Pac-12: John Wooden
That has many believing third-year coach Paul Wulff is on the hot seat, even though it's been widely acknowledged that he was handed a monumental rebuilding job in 2008 when he returned to his alma mater from Eastern Washington.
The expectations outside the program aren't just low: Many tweak the Cougars as among the worst BCS programs in the nation.
What does he keep saying? "We're going to surprise some people."
The Cougars face a tough opener at Oklahoma State on Sept. 4, so it seemed like a good time to check in and see how the rebuilding is going on the Palouse.
The pundits have you guys pegged at 10th in the conference: How do you deal with that negative outlook when you address your team?
Paul Wulff: A lot of that is based on what happened in past years. It's a new year. We're a new team and we've changed a lot. The players know we've worked hard and we know we are getting better. The people predicting don't know what's happening in the offseason. But it is what it is. We probably deserve to be picked there. I don't know if that's a surprise. It doesn't mean that's where we're going to end up. We sure don't think so. We'll keep working hard. And we believe we will be able to put ourselves in position to surprise a lot of people and win a lot of ballgames and take that step to a bowl game.
I know we've talked about this before and I know you are tired of the topic but there's a general perception that you are on the proverbial coaching hot seat: What's your feeling on that perception?
PW: My feeling again is that's a natural thing for people on the outside that don't understand the situation to think when you have a major rebuilding job. It's never pretty. You go back to Mack Brown, who was 1-10 his first two years at North Carolina. There are a lot of examples: Randy Edsall and Connecticut. We [Eastern Washington] actually beat them as a I-AA school in 2001. We went back there and beat them. We've had to build something here, and like John Wooden says 'good things take time.' We're trying to build something special for the long haul. We're not trying to bring in a bunch of transfers and JC kids to try to win a few games one year. I'm not here to do that. I'm here to build a program that can compete for the Pac-10 title and be in the Rose Bowl and win one and put ourselves in position for a national title. Those programs in those situations didn't get there in one night. It's a five- to six-year building process. You've got to climb a ladder. I care about this university because it is my school. I came here to do that. If I have to take the bullets, as [former WSU basketball coach] Dick Bennett told me I would, I'm just going to have to do that. He was a guy who knew the situation. So I'm doing it and I'll continue to do it. But it's going to turn and when we turn we're going to be an awfully good football team.
On the football side of things: What is better about QB Jeff Tuel in Year 2 after he was forced into action as a true freshman?
PW: His comfort level with the offense and comfort level with some of the players who he's had the offseason to work with. There's a little better continuity there. He's making better decisions, he stronger. Things are happening at a quicker pace for him in his own brain. Obviously that helps our offense. We think highly of Jeff, but he's still got to prove lot of things in ballgames on a consistent basis. But there's no question in practice we see flashes of some really great things.
Where are some prime areas of competition on your team that have yet to be resolved?
PW: Running back is definitely one. We feel like a lot of guys are battling in there. We're hoping two or three really emerge come game day. Because we've got a lot of guys, no one has gotten a tremendous amount of reps. We're hoping that kind of sorts itself out in the first few games. At wide receiver, we're still battling through there, getting a lot of guys time, trying to see who's going to make the plays when the games are live. But we like the young nucleus we have. We think we have a couple special ones that are going to great players here the next four years.
The comeback of James Montgomery is pretty cool: How is he doing?
PW: He's doing great. I think it's got be one of the best stories in the country to do what he's done. He didn't just battle compartment syndrome. He battled a knee surgery that was a pretty extensive one. To do both and to come back and to perform where he is right now is impressive. He's not 100 percent, not in shape and as crisp, as sharp, as he's going to be. We're hoping by the time he gets to Game 3 or Game 4, he'll have caught back up with all that. But where he is today, he's a very good player. He's going to play and be our starter in the opening game and were hoping he progresses from there.
Who are your playmakers in the passing game?
