The transition to the College Football Playoff era has not been a pleasant one for the Pac-12 Conference. With just two appearances in eight seasons1 and zero titles to show, the “Conference of Champions” has been anything but in an environment that caters to the richest and most powerful conferences — in other words, conferences like the Pac-12. Last season was the fourth consecutive that the Pac-12 was couch-bound for the playoff. To make matters worse, the final AP Top 25 poll featured half as many Pac-12 teams as it did teams from each of the Mid-American and Sun Belt conferences.
However, a relatively strong start to the 2021 season — Southern Cal and teams from the state of Washington notwithstanding — has the Pac-12 in an unfamiliar situation: not searching for the reset button. Without two of its best players, the Oregon Ducks toppled No. 3 Ohio State in Columbus for the first win by a Pac-12 team over a top-five opponent in a nonconference game since 2015. Behind “sissy blue” shirts and victories, the UCLA Bruins returned to the national spotlight and are ranked for the first time since 2017. And after back-to-back routs to start the season, Herm Edwards’s Arizona State Sun Devils have now been ranked in the top 20 in two of the past three years.
But what’s inseparable from these teams’ hot starts isn’t exclusive to region or conference or division. These teams are old — a defining characteristic of the 2021 season.
Since the NCAA approved a blanket waiver to prevent the pandemic-abbreviated 2020 season from counting against player eligibility, college campuses have been flooded with older athletes who don’t count against team scholarship limits. More than 1,000 “super seniors” — players who would have already exhausted their eligibility under ordinary circumstances — are expected to compete in 2021, according to a report by the Associated Press, including a Power Five-leading 105 in the Pac-12. Across the country, The Athletic found 11 seventh-year seniors, who are essentially completing a second complete cycle of NCAA eligibility, and in East Tennessee State linebacker Jared Folks, the first known eighth-year senior in NCAA history. Perhaps coincidentally, the penalty rate through two games is the lowest it’s been since 2012, two years before the introduction of the playoff.
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Bill Connelly of ESPN created a metric prior to the 2016 season to tabulate returned production, taking into account key predictive personnel stats, like the percentage of a team’s passing yards returning. From 2016 to 2020, the first five seasons that Connelly tracked the metric, there were a combined 53 instances of a team returning at least 80 percent of its production from the previous season. Connelly has tracked a whopping 53 teams in 2021 alone. The national average for returning production over those first five seasons was 62.6 percent; this season it’s 76.7 percent.
UCLA and Arizona State — which return 95 and 93 percent of their production, respectively — field deep rosters at every level. “I’ve never been in a position where you have three-deep here,” Edwards said. “We’re three-deep now. We’ve got a third team that can go in there on both sides of the ball.” UCLA saw its number of spring ball participants spike by roughly 64 percent this year, and as Kelly told ESPN, “Getting that competitive depth [matters].” And though Oregon ranks below average in Connelly’s metric for this season, at 70 percent returning production, it was more experienced than the Ohio State team it upset last weekend.
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According to college football guru Phil Steele, Oregon, UCLA and Arizona State each returned at least 16 starters,2 including their 2020 starting QBs3 and a combined 14 of 15 offensive linemen. And after the first two weeks, each school ranks in the top 50 in the nation in offensive efficiency. Half of the Pac-12 teams rank in the top 40 of Connelly’s returning production metric, and three4 are in the top 20. According to Steele, California returned 28 of the 33 players who made starts last season, a list that doesn’t include Luc Bequette, who transferred to Boston College last year after five years at Cal, then transferred back. “I played with Jared Goff, that’s how old I am,” Bequette told The Athletic.
UCLA is a particularly instructive example because the Bruins are off to a 2-0 start for the first time since 2017, and as senior offensive lineman Jon Gaines II told the Los Angeles Times, “We’re all old now.” The Bruins had been one of the three worst teams in the Pac-12 since the arrival in Westwood of Chip Kelly — the consensus best available head coach on the market in after the 2017 season. The team went 7-17 and was outscored by a combined 211 points over Kelly’s first two seasons. A 3-4 record in 2020 was considered a major upgrade. Suffice it to say that the Bruins have exploded in Kelly’s fourth year as coach, with a 2-0 record and double-digit wins over Hawaii and No. 16 LSU.5
“We were kids out there playing when we were freshmen. We’re grown men now,” quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson told the AP. “I’m excited. It is a complete team now.”
Thompson-Robinson would know; he was the highest-rated recruit of Kelly’s first UCLA recruiting class, and in 2019, he led one of the youngest teams in the country as season-ticket sales plummeted to the lowest figure since 1981. This season, each of the Bruins’ 11 touchdowns have been scored by upperclassmen, who account for more than one-third of the roster. They’ll attempt to lead the Bruins to a first winning season since 2015.
Intuitively, it tracks that teams that return more players from the previous season would be stronger, and that logic can cut both ways: After Oregon lost its entire offensive line and quarterback Justin Herbert from its 2019 team, it averaged its fewest yards per game in more than 10 years; LSU followed up a national title effort without most of its starters and went 5-5.
But that isn’t always the case. Teams like Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson are NFL factories that annually reload with talent and continue to win: Though each program ranked outside the top 85 in Connelly’s metric each of the past two offseasons, all three made the playoff in 2020 and started this season ranked in the top 10. An extreme example is BYU, which entered this season ranked last in Connelly’s metric and has started 2-0, including a win over archrival No. 21 Utah.
But still, players who have been there before are likely to help — particularly in a conference like the Pac-12. The early returns have been promising: According to ESPN’s playoff predictor, Oregon has a 42 percent probability of reaching the playoff and would be all but assured a spot if it runs the table. UCLA is well on its way to erasing the painful memories of the past few seasons, and Arizona State looks like a plucky upstart with a chance to make noise if it gets past BYU this weekend. In a conference begging for football success, a surplus of experience just might do the trick.