Monday, August 20, 2012

Pac 12 South Preview: The Odyssey and Other Familiar Stories of Personal Relevance

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

So, I got a little lazy last week and decided not to finish the Pac 12 preview in a timely fashion. With that said, this will probably be the last preview, because the time spent to page views ratio is pretty grim, not unlike Nick Sheridan's completion percentage on passes going farther than five yards past the line of scrimmage. Yeah, that means no Big East preview (or worse, MAC, Conference USA, etc.). I have my limits. 

After this post, I promise that it'll be all Michigan the rest of the way until 9/1. No more of this "talking about other teams" business. I will do this in spite of the fact that there is really nothing Michigan-centric to discuss/write about right now other than maybe some Denard Robinson fan fiction and possibly a season overview that features some variation of the following: "the 2012 team will have a worse record than last year's team but will actually be better." You know, mostly annoying things. Anyway, here's some stuff about the Pac 12 South for all you tens of search engine wayfarers getting ensnared in this shoddy SEO web. 
This man wears sunglasses inside--at least, I think it's inside, but since it's the Pac 12 he might also be on the top of a mountain somewhere getting all zen and whatnot--and might actually be good at coaching football, which flies in the face of pretty much every pre-conceived notion regarding Lane Kiffin that you've ever had. 

The 2011 season in the Pac 12 South was like when you're watching Jeopardy and you're just killing it, getting every answer right and generally making your friends look like they're operating on a plane of existence several levels beneath yours. After a while it just gets sad, and you just sit out a round to let somebody else shine for a little while. You jump in and nail that question about Rachmaninoff just to remind everyone who the boss is, but you generally let your weaker peers fight for second best. 

Anyway, don't pretend like you didn't cheat on a few of those questions...yeah, I'm looking at you, USC. You know what I'm talking about, the 'ol "mouth the answer right as the guy on TV says it, pretending like you knew it before but just wanted the pleasure of feeling like you came to the realization of that answer at the same exact time as this ridiculous dude with the encyclopedic brain" maneuver. We've all done it. Hey, I've done it, and I'm not proud of it but dangit not getting a single question before Trebek takes you into that first mid-round commercial break is not a good look, man. 

This is a fairly roundabout and stupid way of saying that 2011 was basically USC just letting the other teams answer some questions: Utah, Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, and, yes, UCLA, eventual 2011 Pac 12 South champion (yes, I know). After many years of stomping everyone in sight, USC finally got called on its simultaneous-answer-mouthing technique by the NCAA, knocking them out of conference title contention and bowl participation (the latter, a 2-season bowl ban, expiring this past season). 

USC was clearly king of the hill, finishing 10-2 on the season, its only losses  coming in a triple OT heartbreaker against Stanford and an in retrospect very strange 21-point loss in late September against an ASU team that was the definition of mediocre. Otherwise, the Trojans pretty much looked like their old selves, with Matt Barkley zinging impressive knowledge darts across the living room at his friends UCLA and Colorado--WHAT IS THE BATTLE OF ANTIETAM--while guys like Curtis McNeal, Robert Woods, and Marquise Lee make him look good on the perimeter. While the USC defense still has some work to do, very few teams had an answer for USC's attack, and with the return of Barkley and the addition of former PSU tailback Silas Redd, it's be hard not to stare at USC's offensive numbers this season without saying OH MY GOD IT'S THE DAILY DOUBLE BET IT ALL. Alright, I've probably extracted about as much value as i possibly could from this Jeopardy analogy. 

The rest of the division ranged from mediocre to laughably bad. Utah went 8-5 finishing the season with a respectable bowl win against Georgia Tech. After a weak 2-3 start, the Utes went 5-1 through its next 6 before dropping a clunker at home against an awful Colorado team to end the season. Regardless, I think Utah is not a team that Pac 12 folks should necessarily be sleeping on. Will they be a consistent divisional--let alone conference title--contender? I don't know, but they are definitely in much better shape than fellow conference newcomer Colorado, who went 3-10 last season. The Buffs haven't won 10+ games since 2001, also known as "that season that Colorado completely killed Nebraska 62-36." 

There's not much to know about the rest. Rick Neuheisel, Mike Stoops, and Dennis Erickson all got fired last season. Replacing them are Jim Mora Jr., our old friend Rich Rodriguez, and the guy who should probably actually be referred to as a snake oil salesman, Todd Graham. All of this coaching turnover won't mean much for the 2012 season. UCLA, ASU, and Arizona all have serious talent deficiencies, accumulated years of a "losing culture", and scheme incongruencies to deal with. With Colorado still being terrible, under bow 2nd-year HC Jon Embree, it appears that Utah is the only team capable of beating USC to the buzzer once or twice (just when I thought I could get out it pulls me back in). 

