. In the Pac-12, only Stanford allows more passing yards per game to their opponents. That is a recipe for disaster for a team that will face Nix, Penix and Shedeur Sanders before this season is through.

Despite my concerns, Washington State has handled its business thus far, winning a huge non-conference home game against Wisconsin and blowing out Colorado State on the road. That is more than the next team in these rankings can say.

7. Colorado Buffaloes (3-0)

When it comes to entertainment value and net improvement from the year prior, the Buffaloes are the best story in college football this year. When it comes to performance on the field, I am not convinced that Colorado is above average in this conference. Shedeur Sanders is an extremely clutch quarterback — as Saturday night’s 98-yard drive will show you — but this offense strikes me as extremely one-dimensional. The Buffaloes are dead last in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game through three weeks, and their pass blocking has been suspect.

I also have a tough time seeing this defense stand up against the top teams in this conference. They allowed over 40 points to TCU before Travis Hunter went down, and they will now be without one of the nation’s top corners against USC and Oregon, the two highest-scoring offenses in America. Needing two overtimes to beat Colorado State was the first sign that Deion Sanders’ squad was coming back to earth, and I expect the Buffs to be out of the AP poll two weeks from now.

8. UCLA Bruins (3-0)

It took a little bit of time for Chip Kelly to fully hand the reins to Dante Moore at quarterback, but doing so has appeared to be the right decision for UCLA. After throwing a pick in his first game against Coastal Carolina, Moore has thrown for five touchdowns with no turnovers in a pair of blowout wins. The Bruins’ roster has been a blessing for a quarterback still adjusting to the college game, as their proficiency in the run game has kept opposing defenses very honest.

UCLA has the third-best rushing offense in the NCAA, averaging over 270 yards per game on the ground. As a result, the Bruins have had high offensive success rates in both standard and passing downs and an offense averaging over 40 points per game with a true freshman under center.

I worry about their defense’s tendency to give up explosive plays in the rushing and the passing game, which is bad news considering the other teams that are in this conference. I am also not sure that Moore is ready to go toe-to-toe with the other elite quarterbacks in the Pac-12 just yet, hence UCLA’s lower ranking.

9. Arizona Wildcats (2-1)

Arizona lost a tight game on the road to Mississippi State, but bounced back nicely by handling UTEP at home, 31-10. This is Jayden de Laura’s fourth season playing in the Pac-12, but he is still making freshman mistakes. His 8:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio is not going to cut it in this conference, and the Wildcats would likely be undefeated if he had not coughed the ball up four times against the Bulldogs. I will note that these are not new struggles for de Laura; he threw 13 picks in 2022.

I like Jedd Fisch as a head coach, and I think he is moving this program in the right direction. However, given the competition in the Pac-12, the Wildcats are not ready to compete on a high enough level to be a factor this year.

10. Cal Golden Bears (2-1)

Of the “bad” teams in this conference, Cal has done the best job avoiding embarrassment. They blew out North Texas on the road in Week 1 and scored 31 unanswered to come back and defeat Idaho last weekend. Their best asset has been the run game; the Golden Bears are second to UCLA in the conference in rushing yards per game.

Cal simply does not have the talent that any of the teams above them do to be a contender this season, but it has acquitted itself much better so far than the two squads below.

11. Stanford Cardinal (1-2, 0-1 Pac-12)

Besides USC, Stanford is the only team in the Pac-12 to play a conference game this season, and it went rather poorly. The Cardinal’s 56-10 loss was, amazingly, not as close as the final score indicated; the Trojans could have scored 80 that night if they had wanted to.

To follow that up with a home loss to Sacramento State should already raise some questions about first-year head coach Troy Taylor. Stanford has a few talented pieces on offense with Benjamin Yurosek and E.J. Smith, but their results on the field thus far have been nothing short of horrid.

12. Arizona State Sun Devils (1-2)

While Stanford has looked terrible in the last two weeks, Arizona State is the only team in this conference that has not played a single good football game. They managed to squeak by Southern Utah in Week 1, only to follow that game up with a shutout loss to Fresno State and a 12-point loss to an Oklahoma State team that just got blown out by South Alabama.

The Sun Devils self-imposed a bowl ban for the 2023 season due to recruiting violations. That  punishment will not matter much, given that they will be hard pressed to finish 3-9 this season.

“Pac-12 Power Rankings” runs every Monday.