Monday, August 13, 2012

Pac 12 North Preview: Vitalogy

Already blabbered about: SEC West, SEC EastACC CoastalACC AtlanticBig 12 (Part 1), Big 12 (Part 2) 

Three major conferences down, only 1-3 to go (by that I mean that I'm not sure that I'm going to do a Big Ten preview because you probably know enough about the B1G, and I'm not sure that the Big East is a major conference anymore). Anyway, today let's take a look at the Pac 12 North: Cal, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, Washington, and Washington State. The division is exceptionally strong, and 2012 figures to be an exciting year for this group of teams.

Washington QB Keith Price might just be my favorite current college football player not wearing a winged helmet. 
As a denizen of the East Coast time zone, I, like most of you, have probably seen the least of the Pac 12 conference compared to the other major conferences. However, one team that everyone is familiar with is, of course, the Oregon Ducks, the class of the conference in recent years.

In 2011, the Ducks had another wildly successful season, going 12-2 with a conference championship game thumping of UCLA, who at 6-6 deserved to be there about as much as much as anybody deserves to be strapped to a chair with their eyelids taped open with a First Take marathon playing on TV (hint: nobody deserves that). The Ducks then went on to outpace the Badgers in the Rose Bowl, faring much better than they did against Ohio State in the 2010 Rose Bowl game.

It wasn't all good, however. The Ducks probably preemptively shot themselves in the foot by scheduling LSU for the opener, a game in which Oregon outgained LSU 335 to 273 but turned it over four times, including one fumble that was returned three yards for a TD by Tyrann Mathieu. It was reminiscent of those games during the Rich Rod era when Michigan would move the ball relatively well but would intermittently shoot themselves in the foot, leading to a nice shiny yardage total but less points on the boards than one would hope for under the circumstances. LSU was clearly better, but it was a bitter 40-27 loss for the Ducks, another scalp for the SEC and another knock against the Oregon offense's efficacy against elite defenses.

Luckily, Oregon then went on cruise control, setting its Death Star of an offense's sights on everybody, including Stanford, whom they beat 53-30 at Stanford. However, hours after Michigan had handled the Huskers, Oregon then lost to USC at home by 3 after kicker Alejandro Maldonado missed a 37-yarder to tie it as the clock ran out. At that point, Oregon's hopes of making a second trip to the national title game in as many years were summarily quashed. It is quite possible that Oregon's 2011 team was actually better than its 2010 iteration, but, unfortunately for Chip Kelly, his first loss at Autzen Stadium came at the worst possible time.

The rest of the division wasn't even in the same stratosphere as Oregon. Starting from the bottom, Washington State and Oregon State went 4-8 and 3-9 respectively. The Cougars have been wandering in the wasteland ever since Mike Price's departure in 2002. After winning 10 in 2003, the Cougs have gone on to win 3.6 games per season since, and last year's 4-8 mark led to the firing of head coach Paul Wulff. Enter Mike Leach, who had been doing his own wandering in the last few years, and now there is hope again in Pullman.

Oregon State, on the other hand, does not have the same hope-by-big-name-coaching-change to seize upon. Mike Riley has been in Corvallis since 2003--not including a 2-year sting in 1997-98 before taking the San Diego Chargers head coaching position--and the Beavers have mostly been the better for it. However, the last two seasons, featuring a combined 8 wins, have been somewhat of a disaster. The futility reached its nadir this past September when the Beavers started 2011 0-4, beginning with a home loss in OT against Sacramento State, of all teams. They then went on to lose 35-0 in Madison and then against a not very good UCLA team at home and a mediocre ASU team on the road. I hate the invoke the always stupid "hot seat", but one would think that Riley's job is in serious danger if the Beavers miss out on bowl season, especially with the big names hires that have been made elsewhere in the conference this offseason.

To a slightly lesser extent, Jeff Tedford at Cal will also need to find a way to get it done this season if he wants to avoid getting the ol' cane hook off the stage. Since his arrival in 2002, he's gone a very respectable 79-48, including a 5-3 mark in bowl games, but anyone that has been paying attention knows that his reputation as an elite offensive mind and molder of quarterbacks has atrophied in recent seasons. After starting 3-0 last season, the Golden Bears lost a tough one at Washington and then got blasted at Oregon and then USC at home. On the bright side, they gave Stanford all they wanted on the road, losing by only 3. On the not so bright side, Cal lost at UCLA by 17. They capped the season by getting throttled by Texas's defense, managing under 200 total yards (7 yards rushing) in a 21-10 loss.

