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Friday, March 2, 2012
Take 2: Which Pac-12 coach has it tougher?

By Ted Miller and Kevin Gemmell

California's Jeff Tedford and Oregon State's Mike Riley will enter 2012 spring practices facing those delightful "hotseat" questions. It's a drag for them to endure such queries, and reporters get no joy from making the coaches they cover grumpy by probing their feelings on their job security.

But most coaches will tell you that it doesn't take much to warm up the ole coaching throne. After all, it wasn't too long ago that Tedford and Riley were the toasts of Berkeley and Corvallis.

So which other Pac-12 coaches face challenging seasons?

Lane Kiffin
For Lane Kiffin and the Trojans there's only one thing that can go right and several that can go wrong.
In this Take 2, we find things to worry about at the top of the conference as well as on the bottom.

Kevin Gemmell: Sometimes the burden of expectation is the heaviest of all. And to offer a contrarian perspective, I think Lane Kiffin might have the toughest coaching job in the Pac-12. He was trashed at Oakland. Trashed at Tennessee. Now he has a team that will likely be ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the preseason. There isn't a lot of room to move up. But, oh, how one tiny slip-up could make for a frustrating season. For USC, the goal has to be national title game or bust. Nothing else will do.

Can you imagine if they lose at home to Oregon on Nov. 3? Or worse yet -- to Stanford in the third game of the season? Let's face it, David Shaw knows how to attack the Tampa-2. You don't spend as much time as he did in Baltimore without learning the ins and outs of that scheme. And don't think Oregon isn't looking to avenge the loss at Autzen. Or worse yet -- losing to a team that ISN'T Oregon or Stanford!?

If Kiffin gets his team to the national championship game, it will be met with the requisite "ho hum, that's what he's supposed to do with this group." If he doesn't, he'll be blasted for derailing a freight train with the top quarterback and the top wide-receiver duo in the country.

The other top two teams in the conference -- Oregon and Stanford -- both have quarterback issues. If they drop a game or two, the backlash will likely be minimal because transition usually comes at a cost. Four other teams in the conference have new head coaches -- so expectations are minimal and inconsistency is par for the course.

But not the Trojans -- who have a starting roster dripping with NFL talent. And let's look ahead to 2013. Should the Trojans fail to reach the title game this year, there will certainly be questions about why Kiffin couldn't get it done with Matt Barkley and Robert Woods. So what's to make us believe he could get it done without them? Plus, there are continuing sanctions that handcuff the program even further.

Make no mistake about it, this will be Kiffin's toughest year of coaching. This is an all-or-nothing outing. His team is the best show in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately town. For Kiffin, there is only one thing that can go right, but a whole lot that can go wrong.

Ted Miller: I agree that Kiffin has a tough task this year with stratospheric expectations, but I suspect my guy -- Colorado coach Jon Embree -- would be willing to take on the pressure of high expectations in exchange for some of that Trojan talent.

Jon Embree
Jon Embree and Colorado will likely need a strong start to the 2012 season to reach a bowl game.
What Embree has instead: He's a second-year coach coming off a 3-10 season at a place that is frustrated with losing. Not surprisingly, Colorado fans expect improvement. That's what new hires are supposed to do right? Set a positive trajectory. And what I keep getting from Buffaloes' fans this offseason is questions about bowl games.

Answer: Don't hold your breath.

First, look at the depth chart. Embree must replace his quarterback, top rusher, top two receivers (statistically; junior Paul Richardson is the Buffaloes best offensive player) and his best pass-rusher. While recruiting has been solid, asking freshmen and redshirt freshmen to fill obvious voids probably isn't going to get very far in the Pac-12. What has become clear is Embree inherited a substantial rebuilding project, one that would tax even Nick Saban. Bowl game? It will be surprising if the Buffs don't finish in the South Division cellar again.

And there's another problem. The Buffs probably are going to start 3-0. Hopes are going to soar and fans are going to write the Pac-12 blog, telling me to stick it in my ear. Or perhaps somewhere else. But after beating Colorado State, Sacramento State and winning at Fresno State -- not a sure thing, by the way -- the schedule toughens up. Want to know when the season likely will be made or broken? A winable three-game stretch to start the Pac-12 schedule: at Washington State, UCLA, bye, Arizona State.

To earn a bowl berth, the Buffs probably need to win two of those three games.

After that, oh boy: At USC, at Oregon, Stanford, at Arizona, Washington and Utah. Projecting one win over that stretch is optimistic, even though Colorado beat both Arizona and Utah in 2011. So in other words: A fast start charges up Buff fans, but then a weak finish crushes their optimism -- and causes them to declare Embree's honeymoon over.

As predictions go -- fast start, slow finish -- I'd rate this one as having a high probability of happening. Seemingly random quirks of scheduling can be painful. Just ask former Arizona coach Mike Stoops, whose 10-game losing streak against FBS foes, which got him fired, is more understandable when you note the Wildcats played Oklahoma State, Oregon, Stanford and USC twice each during that span. And, of course, Embree knows all about painfully quirky schedules, having played a 13-game one in 2011 that included no byes, road trips to Hawaii and Ohio State, both Oregon and Stanford from the Pac-12 North -- Utah missed both -- as well as a game with California that didn't count in the conference standings.

For what it's worth, Colorado was probably the best 3-10 team in the nation last year. And the 2011 team, on paper, looks superior to what Embree has for 2012.

Not that Embree can open his pre-spring press conference saying so. He's walking a fine line here. He deserves patience, but can't ask for it. He wants to challenge his team and build its confidence, but trumping up expectations could backfire.

The 2012 season looks like a transitional one in Boulder. In our win-now college football culture, transitional seasons can make life difficult for coaches, particularly those trying to rebuild a program and invigorate a beleaguered fanbase.