Football is a numbers game, as made evident in the Pac-12 Conference during the 2016 season. Statistics tell the stories of a fascinating season: Washington dominated with defense, USC engineered an impressive turnaround with offense and Colorado improved on... well, just about everything.
These numbers also reveal much about what the Pac-12's teams either must change or maintain this fall to come out on the positive side of the most important statistic kept in football: the final score.
26.4: Arizona's average margin in Pac-12 losses
Arizona finished above .500 in each of head coach Rich Rodriguez's first four seasons, but suffered a staggering decline in Year 5. The Wildcats plumetted to 3-9 and opened Pac-12 play with eight straight losses. The first of those defeats — an overtime contest against eventual champion Washington — was the only game decided by single digits.
Arizona was bullied throughout the conference schedule, especially on the back half of the season when it allowed more than 46 points per game. The climb back to contention in the Pac-12 South — or even competition — is a steep one. Rodriguez and Co. need the return of players battling injuries much of last season, like running backs Nick Wilson and J.J. Taylor, and dual-threat quarterback Brandon Dawkins.
357.4: Arizona State opponents' passing yards per game
New Arizona State defensive coordinator Phil Bennett faces a sizable task, retooling a defense that's ranked among the nation's most porous each of the last two seasons. The passing defense Bennett inherits is particularly dire, having finished dead last in the Football Bowl Subdivision (128 teams) in both 2015 and '16.
What's more, the Sun Devils' passing yards per game yield last season actually jumped by 20, from 337 in 2015 to 357 last season. Explosive plays were Arizona State's undoing. The Sun Devils gave up a staggering 15 passing plays of 50 yards or more, worst in the nation.
Arizona State's struggles against the pass have in part been the result of an aggressive blitzing scheme, which often leaves defensive backs on an island. The new-look defense also will feature some new faces, with players like De'Chavon Hayes and Kareem Orr gone.
6.15: Rushing yards Cal allowed per attempt
On average last season, an opponent need simply call a rushing play on first down — any rushing play — and it ended up in second-and-short territory. The Golden Bears' 6.15-yard per carry yield ranked worst among all FBS defenses, and the 32 rushing touchdowns surrendered rank 11th among Pac-12 teams.
Cal's hire of defensive guru Justin Wilcox as head coach is meant, in part, to address the inadequacies in Cal's defense. Despite putting up impressive numbers on the other side of the ball, the Golden Bears have routinely ranked among the nation's worst defenses over the last few seasons. It came to a head last season when Cal allowed 90 rushing plays of 10-plus yards, and four of at least 60 yards.
11: Total interceptions gone from the 2017 roster
One of the most telling statistics behind Colorado's turnaround from worst-to-first in the Pac-12 South was that in 2014, the Buffaloes managed just three interceptions the entire season. In 2016, Colorado picked off 15 passes, 22nd in college football, and finished the season with a plus-six turnover margin.
For Colorado to repeat as Pac-12 South champions, the Buffs need another outstanding season from its defense. That includes continuing to generate turnovers, but first-year defensive coordinator D.J. Elliot must replace several proven playmakers. Gone are defensive backs Tedric Thompson, Ahkello Witherspoon and Chido Awuzie, who combined for nine interceptions. Linebacker Kenneth Olugbode, who also is gone, picked off two passes in 2016.
9: Games in which Oregon opponents rushed for 200+ yards
Oregon's wasn't the worst rushing defense in the Pac-12 at season's end — that dubious distinction went to divisional counterpart Cal — but the Ducks allowed more 200-plus rushing yard games than the Golden Bears. In three of these, Oregon's opponents eclipsed 300 yards: Washington (378), Cal (311) and Oregon State (310).
UO brass dismissed Mark Helfrich and his staff shortly after the Oregon State loss, and named Willie Taggart head coach a few weeks later. Taggart's overhaul of Oregon football included the coup of the offseason, luring defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt away from Colorado. Leavitt oversaw a drastic turnaround in just two seasons with the Buffaloes. In contrast with the Ducks, the Buffs allowed just three opponents 200-plus rushing yards, and never surrendered 300.
Leavitt's approach could maximize the abilities of linebacker Troy Dye, and force turnovers with an experienced secondary in Eugene.
54.7: Oregon State's passing completion percentage
Among the changes that had to be anticipated with Gary Andersen replacing Mike Riley as Oregon State head coach was an offense more reliant on a multifaceted rushing attack than aggressive passing. However, the Beavers' struggles implementing a consistent aerial attack are pronounced. They finished 2016 with a 54.7 completion percentage as a team, 11th in the Pac-12.
Some of the inconsistency is a byproduct of Andersen having to reshuffle quarterbacking duties. Five players have started at quarterback for Oregon State since 2015. Last year's primary quarterbacks, Marcus McMaryion and Darell Garretson, played in just eight and six games, respectively.
With Oregon State returning talented running back Ryan Nall, and a veteran defense, a more consistent passing attack is the one lingering facet that could separate the Beavers from being dark-horse challengers in the Pac-12 North or also-rans.