Since 2006, when many Cal fans felt that they had been snubbed re: BCS bowl participation, the Bears have averaged 7 wins per season. That would be fine for a lot of teams, but for a team coached by a supposedly big name guy in Tedford, I can't imagine that another mediocre year would be taken very well. Perhaps Cal's 10-win seasons in 2004 and 2006 built unrealistic expectations for Tedford's program, but such is the world of college sports.

Washington is another interesting team in this division. Sarkisian has pulled a Lazarus-esque resurrection project in Seattle, bringing the Huskies back from complete ineptitude to the brink of respectability. However, after three seasons of aggregate .500 ball, it's time for UW to take the next step. The schedule might not allow for it, but winning 8 games would be an incredible sign of progress for this program in Year 4 of the Sarkisian era. Keith Price might be the best quarterback in the division and the second best in the conference behind Matt Barkley, but the defense, operating under the new look 3-4, needs to make significant improvements if this team is going to be a legitimate contender.

Lastly, we of course have Stanford. Stanford was bestowed with one more of Andrew Luck, and the Cardinal were able to ride that fortune to a 9-0 start. With teams like Oklahoma and Alabama already having lost a game, Stanford was in a legitimate position to make a claim for a national title game berth. Unfortunately, Stanford dropped a clunker of a game at home against Oregon, losing by 23. Oregon scoring 53 on literally anybody isn't much of a surprise, but seeing Stanford lose in that manner was shock to nearly everybody in the college football world. After taking care of Cal and Notre Dame, Stanford then went on to lose to Oklahoma State in OT in the Fiesta Bowl in what was one easily one of the craziest games of the season. In light of Luck's return, not winning the division and then losing the bowl game would be disappointing if you didn't have in mind how far Stanford has come.

Even in 2007, back when Stanford executed what was arguably the biggest upset of the season (and even all-time) in a year in which Appalachian State beat some other team whose name I am for some reason blanking on, I never thought that Stanford would become what it as become in such a short time.   Stanford football was absolutely putrid only 5 or 6 years ago--I mean, Indiana bad--and Jim Harbaugh turned it around like it was nothing. It is no wonder that he is now in the NFL, and the rest of the Pac 12 and college football as a whole should probably thank the 49ers for that. David Shaw did well in his first season, but can he continue what Harbaugh built in the post-Luck era? We shall soon find out.

Comings and Goings 
Key losses, by team (NFL departures in bold):

  • Cal: Mitchell Schwartz-OT, Mychal Kendricks-ILB, Bryan Anger-P, Marvin Jones-WR, D.J. Campbell-FS, Trevor Guyton-DE, D.J. Holt-ILB, Sean Cattouse-SS
  • Oregon: LaMichael James-RB, Josh Kaddu-OLB, Mark Asper-OG, David Paulson-TE, Darron Thomas-QB, Eddie Pleasant-SS, Cliff Harris-CB, Lavasier Tuinei-WR
  • Oregon State: Brandon Hardin-FS, Cameron Collins-ILB, Joe Halahuni-TE, Lance Mitchell-SS, Will Darkins-LB, James Rodgers-WR
  • Washington: Alameda Ta'amu-DT, Senio Kelemete-OG, Chris Polk-RB, Will Mahan-P, Quinton Richardson-FS, Eric Folk-K, Cort Dennison-ILB, Jermaine Kearse-WR
  • Washington State: Alex Hoffman-Ellis-OLB, Marsall Lobbestael-QB, BJ Guerra-OG, Tyrone Justin-CB
  • Stanford: Andrew Luck-QB, David DeCastro-OG, Coby Fleener-TE, Jonathan Martin-OT, Delano Howell-SS, Mathew Masifilo-DT, Chris Owusu-WR, Jeremy Stewart-RB, Quinn Evans-CB (transfer--Northwestern)
Returning starters, from most to least (including special teams): 1) Oregon State-17 2) Oregon-14 3) Stanford-14 4) Washington State-14 5) Washington-13 6) Cal-12 

This is a decidedly quarterback driven conference. As such, it's important to note that Washington returns Keith Price, Cal brings back the southpaw redshirt senior Zach Maynard, and Oregon State returns Sean Mannion, a true freshman in 2011 who threw for over 3,300 yards at a completion percentage of 64.5%, throwing 16 TDs to 18 INTs. Washington State returns senior QB Jeff Tuel, but he has spent much of his career getting injured (i.e. 2009 and 2011), and as such he only appeared in 3 games last season, starting two. For the purposes of this, however, he can be counted as a returning starter. 

