A Saturday without Oregon football on our hands and a month into the 2011 season. The bye week is an opportune time for a quick survey around the new neighborhood. The addition of Utah and Colorado to the autumn sports calendar has brought a touch of new color to the scenery.
From the day conference expansion was announced, the expectation was that Colorado was going off the deep-end and would sink quickly. Ever since Oregon clocked them in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl, Colorado has steadily regressed and shows little sign of resuscitation. Head coach Jon Embree is a first year head man and the talent cupboard is bare.
The new affiliation with the Pac-12 may help with recruiting in the long run, but the key word here is ‘long’. It won’t happen overnight.
The Buffs have followed form so far, losing to Hawaii, California and Ohio State. This Saturday’s match-up with Washington State is more a measure of the Cougs than it is Colorado.
Should the Buffaloes prevail, it would be widely seen as WSU returning to their cellar dwelling ways of late. A Cougar win would be seen as validation head coach Paul Wulff finally has the program heading in the right direction.
Utah, on the other hand, has enjoyed recent success albeit in the lesser Mountain West Conference. First under Urban Meyer and now Kyle Whittingham, the Utes have been a frequent BCS buster and have made the most of those moments in the spotlight.
The question that will be answered by expansion is the age-old knock on the non-BCS leagues: would the best of their teams hold up against BCS programs week in and week out?
In their Pac-12 debut, Utah was a blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown away from taking USC to overtime in Los Angeles. However, that result may be somewhat diminished by USC’s pedestrian showing last week against ASU.
Utah also impressed with a lopsided win over BYU. That’s why this Saturday’s match-up with Washington will be a good indicator of what impact the Utes will have on the Southern Division standings.
Arizona, Arizona State, USC and UCLA join the two newcomers in the sunnier side of the conference.
Arizona is in a death spiral, losing to seven consecutive FBS opponents. There is probably not a hotter coaching seat in the country than Rick Neuheisel’s at UCLA. Lane Kiffin and the USC Trojans appear to be heading that direction as well. That’s how it looks after last Saturday’s beat down at the hands of ASU and continued NCAA compliance reverberations from his tenure at Tennessee.
It’s a different story in Tempe. Although they failed to reach a bowl game last season, coming into the 2011 campaign ASU was seen to be the most likely candidate to emerge at the top of the division.
Some of that reasoning was predicated on the continued ineligibility of USC, but there is no denying the Sun Devils returned a very athletic core group of players.
Maturity and mental toughness are always open questions for Dennis Erickson’s squad. That caveat seemed well taken in light of the Sun Devils’ inexplicable loss to Illinois in week three.
But fast, physical defenses have been a trademark of Erickson’s best teams, and this group fills the bill to a “T”. ASU does not face Stanford, so back to back October road match-ups against Utah and then Oregon will determine whether the Sun Devils are new contenders or continuing pretenders.
In the northern half of the Pac-12, Oregon and Stanford continue to demonstrate they deserved to be in those preseason favorite conversations. Oregon’s loss to LSU didn’t do the Ducks many favors in terms of national respect, but it may well have won them 14 more ballgames this season.
That pairing three weeks into the season would have been a far better measure of the Ducks, but both Oregon and LSU have since played to their talents. But such is the way of college football: You play them when they are on the schedule, not when you might like.
Stanford Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck has been methodical in carving up every defense he has lined up against. Turning the coin on Arizona State’s scheduled miss, the future #1 pick won’t see what very well could be the best defensive unit in the conference. That’s a pity, because it would be a heck of a show.
Given that free pass, other than Oregon, there doesn’t appear to be a team in the northern half of the conference that can either beat Luck in a shoot out or slow him down enough to give your offense a chance.
Washington and Washington State are both making moves out of the cellar. However, defensive liabilities leave each without a realistic opportunity to move past either Stanford or Oregon in the standings.
California, as always, is something of an enigma under Jeff Tedford. The Golden Bears are handful on their home turf but have lost eight of the last nine they have played on the road. You don’t win conference championships that way. You don’t even win 8 games that way.
Panic is all that can be found in Corvallis, not all of it justified. Any rational survey of the Beavers coming out of last season, and considering the departure of Jacquizz Rodgers for the NFL, would make it clear this was going to be a long season at Reser.
Injuries have exposed a lack of depth on both sides of the ball and a clumsy early season quarterback switch torpedoed the 2011 campaign quickly. At this point, a winless season isn’t out of the question.
As the calendar turns to October other than the color of those changing leaves, the Pac-12 looks a lot like it did in early August. The games that will determine the Pac-12 conference championship remain Arizona State’s October 15th date with Ducks in Autzen and Oregon’s November 12th throw down in Palo Alto.
— Rick Morgan for EDN