And this is where we are. USC is back, a few others have only just finished putting out the fires left by recently deposed coaches, one team has already started that process but remains very very bad (i.e. Colorado), and the other, Utah, appears to be in for a perpetually solid but not transcendent run in the Pac 12 (yes, I just extrapolated a lot based on one season of major conference play). 

This is not really relevant but it also kind of is. 
Comings and Goings 
Key losses by school (NFL draft picks in bold): 

  • Arizona-Nick Foles-QB, Juron Criner-WR, Trevin Wade-CB, Robert Golden-FS
  • Arizona State-Brock Osweiler-QB, Omar Bolden-CB, Garth Gerhart-C, Vontaze Burfict-ILB, Jamaar Jerrett-DE, Gerell Robinson-WR
  • Colorado-Ryan Miller-OG, Toney Clemons-WR (yes, that Toney Clemons), Tyler Hansen-QB, Travis Sandersfeld-SS
  • UCLA-Derrick Coleman-FB, Tony Dye-SS, Corey Harkey-TE, Kai Maiava-C, Steve Sloan-LB
  • USC-Matt Kalil-OT, Nick Perry-DE, Rhett Ellison-TE, Chris Galippo-ILB, DaJohn Harris-DT, Armond Armstead-DT, Marc Tyler-RB
  • Utah-Tony Bergstrom-OT, Derrick Shelby-DE, John Cullen-OT
Returning starters, from most to least (including special teams): 1) USC-19 2) Utah-18 3) UCLA-16 4) Arizona-15 5) Colorado-11 6) Arizona State-10 

On first glance, the Trojans and Utes leading the way here further underscores the fact that they are far and away the class of this division and will continue to be so in 2012. Remember, the whole "returning starters" metric is a nebulous, debatably useful one, but it's an okay rough estimator of raw returning experienced talent; like rebounding margin in basketball, it's not a nuanced metric by any means, but a quick glace at it leaves with a easily digestible piece of information that can be dissected further if desired. 

As far as guys entering the Pac 12 fray, we of course have Silas Redd, as already mentioned. The Redd-McNeal 1-2 punch in the Trojan backfield is the pro style equivalent of the Thomas-Barner duo at Oregon. Some other transfers of note can be found herein: Colorado is getting two new QBs, which is nice as they have to replace Tyler Hansen. UCLA is getting defensive reinforcement from Brandon Willis, who has apparently transferred from North Carolina to UCLA twice in the past year and a half.* 

USC is also getting Josh Shaw, a safety transferring from Gainesville to play for the venerable troll master Lane Kiffin. 

*I just closed my eyes and man oh man I am picturing soooo many threads featuring sentiments from middle-aged dudes something along the lines of "WHY CAN'T THIS KID MAKE UP HIS MIND HE'S NOT A TRUE TAR HEEL/BRUIN AND HERPITY DERPITY DOO." 

Intra-Division Games To Watch
Helmet schedule. 

1) USC-Utah, October 4th. This division is La Liga-esque in its top heaviness, and while this makes for a dearth of top-to-bottom strength, it makes for a nice...okay I can't do it. This should be a solid game and whatnot. USC travels to play at Rice-Eccles in Salt Lake City coming of off their bye week. With Hawaii, Syracuse, Stanford, and Cal to start the season, USC should be 4-0 going into this one, perhaps leading to a false sense of security for the Trojans. Even when USC was at the top of its game under Carroll, USC had a penchant for the once-a-year loss to an inferior opponent. Utah fans wants everybody to believe that they're for real, and they've certainly proven themselves up to this point vis-a-vis their deserving a Pac 12 invitation. Now it's time to get that first big conference win. 

2) Utah-Arizona State, September 22nd. This doesn't seem like a big game on paper, and, well, it probably isn't unless you're paying particular attention to Utah's divisional hopes. The Utes travel to Tempe for this one, a week after taking on BYU and a week before taking its bye (after which the Utes face off against USC). I'm not sure that Utah is quite good enough yet to have one mark certain games as "trap" games, but for a team looking to move up the divisional hierarchy, this is as close to a trap game as there is on the 2012 schedule for the Utes. Luckily for the Utes, the Sun Devils have a lot of personnel to replace and the program should still be finding its legs under new HC/traveling coaching guy Todd Graham. 

3) Arizona State-USC, November 10th. I'm really digging deep here. The Sun Devils did somehow beat the Trojans by 21 last season, although it was in September when USC was still finding its way. 

