Pac-12: UCLA Bruins
First off, quarterbacks are excluded to make things more interesting. It goes without saying, for example, that Oregon's Marcus Mariota is the Ducks' most important player.
And most important doesn't necessarily have to be "best." An All-American's backup can be pretty darn good, too.
Our most important guys are players who could swing a win total one way or the other, based on their living up to expectations. Or their absence.
UCLA: LB Anthony Barr
2012 production: Posted 83 tackles, 13.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for a loss. He also forced four fumbles, blocked a kick and notched a safety.
Why Barr is so important: Another difficult choice. I considered defensive lineman Cassius Marsh -- a fiery player who steps in for Datone Jones as the leader of the defensive front. If he can continue to build on last year's fantastic production (50 tackles, eight sacks, 10.5 TFL) life will be easier for Barr. When his aggression is controlled -- and there have been reports that he's been a stronger leader this spring -- the Bruins will feed off of him.
Also, whoever wins the running back job will certainly be of great importance because they'll take pressure off of quarterback Brett Hundley. But with that position battle still undecided -- and the fact that it looks more and more likely that it will be by-committee -- the most logical choice is Barr.
Simply put, Barr is a game-changer. And he's expected to be even better than he was last year -- which is a frightening prospect when you consider what he was able to do with all of a six weeks of practice as a defensive player.
The numbers speak for themselves, and any discussions about the league's defensive player of the year in 2013 have to include the projected top-10 pick in next year's NFL draft.
We all know Barr's backstory, that he was a running back/fullback before Jim Mora and Co. came in and installed the 3-4 defense, converting Barr to an outside linebacker. After being injured last spring, he didn't actually start working at the position until fall camp. And then he blew up -- so much so that Mel Kiper has him as the No. 5 player on his 2014 draft board .
The Bruins face a tougher schedule in 2013, which includes trips to Nebraska, Stanford, Oregon and USC. They are also looking for leaders to fill the role of the departed running back Johnathan Franklin and the aforementioned Jones, among others.
Now that Barr has had a healthy offseason to work as a linebacker, he's added lean muscle to his frame and whatever remnants of being an offensive player that might have lingered are history. He spent most of this spring getting better in pass coverage -- which will make him a more diverse and well-rounded prospect, but it will also take some of the pressure off the Bruins defensive backfield as they rebuild the secondary.
Barr is on the verge of becoming a complete player -- a guy who can detonate quarterbacks and running backs in the backfield and make plays in pass defense. Those kind of elite defenders are rare. And Barr is that kind of elite defender.
What they're selling: Rich Rodriguez's offensive system worked wonders at West Virginia and introduced the nation to Denard Robinson at Michigan. In 2012, the explosive offense scored at least 34 points in 10 of the Wildcats' 13 games.
What they're missing: The Wildcats don't have the Territorial Cup, which went to Arizona State following a 41-34 victory last season. If Arizona is going to climb the Pac-12 ranks, it'll need to win at home and lock up local talent over the Sun Devils.
Arizona State Sun Devils
What they're selling: There's a new attitude at Arizona State, as Todd Graham took the Sun Devils from the most penalized team in the country to one of the least penalized in just one year. Installing that discipline and accountability has been a major selling point for recruits signing up to play with Graham.
What they're missing: The Sun Devils won their final three games of the season for the first time in more than three decades, but losses to UCLA and USC leave them looking up at the Pac-12 South leaders in the battle for national prominence.
California Golden Bears
What they're selling: One of the top public universities in the world, Cal will always be able to pitch its strong academics to recruiting. The new facilities and revamped California Memorial Stadium will help accentuate the package with a pretty bow.
What they're missing: Coach Sonny Dykes has recent Pac-12 experience, but his three years at Louisiana Tech took him completely out of the minds of West region recruits. In-state recruits, essential to Cal's recruiting success, are unfamiliar with what Dykes' systems look like in game action, although the Golden Bears will have a chance to make several statements this fall.
What they're selling: The Buffaloes need playmakers at a multitude of position on both sides of the ball. Playing time and the ability to make an instant impact are certainly on the table for Colorado recruits.
