Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
Welcome to our Pac-12 midseason review, which, admittedly, comes just past the midway point for four teams …
Biggest story I: One big win, many bad losses
Oregon's breakthrough victory at Ohio State in Week 2 prevented what otherwise would have been a failed September for the collective, what with three losses to Brigham Young, two losses to San Diego State, two losses to FCS opponents and a losing record against Group of Five opponents. Poor execution, questionable coaching, tough competition and the truncated 2020 season contributed to the situation.
Biggest story II: In-season terminations
Two head coaches have been fired since the season began, both on a Monday and both (coincidentally) after playing Stanford — but for very different reasons: USC dumped Clay Helton for ineptitude, while Washington State dismissed Nick Rolovich because he failed to comply with a state vaccine mandate. Meanwhile, Herm Edwards' fate at ASU remains uncertain because of the NCAA investigation. The level of turmoil is unprecedented. What is this, the SEC?
Biggest story III: What if?
Turns out, at least four teams started the wrong quarterback in the season opener. It's surely worth wondering how the opening weeks might have unfolded if Oregon State had started Chance Nolan, Utah had opted for Cam Rising, Stanford had committed to Tanner McKee and Arizona had started Jordan McCloud.
Best coach: Utah's Kyle Whittingham
We gave strong consideration to Oregon State's Jonathan Smith but ultimately selected Whittingham for on- and off-the-field reasons. Utah is the only unbeaten team in conference play and the frontrunner in the South despite coping with the death of defensive back Aaron Lowe. Incidentally, the Hotline published a Twitter poll last weekend asking this very question. Whittingham received 38.1% of the approximately 2,000 votes cast, while Smith received 37.2%.
#Pac12 top coach at the midway point— Jon Wilner (@wilnerhotline) October 17, 2021
Best offensive coordinator: Oregon State's Brian Lindgren
The Beavers don't have the gaudiest statistics or the flashiest style, but they know who they are (ground-and-pound), they have been remarkably consistent, and they maximize personnel as well as any team in the conference. We also considered ASU's Zak Hill, who has done fine work on a weekly basis.
Best defensive coordinator: Oregon's Tim DeRuyter
This selection might come as a surprise and is based largely on a single game, but it was the game. If not for the Ducks' win at Ohio State, the Pac-12 would be out of the playoff race. And if not for DeRuyter's fabulous game-plan, the Kayvon Thibodeaux-less Ducks would never have toppled OSU.
Best offensive player: USC receiver Drake London
London was our preseason pick for Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and is the most dominant physical force in the conference on that side of scrimmage. His numbers are off the charts: 11 catches and 138 yards per game (more than Colorado's entire team). It's not his fault the Trojans cannot execute consistently at the other 21 positions.
Best defensive player: Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd
Lloyd capped a terrific first half with a tour-de-force performance against Arizona State. He's second nationally in tackles for loss and has five sacks and two interceptions. Admittedly, Lloyd's candidacy has been aided by the injury to Thibodeaux. It would have been nice to evaluate both players at full strength.
Best transfer: UCLA TB Zach Charbonnet
The Michigan arrival is a no-brainer selection, particularly given the lack of viable candidates at quarterback. He's averaging 99.6 yards per game despite sharing duties with Brittain Brown and, most significantly, has infused UCLA's running game with next-level physicality.
Best win: Oregon 35, Ohio State 28
Take a moment to contemplate the Pac-12's season if the Ducks had lost in Columbus. It would be out of the playoff race now, in the middle of October — same as the Sun Belt and Conference USA.
Worst loss: Montana 13, Washington 7
It looks bad, right? Well, it's even worse than it looks for two reasons: 1) The Huskies were leading at the start of the fourth quarter and got outscored 10-0 down the stretch, and 2) The Grizzlies have lost two games in the Big Sky — they aren't even very good at that level. Fortunately for second-year coach Jimmy Lake, UW fans are super forgiving.
Best stat: Oregon's turnover margin
The Ducks are No. 5 in the nation and second among Power Five teams in the most important stat of 'em all. They have forced 13 turnovers and committed just four, which averages to a stellar margin of plus-1.5 per game.
Worst stat: ASU's penalties
The Sun Devils are dead last in the nation in penalty yards per game (89.7), second-to-last in total penalties (67) and third from the bottom in penalties per game (9.6). That lack of discipline cost them a victory at BYU and contributed heavily to their collapse at Utah.
Best game: Fresno State 40, UCLA 37
It had all the ingredients needed for a #Pac12AfterDark thriller, including an otherworldly performance by Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener. If details are fuzzy, know this: There were five touchdowns in the last eight minutes, and the game winner came with 14 seconds left.
Worst luck: Arizona
Just when the struggling Wildcats thought they had identified a quarterback who could save the season, they lost Jordan McCloud to major knee and ankle injuries. A week later, his replacement, Gunner Cruz, was lost for the season, as well (thumb injury). So Arizona is down to third-stringer Will Plummer and some walk-ons. Does Jedd Fisch have any hair left?
Most misleading result: Stanford 42, USC 28
The whopper from Week 2 seemed to indicate Stanford was good enough to contend. Instead, it merely prompted the termination of Clay Helton and signaled additional wreckage in the Coliseum: Two weeks later, the Trojans lost 45-27 to Oregon State; two weeks after that, they lost 42-26 to Utah. That's three consecutive home games played and 129 points allowed. How the non-mighty have fallen.
Best overall development: No disruptions
Given vaccination rates across the conference, we did not expect COVID to force postponements or cancellations. But wildfires were another matter — an ominous, shifting-with-the-winds threat to competition and public safety. Fortunately, the worst fears haven't materialized. And now, this week, there is rain in the Pacific Northwest and an atmospheric river bearing down on Northern California. Thank goodness.
Jon Wilner's Pac-12 Hotline is brought to KSL.com through a partnership with the Bay Area News Group.
Jon Wilner has been covering college sports for decades and is an AP Top 25 football and basketball voter as well as a Heisman Trophy voter. He was named Beat Writer of the Year in 2013 by the Football Writers Association of America for his coverage of the Pac-12, won first place for feature writing in 2016 in the Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest and is a five-time APSE honoree. You can follow him on Twitter @WilnerHotline or send an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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