Ahead of UCLA-Arizona and Utah-Oregon, is the Pac-12's depth actually an obstacle to its playoff hopes?
On this Saturday, the first full Saturday of Pac-12 conference play this fall, six ranked teams are featured in football games. Four of them play each other. A fifth plays a team that was a preseason top-25 pick and is likely one win away from returning to the rankings.
An unranked Pac-12 team already upended another Pac-12 team that was in the top 10 this season. The unranked team is now ranked once more, and the top-10 team is no longer a top-10 team.
When the action ends this particular weekend, it will still be September. There will still be many Pac-12 games left to play. Tearing some hairs out at the prospect of a league’s strength undermining its own postseason aspirations … it’s a little early for that, yes?
“The one thing that concerns me about the Pac-12 is that it is so competitive and there are so many great teams in this conference that you worry about us eating ourselves,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said, a day before he wound up with even more reasons to worry. “At the end of the year, where does the Pac-12 stand in terms of the playoff race?”
O.K., sure, this can be an unintended consequence of conference depth. But “eating ourselves”? The image of a league actually devouring itself, masticating furiously every weekend until what’s left of potential playoff participants is just a pulpous, colorless blob … that’s a mite strong, no?
“The downside is,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said, “I guess you can beat each other up and cannibalize each other, in a way.”
Well then, sound the dinner bell, the Pac-12 has arrived with fork and knife and some hot sauce to help with the gristly bits. Very immediately, it faces the conundrum of swallowing itself whole, of possibly being too good for its own good, prompting some rethinking about what’s best for any conference in the age of the playoff.
It’s very nice to be able to mount a very viable argument that your league is the best in the country. It gets weird when you’re shouting that to an empty room in December, left behind when everyone else moves on to the business of winning a national title.
Outposts like the SEC will call this old news. LSU has three forthcoming games with currently ranked conference foes after already posting two victories against ranked SEC teams. (Apply asterisks to Auburn as you will.) The SEC undoubtedly would point you to the solution of producing one exceptional team with zero or one loss on a fairly regular basis. And, yes, with five teams in the Pac-12 South finishing with nine or more wins last fall, Oregon neatly sidestepped chaos by being better than everyone.
But this is still a relatively new dynamic for the Pac-12. And the shape of 2015 suggests a muddle, in which any or all of the contenders could be two- or three-loss teams. Given the playoff context that dictates everything now, is conference strength here an opportunity or a roadblock?
“Yes,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “It’s both. The bottom line is, as we’ve all said, you come out of this conference and win the conference championship, you’ve traveled a tougher road than most places. It’s not just the top of the conference. The top of every conference is good. Our conference is one where the people at the ‘bottom’ of the conference can still beat anybody in the conference. It’s a scary proposition week to week.”
Shaw is in some ways responsible for igniting this discussion even before the league season begins in full. The Cardinal’s 41–31 upset of then-No. 6 USC on Saturday reset the course for both teams, but more drastically so for a Trojans team perceived to be a playoff frontrunner. Now Steve Sarkisian’s crew goes on the road to face Arizona State in what might be a play-out game in late September. The loser will emerge with two defeats and extremely high prospects of getting tagged with a third at some point: Both the Sun Devils and Trojans face Utah, UCLA, Arizona and Oregon down the line.
As of Wednesday morning, Mora’s Bruins appeared to be the candidate most likely to separate at some point. Then came word of linebacker Myles Jack’s season-ending knee injury during a practice, which at minimum compounds the difficulty of surviving a trip to Arizona in the marquee Pac-12 game of this weekend. (It should be noted the Wildcats will likely get their own star linebacker, Scooby Wright III, back in the fold after the All-America’s knee injury-related absence.) After Saturday, UCLA must navigate Arizona State, Stanford, Cal, Utah and USC.
Rare is the conference champion that doesn’t face a couple truly severe, could-lose tests along the way. But nearly every contender facing a half-dozen of them? “I try not to look past the next game, but if you look at the stretch we’ve got coming, it’s going to be really, really difficult,” Mora said, a day before the Jack injury news popped. “We relish that challenge, though. We love the fact that we get to play some of the best teams in the country and measure ourselves against them.”
Jack’s injury only amplifies a suspicion about the Pac-12: By having many good teams but no clear abnormally good teams, there will be problems distinguishing everyone from everyone else. With the exception of USC and Stanford both facing Notre Dame, there are no opportunities left to establish bonafides outside the context of league games.
How the selection committee measures a Thunderdome conference schedule, especially if one-loss teams proliferate elsewhere, could define the way we perceive conference strength in the playoff era. There must be power at the top, yes. But a steep drop-off to the middle and lower classes of a league may not be a bad thing. It might not win fans any arguments in bars or message boards, but it could put a given conference’s teams in better position to win a title.
The Pac-12, starting Saturday, may tell us whether there is such a thing as too much good for one small space.
“It’s exciting every week, you play some of the best football in the country,” Whittingham said. “It’s a challenge for your players, it’s good for recruiting. Overall, it’s a positive. But certainly it can take its toll, when you’re beating each other up.”
Each week, The Walkthrough will talk to two assistant coaches about a key upcoming matchup. For Week 2, it’s Indiana vs. Wake Forest and Hoosiers tailback Jordan Howard, the nation’s leading rusher with 507 yards for the 3–0 Hoosiers, facing a Demon Deacons run defense that ranks 39th in the country.
