Thursday, December 11, 2003
The best and worst of the Pac-10
By Ted Miller Special to ESPN.com
A final team-by-team look at the Pac-10.
Unlike most Pac-10 teams, Arizona met preseason expectations. It stunk and fired coach John Mackovic, just like the pundits predicted. New coach Mike Stoops, formerly Oklahoma's co-defensive coordinator, inherits a team that has forgotten how to win with a fan base that generally saves its enthusiasm for basketball season. The Wildcats whipped a terrible UTEP team to open the season, but it would be two months before they won again. Eight of 10 defeats would come by three or more touchdowns, five by 28 or more points. A day after a 13-10 defeat to TCU on Sept. 27 -- one of the Wildcats' better performances of the season -- Mackovic was fired and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz was named interim coach. The Wildcats played better for Hankwitz, nearly beating UCLA and upsetting Washington 27-22. But it wasn't enough for him to earn serious consideration for the job. Arizona finished ranked last in the conference in scoring offense and scoring defense, generally a pretty good sign that a team is struggling.
MVP: RB Mike Bell. Bell, a sophomore, really came on at midseason and finished with 920 yards rushing. His 5.5 yards per carry was tops among starting conference tailbacks. His 222 yards and three touchdowns against Washington keyed the Wildcats victory.
Biggest Disappointment: Hmmm& That they didn't call the season off before it began? That Mackovic was ever hired? That the nonconference schedule included heavyweights like LSU and Purdue? Take your pick.
What's Next: It's hard to imagine that Arizona won't finish last in the conference for a third consecutive season. Stoops should inject some energy and enthusiasm and provide a recruiting boost, but this team is a long way from respectability. That said, Bell is an outstanding talent and most of the starters will be back on offense, including quarterback Kris Heavner, who was thrust into the starting role as a true freshman. That should point toward at least a couple more wins.
Even before Arizona State was humbled 21-2 at Iowa on Sept. 20, it was obvious that the Sun Devils had been significantly overrated during the preseason. But it's baffling that this team finished 4-7. Yes, receiver Shaun McDonald and defensive end Terrell Suggs were big losses from the year before, but 17 returning starters from an 8-6 team -- including touted quarterback Andrew Walter -- shouldn't completely tank. That's why coach Dirk Koetter, celebrated just a year ago, will be on the hottest seat in the conference next fall. The telling number: the Sun Devils are 2-11 in November and December during his three-year tenure. Walter struggled to get in sync with his receivers, while the running game only worked in spurts. The defense wasn't physical. Yet, after three consecutive blowout defeats, it appeared that the Sun Devils turned a corner, at least toward a low-rung bowl, with a 59-14 win over Oregon, followed by a miracle victory at North Carolina. But the team seemed to throw in the towel after a hard-fought defeat at UCLA on Oct. 25.
MVP: QB Andrew Walter. Walter had a disappointing season, but the Sun Devils would have been completely lost without him. He threw for over 3,000 yards and his 24 touchdowns (vs. just 10 interceptions) ranked second in the conference.
Biggest Disappointment: The defeat at Iowa exposed Arizona State, but the "what-might-have-been game" was the 20-13 loss at UCLA. Walter went down in the first quarter with an ankle injury, essentially ending the game, though the Sun Devils scrapped hard without him. After that, however, they seemed to wave a white flag.
What's Next: Walter will lead a crew of 15 returning starters, but this year's disappointment will keep potential high expectations in check. The defense will need to improve dramatically, and the offensive line will have some holes. Koetter probably needs a winning record and a bowl game to keep his job.
California coach Jeff Tedford would have been forgiven if the Bears ended up in the bottom third of the conference this year with a losing record. But a 7-6 finish against a brutal schedule with just nine returning starters has made him one of the nation's hottest young coaches. A 5-3 conference mark tied the Bears for third with Oregon and earned them a berth in the Insight Bowl, their first bowl trip since 1996. Kansas State rolled over the Bears to open the season, but an impressive 34-2 victory over Southern Miss had folks wondering if this team might be better than expected. Then, two close loses to Colorado State and Utah left Cal at 1-3. After a win at Illinois, the Bears turned in one of the upsets of the year, withstanding a furious USC comeback to triumph 34-31 in triple overtime. Still, the Bears never found consistency until winning their final two games in convincing fashion over Washington and Stanford.
