Revamped Pac-12 will feature the nation's most innovative offenses
LOS ANGELES -- Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott used his opening remarks at Tuesday's Football Media Day to advertise his conference's unprecedented television exposure this season: 44 national games on ABC/ESPN or FOX, with most others available via the soon-to-launch Pac-12 Networks. It remains to be seen how many will carry national magnitude, but Scott probably won't have to worry about whether the product is entertaining.
Thanks to its recent coaching additions, the Pac-12 now boasts the most diverse set of offenses of any conference in the country. Between Washington State's Mike Leach, architect of the unique Air Raid passing attack; Arizona's Rich Rodriguez, pioneer of the run-first spread offense; and Oregon's Chip Kelly, the reigning hurry-up and spread guru, the West Coast is now home to three of the sport's most innovative offensive minds of the past decade.
But it's not as if the conference will feature all shotgun-spread offenses, either. Stanford's David Shaw and USC's Lane Kiffin have put their own spins on traditional I-formation football, while others like Cal pay homage to their locale with the West Coast offense.
"That's what makes this conference so fascinating," said Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, a pro-style guy. "You look at the Big 12, the spread offense is what that conference is about. You look at the SEC, it's the power-running game, play-action pass offense. When you look at the Pac-12, everyone's got their own unique offense."
Much curiosity surrounds the arrival of Leach, whose Texas Tech teams shattered passing records behind quarterbacks that routinely threw more than 50 times per game. In Pullman he inherits a veteran quarterback, Jeff Tuel, and the nation's sixth-leading receiver last season, Marquess Wilson. "It's obviously exciting and I know the past history the quarterbacks have had in his system," said Tuel. "I'm not going into the season saying I'm going to throw for 5,000 yards because I've got to do a lot of stuff in order for that to happen."
In contrast to his disastrous 2008 debut season at Michigan, Rodriguez inherits a quarterback at Arizona -- fifth-year senior Matt Scott -- ideally suited for his run-heavy spread. And while Scott isn't a Pat White or Denard Robinson-caliber speedster, he is viewed as a bona fide dual threat. "It's a dream come true," said Scott, whom previous coach Mike Stoops fortuitously redshirted last season. "I had a lot of fun with this offense in high school, put up big numbers and [I'm] ready to do the same here."
It's not yet known which quarterback -- third-year sophomore Bryan Bennett or redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota -- will lead Kelly's dizzying Oregon offense, but few expect a drop-off either way. Not with the blazing tailback tandem of senior Kenjon Barner and sophomore De'Anthony Thomas. "Knowing that we have Kenjon and Anthony let's you sleep at night," said Kelly.
It's also no secret what USC will do: Let Heisman contender Matt Barkley play pitch-and-catch with talented receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. But Kiffin is also known for incorporating screens and swing passes from the backfield, hence the news that he's trying to land Penn State's de facto free agent tailback Silas Redd this week. "Our No. 1 concern is our running back position," Kiffin said. "We're concerned about our depth there."
And at Stanford, Shaw faces the daunting task of replacing not only No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck, but also a trio of All-American complements, offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro and tight end Coby Fleener. Stanford has bucked the trend of other non-traditional upstarts by stressing power over finesse, and Shaw hopes to continue that production with "the most underrated running back in the nation," Stepfan Taylor, and tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo.
Meanwhile, Washington returns last year's seventh-rated passer, junior Keith Price; Cal boasts one of the game's top receivers, Keenan Allen; and Utah will bank on the nation's youngest offensive coordinator, 25-year-old former Utes star Brian Johnson. The latter hopes to recapture the mojo of Utah's 2008 Sugar Bowl team, a cause that should be bolstered by the return of 1,500-yard rusher John White.
It should be a lot of fun for all -- except, of course, for those unfortunate souls charged with defending these offenses every week.
"I wouldn't want to be a defensive coordinator in this league," said Rodriguez. "It's hard to prepare and practice for that. Do you build your team to defend the spread offense, do you build it to defend Stanford? I think the answer is: Both."
Rodriguez's team is one of many that seem ill-prepared in that regard. The Wildcats were one of seven Pac-12 teams that ranked among the bottom third in the nation total defense last season, and they're thin in numbers. Washington overhauled its entire defensive coaching staff following an embarrassing 67-56 Alamo Bowl loss to Baylor, and new UCLA coach Jim L. Mora is charged with upgrading a unit that ranked 94th and 89th in total defense, respectively, over the past two years.
Even the league's standard bearers like Oregon know they may be in for a fair share of 45-42 games.
"The first defense to make the big play will probably win the game," said Ducks linebacker Michael Clay. "Maybe there's some stellar offense you can't really stop but have to contain. One mistake [by the offense] can propel [the margin] from seven to 21 points in a heartbeat."
While the Pac-12 is most synonymous with its passers, that part of the offenses isn't necessarily most vexing for defenses. "It's a lot of different looks," said Washington cornerback Desmond Trufant, "but the concepts are more or less the same in terms of the routes."
Said Sarkisian: "You've got to stop the run." But in that regard, Stanford's power game is entirely different than Oregon's inside zone or Washington State's anticipated Pistol scheme.
The conference enjoyed a wealth of high-profile quarterbacks over the past few years: Luck, Barkley, Washington's Jake Locker and Arizona's Nick Foles, among others. This year, however, the preseason Doak Walker Award Watch List included more running backs from the Pac-12 (eight) than any other conference -- and that didn't even include Oregon's all-purpose threat Thomas.
All those decorated skill players, combined with a slew of overmatched defenses, should make for an abundance of highlights like Thomas' 91-yard run in the Rose Bowl last January. And as Scott would surely point out, you should now be able to watch them all, no matter which part of the country you live in.