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Gripes & Excuses: Stanford rises, Pac-12 falls short

Shortly after understated David Shaw reaffirmed himself as the best college football coach on the West Coast by a wide margin when Stanford claimed its third Pac-12 title in four years on Saturday, it seemed like an opportune time for reporters to quickly jot down a note to themselves:

For golly gosh sakes, do not underestimate the Cardinal in the 2016 preseason.

Hopefully that note endures in a safe and remembered place and doesn't get lost in the shuffle of days and mood swings, because it's pretty clear that falling in love with shiny new things in the Pac-12 is often a mistake.

The conference itself was a shiny new thing in the preseason, the top candidate to eclipse the SEC as nation's best. Instead, it ended up as the only Power 5 conference left out of the second College Football Playoff. Funny thing is, it's not difficult to argue that the Pac-12 was, indeed, better than the SEC -- Alabama and the 13 Dwarfs? -- but that playoff slot and an extra New Year's Six bowl berth monetize themselves better than a moot point debated among biased parties.

Shoot, some might argue that the Big Ten ended up winning the mythical "Super Awesome Conference of 2015 Award." Let that marinate a second, because just a few years ago many were playing "Taps" over the Big Ten. Sportswriters, feeling smugly like sociology professors, proclaimed the conference was in a demographic decline. Now the Big Ten has the nation's best roster of coaches, and that tends to lead to better football.

Of course, the bowl season will be revealing. The Pac-12, with a record 10 bowl teams, will have plenty of opportunities to bolster its ability to crow this offseason. That opposite possibility also could have less favorable ramifications.

While the Pac-12 didn't shine as a conference laden with national contenders, it did live up to its celebrated conception of depth and parity, though that realized fact makes the conference's scheduling scheme -- tough nonconference slates, nine conference games, conference title game -- a bit of masochism that costs money when parity prevails.

So how should one view the Pac-12's 2015 regular season, which began with such promise, as seven different teams appeared in the AP poll in the first two weeks?

Start with Shaw, Stanford and Swiss Army Knife running back Christian McCaffrey. That troika was mostly unexpected as the season's big winners. This was supposed to be USC's year to reintroduce itself to a national audience, while the Cardinal tried to bounce back from a middling 2014 season with a completely rebuilt defense. While it was popularly billed as the "Year of the Running Back" in the conference, McCaffrey barely registered behind six guys with 1,000-yard seasons already to their credit.

Starting with North Division plaudits is meaningful, because this was supposed to be the year the South rose. It didn't. It still hasn't produced a Pac-12 champion since expansion. It did produce one of the conference's most disappointing teams in Arizona State, a dark horse national title contender, according to some pundits in the preseason.

Rivaling the Sun Devils' flop, USC suffered through another midseason firing of its coach, and the fall of Steve Sarkisian was the saddest story of the season. While it was uplifting to see the Trojans rally around Clay Helton, his promotion from interim to full-time head coach being roundly celebrated inside the locker room, no one views Helton as a sure thing, mostly because he has never run a program or been a serious candidate for a head coaching job before.

But that was the conference's only coaching change -- well, so far -- despite a constantly shifting tide of rumors, from Kyle Whittingham to USC, to Rich Rodriguez to Virginia Tech or South Carolina, to Sonny Dykes to Anywhere But Berkeley, where the athletic department and Dykes played a game of chicken from which no one benefited in the least.

Note to Cal: You will not hire a better coach than Dykes for anywhere close to what you are paying him. He's pretty much the lowest paid Power 5 coach when you factor in salary and cost of living.

Folks are grumpy other places, too, such as UCLA and Arizona. The Bruins and Wildcats slipped because of injuries. That's the chief reason both had disappointing seasons. While some might view that as an excuse -- "Next man in!" they blather -- it's called a factual observation about personnel.

That also applies for one of our big preseason stories: Vernon Adams Jr. It's pretty clear that Oregon's season would have been much different had Adams been healthy all year. His bum finger, in fact, could be blamed for all three Ducks losses, though the Utah defeat was a pretty thorough whipping. While that's a prototypical "woulda-coulda-shoulda" observation, to argue against its logic is just obtuse.

If Arizona State's slide was one of the big disappointments, Washington State's rise was just the opposite. College football is more fun when Mike Leach's team is relevant, and the marriage between his offensive scheme and his underrated quarterback Luke Falk figures to be a good story in 2016.

And yes, Cougs, the same reasoning that you benefited significantly from Adams' injury at Oregon applies to that thing that, er, happened in the Apple Cup without Falk.

Now that we've piqued Washington's attention, let's predict that the 2016 Apple Cup might just decide the North Division. If there is a team that made intriguing yet quiet growth this fall that has a lot coming back, it's the Huskies and second-year coach Chris Petersen. Savvy prognosticators are going to rank Washington in the preseason Top 25.

Now, of course, we've reached into our pocket and pulled out that note about Stanford. We almost forgot.

Sure, the Cardinal lose quarterback Kevin Hogan, who will start his third Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, as well as taking key hits along the line of scrimmage, but Shaw and Stanford should not be underestimated ever again.

Hopefully we'll remember that in August.