Monday, July 30, 2012

Pac 12 Preview: Washington Huskies

Back in the day, the Washington Huskies were all about defense. They were relentlessly aggressive, blitzed constantly, and played press man to man coverage on the outside.  Up until Jim Lambright was fired after the 1998 season, the Huskies had a discernable identity on defense.  The 1998 season was their worst defensive season since 1973, and Lambright, who had earned the ire of Athletic Director Barbara Hedges for having the audacity to complain about the lack of funding for the football program(He foresaw Oregon's meteoric facility driven rise before many people and fought to compete with them), was unceremoniously fired. Rick Neuheisel, hardly a guy who emphasized defense, was hired, and the precipitious decline on defense began.

In 2009, when Steve Sarkisian opened the checkbook for Nick Holt, the days of good defense seemed to be just around the corner. What Husky fans didn't expect, was that Holt would coach a tentative, read and react, conservative defense completely at odds with his screaming, hypergesticulating persona. Holt's scheme needed great players, especially great linebackers.  When Donald Butler and Mason Foster, two outstanding linebackers graduated, the defense suffered the worst defense in the entire history of Washington football in 2011.  Now comes Josh Wilcox, who fled Dooley's burning ship at Tennessee for Washington.  Wilcox has been touting a scheme of diversity, aggressiveness and more man to man coverage(Yes!). 

There is legitimate talent on defense with Josh Shirley, Desmond Trufant and Sean Parker, but there's a lot of youth as well.   Danny Shelton is a roadblock in the middle and is much better fit for the 3-4 base that Wilcox plans to implement.  I have my doubts about the linebackers, but I am of the mind that a defense works from the front to back, if the defensive line does their job, the linebackers should have an easier time doing theirs.

Offensively, the Huskies are losing Chris Polk, Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar.  The receivers are replacable, as the Huskies have excellent depth at the position with Kasen Williams and James Johnson leading the way. Polk was the engine of the offense the last three years and would always raise his game when the passing game hit its annual late October/early November wall.  Bishop Sankey and Jessie Callier will share the load at running back.  Neither is a great between the tackle runner, so I anticipate Sarkisian will employ some gimmickry in the form of short passes, screens and draws.  Keith Price was very good last year for a first year starter. He was a much better fit in Sarkisian's office than Jake Locker and it showed.  He never really was healthy last year, so if he stays healthy this year, it further expands the playbook and he should have another big year.  Austin Sefarin-Jenkins will go down as the greatest tight end ever to play at Washington, partially because of the pass happy scheme he is in and partially because he's that damn good. Sarkisian knows exactly how to use him.  The offensive line is shaky, but isn't THAT much of a weakness.  Depth is an issue if injuries mount.

This should be a better Husky team than last year, I still feel they are a year away from being a real contender for the Pac 12 title.  The schedule is also brutal, so although the team is better than last year, especially on defense, it might not show on the record.  I think Huskies fans would accept a 6-7 win season again as long as the games against top flight teams are closer than in the past.  No more 60 point annihilations against Stanford, no more blowouts against Oregon(Have not lost Oregon by single digits since 2000), no more laughable beatings administered by USC, if this program is going to take that next step, they have to play with the big boys, and this schedule is littered with them.
Sept. 1 -- San Diego State: WIN
8 -- @LSU: Loss
15 -- Portland State: Win
27 -- Stanford: Loss
Oct. 6 -- @Oregon: Loss
13 -- USC: Loss
20 -- @Arizona: Win
27 -- Oregon State: Win
Nov. 2 -- @California: Win
10 -- Utah: Loss
17 -- @Colorado: Win
23 -- @Washington State: Win
Record: 7-5

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Top 10 Pac-12 Teams Since 1990 #10-6

I first remember watching college football in 1990.  Well, the 1991 Washington Iowa Rose Bowl is the first football memory I can readily call upon.  I think it would be impossible for me, and intellectually dishonest, to include teams I didn't actually watch. As you've noticed by now, or not noticed, this blog has a west coast slant to it.  These teams are on TV here, they get the coverage, and I don't feel bad about it because every other fucking blog ignores this area of the country.

I came up with this list based on a few criteria.  The dominance of the team, the strength of schedule, quality of losses and the quality of the conference. 10-2 one year might be more impressive than 10-2 in another. I came up with a list of all the very good/great teams of the last 22 years, and narrowed it down from there.
Without further adieu, in descending order, here is the top Pac-12 teams since 1990.

