Pac-12 Coaches Talk Anonymously About Conference Foes
What do opposing coaches think of Lane Kiffin's team at USC?
By: Steven Lassan | 8/10/12, 5:23 AM EDT
It's not easy getting college football coaches to honestly comment on another coach, player or team. Most coaches don't want to give opposing teams billboard material, which is why there is a lot of coach speak during the year. In order to get an accurate assessment of teams heading into 2012, Athlon asked coaches in the Pac-12 to talk anonymously about their opponents.
Opposing coaches size up the Wildcats:
“It wasn’t a shock to me that (Mike) Stoops was fired last season, but I was surprised they pulled the plug on him midway through the year especially with the schedule they had last season. With Stoops gone, I don’t think they could have found a more perfect hire than Rich Rodriguez. I hate to say this, but I think he will be an absolute hit. It may not happen this season, but it’s inevitable. Rodriguez’s offensive attack will thrive in the Pac-12. He’s reunited again with former Michigan assistants Calvin Magee and Rod Smith, who will be his co-offensive coordinators. Of course, they won’t have the luxury of working with a talent such as Denard Robinson.
This first year will be trying for Rodriguez offensively since the Wildcats lost quarterback Nick Foles and wide receiver Juron Criner. Senior Matt Scott is expected to run the offense. And they do have a great deal of talent on defense.
I think the Week 2 visit by Oklahoma State could set the tone for the season if the Wildcats can pull off a victory. The biggest test will come two weeks later when Rodriguez makes his Pac-12 debut at Oregon.”
Opposing coaches size up the Sun Devils:
“I think one play that summed up how dysfunctional Arizona State’s program had become was during the Las Vegas Bowl against Boise State. (Dennis) Erickson had decided to punt on fourth down, but when the punt team started onto the field, Brock Osweiler turned and waved them back to the sideline. The quarterback, not the coach, was in charge of the team. That was just one of many issues with the Sun Devils. The handling of Vontaze Burfict was another. Now they bring in a nomad like Todd Graham, who seemingly floats from job to job every year or two. First he has to gain the trust of the team and the community that he won’t be bolting for another job after next season. That’s easier said than done. Plus he needs to improve from last year’s 6–7 season that ended with the embarrassing blowout loss to Boise State. Graham does not have an easy task. Osweiler is gone along with most of the offensive playmakers such as wide receivers Gerell Robinson and Aaron Pflugrad.
They need to find a quarterback. The running backs are good, especially Cameron Marshall, but Graham needs the right quarterback to run his offense. He sure didn’t have one at Pitt last year.”
Opposing coaches size up the Golden Bears:
“Last season wasn’t easy for Cal. They had no true home games, playing at a baseball park, while their home stadium was renovated. They managed another winning record under (Jeff) Tedford, but the offense was inconsistent. This year I expect more of the same. A game around .500. That’s sort of what Cal football has become — 5–7 two years ago, 7–6 last year. This year has 7–5 or 6–6 written all over it.
They have some decent talent back. Quarterback Zach Maynard put up some numbers last year, and he gets wide receiver Keenan Allen, who I think is a big-time talent, and tailback Isi Sofele back this fall. Those three should give Cal three of the league’s top offensive skill players. Will they be able to score enough? The defense also has been inconsistent. It had some good moments — limiting Washington State and Oregon State to a TD or less. But it was no match against Oregon, UCLA and Washington. Three starters are back in the secondary while Aaron Tipoti is good on the defensive line.
Cal gets to play in its home stadium again this year, but I think we’ll get a better read on their season in their first two road games when they visit Ohio State and USC in back-to-back weeks. That is about as tough as it will get for any team in the nation next season.”
Opposing coaches size up the Buffaloes:
“Jon Embree’s first season was about what I expected — a lot more losses than wins. He was put in a very tough situation. First-time head coach taking over a program that had underachieved and playing their first season in a new league. Embree’s first season was set up to fail. There wasn’t a lot he could do. I was impressed, though, how they managed to win two of their last three, including an upset at Utah. That’s not an easy place to play. That showed me that Embree has the Buffaloes on the right track. It’s just going to take some time.
The roster is still thin on talent. Quarterback Tyler Hansen and running back Rodney Stewart are both gone. They don’t return much at the skill positions. (Wide receiver) Paul Richardson’s injury (torn ACL) is a killer. They don’t have many really good players to begin with. He was one of them.