PW: I think Jared Karstetter will be back -- there's no question we can rely on him. We're taking a hard look at Marquess Wilson, a true freshman. He's as dynamic a true freshman receiver as I've been around. Even coach [Mike] Levenseller, who's been here for 19 years, thinks Marquess is a special talent. I think Isaiah Barton and Gino Simone, our slot receivers, will make a difference, along with Jeffrey Solomon and Daniel Blackledge. Those guys will be good players for us. I'm excited to see how they will perform for us.
What have you seen out of your offensive line this spring? How close are they to breaking through as a quality unit?
PW: They're close. Coach [Steve Morton] has done a great job melding those guys together. We're getting better, no question. I'm excited. I think we have some raw talent. It's a relatively young unit -- we really have two seniors who will be contributors on a consistent basis. We have 15 others who are younger. If we can stay healthy there, we're going to surprise a lot of people with our production on the offensive front.
Let's look at defense: How are things stacking up at linebacker?
PW: The thing that's hurting us is two players who aren't playing this fall, who we have high hopes for, and that's Louis Bland, who we're going to redshirt, and Andre Barrington, a redshirt freshman for us, who is academically ineligible this fall. But I do like Alex Hoffman and Myron Beck, those guys have done well. Mike Ledgerwood, Hallston Higgins, Arthur Burns and CJ Mizell -- he's come along. We feel like we've got some makings there. It's a young unit from an experience standpoint, but I like our speed there. If we can stay healthy, it will be a big improvement from where we've been.
And the defensive line: Has tackle Brandon Rankin continued to impress?
PW: He has. He's a good player. He has a chance to show a lot of people what he's all about this fall. He's already doing things in practice that make it pretty obvious. We need him to have a big year. I think he's going to do extremely well. Bernard Wolfgramm is back and it's the first time he's healthy for us. Those two at defensive tackle are probably as athletic at pass rushing as we've had here in years. They will be quality pass-rushing D-tackles that you don't get a lot. They are not just pluggers, they're fairly active guys. I'm very encouraged about those two guys.
You guys are pretty salty on the defensive line. There's four pretty good players.
PW: I think our front four is right up there right now with most people in the Pac-10. We got two fifth-year seniors and a fourth-year junior in Brandon Rankin and a second-year kid, an excellent player, in end Travis Long. It's our most experienced group on our football team. It's probably the best unit we have right now. It goes back to having fifth- and fourth-year players in your program. When you have that consistently throughout, you have a chance to be pretty salty. Right now, if those guys can stay healthy, they give us the most experienced group on our football team.
Finally, the secondary: It sounds like there's some depth back there.
PW: It's been good -- good, healthy competition. It's a young, young group, but there's some really good football players. We've kind of been hit a little bit over the last couple of days with the injury bug. LeAndre Daniels is going to battle a neck issue that we're still working through. We don't know that he'll be healthy at safety. Nolan Washington has been a little nicked up with his hip at cornerback. If those guys can come back, I'm not sure, but I like our talent there. It's a young and green group but we have some kids who can run for the first time in a while. We need to stay relatively healthy because we're youthful back there. I like the group. Our team speed on defense is far and away faster than we've been. I think people are going to notice that pretty quickly.
What is your expectation for this team: What would be a successful season?
PW: I don't want to put any limitations on them. These guys have trained so hard since the end of last season. They've done everything right to get better. We finally got the culture changed to what we expect. So when you work that hard, I refuse to put a limitation on what they are capable of doing. Right now we truly are trying to take it just one game at a time. But we're going to break this thing up into four segments. We've got 12 games, with three games in each quarter. We're going to take it one quarter at a time. We're going to block it like that, and move our way up the chain. I think this team is capable of surprising a lot of football teams, a lot of people out there. I really believe people are going to see a much improved team from what you saw last year. How many wins that's going to equate to, I'm really not sure. It just depends on a few breaks here and there and staying healthy at the right spots.
