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Taking A Close Look At Close Calls In The Pac-12

No matter what the prediction, things often don't go as expected in the Pac-12.
No matter what the prediction, things often don't go as expected in the Pac-12.
(Photo by Andy Wooldridge)

It's the middle of summer, when everyone is in full-bore bar-b-q mode (tuning up for tailgating season no doubt), but there is nothing happening on most college campuses, newsworthy or otherwise. And so its that hot time of summer when everyone begins to look ahead and try to predict how many games everyone is going to win this fall, often looking back at last year's picks.

Here at BTD, there will be some of that too, as James will be weighing in from Pac-12 Media Days soon enough, and I'll be making my pick for the finishing order in the conference races as well.

But I thought I'd take a look at just how close everyone came to being way off with last season's predictions first. While its true every season is different for every team, there is still plenty of reason to extrapolate last year's results when looking ahead. After all, even on teams with extensive turnover of the starting lineup, its still true that most of the players on the roster this fall were around last year as well.

And in the Pac-12, though there's been varying degrees of staff shakeups, no one besides Oregon St. replaced their head coach this year. And the Beavers even kept Brent Brennan and his club for beating wide receivers with around.

In 2014, the Pac-12 got a reputation for down to the wire games, and uncertain outcomes, as seemingly week after week saw shootouts and slugfests that were settled after the game's broadcast window was passed.

No one won them all, or lost them all, for that matter, but things could have certainly been different than they turned out.

Oregon was the only team largely immune from this, playing only 2 games decided by a 1 score margin or less. And one of those, a 7 point loss to Arizona, didn't even matter as it turned out; the Ducks still accomplished all of their in-season goals, winning the Pac-12 North and Championship game as well as the Rose Bowl, and playing for the National Championship. Beating the 'Cats wouldn't have furthered that, and probably would have only made the blowout loss to Ohio St. sting even more.

But what if Washington St. had been able to spring an upset instead of losing 38-31? Then the subsequent close loss to Arizona would have had to be a win, or it would have been back to the Alamo Bowl instead of the Rose Bowl.

Stanford has become the conference's other near-constant commodity, and they were also the only other Pac-12 team to not have at least 5 games that could have easily gone the other way.

At 8-5, most thought the Cardinal had slipped back to the Pac, but turns out they maybe didn't lost all that much ground. What they did do was lose 3 of those 4 close games, all by a field goal. So it turns out Stanford could have gone 11-2, and probably to the Fiesta Bowl, without anything spectacular happening, and the off-season narrative would be much different, probably on the order of business as usual on the farm, and another first tear bowl trip.

Of course Oregon St. fans are fully familiar with what close calls meant to the season, having watched the Beavers play 5 such games on their way to a 5-7 season, losing 2 of them, one in overtime to Utah, which meant a bowl season spent in front of their tv, instead of at an attractive destination location.

It had a lot to do with the grumbling that prompted Mike Riley to move on to Nebraska, and prompt the only coaching change in the conference, as fans could see a 2-10 season had the 3 close wins not happened, but also even an 8-4 regular season before playing a bowl game, if you throw in the 4th quarter lead over California that turned into a Bears comeback that wound up not even counting as a close game. Anything from 2 to 9 wins could have happened without a miracle.

So before Beaver fans become too concerned about the prevailing prediction line of about a 4 win season this year (not at all unreasonable considering Oregon St. has the fewest returning starts of any team in the conference, and almost any team in the country), keep last year in mind as a reminder of just how fluid thing could be.

California was the team in the Pac-12 North that had the biggest range of possible outcomes. Bear fans were frustrated when a 42-35 loss on the last day of the regular season denied them a bowl game, but they shouldn't have been. The Bears were involved in 7 such games, even without the 4th quarter comeback against the Beavers. A 2 point loss to UCLA after having suffered a hail-mary loss to Arizona, and an 8 point loss to USC were all games that could have gotten them bowl eligible as well.

And it took a 7 point win over Northwestern, a double overtime 59-56 win over Colorado, and the famous 60-59 shootout win over Washington St. all to get California in position to worry about being a win away from a bowl. So while a 10 win season was within reach, so was a 1 win campaign.

Many Washington fans called the Huskies' 8-6 season a disappointment in Chris Peterson's first year, largely due to a 7 point loss to Stanford and 1 point donation of a win to Arizona, which resulted in only a 3rd place finish in the Pac-12 North, and then a prickly 30-22 Cactus Bowl loss to Oklahoma St.

But a 1 point win at Hawaii and a 3 point win over Eastern Washington could have easily gone the other way, and it would have been a no-bowl season as well.

And after a bowl season, some Coug fans are wondering if Mike Leach might ought to be on the hot seat after a 3-9 season that saw a 41-38 loss to Rutgers as well as the lost shootout to California. But then, in addition to coming within a single score against Oregon, Washington St. came from 3 touchdowns down to edge Utah 28-27.

The Cougs would be more than pleased with a 6 win season with wins over Oregon and Oregon St., and a bowl trip. But they could just as easily have also had a 1 win season, and probably already have fired Leach!

The Pac-12 South was heralded as at worst the second toughest division in the College Football Bowl Division, with 5 teams finishing in the top 25. But it was also the wildest division.

And no one was on a wilder ride than Arizona. The 'Cats were in a league high 8 one-score games, winning 6 of them, with a 2 point loss to USC the only one of them ending in disappointing fashion for their fans until the 8 point loss to Boise St. in the Fiesta Bowl.

Is Rich Rodriguez the best game day coach in the conference? On is the fact that Arizona was in a game against UTSA that was decided by a field goal, and a 1 score game against Nevada, proof that the 4 win season that could have happened was more likely than the 12 win campaign that easily could have been?

USC coach Steve Sarkisian has been inaccurately anointed "7 win Steve", even though the Trojans won 9 games last year. And that frustration was furthered by a 6 point loss at Boston College (on the heels of the 3 point win over Stanford), the "Jail Mary" 38-34 loss to Arizona St. on the last play of that game, and then the 24-21 loss to Utah with seconds left, after the Trojans had apparently come from behind for that win. All of which might have cost a 12 win season.

But then the 2 point win over Arizona, a 1 score win over California, and the 45-42 Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska are narrow margins from 6 wins, not the popularly expected 7.

Across LA, some Bruin fans and writers were wringing their hands over one of the best seasons in UCLA history, a 10-3 campaign that saw Jim Mora lead the Bruins to wins in 6 of 7 of their close contests, mostly because there were so many of them. And potentially a sub-.500 season.

Virginia, Memphis, Texas, California, and Colorado were not all supposed to be nail-bitters.

Arizona St.'s 10-4 season was seen as a success for Todd Graham, even with a 7 point loss in the Territorial Cup. But before the Sun Devils' 35-27 loss at Oregon St., a New Year's day bowl was within sight in Tempe. But so was a 7-6 season.

And after back to back bowl game blackouts, Ute fans were talking breakthrough after 6 wins by 6 or fewer points produced that 9-4 season that included a 45-10 Las Vegas Bowl win that was anything but a close game, and despite the 1 point loss to the Cougs, plus a 19-16 setback against Arizona St.

But turn those close wins around, and it could have been a 3 win campaign.

Even Colorado was in the middle of many close ones. Their 2-10 season could have ended in a bowl trip but for the 3 point loss to Cal, a 5 point loss to Oregon St., a 3 point loss to UCLA, and a 3 point setback against USC. Or, it coulhave been a 1 win run for the Buffs.

So if last season was any indication, don't put those pre-season predictions down in ink, at least in the Pac-12!

Andy_Wooldridge@yahoo.com