Pac-12 Football: Early Season Shows Depth Goes Well Beyond Oregon, USC

Amy LamareSenior Analyst ISeptember 21, 2012

Pac-12 Football: Early Season Shows Depth Goes Well Beyond Oregon, USC

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    While USC’s loss to the Stanford Cardinal dominated many Pac-12 headlines this past week, it did not go without notice that nine Pac-12 teams received votes in the Coaches Poll with five of them landing in the top 25. (Oregon, Stanford, USC, UCLA, Arizona, Oregon State, Utah, ASU and Washington).

    The Pac-12 has leapt out of the gate in 2012 to show the country that the West Coast plays some fierce football.  Buoyed by a strong out of conference schedule featuring FBS opponents such as  Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Syracuse, and Oklahoma State with the Pac-12 emerging victorious against all but Ohio State (Cal).

    The battle between the North and South divisions heats up with Stanford’s win over USC in Week 3 to open both schools’ Pac-12 conference schedule. The South has three teams ranked in the AP top 25 and the North has two. However, the North's two teams are ranked higher Oregon at No. 3 and Stanford at No. 9. In the South, USC is ranked at No. 13, with UCLA at No. 19 and Arizona at No. 22.

    This has never been an easy conference to get through, which few outside of the West Coast understand. The teams, for the most part, all play each other competitively, and seemingly inexplicable losses happen. For some reason, the teams have each others’ numbers, so to speak, making the Pac-12 an exciting and dynamic conference to follow.

    Needless to say, the Pac-12’s early season shows depth that goes well beyond recent dominant team Oregon and traditional power USC. Let’s take a look at the Pac-12 teams surging so far in 2012:

Traditional Power: USC

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    Well, USC certainly has something to prove after dropping the fourth consecutive game to the Cardinal last week 21-14. The loss of fifth-year senior Khaled Holmes and kicker Andre Heidari to injury were key challenges to the USC game plan and, in my opinion, integral in the Trojans’ loss.

    But don’t write the Men of Troy off just yet. True, USC has lost four of its last five conference road openers, but this is also a program that traditionally builds as the season goes on. 

    This year could be different given the lack up depth due to NCAA scholarship restrictions. The Trojans, as most people know, traditionally gain enormous strength as the season progresses.

    Don’t count USC out of the Pac-12 title race just yet. With Oregon and Stanford playing each other, USC facing off against UCLA,  and ASU and Arizona battling it out, the picture will become clearer as the season progresses. 

     

    Strengths

    It feels like the whole country has heard about USC’s offense. QB Matt Barkley and world-class receiving tandem Robert Woods and Marqise Lee are breathtaking to watch. The Trojans' running game has yet to light the world on fire, but it should with Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd ready to show they deserve mention amongst the greatest Trojans. Which brings us to…

     

    Weaknesses

    ...Of course, without fifth-year senior center Khaled Holmes, this elite offense was stifled in Palo Alto. Also, there is the much-mentioned depth issue, the injury to kicker Andre Heidari, the inexperienced and often ineffectual offensive line and the young defense.

    In short, as usual the Trojans are long on talent but experience and depth issues may keep them from achieving the lofty heights they seek. They are still my best bet to win the south and face either Oregon or Stanford. Beating Oregon once or Stanford twice is hard to imagine at this point. But of course, the Trojans tend to get better as the season progresses.

Upstart: Oregon

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    Upstart: Oregon

    The Ducks have been dominant in the Pac-10/12 for the past several years. In fact, the Ducks are the three-time defending Pac-10/12 champions and are poised to claim their fourth consecutive title in 2012.

    Oregon runs the trendy spread offense, as most savvy Pac-12 fans know, which sets up this weekend’s game versus Rich Rodriiguez’s Arizona Wildcats very well. It should be an offensive showdown.

    Oregon has a tough path to get through to claim their fourth straight Pac-10/12 title. Dates versus Arizona, USC, Stanford, Washington, Oregon State and ASU have to be conquered to claim their spot in the Pac-12 title game.

