Pac-12: Kentucky Wildcats
2. If you congratulate No. 3 Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher for voting his conscience on his USA Today ballot -- he sounded as if he voted Alabama No. 1 -- and if you applaud him for sitting his starters in the second half against North Carolina State after leading 42-0 at halftime, you may as well congratulate him for getting his team on the field for the opening kickoff. That’s how a coach should act. As the saying goes, Fisher is acting as if he has been there before. Which he has, as an assistant under Nick Saban.
3. Kentucky is 1-6, 0-4 in the SEC, and Wildcats first-year head coach Mark Stoops is trying to remain patient. Only the 48-7 loss to No. 1 Alabama could be considered a blowout. “I think we all see us resembling a good football team from time to time,” Stoops said at his press conference Monday, “but that’s not going to cut it and win you a lot of games in the SEC. You’ve got to be good top to bottom, and you’ve got to be good in critical situations, and most importantly when you’re under pressure situations, our habits, bad habits, come right to the surface.”
Howdy. Next week, we'll have games. That is a good thing.
Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter. That way no one will look at you when the term "benighted souls" is used in your presence.
To the notes.
Andrew from Agoura Hills, Calif., writes: In general, I think you guys do an awesome job with the player rankings before and after each season. It's one of the most entertaining pieces you do every year. So far, the only glaring issue I have with the list is ranking Kevin Hogan at No. 17. It very specifically states that the rankings are a reflection of where a player starts the season, not where you think they are going to be ranked by the end of the season. And I simply think you are giving Hogan too much credit for his brief amount of playing time. He would have been a better choice at No. 25, or simply someone who merited strong consideration but didn't make the cut. Do you really think he's better than Ben Gardner (or Henry Anderson) or any of the other guys ranked after him? In short, I think you broke your own rules. But otherwise, love the work you guys do.
Ted Miller: Now this is how you write a note of complaint or disagreement.
Most notably, Andrew doesn't use the dimwit phrase "lose all credibility!" to make his point. He disagrees with something. He states his case.
That said, Kevin and I had a very specific discussion about Kevin Hogan and whether his fairly high ranking would appear to be a projection. It is not.
Now, obviously, Hogan's ranking isn't based on his pedestrian 2012 stats. At least, not the ones you most frequently see. Hogan's case, first of all, is based on how he transformed Stanford's season, from mostly treading water to Pac-12 and Rose Bowl champion.
And we can quantify this because ESPN Stats & Information has quantified it, in fact, seeking out the Pac-12 blog to point out its findings.
Under the heading, "How much better was Stanford after QB change?" our sabermetric friends provided three bullet points.
- Josh Nunes started Stanford's first eight games. His opponent adjusted quarterback rating was 56.4. His completion percentage on third down was 46 percent. He had nine turnovers.
- Hogan started the final five games. His opponent adjusted QBR was 77.8. He completed 65 percent of his passes on third down. He had three turnovers.
- The Cardinals' offensive efficiency rating with Nunes was +3. With Hogan, it was +25.
Now I hear your counter: We are comparing Hogan to Nunes. What about other Pac-12 quarterbacks?
Hogan's QBR of 77.8 would have ranked third in the Pac-12, behind only Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Arizona's Matt Scott and ahead of USC's Matt Barkley, UCLA's Brett Hundley and Arizona State's Taylor Kelly.
And, of course, he compiled that QBR against four ranked teams and Wisconsin.
Jeff from Paulina, Ore., writes: Your ranking of De'Anthony Thomas at number 14 in the Pac-12 preseason player rankings is absolutely absurd. I would like to use more adjectives to describe it including a few vulgar ones but I think you get the message. Not only does that ranking call into the question your being qualified to be the Pac-12 blog writer, it harms the national credibility of one a one of the most dynamic and realistic Heisman contenders the conference has had in a long time. Typical east coast college football fan: "De'Anthony Thomas for Heisman? There are like 10 players in his conference better than him (or 13 as you say). Look, the ESPN Pac-12 writer even has him at 14th." Sorry to be so harsh Ted. I know you don't like that De'Anthony doesn't fit into the traditional single position role, but unless you think he will have less touches because of that (Helfrich says he wants to get DAT more touches this year including around 20 carries a game), I don't understand how that matters.
Ted Miller: Sigh.
Kevin had a go at this same question last week.
Again, Jeff is not looking at what De'Anthony actually did last year, he's thinking of a the idea of DAT and projecting forward. This list doesn't project forward.
Let me quantify this a little more. Consider this previously published chart.
Thomas and Arizona State's Grice are basically a push, though Thomas also returned a punt and kickoff -- in the Fiesta Bowl, no less -- for TDs. Grice ranked 24th on our list, Thomas 14th. And, by the way, Grice obviously had to share the ball with D.J. Foster, just as Thomas shared touches with Kenjon Barner.
Let me take this outrage on in a general way, for we have as many angry notes about ranking Washington tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins too low at No. 13.
The common denominator for just about all the "you lose all credibility!" notes is fan bias for players from their team. So Seferian-Jenkins, for Washington fans, is a only a "Finalist for the Mackey Award you idiot!" and not the No. 8 receiver in the Pac-12, a tight end who was not an elite blocker in 2012.
Thomas is one of the nation's most dynamic players. Seferian-Jenkins is a future first-round NFL draft pick. But we are evaluating what they actually did last year, not imagining them as fully realized football players.
As for Thomas' Heisman Trophy hopes, he will lose exactly zero votes because the Pac-12 blog ranked him 14th in the conference in the preseason, but thank you for imbuing us with so much power.
Evan from Novato, Calif., writes: Got a toughie for you. What game are you least looking forward to this season??!! And Why?
Ted Miller: From a preseason perspective, I'm most looking forward to Oregon's visit to Stanford on Nov. 7 for what might be the biggest Thursday night ESPN game in the history of Thursday night ESPN games.
Of course, we thought USC-Oregon was going to be epic last year, and things didn't exactly work out.
Arizona State has a fantastic four-game run against Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame that could announce the Sun Devils as a budding national power -- or crush all optimism in Todd Graham's second year.
I'm wondering if Oregon's visit to renovated Husky Stadium on Oct. 12 might get heated. And I love the idea of USC-UCLA again being nationally relevant.
The list is long.
Oh... wait. You said "least" looking forward to.
I am least looking forward to Oregon-Nicholls State.
