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Pac-12 power ratings: Washington slips from No. 1, WSU slides after fourth straight loss

By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

Even for USC, the noise is next-level these days.

The Trojans have two losses but are being treated as if they have six.

Fans and talking heads alike are wondering whether defensive coordinator Alex Grinch is about to get fired, quarterback Caleb Williams is ready to shut it down for the season and coach Lincoln Riley is seeking salvation in the NFL.

Did we mention USC has only two losses?

The issue isn’t with performance. The 24th-ranked Trojans (6-2) are exactly who we thought they would be: dynamic on offense, wobbly on defense and at the whim of the breaks and bounces.

Which brings us to the theme of this column: the breaks and bounces.

For all the fingers pointed at Grinch and Riley and the offensive line, the Hotline believes a critical piece has been overlooked.

What if we told you the Trojans are better than last year in perhaps the most important efficiency metrics?

• Last season, USC’s offense averaged 7.2 yards per play. This season, the Trojans are humming along at 7.5 yards per play. (Both averages are in the top five nationally.)

• Last season, their defense allowed an average 6.5 yards per play, just behind Louisiana Tech and Georgia Southern and good for No. 124 nationally. This season, the defense is allowing 5.9 yards per play, which is 95th nationally (bad but better).

Why does the current situation feel so much different?

Because of the breaks and bounces.

Because of the turnovers.

Last year, USC was flawed in the exact same areas, but the Trojans posted an otherworldly turnover margin that offset their deficiencies.

They had 28 takeaways and just seven giveaways for a margin of +1.5 turnovers per game.

How good is that? It was the best turnover margin by any Power Five team since Oregon was +1.53 in 2014, the year the Ducks reached the College Football Playoff. (Note: We’re excluding 2020, when some teams only played a handful of games.)

This year, USC’s turnover margin is a pedestrian +0.22, merely 54th in the nation and fifth in the Pac-12.

The Trojans have 11 giveaways in nine games – four more than their total for 14 games last year.

The takeaway situation has also changed dramatically: USC has generated just 13 turnovers, less than half the total (28) of last year.

Turnovers aren’t entirely determined by fortune. Talent, tactics and fundamentals play a role. But to a certain extent, you would expect the turnover trajectory to track with metrics like yards per play. If the personnel is better and the coach is unchanged and the metrics are better, the turnover margin should move in the same direction.

But USC’s metrics are better while the turnover total is worse.

Where the components diverge, you find blind luck.

That’s our perspective, at least.

The Trojans aren’t materially different than last year in the areas of coaching and personnel. But they were incredibly fortunate in 2022 with turnovers.

This year, the unavoidable reversion to the mean has stripped them of that advantage, exposing their weaknesses against both first-rate and modest competition.

The Trojans have two losses and are heading for three or four – after all, the toughest stretch of their schedule starts this week: Washington, Oregon and UCLA have a combined record of 21-3.

Last year, they finished the regular season with just two.

Within that difference are the breaks and the bounces.

To the power ratings …

(All times Pacific)

1. Oregon (7-1/4-1)

Last week: 2

Result: won at Utah 35-6

Next up: vs. Cal (2:30 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks)

Comment: Time to disregard the head-to-head result against Washington, which, by the way, was a mere three-point loss on the road. Oregon is back in the top spot of the Hotline power ratings because of its sterling performance at Utah, UW’s struggles against Stanford (and ASU) and our firm belief that if the Ducks and Huskies played 10 times on a neutral field, Oregon would win seven.

2. Washington (8-0/5-0)

Last week: 1

Result: won at Stanford 42-33

Next up: at USC (4:30 p.m. on ABC)

Comment: Are the wobbly recent showings the result of 1) a prolonged Oregon hangover; 2) the illness and/or injury affecting Michael Penix Jr.; 3) sheer boredom as heavy favorites against unranked foes; or 4) the inescapable, longstanding struggles in the series against ASU and Stanford? Our opinion: All of the above. But we expect UW’s best effort this week.