Defensively they’ll be a little better after last year’s team allowed more than 40 points six times. Embree also didn’t catch any breaks with the schedule. He must play at Washington State in (Mike) Leach’s first Pac-12 game and also has consecutive road games against USC and Oregon and also visits Arizona. That’s tough.”
Opposing coaches size up the Ducks:
“I was very surprised that Chip Kelly nearly bolted to the NFL. He has a great situation at Oregon, and for him to nearly leave that for the uncertainty of the Tampa Bay Bucs tells me one of two things: He was trying to get out of Dodge before the NCAA came calling, or he really has a strong desire to prove he could coach in the NFL. I’m honestly still not sure which one I believe.
Now that Kelly finally decided to stay, he has to find a way to fill some serious holes. Quarterback Darron Thomas left early to the NFL, and running back LaMichael James also is gone. Those are two huge key cogs in Oregon’s offense. I think James can easily be replaced. They’ve got Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas to plug in at running back. How well they replace (Darron) Thomas I think will determine if they win a fourth consecutive Pac-12 title. They like the guys they have there, but Thomas knew what he was doing in that offense.
Defensively, I think Nick Aliotti is vastly, vastly underrated. Oregon’s defense is better than most people give them credit for. He’s got a good nucleus back with six regulars returning. They will be good on that side of the ball.”
Opposing coaches size up the Beavers:
“Mike Riley made it look easy for a few years in Corvallis. But these past two seasons, they’ve slipped a little bit with the back-to-back losing seasons. It certainly made Riley’s job easier when he had the Rodgers brothers, but they’re finally out of eligibility.
Last year was a tough one for Oregon State. I know they had a ton of injuries to several starters and that contributed to the 3–9 season. Because of that they were forced to play a lot of freshmen and their inexperience showed, especially on defense in blowout losses to Wisconsin, Stanford and Oregon.
I think Oregon State will be one of the league’s surprises this season. All of those younger players are back with a year of experience and combined with getting their injured players back, that should dramatically help their depth situation. The biggest beneficiary should be quarterback Sean Mannion, who replaced Ryan Katz early in the year and started the final 10 games as a freshman. He’s got a lot of potential and getting him so much experience should pay dividends this year. There will be no more drama at the position; he is the guy.
They are in a tough division. Oregon and Stanford have been really good. Washington is getting better, and Cal is solid. And now, Washington State has Mike Leach. Tough, tough division.”
Opposing coaches size up the Cardinal:
“I have to admit I was wrong about David Shaw. I thought with him replacing Jim Harbaugh, the Cardinal would lose their toughness and personality and would flounder last season. Even with Andrew Luck at quarterback, I just didn’t think they could be as good as they were with Harbaugh. Well, I’m officially an idiot. Shaw did a tremendous job leading Stanford to an 11-win season and it should have been 12. There’s no way they should have lost to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. This year, though, I’m afraid Stanford will take a little dip. Of course, it’s got nothing to do with Shaw, but having to replace Andrew Luck will not be easy. There isn’t a clear cut favorite to replace him, and that’s something they certainly must get settled sooner than later.
Besides Luck, they also lost some hosses up front. They had some great offensive linemen.
I expect running back Stepfan Taylor to have to carry the offense with an unproven quarterback and some new starters on the offensive line. The question is, how effective can he be without an Andrew Luck-type at quarterback?
Defensively, I think they’ll be just fine with linebacker Chase Thomas back. He’s one of the nation’s best. Ben Gardner is one of the league’s top defensive ends. They’ve got some players on that side of the ball.”
Opposing coaches size up the Bruins:
“Slick Rick has left the building. Neuheisel is no longer coaching his alma mater. I know some didn’t think that highly of him, but I actually thought he was an underrated coach. He may have been too cool for some, I guess.
Jim Mora Jr. is an interesting, interesting hire. The guy has been out of coaching for a while and now comes to UCLA. I’m not sure what to make of this hire. Bottom line, like everyone else in our business — win and it’s a successful hire and if he doesn’t win enough, he’ll be gone in a few years.
Kevin Prince returns for his senior year. He’s had his share of ups and downs under Neuheisel. How will he fare under Mora or specifically under new coordinator Noel Mazzone? Or do they opt for another option, such as Richard Brehaut or Brett Hundley? Whoever they settle on will have the luxury of having Johnathan Franklin back at running back. He’s a really good player, a guy a lot of people don’t know about nationally because UCLA hasn’t been very good.