What they're missing: Colorado was two points away from a winless season in 2012 and has very little on-field momentum heading into 2013. The Buffs have just four wins in two years in the Pac-12, and until that changes, it'll be difficult to win significant recruiting battles.
What they're selling: The noisy uniforms and noisier Autzen Stadium provide the flash, but there is plenty of substance in the fast-paced offense the Ducks run. It's unlikely that will slow down under new coach Mark Helfrich.
What they're missing: Mostly obviously, they're missing Chip Kelly, which has left a slight cloud over how the program might change direction or continue unaltered under the new staff. But the possibility of looming NCAA sanctions means the Ducks can't sell completely smooth sailing to recruits in this class.
Oregon State Beavers
What they're selling: The Beavers can sell credibility, not just on the field, but with the coaching staff as well. Mike Riley and his staff have proven they can win in Corvallis and year after year, the Beavers' coach comes across as incredibly genuine to recruits.
What they're missing: In state, Oregon State is the decided underdog when it comes to flash and national appeal. The Beavers aren't often referred to as a "dream school" by recruits, so there is rarely a sure-fire commitment for coaches when they go out of state.
What they're selling: Arguably no school in the country has the combination of academics and athletics of Stanford. When you're recruiting student-athletes, that's a good place to start.
What they're missing: Despite the recent success, Stanford is never going to be able to put together the game-day atmosphere of some of its Pac-12 competition, including Oregon, UCLA, USC and Washington.
What they're selling: Jim Mora's staff has Southern California buzzing about the new direction UCLA is headed. That's a good thing for the Bruins, who have climbed out of the shadow of USC.
What they're missing: The Bruins had a chance to completely pass USC, but dropped their final three games of the season. There is still a question about whether they've jumped the Trojans for good and until that is settled on the field this season, the Trojans will likely get the benefit of the doubt, regionally and nationally.
What they're selling: No Pac-12 program can fall back on tradition like USC. And now with the John McKay Center, old school meets new school in a much-needed facility upgrade.
What they're missing: Rumblings about Lane Kiffin's job security began after a 10-point loss to UCLA, grew louder after a loss to Notre Dame and became deafening after a Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech. Despite athletic director Pat Haden throwing his full support behind the coach, recruits and their families are having difficulty believing Kiffin and his staff are there for the long haul.
What they're selling: Offensively, there is plenty of intrigue as to how co-offensive coordinators Dennis Erickson and Brian Johnson direct the attack. Overall, there is still the memory of what Utah was able to accomplish as a BCS spoiler in 2008, and Kyle Whittingham hopes to spark some of that magic in the Pac-12.
What they're missing: In two years, the Utes are below .500 in the Pac-12 and missed out on a bowl game last season. At this point, it's still an uphill climb in terms of convincing recruits they can cause an upheaval in the conference standings.
What they're selling: It's tough to find a coaching staff with more energy on the field or recruiting trail, starting with head coach Steve Sarkisian and moving to every assistant coach on the staff. It's a young group that relates incredibly well to recruits.
What they're missing: The Huskies have yet to win eight games in Sarkisian's three years in Seattle, so hitting that number would be a big step toward proving there is some growing on-field momentum.
Washington State Cougars
What they're selling: Mike Leach is still one of the most interesting personalities in college football, and despite some stumbles in his first year at Washington State, recruits are still interested to see what the Cougars can do this fall in his second year.
What they're missing: The Cougars need wins and they need them now. Washington State hasn't posted a winning record since 2003 and when it comes to on-field performance, it simply can't compete with a majority of Pac-12 teams.
2. Oregon: While Stanford and Oregon feel like 1A and 1B, you have to account for the uncertainty of the Ducks' changing coaches, particularly when it's one with as big a presence as Chip Kelly. The returning talent, including Heisman Trophy hopeful Marcus Mariota at quarterback, is strong on both sides of the ball.
3. Arizona State: The Sun Devils and UCLA feel like 3A and 3B as the South Division favorites, but the Sun Devils welcome back 16 starters compared with 13 for the Bruins. The biggest question is at receiver, where incoming players are being expected to immediately compete for starting spots.
4. UCLA: There's a lot to like on both sides of the ball, including quarterback Brett Hundley and outside linebacker Anthony Barr. There are questions at running back and in the secondary. Answer those, and get better play out of the offensive line, and the Bruins could be sniffing the top 15.