    The November third date against USC at the Coliseum looks to be one of the games of the season for the Pac-12. USC bested Oregon in Eugene last year and the Ducks will be looking for revenge on USC’s home turf. Oregon needs to remember, of course, that the Trojans get better as the season goes on. All both teams need to do is stay healthy for an epic matchup.

     

    Strengths

    The Ducks offense behind star running back De’Anthony Thomas is truly a thing of beauty. Some people call it gimmicky, but that is dismissing it without admiring the strategy Coach Chip Kelly has employed. 

    He recruits exactly the right players for his system and has had enormous success reloading it year after year after year.  The Ducks offense is fast—lightning fast—and wily and very hard to defend.

     

    Weaknesses

    The Ducks found themselves at the receiving end of trouble defending elite and dynamic offenses last year when they met LSU and USC (and Boise State in 2010).

    Also, Oregon’s strength of schedule, though not formally calculated in the BCS, could hurt them. Their three opening games, all at home, against Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech are hardly impressive.

    More importantly, none of those three opponents gives the Ducks a true test before they open Pac-12 play.

Scrappy Upstart: Stanford

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    Stanford, behind former Coach Jim Harbaugh and first overall NFL draft pick QB Andrew Luck, had a few good years.

    Then Harbaugh left for the NFL and David Shaw stepped in. And the Cardinal still thrived. In 2012, opponents surely wondered what would become of the Cardinal without Andrew Luck.

    Early-season tests versus San Jose State and Duke saw Stanford emerging victorious, although barely versus San Jose State. The Cardinal is starting a new QB this year in Josh Nunes, and he came into his own during the game against USC.

    On the season Nunes is 47-of-88 for a 53.4 percent completion average. He's totaled up 615 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions.

    Also, Stanford tight end Zach Ertz was honored as the John Mackey Tight End of the Week for his performance in Stanford's 21-14 win over USC on Saturday. Ertz caught three balls for 71 yards, including the game-winner, a 37-yard touchdown pass from Josh Nunes in the fourth quarter.

    Stanford is a real contender for both the Pac-12 North title and the Pac-12 title this year.

     

    Strengths

    The Stanford defense’s front seven are truly a magnificent thing to behold. Just look at the way they line up, close together in solidarity, not letting a single player get to Nunes, elite running back Stepfan Taylor or any other RB or wideout. The old football adage says that championships are won on defense, and the Cardinal defense is championship-worthy.

     

    Weaknesses

    On offense, behind Taylor, what is there? Nunes showed progress and ability versus USC, but that was his third career start, so it is too soon to tell. Ertz had a good game against USC.

    The Cardinal kicking game was woeful, matching Cal (versus Ohio State) for missed field goals. With those three made kicks, Stanford would have beaten the Trojans by a much larger margin.

Suprising Start: UCLA

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    It has been easy to make fun of UCLA’s football team of late. They lost to USC last year 50-0. Due to USC’s postseason ban, they faced Oregon in the Pac-12 championship and lost 49-31. Coach Rick Neuheisel was fired. Year after year after year they’ve had quarterback issues.

    But it is 2012 now and the Bruins of Westwood, under new coach Jim Mora, Jr, new freshman QB Brett Hundley and senior RB Jonathan Franklin are surging, opening the season 3-0 against Rice (49-24), Nebraska (36-30) and Houston 37-6.

    This weekend, the Bruins meet Oregon State at the Rose Bowl, their third home game in a row, to open conference play.

     

    Strengths

    Clearly, it appears that Mora has been able to make things happen for the UCLA offense that Neuheisel and, before him, Karl Dorrell could not.

    Hundley has been good, surprisingly so for a freshman going 69-of-103 with a 67 percent completion average, 827 yds, eight TDs and three interceptions. To put that in perspective, standout senior USC QB Matt Barkley’s numbers on the season are 66-of-109 for a 60.5 percent completion average, 813 yds, 10 TDs and three Interceptions.

    But RB Franklin has been truly outstanding and has started to make early-season Heisman lists. Heading into Week 4, Franklin is the leading rusher in the country with 180.33 ypg. 

