Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Pac-10 Roundtable: Week One Edition

Smiles everyone, smiles.

Lots of reason for smiles at UCLA these days, as the Rick Neuheisel era has arrived with a bang. A thrilling, emotional win that not many saw coming against the big, bad SEC's Tennessee Vols, they are the biggest story of the week in the conference.

Which leads us to a new feature - every week, a few Pac-10 blogs will be participating in a "Pac-10 Roundtable" on Wednesdays. Five key questions will be floated, and the various blogs will weigh in. You can thank/blame Addicted To Quack for this idea, but, we thought it would be fun nonetheless.

For the record, Oregon State will be represented by Building the Dam. Oregon with Addicted to Quack. UW with the newest SBN blog, UW Dawg Pound. California Golden Blogs checks in to represent the Bears, and Conquest Chronicles and What's Bruin, Dawg? corner the SoCal market. Finally, Pitchfork Nation comes to us from the hot state of Arizona.

For links to everyone's responses, check out this week's Roundtable hub at their site.

Here's this week's questions, and our own WSU Football Blog take:

1. Not a lot of people predicted UCLA's upset of Tennessee. UCLA was something terrible last year, and with major losses to graduation and and very unresolved quarterback situation, it wasn't unreasonable to expect them to hover in the bottom half of the conference. While the offense had its problems (only 29 yards rushing and four picks), the defense was phenomenal, holding the Vols to a smidge over 300 yards, picking up two turnovers, and blocking a punt for a touchdown. Is UCLA for real? And can they be in the mix with ASU, USC, Oregon, and Cal for one of the top four spots in the conference?

The WSU football blog take here is that one must define "for real" before answering. Our belief on UCLA was to be in the bottom-four of the Pac-10, and I don't think that perception has changed, even with the big home win. So, as a top-four contender in the conference, no, we don't believe UCLA is for real. And for a few reasons.

First, you have to look at the fact that it's just one game, and nothing more. Sure, they beat Tennessee, a team many believe will be a factor in the SEC this year. But it is so easy to overrate/underrate teams after just one game. But that is only one reason.

This wasn't nearly the David vs. Goliath match-up that the national media built it up to be. Remember Tennessee coming west to open up vs. Cal last year? Cal looked amazing, and we all saw them fade to a middling 7-6 record. And while the world weeps for UCLA's amazing losses on the offensive side of the ball, well, they do have a strong defensive scheme, and they do have good talent, especially in the front-seven. While the offense sputtered along early in the game with the four INT's, the defense kept them in the game. And with any early-season football game, a strong defense will allow you to hang around and keep it interesting. QB Kevin Craft got hot in the second half, the defense held their ground, and there you have it.

But again, it's just one game. There will be very few opportunities the rest of the year where you can get away with turning the ball over so much and still even hope to win. They go to BYU in a couple of weeks, then get Arizona and a strong Fresno State team in LA. Let's see how things shake out the rest of the month.

2. Meanwhile, its same old same old for the Washington Huskies. Washington was walloped by Oregon for the fifth year in a row and, with BYU and Oklahoma coming up for their next two games, its hard to see where a win will come any time soon. I don't see any games on the schedule that they should win and, other than WSU and Notre Dame, there aren't a lot that I'm even convinced that they can win. The defense is Swiss cheese, and, other than Jake Locker, there isn't even any real talent on the offensive side of the ball either.

Less than a decade ago, Washington was a prominent national contender. Now, they may have less talent than any other team in the conference. We're all aware of the rich tradition of Husky football, the question is how did things fall so far so fast, and how does UW get back to its customary winning ways?

This is a weird spot for us, as UW is our backyard big-brother rival. You rarely hear a good word out of WSU for the Huskies. But even we can take off the crimson-colored glasses and see that it might be damn near impossible to get UW out of this downward spiral.

First, they looked ill-prepared, to say the least, to handle Oregon's home-field wackiness. UW traveled 24 first-time players to Oregon, and started ten players who are under-classmen in that game. In a word, they are YOUNG. And to expect youth to do anything other than shake in their Nike's in an environment like Autzen, well, it was far too much to expect them to get a win.

But UW had a lot of hope coming into this game, and a belief that not only would the offense be better with the infusion of the young speedsters at skill positions, but the defense was supposed to be better with new coordinator Ed Donatell. But week one was a mess, and it will take time to see an improvement.

UW is a long, long way from becoming a winner again. Not only is Ty Willie now 11-26 at UW, the weight of the world is on his shoulders. But the Pac-10, as well as the northwest landscape, has changed dramatically since UW last won the Rose Bowl in 2000. Pete Carroll showed up at USC and we all know how that worked out. But up in the northwest, Oregon State came out of nowhere and now have first-class facilities and a recent winning tradition. Oregon is the most successful northwest program since the turn of the century. Even WSU is 11 games better than UW since Y2K. But maybe the biggest issue is that UW, with all their riches and tradition, have fallen behind in the facilities arms race. Oregon has Autzen, Oregon State has a spiffy Reser, and even little 'ol WSU has two phases done of a four-phase stadium renovation plan already in place. Meanwhile UW is down at the state capital, hat in hand, asking for $150 million in state tax money to help renovate their own facility.

There is just no momentum or excitement behind the stale air of Ty Willingham. The natives have been restless, and if they get to 0-3 to start the year, the clamour will be unbearable for him to just step down and end the pain. It's gotten that bad. So, only a coaching change at this point can get them going back in the positive direction.