MVP: RB Adimchinobe Echemandu. While sophomore quarterback Aaron Rodgers and junior receiver Geoff McArthur were impressive, Echemandu's big season was inspiring. The senior missed one year due to injury and another due to academics. But he came back in his final campaign to rush for 1,161 yards with 12 touchdowns, averaging a stout 5.2 yards per carry, despite missing one game and playing sparingly in another because of injury. He probably played himself onto an NFL roster.
Biggest Disappointment: Cal led Oregon, which had lost four of its previous five games, 17-7 in the fourth quarter before conservative play allowed the Ducks to rally for a 21-17 win. A victory would have left the Bears alone in third place.
What's Next: The only thing that could stop Tedford from building a consistent winner at Cal is his departure. That means athletic administrators and boosters better get on the ball with plans to renovate facilities, guarantees that Tedford had written into his contract. Cal will have 15 starters back -- though the offensive line will need some help -- as well as some good young talent. A nine-win season wouldn't be out of the question.
This might have been one of Mike Bellotti's best coaching jobs. Oregon looked to be in the midst of repeating last year's humiliating late-season slide when it suddenly righted itself and won its final three games, ensuring a 10th consecutive winning season. Of course, the Ducks looked like national title contenders when they capped a 4-0 start with an impressive 31-27 victory over Michigan. Then the proverbial excrement hit the windmill. Oregon lost four of five games from Sept. 27 to Nov. 1, three of which were blowout defeats. The team appeared to be tanking, and fans were growing restless with a two-quarterback system and a rotten defense. But the Ducks turned things around with a comeback victory over California, the defense improved and Kellen Clemens emerged as the clear No. 1 at quarterback. Decisive wins over UCLA and Oregon State earned a berth in the Sun Bowl.
MVP: QB Kellen Clemens. Clemens, a sophomore, didn't like sharing his job with senior Jason Fife, but he never complained. His patience paid off when, after a terrible start, he came off the bench and rallied the Ducks to a victory over Cal and played well down the stretch.
Biggest Disappointment: Losing is one thing but completely imploding is another, which is exactly what Oregon did in its 55-16 defeat at home against Washington State a week after the big win over Michigan. The Ducks had nine turnovers and never game themselves a chance. That was the first of four defeats during a five-game stretch.
What's Next: Oregon looks like USC's top competition for the Pac-10 title next year for two reasons. A solid group of 15 starters will return, including nine players on offense. Perhaps more important: the Ducks don't play the Trojans.
Coach Mike Riley returned triumphantly to Corvallis, but Oregon State just couldn't sustain consistent momentum, mostly because talented but mercurial quarterback Derek Anderson couldn't either. That's why tailback Steven Jackson's Heisman Trophy campaign came to a sputtering halt at midseason. The Beavers bounced back from a defeat at Fresno State to win three consecutive games, including a victory over Boise State and a blowout win over Arizona State. Then they were trounced 38-17 at home by Washington and gave away a win the following week at Washington State. Dominating victories over Arizona and Stanford were followed by an uninspired performance at Oregon. The Beavers ranked first in the conference in total defense and second in total offense, but they were undisciplined, ranking last in turnover margin (minus-five) and penalties (112.5 yards per game). Anderson led the conference with 3,251 yards passing, but he again completed less than 50 percent of his throws with 19 interceptions to go with his 20 touchdown passes.
MVP: RB Steven Jackson. For the second consecutive season, Jackson led the Pac-10 in rushing by a wide margin with 1,334 yards. His 121 yards a game ranks 10th in the nation with a game at USC remaining. He also had 14 touchdowns. The junior likely will enter the NFL draft a year early and he figures to be a first-round pick.
Biggest Disappointment: While there were a number of disappointing defeats, from Fresno State to Washington to Washington State, the 34-20 loss at Oregon in the Civil War likely hurt the worst. A victory would have earned a Sun Bowl berth, instead of a lackluster bid in the Las Vegas Bowl.