Bert from Miles City, Mont., writes: Just saw your column about 6 worst FBS jobs and I have to write you to correct some fairly lazy research on your part. You mention Kentucky's poor attendance last year as one of your arguments for the job being bad, the problem is that last year's attendance was not the norm for Kentucky. Last years attendance was about a fanbase fed up with a terrible head coach, and an AD that basically told the fanbase to "make his day" when it came to a coaching change. So the fanbase made his day, and stayed away in droves to FORCE a coaching change the AD did not want to make. You see if you had done any research than to look up just last year's attendance, like simply put ncaa college football attendance into google, you would have seen official NCAA attendance stats that showed Kentucky to have a damn good football fanbase. Here is where UK ranks 2011 - 2005 in attendance: 2011-27th in nation-60,007; 2010-25th-66,070; 2009-22nd-69,594; 2008-23rd-69, 434; 2007-23rd-68,824; 2006-31st-57,330; 2005-27th-62,450. So I am not going to argue if UK is one of the 6 worst jobs, that is to subjective. You say we are, I would argue that opinion, but I will not allow lazy arguments to go unchallenged. UK for a football school of little success has a great fanbase, that shows up in droves when the coaching staff gives it a reason. One thing I think is that when you do this column again, and again put UK in your 6 worst fbs jobs you will not be able to use attendance as a reason as we will once again have top 30 or better attendance in 2013.
Ted Miller: Point taken. Kentucky fans, in the past, showed up to watch their team play.
But my research wasn't lazy. In fact, I originally was going to note your very point in the article, including, of course, that the downturn took place over the past two seasons. I'll explain why I didn't in two paragraphs.
First, the important number is not the attendance figure but percent of capacity (Commonwealth Stadium seats 67,500). As noted about 2012, "the Wildcats played in front of an average of 49,691 fans last year, which was only 73.5 percent of capacity at Commonwealth Stadium, by far the worst percentage in the SEC and seventh worst among FBS teams."
In 2011, that percentage was 88.8, better only that Vanderbilt in the SEC.
But, Bert, know why I didn't belabor that point, taking time to note it was based on fan frustration with coach Joker Phillips? Because it makes the Kentucky job look even worse. I originally was going to point that out but felt like I was being too harsh -- and that the Kentucky blurb would be too long compared to the others.
Let's avoid fairly lazy thinking here: Your counter is that Kentucky fans used to show up to watch the Wildcats until they bailed out on their team because they didn't like the team's third-year coach.
And that makes Kentucky a better job?
Forget all the numbers I used to quantify why Kentucky ranked among the six worst jobs, such as not having a winning record in conference play since 1977. Consider, instead, that Kentucky fans began turning away from the program in a coach's second year, and that they apparently didn't feel a responsibility to support the young men attending their beloved school and wearing their beloved colors.
Again: And that makes Kentucky a better job?
It was the summer of 2010, and there was a general feeling among the pooh-bahs of Oregon sports -- most notably Nike founder Phil Knight and millionaire former AD Pat Kilkenny -- that Kelly sticking around for the long term in Eugene was the best chance for the football program to experience long-term success, a condition that keeps a department with an $80 million budget afloat.
The endgame was a six-year deal worth $20.5 million. Kelly made $2.4 million last year. He's making $2.8 million this year and will make $3.5 million the next. In 2014 and 2015, he'll pocket $4 million, which is roughly what the nation's highest-paid coaches made this year.
"People can look at the numbers and say it's high, but it fits within the marketplace," Mullens said. "It fits with the results. We have the person we want at the helm of our football program."
No other team in the nation is riding a streak of three consecutive BCS bowl games. That's a big reason Oregon merchandising sales went up from $1.5 million in 2007 -- the year Kelly left New Hampshire to become the Ducks' offensive coordinator -- to $2.25 million in 2010.
While it's difficult to quantify the entire picture financially, Mullens points out that the unprecedented success Kelly has produced over the past three years has more than paid for his big-dollar contract, mostly notably in exposure and increased donations. That revenue flow has been particularly important in a tough economy that has many athletic programs struggling, including many in the Pac-12.
Or at least it did. When the conference signed a $3 billion, 12-year TV contract with ESPN and Fox, athletic directors across the Pac-12 leaped into the air and clicked their heels. They also started to spend that money. Some on new coaches.
Sure, Kelly will make $3.5 million next year. But new UCLA coach Jim Mora, with no college coaching experience, will pocket $2.4 million. Washington State will pay Mike Leach $2.25 million.
In a lot of ways, Kelly's compensation pencils out pretty well for Oregon on the cash-for-accomplishment curve.
"It pays [for Oregon] because, one, he's a great coach," Mullens said. "Two, he's a perfect fit. That combination, you can never guarantee that. He has delivered the results."
In addition, Oregon is paying extra for stability. When the school committed to Kelly with SEC-like money, Kelly also committed to Oregon. His buyout dropped from $4 million last year to $3.75 million this year, but that number is almost prohibitive for even the richest athletic departments. In 2015-16, it will be $2 million, which is still pretty large by industry standards.
What does that buyout mean? Well, it means Kelly doesn't have wandering eyeballs. Further, it mutes all but the most uninformed rumor mills: Despite chatter to the contrary, Mullens said he has not been contacted this year by any college or NFL team that wanted to talk to Kelly about a job.
Further -- as Ken Goe of The Oregonian pointed out when there were rumors in December 2010 that Florida might come after Kelly after Urban Meyer resigned -- Kelly's contract has clauses that will make it a pain in the rear for a team to pursue him.
And a clause in the contract stipulates that Kelly must give Oregon 15 days' written notice before leaving, and further stipulates that he cannot leave during the regular season or before a postseason bowl game in which Oregon is a participant.
The sum total of all this suggests that Kelly wants to remain in Eugene, and Oregon wants him to stick around. There are no guarantees, of course, but the feeling at the administrative level -- and among key boosters -- is that Kelly is the right guy at the nexus of an athletic department that has ambitious, expansionist visions for itself.
No FBS athletic program thrives without football success, and Kelly's presence provides a sense of security for Oregon's cash cow. And as of today, it appears the marriage remains strong.
Chow, widely considered one of the best offensive minds in college football history, got plenty of interviews, most notably of late at Stanford in 2005, and made plenty of "candidates" lists during the annual coaching carousel. He also turned down the head coaching job at Kentucky in 2002 to remain at USC. But, in reputation and reality, he was the perennial bridesmaid.
You'd hear things, of course. All the why-nots. He wasn't terribly good at interviews. He was an Xs-and-Os guy who didn't have people or management skills. Most schools wanted a dashing, young, charismatic guy who could slap backs, enticing a flood of elite recruits and booster checks. Chow was never reputed to be much of a recruiter, something he doesn't particularly enjoy.
It also was perfectly fair to wonder if Chow's being Asian-American had anything to do with the critiques and whispers. His hiring at Hawaii, after all, makes him the first Asian-American head coach of a major football program.
First. That's pretty big, folks, even if most FBS rosters have little to no Asian presence, though if you go with that old standard "Asian/Pacific Islander" category, things change dramatically there.
Not only is Chow, after 39 years as an assistant coach, finally getting his shot as a head coach, he's going home to do it. He was born in Honolulu and is a Punahou School alum. He began his coaching career as head coach at Waialua High School on the North Shore of Oahu from 1970-72. This seems like a good fit, though coaching at Hawaii has built-in challenges, starting with geography.
