The Pac-12 at the end of the year was not exactly what we thought it was at the beginning of the season. Washington surged into the national spotlight and ended up making the College Football Playoff, USC battled back from a 1-3 start to become the hottest team in the country and Colorado was the turnaround of the decade with a worst to first run in the Pac-12 South Division.
All of that likely made for a happy commissioner in Larry Scott as the league proved to be worth tuning in for each and every week. Among all those upsets, wild endings and hugely important shakeups though, which ones were the best games? It’s hard to narrow things down of course, but here are the best 10 Pac-12 games of the 2016 regular season and the five best non-conference contests involving a Pac-12 school.
10 Best Pac-12 Games of 2016 Regular Season
10. Washington 44, Stanford 6 — Sept. 30
This rout was not an interesting game from start to finish but it was an important one as Montlake was rocking like it was nearly two decades ago. It also represented a changing of the guard in the Pac-12 North as the Huskies took it to the defending Pac-12 champions in record fashion and dominated the trenches unlike anybody else had against Stanford. Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin combined for five touchdowns and the defense looked like the best this side of Alabama in holding the Cardinal to just 29 rushing yards.
9. Colorado 38, Washington State 24 — Nov. 19
College Football Playoff implications in the Pac-12 were on the line and one of the biggest games down the stretch ended up pitting a pair of top 25 teams in... Washington State and Colorado? Wait, what? Yes it was true and Buffaloes quarterback Sefo Liufau delivered one of the most impressive performances all season when he returned from injury to throw for 345 yards and run for another 108 during a rare big game in Boulder. Luke Falk threw for three bills against one of the best secondaries in the country and helped the Cougars have their chances in the fourth quarter but it wasn’t to be as CU pulled away late.
8. Colorado 41, Oregon 38 — Sept. 24
This was our first inclination that things were not right in Eugene for the Ducks and that Colorado was going to cook up something special this season as the Buffs secured one of their biggest wins since joining the Pac-12 behind the heroics of backup signal-caller Steven Montez. The QB helped the team re-take the lead late in the fourth thanks to an amazing strike to Bryce Bobo, who narrowly completed a wild catch in the back of the end zone. A huge defensive stand that ended in an interception capped a fun game that saw Colorado take a big lead before allowing Oregon back into things at Autzen.
7. Stanford 22, UCLA 13 — Sept. 24
UCLA came so close to knocking off its pesky big brother in the Bay Area but somehow Stanford found a way to win a bit of a rock fight at the Rose Bowl. Christian McCaffrey ran for 138 yards as the sole offensive option for a team that trailed for more than three quarters of the game. While a late Bruins field goal and quick fumble recovery on the next drive appeared to be enough with less than two minutes left, it was the Cardinal who came up with big plays and marched 70 yards for an incredible Ryan Burns touchdown pass that J.J. Arcega-Whiteside leaped into the air to snag over a defender. UCLA still had a shot to win but Josh Rosen was sacked and fumbled, which allowed Stanford to score 13 points in 25 seconds to end the game between the preseason favorites in each division.
6. Colorado 27, Utah 22 — Nov. 26
Colorado secured the Pac-12 South title thanks to a stingy defense (three sacks, four turnovers, a pair of fourth-down stops) in a game with far more drama than stellar play until the final quarter. After not getting much going through the thin air, Utah mounted a touchdown drive that closed the score to within five after missing the two-point conversion. The Buffs recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock to help the first sellout crowd in over a decade in Boulder storm the field after the game and celebrate an improbable division title.
5. Oregon 30, Utah 28 — Nov. 19
An incredible 34 combined points in the fourth quarter capped off a run of five lead changes as Oregon completed an incredible upset in Salt Lake City that, at the time, looked as though would save the job of head coach Mark Helfrich. Young quarterback Justin Herbert didn’t flinch in the face of a nasty Utes pass rush and found Darren Carrington in the corner of the end zone for one of the best catches of the season and a game-winning, 75-yard drive in a little more than two minutes.
4. Cal 52, Oregon 49 (2OT) - Oct. 21
Few games embodied the #Pac12AfterDark spirit quite like this one as the two teams combined for 101 points, more than 1,000 yards of total offense and an FBS-record 203 combined plays. This also was the highest over/under in college football history according to Vegas (89.5), and the two teams hit the over, appropriately, in overtime. Cal also set an FBS record for plays in a game with 118 and didn’t commit a single turnover while doing so. That allowed the Bears to hold off the Ducks, who needed four touchdowns in the second half to rally for extra frames, before the defense stepped up with an interception that allowed them to win the game.