What's Next: The Beavers lose a lot of star power, particularly if Jackson heads to the NFL, including linebacker Richard Seigler, receiver James Newson, defensive tackle Dwan Edwards and kicker Kirk Yliniemi. But the real question is will Anderson flourish his senior season or will he lose his starting job?
While a 4-7 season is nothing to celebrate, Stanford doubled its win total from a year ago and appeared to settle in with second-year coach Buddy Teevens, though things went decidedly south during the final three games. Stanford, one of the nation's youngest teams, particularly on the offensive line, opened with victories over San Jose State and BYU and played fairly well during a 28-17 defeat at Washington. But things bottomed out with a 35-0 loss at Oregon on Oct. 25, and it appeared the Cardinal might not win again. But they bounced back and impressive victories over UCLA and Arizona State started bowl talk. That ended quickly with three decisive losses to end the season, including a humiliating 57-7 drubbing by Notre Dame and former coach Tyrone Willingham.
MVP: S Oshiomogho Atogwe. Stanford lacked star power, but Atogwe was the team's best player. He led the Cardinal with 90 tackles and he forced six fumbles, tops in the Pac-10.
Biggest Disappointment: While the Notre Dame defeat was embarrassing, the loss to California in the Big Game was devastating. The Cardinal led 10-0 in the third quarter but couldn't hold on. It was Stanford's second consecutive loss in the series after a seven-game winning streak and its first at home since 1993.
What's Next: Stanford figures to be the Pac-10's most improved team next year, though the late-season slide put a damper on expectations. The Cardinal welcomes back eight starters on offense and 10 on defense. The play at receiver needs to improve, while the defense must get tougher.
Karl Dorrell's first season at UCLA wasn't an easy one. The Bruins offense was simply terrible, and that isn't something fans used to a high-scoring aerial show will tolerate for very long, particularly with things going so well across town at USC. Part of the problem was a brutal nonconference schedule that included games at Colorado and Oklahoma, but there was no excuse for a four-game losing streak to end the season. Part of the problem was finding continuity at quarterback, with Dorrell bouncing back-and-forth between Matt Moore and Drew Olson. But the biggest issue was poor play on the offensive line. UCLA ranked last in the Pac-10 in rushing and surrendered a conference-worst 49 sacks --14 more than any other team. ULA looked like a darkhorse contender for the Rose Bowl when it started the conference schedule 4-0, even if the victories weren't pretty. But a loss to Stanford started the slide, which ended with a humiliating 47-22 defeat to rival USC.
MVP: DE Dave Ball. Ball anchored a tough defense. He earned All-American honors after leading the nation with a school-record 16.5 sacks. He had 54 tackles overall.
Biggest Disappointment: The 21-14 defeat at Stanford snapped a five-game winning streak and started the late-season swoon. The Bruins yielded eight sacks and were completely incompetent on offense.
What's Next: The offense should dramatically improve -- it can't get much worse -- with 10 starters returning. Freshman tailback Maurice Drew looks like a budding star. The defensive line will need to be completely retooled, and the loss of productive linebacker Brandon Chillar will hurt. Nonetheless, UCLA should finish in the top-third of the conference. If it doesn't, Dorrell could find things getting pretty testy in Westwood.
Before Pete Carroll arrived three years ago, USC hadn't finished ranked in the top-10 in a decade and went 19-18 from 1998-2000. The Trojans were the quintessential fallen former national power. Carroll changed everything. USC finished No. 3 last year and now is ranked No. 1 in both polls and playing for a share of the national title against Michigan in the Rose Bowl. Things couldn't be much better -- except, of course, next year. Quarterback was the biggest question mark during the preseason, but the reality was the entire backfield had to be replaced. All sophomore Matt Leinart has done is put up better number than Carson Palmer, who only won the Heisman last year, while Hershel Dennis, LenDale White and Reggie Bush became the best tailback threesome in the nation. The Trojans didn't just beat opponents, they buried them, starting with a season-opening 23-0 win at Auburn. The lone slip in triple-overtime at California became an anomaly, a curious and inexplicable stumble. Their other closest game was a 17-point victory over BYU in week two. Nine victories came by 20 or more points. The Trojans ranked sixth in the nation in scoring (41.3 points per game) and 21st in total defense, a deceiving statistic because of the number of blowouts that sent starters to the bench early.