Chow will serve as Utah's offensive coordinator in the Hyundai Sun Bowl against Georgia Tech on Dec. 31 before officially taking over the Warriors. For the Utes, it's a blow, but not a crippling one. Coach Kyle Whittingham brought Chow aboard to install a pro-style offense with a downhill running game, replacing the spread the Utes had long used. After quarterback Jordan Wynn went down in the fourth game against Washington with another shoulder injury, Chow's chief task was managing an extremely conservative, almost run-exclusive offense that didn't mess things up for a very good defense.
Chow did a good job of making running back John White into an effective weapon even when everyone knew he and his 24 carries a game were coming. But the Utes never got the full Chow offense. The expectation here is that Whittingham will look for a guy who believes in the same pro-style, run-first concepts. The Utes don't figure to go back to a spread, though that does seem to be the thing in the Pac-12 after the hiring of four new coaches who all run a version of it.
Utes fans should be more concerned about who's going to play quarterback in 2012. Whittingham is going to make a good hire at OC.
And this day is about Chow.
He's a three-time national assistant coach of the year. He's served as offensive coordinator for three national championship teams (Brigham Young, 1984; USC, 2003 and 2004). He has tutored three Heisman Trophy winners (Ty Detmer, BYU; Carson Palmer, USC; Matt Leinart, USC) and six NFL first-round draft picks.
His resume has always been impressive. Just not impressive enough to overcome the things whispered about him.
Over the past decade, he's been portrayed as a bit of a nomadic mercenary, but keep in mind he was a bastion of stability most of his career, coaching at BYU for 27 years before things turned sour and he bolted to N.C. State in 2000, the first of five jobs he'd hold over the next 11 seasons before landing at Hawaii.
Chow is coming home to get his big chance. No matter what happens at Hawaii, his coaching legacy is secure. But, let's face it, if he retires a big winner in 10 years, he'll surely enjoy at least thinking "I told you so" through a big grin.
"I understand the scrutiny," he said. "I understand the perception and all that kind of stuff but at the end of the day, none of that matters. What matters is that we play well next year."
Chuck Bullough was fired Dec. 18, and it has appeared a number of times that Neuheisel was on the cusp of hiring a candidate, whether that was former Miami head coach Randy Shannon or Seattle Seahawks assistant Rocky Seto.
"I've had the guy picked three times now but circumstances have led the search to re-continue," he said.
Neuheisel pursued Vic Fangio, but he opted to follow Jim Harbaugh from Stanford to the San Francisco 49ers. Other reported candidates were Rocky Long, who was promoted to head coach at San Diego State upon the departure of Brady Hoke to Michigan, Chuck Heater and Teryl Austin, former co-coordinators at Florida, and Kentucky co-coordinator Steve Brown.
Reporters asked Neuheisel about Cincinnati Bengals assistant Jeff FitzGerald as well as whether Shannon was still under consideration, but Neuheisel declined to comment on specific candidates.
Questions about the defensive coordinator vacancy dominated the conference call that was arranged to talk about new tight ends and F-backs coach Jim Mastro, who also will oversee the Bruins running game under new offensive coordinator Mike Johnson, who replaced Norm Chow.
"With Mike Johnson working in that throw game and Jim helping in that run department, we're going to be able to put together an offense that we'll all get excited about," Neuheisel said.
Mastro worked 11 years at Nevada, where the pistol offense was invented by coach Chris Ault. UCLA used a pistol scheme last year, but the Bruins ended up ranking last in the Pac-10 in total offense. Neuheisel said that the Bruins won't be a pure pistol team in 2011.
"It will be a portion of our offense, not the be-all, end-all," he said.
As for Neuheisel's vacation this week to Cabo to celebrate his 50th birthday, which inspired some consternation among impatient fans, he called it a "command performance" for his wife.
"I wasn't there long enough to get a tan," he said.
The school also announced that defensive line coach Todd Howard has been fired, as coach Rick Neuheisel continues a deliberately paced reconfiguring of his staff that has included dismissing both coordinators from 2010, though it appears the candidacy of Steve Brown, presently at Kentucky, for the defensive coordinator vacancy is gaining some traction.
You can read more about Brown's uneasy situation at Kentucky here.
Nevada, under head coach Chris Ault, is where the pistol offense was born, and Mastro has been in Reno 11 years coaching running backs. In five of the last 10 seasons, a Wolf Pack running back has led the WAC in rushing. In the last four years, he has helped Nevada running backs produce five 1,000-yard seasons. This past season, senior Vai Taua recorded his third consecutive 1,000-yard season, finishing seventh nationally with an average of 123.9 yards per contest. As a team, Nevada ranked No. 3 nationally in rushing with an average of 292.2 yards per game. The Wolf Pack led the nation in 2009 and ranked third in 2008.
“Jim has a wealth of knowledge and experience with the Pistol and will be a great asset as we incorporate many of its run-game principles into our offense,” Neuheisel said in a statement. “He has enjoyed great success in the running game and I feel he will work well alongside Mike Johnson (offensive coordinator, wide receivers), Wayne Moses (running backs) and Bob Palcic (offensive line) to give us a very cohesive offensive staff.”
Mastro, 45, also served as Nevada’s recruiting coordinator, where his regions of focus were the Bay Area and Orange County.
Prior to coaching at Nevada, Mastro was on the staff at Idaho for two years (1998-99).
As for Howard, he has coached the Bruin defensive linemen for the past five seasons. He was retained from former coach Karl Dorrell's staff when Neuheisel was hired before the 2008 season.
Neuheisel's statement on letting Howard go, “Todd knew that this was a possibility. We discussed the situation back in December and decided to wait until after recruiting to make a final decision. I feel that it is in the best interest of our program and also in Todd’s best interest that we part ways at this time."
UCLA's offensive staff appears set. The two remaining staff vacancies are on offense: D-line and coordinator.
Suffice it to say, his expectations were exceeded.
"It sounded like the best atmospheres that I've experienced anywhere in the country," he said.
And Oregon is not an SEC school. Start with money. The Ducks spend $18.1 million on football, which ranks fifth in the Pac-10. The SEC averages $19.5. Auburn, the Ducks' foe in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 10, spends $27.9 million on football.
And while Autzen Stadium is electric and loud, it still seats only 59,000. SEC venues average 76,000 fans and Auburn packs 87,000 into Jordan-Hare Stadium.
All that said, Oregon is SEC-ish.
Start with fan passion: Autzen is on a run of 74 consecutive sellouts, and it's the only Pac-10 stadium that EXCEEDED 100 percent capacity this season -- 110 percent, to be exact. And it is very, very loud. More than a few coaches, players and visiting media members have called it the loudest stadium in the nation.
"The atmosphere in Autzen is electric -- noisy and passionate," Mullens said. "And what impressed me the most was, no matter the score, fans stayed until the end of the game, even when the outcome was decided."
