Friday, October 24, 2014
Brace yourself, PAC 12 followers, for an unpleasant reality. There may not be a team from your conference in the post-season playoff. The big problem is the PAC 12's national image. It's covered with mud.
These days, experts predicting which teams will make the playoffs mention the PAC 12 only in passing. Oregon, the big PAC 12 hope, is lumped in with tarnished candidates like Oklahoma and Texas A&M. One-loss Michigan State, whipped soundly by Oregon early in the season, its getting more love as a potential final-four team.
What a bummer.
And this following all the preseason hype about this being the best PAC 12 season in years and that the conference is, top-to-bottom, one of the nation's best and, most significantly, that the PAC 12 is as good or better than the SEC. Turns out none of this is true.
Those PAC 12 teams that were supposed to be final-four challengers, like UCLA and Stanford, were exposed as fatally flawed. Stanford has a marvelous defense but is saddled with a lame offense. UCLA's defense is burdened with a lame leader, Jeff Ulbrich. After an impressive opening win over Fresno State, USC has been wildly inconsistent. Three one-loss teams--Arizona State, Arizona and Utah--aren't mentioned in playoff conversations. For good reason. All will lose at least one more game. Even if one magically slips by with just one loss, neither of these teams has a strong enough national reputation to get into the playoff. A two-loss SEC team has a better shot at making the final four.
Once again, Oregon, at 6-1, has the weight of the PAC 12 on its shoulders. It's the lone conference team with a shot at making the playoff and the only one that can hang with a top SEC team. The Ducks, however, are tarnished. Not too long ago, this team was reeling. A few weeks ago, if Oregon was in the SEC, they would have been eaten alive by the top half of that conference. A three-TD favorite to trash Arizona in Eugene on Oct.2, the Ducks, shockingly, lost 31-24. The Ducks weren't all that collapsed. The PAC 12's positive national image crashed too. It still hasn't recovered.
The Ducks are back, but their image needs a makeover. Oregon is the only PAC 12 team in the AP Top 10 but, at No.6, it's still shut out of the Top 5. All that Oregon needed to snap out of that slump was the return of left tackle Jake Fisher, the team's MVP. He was out for a few games and the offensive line became a disaster area. QB Marcus Mariota didn't look like a Heisman candidate because he was constantly running for his life. The offense sputtered dramatically. When Fisher came back, so did the offense, which looked like its old powerhouse self against UCLA and Washington.
But that brief Oregon slump left an impression, mainly outside the conference, that Oregon is weak and, by default, so is the conference. Oregon can't lose again. Even if it runs the table and beats California, Stanford, Utah, Colorado and Oregon State, that may not be enough to impress the final-four committee. Other one-loss teams, no doubt some from the SEC, may be more attractive.
Oregon isn't out of the woods yet. Even with its offensive line back in shape, Oregon could still lose a game, particularly to Stanford or to hated rival, Oregon State. A two-loss PAC 12 team simply wouldn't get into the playoff.
If the Ducks get shot down again, the PAC 12's hopes of making the playoff go down too.
Posted by Dennis Hunt at 4:04 PM
Friday, October 17, 2014
UCLA's defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich is on the hot seat. His job is on the line because he got way out of line in the second quarter of the Oregon game last Saturday. He embarrassed himself and made his boss, head coach Jim Mora, look bad, like he wasn't in control of his staff.
Ulbrich got into an ugly sideline quarrel with Mora that played out on national TV and has received extensive media coverage. Oregon cruised down the field for an easy 21-yard screen-pass TD that put the Ducks up 15-3. They scored after a timeout when the Bruins were blitzing--the wrong call in that situation. Mora then complained to Ulbrich, who exploded. Then Oregon exploded for several TDs and ran away with the game.
Ulbrich's meltdown was totally unprofessional. It killed the Bruins. Unsettled by the coaches' public fight, the players' heads were taken out of the game. The Ducks went on a TD tear that put the game out of reach. This loss is largely on Ulbrich. His outburst murdered morale. Keeping up with a high-octane team like Oregon is impossible when your players aren't focusing on the game.
Mora was right. Ulbrich's call on that particular play was wrong. So were his calls on many other plays in the Oregon loss. Go back to the previous game, the loss to Utah, and you'll see Bruin defenders constantly in the wrong place. They blew the game in the fourth quarter partly because of Ulbrich's goofs. Those Utah blunders were probably fresh in Mora's mind when he watched the defense flounder in the second quarter of the Oregon game.
The problem is that Ulbrich, who was a 49ers' linebacker when Mora was running the San Francisco defense, is a lousy coordinator. He has little coaching experience, having been in charge of the Bruin linebackers for two years before taking over as defensive coordinator this season, his first time ever doing that job. It shows. His adjustments during games are usually inept. The Bruins are giving up nearly 29 points a game, about five more than last year. Their pass rush total in this pass-happy conference, just seven in six games, is pathetic. So is the run defense, which has been pounded for an average of 250 yards a game in the last two--against high-level PAC 12 competition. The talent is there, but the leadership isn't.
