Monday, November 26, 2012
Surprise! It's Stanford-UCLA for Pac-12 title
By Ted Miller
This past summer, the Pac-12 Conference asked 123 media members -- you know: a gaggle of the lovely and gifted -- to vote in the Pac-12 preseason media poll.
That group of geniuses -- which included the Twin Lords of Awesomeness, Ted Miller & Kevin Gemmell -- picked Oregon to win the Pac-12 North Division and USC to win the Pac-12 South Division by overwhelming numbers: Both received 117 first-place votes, including ballots inscribed in gold leaf on granite tablets from Messrs. Miller & Gemmell (postage was a killer).
And, of that 123, 102 picked USC to win the Pac-12. There were some contrarians: 18 voted for Oregon and three voted for Arizona State to win the conference title.
Will UCLA do a better job containing Stepfan Taylor and Stanford in the Pac-12 title game on Friday?
None voted for UCLA or Stanford, which will play for the Pac-12 championship on Friday in Palo Alto.
Now, take 30 seconds to vituperate against the media.
UCLA was picked third in the South behind USC and Utah, though it did receive two first-place votes. Stanford was picked second in the North and received five first-place votes. So neither was expected to be lousy (Kevin had Stanford 10th in his preseason top 25 and Ted had them 16th). It was just expected that USC and Oregon would be top-five teams, perhaps undefeated when they met on Nov. 3.
So how did this happen?
The simple answer is the purest form of competition: head-to-head.
With a brilliant defensive showing, Stanford won at Oregon 17-14 in overtime on Nov. 17. And in a stunning reversal of a 50-0 result in 2011, UCLA whipped USC 38-28 on the same day.
The more complicated answer? Good coaching, exceeding expectations where there were preseason personnel questions and mostly staying healthy.
Quarterback was a big question for each. No longer. You get the feeling that the Bruins (Brett Hundley) and the Cardinal (Kevin Hogan) are now quite excited about the present and future at the position, considering both are redshirt freshmen.
UCLA's defense came together nicely under new coordinator Lou Spanos, most notably with the inspired move of Anthony Barr from purgatory on offense to greatness at outside linebacker, where he might win Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors. Stanford's defense under coordinator Derek Mason was expected to be good, but it became great because a young secondary grew up fast and showcased improved athleticism from years past.
Both got better play on their offensive lines than most expected. And both probably feel good about the future there, based on the young guys returning in 2013.
Finally, UCLA's first-year coach, Jim Mora, and Stanford's second-year coach, David Shaw, pulled all -- or at least most of -- the right coaching levers. Both will get consideration for Pac-12 Coach of the Year. Both showed enough to suggest they are building programs that can remain at or near the top of the Pac-12 for years to come.
Neither team, however, escaped the ole "what might have been." The Bruins lost at home to Oregon State by seven points and suffered an inexplicable blowout defeat to California. The Cardinal suffered a baffling loss at Washington and were controversially nipped in overtime at Notre Dame, which is now unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the country.
Still, here they are, playing for a berth in the Granddaddy.
They also share a similar Rose Bowl drought. UCLA's last Rose Bowl appearance followed the 1998 season, a 39-31 loss to Wisconsin. The Cardinal lost to Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl the following year, 17-9.
UCLA's last Rose Bowl victory was a 45-28 win over Iowa in 1986. Stanford's was a 13-12 win over Michigan in 1972.
So both programs are pretty darn hungry for some Rose Bowl glory.
The final oddity is this: They will meet after playing each other just six days before.
Most might see this as a detriment to the game. Yet it also adds some intrigue because of the circumstances of last Saturday's game, which Stanford won easily, 35-17.
While Stanford had to win that game to win the North Division -- the Cardinal were unquestionably motivated due to important stakes -- the Bruins played knowing two things: (1) They'd already won the South Division; (2) If they won, they'd visit Oregon on Friday for the Pac-12 title.
While Stanford won at Oregon, if you took a poll of Pac-12 coaches, here's a strong hunch that most would opt to play at Stanford rather than at Oregon if a Rose Bowl berth were on the line.
So, while no one would ever admit it because it breaks the Competitors Code, there's a lingering idea that the Bruins might have more to offer this go-around than the previous, in terms of motivation and, perhaps, scheme.
That's something we can only find out on Friday when these two improbable division winners give the Pac-12 an unexpected champion.