Mullens, of course, is biased and has a specific agenda as the administrator of Oregon sports. But he's right.
When the gates open to Oregon's students, the mad dash for prime seats is a little scary to watch. And even in games when the Ducks lead by 40 and the weather is a bit chilly, a majority of fans seemed content to stick around until the final bell instead of hitting the local watering holes for a warm toddy.
And Oregon fans have an, er, SEC-ish, "our-team-wrong-or-right zeal" to them. While the Pac-10 blog would never, ever -- ever! -- call one group of fans more obnoxious than another, there are some out there who might say something of that nature about Ducks fans, just as fans from other conferences often grumble about SEC fans.
Further, in more concrete measures, Oregon's football facilities match any program in the country. And they are getting better. Construction of a new, six-story operations building to headquarter the football program will begin this year. It will be entirely financed by billionaire booster Phil Knight, a well-known cobbler.
State-of-the-art facilities give a program a "wow" factor. While it's legitimate to fret over the "arms race" in college football -- athletic buildings before academic investment -- there's no question that Oregon's facilities look very SEC-ish compared to the rest of the Pac-10.
"It's extremely important to have the facility infrastructure to attract the talent," Mullens said. "It shows you are committed to the program. These facilities are attractive to young people but they also help people prepare to compete at the highest level."
Of course, Mullens, just like other Pac-12 athletic directors going forward, hopes that commissioner Larry Scott is going to produce a more lucrative TV deal this year, which will allow the conference to remain competitive with the SEC and Big Ten in terms of football revenue.
"These are the biggest differences: No. 1, the asset base is more significant in the SEC," he said. "One, because [the SEC has] one of the best TV deals in the nation, which provides huge revenue. They've got exceptional bowl agreements, which is another source of revenue. And, they have sold out football stadiums on an incredible scale."
Sold out at 60,000 is great. But it doesn't compete -- financially -- with sold out at 90,000. Said Mullens, "It's tough when you're minus thirty or forty thousand seven times a year."
Where SEC schools benefit from extraordinary football revenue, Knight helps Oregon make up the difference. His fingerprints are all over the athletic program, and the donor base beyond Knight is strong, too. That's a major reason that coach Chip Kelly signed a contract that will average $3.4 million per season over the next six years.
Big money for a coach is very SEC-ish.
So, yes, Oregon fans wear fleece and might be a tad more liberal -- in more ways than one -- than their counterparts at Auburn and the SEC. But when it comes to the football program, Ducks and Tigers adherents might share more than you think.
Said Mullens, "I think they are very similar. I'm not sure there is much of a difference."
If both top-ranked Auburn and No. 2 Oregon hit their season averages on Jan. 10, fans will see 92 points and more than 1,000 yards of offense, including 591 yards rushing. The matchup features the Heisman Trophy winner and the nation's most efficient passer: Tigers quarterback Cam Newton. And it features the nation's leading rusher, Oregon's LaMichael James, who is a unanimous All-American and Heisman finalist.
Finally, the game will showcase two mad scientists of offense who had 37 days without distraction to prepare schematic monstrosities in their underground lairs: Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and Oregon coach Chip Kelly.
The scoreboard should be spinning for a pair of ludicrous speed attacks that had very few off-days this season.
Oh, there are the naysayers. You will get tut-tuts from those who claim "defense wins championships." Some will point out that in previous BCS title games, great offenses have fizzled out.
There's Florida State in 2001, when Chris Weinke & Co. were shut out in a 13-2 defeat to Oklahoma. The Seminoles averaged 549 yards and 42 points per game that year. And there's Oklahoma in 2009, which got stumped by Florida, 24-14. The Sooners averaged 51 points and 548 yards per game that year. Both of those offenses entered the title game being lauded as historically great. Not so much afterwards, though.
And Heisman Trophy winners often go splat in BCS title games, see Weinke, Eric Crouch, Jason White, Troy Smith and Sam Bradford.
Still, the winner of the BCS championship scored more than 30 points in eight of 12 games and more than 40 four times. Potent offenses do show up. Further, in most of the cases when offensive powerhouses have been exposed in the championship game, there's been a reasonable explanation: They faced an elite defense laden with NFL prospects. That is not the case with Auburn and Oregon.
At least that's the perception, one that frustrates Oregon fans. The Ducks rank 12th in the nation in scoring defense, sixth in pass efficiency defense, 16th in run defense and 25th in total defense. So that is pretty darn close to an elite defense, even though the Ducks lack star power. Moreover, Oregon surrendered just 4.53 yards per play, which ranks seventh in the nation and is better than any team the Tigers faced (yes, even Alabama).
The Ducks, however, did face an FCS team and seven FBS offenses ranked 58th in the nation or worse in scoring, including four ranked 96th or worse. They faced only one elite offense in Stanford. The Cardinal scored 31 points and piled up 518 yards, but were shut out in the second half.
Last season's Rose Bowl might offer ideas for both defenses. For the Tigers, the Buckeyes showed a blueprint for how a physical front seven can stymie the Ducks' running attack with penetration, gap integrity and discipline. (Ducks fans would counter that Ohio State's defense looked great because quarterback Jeremiah Masoli couldn't hit the side of a barn in the passing game that afternoon). For the Ducks' veteran defense, it knows what it's like to play against a big, fast quarterback after seeing Terrelle Pryor post what continues to be the best game of his career.
So there is hope for the defenses, though it's hard to imagine both offenses sputtering and the winning total ending up in the 20s.
Of course, even if the offenses churn up yardage, as expected, that doesn't mean a defense won't win this championship. One of the two defenses is going to get more stops than the other, either through forcing turnovers or winning third down (and fourth, both teams aren't afraid to go for it).
Just don't be surprised if you don't need two hands to count the total number of punts.
Our topic: No. 1 Oregon and No. 2 Auburn. Who's better and why?
Both are unbeaten, and if the season ended today, they'd play for the national title.
We've got lots of football left, and probably many more plot twists in the hunt for the national title, but there's no reason we can't engage in a hypothetical, is there?
So the Pac-10 blog -- Ted Miller -- and the SEC blog -- Chris Low -- have decided to meet for some civilized debate on Auburn versus Oregon.
Ted Miller: Chris, since things are so quiet in the sleepy SEC, I think we should spice things up with a Pac-10-SEC blogger debate! It seems like a long time since we last had a debate between our two conferences. How’d that one go? Let’s see I championed Taylor Mays and you celebrated Eric Berry. Wait. Why did I bring that up?
Anyway, our topic is Oregon and Auburn: Who’s better and why.
You get first blood. Tell me about Auburn. It seems like it wasn’t too long ago that Jay Jacobs was getting hounded for hiring Gene Chizik. Guessing that’s died down a wee-bit.