5. Washington: The Huskies welcome back 20 starters for the re-opening of a renovated Husky Stadium. It's fortuitous that this looks like coach Steve Sarkisian's best team. The biggest question was whether quarterback Keith Price would bounce back from a poor 2012 season. His strong spring, as well as improved play from the offensive line, hints that this could be a Top-25 team.
6. Oregon State: The Beavers are held back, at least in terms of perception, by two things: (1) Uncertainty at quarterback; (2) A worrisome crossing of the fingers at defensive tackle. Neither Cody Vaz nor Sean Mannion separated himself at quarterback, and the Beavers are counting on junior college transfers to fill their two voids at defensive tackle. Still, there's enough here to merit a preseason Top-25 ranking.
7. USC: This low power ranking has nothing to do with talent or potential. The Trojans have enough talent, if things come together, to play in the Rose Bowl. But coach Lane Kiffin sits on the hottest seat in the conference, the Trojans are adopting a new defense under Clancy Pendergast, and there are questions at quarterback and in the secondary. The Trojans might be the most volatile team in terms of predictions. They could win 10 games. Or six.
8. Arizona: Arizona's two main questions are about absence (replacing quarterback Matt Scott) and presence (essentially the entire two-deep returning from a bad defense). It's difficult to believe the Wildcats' quarterback play will be as good as it was last season, but it's also difficult to believe the defense won't be vastly improved. Off-field issues for running back Ka'Deem Carey seem as though they will be resolved, but there is no escaping receiver Austin Hill's knee injury.
9. Utah: The best news for the Utes this spring was improved play from the offensive line and the seeming maturation of quarterback Travis Wilson. There are, however, plenty of questions on defense at all three levels, and it will be interesting to see how Dennis Erickson operates as a co-offensive coordinator.
10. California: Cal also is a volatile stock. A gander through the depth chart has a lot of "what if." As in: What if the Bears get good quarterback play in 2012? What if running back Brendan Bigelow stays healthy? What if the offensive line improves? What if the defense is as good as the recruiting stars suggest it should be? Answer those "what ifs" positively, and this is a bowl team.
11. Washington State: There is every reason to believe the Cougars will be better in Year 2 under Mike Leach, starting with the seasoning all those young players received the hard way in 2012. But it's difficult to see the Cougs eclipsing too many other teams in the conference pecking order. The No. 11 spot here could come with five wins.
12. Colorado: Colorado will be better in coach Mike MacIntyre's first season than it was in 2012, mostly because it can't get any worse. The Buffs were one of the nation's youngest teams last season, and it showed. They figure to be bigger, stronger and smarter this fall. But probably not so much as to escape the basement here.
1. Quarterback competitions (mostly) unresolved: Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon State and USC entered spring with straight-up QB competitions, and none arrived at any clarity at the position, though some seemed to hint at a front-runner. B.J. Denker looked like the Wildcats' best healthy QB, while Cal's Zach Kline seemed to assert himself slightly for the Golden Bears. At Colorado, Connor Wood's case was helped by attrition. USC's and Oregon State's battles were too close to call.
Further, returning veteran starters with something to prove, including Washington's Keith Price, Washington State's Connor Halliday and Utah's Travis Wilson seemed to assert themselves to varying degrees, though Austin Apodaca could push Halliday in the fall.
2. New coaches, new ways: Sonny Dykes took over at California as did Mike MacIntyre at Colorado. Both, as could be expected, brought changes. Mark Helfrich replaced Chip Kelly at Oregon and, as could be expected, he changed almost nothing. The most obvious change at Cal was open practice, which former coach Jeff Tedford's abandonment of curiously coincided with the Bears gradual decline. The Bears will adopt a no-huddle, spread offense, replacing Tedford's pro-style scheme, and switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense, a reverse of the overall Pac-12 trend. MacIntyre arrived preaching relentless optimism and a pistol offense, while defensive coordinator Kent Baer will retain a 4-3 scheme, but hopefully get better results with his version.