10. 1997 Washington State Cougars: The quintessential Mike Price WSU team with an explosive offense and a aggressive turnover forcing defense.  Their sole regular season loss was to 9-3 Arizona State in your classic, undefeated team not used to success gets outgunned by the last powerful Bruce Snyder ASU squad.  They defeated a 10 win UCLA team, quality squads in Arizona, Oregon, and the previously mentioned absurdly talented Washington squad.  Probably their most impressive game was a loss to the national champion Michigan Wolverines, a game WSU controlled and probably would have won if not for the injury to Michael Black early on(this was like taking Marshall Faulk out of those old Rams offense as far as scheme importance(Slight exaggeration).  Best WSU team ever assembled, better than 2002, without question.

9. 2011 Oregon Ducks: I put this Ducks incarnation on here because they scored, based on my general research, more points than any team in Pac 12 history(They did play 14 games).  They also became the first Ducks team in ages to win the Rose Bowl. Their two losses were to USC(10-2) and national championship runner up LSU.  Their only other competitive game was against Wisconsin (11-3) in the Rose Bowl. In time, this season may be looked at as the hiccup between the 2010 and 2012 squads.

8. 2003 USC: You could say this team was a triple overtime loss to Cal from being undefeated, and I could tell you that they still had to go to triple overtime to beat Cal.  Thats not to say this team wasn't great. The Cal game was the only game decided by less than 14 points.  They didn't annihilate, but soundly beat every squad, although they only played five teams with winning records that season.  This was supposed to be a down year, in transitioning from Palmer to Leinart. They still scored a ton of points, and their defense, especially the front four. I particularly remember Shaun Cody and Kenechi Udezi swarming the immobile John Navarre repeatedly during the Rose Bowl.

7. 1996 Arizona State: Ah, the forgotten great team of the last twenty years.  This team is often left out of discussions because their run at the top lasted only this one year.  That doesn't make this team any less exceptional.  This was the year Jake Plummer became legendary, and Pat Tillman started to  become renowned as an unbelievable badass.  In week 3 they shut out and beat up Nebraska, a team that hadn't lost a regular season game since November of 1992, and wouldn't lose another regular season game until October of 1998.  They entered the Rose Bowl undefeated, but lost to an outstanding Ohio State squad at the last second.  The Pac 10 wasn't great in 1996, but this team was.

6. 2010 Stanford Cardinal: After their Orange Bowl dismembering of Virginia Tech, I said this is one of the best Pac 10 teams I'd ever seen.  They were physically dominating, and extremely well coached. They had deceptively deep talent and lost to a team thats proven to be their kryptonite, Oregon, a team we will see later in this list.  What made this team so impressive is that while Oregon ran teams to death, Stanford beat you up mentally and physically, lesser teams fell apart in the second half and some teams simply had no interest in showing up(See the Washington, UCLA and Oregon State contests). Statistically, the 2011 squad was better, but to the trained eye, the 2010 team was better.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Pac 12 Preview: Arizona State

Last year it wouldn't have been a stretch to say Arizona State had the most talent in the Pac 12. Unfortunately, they were easily the most undiscplined and lazy team as well.  Arizona State succumbed to their annual late season malaise after a solid start, which included with a dominating trucking of powerful USC, stumbled haphazardly into a bowl game and unceremoniously annihilated by Boise State.  Luckily for everyone, except for the bars and golf courses in Tempe, Dennis Erickson was fired.  As is the norm when a coach is fired, the complete opposite of the previous coach is hired.  Well, not entirely, Todd Graham is as much of a job hopper as Dennis was, even more so. However, he is a disciplinarian who is instilling those old school buzz words, toughness, discipline, work ethic. My guess is he will run into a bit of resistance from guys who were used to the country club atmosphere of the Dennis Erickson era. Despite a lot of talent, they don't have a quarterback, and I'm not sure Graham's system is a perfect fit for the talent is there.

Here's a look at the schedule:
Sept. 1 -- Northern Arizona: Win
8 -- Illinois: Win
15 -- @Missouri: Loss
22 -- Utah: Loss
29 -- @Cal: Loss
Oct. 11 -- @Colorado: Win
18 -- Oregon: Loss
27 -- UCLA: Win
Nov. 3 -- @Oregon State: Loss
10 -- @USC: Loss
17 -- Washington State: Win
23 -- @Arizona: Win

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Pac 12 Preview: USC

After two down seasons by USC standards, it appears that USC is ready to jump back into the national title picture in 2012.  They have a legitimate stud quarterback, a four year starter who looked to have taken "the leap" at the end of last year.  They have two ridiculously good wide receivers, the standard USC running back duo and a solid offensive line.  The linebackers are young but talented, and the secondary is loaded.  Their moody, petulant head coach appears to have finally grown up.  If the Trojans remain healthy this team could win 10-12 games and compete for a national title. But what if they don't?