Luckily for everybody else, Oregon and Stanford have to start anew at QB. Unluckily, Oregon has proven that it gets its built-for-the-spread QBs from some factory in the Oregonian wilderness, and so that QB will probably drop 50 points on your team this fall. Even if they're not playing your team, they'll just swing by and drop half a hundo on your while you're working on probably pointless things in practice, like "how to huddle" and "punt formations." Protip: all those fancy picture cards that Oregon assistants hold up during games mean the same thing: SCORE FAST NOW WHAT ARE YOU DOING DO IT NOW PLAY FAST SCORE. 

Intra-Division Games To Watch 
As usual, here's the helmet schedule for your convenience.

1) Stanford-Oregon, November 17th. This year, the Ducks get a Luck-less Stanford team at home. We will already know what these teams are made of well before this point in the season, but I have a feeling that this year's game will actually be close. Tough, gritty defense and traditional power running vs. the hyperactive insanity of the Oregon offensive attack.

2) Washington-Oregon, October 6th. The #1 game on this list has the nouvaeu riche cachet, but I was very tempted to put this game at the top slot. I'll make it no secret: I am a big fan of Washington and more specifically QB Keith Price. You can talk about returning starter until you're blue in the face, but a returning QB of Price's caliber is easily wort a few starters by himself on paper. Coach Sarkisian has gone 19-19 in his first three seasons in Seattle; I think this is the year that the Huskies finally break through. I'm not sure that they win this game, but with the Andrew Luck-sized power vacuum in this division and the relative futility of Cal, OSU, and WSU, the Huskies could potentially end up being the primary challenger to Oregon's Pac 12 throne.

3) Stanford-Washington, September 29th. This game might actually be more important than the previous one for Washington's divisional hopes, but I had to put the Oregon game at #2 based on entertainment value alone (Oregon's offensive machine vs. Keith Price).

4) Cal-Stanford, October 20th. Another game in which somebody gets Stanford at home. The Golden Bears played Stanford about as close as anybody last season, so one would think that this game is getting the proverbial "we've got this game circled on our schedule herpity derpity &c." Ignoring the trip to Columbus, Cal has USC, ASU, UCLA, and WSU before this game. A best case scenario in that quartet of games is probably 3-1, but 2-2 is probably more realistic. A third (or even a second) conference loss against Stanford would officially torpedo Cal's divisional hopes.

5) Washington State-Oregon, September 29th. Okay, so I'm about 99% sure the Cougars aren't going to be legitimate contenders this season, but this game will pit two of the foremost offensive minds in the game. It will represent the first big time stage for Leach as the head coach in Pullman, and you know the MSM will be abuzz with ALL THE STORYLINES, and rightfully so: if WSU quarterback Jeff Tuel can remain in one piece, this one could be close heading into the second half. Mike Leach never finished below .500 at Texas Tech a single time, and that was in the old Big 12 South, which was much tougher than the current Pac 12 North. All of that's to say that I think the Leach offense that we know and love could be up and running fairly quickly, enough to give the Ducks some sort of a scare in Pullman.


  • SEATS THAT HAPPEN TO BE HOT. As mentioned, this could be the last hurrah for Riley and Tedford at OSU and Cal, respectively, if things don't go a little better this season. For Oregon State, a bowl appearance would probably do the job. For Cal, 9 wins, including at least one marquee win against either Ohio State, USC, Stanford, or Oregon, might be what's necessary to save Tedford's job. 
  • Home Sweet Home. One thing that appears to account for Cal's schizophrenic play is the fact that their home-road splits are even more divergent then they would normally be for your average college football team. Bill C explains in yet another one of his excellent team previews
    • "California's home-road splits became a bit more normal in 2011, but they were still larger than normal.
      Home: Cal 26.8 Adj. PPG, Opponents 18.1 (plus-8.7)
      Road: Cal 26.2 Adj. PPG, Opponents 28.4 (minus-4.2)
      While undergoing extensive renovations at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Cal played all of its home games in San Francisco, but the difference between home and road performance was still about 12.9 Adj. Points. The Cal defense was one of the best in the country in the Bay Area and particularly average away. There must be something about those Cal dorm room beds that does it for the Golden Bears."
  • Insert the next wave of Oregon offensive cogs. Once upon a time, Oregon had Dennis Dixon and Jonathan Stewart. After they left, Jeremiah Masoli, LeGarrette Blount, and Jeremiah Johnson. After they departed--Masoli for Ole Miss after being booted from Oregon--Oregon simply plugged in Darron Thomas at QB and LaMichael James at tailback. Both of them are gone, each leaving a year early for the NFL, and now it comes down to Bryan Bennett or Marcus Mariota at QB and De'Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner at the tailback/all-purpose general playmaking position. In short, Chip Kelly has shown multiple times now that the offense is built to handle personnel losses because it is coached and recruited for so precisely. Obviously, the question has to be: will this new wave of offensive talent be "merely" Rose Bowl-worthy or national-title-game-worthy? 
  • "I'm still alive." Channeling the Seattle grunge scene, like Pearl Jam's character in "Alive", the Huskies need to remind people that the Washington football program is still alive. Washington has shown some flashes here and there of late, but it's fixing to be Year 4 of the Sarkisian era. I know that Washington was in horrendous shape before his arrival, but there need to be some signs of improvement or the former Carroll assistant will have to face some serious questioning from UW fans. I think that he's equal to the job. UW under Sarkisian is probably a year away from being in "now-or-never" time, but that time is inching near. Unless UW completely collapses, Sark will obviously be back in 2013. With a QB like Keith Price, there's really no reason Washington shouldn't win at least 8 in the regular season...that is, no reason other than a tough schedule. The Huskies will need Price to play like an "Animal" and "Go" hard on the field, and the defense will need to play with less "Indifference" while also leaving past failures (e.g. the Baylor game) in the "Rearviewmirror" and oooookay I think that's enough. Tl;dr--PEARL JAM!
  • Your move, Mr. Shaw. Heisman finalist and #1 overall pick Andrew Luck is gone; this is where Stanford and David Shaw will prove their mettle in earnest. Programs can ride an elite QB to a great season or two, but the mark of a consistent program is continuing to produce no matter what. On the bright side, the culture that Harbaugh built continued on with Shaw this past season and should continue to manifest itself as Shaw pilots the ship farther from the memory of Harbaugh. Luck is without a doubt an irreplaceable player, but tough defense and a strong running game in the form of Stepfan Taylor--who eclipsed the 1,000 yard rushing mark in 2010 and 2011--should keep Stanford competitive until Luck's successor develops, whether it's junior Josh Nunes or sophomore Brett Nottingham. 