4) Colorado-UCLA, September 29th. So, odds are the Buffaloes are going to be not very good at football once again. However, the schedule early on is fairly manageable, and a 4-1 or even a 5-0 start would not require incredibly outrageous mental gymnastics. The Buffs start with CSU in Denver and Sacramento State at Folsom Field before hitting the road for games against Fresno State and Washington State. Assuming that the Buffs handle the first two and split the Fresno/Wazzu pair, a win against the Bruins would make for a 4-1/5-0 start; with games against the Arizona teams after that point, such a start would most likely ensure a bowl game appearance. This would obviously be a tremendous second year for HC Jon Embree. A little optimistic, maybe, not not exactly impossible, especially if one of the QB transfers comes out firing. 

5) Arizona-Arizona State, November 24th. Generic in-state rivalry game to round out the list goes here. Two new coaches in Rodriguez and Graham should lead for a solid week in Arizona sports talk radio, as whatever Arizona's version of 97.1 The Ticket wages ongoing "debates" on who really has control of the football culture in the state of Arizona. 


  • Rodriguez Redux. We've seen this tale before, and don't pretend like you haven't been reading more Arizona Wildcat football-related material this offseason than you have in the rest of your life combined. Maybe things go a little differently for RR in a place that isn't so neurotically obsessed with tradition to the point that things that aren't even really traditions, per se (yup I'm talking about the #1 jersey "tradition" what do you want to do about it?). Of course, more important is the fact that Tucson is not Ann Arbor and expectations will not be all that high especially in light of the previous regime's flameout. RR will get time to get his guys in there, but it seems fairly obvious given the offseason's practice reports and a scanning of the Arizona roster that the Wildcats are in for the standard Year 1 of the RR Process. By that, I mean, they're probably going 2-10 or 3-9. It's kind of funny in a sad way, watching RR go through his program building script in Arizona in exactly the same way as he did in Michigan: the stairmaster thing, quoting The Lion King, generally citing the flabby girly man-ishness of his players, etc. It's like when you're watching a horror movie and you just want to yell out NO DON'T GO IN THERE ARIZONA FANS YOU REALLY DON'T WANT TO GO IN THERE. Of course, they do, and when Arizona isn't "outlasting" teams with their supposedly superior conditioning in the 4th quarter, people will start getting grumpy. If QB Matt Scott isn't a fast learner, this will be one of those teams that you make you wish a mercy rule existed in college football. 
  • Return of the King. I haven't purchased this year's NCAA, but without looking this up I'm going to go ahead and assume that the Trojans' offense got the vaunted 99 ranking, this even before the acquisition of Silas Redd. Rightfully so, as this offense is going to be just as good and probably even better than the Oregon offense, which has developed a reputation as football's response to the plot of the classic film Crank. With that said, that defense needs some work. Last season USC finished 54th in total D and 45th in scoring D (23.6 ppg). They were also 63rd nationally in 3rd down conversion percentage defense (40.1%), which is bad news bears in a conference loaded with offensive talent (not so much in USC's own division, but in the North). If USC is truly "back" and ready to finally wrestle the college football crown away from the SEC like many are predicting they will do, the defense needs to be better than it was last season. 
  • Utah: just "solid" or contender? After moving from the MWC, there's really no shame in Utah settling into a steady groove of winning 7-9 games most years with the occasional 10-win year sprinkled in here and there. The infrastructural and cultural advantages that a school like USC would be pretty much insurmountable for about 99% of the teams in college football, let alone Utah. Asking Utah to challenge USC for the division this year is a little much, but climbing up to second after finishing sub-.500 in conference play last season would be a good step from "hey that team just jumped up from the MWC and they don't look out of place at all here" to "hey that team is actually a legitimate contender." 

Heisman Candidate Section That Nobody Cares About But Here It Is Anyway 
1) Matt Barkley, QB, USC
2) Robert Woods, WR USC
3) John White, RB, Utah
4) Curtis McNeal/Silas Redd, RBs, USC

There's not much point in dancing around the fact, but USC is pretty much the biggest lock to win its division of any team participating in a conference in which there are divisions. The competition is weak and USC simply has too much on offense. Knock on wood, but injuries or unforeseen suspensions are the only things that will derail this offense in 2012. The defense isn't quite keeping pace with the O, but in the Pac 12 we all know that that's more a luxury than a necessity, kind of like a wells-stocked spice cabinet. Do you need saffron to sprinkle on your pitiful mish mash of meats and vegetables? Probably not, but you would look pretty cultured if you did have it, and now I don't even know what I'm talking about. 