According to sources close to several Bruin players, that sideline fight at the Rose Bowl is still reverberating in the Bruin locker room. There's tension between the coaches, which is felt by the players. The coaches, say the sources, have been sugar-coating it, trying to show the media that all is well and that there's no hangover from that verbal battle, but the players know different.
That public blow-up was brewing for a while, report the sources, since Mora and Ulbrich have been having disagreements over Ulbrich's coaching for a while. Mora, who's been defensive coordinator for the 49ers, knows good coaching calls when he sees them. He doesn't see them very often in Bruin games these days.
This Mora-Ulbrich problem has been a hot topic in the PAC 12 gossip-network, which is extensive. Come recruiting time, opposing teams are going to use the Mora-Ulbrich fight against UCLA, arguing to high-school stars that Westwood is a bad place for quality defensive players, that they won't get good coaching. It'll be hard for UCLA recruiters to counter that argument.
It's possible that the UCLA defense can improve and put up some solid stats, though that's unlikely with the tough part of the schedule---Stanford, Arizona, USC and Washington--is still ahead. The Cal game this Saturday won't be easy since the Bears have a potent pass offense that will be a chore to corral. Even if the Bruin defense does get better, the consensus will be that Mora took charge of it, so he'll get the credit. If the defense continues down the drain, Ulbrich will get the blame..
Ulbrich has become a liability. He has one foot out the door. When the season is over, most likely his tenure as Bruin assistant will be over too.
Posted by Dennis Hunt at 3:19 PM
Tuesday, October 7, 2014
What's the best football team in the PAC 12?
Most years, answering this question would be a cinch. You'd just pick a team from a small group that generally includes USC, UCLA, Oregon and Stanford. But this year the answer to that question is just as simple. It's--who the hell knows? Right now the PAC 12 is a mess, virtually unrecognizable, with the heavyweights turning into lightweights and vice versa. Ask ten people to pick the best PAC 12 team and you'd might get ten different answers.
Some would single out Arizona. At 5-0, it's the lone undefeated team in the conference, having leapfrogged from nowhere to No.10 in the AP poll, a record-shattering jump. That lofty ranking is mainly based on the Wildcats beating Oregon, then No. 2 in the polls, in Eugene. In addition, there was a bloodbath in the Top Ten, with many high-ranking teams tumbling, triggering a wholesale reshuffling, opening the door for a hot newcomer like Arizona. But, these days, beating Oregon is no big deal. Their offensive line, normally a strength, is a shambles and QB Marcus Mariota is banged up, more than he's letting on Still, some would call Oregon the PAC 12's best. This, however, is a wobbly team that barely escaped a Washington State upset.
The other significant Wildcat victory is beating Cal, 49-45, via Hail Mary. That's Cal's lone loss. If Cal didn't lose that game on that fluke play, the Bears might be the PAC 12's undefeated darling and somewhere in the Top 25. But the fact that Cal is among the league leaders is further proof that the PAC 12 is one giant mess. Cal is a one-dimensional team, sporting an offense that's a scoring machine but saddled with a defense that, as usual, is among the worst in college football. In nipping WSU in Pullman Saturday night, the Cal defense was pounded for over 800 yards. Cal is a good team? Don't think so.
Is pre-season favorite Stanford, which has the best defense in the PAC 12, the league's top team? Not really. With close losses to SC and Notre Dame, Stanford has plummeted down the polls. Its problem is an offense that's allergic to the end zone. Stanford was wildly overrated. So was USC. After a blistering start, trashing Fresno State, the Trojans have faltered, first getting throttled by Boston College, a so-so ACC team. Then, last Saturday, the Trojans were blindsided by an Arizona State Hail Mary, pushing them out of the Top 25.
Speaking of overrated, what about UCLA, another pre-season favorite? Many were ready to crown them PAC 12 champs. That was before the roof fell in Saturday night, with a shocking home loss to heavy underdog Utah. Horrible coaching--both in calling plays and defensive sets--and miserable pass protection, buried the Bruins, whose nimble QB Brett Hundley was brutalized via ten sacks. Is this the best team in the PAC 12? No way.
Actually, the PAC 12 has no best team. Parity reigns. With the exception of awful Colorado, any PAC 12 team can beat any other team on any given Saturday. Suddenly second-tier teams are dangerous and perennial powerhouses are powder puffs. Nobody has a clue who's going to beat who.
This Saturday, visiting, unranked, shaky USC is favored to beat No.10 Arizona. That makes no sense. And check this out. Cal, projected to win no more than two games, has already won four and is favored to win a fifth, this Saturday, over Washington in Berkeley. Not only that, Cal tops the PAC 12 North division. Remember this is the Cal team with the unbelievably bad defense.
None of this makes any sense. But, these days, that's the PAC 12.
Posted by Dennis Hunt at 2:53 PM