Lost in the late season renaissance USC experienced last season and the ensuing hype of having Barkley, Woods and McDonald return for another season is that this program is still on sanctions.  I'm a fan of history, and as, quite obviously, I'm a Seattle native, I've followed the Washington Huskies football program since my infancy. This USC team's situation reminds me of the 1997 Huskies team.  As you may or may not remember, the Huskies were stricken with similar and equally dubious sanctions at the height of their powers. Washington's sanctions took effect in 1993, and by 1997 it appeared they were rising back to their previous status as a dominant program.  The team was utterly loaded with talent, 14 of 22 starters ended up being drafted into the NFL. Due to the sanction induced scholarship restrictions, the Huskies lacked depth. Despite starting the season ranked 4th in the country and starting 7-1, the Huskies suffered injuries down the stretch and finished 8-4. 
USC, it could easily be argued, has better talent than that Washington team, but still has significant depth issues. If injuries hit, the could suffer a similar fate.

Injuries, I can't predict, therefore I will say the only other weakness I can find on this squad is potentially on the defensive line. They lost three starters, which, nine or ten games out of the year shouldn't affect a squad like USC, but given how important the defensive line will be stopping Stanford and Oregon, it could be the difference between 10-2 and 12-0.

Sept. 1 -- Hawaii: Win
8 -- Syracuse: Win
15 -- @Stanford: Win
22 -- California: Win
Oct. 4 -- @Utah: Win
13 -- @Washington:Win
20 -- Colorado:Win
27 -- @Arizona:Win
Nov. 3 -- Oregon: Loss
10 -- Arizona State: Win
17 -- @UCLA: Win
24 -- Notre Dame:Win


Monday, July 16, 2012

Previewing the Pac 12: UCLA Bruins

When I was younger, UCLA was a powerhouse.  Their offense was a finely tuned machine created by Terry Donahue, and later Bob Toledo.  Their running backs were fast and explosive, their receivers freakishly tall with great hands, and their quarterbacks efficient.  After the forgettably mediocre Karl Dorrell years, Rick Neuheisel was brought in to resurrect the program to its former heights and challenge the dominant cross town rival USC Trojans.

Neuheisel recruited solid talent, unbelievably instituted the pistol because of the ineptitude of his quarterback situation, and fielded teams that were disappointingly average.  His teams lacked discipline and toughness, the offense was only successful against the very poorest coached teams in the conference, and he was fired after four seasons.

In comes Jim Mora Jr, touting a pro style offense and maniacally raving about toughness and physical practices.  Let me get this straight, I think Jim Mora Jr is a joke.  He took over a playoff team in the Atlanta Falcons, took them to the NFC Championship, threw a tantrum on the sidelines when Andy Reid completely outcoached him, and had his team quit on him the last two seasons he was there.  He then took over the Seahawks, made more excuses than Paul Wulff, whined, bitched, complained about a myriad of things, threw his players under the bus and then acted like a child when he was fired, calling Pete Carroll a cheater and throwing veiled insults the Seahawks way all the while claiming to be "over the whole thing".  Do I think his antics will work in college? No. But, I digress, now to the more objective part of the preview.

UCLA is switching to a 3-4, honestly, I don't know why Neuheisel never did this, the talent completely fits the scheme.  They are also ditching the pistol(Thank god), and adopting a more modern spread offense look.  The Bruins have a boatload of quarterbacks on the roster, including Kevin Prince, who is a member of the Drew Neitzel All-Stars as a guy who seems like he's been in college forever. Jonathan Franklin is an outstanding running back.  At the receiver position they lost Nelson Rosario but have some legitimate playmaking talent in place in Shaq Evans. The offensive line is lacking, as is the norm at UCLA.

Defense is how Jim Mora climbed the NFL ladder, or riding his fathers coattails, depends who you ask.  But I will be curious to see how Mora transforms a typically underachieving unit.  The defensive line has solid depth and decent size and the linebackers are probably the strength of the defense.  The corners are big, which I love, but aren't exceptionally skilled at the game of football. 

The defense will be the strength of this team and I wouldn't be surprised to see the offense struggle mightily given the significant change in scheme.  I don't think Mora is a great coach and I think he will continue to run physical practices which will cause his team to wear down as the season progressed.  The Pac 12 is a brutal conference, the second best in the country.  Even if Mora improves this team as far as on the field play, Idon't think the record will show.
   Here is a look at their schedule and my predictions:

Aug. 30 -- @Rice: Win

Sept. 8 -- Nebraska: Loss

15 -- Houston: Loss

22 -- Oregon State: Win

29 -- @Colorado: Loss

Oct. 6 -- @Cal: Loss

13 -- Utah: Loss

27 -- @Arizona State: Loss

Nov. 3 -- Arizona: Win

10 -- @Washington State: Loss

17 -- USC: Loss

24 -- Stanford: Loss

Record: 3-9