3. Defense, line play look strong: The Pac-12 heads into 2013 poised for a banner year. Oregon and Stanford look like national title contenders -- both are likely preseason top-five teams -- while as many as seven conference teams seem like top-25 candidates. Some of the reasons for the promise are typical: returning QBs and skill players. But what's potentially a bigger reason for improved national standing is the physical side of the game: Offensive line and defense. Nine teams have at least seven starters coming back on defense, while seven teams welcome back four starters on the offensive line. Only one team, Utah, doesn't have at least three starters back on the O-line. Further, there's as much, if not more, star power coming back on the lines and on defense than at the skill positions.
This year's premier game in the Pac-12 figures to be Oregon at Stanford on Nov. 7. Both teams are predicted to be top-five, and the fact that they are in the same division makes it even more compelling. So assuming that's the most anticipated game on the 2013 docket, what's No. 2?
Glad you asked.
AP Photo/Matt YorkArizona State, after falling to UCLA on the last play in 2012, gets a shot at revenge Nov. 23.
From just an Arizona State point of view, I still think it's the Arizona game for all of the reasons explained in the post. But from a conference-wide perspective and conference-wide interest level, then I'd go with the Sun Devils' Nov. 23 showdown at UCLA.
For starters, there are so many interesting similarities between the two rising programs.
- Both schools have second-year head coaches who accepted their positions with a healthy heaping of skepticism from their respective fan bases.
- Both exceeded expectations last year.
- Both have second-year starters at quarterback who were fantastic in their first years. Even their numbers are pretty similar. Taylor Kelly: 3,039 yards, 67.1 completion percentage, 29 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, 516 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown. Brett Hundley: 3,745 yards, 66.6 completion percentage, 29 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 355 rushing yards, 9 rushing touchdowns.
- Both have much tougher schedules in 2013 than they did in 2012, so with the increased level of expectation comes an increased level of national scrutiny.
- Both have premier defensive players in Will Sutton and Anthony Barr, who were atop the conference stats leaders last season in sacks and tackles for a loss.
So while this game might not only determine the Pac-12 South champ, the sidebar is it could also determine the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year.
I'm guessing since I took this game, Ted is going to go with UCLA-USC -- which would be my second choice (or third, as it were). I'm sure he'll make a very compelling argument.
But when you look at the returning starters -- for both teams on both sides of the ball -- and how last year's game played out at Arizona State, it's likely that the 2013 edition at the Rose Bowl will match the excitement level and the stakes will be equally high. And the fact that the 2012 encounter came down to a game-winning field goal as time expired makes the rematch that much more compelling.
Arizona, still looking for a quarterback and down an A-list wide receiver, has seen its stock drop over the past few weeks. USC is by no means a darkhorse in the division and could very well return to prominence in 2013.
But for now, we know that Arizona State and UCLA have the fewest question marks. Most would agree that the Sun Devils have fewer. But with the Bruins the two-time South champs, the road to the conference title game has to go through Pasadena until proven otherwise. And with a pair of teams loaded with talent, this game might actually end up being the most significant of the season.
Ted Miller: I'm with Kevin in that I think the UCLA-Arizona State game will play out in the South Division like the Stanford-Oregon game in the North.
AP PhotoUCLA goes for two in a row over rival USC on Nov. 30; how warm might Lane Kiffin's seat be then?
Before UCLA impressively triumphed 38-28 in last year's game, USC had won five in a row and 12 of the past 13 in the series. The Trojans had owned the Bruins. And then Jim Mora came to town, and the Bruins started looking like a different team, one with some swagger and one that seems to be on a strong uptick.
Meanwhile, there's USC. A year ago, folks were celebrating the Trojans as national title contenders and heavy Pac-12 favorites. Coming off a strong 10-2 finish in 2011, many were on the cusp of rethinking their reflexive aversion to coach Lane Kiffin. The feeling was that Kiffin not only had grown up but also perhaps we -- college football fans, the national media, etc. -- had been too hard on him.
Then 2012 happened. It was yucky from all angles from a USC perspective. And Kiffin took the brunt of the blame. He doesn't even seem to be getting much credit for being a stand-up guy this offseason and owning up to his own shortcomings. Heck, the guy basically pushed his own father out the door, so you know there's some soul-searching going on.
