Wednesday, August 30, 2006
2006 PREVIEW, QUICKLY: THE PAC TEN
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Say what you will about the PAC Ten - we know you will - but at least recognize this: these no defense-playin' fly boys ain't playing scared. Eight of the league's ten teams play opponents ranked in the top 20 outside of the conference, and the two that don't, Arizona State and Oregon State, have strenuous visits to Colorado and Boise State, respectively. In the opening week alone, three West Coast teams are visitng SEC stadiums; another (Arizona) comes to LSU in Week Two, the same day Washington visits Oklahoma. And when other schools were falling over themselves to schedule Buffalo and East Tennessee State in the new 12th game slot, the PAC Ten did the right thing by adding a ninth game. No more avoiding Oregon (UCLA) or missing out on a cupcake the rest of the league gets to devour (Washington State will relish that visit from Arizona this time around).
This is one of the country's deepest conferences, perhaps its best from top to bottom, where every team seems to be 'on the rise.' Except one, natuarlly, and it couldn't possibly rise any higher. Also perhaps the only league in which literally every team looks like a legitimate bowl contender; there are probably no projected last place teams anywhere better than Stanford and Washington, which says something (don't know what, but something).
Underlying Literary Themes in the PAC Ten
Isolation and Exile - Sam Keller had nothing but nice words about his brief reign as the starting quarterback at the People's Democratic Republic of Arizona State, which ended in a coup d'etat by Keller's one-time comrades, who forced the apparent figurehead to install Rudy Carpenter in Keller's position despite the close but free and fair selection of Keller just days earlier. Yet, deep inside, the exiled Keller must be hoping his eminent takeover at Nebraska will result in a Holiday Bowl showdown with his old mates in 2007; in the meantime, imagine Keller as Uma Thurman's character in Kill Bill, methodically, psychotically prepping for vengeance.
Death and Dying (Death is part of living, giving life its final meaning) - "Death" is an overreaction to the monumental exits at USC, but there will be some deserved mourning in the wake of the departures of two Heisman Trophies, a mythical championship and a half, three PAC Ten titles, an ongoing, 23-game conference win streak and mostly unverified scandal with Leinart, White, Bush and Co. The replacements must now brave an inevitable winter - 11-2 OMG Outrage!! - before its talent can fully bloom, according to the Cruel Laws of an Indifferent Universe.
Bildungsroman - At Arizona, Dick Tomey and especially John Mackovic after him represent forms of loss, discontent and rebellion that jarred the Wildcats into a long, arduous, and gradual process of maturity, consisting of repeated clashes between their needs and desires and the views and judgments enforced by an unbending social order in which they were frequently on the bottom. In hiring Mike Stoops, a frustrating beginning has given way to a revelation (quarterback Willie Tuitama and a 52-14 head-exploder over UCLA), some subsequent setbacks (a three-touchdown home loss to Washington the next week) and the manifestation of the spirit and values of the external social order within the program. By the end of the season, UA will be able to more accurately assess its new place in PAC Ten society.
SMQ Must Justify...
UCLA won ten games in 2005. Washington State won three. So SMQ says the first number's almost cut in half, and the second doubles. These teams were virtually identical last year in terms of yards and points and yards allowed and points allowed; outside of USC (an extreme outlier), Washington State to three ranked teams (including UCLA) and Arizona State by four points or less apiece, while UCLA frantically rallied for miraculous late wins on four different occasions - Washington State, in overtime, being one of them. Consider also that WSU outgained UCLA in conference games, averaging more than a yard more per carry and allowing a yard and a half less per carry; in six conference losses (again, not including USC), WSU fell by an average of 4.3 points while suffering a minus-five turnover rate and missing 3-8 Arizona, whereas UCLA won six league games with a plus-six turnover ratio and didn't play 10-win Oregon. Under the new 3-2-5-e rule, the Bruins would have likely watched the seconds tick off four more losses in '05; the Cougars, two more wins. With Washington State plugging in JUCO star JT Deidrechs for Jerome Harrison and returning everyone else, and UCLA losing Drew Olson, Maurice Drew and half the defense, those fortunes will meet about halfway this time around.
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If you lost five out of six games by four points or less, you'd need a hug, too
Most Likely To Prove SMQ Wrong
Obviously, one picks against the Trojans at his own risk. SC's won 30 of its last 32 PAC Ten games, for god's sake. Cal has provided the stiffest conference test now three years running, but is not quite on the same plane, talent-wise, and could finish as low as fourth (in the PAC Ten, that is, not the nation).
If One Thing Is Certain...
One team will allow at least 500 yards and 35 points per game. Last year, Washington State gave up 501.6 a pop, with UCLA right behind at a little over 497, and both allowed five touchdowns or more on a consistent basis. The Bruins could again fall so low, but a massive rebuilding project at Stanford makes the Cardinal uniquely qualified. Given the level of offensive firepower everywhere (save maybe Washington), it's an inevitability.
The USC-Cal winner is the presumptive favorite; barring that, Oregon and Arizona State have rough and unlikely designs on crashing the big-money series their own selves. UCLA may have the guns to compete in such an area again, whereas Washington State could be slipping back into the cellar. Oregon State, Stanford and Washington are clearly the three worst teams, but it shouldn't surprise anyone to see any of them in the postseason hunt. A wide, wide open league with a lot of possibilities, all of them about equally plausible.
Projected Order of Finish (SMQ's BlogPoll Ranking)
This is not a power poll...
1. California (#2)Jeff Tedford + deep, Heisman-contending (and upstanding!) backfield + bitchin' run defense + misleading record due to close losses X (Cruel Laws of Indifferent Universe + Wide open mythical championship race) = Picture perfect sleeper.
