It’s Pac-12 Week here at Crystal Ball Run, and now time to look at the five biggest questions the players, coaches and teams in this league will face entering the 2012 season.
Let’s start by asking…
Which of the new Pac-12 Coaches has the best shot at early success?:
Of every major conference in college football, it’s no secret that the one with the highest amount of moving and shaking on the coaching carousel this off-season was the Pac-12. A third of the conference switched coaches, as we said goodbye to Rick Neuheisel, Paul Wulff, Mike Stoops and Dennis Erickson, and a hearty hello to Jim (don’t call me “Junior”) L. Mora, Mike Leach, Rich Rodriguez and Todd Graham
Well, at least we know Graham is town for the time being, anyway. Speaking of which, has anyone actually spoken with him today? Better make sure. I heard there was a job opening in the CFL that just opened up this afternoon.
Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked, because with the new coaches now in place, the real question becomes this: In a league that’s wide-open after its top two teams, which new head coach has the best chance at early success? Ironically, it might not be who you think.
That’s because while Mora is dealing with an image makeover at UCLA, Rodriguez a dramatic scheme change in Tucson and Graham a talent drain at Arizona State, it’s actually Mike Leach who walks into the most ideal situation to win right away. Sure his defense is undermanned, but Leach has never been about anything other than outscoring his opponents, and all the pieces are in place for him to do just that with his “Air Raid” system this year. In particular, look for quarterback Jeff Tuel and wide receiver Marquess Wilson (who finished third in the Pac-12 with 83 catches last year) to put up big numbers in Leach’s first year in Pullman.
Now understand, nobody is saying that Wazzu is going to go from 4-8 to a BCS title. But they did in fact win four games last year. And with improved coaching, a healthy quarterback and 14 other returning starters, could they get two more wins and a bowl berth?
It seems likely.
4. Is the ‘Sky The Limit’ at Washington? Or is the ‘Limit the Sky?’
Pardon me for using an old Chris Rock joke there, but it seems appropriate in Seattle, as Steve Sarkisian enters his fourth year as the head man at Washington. And while he needs to be commended for going to back-to-back bowl games in years two and three, the question now is as follows: Is this program about to burst through their ceiling? Or have they already hit it?
Unfortunately for Huskies fans, the answer may actually be the latter. While those back-to-back seven win seasons signify a major upgrade from where this program was when Sarkisian took over in 2009, looking at what returns this fall, it seems as though it’ll be tough to replace that win total. Outside of quarterback Keith Price not much returns on offense (the Huskies lost leading rusher Chris Polk and their top two receivers Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar) and defensively… umm… yeah, we all saw the Alamo Bowl. Sure, new coordinator Justin Wilcox is a major upgrade over the departed Nick Holt, but unless Wilcox can turn water into 6’4 linebackers with 4.4 speed, it will still be a struggle for Washington this year. As a matter of fact, even being “better” than last year might not be good enough most weeks for a unit which finished 106th nationally in total defense.
And oh by the way, to add insult to injury, one could make the case that the Huskies have the toughest schedule in college football this year. I won’t get into the gory details, but just know that within the first six weeks of the season, Washington will play at LSU, Stanford at home, at Oregon and host USC… with the last three games all in a row. Yes, you read that correctly. Washington plays Stanford, Oregon and USC in three straight weeks. That’s not just a tough schedule. That’s cruel and unusual punishment.
Add it all up, and it could be a long year in Seattle. Steve Sarkisian is the right man for the job. But 2012? Yeah, it could be a struggle.
3. How Much of Stanford’s Success The Last Few Years Has Been Based on “Luck”?
See what I did there? Huh? Do you get it? Huh? Ok, maybe its best we just move on.
Regardless it’s no secret that for the better part of the last two years, everything the Cardinal have done offensively has revolved around Andrew Luck. He was the best quarterback on one of college football’s best offenses, and the biggest reason Stanford was able to win 23 games over the last two years.
Now the question is, can the Cardinal survive without him?