The stakes in the USC-UCLA game are always going to be high because it's a bitter rivalry. It's also likely it will have some bearing on the Pac-12 South race, the national rankings and the pecking order for bowl selection. While Arizona State and UCLA are the two South Division favorites, USC is right there. In fact, if someone could magically guarantee that the Trojans would fully and consistently play to their capabilities, the reaction would be to make them a solid South favorite.
But many now doubt the Trojans and Kiffin. That's also why this game is interesting.
Kiffin sits on the hottest seat in the conference. This matchup might rate as a must-win for his survival. Many USC fans probably just mocked that "might" qualifier.
For UCLA, Mora going 2-0 versus the hated Trojans would provide further proof that the Bruins are headed back to national relevance. Another celebration around the Victory Bell might be prelude to another shot at the Rose Bowl in the Pac-12 title game.
And with those circumstances in Westwood standing in contrast to a USC team potentially looking for a new coach, one might then wonder if the football monopoly in L.A. is truly over, with the City of Angels now cruising for a Bruin.
However, his first recruiting trip wasn't to any of the perennial feeders in Los Angeles or the surrounding areas. It was to Pleasant Grove, Utah, which sits along Interstate-15 between Salt Lake City and Provo and has a population just south of 35,000. His target was a player who had already committed to the Bruins three years earlier.
Xavier Su'a-Filo had just returned from his two-year Mormon mission and was again recruitable. He was -- is -- that important to Mora and his long-term plans.
"He was our first priority," Mora said. "As a father, the first thing I noticed was his family. How tight they were. He was respectful and serious and he asked great questions. He wanted to know as much about us as we wanted to know about him. Everything about him and his family was impressive."
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIXavier Su'a-Filo is the anchor of UCLA's offensive line.
"He's special," Mora said. "He was voted last year as a captain. He'll be a captain again. And to think he was voted a captain after not being around for two years. A lot of these guys didn't know him. That's the kind of impact he can make immediately."
As a true freshman in 2009, Su'a-Filo started all 13 games at left tackle for then-coach Rick Neuheisel. He had entered as the No. 3-rated offensive tackle in the country and started more games than any true freshman in UCLA history (non-kicking). He was a second-team freshman All-American and was Pac-10 honorable mention.
Then the deeply religious Su'a-Filo, who by the way is also an Eagle Scout, departed for the South -- living one year in Florida and another in Alabama to serve. He called it an amazing experience -- but also joked that there aren't many 6-5, 315-pound Mormons out there.
"I wanted to spread good tidings, but people wanted to talk to me about football," said the soft-spoken Su'a-Filo. "We would help people move. Do yard work. Work as translators [he learned Spanish for his mission] and just share the message of happiness we have."
While nothing will ever come between Su'a-Filo and his faith, he's happiest on the football field, where he enters 2013 as an All-American candidate at guard. He admits there was an adjustment period after being away from the game for two years.
"I'm not going to lie, it was pretty hard," he said. "Winter was tough. Spring was tough. By the time summer came around, I was getting the hang of it again. Fall camp was good to get back in the grind of football. By about the third or fourth game, I really felt comfortable and felt like I was back to it. I still get nervous before games, no matter what. Not scared, just nervous. Then the first snap hits and it all goes away."
Despite the big smile and soft voice coming from his hulking frame, it's hard to imagine anything making him nervous. One guy who is less nervous when Su'a-Filo is at his best is quarterback Brett Hundley.
"I believe he's one of the best guys I've ever met -- as a man on and off the field," Hundley said. "Everything about him is high character. He's caring, he knows what he's doing and he's a monster on the field. It's a true honor to have that kind of lineman protecting me. It's something special.
"He was playing some left tackle this spring, I didn't see [potential All-American linebacker] Anthony Barr for about two days. No matter who you put on him, he's going to do his best. He's such a competitor. You can put anyone on him and they won't be able to consistently beat him."
Quipped Mora: "Anthony might dispute that. When you put two players of that caliber head-to-head, everyone around them is going to get better."
Su'a-Filo is one of several offensive linemen in the league who could pick up All-American honors in 2013. The group is headlined by Stanford guard David Yankey -- a consensus All-American last season and the Pac-12's Morris Trophy winner. Oregon center Hroniss Grasu is also in that class (how great of an interior line would those three make up?).