Chris Low: No doubt, Ted. I wonder where that obnoxious guy is now, the one yelling at Jacobs as he was leaving the airport after finalizing the deal with Chizik? Maybe Jacobs knew what he was doing after all. The guy with the 5-19 record at Iowa State has done all right by himself on the Plains. He has a Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback and the SEC's leading rusher in Cam Newton, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound freak of nature who runs like Bo Jackson and also has an NFL arm. Keep your eyes, too, on freshman running back Mike Dyer, who they haven't had to lean on much this season, but is oozing with talent and has fresh legs for this stretch run. The Tigers' defensive numbers are nothing to write home about, but they do have the kind of dominant interior defensive lineman, Nick Fairley, who can take over games. Georgia coach Mark Richt said Fairley's the closest thing he's seen to Warren Sapp. Auburn's calling card defensively has been making plays at key times in the fourth quarter. The Tigers have been a serviceable defense through three quarters this season, but they've been a championship-caliber defense in the fourth quarter -- which is why they're 10-0.
So tell me about Oregon?
Obviously, we're talking about two very good teams that have done impressive things on their way to remaining unbeaten. I know we both have Oregon ahead of Auburn in our power rankings, but give me the case for Auburn.
Chris Low: Ted, I think what separates Auburn is Newton. Nobody has been able to stop him. If you commit to taking away the run, he's proved he can beat people throwing the ball. And if you come after him and/or don't have enough people in the box, he's been magic running the ball. Keep in mind, too, that we're not talking about a 220-pound guy running the ball. We're talking about a 250-pound guy who's physical, tough and doesn't run out of bounds. In the red zone, he's the great equalizer, because he gains 3 yards when he falls forward and has the size and the strength to push the pile. On top of it all, he's always a threat to throw the ball. Similar to Oregon, Auburn doesn't flinch if somebody puts 30-plus points on the board, because the Tigers' mentality is that they're going to score 50. Their offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn, will make you defend everything -- reverses, throwback passes, passes to the backs, even passes to Newton. He caught a touchdown pass two weeks ago against Ole Miss. The Tigers also play at a tempo on offense that has opposing defenses gasping for air in the fourth quarter. But when they have to, they can put teams away and finish games by running the ball. They're fourth nationally (one spot ahead of Oregon) this week in rushing offense with an average of 307.2 yards per game. Auburn's top four rushers -- Newton, Dyer, Onterio McCalebb and Mario Fannin -- are all averaging at least 6.4 yards per carry. Do the Ducks have any answers for that running game?
Obviously, two very good teams that have done impressive things on their way to remaining unbeaten. I know we both have Oregon ahead of Auburn in our power rankings, but give me the case for Auburn if it played Oregon in the national title game. How do you see it going?
Chris Low: Well, if that happens, the first thing we all better make sure we have is a calculator. That and make sure there's no danger of a power surge to the scoreboard. You're right about Oregon. Nobody in the country has been better in the second half. The Ducks' ability to score points in bunches is amazing, but the Tigers are equally adept at going on head-spinning scoring sprees. Just ask Arkansas, which saw Auburn roll up 28 points in the fourth quarter in Xbox-like fashion. I have no doubt that an Auburn-Oregon matchup would be played in the 40s. I think the difference, though, would be Auburn's ability to put the breaks on the track meet and run the football in the fourth quarter, especially with Newton being so good at converting on third down. So I'm going Auburn 45, Oregon 41 in a game that rates up there with the Texas-USC classic to decide the 2005 national title.
Ted Miller: That's clearly something we can all agree on: This likely would be a highly entertaining, offensively driven national title game if these two teams manage to get themselves there. Further, I think, after never getting a USC-SEC title game, folks on both coasts would enjoy an SEC-Pac-10 matchup. No trash-talking there, right? And I do see a clear advantage for Auburn: It has been tested. It's played five games decided by eight points or fewer, and three decided by a field goal. The Ducks closest game? An 11-point win at Arizona State. But that's also why I'd pick Oregon in this one. Oregon beat the No. 6 team in the nation, Stanford, by 21 points. It shut Andrew Luck out in the second half. And I look at all of Auburn's close games: Mississippi State, Clemson, South Carolina, Kentucky and LSU, and think: None of them would be within 10 points of the Ducks. Maybe LSU, because any game Les Miles touches is surprising. And I think Vegas would agree with me. So if we ended up with an Oregon-Auburn national title game, my guess is the Tigers would go TD for TD with the Ducks in the first half, then the Ducks would pour it on late for a 50-35 win. But I reserve the right to change my mind, particularly because I think the Tigers' toughest test -- Alabama -- is ahead.
Moreover, both teams should be advised: You probably should get to the Jan. 10 date in Glendale before you start trash-talking each other. At least before you use your best stuff.
There's my story on Oregon-Stanford. And another on USC's and UCLA's role-reversal.
Scouts Inc. takes a deeper look at Oregon-Stanford and makes a pick. KC Joyner takes a look at a potential weakness for Cardinal QB Andrew Luck.
This is an interesting Pac-10 vs. SEC debate with Scott Van Pelt and Ryen Russillo.
They match up the SEC side-by-side with the Pac-10 and say who'd they'd pick: Alabama-Oregon, Stanford-Florida, Auburn-Arizona, USC-LSU, Arkansas-UCLA, California-Kentucky, Mississippi State-Oregon State, Washington-Ole Miss and Tennessee-Washington State.
Van Pelt has 5-5. Russillo, 7-3 SEC.
First, an interjection: Ryen, Kentucky wouldn't beat Cal. In fact, if Cal played Kentucky 10 times, Cal would win nine. And that would be the case over the past eight seasons. Programs are not in the same class. Somebody probably will argue with that below. The only reply is: wrong.
But there's another major point: 12 teams vs. 10 teams. What would happen if you knocked off the SEC's No. 1 (Alabama) and No. 12 team (Vanderbilt) to make it a 10-team matchup?
Oregon over Florida, Stanford over Auburn, Arizona over LSU, USC over Arkansas, South Carolina over UCLA, Arizona State over Kentucky, Cal over Mississippi State, Oregon State over Ole Miss , Washington over Tennessee and Georgia over Washington State.
8-2 Pac-10. And a majority of those would be consensus picks supported by our friends in Vegas.
1. Cal's defense will be tested at Nevada: California presently ranks No. 1 in the nation in total defense, giving up a scant 160 yards per game. So kudos to new coordinator Clancy Pendergast. But Nevada ranks No. 1 in total offense, rolling up a monstrous 592 yards per game. So who wins: The irresistible force or the immovable object?
2. Arizona's O-line vs. Iowa's D-line: The Wildcats have a good offensive line, probably among the top three or four units in the Pac-10. But Iowa probably has the best defensive line in the country, led by end Adrian Clayborn. All four starters are back from 2009's stingy unit that combined for 27 sacks and allowed just 3.5 yards per rush. The first question is can the Wildcats line do enough to create any sort of run threat or occasional creases for Nic Grigsby? The second is, failing that, will the line give QB Nick Foles enough time to throw the ball?
