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

For more on Pac-12 football, the advertising industry and other events worthy of a mini-rant, send me a follow request on Twitter: @THrants

Sep 04

Week 1 Musings Around the Pac-12

After what much of the national college football media is seemingly celebrating as a rough opening week for the new Pac-12, here are a few thoughts:

  • There is much handwringing over USC’s second-half performance in a 19-17 win against Minnesota at the Coliseum. The Trojan offense, whether you want to blame scheme or execution (Lane Kiffin had no shame pointing the finger at his players), allowing what will likely be a subpar Golden Gopher defense to hold it to zero second-half points is simply unacceptable.
  • I’ll be seeing bubble screens in my sleep for weeks. Your team would be easy to defend, too, if what seemed like half of the plays were a sideways pass followed by crossed fingers that Robert Woods or Marqise Lee would make a freak athletic play to gain yards.
  • I feel badly for Minnesota’s fans, who are likely hopeful that they may have a decent team this season. I’m guessing by the time the Gophers are 1-6 or 2-7 in late October, they’ll feel otherwise.
  • Kudos to Matt Barkley and Woods (whose Twitter handle seems far from presumptuous after his 17-catch opener) for their record-setting performances. Let’s hope they get a little more help from their coaches and teammates on offense next week in the Pac-12 opener against Utah, also 1-0 after a similarly underwhelming win over Montana State in Norm Chow’s debut as offensive coordinator.
  • The new video board at the Coliseum is, to put it simply, fantastic. A bigger surprise: it actually worked without malfunction for the entire game.

The Coliseum's new videoboard may have been the best part of USC's season-opening win over Minnesota

  • Now if they can only fix the thermometer. It’s been 70 degrees in the Coliseum since at least 1991.
  • If people in L.A. are concerned that the Trojans needed a last-minute Torin Harris interception to hold off the Gophers, what are people in Seattle thinking after UW needed a last-minute Desmond Trufant interception to beat defending FCS champ Eastern Washington, 30-27, in Seattle? The Huskies gave up 473 passing yards to the Eagles. Up next: pass-happy Hawaii, which used a surprising running attack to whip new Pac-12 member Colorado, 34-17, last night.
  • What’s the name of the QB who engineered Eastern Washington’s near upset, you ask? Well, it’s Bo Levi Mitchell, of course. No, really, it is. His nickname: Gunslinger.
  • Oregon’s Chip Kelly is quickly becoming the anti-Pete Carroll. In his time at USC, Carroll’s teams became known for not showing up once or twice a year for apparently inconsequential games, but always showing up on the big stage. USC’s lone loss in the Carroll Era in what one would consider a “big game” came with 19 seconds left in one of the greatest college football games ever played. Kelly’s Ducks, on the other hand laid their latest egg on a big stage in Dallas, being run around, over and through by a well-prepared – and simply faster and more athletic – LSU team. That’s four shots on a big stage, against a big-time opponent with time to prepare for the Ducks “revolutionary” attack. And that’s four losses – the 2009 opener at Boise State, the 2010 Rose Bowl vs. Ohio State, the BCS title game against Auburn and now LSU. And, worse, only the defeat by Auburn in the BCS title game in January avoids the tag of “embarrassing.”
  • According to reports from friend and Oregon alum Aaron Cooper, LSU fans on the scene in Dallas once again lived down to their national image. I can only imagine what it must’ve been like to attend the 2005 Capital One Bowl, when LSU faced Iowa – Hawkeye fans being the worst I’ve ever had to deal with at any college football game, until USC dropped the hammer on them in the 2003 Orange Bowl. I’m happy the world survived the possible meltdown of rancor and stupidity a meeting of those two fan bases could cause.
  • Arizona State’s defense looked predictably vicious in a decimation of FCS team UC Davis. If the Devils can keep from suffering any more injuries – they’ve really been snakebitten – that defense can keep them around against just about every team on their schedule.
  • Uh-oh: Is Oregon State back? And by back, I mean the futile Oregon State we all grew to know during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. An overtime loss to Sacramento State – an FCS rival of none other than UC Davis – does not bode well. Nor does this week’s trip to defending Big-10 champion Wisconsin, which looked lethal in their Thursday night opener against UNLV.
  • Apparently only 31,000 folks showed up at Candlestick Park to watch Cal beat Fresno State on Saturday night. And the AP report circulating about the game almost gleefully pointed out that Fresno fans outnumbered those from across the bay. No word on whether former Bear and Bulldog running back Tracy Slocum (or his bottom bitch) was in the house.
  • Jeff Tuel’s fractured clavicle may spell the end of Paul Wulff’s brief tenure at Wazzu. The Cougars were looking to the junior quarterback to team with stud sophomore receiver Marquess Wilson in an effort to break a 5-32 run the past three seasons. Though WSU predictably hammered Idaho State, the loss of Tuel cannot be understated looking ahead.
  • Speaking of coaches whose tenures may soon be over, UCLA’s defense was overmatched (again) in its opening loss to Houston. Though the Bruin offense had a big day – even with the loss of QB Kevin Prince to a concussion – UCLA’s defense resembled the embarrassing mess it was for much of 2010. And, by embarrassing, I mean watch this. The road to six wins and a bowl berth – likely the bare minimum that would keep Rick Neuheisel on the job in Westwood – just got that much longer.

For more on Pac-12 football, the advertising industry and other events worthy of a mini-rant, send me a follow request on Twitter: @thrants