Understand: These are not predictions. They are extreme scenarios and pieces of fiction.
Up next: USC
It starts with a Tennessee football helmet.
Perhaps it is fitting that Lane Kiffin, who always took the high road after his completely reasonable departure from Tennessee, would use the symbol of a program that hated him to solve a major environmental crisis. Where the oilmen and scientists failed, Kiffin, with an assist from USC quarterback Matt Barkley, successfully plugs the BP oil spill in the Gulf.
"It was pretty cool," Barkley says. "I don't know where the Tennessee football helmet came from, but he just swam right into the middle of the oil flow -- it was really jetting out of there -- and slammed the helmet in the hole. I was a little worried about him for a second, but all of the sudden -- slam! -- and the oil stopped. And then, of course, there was that trip to the White House."
The trip to the White House turns eventful when Kiffin invites President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader John Boehner and Rush Limbaugh out for a beer.
"Pelosi is a riot -- you don't get that on TV," Kiffin says. "She and Limbaugh start singing "99 Red Balloons" together, and the President manages to extract this pesky splinter from Boehner's thumb. Dude just brightened. Great smile. Everybody got along famously and agreed to stop bickering over fatuous things and actually solve problems. I joked that a good start would be NCAA sanctions against the Trojans."
While USC enters the season as a slight Pac-10 favorite, much of the preseason talk centers on Kiffin's skill as a diplomat and humanitarian.
"Look guys," Kiffin tells reporters after the Trojans open with a 42-7 win at Hawaii. "This isn't about me. I've never been a 'me' guy. I'm about team, whether you're talking about the world, the United States or USC. But I'm the USC coach and let's keep the focus on USC and not Lane Kiffin. Darn it! Did I just talk about myself in the third person! That's terrible. Sorry."
USC doesn't allow a touchdown in wins against Virginia and Minnesota. Barkley throws his 11th TD pass of the season at Washington State before sitting out the second half of a blowout victory. USC needs a late scoring run from Allen Bradford to beat Washington and Steve Sarkisian.
"Steve is a friend first and rival second," Kiffin says afterwards. "Men of character can compete and compete hard but still break bread together. I would hope that's a lesson for my team. We're not just about winning at USC, though we do a lot of that. We're about family and character and building leaders."
USC whips Stanford 33-10.
"I don't know anything about 'What's your deal?'" Kiffin says afterwards. "Revenge? That's not why we play football at USC. We play for the pure joy of sport and competition. We should share that with our opponent. So we should always strive for a respectful relationship with our foe. That's the deeper meaning to me."
The Trojans beat California and a ballyhooed showdown with No. 5 Oregon becomes just another blowout win. USC rises to No. 1 in the AP poll.
There simply is no stopping the Trojans. Their defense ranks No. 1 in the nation. Barkley leads the nation in passing efficiency. They are the nation's least penalized team. Meanwhile, on the student side of things, players switch majors from criminal justice and recreation science to pre-med, English and political science.
"Unusual to hear players talking about theoretical physics?" linebacker Chris Galippo replies to an eavesdropping reporter's question. "Really? We talk about stuff like that all the time here in the locker room. Coach Kiffin encourages it. You should hear [fullback Stanley] Havili. He's obsessed with movies. He's always going on about 'mise en scène'. You should have heard him after movie night at the Boys & Girls Club when we saw 'The 400 Blows.' Dude really has a thing for François Truffaut."
USC rumbles past Arizona State, Arizona, Oregon State and gets a standing ovation from Notre Dame fans after a flawless performance in South Bend.
A column appears on UCLA blog "Bruins Nation": "Is it wrong from Bruins to respect Kiffin?" Writes "Nestor": "It's like John Wooden and USC fans. Wooden's greatness transcended the bitter rivalry. So it's possible to acknowledge that a great man is the leader of your hated enemy. Of course, I'm not yet ready to compare Kiffin to Wooden after just one season. But the idea obviously has hatched."