Deland McCullough, Indiana running backs coach: “Jordan has adapted well to the things I try to do to get our backs to do—play with more velocity, play with better pad level, play with more passion, play with a chip on their shoulder. We had a cut-up done of all his runs that I looked at before he even came to Indiana (from UAB). He showed flashes of what we see now, a guy who runs with great pad level, runs with strength, consistently. His body lean is ridiculous. He runs behind his pads, he’s a guy who embraces contact, he’s faster than what people think, he’s a very smart football player. He’s got a good feel for setting up creases and has great feet. (Wake Forest) is well coached, those guys are strong, they hold the point, they’ve shown they make good adjustments. They’ve got a solid scheme, and it’s going to pose a nice challenge for us. But as always, the running backs embrace the challenge of a strong run defense. It’s something we take personal.”
Mike Elko, Wake Forest defensive coordinator: “A lot of guys with their second year in the system now have improved in terms of their quality of play and how they can play. To (defend the run), you’ve got to play fast and fit things confidently. First year in the system, maybe you’re a little bit uneasy about where to be, you don’t play quite as fast as you would like, and your body doesn’t move as comfortably. Second year, you’ve seen it all, and now you can fill the holes a little quicker. I don’t know that what we do is tremendously exotic. We’re very sound, and we don’t do a lot of different exotic things that put us out of position to make plays. (Howard’s) vision is great. He finishes everything. You have to try to not let him get going north-south. The runs that he’s been least efficient on have been when he’s going sideways. If he gets around the edge or gets into the hole and gets those pads coming at you, that’s where he has the most success.”
• Cincinnati at Memphis: Chaos is afoot in the chase for the Group of Five’s bid to the New Year’s Six bowls, and the Tigers must seize upon an early showcase game—especially if Gunner Kiel is sidelined for the Bearcats.
• Boise State at Virginia: A chance for the Broncos to recoup some—just some—of the footing lost against BYU. A chance for Mike London to recoup some—maybe more than just some—of the footing lost over the last four years.
• Stanford at Oregon State: The Cardinal offense was dormant before the 41-point detonation at USC last weekend. That’ll prove to be the exception, not the rule, if Stanford can’t produce against a team that gave up 35 to Michigan.
• Kansas at Rutgers: If a game between Power Five schools could crawl out of the television and kill you, this might be that game.
• BYU at Michigan: However limited the Wolverines might be, a road win gives the Cougars a solid rebound from last week’s narrow loss to UCLA.
• Georgia Tech at Duke: The Blue Devils have allowed just 26 points in three games. We’ll see if the Yellow Jackets’ stumble at Notre Dame was a product of the Irish’s defense, or if everyone got a little ahead of themselves with Paul Johnson’s crew.
• LSU at Syracuse: The Orange are tied for sixth nationally with 9.7 tackles for loss per game. Leonard Fournette is a bank vault that can run a 4.35 40-yard-dash. Do not expect Syracuse to tackle the bank vault easily.
• Oklahoma State at Texas: The Cowboys’ first true test of 2015, and one the Longhorns cannot allow them to pass. TCU and Oklahoma loom in the next two weeks. Now is the time to stamp down the brushfire.
• Western Michigan at Ohio State: The nation’s No. 1 team can keep telling itself nothing is wrong, but the intrigue remains until it can post an emphatic win with quarterback play that isn’t labored.
• TCU at Texas Tech: This has sneaky upset potential, no? A Red Raiders team just confident enough after winning at Arkansas, a Horned Frogs defense dealing with injuries and lineup shifts, and now the distraction of early week arrests for allegedly stealing a case of Keystone Light…I’m not saying, but I’m just saying.
• Texas A&M vs. Arkansas (in Arlington, Texas): Kevin Sumlin seems to take things less personally than Kliff Kingsbury, offering to play referee between the Texas Tech coach and Bret Bielema instead of piling on. Either way, the Razorbacks better figure out how to be who everyone thought they’d be in 2015. Because if given the chance, here’s guessing the Aggies won’t let off the gas pedal.
• Missouri at Kentucky: The Wildcats managed just three field goals against Florida’s defense last weekend. And the Tigers’ defense, ranked fourth nationally, might be better.
• UCLA at Arizona: The Wildcats hope to get All-America linebacker Wright back after a knee injury in the season opener. How effective he can be in rattling true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen could determine the direction of the Pac-12 South.
• Utah at Oregon: Somehow Utah is 3–0 and in the top 20 while also allowing opponents to convert 45.7% of third downs, good for 107th in the nation. Even if Vernon Adams’s broken finger isn’t fully healed, the Ducks should take advantage in an important divisional crossover game.
• USC at Arizona State: Suddenly this seems like a turning point for the Steve Sarkisian regime. Falling to 2–2 with Notre Dame, Utah, Arizona, Oregon and UCLA still to play down the line? Not even a little ideal.
The hair-raising end
We see you, Louisville. We know, Kansas. We get it, Central Florida. Come in for a hug, Army, Wyoming, UNLV, FAU and UTSA. There’s not a win among the lot of you. It’s not yet October, but it’s safe to say things aren’t going to go your way this fall.
It’s going to be O.K. It’s going to be O.K. because Slaughter understands loss. And since Slaughter understands loss, they’ll sing you into Week 4, which makes you one Saturday closer to the off-season’s sweet release. Also they’ll do it from an airplane hanger.