It’s an interesting query, but looking around Stanford’s roster, they could actually be better equipped than expected. New quarterback Brett Nottingham is short on experience but has plenty of returning talent around him, including 1,300 yard rusher Stepfan Taylor, as well as tight end Zach Ertz and receiver Ty Montgomery, a pair who combined for 50 catches this year. Add in true freshman sensation Barry Sanders Jr. at running back (who turned down just about everyone in college football to come to Palo Alto) and a defense that returns seven starters, and all of a sudden, you start to realize, that well, Stanford might not actually be that bad.
Now, will they get back to 11 wins? That certainly doesn’t seem likely. But maybe nine or 10 and a second place finish in the Pac-12 North doesn’t seem so crazy on the other end either.
As a matter of fact, the more we think about things, the more we realize: Maybe all this Stanford success hasn’t been based on Luck after all.
Ok, it has been. The Cardinal will still be good this year though.
2. Is Lane Kiffin the Greatest Coach in College Football History? Or Just of the Modern Era?
I got you there for a second, didn’t I?
2. Can USC Keep its Players Healthy?
Look, if you’ve been reading Crystal Ball Run by now you’ve been inundated with the question of “What happens if the injuries start piling up at USC?” We know you’re sick of hearing about it, but given the circumstances Kiffin is coaching under, it bears repeating: This team has absolutely no margin for error in the injury department.
The simple truth is that when it comes to strictly their first unit, nobody is better than USC (Don’t take it personally Nick Saban, but it’s true). Looking across the board, there are potential All-Americans just about everywhere, from Matt Barkley to Robert Woods, Marquise Lee, Hayes Pullard, Wes Horton, Dion Bailey and T.J. McDonald. Of USC’s 22 starters, it isn’t tough to see 15 or more of them earning NFL paychecks in the coming years.
At the same time, because NCAA sanctions have limited ‘SC to just 75 scholarships this year, there is little depth behind the first unit, and of what’s left, most of it is young and inexperienced. Things are especially tough at running back, where there is no one with experience behind Curtis McNeal, and the defensive line isn’t much better, after losing Nick Perry to the pros. Don’t be surprised to see five-star freshman Leonard Williams get time as a starter up front.
Of course a lack of depth up front leads to a bigger question: Does USC have enough bodies to slow down their biggest rivals, Oregon?
And if not…
1. Can Oregon Win In the Coliseum on November 3 and Position Themselves for Another BCS Title Game Berth?
That might seem like kind of an abstract question to ask in the middle of July, but if we’ve learned anything about the Oregon football program over the last two years, it’s this: Chip Kelly doesn’t lose football games he’s not supposed to. Since the start of the 2010 season, Oregon has three losses, with one coming to a BCS National Champion (’10 Auburn), another to a BCS title runner-up (’11 LSU) and the third to a 10-win USC club that will enter this season as the No. 1 team in the nation. Other than that, Oregon hasn’t lost a single game. The Ducks have beaten, and beaten up everyone else.
So while some people have bigger concerns about Oregon (especially at quarterback), we think they’ll be ok, and at least one writer (the handsome guy you’re reading right now) happens to think that they’re going to breeze through 11 games on their regular season schedule. Washington State, Cal, Arizona and Colorado, thanks for playing. But we’re already marking you down with a “check” in the loss column.
It’s also why winning at the Coliseum is so important on November 3. If Oregon plays their best every single week, the Trojans are the only threat to beat them straight up. Buuuuuuuut, if Oregon can get through a road trip to USC, it’ll mean the Ducks would be the host of the Pac-12 Championship Game (again, assuming they beat everyone they’re supposed to—which they always do), which would give them a leg-up against the Trojans or whomever else were to come to Autzen Stadium with a conference title on the line. And if they win the Pac-12 Championship Game, well, we would almost certainly be talking about another trip to the BCS Championship for Oregon.
Of course if Oregon doesn’t win November 3, then it almost certainly means a return trip to USC to face the Trojans on their home turf again in Los Angeles. Even if they won then, there would be no guarantee of a trip to the title game.
So I guess what we’re trying to say is that “Whoever wins on November 3 has an inside track to a Pac-12 Championship and potential BCS championship game.”
It’s the biggest question entering the Pac-12 season, and one which might determine our 2012 National Champion.
For all his insight, analysis and opinion on college football, be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.