USC beats UCLA 30-17. Kiffin and Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel share a warm handshake afterwards.
Once-beaten Florida wins the BCS title game. The AP crowns unbeaten but NCAA-sanctioned USC national champions.
"Are we the true champions?" Kiffin says. "Well, I like our team. I like its character. But Florida is a great team with great character, too. [Gators coach Urban] Meyer has done such a great job down there. I called him yesterday to congratulate him. I feel bad about how things started between us. I feel like we're both ready to move past that. I think doing so would be a great example to our players and our fans."
In the spring, the NCAA apologizes to USC and gives it all of its scholarships back.
Four games. Four blowout victories. It doesn't look like USC has taken a step back. Perhaps it's taking a step forward under Lane Kiffin?
And, yes, Trojans players, knowing they are banned by the NCAA from the postseason, start to crow. The general theme is: "We're the best and everybody knows that."
Such talk gets a bit quieter when Washington quarterback Jake Locker takes a Heisman Trophy turn in the Coliseum during a 35-21 Huskies victory. Kiffin runs off the field yelling at the officials instead of meeting his friend, Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, at midfield for the postgame handshake.
Last year, Toby Gerhart dominated USC during Stanford's blowout win. This year, it's quarterback Andrew Luck, who tosses four TD passes in a 41-24 victory.
"Do I think [Jim] Harbaugh ran up the score on us?" a steaming Kiffin says. "Absolutely. His quarterback throws TD passes. Ours throws interceptions. His guys are physical. Ours quit when things get tough. We had a good plan. Our players just didn't execute it. Harbaugh's got a good thing going. But we won't always be down. We'll get our guys in here and then let's see how things go."
After said speech, even those who are just learning English become familiar with all the nuances of the phrase, "throwing under the bus," a cliche that appears in nine out of 10 columns about the game.
"We're playing for ourselves, for our teammates, not for Kiffin," an anonymous player is quoted in the LA Times after the Trojans beat California.
Oregon rolls up 510 yards in a blowout win in a half-empty Coliseum. After the game, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin announces that he will retire at the end of the season.
The Trojans beat Arizona State 10-9, an effort that's attributed to a show of respect for the elder Kiffin. But the Trojans drop their next three games before visiting arch-rival UCLA.
"Any of you guys think it's funny UCLA plays in the Rose Bowl?" Kiffin asks reporters during his weekly press conference. "What's the word I'm looking for? Ironic? Isn't it ironic that the Bruins play in the Rose Bowl? The Rose Bowl is the Trojans home. We'll be back playing in the real Rose Bowl soon enough."
Replies UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, "Whatever."
The Bruins prevail 21-3, holding Kiffin's offense to 215 total yards.
"I'm not going to talk about [Kiffin]," Neuheisel says after the game. "This is about us, not them. This is about building classy hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk. We don't care about the other guys. Just as long as they pay rent when they land on our squares."
After UCLA trounces Missouri in the Holiday Bowl, Christian Westerman, George Farmer, Todd Barr and Antwaun Woodsannounce they will sign with the Bruins, who finish 9-4 and ranked 14th.
UCLA finishes a consensus No. 1 in the nation in recruiting. With its last full class before scholarship limitations are invoked, USC finishes fifth in the Pac-10.
"Recruiting rankings don't mean anything," Kiffin tells reporters. "We didn't want any of those guys that went to UCLA. Sure, we recruited a lot of them. But when I looked in their eyes, I could tell they weren't Trojans."
The NCAA rejects USC's appeal of sanctions.
Tennessee fans put up 15 billboardsaround the USC campus.
The Beavers entered the 2008 Civil War ranked 13th in the nation in total defense (290 yards per game). In the spring, five players from that unit would be drafted by NFL teams.
For the Beavers, it was a nightmare in Reser Stadium. It cost them the Rose Bowl. For the Ducks, it was inspiring.