4. Vontaze Burfict vs. John Clay: Arizona State's 245-pound linebacker Vontaze Burfict is one of the most talented and aggressive LBs in the country. Wisconsin's 248-pound running back John Clay is one of the best power runners in the country. When these two meet, the violence of the impact should be dynamic. But who knocks the other backwards? Burfict and the ASU defense is looking to make a national statement. To do so, it needs to contain Clay.
5. Can USC put it together? USC's offense looked great in the opener at Hawaii. The defense looked terrible. The offense looked terrible vs. Virginia. The defense looked pretty good. The cumulative affect is we really don't know who these Trojans are. Will they put it all together at Minnesota's expense? Or will it be another piddling effort?
6. Luck through the air: Stanford QB Andrew Luck looked great running, but, despite two TD passes, didn't throw terribly well at UCLA. He completed just 11 of 24 passes for 151 yards. Wake Forest's secondary didn't look great while giving up 358 passing yards and four touchdowns to Duke in a wild 54-48 victory. You'd think Luck would feast on that at home and revert back to his accurate, playmaking self.
7. How will UCLA's offense bounce back? Stanford shut out the Bruins and held them to 233 total yards last weekend. That had many screaming for QB Kevin Prince's head. But Prince's biggest problem is he's barely seen practice time due to a back injury and then a shoulder injury. He's practiced all this week. Moreover, Houston's defense isn't anything like its offense. The Cougars are surrendering 26 points and 393 yards per game. Expect the Bruins to be much better on offense Saturday.
8. Jacquizz should break out vs. Louisville: Dating back to last season, Oregon State RB Jacquizz Rodgers hasn't eclipsed 100 yards rushing in three games. That's a mini-slump for him. Louisville gave up 230 yards rushing to a mediocre Kentucky team in week one. So expect for Rodgers to get his 100 yards. And also expect him to get some touches in the passing game, which he didn't vs. TCU.
9. Cougs stepping forward? Does the comeback win vs. Montana State turn a page for Washington State? Sure, it was just an FCS opponent, but showing some backbone feels meaningful. SMU has a high-powered, balanced offense and is one of the favorites in Conference USA. Moreover, the Mustangs will be plenty motivated after losing at Washington State last year. But if the Cougars pull the upset, the entire tenor of their season could change.
10. How did the Pac-10 measure up? It wasn't the most creative name or anything, but "Measuring Stick Saturday" is real. The Pac-10's place in the pecking order among BCS conferences largely will be based -- at least during the regular season -- on what happens Saturday. A winning weekend will earn it consideration with the Big Ten, SEC and Big 12. A losing one? It falls to the bottom half of the six. Considering the Pac-10 is an underdog in five of the nine games, the conference needs for all its favorites to prevail and at least one underdog to come through with an upset.
It's easy to dump the Big East into sixth place: Eight teams, not enough elite teams, not enough depth. After that, the margin of separation between the other five seems thin and wildly subjective.
Of course, SEC adherents will start to fulminate if they are not given a free pass into the top spot. Something about four consecutive national championships (it's an annoying point because it's hard to counter).
But let's look at the 2010 SEC for a moment. Here's a ranking of the SEC quarterbacks. It's basically Ryan Mallett of Arkansas and a bunch of nobodies and question marks. It's fair to say nine teams have serious issues at the position. At the end of the season, when we're talking about dominant SEC defenses, let's remember this cast of "Whos?"
Also, consider this interesting comment from ESPN NFL draft guru Mel Kiper when asked about whether Mallett should be judged differently from other QBs because he plays against "SEC defenses": "First of all, let's dispel this myth that throwing for a bunch of yards and touchdowns in the SEC is somehow a more impressive feat. I wasn't high on Tim Tebow, partly because he threw into massive windows as an SEC quarterback. I was pretty high on JaMarcus Russell as a prospect if he maintained his work ethic, but I said then that he, too, was throwing into massive windows. I don't question that the SEC produces a lot of talent, but the quarterbacks also play a lot of cupcakes, and the depth of the conference is still a matter for debate."
Further, you could make a case that the SEC heading into 2010 is Alabama and Florida and a bunch of maybes. And the Crimson Tide must replace eight starters off their dominant defense, while Florida lost nine guys to the NFL draft. Lots of questions there.
In fact, just for fun. Match the SEC and the Pac-10, but do it from the bottom up. Here's Chris Low's post-spring power rankings. And here's mine for the Pac-10.
Vanderbilt beats Washington State, Arizona State beats Kentucky, UCLA beats Tennessee, Arizona beats Mississippi State, Washington beats Ole Miss, California beats South Carolina, Stanford beats Georgia, Oregon State beats Auburn, Oregon beats LSU and USC beats Arkansas.
Of course, you can't just drop Alabama and Florida, two of the nation's top-three programs (Texas is the third).
Which is why we're still ranking the SEC No. 1.
The larger point is the difference between BCS conferences is marginal, despite the huffing and puffing you hear to the contrary.
When I began reviewing what was coming back in each conference, I considered ranking the Big Ten No. 1 based on the Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin triumvirate, but then it seemed like the Big Ten has less depth than the Pac-10, ACC and Big 12. Then I thought the Big 12 looked good with Texas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Missouri. Then the ACC looked underrated.
Then I just needed to get on with it.
(By the way, here's a good place to see how many returning starters each team has).
1. SEC: While I have a hunch the SEC won't be on top at season's end, the impressive track record earns the conference the top spot.
2. Big 12: Five legitimate Top 25 teams and respectable at the bottom.
3. Big Ten: Top-heavy, but very good at the top.
4. Pac-10: The apparent lack of a national title contender hurts, but the conference has nine teams that could win at least six games.
5. ACC: The conference has big upside -- it might end up No. 1 at season's end -- but its track record is disappointment (see Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl). The SEC gets the benefit of the doubt. The ACC still has to prove itself.
6. Big East: Only obvious preseason Top 25 team is Pittsburgh. Based on the Sugar Bowl, we're in wait-and-see-mode with a Brian Kelly-less Cincinnati.
How does a team define a successful season? Here's a guess that both California's and Oregon State's definitions includes a victory this weekend.
Considering that they are meeting in Berkeley on Saturday, the obvious point of contention is one will walk away with a high degree of disappointment.
A win guarantees nothing. But a loss probably will prelude a below-expectation finish in the Pac-10.
California (6-2, 3-2), ranked 20th in the BCS standings, has won three straight since since becoming a national punchline after losing consecutive weekends to Oregon and USC by a combined count of 72-6. A third-place finish and a potential Holiday Bowl berth -- if the conference gets two BCS teams -- are still appealing possibilities, though the Bears were thinking Rose Bowl in the preseason.
Oregon State (5-3, 3-2) likely would return to the national rankings with a victory. The Beavers have won three of four since inconsistent performances at home against Cincinnati and Arizona, but a third conference defeat likely would leave them looking at a fourth- or fifth-place conference finish.