MVP: DE Kenechi Udeze. Since we've already praised Leinart, let's give one to the defense. Udeze, a junior first-team All-American, led the Trojans with 12.5 sacks and 20 tackles for a loss. He anchored one of the nation's best defensive lines and became its top playmaker.
Biggest Disappointment: This one is obvious. The Trojans had no business falling 34-31 at Cal in triple-overtime. They sleepwalked through the first half before storming back, but mistakes in overtime and cost them a perfect record.
What's Next: Pac-10, if not national, dominance is next, that's what. While a couple of players, like Udeze, might consider entering the NFL draft a year early, USC is slated to welcome back 14 starters with star power, including the entire backfield and All-American receiver Mike Williams. The only concern is replacing three starters on the offensive line. This team figures to start 2004 at No. 1.
Washington was the Pac-10's most schizophrenic team. It beat Oregon, Oregon State and Washington State -- three of the conference's top-five teams -- but lost to Nevada and Arizona and was bludgeoned 54-7 by California. After a 6-6 finish, the Huskies will be sitting home during the bowl season for just the third time since 1978 (when two years of NCAA bowl sanctions in 1993-94 are factored out). The easy excuse would be the offseason turmoil that saw Rick Neuheisel fired and Keith Gilbertson named head coach in August. Injuries also were epidemic. But this team lacked chemistry and seemed to only show up when its pride was challenged. During the preseason, quarterback Cody Pickett and receiver Reggie Williams were touted as the best pass-catch combination in the country and both were considered Heisman Trophy candidates. Neither turned in a great season, though most of the blame fell on Pickett, not Williams. The Huskies were humbled out of the gate, losing 28-9 at Ohio State to open the season. But they were 3-1 on Oct. 4, ranked and led UCLA at halftime. Then they surrendered 39 unanswered points and lost --following that with an embarrassing 28-17 defeat at home against Nevada. Still, after burying Oregon 42-10, the Huskies were positioned for a respectable season and bowl berth. But losses to Arizona and Cal ruined that. An upset victory over Washington State in the Apple Cup prevented them from suffering their first losing season since 1976, but it did little to assuage feelings of what might have been.
MVP: WR Reggie Williams. Williams ranked 17th in the nation with 92 yards receiving per game, despite constant double- and sometimes triple-coverage. He also caught eight touchdown passes.
Biggest Disappointment: The Nevada and Arizona defeats were humbling, but the Huskies quit during their 54-7 defeat at Cal. They surrendered 729 yards, the most in school history.
What's Next: Pickett will be gone and Williams likely will enter the NFL draft a year early. The defense will have to make due without tackle Terry Johnson and linebacker Marquis Cooper. The Huskies might struggle in Gilbertson's second season.
While the Apple Cup defeat to rival Washington was dispiriting, Washington State exceeded expectations this year under first-year coach Bill Doba, darn near reaching its second consecutive Rose Bowl. A victory in the Holiday Bowl would give the Cougars their unprecedented third consecutive 10-win season. Of course, things could have been even better. Besides their sixth consecutive Apple Cup defeat, the Cougars should have beaten Notre Dame in September. But they bounced back from that loss with an impressive victory at Colorado, the first of six consecutive wins. Just like everyone else -- excluding California -- Washington State was no match for USC. But, again, the Cougars came back strong, whipping UCLA and Arizona State. The Cougars were successful this year despite numerous injuries and a mediocre running game. The key was defense. The senior-laden crew forced an astounding 45 turnovers and led the Pac-10 with 43 sacks.
MVP: QB Matt Kegel. Kegel was the biggest question mark entering the season. But he replaced Jason Gesser with aplomb, transforming into a gritty leader. He threw for 2,744 yards with 19 touchdowns. While the Cougars were mostly about defense, they couldn't have won without Kegel.
Biggest Disappointment: While blowing a big lead at Notre Dame hurt, it didn't approach the pain of surrendering a 19-14 fourth-quarter advantage against hated rival Washington.
What's Next: Washington State figures to rebuild next year with just seven returning starters, fewest in the Pac-10, including just two from its salty defense. A bowl game would be an achievement. Of course, the Cougars weren't supposed to do much this year, so the pundits better be careful.
Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.