CNNSI.com College Football Preview - 2002 College Football


 

Surprise party

Northwest schools are the talk of the Pac-10, for once

Posted: Thursday August 15, 2002 10:55 AM



Expectations surrounding Jason Gesser and the Cougars are much higher in 2002.  Otto Greule/Allsport
 1    Washington State
 2    Washington
 3    Oregon
 4    USC
 5    Oregon State
 6    UCLA
 7    Arizona
 8    Stanford
 9    Arizona State
10   Cal
 26-9 
The Pac-10's non-conference record a year ago, a winning percentage of 74.3 that has been topped only twice since 1938.
"I don't think we are at odds. I don't think we've ever been at odds. ... He's a great recruiter and he's done a great job at Washington and I respect him as an opponent on the field. And he's a great golfer and he plays the guitar. He's a fun guy to be around, and I've heard him say that about me. I think we have a mutual admiration society. It's just from a distance."

-- Oregon coach Mike Bellotti on his relationship with Washington coach Rick Neuheisel , who in February accused Oregon of negative recruiting.
By Bob Condotta, Special to CNNSI.com

In a conference in which all but one team has won at least a share of a regular-season title in the last decade, it's hard to be surprised anymore.

But as the Pac-10 gets set to kick off the 2002 season, there's not just one Northwest team with a chance to win the title, as has almost always been the case due to Washington's long-time contender status.

And there are not just two, as has been the case recently with the rise of Oregon.

And there are not just three, as was the case in 2000 when Oregon, Oregon State and Washington all shared the honors.

No, this year, all four Northwest teams are considered legitimate contenders for the conference crown, led by the most improbable team of all -- Washington State, which a year ago was picked dead last in the preseason media poll.

As misguided as the Cougars proved that poll -- WSU instead finished 10-2 and beat Purdue in the Sun Bowl -- that's how accurate as they hope to prove the 2002 poll, which has WSU on top, followed by Washington, Oregon, USC and Oregon State.

"You finally got it right after 41 years," joked coach Mike Price after the Cougars were tabbed as preseason favorites for the first time since the official media poll was formed in 1961.

It's also the first time that all four Northwest teams have been picked in the top five, which has some observers wondering whether the power in the conference has shifted for good.

None of the Northwest coaches is willing to go that far, knowing it's foolish to underestimate the power of USC's tradition and UCLA's prestige, the climate advantages of Arizona and Arizona State, and the academics of Cal and Stanford.

But they will say that the Northwest schools have established themselves as legitimate players in the Pac-10 race.

The biggest reason for the Northwest uprising may be the same one that allowed Northwestern to win the Big Ten in 1994 and Virginia Tech to almost capture a national title three years ago -- the 85-man scholarship limit imposed in the early '90s.

Just as important, however, may be that the Northwest schools were the first in the Pac-10 to realize the advantages that could be obtained through updating and improving athletic facilities.

"Everybody wants to have a good football team," UW coach Rick Neuheisel said. "The real question is who will go about doing what it takes to build one? I think the schools in the Northwest have really gone about doing that.

"Oregon went out and built some facilities that were matching the facilities in the Big 12 and the arms war that was going on there at the time, and was really the first in the Pac-10 [to do so]. It's really remarkable what Oregon has done, and when they did that, they put a lot of pressure on the schools that were their nemeses."

Once Oregon started winning -- specifically, capturing the Pac-10 title in 1994 -- the rest of the Northwest took notice. Washington State, Washington and Oregon State followed suit with major improvements of their own. The trend has since moved southward, as Arizona and Arizona State are now each in the midst of massive building projects.

Still, it's never been more evident that the days of USC and everybody else are gone for good.

"Now," Neuheisel said, "kids look at the Northwest and say these are all viable alternatives rather than just staying in Southern California and playing for UCLA and USC."

Last year, some Pac-10 coaches thought Oregon State's best running back wasn't senior Ken Simonton, but rather freshman Steven Jackson, who came on late to rush for 390 yards and 5.3 yards per carry -- not to mention a 34.3-yard average on seven kickoff returns.

With Simonton gone, the 6-foot-1, 224-pound Jackson, a native of Las Vegas who models his play after the late Walter Payton, will be the man for the Beavers this year. He reportedly added 10 pounds of muscle as a result of an offseason conditioning program.

"He's real physical [compared to Simonton]," coach Dennis Erickson said. "But we'll see what happens when he has to be the guy all the time. It's easier to come in when a guy like Simonton kind of loosens up the defense for you."


