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SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
8/25/2006 01:03:00 PM

They're All in the WAC

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The WAC boasts a talented lineup of accomplished coaches, including Idaho's Dennis Erickson.
AP
I must admit, I hadn't really thought about it until Pat Hill pointed it out to me. While interviewing him for today's column about the new BCS qualification rules for the so-called "non-BCS teams," the Fresno State coach, in talking about how the WAC might shape up this season, said, "the coaching in this conference is unbelievable." Now, you can pretty much expect any coach from any conference to say that about his counterparts, but as Hill started going down the list, I realized … whoa. When did the WAC become the unofficial refuge for formerly prominent coaches?

For the most part, the mid-major conferences are dominated by young, upstart coaches, often in their first head-coaching gig, hoping to use it as a springboard to a higher-profile job. The WAC, however, now includes two former NFL head coaches (Hawaii's June Jones and Idaho's Dennis Erickson), three guys who have led BCS-conference programs (Erickson, San Jose State's Dick Tomey and New Mexico State's Hal Mumme) and a guy who's already been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame (Nevada's Chris Ault). Erickson won two national championship rings at Miami and led Oregon State to a BCS bowl, Tomey led Arizona to the only 12-win season in its history and Mumme took Kentucky to its first New Year's Day bowl in nearly 50 years.

Despite their accomplishments, all have obviously wound up in the WAC because of things that went wrong -- Jones petered out in the NFL, Tomey got fired by Arizona, Erickson's brief stint with the 49ers was a disaster and Mumme left Kentucky amidst an NCAA scandal. But that doesn't mean they can't still coach. The upshot of all this is that the league, which has been primarily the domicile of two teams, Boise State and Fresno State, in recent years, could soon become a lot more competitive.

Ault, who returned to Nevada's sideline in 2004 following a previous 19-year run, has already had an effect, leading the Wolf Pack to a 9-3 season and sharing the conference championship with Boise last year. Mumme and Tomey took over rock-bottom programs and struggled badly last season, but many expect them to show dramatic improvement in year two. And Erickson, who is back in the same job and same exact office he once occupied from 1982-85, has a long track record of successful rebuilding jobs, even if his methods for doing so (his teams often accumulate as many personal fouls as victories) leave something to be desired.

Interestingly, the greenest coach in the conference is now Boise State's Chris Peterson, 41, formerly the Broncos' offensive coordinator, who succeeded Dan Hawkins last winter following Hawkins' departure to Colorado. It's Peterson's program -- 45-7 since 2002 with four straight conference titles -- that all the Hall of Famers, ex-NFLers and Pac-10 and SEC retreads are trying to catch up to. ...

Starting next week -- the first week of the season, people -- I'll be updating the Blog more frequently. The new weekly schedule: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and posts throughout the day and night on Saturdays.
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments | Add a comment
8/23/2006 01:07:00 PM

West Coast Savior?

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Just 48 hours after naming Sam Keller (above) Arizona State's starting QB, Sun Devils coach Dirk Koetter reneged.
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
The future of the West Coast Offense in college football could be riding on one man's right arm. Here's why.

According to various published reports, recently demoted Arizona State quarterback Sam Keller is considering transferring to Nebraska. It would be a marriage of convenience for both parties, seeing as Keller will have just one season of eligibility remaining after he sits out a year and needs a place he can step in right away. Current Huskers QB Zac Taylor is a senior, and his one-time heir apparent, Harrison Beck, recently bolted for N.C. State.

But while Keller is a proven collegiate passer who completed 58.2 percent of his passes for 2,535 yards, 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in eight starts at ASU, there's no guarantee he'll have similar success in Lincoln. As most of you know, Nebraska coach Bill Callahan runs a full-scale, Bill Walsh-style West Coast Offense which he brought with him from the Oakland Raiders. Critics of the system -- which requires mastery of a complex, timing-based horizontal passing attack loaded with terminology -- say it's too complicated for college athletes, who can't devote nearly the same amount of time to film and playbook study as their professional counterparts.

The common belief is that it takes three years for a college quarterback to fully master the offense. Such was the case for UCLA quarterback Drew Olson, who struggled mightily his first two seasons in head coach Karl Dorrell's offense before exploding as a senior. Notre Dame's Brady Quinn took his lumps as a freshman and sophomore under West Coast proponent Tyrone Willingham before thriving as a junior under Charlie Weis. Even the Huskers' Taylor, who's only entering his second year there, is still very much a work in progress.

Obviously, Keller does not have three years to learn the offense. He has one. But at the same time, he comes in having already spent far more time in a major college system than the three aforementioned players did when they began their learning process. A young quarterback is liable to struggle in any offense, nevertheless Callahan's. If fifth-year senior/legitimate NFL prospect Sam Keller struggles, however, it wouldn't exactly be a ringing endorsement for the West Coast Offense in college football.
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments | Add a comment
8/21/2006 12:39:00 PM

Dunce Cap for Dirk

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Dirk Koetter's unbelievable indecisiveness could end up hurting Arizona State for years to come.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
In last week's Mailbag, I said I didn't think Arizona State's high-profile quarterback competition between Sam Keller and Rudy Carpenter would become a distraction. But that was before head coach Dirk Koetter botched his handling of the decision worse than I ever could have imagined.

Following a scrimmage Friday night, Koetter announced that Keller, who threw for 2,071 yards in seven games last year prior to a season-ending injury, would be this year's starter. No real surprise there. Less than 48 hours later, however, Koetter reversed field Sunday and gave the job to sophomore Carpenter, last year's national pass efficiency leader. Keller, not surprisingly, is now looking to transfer. "It's simple," said Koetter. "I made a mistake on the quarterback situation and I'm changing my mind."

You made a mistake?? Between spring ball and fall camp, Koetter had more than 30 practices to evaluate his quarterbacks. He's seen plenty of both in game action. What could possibly have transpired in a 48-hour span to change his mind? Well, apparently he had a sit-down with 16 of his veteran leaders on Saturday and was surprised to find out his players don't have nearly the same respect for Keller as their coach. At least that's what we can surmise, because it was the meeting, not film evaluation or scrimmage performances, that caused Koetter to pull a 180. According to Arizona Republic columnist Paola Boivin, "Whatever issues [Koetter's] players brought up to him had to do with issues off the field."

Mind-numbing. That's the only way I can describe this. In the span of 48 hours, Koetter went from having one of the greatest coaching luxuries imaginable -- two quarterbacks capable of starting anywhere in the country -- to one colossal nightmare, all because he was apparently completely out of touch with the climate in his own locker room. "He's not a psychic," senior receiver Terry Richardson said in defending his coach. "… He doesn't know everything going on with the team, what it's feeling. I think his move was a smart move."

Koetter has been a divisive figure throughout his six-year tenure in Tempe -- many feel he should have been fired last year after it was revealed he failed to heed warning signs about troubled running back Loren Wade prior to the player's murder arrest in the shooting death of former Sun Devil Brandon Falkner -- and following this snafu, he's officially on thin ice. As is usually the case with these things, all will be forgotten if ASU makes a run at the Pac-10 title. But if Keller bolts and Carpenter struggles, or if the Sun Devils implode like they did last season, you better believe his bizarre reversal will become a season-long storyline.
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments | Add a comment
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