3. Oregon State (6-2/3-2)

Last week: 3

Result: lost at Arizona 27-24

Next up: at Colorado (7 p.m. on ESPN)

Comment: OSU fans are blaming Jonathan Smith’s ill-advised trick play (a fake field goal) for the loss, and Smith himself admitted it was a bad call. Our view: The Beavers are good enough to beat good teams at home and mediocre teams on the road but not good enough to beat good teams on the road (and Arizona is a good team at home). If your head is spinning after reading that, imagine writing it.

4. UCLA (6-2/3-2)

Last week: 5

Result: beat Colorado 28-16

Next up: at Arizona (7:30 p.m. on FS1)

Comment: Not on our Pac-12 2023 bingo card: Looking forward to the matchup at the line of scrimmage between UCLA and Arizona. Both teams are quite good up front.

5. Utah (6-2/3-2)

Last week: 4

Result: lost to Oregon 35-6

Next up: vs. Arizona State (11 a.m. on Pac-12 Networks)

Comment: Utes are now 0-1 lifetime when Kyle Whittingham rides his motorcycle to the set of “The Pat McAfee Show” – in a sleeveless hoodie, no less – and then arm-wrestles the host. Just something to watch going forward.

6. USC (7-2/5-1)

Last week: 6

Result: won at Cal 50-49

Next up: vs. Washington (4:30 p.m. on ABC)

Comment: The Hotline saw USC and Washington in person over the weekend, thanks to the staggered start times in Berkeley and Stanford, and came away with this insight to offer: The whopping Over/Under posted by Las Vegas oddsmakers for Saturday’s showdown in the Coliseum (75.5 total points) is comically low.

7. Arizona (5-3/3-2)

Last week: 7

Result: beat Oregon State 27-24

Next up: vs. UCLA (7:30 p.m. on FS1)

Comment: We considered including the Wildcats on our AP Top 25 ballot this week but ultimately decided they don’t quite have the resume. (Washington State has collapsed, and Mississippi State is scuttling in the SEC.) But Arizona is closer than we envisioned and assuredly will have a spot with a victory Saturday.

8. Colorado (4-4/1-4)

Last week: 9

Result: lost at UCLA 28-16

Next up: vs. Oregon State (7 p.m. on ESPN)

Comment: The Pac-12 record book does not include a statistic for the most sacks allowed in a single season, but we can tell you this: The Buffaloes are on pace to allow the most sacks on a per-game basis (5.3) by any Power Five team since at least 2009, according to the SportSource Analytics website.

9. Cal (3-5/1-4)

Last week: 10

Result: lost to USC 50-49

Next up: at Oregon (2:30 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks)

Comment: The defense is worse than expected and the offense is better than expected and the whole is equal to the parts. The Bears simply don’t have the personnel to compete in a conference as talented as the Pac-12 this season. But the ACC next season? That’s a different chapter, and a different story.

10. Arizona State (2-6/1-4)

Last week: 12

Result: beat Washington State 38-27

Next up: at Utah (11 a.m. on Pac-12 Networks)

Comment: Never thought ASU would be slotted higher than 11th in the power ratings, but here we are. This position is based partly on the victory over WSU and partly on the solid showings in losses to Washington and USC. The Sun Devils can be best described as a tough out.

11. Washington State (4-4/1-4)

Last week: 8

Result: lost at ASU 38-27

Next up: vs. Stanford (6 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks)

Comment: There are must-win games, and there are MUST-WIN games. And the latter doesn’t begin to accurately describe WSU’s assignment this week.

12. Stanford (2-6/1-5)

Last week: 11

Result: lost to Washington 42-33

Next up: at Washington State (6 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks)

Comment: The Cardinal have allowed at least 40 points in four consecutive games, a depth the program did not reach in the bleakest seasons of the David Shaw era.