    To put that in perspective, Franklin’s individual stats through three games are: 66 carries, 541 yards, 8.2 yards per carry. USC’s  team season rushing: 84 carries, 365 yards, 4.3 yards per carry.

     

    Weaknesses

    The offense, despite Hundley and Franklin’s stats. has played sloppily. They have been penalty-prone and fumbled the ball fairly frequently. This is going to have to tighten up as they face their Pac-12 schedule which features dates with Arizona, USC and Stanford.

Looking to Make a Run of It: Arizona

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    Arizona has been building in recent seasons and coming oh-so-close to contending under former coach Mike Stoops. However, they fell short, year after year, so Stoops departed Tucson and the Wildcats hired Rich Rodriguez, one of several high-profile coaching hires in the Pac-12 during the offseason.

    Certainly, RichRod’s famous spread offense is ideal for the system Arizona had been running under Stoops. The Wildcats have opened the 2012 season 3-0 with wins against Toledo (24-17 OT—troubling), Oklahoma State (59-28) and South Carolina State (56-0) all at home.

    This weekend the Wildcats meet Oregon in a battle of two explosive spread offenses. The game will be played at Autzen, and it is expected the Wildcats will get clobbered. However, watching these two offenses battle it out should be quite entertaining.

    Arizona's defense, however, is thin. They allowed 636 yards againat Oklahoma State. I don't think they stand a chance at stopping Oregon's hurry up offense. 

    On the Pac-12 schedule, Arizona has dates versus Stanford, USC, UCLA, Washington and Arizona State, to name just the potential pitfalls.

Make It or Break It Season: Washington

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    Washington has a long and successful history of football, just not recently. The Washington Huskies have won 15 Pac-10 championships, seven Rose Bowl titles and two national championships, most recently in 1991.

    The Huskies are 2-1 after three games, having beaten San Diego State 21-12 and Portland State 52-13, both at home. Washington fell to LSU in Baton Rouge 41-3.

    Washington has a bye week this weekend and then face, in order, the gauntlet of Stanford, at Oregon, USC and at Arizona—four ranked teams in a row, possibly the toughest run of any team in the country.

    Head coach Steve Sarkisian entered his fourth season at Washington 19-19, and one has to think his seat is getting a little hot. 

    Though he has done better than his predecessor and scored some big victories (especially against USC), Husky fans are looking for more.

    In 2009, Sarkisian’s first season, the Huskies were 5-7; in 2010 they were 6-7, and in 2011 Washington went 7-6.

    How will 2012 end up for the Washington Huskies?                         

The Rest of the Pac

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    Oregon State started strong with an impressive win against Wisconsin, which was diminished by the Badgers barely squeaking by Utah State. OSU’s first game versus  Nicholls State was postponed by the recent hurricane in the Gulf region, so with an early bye week they’ve just played one game to date. Their next game is against UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.

    Honestly, do we even need to discuss Colorado and Utah? Sure, they are the newest members of the Pac-12, and we can give them time, but the Buffs especially are pretty woeful, dropping games to Colorado State (17-22), a nail-biter versus Sacramento State (28-30) and a beat-down by Fresno State (14-69).

    Utah, on the other hand, makes USC’s injured, inexperienced and depleted offensive line look world-class.

    The Utes beat cupcake Northern Colorado 49-0, but the following week, versus Utah State, the cracks in the Utah O-line started to show when they lost 27-20. The 2012 version of the Holy War rivalry between Utah and BYU was a thriller as always with the Utes squeaking by the Cougars 24-21.

    Cal and ASU always have such high expectations in the preseason. Will this be the year they break out of the middle of the Pac?

    With Cal, it doesn’t seem so, and that might cause some troubles for long-time coach Jeff Tedford.  For ASU, certainly they are rebuilding under new head coach Todd Graham on more than just game skills. Graham has had to overhaul a lackadaisical attitude within the Sun Devil program. 

    Washington State, behind brand new head coach Mike Leach, has started 2-1 but hasn't played anyone of note. The Cougars lost to BYU in their season opener 30-6, then posted wins versus Eastern Washington 24-20 and the truly woeful Rebels of UNLV 35-7.