16: How many more PPG Stanford averaged with Keller Chryst
It may not have garnered the same amount of attention as another quarterback change made in the Pac-12 last season. However, head coach David Shaw's decision to abandon a committee approach between Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst, and entrust the offense exclusively to Chryst changed the outlook of the Cardinal offense dramatically.
Stanford averaged just 17 points per game in the seven games Shaw used both quarterbacks, reaching rock bottom in a 10-5 loss to Colorado. That output jumped to 33 in the latter part of the season, which Chryst captained most of the way before a knee injury.
A dual threat, Chryst had four multiple-touchdown games after becoming the starter, and two with both a passing and rushing score. While Stanford's uptick in production was in part the result of playing lesser competition — the Cardinal faced Washington, Washington State and Colorado while playing both quarterbacks — there was a decidedly more rhythmic flow to the offense under Chryst.
1,011: UCLA's total rushing yards in 2016
UCLA ran up against a bevy of problems with its offense in 2016. Erstwhile Heisman-contending quarterback Josh Rosen sustained an early-season shoulder injury, which accentuated a problem plaguing the Bruins before the talented signal-caller was sidelined: an inability to run with consistency.
UCLA finished with just 1,011 rushing yards as a team; only Texas State was worse among FBS teams. The Bruins totaled less as a team than five individual ball carriers in the Pac-12. Oregon State's Ryan Nall and Arizona quarterback Brandon Dawkins fell 60 and 67 yards shy of UCLA's team rushing figure — and both missed considerable time due to injury.
Restoring a running game that had previously been a strength is a top priority for new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch. He inherits a lineup with returners Soso Jamabo, Bolu Olorunfunmi and Nate Starks at running back. All have shown flashes of brilliance in their UCLA careers, and now just need to sustain those flashes.
38.6: USC's points per game after Sam Darnold started
Head coach Clay Helton's decision to replace Week 1 starting quarterback Max Browne with Sam Darnold changed the complexion of USC's 2016 campaign. That's a well-documented fact, but the difference becomes especially pronounced when comparing the Trojans' scoring output over Darnold's 10 games as starter — 38.6 per game — against the three games in which Browne started, 20.3.
The pace of the Darnold-led USC offense would have tied Oklahoma State for the 17th-most prolific in college football over the course of the season. Darnold's dual-threat skill set extended plays and made for more diversified play-calling from offensive coordinator Tee Martin.
Darnold's back in the saddle in 2017, joined by breakthrough running back sensation Ronald Jones II, and Rose Bowl Game hero Deontay Burnett at wide receiver. Matching the 2005 Trojans' absurd 49.1-point per game average might be a stretch; however, considering USC nearly doubled its average after making the switch, there could be another jump in the future with this veteran offense.
47.7: Mitch Wishnowsky's average yards per punt
A hallmark of Utah football in recent years is its outstanding special teams play. Punter Mitch Wishnowsky carried the mantle for the Utes in 2016, averaging an NCAA-leading 47.7 yards per punt.
The Australian Wishnowsky's ability to pin opposing offenses deep in their own territory plays a vital role in Utah's game plan, setting the table for a stifling defense. Wishnowsky contributed to more than 26 percent of all Utah opponents' possession beginning inside of their own 20-yard line.
For his efforts, Wishnowsky brought the Ray Guy Award back to Utah for a third straight season; Tom Hackett won it in 2014 and '15. Wishnowsky will go for a Utes grand slam in 2017.
33: Turnovers created by the Washington defense
Washington's tenacious defense led the Pac-12 almost across the board statistically in 2016. The Huskies also set the pace nationally in one key metric, turnover generation, creating 33 on the season.
Ironically, Washington excelled in this area not because it took a lot of risks. On the contrary, defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski's conservative use of blitzing packages proved effective in forcing quarterbacks to make bad decisions, as the Husky front generated consistent pressure without bringing additional defenders.
That strategy proved most pivotal in the Pac-12 Championship Game. With quarterback Jake Browning struggling against the Colorado defense, the Washington defense turned Colorado possessions into Husky points. Defensive back Taylor Rapp, one of the leading returners for the 2017 Huskies, returned one interception for a touchdown, and set up a score with another pick. He'll be integral in creating more turnovers for Washington this coming season, with returning linemen Vita Vea and Greg Gaines generating the necessary pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
65.6: Percentage of plays in which Washington State passed
A new look to the Washington State air-raid offense made the Cougars especially difficult to defend in 2016, as the three-man backfield of James Williams, Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks combined for 22 rushing touchdowns and 1,634 yards. Make no mistake, however: This is still very much a pass-first team.
Washington State's 65.6 percent of plays resulting in a pass attempt led the FBS, outpacing the second-most prolific passing team, Texas Tech, by almost three percent. Quarterback Luke Falk may have faced a heavier workload than any passer in college football, but the Cougars' standout was unfazed. His 70 percent completion rating ranked second in all of college football, trailing only Heisman Trophy finalist Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma (70.9).