Taking stock of the Pac-12's bottom three

This was the season the Pac-12 flexed its considerable depth.

With nine teams -- 75 percent of the league -- bowl eligible and four ranked in the top 20 of the BCS standings, the Pac-12 asserted itself as arguably the deepest conference in college football.

But then there is the other 25 percent. California, Colorado and Utah will once again be home for another "Long December." And as the Berkeley-born Counting Crows once penned, maybe this year will be better than the last.

There’s a multitude of what went wrongs for the Pac-12’s bottom trio. Injuries, scheduling, new coaches and systems etc. etc. etc.

Coaches are fond of saying injuries aren’t an excuse. Well, they sort of are. Because next-man-up in college usually means an untested redshirt or a true freshman. Cal suffered one of the worst runs of injuries we’ve seen in a long time. Utah’s quarterbacks need to start carrying rabbit’s feet and four-leaf clovers because the last few years have seen one of the unluckiest stretches of quarterback injuries in recent memory.

But cheer up. Because while your team might be home for the holidays, there is plenty to look forward to in the future.

In the case of Colorado, there isn’t a lot of room to feel bad. After all, in their first season under Mike MacIntyre, the Buffs won four games -- three more than 2012 -- beat an in-state rival and knocked off Cal. There was bowl talk, in November!

Colorado’s scoring offense improved from ranking No. 117 in 2012 to No. 89 in 2013. The scoring defense also saw a slight improvement from 120th in 2012 to 115th in 2013.

There is a lot of reasons to feel good about what happened this season in Boulder. Then again, the honeymoon is over. MacIntyre has set a standard and four wins isn’t it. And though receiver Paul Richardson is bound for the NFL, there are enough weapons coming back on both sides of the ball that the expectation is now there to not only match 2013's win total, but perhaps break through with a fifth or sixth win.

“I think we’ve improved, and I think we’re playing harder and better in Pac-12 games as the year has gone along,” MacIntyre said. “We just need to keep improving. It’s a process, and I see the steps being taken daily. ... We’re not as strong as the upper-echelon teams in our league yet, overall. They have more strength and stronger bodies. We need to be a stronger, more physical football team.”

Cal is a different story all together. The aforementioned injuries forced plenty of youngsters -- many of whom were not ready yet -- to not only play, but consistently start. There are two ways to look at that. Either they gained valuable experience that will make them stronger next year and the year after -- see Colorado from last season to this season as an example. Or egos could be bruised and confidence shaken.

The Bears dropped in 2013 in both scoring offense and defense ranks. But there’s hope that as players get healthy and become indoctrinated into Sonny Dykes’ scheme for another year, 2014 will bring progress.

“It all starts with self-evaluation and that begins with me and our coaching staff,” Dykes said. “ … When you’ve had success you’ve had other places and you’ve had a rough year like we had this year, you do the same thing and you sit back and you say ‘What worked, what didn’t work, what we can do to get better?’ You’re constantly changing it and evaluating it. Look at yourself in the mirror and figure out how to get better.”

Utah seemed poised to break through. There was the signature win at home against Stanford and a perfect out-of-conference record. That elusive sixth win was so close; an overtime loss to Oregon State, a touchdown loss to UCLA, a one-point loss to ASU. Utah showed it can compete with the upper-tier teams in the South Division. But being competitive isn’t enough for a team used to playing in bowl games.

“It’s been a frustrating season for sure,” coach Kyle Whittingham said. “So many close calls and coming up short has been tough to deal with. One takeaway, without a doubt, is we need to continue to increase our team speed on the perimeter, at wide receiver and in the secondary. That’s job one for us in recruiting … we’ve got our work cut out for us moving forward.”

They all do. But Colorado and Utah fans should also recognize the progress that was made. And even Cal played Northwestern and Ohio State tough before injuries took hold and dragged them into 10-game skid.

All three teams have promising playmakers returning in 2014. They will get better. But so will the rest of the conference. That’s the very definition of conference depth. And how those coaches and players handle the next nine months will go a long way toward determining whether they stay in the bottom 25 percent next season.