3. Utah 31, USC 27 — Sept. 23
USC has to wonder about “what if” on this game as it very well could have been the deciding factor in playing for the Pac-12 title and possibly the College Football Playoff had the Trojans been able to hold onto a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead. Instead it was Utah that rallied at home behind Southern California native Troy Williams, leading the team on a 75-yard drive to pull to within three and then marching the team 93 yards for the game-winner with 16 seconds left. While the result wasn’t what the Trojans wanted, it did usher in the Sam Darnold era at quarterback while proving to pave the way for running back Joe Williams’ return at Utah.
2. Washington 31, Utah 24 — Oct. 29
This was one of the few close calls the Huskies had in a Pac-12 game during a fun one from Salt Lake City. Utes punter Mitch Wishnowsky had a performance worthy of his Ray Guy Award by pinning Washington deep in its own territory all day while Joe Williams once again impressed in his return from retirement with 172 rushing yards against a stingy Washington defense. All of that culminated in a crazy punt return from Dante Pettis however, that the UW receiver brought back 58 yards for a touchdown and the eventual game-winning points with just a little more than three minutes left. It was the Huskies’ first opportunity to show the College Football Playoff Selection Committee they could beat a good team and they came through in the clutch.
1. USC 26, Washington 13 — Nov. 12
The Trojans’ comeback from early-season irrelevance came to a head on a chilly night in Seattle as Adoree’ Jackson came up with two interceptions and USC knocked off the eventual conference champs. Sam Darnold looked like a future Heisman contender by picking apart a very good Huskies defense and the UW offense never could seem to get back on track despite a pair of long scores from speedy wideout John Ross. Now both teams are in the top 10 and New Year’s Six bowl games and each can probably thank what happened in this one for that.
Best of the Rest:
Oregon State 47, Cal 44 (OT)
Utah 52, UCLA 45
Cal 28, Utah 23
Washington 35, Arizona 28 (OT)
Washington 70, Oregon 21
5 Best Pac-12 Non-Conference Games of 2016
1. Utah 20, BYU 19 — Sept. 10
This for sure wasn’t the most well-played game ever but the latest edition of The Holy War turned out to bring plenty of hard-hitting defense, a shocking nine — nine! — turnovers and one incredible defensive stand at the end to give Utah a sixth straight victory in the series over its in-state rivals. Things were kicked off by a pick-six on the very first play of the game and it ended with a 75-yard drive by the Cougars to pull to within one. However an impressive defensive stand helped foil a two-point conversion that would have won things and Utah held on for a win that toed the line between hot potato and stellar defensive play.
2. Texas A&M 31, UCLA 24 (OT) — Sept. 3
Trevor Knight’s debut for the Aggies was an impressive one as he scored three times, including a key touchdown run on 4th-and-goal in overtime that just about ended a wild comeback by UCLA. Josh Rosen didn’t quite have the game he wanted after calling out Aggies fans, throwing for 343 yards but also three interceptions. Still, the Bruins ran off 15 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to storm back and force overtime before Rosen’s pass fell incomplete to cap a tough loss for the visitors.
3. Nebraska 35, Oregon 32 — Sept. 17
This game was so controversial for the Ducks that they cited it in the initial release about Mark Helfrich being fired. Oregon went for two after a touchdown five times and only got one of them as the Ducks fell on the road thanks to a number of defensive lapses and questionable play calls. Tommy Armstrong helped rally the Cornhuskers with a late touchdown just before halftime and then followed that up with three more scoring drives in the second half, capped by a 34-yard scamper for the game-winner. While the Ducks did get to midfield with a chance, they went backward and Nebraska ended up holding on.
4. Arizona State 68, Texas Tech 55 — Sept. 10
We’ll just call this the Kalen Ballage game. The Arizona State star tied an NCAA record with eight touchdowns on just 16 touches against the Red Raiders. That capped a day in which he also had 185 all-purpose yards and caused yet more heartache for Texas Tech’s defense, as the Red Raiders allowed 68 points in some #Pac12AfterDark action. Patrick Mahomes threw for 540 yards and helped put up 55 points but in the end it wasn’t enough for a pair of teams that couldn’t tackle one bit on defense.
5. Cal 50, Texas 43 — Sept. 17
Former Texas Tech quarterback Davis Webb had a career night in a Bears uniform against the Longhorns, as reality came crashing down at Texas following a hot start to the season. While D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren both ran wild on the ground, a few freshman moments from QB Shane Buechele made a comeback tough late in the second half. The craziest thing came by way of Cal’s Vic Enwere, who thought he iced the game with a 55-yard touchdown run but he ended up dropping the ball just before the goal line. Texas didn’t recover it “immediately” or else the Horns would have had another chance to win the game on the road in Berkeley.
Best of the Rest:
Boise State 31, Washington State 28
Eastern Washington 45, Washington State 42
San Diego State 45, Cal 40
Michigan 45, Colorado 28
Stanford 17, Notre Dame 10
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.