Question the "bitchin' run defense" if you must, but this was certainly true of a similarly experienced group in 2004, when the Bears allowed 2.7 per carry (just 1.6 to USC) and 16 points per game while playing in an offense-mad league, and this year's front seven crop - which allowed 3.3 a carry over the season as an entirely retooled unit last year - is at least as talented as that one (and has an all-America type corner backing it up, Daymeion Hughes, who was just a rookie starter in '04). Question the quarterbacks, you must, but do so with Tedford's history of guiding talented, inexperienced passers into sudden, must-have draft studs firmly in mind.
2. Southern Cal (#4)
Nationally, Texas may be able to claim talent equivalency. That would be about it. But no team in recent history has thwarted the malaise - by which SMQ means maybe two losses, three max - that inevitably follows the departure of production on the level of the Big Three from the Trojan backfield, which itself obscures the exodus of three offensive linemen, both defensive tackles and three-fourths of the secondary, the vast majority of which is collecting hefty paychecks these days. And still SC probably deserves to be favored in every game, even if the cosmic order dictates somebody with an offensive pulse - Nebraska, Arizona State, Oregon, Cal, Notre Dame - will shut down the surprisingly anonymous, youth-and-injury-plagued backs and pressure the new quarterback into enough mistakes to rend a scarlet and gold garment or two.
3. Arizona State (#20)
Keller's overthrow and effective banishment can have only psychological effects here, and not necessarily negative ones. There should be no worries whatsoever with El Presidente Rudy Carpenter emerging - or else - as the leader of the offensive junta. Worries are entirely on defense, where there is justified optimism about the addition of former all-Big Ten end Loren Howard, a Northwestern transfer just before last season, but how good was Northwestern' defense with him? More shoot-out ball is eminent, and the Devils are equipped for it.
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Hey, Rudy, no pressure, man, right?
4. Oregon (#21)
There is slight trepidation surrounding the new backfield tandem of Dennis Dixon/Brady Leaf and Jonathan Stewart/Jeremiah Johnson, without much else to worry about besides two new corners. Stewart is to be feared. Asking for consecutive ten win seasons is probably biting off more than these Ducks can, um, chew, but this is by and large a "beat goes on" situation that will compete with anyone.
5. Washington State
Had the league's best offense (in total yards) behind USC, produced the nation's leading regular season rusher and put the fear of god into winning teams on a weekly basis, yet only won a single PAC Ten game, against Washington, because of an atrocious defense and what SMQ presumes was the worst luck in the nation (possibly karmic retribution for Ryan Leaf?). The skimpy margin between this team and eight wins was recounted above; better bounces and ample experience on defense ought to close that gap by about half.
The other side of the coin, the fortuitous team that preyed on many a hapless secondary and Lady Luck's near-boundless favor to win ten must be due to revert to the mean, which, under Karl Dorrell, has been about six wins. L.A. could top that by a game, maybe two. But the hammering it took in two losses late in the season is an ominous sign; how many teams go 6-2 in-conference and are outscored overall by opponents by five touchdowns? SMQ knows, he knows, Ben Olson brings the lefty pain (and over-aged Mormon mission karma), but that fortune, sans the Drews, cannot continue.
While previewing los gatos montesas in the offseason, SMQ was swayed by the Arizona media department's near-revolutionary screed declaring the arch of history compelled a bowl berth by a Wildcat team "peopled by those who believe," but he's since lost his dose of impetus: the fact is that the depth of the conference and 'Zona's iffy running game put them again on the outside of postseason developments.
8. Oregon State
A little unfair to drop the Beavers this far after a sudden string of competiveness and fight this decade, and with nothing like a mass exodus occuring on either side; in fact, the quarterback, two quality wide outs, a former all-conference tight end, a 1,300-yard rusher and all five offensive linemen return from a perfectly capable offense. And the kicker! My god, the kicker! And the team was a ghastly minus-14 in turnover margin, a sign of eminent turnaround. But not every team in the league can rebound all at once, so, with ball-sucking vortex Mike Hass and the top two tacklers (and top three sackers) gone, SMQ predicts further five-win doom for the Beavers. All the preceding is moot, however, if Matt Moore cuts the picks (an NCAA-high 19 last year) in half and Yvenson Bernard, a poor man's Mike Hart as a tough but very short plugger, doesn't need 30 carries to break a hundred.
Another potential up-and-comer, were the position not so capably filled by half the rest of the league. Isaiah Stanback is a baseball and former track guy playing quarterback and can run, run like the wind, but is a middling passer and has never completely wrestled the job from Casey Paus and Johnny DuRocher. The team's also going on its ninth year without a 1,000-yard rusher, according to Phil Steele, with no prospects in sight. The defense was actually respectable, and features another surely-destructive Tuiasosopo over there (backup linebacker Trenton), but Ty Willingham's not taking these guys anywhere in the PAC Ten at 21 points a game. The signature win the past two years (out of three to choose from) is Arizona last year.
Quarterback-for-life Trent Edwards can be classified as a positive by now, but remember: the Cardinal became the indispensable key to the absurdity of the 2005 version of the College Football Victory Chain Linker by losing to I-AA UC-Davis, a game in which (without Edwards) its offense was held under 200 yard total yards. Stanford improved from there, certainly, but pretty much the whole, terrible defense graduated, and it didn't improve that much.
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Technically, Anon, but I'm not counting the 2002 co-championship because SC lost the head-to-head to Washington State, who played in the Rose Bowl. I will call the co-Big Ten championship that year between Ohio State and Iowa a split title, because they didn't play one another, but when there's a head-to-head, I go with that (I will never accept Ole Miss as 2003 SEC West Division Champions, for example, because despite the identical league records, they were clearly second to LSU).
But SC was the best team in the league in '02; WSU never would have beaten them later on in the season. That's why I included '02 in the reference to the 30-2 conference record.