3. The team that beat Washington, Oregon, looked amazingly good, especially on defense. Moreover, after last year's implosion following the Dixon injury, it was a third string quarterback who did most of the damage offensively. Oregon is talented and deep, but can finally live up to their promise and challenge USC for that conference title?

We felt from the beginning that Oregon was going to battle ASU for second place. After pasting UW, that view hasn't changed. Again, you can't get too nuts over one game. UW started tons of youth at key positions in that game, and even Jake Locker's hamstring was barking at times. UW isn't a very good team right now, but Oregon didn't even get their best shot.

That said, we agree, Oregon's defense looks to be the best they've put on the field in several years. Maybe the best since the "Gang Green" era. Speed and athleticism everywhere, and a secondary that can lay claim to the best overall unit in the conference, if not the country. With a defense like that, Oregon can get away with some offensive change-over for the first month or so. But the schedule looks like it could be too hard to get past USC. At USC, of course, on 10/4, but also a two-game tilt at ASU on 10/25 and at Cal on 11/1 will be too much. Still, it will all boil down to the 10/25 game in Tempe. That one will be for second place, and maybe even a BCS bowl.


4. California started off strong, exercising some of last year's demons with their 38-31 home win over Michigan State. The quarterback controversy appears to be solved, as Kevin Riley clearly outplayed Nate Longshore. However, 31 points is a lot to give up to a middle of the road Big Ten team, and other than Jahvid Best, there isn't a lot in the way of proven talent at the skill positions. Many Pac-10 observers have Cal ranked in the top four of the conference. Is that ranking justified give the collapse of last season and lack of returning starters offensively, or did Cal benefit from their reputation?

We never liked Cal to finish in the top four, and we still don't. Cal has a lot of speed, and their offensive skill positions are young, yet explosive. I love the combo of Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen, and Cal's O-line might be right there with Oregon's as the best in the Pac-10. And we really like Kevin Riley, as he's a smart, efficient QB who will avoid the killer mistake.

But on defense, 31 points is 31 points, and that is a lot to give up to Michigan State at home. The rushing defense was OK, but they allowed over 400 yards of total offense, including 321 yards passing. Sophomore Mark Dell, who had all of 20 catches last year, torched the Cal secondary for over 200 yards receiving. So, there could be some issues with the change-over to a 3-4 defense under Bob Gregory.

Here's the deal though. Cal is going to play with an enormous chip on their shoulder in an attempt to erase last year's disastrous fade. WSU's Paul Wulff is already saying that Cal is going to be a very physical football team this Saturday, and in his opinion from what he's seen just on tape, they are better than Oklahoma State, WSU's opening opponent. We might have been off in our pre-season look at Cal, and they could be better than we thought. A look at the schedule, and Cal could very well be undefeated heading into their 10/4 game vs. ASU. So, outside of USC, ASU and Oregon, they should be a legit fourth team in the pecking order.

5. Oregon State has a perception problem. Their long list of early season losses (Cincinnati, Louisville, LSU, Boise State, Fresno State, etc.), was followed up this year with an opening game loss at Stanford. A road game at Penn State this weekend has many pundits predicting an 0-2 start for the Beavers. However, in spite of their usually awful starts, the Beavers almost always turn their season around to finish in the upper echelon of the conference.

This causes a talk radio debate to rage in the state of Oregon. The Oregon Ducks are seen nationally as the more relevant program, mainly due to their very high highs (a legitimate late season national title contender twice in this decade). However, Beaver fans point out Oregon's semi-regular late season swoons, the fact that Oregon State tends to come back late in the season, and the fact that both teams have similar overall records over the last few seasons to make the point that Oregon State should be on equal footing with the Ducks, if not seen as the more dominant program based on two consecutive Civil War victories. Who is the more relevant program nationally, and do Oregon State's bad starts contribute to your perceptions?

Without question, Oregon State's poor starts have severely hurt their national perception. What's funny is that Oregon State has been the mythical "northwest champion" in 2004 and 2007, sweeping the other three NW schools. But those early-season out of conference games have killed them. That's the time of the year when anyone east of the Mississippi might actually pay attention, and the Beavers have come up short.

But Oregon has done it on the field in early-season out-of-conference games, and that has to be taken into consideration. Michigan last year and the "gift" win vs. Oklahoma in '06 have made the national media pay attention, like it or not.

But it's even harder to argue over the national perception of Oregon vs. Oregon State. Obviously the Ducks are the more relevant program for the ESPN-types. They are in your face with how they do things, from the Heisman billboards to games on cable TV in New York to Phil Knight and the relationship with Nike. Oregon State has Reser...and that's really it. Nobody self-promotes like Oregon. Combine that promotion with some recent success against out-of-conference heavyweights, and it's easy to see that Oregon is the more nationally relevant program.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

This poll (http://ripbcs.com) shows WSU as tied for #2 in the nation!!!

Go figure. (and Go Cougs!)

Shay said...

The 31 points Cal gave up against MSU are a bit misleading -- one TD came on an INT return (which you can't pin on the defense, at all), and another was scored on a short field after the special teams botched a punt snap. Finally, the Cal D had another drive stopped at midfield, but MSU got a second chance on a roughing-the-punter penalty and ultimately scored a TD on that drive as well. Yes, I suppose they could have held those other two drives to FGs, but I'd still say the defensive effort was more reflective of a team giving up 14-20 points, not 30+.

Passing yardage total was also a bit misleading; MSU was behind most of the game and had to throw 46 times. They completed 41% of their passes, not very efficient.

(Caveat: I'm a Cal fan, so take that for what it's worth.)