Overall, the Bruins do return a good core from last year. Can Mora get them all headed in the same direction? That’s something Neuheisel, unfortunately, didn’t do enough of during his time.”
Opposing coaches size up the Trojans:
“I don’t know how many people I talked to that laughed, yes laughed, when Lane Kiffin got the USC job. Then they got a two-year bowl ban and it was only a matter of time before the program imploded on itself. Well, Kiffin proved everyone wrong. The Trojans made drastic improvement last season, posting 10 victories, probably should have been 11. They let the Stanford game get away. The only stinker was at Arizona State. And now here comes this year. Watch out. The Trojans are loaded. They are the clear-cut favorites in the Pac-12, and if anyone has a chance to dethrone the SEC as national champions, I’m going with the Trojans.
Call it East Coast bias, but (quarterback) Matt Barkley should have received more Heisman consideration last season. That won’t be a problem this year. He’s got Robert Woods and Marqise Lee back at receiver along with tailback Curtis McNeal. They are absolutely loaded at wide receiver. Those guys are really, really good.
Safety T.J. McDonald and cornerback Nickell Robey give the Trojans one of the nation’s top secondaries. It all will come down to Nov. 3 when Oregon visits USC. At this point I wouldn’t bet against Kiffin.”
Opposing coaches size up the Utes:
“While some might question the thinking of Kyle Whittingham replacing offensive coordinator Norm Chow with 25-year-old Brian Johnson, I think it’s a great idea. It’s something different. The players are sure to be receptive to him; Johnson played the (quarterback) position so he has their respect in that aspect as well. Now can he call plays worth a darn? We’re certainly going to find out, but I think the kid will surprise some people. It doesn’t hurt that he has some good tools to work with in Jordan Wynn at quarterback and John White at running back. White was a big surprise last year. He was good.
The Utes return nearly their entire offense from a year ago and having some new young blood should help bolster last year’s numbers when they were held to 14 points or less five times, all losses.
(Defensive tackle) Star Lotulelei anchors the defense and might be the nation’s best at his position.
Last year, the Utes fared better than I thought in their first year in the Pac-12, finishing with eight victories. This year, I think they should be able to match that or exceed that many wins. This is a solid program. Just keeps on winning.”
Opposing coaches size up the Huskies:
“What a way for Nick Holt to go out. That Alamo Bowl loss (67–56 defeat vs. Baylor) gave me whiplash. It reminded me of six-man football. That was possibly the worst defensive game I’ve seen so it’s not surprising that (Steve) Sarkisian fired the defensive coordinator after laying a major egg. They also looked defenseless against Stanford (allowing 65 points) and Nebraska (allowing 51 points). Sarkisian got a good one to replace Holt, bringing in Justin Wilcox from Tennessee. That’s a nice hire. I think Wilcox will do well out West. He also brought in Peter Sirmon to coach linebackers; he’s been at Tennessee with Wilcox. He’s a good recruiter and he played in the NFL.
Running back Chris Polk is off to the NFL. He carried the Huskies at times last season. They’ll experience a drop-off at running back but have a number of capable replacements in Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey.
Keith Price is a good quarterback, and he will be even better this year if he can stay healthy. He was banged up a lot last year. If they keep him upright, he will have a monster season.”
Opposing coaches size up the Cougars:
“I knew Mike Leach would eventually get back in coaching. I never thought it would be in Pullman, Washington. With that being said, I think Leach will do what Leach does best — provide tremendous sound bites and quotes for the media, and his offense will score a lot of points.
Paul Wulff doubled his win total last year, winning four games after two wins in 2010, but it wasn’t enough to save his job.
Quarterback Jeff Tuel and wide receiver Marquess Wilson should put up big numbers under Leach’s system. The Cougars won’t have trouble scoring points. That’s a certainty. Can they stop anyone? They couldn’t the past couple of years. That will be Leach’s biggest challenge. The talent level was getting better, but they still don’t have the players on defense to stop many teams in this league.
Ultimately I think Leach will be a huge success. Even if they don’t have an immediate turnaround, Leach will have enough quips and one-liners to keep everyone entertained at least for this season. He will be a breath of fresh air up there.”
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