Obligatory Heisman Candidate Section That Nobody Cares About But Here It Is Anyway
1) De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon
2) Keith Price, QB, Washington
3) Marquess Wilson, WR, Washing State
4)  Keenan Allen, WR, California

I really like Keith Price, but I am not sure that he alone is enough to vault the Huskies into the top 2 of this division, especially with how poorly that defense performed last season. Similarly, like everybody else on the Internet, I'm very much looking forward to the Mike Leach era in Pullman. I think it's a good bet that he even takes the Cougars bowling this season. Marquess Wilson is a top notch receiver that not many people probably know about, and if QB Jeff Tuel can not spontaneously combust, then Leach's offense could be in business from the get go. Still, the roster needs a major infusion of talent, and that will take a couple of seasons to accomplish. The Cougars winning five or six games this season is probably a very solid bet.

I'm less bullish on Cal, and things in Corvallis are outright grim from where I stand as a largely uninformed inhabitant of the Eastern Time Zone. The only good thing going for the Beavers is a young QB that flashed some potential in 2011 and a team that returns 8 starters on each side of the ball. Of course, the age old "is returning bad starters a good thing?" question could easily be asked.

Cal, on the other hand, does boast a nice QB-WR duo in Zach Maynard and Keenan Allen. On top of that, senior tailback Isi Sofele is probably in for a solid year as the next quality Cal running back. Cal was 25th in total D, 25th in 3rd down conversion D, but 48th in scoring defense and 53rd in scoring offense. Cal is somewhat of a mystery to me, but in light of those last two numbers, it's not hard to see why they went 7-6 last season. They might improve, but they do only return 12 starters, and I still like Washington more anyway. Anyway, these "standings" are somewhat of a misnomer, as they're more appropriately called "rankings" as I'm not taking into account ties in conference records, which could very well end up being the case with Washington and Cal.

Simply put, the division will once again come down to Oregon and Stanford. For right now, Oregon is clearly the better team a year after Stanford loses Luck, Coby Fleener, and a couple starters on the offensive line. However, a few years from now, once Stanford's tremendous recruiting classes have worked their way into the two-deep, Stanford will be ready to compete again after a slight dip down to 8-10 win territory this year. As it is, Stanford is basically the most traditionally B1G-esque of the Pac 12, relying on strong defense and the ground game. This is a fine strategy, but Stanford has to replace some serious talent on the OL, second and third receivers will need to emerge, and a QB needs to be settled upon. In a couple of years, Oregon-Stanford will regularly be one of the premier games of the college football season.

Like almost everybody else, I'm giving Oregon's offense the benefit of the doubt re: replacing key players. Bennett, Thomas, Barner, plus an athletic, underrated defense, and you have your 2012 Pac 12 North Champs: the Oregon Ducks.

Pac 12 North Standings 
1) Oregon
2) Stanford
3) Washington
4) California
5) Washington State
6) Oregon State

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