"John Wooden said that competitive greatness is when you play your best against the best," Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. "That's what our players did. Our players just made plays. It wasn't a scheme deal. It wasn't like we exploited anything. It had less to do with coaching than any game I was involved with last year."
Oregon can probably identify with how a defense can have a horrible day. It's played good defense all season, but Stanford somehow rolled up 505 yards in a 51-42 win on Nov. 7.
If defense, indeed, wins championships, then it's hard to imagine that defense won't be where the 113th Civil War on Thursday turns. After all, it's all about a championship, considering the winner goes to the Rose Bowl.
It will be strength-on-strength battle.
Oregon has the No. 1 rushing offense in the Pac-10. Oregon State has the No. 1 rushing defense.
Oregon State has the No. 1 passing offense in the conference. Oregon has the No. 2 passing defense.
Both teams rebuilt their defenses this offseason. The Ducks lost six starters -- four were NFL draft choices -- while the Beavers lost eight, including their entire secondary and three-fourths of the defensive line.
Kelly said repeatedly before the season began he wasn't worried about his defense. He loved the across-the-board speed, particularly at linebacker. His secondary ranked among the nation's best.
Even when two cornerbacks -- starter Walter Thurmond III and his backup, Willie Glasper -- went down early with season-ending knee injuries, the Ducks continued to play well.
"[There's] a lot of athleticism and speed," Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. "One of the best Oregon defenses I've seen."
The Ducks perhaps revealed some vulnerability to a power-rushing attack -- Stanford piled up 254 yards on the ground -- but that's not the Beavers thing on offense.
The first order for the Ducks is disrupting Oregon State quarterback Sean Canfield, whose quick release has made him the conference's top-rated quarterback.
Oregon State, which starts two sophomores and a true freshman on its offensive line, surrendered 15 sacks in the first four games. But it gave up just 12 in the past seven, in large part because Canfield is distributing the ball quickly to the Rodgers brothers, James and Jacquizz, who are one-two in the conference in receptions per game, and letting them do their thing.
The Ducks rank third in the conference in sacks with 30, but will they be able to get to Canfield? And if not, will they tackle well in space?
As for Oregon State's defense, Riley and defensive coordinator Mark Banker talked candidly about their concerns in the preseason. The Beavers gap-cancellation scheme counts on getting pressure on the quarterback because the secondary is often in press-man coverage. In 2008, ends Victor Butler and Slade Norris dominated with their edge rush, and cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Brandon Hughes could handle most receivers one-on-one.
That didn't matter much, of course, when the Ducks rushed for 385 yards last year.
That's why many of the Beavers defenders are as interested in redemption as they are in the Rose Bowl.
"That obviously wasn't the Oregon State team we had last year playing out there on that field, that's for sure," said linebacker Keaton Kristick, one of three starters returning from that 2008 crew.
The Beavers defense was mediocre early in the season. It recorded just two sacks in the first four games and couldn't get off the field on third down. But it's picked up the pace considerably, recording 13 sacks over the last seven games and improving its performance on third down by eight percent.
"I think [Banker] has done maybe his best coaching job ever with this group, considering who we lost," Riley said.
Still, the Beavers looked stout on D before they played host to the Ducks last year. This time, they won't have a home crowd making things difficult for quarterback Jeremiah Masoli.
The first key is fairly simple: Do your job -- don't freelance.
"When you're playing a team that has variety like that you can't do your job and somebody else's," Riley said.
Then second and third keys also are simple: Get off blocks. Tackle. If the Beavers run defense holds up, it's got a much better chance containing with the Ducks passing game.
It should help that powerhouse defensive tackle Stephen Paea is healthy. A knee injury slowed him considerably in last year's game, though it's not encouraging that the guy who starts next to him, Brennan Olander, is decidedly questionable with his own knee issue.
So which team will be grinning after the Civil War for the Roses?
As they say: Defense wins championships.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Remember that great line in Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises"? A character is asked how he went broke and he responds: "Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly."