The Bears are looking to shake off the ghosts of this season, so it seems appropriate that they will try to do so against a team that has haunted them of late.
Oregon State has won the last two meetings in the series and four in a row in Berkeley. The win at Cal in 2007, one might recall, is particularly notable.
On that day, the 5-0 Bears were ranked No. 2 in the nation and took the field knowing that No. 1 LSU had lost to Kentucky. Even though starting quarterback Nate Longshore, who had played well in wins over Tennessee and Oregon (had to dump that in Cal fans), was out with an ankle injury, Cal fans were confident. The Beavers were only 3-3 and had lost at home to the Bears 41-13 the year before.
So no worries, right?
The Bears fell behind early, but their backup quarterback found his rhythm and led a furious rally. He drove Cal into position to kick a game-tying field goal and force overtime.
But, with the clock ticking down and no timeouts, he thought he saw some daylight. He took off up the middle. He was tackled on the 10-yard line. The clock hit zero. The Beavers won 31-28. Cal coach Jeff Tedford, who rarely shows extreme emotion on the sideline, spiked his play sheet in frustration.
The Bears imploded thereafter, that loss becoming the first of six defeats in seven games.
That quarterback of whom we type, of course, is Kevin Riley.
Riley, now a junior, was asked if he remembered the play in question. He let out a short laugh.
"I definitely remember it," he said. "I made a mistake and it was a bad mistake. But I learned from it. I've played 20 or so games since then. I'm a lot better player than I was then. I remember it though."
What's notable now, however, is that Riley, who presently sports a bushy beard that he refuses to shave during the Bears winning streak, is fresh off leading a game-winning drive to beat Arizona State. He's played well, in fact, since the Bears were manhandled by the Ducks and Trojans, completing 62 percent of his passes during the streak with eight touchdowns and no interceptions.
But by proving he can come through in the clutch, which he did when he went 5 for 6 for 85 yards on the 11-play drive that set up the winning field goal, he showed his team he's got moxie.
"People have a lot of confidence in Kevin," Tedford said. "They see how he practices. But anytime you can put together a last-minute drive and put the team in position to be successful, I think that goes a long way. It gives the whole team a boost."
Cal's balanced offense has big-play potential on the ground and through the air. It should make things difficult for the Beavers. The Bears average 196 yards rushing per game with explosive backs Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen, while Riley ranks 10th in the nation and first in the Pac-10 with 33 passes of over 20 yards. Oregon State struggles against the pass. It's given up 15 touchdown passes, ranks ninth in the conference in pass defense and ranks last with just eight sacks.
Of course, the Bears defense will have to contain the Rodgers brothers and Sean Canfield, who is playing as well as any quarterback in the conference. That unit has been surprisingly inconsistent and, oh by the way, is no great shakes against the pass either, ranking eighth in the conference.
In a conference as deep as the Pac-10, one game can't make a season. And Saturday's tilt won't irrevocably break the loser.
But it certainly will leave a big crack in its expectations for the postseason.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
The California Golden Blogs asks a question that should make its way into the Pac-10 office and fall onto the desk of incoming commissioner Larry Scott: Should the Pac-10 end round-robin scheduling?
If college football was about fairness and seeking legitimate competition, the answer would be no. A thousand times no.
But it's not.
So the Pac-10 should end round-robin scheduling, a practice that only insures the conference suffers five additional losses a season, which hurts national rankings and strength of schedule ratings, which then combines to hurt the conference in the BCS standings.
If the Pac-10 tossed away a ninth conference game, then it could add another nonconference game, like other BCS conferences do.
And, of course, that game, per the nearly uniform example set by other BCS conferences, should be against a directional school patsy.
We're not going to get all mathy here and try to re-imagine past BCS formulations, but just consider the conference in 2008 if the bottom five teams had one more win and one fewer loss.
Arizona State and Stanford would have been bowl teams. UCLA, Washington and Washington State wouldn't have been as much of an anchor for USC's strength of schedule as the Trojans tried to insinuate themselves into the national championship picture with the exact same record as the two teams that ended up playing for the title.
Or imagine if UCLA, Washington and Washington State started the season with this schedule: Eastern Washington, Nevada, SMU and Massachusetts.
Each would have then started 4-0, which is what Texas Tech did with that schedule.
That means those three would have been just two wins away from bowl eligibility. UCLA would have certainly made it. And who knows how confident the Huskies and Cougars might have responded after a nice start.
The BCS system does not reward the Pac-10 for round-robin scheduling, whether considered from the perspective of mathematical formulas or public perception.
Ever tried to explain the perils of round-robin schedule to an adherent from another conference? Their eyes glaze over.
How often do pundits note it as an explanation for why the Pac-10 doesn't produce seven bowl teams?
Kentucky, which lost six of its final eight regular-season games, was a bowl team last year. The Wildcats didn't beat a BCS team with a winning record. They did beat Norfolk State, Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky.
How much did scheduling contribute to the perception of Kentucky being a part of that notorious "SEC depth"?
This doesn't even mean the Pac-10 needs to drop its longstanding tradition of seeking out tough nonconference games. With four games out of conference every year, the Pac-10 should merely makes sure it goes, at worst, 3-1.
Sure, play Texas, Georgia or Ohio State. But also play Norfolk State, Massachusetts and Eastern-Coastal Monroe A&M.
The downer is the conference championship won't be as pure. And one team every year will do a "neener-neener" at the other eight when it misses USC.
But what about the BCS system is pure?
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
To paraphrase Madonna: You hate me. You really hate me.
Well, if you're an Oregon State fan. Or an SEC adherent.
Dan from Portland writes: Ted, I am sure you have by now received countless emails from my fellow Oregonians stating that the greatest college football rivalry of all time in any conference is the Oregon State / [expletive] ducks civil war....this is the hardest fought game of the year regardless of national rankings....it sells out every year and gives millions... okay, thousands of Oregonians something to look forward to besides nine months of rain. Even the kids in this state classify themselves as Beavers or *ucks. Please do a little more research next time.
Ray from Lake Oswego, Ore. writes: Dude, you blatently left out the Civil War on your "most bitter rivalries" list???!!!??? C'mon now, I know you spent a lot of time up in Seattle, but you really think the Apple Cup and fuskies vs. the 'ucks is a better rivalry? As a proud member of Beaver Nation, I am hear to tell you that our hatred for all things green and yellow far outweighs that of those other rivalries...heck our rivalry game with the fuskies has a better rating on the "hate-o-meter" than most of your top 5. I was really beginning to like your blog and then you had to go and do this...we expect better from you Ted.
Ted Miller: Got lots and lots of these -- and plenty of the same in the comments section. Leaving the Civil War out of the list of the Pac-10's most bitter rivalries touched a nerve.
