With expansion looming in 2011, the Pacific-10 Conference this year will play its final football season before separating into divisions that have yet to be decided. The breakdown of the new-look league could be based on something as simple as geography (North and South), or it could be exotic – what some are calling a “zipper format.”
I’m guessing there’s a stranger sports-lexicon term than “zipper format,” though I’m not sure.
Anyway, while musing how the conference race will turn out in its final year as a 10-team operation, I got to wondering how the race turned out in the Pac-10’s first year as a 10-team operation, in 1978.
The standings that year showed USC atop the league – the Trojans (UPI) and Alabama (AP) shared the national championship – Washington State at the bottom, and Washington tied with UCLA for second.
There’s a very good chance history could repeat itself 32 years later, with USC finishing first, the Cougars last, and the Huskies tied for second.
On the other hand, aside from WSU’s seemingly predestined assignment to the basement, there’s also a chance as many as seven teams could end up in first place. Such unprecedented parity is frustrating for amateur handicappers, but on the eve of a season when most of the suspense will be suspended until the bowl showdowns, it makes the Pac-10 unique.
The Big Ten, for instance, is all about Ohio State. The Big 12? It’s ruled by Texas. The Big East (Virginia Tech), the ACC (Miami), the WAC (Boise State) and the Mountain West (TCU) also are controlled by obvious favorites. And though Alabama and Florida will slug things out in the SEC, it’s inconceivable that the conference championship game won’t include at least one of those powerhouses.
In the Pac-10, nothing is inconceivable. Well, almost nothing, once the Cougars are dismissed.
(A fine idea: From now on, during any discussion of the 2010 conference football standings, I promise to avoid a reference to “Washington State,” “WSU” or “the Cougars.” Because otherwise, it’s just piling on.)
Regarding the run for the roses, Oregon returns every key starter but dismissed quarterback Jeremiah Masoli. Can a team without an established quarterback be installed a favorite in a conference renowned for its established quarterbacks?
Oregon State boasts the fabulous Rodgers brothers – running back Jacquizz, wide receiver James – but must contemplate life without Sean Canfield, the only Pac-10 quarterback selected in last spring’s NFL Draft.
Stanford lost battering ram Toby Gerhart, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, but returns Andrew Luck, a Heisman Trophy contender and a top pro QB prospect, as is Arizona’s Nick Foles, USC’s Matt Barkley and, of course, the Huskies’ Jake Locker.
Every Pac-10 contender has reason for optimism (usually steeped in offense) and reason for pessimism (usually steeped in defense). For those teams that advanced to bowls last season, a daily dose of amnesia is suggested.
To recap: the conference finished 2-5 in bowls last season, a record more respectable than the performances. Arizona went to the Holiday Bowl, which touts itself as a shootout, and set records for offensive futility during a shutout against Nebraska. Oregon State lost its bearings in Las Vegas, and then lost to BYU. California faced Utah and wore a smirk as it wondered: Utah?
(This was before the Utes were accepted as future members of the conference.)
Oregon earned its first Rose Bowl bid since 1995 and succumbed to stage fright against Ohio State, whose fans are more familiar with Pasadena than they are with downtown Columbus. Stanford had a better time of it in the Sun Bowl, but ultimately was no physical match for a so-so Oklahoma team.
The only winners were USC, which beat Boston College in Pete Carroll’s presumptive college-football finale, and UCLA, forced to come back from a 21-7 deficit to beat Temple.
Bowl games can be overrated as league-evaluation devices, especially when one team wants to be there, and the other doesn’t. But it helps explain why the only Pac-10 teams ranked in the preseason coaches poll were No. 11 Oregon and No. 22 Oregon State. (Consistent with their holier-than-thou posture, or at least holier than USC, the coaches refuse to acknowledge the Trojans, who are under NCAA sanctions and ineligible for a bowl).
Despite the dismal showing in the coaches poll, bidding for a new conference television contract – a major item on the agenda of commissioner Larry Scott – should be aggressive.
Scott figures TV viewers will be entranced, as the preseason Pac-10 promotional video puts it, by “a cavalcade of talented quarterbacks, strategically precise, uncommonly bombastic.”
But any arms race demands retaliation. Stanford hired 24-year NFL veteran coach Vic Fangio to coordinate its defense. California brought in another NFL import, Clancy Pendergast, to serve the same role. And in what might be called a package deal, USC inherited Monte Kiffin, father of new Trojans coach Lane Kiffin and one of the most astute defensive minds ever to jot schemes on a chalkboard.
Predictions? That 1978 season isn’t a bad prototype. I see USC first because of its sheer depth of talent. (Besides, new USC coach Lane Kiffin was more effective at Tennessee than his Vols detractors – OK, his international brotherhood of detractors – ever will admit.)
I see the Huskies in the middle – just behind Oregon and Oregon State, just ahead of Stanford and Arizona – followed by California, UCLA, Arizona State and Washington State.
Along with Locker, Jacquizz Rodgers will contend for the Heisman. The conference also could dominate the voting of a less prestigious trophy: The Lou Groza Award, given to the nation’s top placekicker.
UCLA’s Kai Forbath won it last year, and Arizona State senior Thomas Weber won it as a freshman. The kicking is so good in the Pac-10 that Washington’s Erik Folk (18-for-21 on field goal attempts last season, 35-for-35 on extra points) will be fortunate to finish as an honorable mention on the all-conference team.
Finally, Locker and Luck – a redshirt sophomore eligible to announce for the NFL – could make history as the first quarterbacks from one conference selected among the Top 10 players in the same draft.
But that’s in April, when the old version of the Pac-10 is starting to fade into a memory, and we’re all experts on the zipper format.