Utah was by no means blown away by the step up to major conference competition last season, and that in and of itself is a victory for the Utes (nevermind the fact that they went 4-5 in conference play). The Utes return 18 starters, including junior QB Jordan Wynn. Combine that with the fact that the Utes get USC on a Thursday night at home and Utah taking hold of the top spot for at least a week or two is not completely out of the question, especially given USC's history of derping away a game every season (2008 Oregon State game, anyone?). 

The rest of the this group is just a complete mess. Three new coaches and one program still recovering from the Dan Hawkins era makes for a lot of uncertainty, uncertainty that will most likely morph into shame and disappointment once the season actually starts. Perhaps I am letting my opinion of Todd Graham as a person cloud my judgment, but he did only go 6-6 last year at Pitt, hardly anything to write home about. Sure, he was a great coach at Tulsa, but this is a different ballgame here. Not having the the power forward playing QB that was Brock Osweiler makes for a difficult transition for Graham, an offense first guy. To quote Urban Meyer, without a capable signal caller you're "dead in the water." 

It's a little difficult to get a handle on what teams like UCLA and Colorado will do this season, but neither should really be much of a factor. If either team qualifies for a bowl game, I'd be fairly surprised. If everything goes right for Colorado, one can find 6 wins on that schedule. If either of the transfer QBs, Connor Wood (via Texas) and Jordan Webb (via Kansas) work out right away, the Buffs could rack up enough wins in the first half of the season in order to limp their way to bowl eligibility down the stretch. 

UCLA, on the other hand, is undergoing the classic discipline-ization program under Jim Mora Jr. Really, who knows how this will turn out down the road, but he literally cannot be worse than Rick Neuheisel (isn't it funny that Neuheisel was at one point considered a not terrible head coach?) This from Bill C just about sums it up
Mora has at his disposal a group of players with mostly intriguing recruiting profiles, and aside from a running back and a handful of solid defenders, almost no proven potential whatsoever. It is difficult to determine a ceiling for his 2012 squad because we don't know what kind of ceiling most of his personnel had to start with, and we really don't know how much they have left. But if Mora can recruit well (which, let's be honest, should never be particularly difficult at UCLA) and actually develop some of the talent on the roster, he could be well-positioned for a decent run in Westwood. He could actually end up more Pete Carroll than Bill Callahan.
Or, who knows, maybe he won't. Why do we even bother reacting to coaching hires at all until about a one-year waiting period? We have a 50 percent chance of looking really stupid in a short amount of time.
UCLA returns a lot of starts on the offensive line, plus a senior tailback in Johnathan Franklin who was on the cusp of 1,000 yards last season. However, as Bill C explained in the above link, new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone is a decidedly pass-first guy. So, I just don't know man. Something something establishing an identity will be key something something. Like Washington, UCLA is moving to the 3-4 on defense. There's not much to say here other than the fact that UCLA has gotten increasingly less effective on D in recent years; that trends need to reverse itself

Lastly, we have Arizona. The Wildcats finished 110th in total defense last season and now they're switching to the 3-3-5 under Jeff Casteel. This team just doesn't have talent practically anywhere on defense; the linebacker situation in Tucson practically qualifies as gallows humor. RR will have to roll with a 6'1'' 218 guy, Jake Fischer (a guy who just came off of an ACL injury), and Hank Hobson, a sophomore who played mostly on special teams last season. There isn't much after those guys (hello walk-ons). Unlike some Michigan fans who I'm sure are rooting for RR to fail for some odd reason, I will be rooting for him even if some of his ways have clearly been revealed to be unquestionably flawed. After his success at WVU and failure at Michigan, people will use RR's tenure at Arizona as a sort of litmus test for his career, whether that is fair or not. The bad news for RR is that when you have a thin, un-talented defense paired with the drastic systemic shock that is the shift to the RR spread, and you have all the fixings for a completely disastrous 2012 campaign. 

To be fair, being awful in Year 1 is kind of an understood sunk cost when you hire RR to lead your football program, but that understanding won't make losing to Toledo to start the season any easier to take (not saying that it will happen, but it very easily could). Much like my observation about Graham above, I might be letting the past disproportionately dictate my opinion of what RR will be able to accomplish in the future. I should probably take a cue from RR himself...all that stuff? It's in the past. Unfortunately, a 2-4 win season is in Arizona's near future. On the bright side, Arizona has won 3 of its last 4 against in-state rival ASU, and the Sun Devils are undergoing a transition of their own. RR can build up some invaluable good will right away if he can pick off ASU at home this season. Either way, this is not a team that will sniff the post-season. 

Pac 12 South Standings 
1) USC
2) Utah
4) Arizona State
5) Colorado 
6) Arizona 

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