Oct 26

Midseason Musings Around the Pac-12

We’ve essentially reached the midway point of the Pac-12 conference schedule. There have been plenty of highlights, plenty of pratfalls and a helluva lot of entertaining football. Before we turn the corner and head for home, let’s take a look – from top to bottom – at where we stand heading into Halloween weekend:

  • Just how good is Stanford? While many people mocked my pick of Stanford finishing the regular season and conference title game with a perfect 13-0 mark, it seems many of those same folks now suddenly realize the Cardinal have an incredibly generous schedule – the main reason for my choice. If Stanford passes what suddenly appears to be a real test this weekend at USC, all that really stands between them and hosting the inaugural championship game is a Nov. 12 date with Oregon in Palo Alto.
  • While Andrew Luck has maintained his edge in the Heisman Trophy race, it’s been the continuity David Shaw has brought to the program – toughness, an excellent rushing game, an attacking defense – that has the Cardinal in this position. It will be interesting to see how that translates without Luck in 2012. Will Stanford maintain its level or will it fall back to the conference’s lower division, where it has resided for most of the past 40 years.
  • Oregon’s offense continues to roll, even with LaMichael James and Darron Thomas missing games due to injury. A pair of freshmen, QB Bryan Bennett and RB/WR DeAnthony Thomas, look ready to carry Chip Kelly’s fast-paced offense well into this decade. Whether that’s good for the conference in the long run will be decided by whether the Ducks can actually make a case for their style of football in a key non-conference game or two.
  • Another positive – it was refreshing to see the Ducks in what appeared to be actual football uniforms last Saturday in Colorado.

    Oregon dressed up as a football team last Saturday.

  • In the Pac-12 South, it appears the only thing between Arizona State and a Pac-12 title game appearance is disinterest. The Sun Devils’ only game remaining against a team with a record currently above .500 is their season-closer against Cal on Nov. 25. Prior to that, the schedule reads: Colorado (1-7), at UCLA (3-4), at Washington State (3-4), Arizona (2-5).
  • Unfortunately for ASU, their propensity for penalties, combined with Pac-12 officials’ general incompetence, does make the Devils ripe for an upset should any of those four games remain close late. Just ask ASU’s fans about some of the curious calls that happened in Eugene a couple weekends back.
  • USC and its fans are walking on air after the Trojans’ 31-17 drubbing of Notre Dame last weekend. Notre Dame and its fans seemed offended at Lane Kiffin’s insinuation last week that this game was the Irish’s “Super Bowl.” However, with the pomp and circumstance surrounding the game (first night game in 21 years, new helmet paint, rally towels, nearly two dozen key recruits on the sidelines, the East Coast media drooling over the possibility that ND could not only win but cover the ridiculous 9-point spread), it’s hard to see where Kiffin was wrong.

    Jawanza Starling’s third-quarter fumble return was the turning point in USC’s victory at Notre Dame.

  • It’s also hard to see where any of the Trojans who said the Irish quit on the game are wrong. Now, USC hosts Stanford on Saturday with a shot to ruin the Cardinal’s shot at a national title. It’s quite a tall task, even for a team that is unexpectedly 6-1 and just played its most complete game during the Kiffin regime. Nonetheless, it’s amusing to see ESPN Gameday back at the Coliseum even though the “Worldwide Leader” has done everything possible to play up the “death of USC” during the past 24 months.
  • Washington made its first appearance in the top-25 in almost a decade. Then, the Huskies immediately were embarrassed on national TV, 65-21, by Stanford – allowing a school-record 446 rushing yards to the Cardinal.
  • Still, despite the struggles of Nick Holt’s Husky defense, it’s hard to dispute the progress Washington has made this season. QB Keith Price has been spectacular, and an 8-win season is within reach – something that might have seemed a pipe dream  just two years ago.
  • Jeff Tedford’s Cal team is its usual Jekyll-and-Hyde self. The Bears could not have looked worse for six quarters after taking a 15-14 halftime lead into the locker room at Oregon on Oct. 6. In the next game and a half, Oregon and USC outscored Cal 59-9, and the Bears could do almost nothing right. Then, last Saturday, the Bears went to Salt Lake City and dominated Utah, 34-10.
  • Which Cal team will show up in the Rose Bowl Saturday?
  • The answer to that question will probably be decided in part by just how much UCLA is affected by its utterly embarrassing performance in a 48-12 loss at Arizona last week. Rumblings out of Westwood make it sound like the team is split and that Rick Neuheisel’s continued presence on the sideline is a key to the problems.
  • Of course, falling behind 42-7 to Arizona before halftime – that’s the same Arizona team that entered the game with a 1-5 record and an interim head coach after firing Mike Stoops – and then starting a bench-clearing brawl with two seconds to go in the half (yes, starting – Taylor Embree threw the first punch in a melee that ended with six Bruins and four Wildcats suspended) might be a fairly decent sign of a team that’s disinterested in its coach and the rest of its season.
  • If there’s been a bright spot for Oregon State in what’s been a very difficult season, it has to be the development of QB Sean Mannion. He was Pac-12 offensive player of the week last Saturday in the Beavers’ 44-24 whipping of Washington State.
  • Still, the Beavers’ losses to Sacramento State, BYU and UCLA have doomed them to consecutive bowl-free seasons – a difficult blast from the past for those in Corvallis who’ve grown used to post-season football in the past decade.
  • After starting 3-1 and dreaming of a bowl bid, Washington State has fallen back to earth in three straight losses, with the hammering by the Beavers seemingly resigning Wazzu to another losing season.
  • With Jeff Tuel and Marshall Loebbestal, Coach Paul Wulff reminds me of a fantasy football owner has two talented passers whom he can’t decide between – and then the one he picks to start in a given week either underperforms or gets injured.

    Uh oh, looks like no points from my QB this week. Fantasy sucks!

  • Well, Arizona certainly looked like they hooked up to the Juvenation Machine last week, didn’t they? But, at 2-5 (and 1-4 in the conference) the rest of 2012 is just about finding a way to build some sort of momentum going forward. And not every opponent is going to be as baffled about its identity as UCLA.
  • I guess Utah is finding out what playing the big boys every week – and suffering a series of debilitating injuries as you go – is all about. However, hearing calls for Kyle Whittingham’s head (as faint as they may be) is absolutely ridiculous. I fully expect that when Utah gets its bearings (and gets healthy), the Utes will be a factor in the South Division for years to come.
  • Colorado, well … hmm. Not exactly making a statement for how deep the Big 12 has been recently. And if Coach Jon Embree didn’t have enough to worry about, his son – previously mentioned UCLA wideout Taylor Embree – decided punching someone on the football field would be a bright idea. When it gets so bad that you’re tied to the acts of players on another team in your conference then go out and get stomped, 45-2, on your own field two days later, well … that’s 2011 Colorado Football. Here’s Colorado’s highlight from October: Cliff Harris goes 118 mph into a safety on a punt return.
  • Finally, this isn’t a Pac-12 related note. But, it is the best college football-related “separated at birth” I’ve come up with recently:
Boise State QB Kellen Moore

South Park, Colo., youth Jimmy Valmer

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