Why ASU could become a force, Phil Fulmer's extension and more
The final paragraph of last week's Mailbag succeeded in lighting a fire under our friends from the West Coast, many of whom offered theories as to why "Pac-10 [Mailbag] submissions are so minimal it's embarrassing" (I'll share a couple of those later), others of whom took heed and fired off Pac-10 related questions.
I figured we'd start off with the most generalized, most obvious question possible involving that conference.
At some point, USC's run at the top of the Pac-10 has to end. Who do you see as having the best chance to supplant the Trojans as the class of the best offensive conference in the country?
Let me start by saying I do not foresee that happening beyond an occasional one-season blip for as long as Pete Carroll remains at USC. Short of crippling, Reggie Bush-related NCAA sanctions (highly unlikely), there's no reason to think the nation's elite blue-chippers won't keep jumping on the Carroll bandwagon (after watching a day of the Trojans' typically charged team meetings and practice this spring, I wanted to suit up, too), or that he and his staff won't keep coaching them up.
So the real question is, once Carroll leaves -- provided it's sometime in the near future -- which program is in the best position to take USC's place? There is no shortage of possibilities. UCLA poses an obvious threat with Rick Neuheisel and Norm Chow on board. Oregon has been a fairly consistent contender for nearly a decade. Jeff Tedford's Cal program always seems just a few steps away from making its own move (last season notwithstanding). And Washington has history and tradition on its side if it can ever get its ship in order.
But to me, the Pac-10's sleeping giant -- as it's been for more than 30 years -- is Arizona State. It's never ceased to amaze me how the Sun Devils aren't a more formidable program. You would think selling a 17-year-old male on Tempe would be as easy as convincing a 5-year-old to eat a Happy Meal.
First of all, most recruits take their official visits in December and January. Have you ever been to Arizona in December or January? And have you ever seen that campus? Two words: The Library. And while Arizona coach Mike Stoops took heat last winter for referring to ASU as a "junior college" ... let's be honest: He wasn't that far off. Academic restrictions aren't one of the program's bigger obstacles.
But most importantly, ASU now has as proven winner on its sideline. Say what you want about Dennis Erickson -- he's got enough baggage to keep American Airlines in business -- but the guy can coach some football. He won two national titles at Miami. He produced an 11-win season in Corvallis, Ore. Heck, he won 10 games in his first year with the Sun Devils despite having no offensive line, no running game (after Ryan Torain's midseason injury) and a fairly thin defense. If he actually stays at a school long enough to fill the roster with his own players for once, there's no reason ASU can't be the conference's next in line.
I'll take the bait on the Pac 10 question. Which coaching storyline is more interesting and why? Notre Dame at Washington on Oct. 25, or UCLA at Washington on Nov. 15?
There's no contest on that one. While I'm sure Rick Neuheisel's return to U-Dub will generate its share of interest in Seattle, any bad blood Washington fans still hold regarding their former coach can't hold a candle to the resentment Notre Dame fans still feel toward Washington's current coach. Tyrone Willingham had the audacity to not only go a mere 21-15 during his tenure in South Bend but (supposedly) caused the Irish's nightmare season three years after his departure with his (supposedly) woeful recruiting.
Meanwhile, Willingham is currently no more beloved at Washington following three straight horrendous seasons, which means if the Huskies start poorly again this coming season, that Oct. 25 game might mark the first time in sports history where both teams' fans want to see the coach fail.
More realistically, however, both the Huskies (4-9 last year) and Irish (3-9) will show at least mild improvement behind their now-sophomore quarterbacks (UW's Jake Locker and ND's Jimmy Clausen), which will turn that game into a benchmark moment for both programs. There are officially no more excuses for Willingham or Charlie Weis, both of whom started their tenures at the same time and will have had nearly four years to rebuild.
If Notre Dame wins, Willingham may find himself down to his last days. If Washington wins -- Irish fans may need to start rethinking their opinions of both coaches.
Tennessee recently rewarded Phil Fulmer with a hefty raise and contract extension from the University of Tennessee. My question is: Why? Has the Tennessee football program not been in decline the past few years? Has the team not become stagnant? I am not sure why UT would want to reward him for the program going stale and keep him around until 2014.
Fulmer's tenure reminds me a lot of former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr's: A national title, followed by a decade or so of never returning to that same, elite level, causing an ever-increasing erosion in confidence among the fan base, but still maintaining enough success to merit loyalty from the school.
On the one hand, it makes perfect sense the school would reward Fulmer now, what with him coming off a 10-win season and division title. On the other hand, count me among the many who still believe he's done a mediocre job lately. As Birmingham News columnist Kevin Scarbinsky wrote recently, "Tennessee just rewarded [Fulmer] for not winning the SEC championship for the ninth straight season."
But as Scarbinsky notes, Fulmer happens to coach in a league with the most bloated salary structure in the country. Even at $2.4 million next season, Fulmer will still be only the seventh-highest paid coach in the SEC, well behind not only recent national champs Les Miles ($3.75 million) and Urban Meyer ($3.25 million) but two coaches -- Alabama's Nick Saban ($4 million) and Arkansas' Bobby Petrino ($2.85 million) -- whose current programs haven't done jack yet under their watch. By those inflated standards, Fulmer is actually being underpaid.
However, by locking him down through 2014 (at least theoretically), and including a clause that calls for an automatic one-year rollover every time the Vols win at least eight games, AD Mike Hamilton is sending a pretty strong message that the only way Fulmer will be exiting Knoxville any time soon will be of his own volition. Funny: I can remember a time when eight wins was considered a major disappointment for Fulmer's team, not cause for further reward.