First, all rivalries are bitter. I grew up in Atlanta and it used to drive me crazy that Georgia-Georgia Tech didn't make many "best rivalry games" lists. I remember when inimitable Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Lewis Grizzard wrote this column after his beloved Bulldogs lost to the Yellow Jackets:
"Frankly, I don't want to talk about it."
The rest was white space. One line. Brilliant. I am laughing out loud right now.
So I understand: Oregon State fans really hate Oregon.
But the reverse of that, well, after living in the Northwest for eight years, my overwhelming perception was the Ducks reserve their most toxic bile for the hated Huskies.
In fact, I remember former Oregon athletic director Bill Moos candidly admitting that to me.
Every time I write something about the Huskies, it gets trolled by Oregon and Washington State fans. When I write about the Beavers, I don't get that.
Moreover, the Oregon State fans I know well -- including my former boss at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer -- mostly come off as, well, sane. Educated. Thoughtful. Funny. Even the anger over this matter has been mostly expletive and "you idiot" free.
I'm not brown nosing. It's an honest impression.
It is, however, fair to say that my first-hand experience covering the Apple Cup made me biased. Of course, just about every Apple Cup I've witnessed concluded with mayhem ranging from just a little scary to out of control.
And, as for the Ducks and Huskies: Please. I've watched that Kenny Wheaton video too many times to question the emotions of that game.
Brian from Munford, Tenn., writes: The numbers do not lie. Most SEC teams do have poor non-conference scheduling. After all since the BCS started the SEC has 4 national championships and why not include Auburn in 2004 since USC was awarded a piece in 2003(50% i would say a highly significant winning %)?The problem is EVERY week in the SEC anyone can win. There is no other conference that even compares. So with that said why would any team in this conference schedule big non conference games? They do not need to!
Ted Miller: "The problem is EVERY week in the SEC anyone can win." Well, that's true of any conference. Just like on any given week Alabama could lose to Louisiana-Monroe or Mississippi could lose to Wyoming or Mississippi State could lose to Tulane or Auburn could lose to South Florida (did Oregon play South Florida last year?) or Kentucky could lose to Indiana or Arkansas can win the SEC West but lose to USC by 36 points or Tennessee could win the SEC East after losing to California by 14 points.
SEC folks love to talk about the depth of their conference, and there is depth -- at the top. But out here in reality world, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Mississippi State and, yes, Alabama look just like about 50 other BCS teams lumbering around the bloated middle of college football. That group reminds me of the bottom half of the Pac-10, which is where each would finish if it came out West. Wait. Have Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi State done that over the past decade?
Moreover, sometimes the "depth" of the SEC is smoke-and-mirrors. Take Georgia in 2007. I've got nothing but love for the Dawgs, but folks outside of Athens/Atlanta/Macon/Savannah see a team that lost to a bad South Carolina squad and got bludgeoned by Tennessee. (Did Tennessee play a Pac-10 team in 2007? I can't remember.) The Bulldogs, who gave up 34 points to Troy and beat Vandy by three, were outraged they didn't get to play for the national championship, but, really, their entire resume came down to two games: wins over Florida and Auburn. Florida lost to Appalachian State by the transitive property of college football. And that South Florida team that won at Auburn went down 56-21 to Oregon in the Sun Bowl.
The SEC needs tough non-conference games to prove itself to the rest of the nation, a group that is not required to succumb to the "just trust me ... can't you see I'm yelling!" school of debate popular in the SEC.
That's why Georgia scheduled Arizona State. That's why Tennessee has long played a gutty non-conference schedule. And, heck, LSU wouldn't have won the national title last year if it hadn't beaten the pooh out of Virginia Tech.
Nick from St. Paul writes: Ted, could you go into a little more depth on the Arizona State offensive line? How much of last year was do to a new system, Carpenter holding the ball too long and past injuries hurting lineman mobility? How much will that improve with in the second year of Team Erickson?
Ted Miller: Nick, Dennis Erickson went way out of his way to repeatedly spread the blame around about the 55 sacks surrendered last year. He clearly didn't want to throw his offensive line completely under the bus. And, he's got a point. How many of you Sun Devils fans yelled at your television at some point last year "Rudy! Throw the %$#@ ball"? So, QB Rudy Carpenter deserve some blame, as do running backs who struggled to pick up blitzes. That's why the main offensive emphasis during the spring was to adopt a quick-hitting passing game, which, by the way, has always been Erickson's preference. Still, the Sun Devils only welcome back two starters on the offensive line, and both tackles will be new. In fact, it would be fair to argue that left tackle John Hargis, who converted from the defensive line during spring practices, might be the most important Sun Devil. To me, the only big question with ASU is the offensive line. If the Sun Devils cut that sack total in half (which would have still only ranked in the middle of the conference in 2007), my guess is they'll have another shot at double-digit victories.
Tate from Eugene writes: I realize that you think the ducks "have the ugliest uniforms in the history of the world" but does it really matter when we've actually pulled recruits here on our uniforms al
one? Obviously they are doing something for us. The recruits love it, the players love it, and the fans love it. So keep on hating and we'll keep on pulling in guys like LeGarrette Blount who is gonna tear the Pac-10 up this season (as a backup too).
Ted Miller: Sigh. Tate, when I wrote that, I was trying to inhabit the mind of a fan who hates Oregon. But I don't. (Just like I sure as heck wouldn't support spraying graffiti on Traveller). While I've certainly raised an eyebrow at some of the Ducks combinations, I actually like Oregon's colors and understand the method in the athletic program's madness -- the uniforms aren't about middle-aged folks, they're about what might appeal to an 18-22-year-old.
Jordan from Coeur d'Alene, ID writes: I have been wrestling with the toughest football question I've ever contemplated and I need your advice: I am a lifelong Washington fan and I don't know what to do this season. I love Ty Willingham, the man; he's a class act and full of good character. However, he is a god-awful football coach. He's recruited decently but is 11-25 (and, as I'm sure you remember, Lambright was fired for a better record) in three seasons and is without argument a terrible game day coach. I am clearly in the wanting Ty fired camp, but does that mean I have to hope for my Huskies to have a mediocre to poor season so that he will be canned? I mean, I'm desperate for a bowl game but I fear that if we make one Ty will be extended and we will remain mediocre. What's a purple and gold-clad fan to do?
Ted Miller: Jordan, this is simple: You should root for yourself to be wrong about Willingham. You should root for your team to shock everyone and make so-called pundits look stupid. You should root with every part of your Huskies-loving-soul for Washington to catch fire under Willingham and begin the second-coming of the Don James Era.
I'm not saying it's going to happen. But this is the time of year you get behind your team and practice unconditional love.
Doug from Houston writes: Ted - If you have USC only making the Rose Bowl then who do you have them losing to? Please don't tell me Ohio State!
Ted Miller: OK. I won't tell you. I believe USC will lose one Pac-10 game and one other. And I believe Ohio State will redeem itself and win the national title this season. But I won't say what I think will happen in the USC-Ohio State game because you asked nicely.