HOT: Diplomatic coaches

Pac-10 media day was very civil despite the hard feelings of last February, when there were rampant accusations of negative recruiting.

NOT: Following the rules

Oregon players reportedly traded comp tickets for rent breaks, while Arizona coaches may have monitored "volunteer" offseason workouts.

HOT: Bowl possibilities

The Pac-10's sixth-place team will now face a WAC team in the Silicon Valley Classic.

NOT: Pac-10 media

The winner of the preseason poll has won the title just 19 of 41 times.

 
Arizona State added a 13th game to its schedule in March -- a season-opening date Aug. 24 at Nebraska in the Black Coaches Association Classic. Originally, the Sun Devils' biggest non-conference tests were against Central Florida on Sept. 7 and North Carolina on Oct. 5, small threats compared to the Cornhuskers.

ASU coach Dirk Koetter supported the move, calling it "too good of an opportunity to pass up."

More accurately, it was too good of a paycheck for ASU's financially beleaguered athletic department to pass up. We'll see if Koetter still thinks it was a good idea for his team after the Cornhuskers paste the Sun Devils.


Washington State's sports information department

Oregon paid $250,000 in 2001 to publicize Joey Harrington in New York; WSU hung a banner of QB Jason Gesser on a grain elevator in the small town of Dusty, just outside Pullman for $2,500.

Washington linebacker Anthony Kelley

Spent much of his summer hosting a dance group of underprivileged children from South Africa who he met during a study aboard program.

USC safety Troy Polamalu

Resisted the temptation to skip his senior season, saying "I really didn't think I was good enough."

 
It's hard to figure which game is bigger -- Washington's trip to Oregon on Nov. 16, or its trip to Washington State the following Saturday.

Both games are huge if only for the rivalry. Oregon actually may have supplanted WSU as Washington's most heated rival, and adding to the tension this year is that the two teams haven't played since September of 2000, the longest break in the series since World War II. But then it's always hard to top the atmosphere of a traditional in-state rivalry as well, and the game always seems to take on a little added flair when played in Pullman, where the weather is often nasty and memorable.

Adding to it all this season is that the two games are likely to go a long way toward deciding the Pac-10 title with the three Northwest teams generally considered the top three teams in the conference this year.

 
The Pac-10's deal to send its sixth-place team to the Silicon Valley Classic is significant because of new 12-game schedule rules put in place this year. Teams that finish 6-6 will be allowed to compete in a bowl game only if they are filling a conference's pre-determined bid. In other words, a 6-6 team cannot get an at-large bid. Making a deal with a bowl ensures that a 6-6 Pac-10 team can get a bid. ... WSU coach Mike Price breathed easier last week when he got word that touted JC receiver Sammy Moore had been cleared academically to play. Moore is expected to handle kick return duties for the Cougars this season. ... Rick Neuheisel announced last week that he has re-instated mercurial but highly-talented receiver Charles Frederick, who had been indefinitely suspended in April after he stopped showing up to practice. Frederick, who also plays basketball, had said he merely wanted a break. Neuheisel said he will watch Frederick carefully for two weeks to gauge his commitment to the team, and how his teammates are accepting him, before determining Frederick's role. ... Mike Bellotti continues to insist that the Oregon QB job is open between junior Jason Fife and redshirt freshman Kellen Clemens. Fife enters fall drills number one after a solid spring game, but Bellotti said he thinks Clemens had the most room to improve over the summer due to his youth and inexperience running the offense. A decision might not be made until the week before Oregon's opener on Aug. 31 against Mississippi State. ... Arizona coach John Mackovic thought one of his team's problems last season was a lack of size up front defensively. That could change this year, thanks to the arrival of 6-3, 350-pound tackle Carl Tuitavuki, a transfer from Ricks (Idaho) JC. He should start immediately. ... WSU is opening its season Aug. 31 in the new Seahawks Stadium in Seattle against Nevada. The game is part of WSU's quest to play at least one game each season in Seattle, the main population center of the state and home to many of its alumni. The Cougars have already sold 41,000 tickets for the game -- their home stadium in Pullman seats just 37,600 -- and WSU officials are now talking openly of possibly selling all 67,000 seats in the new stadium.


 
Related information
Stories
Blue Ribbon's 2002 Pac-10 preview
This Season in the ACC
This Season in the Big East
This Season in the Big 12
This Season in the Big Ten
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