Pac-12 could be full of surprises, intriguing Week 1 games, more
Washington looking up, Stanford has nowhere to go but down in Pac-12
Oregon-LSU (aka Willie Lyles bowl) has huge national title implications
Plus: College football equivalents from The League, Neuheisel's future at UCLA
For much of the past week, you couldn't turn on a television without seeing Gene Chizik or Steve Spurrier doing an interview, holding a press conference or answering trivia questions. The SEC put on the fullcourt, Media Days/Bristol p.r. assault. This week it's the Pac-12's turn, which held its annual kickoff event Tuesday, then jetted it coaches to the East Coast for a media swing that included visits to our very own SI.com studio.
At this point I should in theory hold some sort of insight into the Left Coast Conference.
Thanks for many good years of the Mailbag. My dad, brother and I, all college football fanatics, read it every week.
Question: It seems like the Pac-12 is full of teams that could go one way or the other this year, even the teams picked at the top. Who do you think will be the biggest overachiever, and who do you think will be the biggest disappointment (I know, the second question is probably too easy. By the end of the season I don't think many will be fearing the "Fork").
-- John, Anchorage, Ak.
First of all: Glad to know the Mailbag is such a hit in Alaska. It's no secret why so many Pac-12 teams seem to be entering the season at a crossroads: One need only look at last year's final standings. You had two teams, Oregon and Stanford, finish far ahead of the pack, while half the conference (Washington, USC, Oregon State, Arizona State and Arizona) all finished within a game of each other in the middle. Throw in Cal (which finished below .500 but with one of the best defenses in the conference) and newcomer Utah (a wild-card contender) and you have as many as seven teams that could contend in their division or finish around .500 again, to go with the two BCS teams from last year.
My top candidate for overachiever: Washington. The Huskies earned their first bowl bid in eight years last season, but they did it in rather ugly fashion, scoring just 21.9 points per game (96th nationally). And that was with a quarterback, Jake Locker, that wound up the eighth pick in the NFL draft. But I see Steve Sarkisian's program trending upward, not treading water. Late last season you saw the Huskies really get their running game going behind Chris Polk, who averaged 171 yards in four straight wins. He's back, the offensive line should be better and it wouldn't take much for sophomore quarterback Keith Price to be more productive than Locker. The defense is questionable, but just maximizing their offensive talent should help the Huskies pick up an extra win or two.
For biggest disappointment, I see from your "Fork" comment you want me to say Arizona State, and common sense says I should take Arizona State ... but I'm not ready to jump off the Sun Devils' bandwagon. My answer is Stanford. Andrew Luck's mere presence alone ensured the Cardinal -- 12-1 a year ago -- would start back in the Top 10, but those expectations seem unreasonable for a program that just lost its savior coach (Jim Harbaugh) and must replace three solid offensive linemen as well as key players like fullback/linebacker Owen Marecic and nose tackle Sione Fua. Harbaugh recruited well, but not to the point that Stanford can just reload like an Alabama or Oklahoma. Seven to eight wins seem more likely than 10 or 11. Luck's beard may be the deciding factor.
Good Day, Stewart. What are the top four matchups of the first week you are looking forward to? What chance do you give the improving Baylor Bears of upsetting the Horned Frogs at home that Friday night? Your time is appreciated.
-- Walter, Opelika, Kan.
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It's not hard narrowing it down to four when opening weekend features a staggering 42 FBS vs. FCS matchups. How ridiculous is that? Fans wait eight months for football season, get maybe six or seven chances to see their team at home, and when they day finally comes, they're playing Elon. It stinks. But I digress.
No. 1, obviously, is LSU vs. Oregon (aka the Willie Lyles Bowl). Unlike those other 42 duds, this is one of those game that makes you appreciate how a game the first Saturday could wind up being as important as any played the first Saturday in December. Maybe that's a stretch, but if either the Tigers or Ducks entertain hopes of reaching the BCS title game, they'll probably need to win this game. Much like the Alabama-Clemson and Alabama-Virginia Tech openers a couple of years ago, we'll find out real quickly whether either or both is deserving of their preseason hype.
No. 2 is Boise State-Georgia, though not for the same reasons as last year's Boise-Virginia Tech game. This won't serve as a referendum on the Broncos as much as it will the Dawgs. Mark Richt has said it himself: Coming off a 6-7 season, he needs a win over a high-quality nonconference foe to kickstart his program.
No. 3 is Baylor-TCU, and yes, I do think Robert Griffin and the Bears have a shot of beating the Horned Frogs -- if TCU's rebuilding offense struggles. It's unrealistic to think Baylor will put up 35 on Gary Patterson's defense. I also appreciate the timing and proximity that will allow me to cover both No. 1 and No. 3.
No. 4 may seem a bit odd (and perhaps partisan), but I'm genuinely intrigued by Northwestern-Boston College. These are two very similar teams, both with an elite offensive star (Wildcats QB Dan Persa and Eagles RB Montel Harris), and both capable of becoming the surprise team in their respective conferences. And it's nice to see Northwestern abandoning it recent history of scheduling four dud nonconference games.
I'd like to believe that Slick Rick gets another year at UCLA provided he turns in something over 4-8. However, should he pluck more defeat from the jaws of victory, what would you think about Mike Leach coaching the Bruins? It seems like a job he would take, and with our propensity to go cheap, he seems like a safe bet to win some games in the Pac-12 without breaking the bank.
-- Jonathan, Sacramento, Calif.
Any hopes I had for Neuheisel turning things around this year went out the window when he disclosed Tuesday that freshman quarterback/anointed savior Brett Hundley is undergoing knee surgery and will miss the first half of fall camp. Mind you, 99 percent of coaches' Media Day press conferences are completely non-newsworthy. So of course, the one coach that shows up with his own scoop is Neuheisel, and of course it involves yet another quarterback injury.
As to your question, there's no doubt whatsoever Leach would come to Westwood in a nanosecond. UCLA fits all the criteria he'd be looking for in a school (good academics, nearby talent, desirable place to live, etc.). Keep in mind, however, the Pac-12's new multibillion-dollar ESPN deal kicks in next year, and it wouldn't surprise me for one second if the contract includes a Craig James coaching-hire veto clause.
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