UCLA's 59-0 loss at BYU was nothing like that.
The Bruins skipped the "gradual" part and went directly to "suddenly." If a team is going to lose by 59, it needs to hurry and play badly. The Bruins did just that.
Already down 14-0, UCLA fumbled on three straight possessions in the second quarter that result in three straight BYU scores.
"The scoreboard looks like a slot machine when that happens," coach Rick Neuheisel said.
Talk about emotional extremes. A couple of weeks ago, Neuheisel and the Bruins were the toasts of college football after they notched a surprising upset over then-No. 18 Tennessee.
So how do they respond to losing after providing such a rotten followup to winning?
Writing off a 59-zip loss, the program's worst defeat since 1929, seems a little naive. By the same token, a prolonged period of mourning could ruin the season.
"I think I see the right measure of disappointment in what's past and also the right amount of resolve in terms of making sure we atone this weekend," Neuheisel said.
Of course, this weekend the Bruins face a team as desperate as they are. While Arizona didn't get blown out at New Mexico, its second consecutive loss to the Lobos reignited the flame under Wildcats coach Mike Stoops seat.
It's fair to say that both teams are trying to crawl out of the bottom half of the Pac-10 at the other team's expense. When each perused their respective schedules during the preseason, they both probably penciled in a victory.
It's also fair to say that the loser Saturday will feel like the college football gods just put a dent into their bowl hopes.
A couple of angry, desperate teams clawing for survival?
"I always hesitate to say desperate because we're still in week three and the first game in the conference," Neuheisel said. "But it's a game that both teams want desperately."
The truth is, Arizona might be slightly more desperate, at least in the sense that Neuheisel is a first-year coach still in the midst of his honeymoon period who is leading a team with talent issues that aren't his fault.
Stoops is still looking for his first winning record in his fifth season in Tucson.
In the first two games, the Wildcats, against the weakest nonconference schedule in the conference, were dominant on both sides of the ball. But that went away against New Mexico.
Quarterback Willie Tuitama not only threw his first two interceptions of the season in the 36-28 defeat, he also fumbled twice.
Offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes questioned his own play-calling, telling the Tucson Citizen: "We sort of played right into their hands and threw more than we should have. I didn't do a good job."
Said Stoops, "You can't turn the ball over five times and win a football game. We know we're a good football team."
The Wildcats figure to be a much better team with tight end Rob Gronkowski returning to the lineup after missing the first three games due to illness. Gronkowski, an All-American candidate, was touted as the focal point of the offense during the preseason, and Dykes suggested he had a chance to haul in 100 receptions.
So the generally healthy Wildcats are getting healthier, while the Bruins are one of the nation's most injury-riddled teams. The latest casualties are linebacker Kyle Bosworth (sprained knee) and center Micah Reed (MCL tear).
Losing a starting center for two to four weeks -- the Bruins most experienced lineman, in fact -- doesn't help when your offensive line is struggling and lacks depth.
UCLA presently ranks last in the nation with 19 yards rushing per game -- 0.8 yards per carry -- with a long run of seven yards.
"We're trying to solidify who's going to play," Neuheisel said. "One of the major issues we've had since I've been here is the revolving door situation as to who's in the game and who's not."
With Bosworth out, the Bruins also will shuffle their linebackers. Redshirt freshman Steve Sloan will see his first career action on defense, starting at middle linebacker, while Reggie Carter will move from the middle to weakside LB, Bosworth's spot.
Neuheisel told reporters this week that he's looked for wisdom from a note UCLA legend John Wooden sent him before the season began about the peaks and valleys of competition, and also similar words that his former coach at UCLA, Terry Donahue, told him about never getting too high or too low.
The Bruins have seen both extremes. Now they need to figure out who they really are.
"We took one on the chin," Neuheisel said. "We need to take from it what we can take from it and be disciplined enough to not repeat the mistakes. But maybe be more disciplined to forget about it and let it go."