Wilner Hotline – Final Grades for 2021 Pac-12 Football Season

(AP Photo/Ralph Freso, File)

There were a few standout performances across the Pac-12 this season, but the collective underperformed.

No playoff teams.

No Heisman Trophy finalists.

No bowl victories.

No wins in nine games against BYU, Utah State and San Diego State.

George Kliavkoff, the candid, first-year commissioner, called it “a disappointing season.”

We called it “poor, if not awful.”

Collectively, the conference deserves a D, at best. What about the individual teams? Some clearly outperformed; others flopped and flailed.

Presenting the Hotline’s final report card for 2021 …

Record: 10-4/8-1
Grade: A+
Comment: Zero consideration was given to anything less than an A+ for the Utes, not even with the Rose Bowl result. Because the Rose Bowl result, while painful for the players and fans, is not nearly as memorable as the Rose Bowl performance or the beatdowns of Oregon, the Pac-12 title, the South division domination and, of course, the inspirational trip through hell and back. If inclined, you could downgrade the Utes for the decision to start Charlie Brewer for three games and wonder if that cost them a playoff berth. But after what we witnessed over the final two months, and on Jan. 1, we are absolutely, positively not inclined.

Washington State
Record: 7-6/6-3
Grade: A-
Comment: The most memorable day of the season — Oct. 18, when Nick Rolovich was fired — didn’t define the Cougars. They carried on like nothing happened, embarrassed Washington in the Apple Cup and named Jake Dickert the permanent coach. The Sun Bowl can’t be spun as anything other than a bad loss, but it was a minor consideration. Bottom line: The Cougars lost three of their first four games, then lost their coach but finished one game back in the North. WSU has won more than seven games several times recently, but this was the most impressive season in ages that didn’t include Gardner Minshew.

Oregon State
Record: 7-6/5-4
Grade: B
Comment: If we had given mid-season grades, the Beavers assuredly would have received an A. Were we judging on the stretch run alone, then a D would be appropriate. It was two seasons in one for a team that beat the eventual conference champion (Utah) but couldn’t handle Cal or Colorado (or even Utah State, with a third-string quarterback). However, the progress under fourth-year coach Jonathan Smith outweighs the late-season regression for a program that wasn’t expected to make an impact in the division. With a slightly better defense, OSU would have been the last team standing in the North.

Record: 10-4/7-2
Grade: B-
Comment: Had you told us prior to the season that Oregon would win 10 games, beat Ohio State, spend weeks in the playoff hunt and take home the North title, the Hotline might have offered a grade in the A-/B+ range. But when the specifics are added to the calculation — the bad loss at Stanford and the no-shows against Utah — a slighter darker tint emerges for the final verdict. Injuries impacted the trajectory, as did Mario Cristobal’s wandering eye. But when Oregon got punched in the mouth in the game it absolutely had to win, Nov. 20 in Salt Lake City, the Ducks rolled over. And that single performance impacts our view of everything.

Arizona State
Record: 8-5/6-3
Grade: C
Comment: A disappointing season for the Sun Devils, who staked so much on Herm Edwards’ fourth year. Their record and finish in the division account for half of our overall assessment. The other half: It’s a fairly soft eight wins, folks. ASU only beat one team with a winning record (UCLA); the other seven wins were against teams that finished 4-8 or worse. We also couldn’t help notice that quarterback Jayden Daniels has stagnated, if not regressed, after three years as the starter. As for the ridiculous number of penalties, well, we view it like this: The Sun Devils weren’t poorly coached as much as they were un-coached.

Record: 8-4/6-3
Grade: C
Comment: It’s Aug. 20, and you’re told the Bruins will beat LSU, win at Washington and hang 62 points on USC. That’s the foundation for a breakthrough season, right? And in many ways it was a breakthrough season: UCLA was bowl-eligible for the first time under Chip Kelly. But then you’re told UCLA won’t beat anyone with a winning record and will get walloped in the most important intra-division games. Suddenly, the season isn’t as impressive? UCLA’s eight wins were even softer than ASU’s — at least the Sun Devils beat the Bruins. Had the defense played close to its potential, UCLA would have won 10.

Record: 5-7/4-5
Grade: C-
Comment: The Bears struggled in the first half of the season, thrived in the second half and had a two-week derailment caused by COVID — essentially, it was three seasons in one. (Of the seven losses, five were by a touchdown or less.) Our grade is based largely on the belief that with a veteran lineup and multi-year starting quarterback (Chase Garbers), Cal should have won more of the close games than it lost. That includes Arizona. Yes, the roster depletion was immense that day. But the lack of a functional backup quarterback, which is all the Bears needed to win that game and become bowl-eligible, is on them.

Record: 3-9/2-7
Grade: D+
Comment: Some might believe the grade is generous, but the Hotline had zero expectations of success for the Cardinal because of the brutal schedule, modest array of play makers, and lack of high-level talent on defense. Then add another year of ravaging injuries (five quarterbacks played), and Stanford never had a chance to affect the North race or claim a bowl berth. The Cardinal must be different to thrive. It was different from 2010-2015, but no longer has the personnel on the lines of scrimmage to make that style of play work. So it has become like everyone else, which is a fast-pass to the cellar given the recruiting dynamics.

Record: 1-11/1-8
Grade: D
Comment: It was not a good season. The Wildcats lost to every opponent they faced that wasn’t decimated by COVID (so, 11 of them). But let’s keep in mind that it wasn’t supposed to be a good season. And it probably won’t be a good season in 2022, either. Our non-F grade is based on two factors: The Wildcats never quit on Jedd Fisch and, in fact, got better as the season progressed; and they were extremely limited at quarterback — to an even greater degree than expected because of the injuries. Is Fisch the right coach to lead a turnaround? It’s too early to know, but the needle is pointing slightly in his favor.

Record: 4-8/3-6
Grade: D
Comment: Despite CU’s surprising success in the COVID year, we didn’t have high expectations for the Buffaloes in 2021. Nor did we expect them to crater-like they did, specifically with the offensive face plant in the first half of the season and, more generally, with the lopsided losses throughout the fall. The Buffs beat just three FBS opponents, and one of them was Arizona (1-11). What’s more, all six of their conference losses were by multiple touchdowns. This wasn’t a six-win roster, but CU should have been more competitive more often. Next year — the second normal season for Karl Dorrell — will be telling.

Record: 4-8/3-6
Grade: F
Comment: We considered giving the Trojans a D for one simple reason: If the season hadn’t been a failure, if they hadn’t canned Clay Helton, they might never have hired Lincoln Riley. But our assessments aren’t based on 2022 and beyond, they’re specific to ’21. And the facts are the facts; USC posted its worst record in 30 years and was incomprehensibly bad at home, where it lost five times and allowed 40+ points four times. The players might have better navigated the season with an interim coach had there been an established culture of discipline and accountability. But those building blocks have been absent for years.

Record: 4-8/3-6
Grade: F
Comment: It’s impossible to imagine worse bookends to a season than a come-from-ahead loss to Montana in the first game and Washington State planting its flag in Husky Stadium in the final game. And yet there’s much more to assess. Like when Jimmy Lake whacked a player in the helmet, then shoved him from behind — all of which resulted in Lake’s suspension and eventual termination. Or when the Huskies mismanaged the quarterback situation, repeatedly. Or when they completed six-yard passes on third-and-10. Allegedly, Edgar Allen Poe was offered the script to UW’s season and deemed it too ghastly to publish.

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