Pac-12 teams preparing for big changes come fall
David Shaw noticed it everywhere he walked on the Stanford
campus this spring.
Since Andrew Luck was drafted No. 1 overall by the Indianapolis
Colts, the buzz surrounding football has faded. Getting students –
and even his players – focused on the future has been a challenge
with so much of the attention revolving around the departure of the
two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up.
”I’m not going to lie,” Shaw said, ”there’s still a little
bit of an Andrew Luck hangover going on here.”
Change is in the air across the Pac-12 Conference again.
Luck and LaMichael James of Oregon are sporting NFL uniforms. A
third of the teams have new coaches and even the role of the
conference’s crown jewel – the Rose Bowl – might be morphing into
something else as the BCS explores a playoff system.
Oh, and those mighty Trojans down in Southern California, led by
Heisman Trophy candidate Matt Barkley, are no longer under NCAA
sanctions and are postseason eligible for the first time in two
years. That alone could lead to a power shift – particularly with
three-time defending champion Oregon and a stout Stanford program
replacing several starters – come fall.
”Maybe there’s a little bit different attitude as far as
confidence because they experienced some success toward the end of
last year,” said USC coach Lane Kiffin, speaking on a
teleconference with other league coaches Tuesday. ”So I think
they’re very confident. But I don’t think there’s any different
feeling because we’re eligible for a bowl game or not.”
Coping with change has been a theme this offseason for almost
Gone are UCLA’s Rick Neuheisel, Arizona State’s Dennis Erickson,
Washington State’s Paul Wulff and Arizona’s Mike Stoops. Entering
are Jim Mora, Todd Graham, Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez.
Utah and Colorado, coming off disappointing debuts in the
expanded conference, are still trying to find their way. And
coaches Kyle Whittingham and Jon Embree will face even more
pressure to prove the Utes and Buffaloes belong.
”I don’t know if you can term it a learning experience,”
Whittingham said, ”but I can tell you our guys are excited for
their second go-around.”
The biggest changes still remain at the top.
Stanford had four players drafted in the first 42 picks of the
draft – Luck, guard David DeCastro, tight end Coby Fleener and left
tackle Jonathan Martin – and co-defensive coordinator Jonathan
Tarver headed across the bay to the Oakland Raiders. James is now
with former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh at the San Francisco 49ers,
and the Quack Attack also needs to find a replacement for
lightning-quick quarterback Darron Thomas.
Couple that with the additions of offensive innovators Rodriguez
and Leach – whom Cougars defensive coordinator Mike Breske said
called passing plays 70-75 percent of the time this spring, joking
that league stadiums ”better have lights” because ”the ball is
going to be in the air” constantly – and the margin for error
could be slim.
”Our competition is at a level most people East of the
Mississippi don’t understand,” Shaw said. ”I think our conference
is as tough as anybody top to bottom.”
That wasn’t the case last year.
The South Division was so awful that the Bruins had to petition
the NCAA to remain bowl eligible after a 49-31 loss at Oregon in
the inaugural league title game left UCLA with a 6-7 record. The
Ducks and Cardinal turned the North into a two-team race from the
start, and the only thing really left to decide by Thanksgiving was
where the league’s top three teams – including USC – should land in
Even that debate still rages.
Most Pac-12 coaches agree that, no matter how a proposed
four-team playoff system for the BCS national championship shakes
out, the Rose Bowl’s role shouldn’t be diminished and how the
standings are calculated is paramount. Finding a consensus on
everything from the amount of teams to include – with most wanting
more than four – to where the games are played is unlikely.
”I would like to see the top team in the state of Oregon get an
automatic bid,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly joked.
The league finished with three teams in the top seven of the
final AP poll – No. 4 Oregon, No. 6 USC and No. 7 Stanford. The BCS
standings, which include the coaches’ poll, provided enough drama
and frustration for one rookie coach to learn at least a lesson
heading into next season.
”I don’t want to be a voter again,” Shaw said, ”because I
think it’s impossible.”
Follow Antonio Gonzalez at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP