Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Perfection is elusive in deep Pac-10
By Ted Miller
Good teams string wins together. Doesn't matter if they are on the road or at home. Injuries? No excuse. Quarterback's girlfriend leave him for a linebacker? If it's not a part of the winning formula, it gets left behind when the locker room doors swing open.
If it were only so easy. Just ask Alabama, which just saw a 19-game winning streak that was distinguished by extraordinary focus and consistency end at a South Carolina, a program that has lost at least five games for eight consecutive seasons. Or USC from 2002-2008. That college football dynasty and NFL factory only produced two unbeaten regular seasons and one perfect record.
"I don't care what kind of team you are, to go undefeated at all you have to have some breaks," Arizona coach Mike Stoops said.
How hard is undefeated (and untied)? In 1972, USC rolled to a 12-0 finish. The next time a conference team finished with a perfect record was Washington in 1991. After that, it was USC in 2004. All three were national champions.
How hard is it to go undefeated (and untied) in Pac-10 play? Besides those aforementioned seasons, and using that same time frame, USC also did it in 1973, 1976, 1988 and 2005. Arizona State was perfect until the Rose Bowl in 1996. UCLA lost two games in 1998 but was perfect in conference games.
That means teams ended up unbeaten in Pac-10 (and Pac-8) play just nine times in 38 seasons. For comparison's sake, the SEC champion was unbeaten in conference play17 times during that span-- 18, really, because two teams were unbeaten in the conference in 1981. In fact, it's happened seven times in the SEC since 1991.
This season, the discussion of potential Pac-10 perfect starts and ends with Oregon. The No. 2 Ducks are 6-0 overall, the conference's only unbeaten team. Oregon State is the only other team that, at 2-0, hasn't lost a conference game.
The conventional wisdom is the Ducks need to finish 12-0 to play for the national title, though there are many variables in play that could quash the conventional wisdom and allow them to do it at 11-1. Still, the question is can the Ducks, as coach Gary Gaines asked in "Friday Night Lights," be perfect?
Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh saw the Ducks make his Cardinal's early 21-3 lead go poof in a 52-31 loss on Oct. 2. Perfection, he admits, will be extremely difficult to obtain in the Pac-10. And yet.
"I think Oregon has a very good chance of doing it, though," he said. "I don't know what the percentages are. It's a high degree of difficulty. Oregon's got a shot at."
But perfection is rare. And the question of stringing together wins goes beyond Oregon. What about the conference producing multiple elite, top-10 teams? Or a second BCS bowl team? That hasn't happened since 2002.
Since the conference expanded to 10 teams in 1978, the Pac-10 has produced two or more teams that finished the season with two or fewer defeats just 10 times. And it hasn't happened at all since the nine-game, round-robin conference schedule was adopted in 2006.
What's clear: The Pac-10 tends cannibalize itself. And the depth this season suggests stringing wins together will be difficult.
"There aren't any easy games," Stoops said. "That becomes a mental grind, a toughness deal where you've got to show up and play pretty well to win [every week]."
Four Pac-10 teams are presently ranked: No. 2 Oregon, No. 14 Stanford (5-1), No. 17 Arizona (4-1) and No. 24 Oregon State (3-2). How many will end up in the top-10? A second BCS bowl team can't have more than two losses. There typically is room for only one or two three-loss team in the final top 10. So the margin for error is small.
Stoops already knows how hard it is to get his team to an optimum level for every game. While he gave credit to the Beavers for their win in Tucson last weekend, it was clear that the Wildcats didn't look much like the fast, physical, frenzied team that beat Iowa on Sept. 18.
How hard is it for a coach to get his team's best, most focused effort every weekend?
"It's just impossible," Stoops said. "That's just not the way it is. You play your extreme [best] maybe three or four times a year. People who say otherwise are being ridiculous. You just want to be good enough to win games. That's where your preparation is so important. You may not be in the peak moment, where you're playing with that emotion, at that high edge, but you've got to be good enough to go out there and play well every week. That's what good teams do."
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian got a peak performance at USC two weeks ago. But instead of riding that momentum into a home game against a reeling Arizona State team, the Huskies got beaten soundly, 24-14.
"That's the mystery of sports, right?" Sarkisian said. "If there is a formula or a button to push then everyone would have it, and we would never need to play the games. The best teams would always win.
"We continually fight for that consistency. We look for the ingredients that make that work, whether that be our preparation, our practices, our installation, or our routines on Friday and Saturday. You're always are looking for that right formula and those right ingredients to try to re-create that same intensity, that same energy level, that same enthusiasm level, and, ultimately, that same execution. But somewhere in there, it can get lost. If it didn't, we have a bunch of undefeated teams."
Finding that elusive formula on a consistent basis isn't easy, even for great coaches. But great coaches and great programs tend to find it more often.
Perfection is extraordinarily difficult to obtain, particularly in a deep conference. Most programs, even good ones, have never posted a perfect season. Oregon is the latest Pac-10 team to get to midseason with the possibility still alive.
But, beyond the Ducks, there are at present a gaggle of other teams looking for successful seasons, whether that be defined by 10, nine or seven wins. To get to their number, they are going to have to find a way to consistently hit their peak performance.
Or the Pac-10 will end up appearing -- fair or unfair -- mediocre rather than deep.