"Without question, he's one of the top two or three guards in the country," said UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. "He's at that level. He would play for any team in the country. No doubt. If I had four more like him, I'd be on a golf course right now."
Su'a-Filo is looking forward to another year in the offense and spending more time at guard -- where he can pull "and run around chasing linebackers." He recognizes the Bruins had success last year, but also realizes the team isn't where anyone wants it to be.
"We have a lot to learn and I think we need to be angry about how we finished," he said. "Those last three losses will bother me until we get back on the field. ... A lot of people saw us last year and were surprised because we exceeded expectations. But I think we're still not respected. Nationally or in our conference. We want that respect and we're going to have to go take it."
But it's all in his head. So we won't truly get to see his surge of brain power at work until the Bruins open the season on Aug. 31 against Nevada at the Rose Bowl.
Below the shoulder pads, however, the evidence of hardcore training is far more empirical. Hundley has packed on about 17 pounds of muscle. He started his redshirt freshman season at 210 pounds and now checks in at a thick, yet lean, 227.
"I've still got my speed," Hundley said. "I told them, as long as I'm gaining weight but can still keep my speed and my power, I'm perfectly fine with that."
Head coach Jim Mora happened to run into Hundley during the Bruins spring break a few weeks back. Hundley had just gotten done with a lifting session. But before that, he was running stairs on his own in Santa Monica. The exchange went something like this.
Mora: "You going to relax this afternoon?"
Hundley: "Nope. Me and some of the guys are going to get ready to throw."
That's the kind of answer that gets coaches all giddy.
"It's spring break and he's getting ready for his third workout of the day," Mora said. "You love that commitment from that player at that position. I've seen a lot of QBs in my time. He has a chance to be truly, truly special at this level and the next."
Hundley, who unlike last year entered the spring as the unquestioned starter, is looking to build on an outstanding redshirt freshman campaign. Last season he threw for 3,745 yards and 29 touchdowns to 11 interceptions while completing 66.6 percent of his throws. He was also the team's second leading rusher with 355 yards and nine touchdowns.
That rushing total might seem a low for an athlete of Hundley's caliber. And it is. He actually gained 702 yards from scrimmage -- but was sacked 52 times for minus-347 yards. That's been a major priority for the Bruins this offseason -- and another reason why Hundley has packed on the weight.
"After 52 sacks, no one is going to feel good," he said.
The expectations for Hundley, and the Bruins, will be higher in 2013. As the two-time defending South Division champs, the road to the Pac-12 title game runs through the Bruins. And Hundley knows it. He knows the noise is out there ... the Heisman darkhorse whispers ... the All-American innuendoes ... but he's a walking mute button. He has cast aside all social media. He sticks with his teammates and a really tight-knit circle of friends.
"He doesn't just look the part, he acts the part," Mora said. "He's a leader. He's confident and composed and everyone just responds to him. He's not perfect yet. He has a lot of work to do. But he's so willing to do the work. It's so fun to watch him."
For Hundley, being a better quarterback isn't just about putting up better numbers or being a more efficient player. It's a way of life. That's how he approached the competition last spring and it's how he's approaching the 2013 season.
"Of course I wanted to be the starter, but that wasn't the main goal," Hundley explained. "The main goal was to be the best that I could be. It wasn't about just winning a job. It was about being the best leader. The best teammate. Winning games. Winning national championships. That's what it's all about and that's what's pushing me right now."
Naturally, another year in offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's scheme should produce a more efficient quarterback. Despite his success, Hundley still took some lumps as a starter. There were games where he didn't trust his protection -- even though it was there. There were games when his wide receivers zigged when he thought they would zag (see Berkeley, University of California). That should all improve in Year No. 2.
"You can just tell he's really feeling comfortable with the little nuances of each play," Mazzone said. "He has all of the base plays down. But now he understands how he can adjust and make changes. Turn a screw here or there."
Receiver Devin Lucien, who was limited to six games last year but is expected to take on a much bigger role in 2013, had high praise for his friend and quarterback.
"The next step for Brett? He's such an amazing quarterback. Winning the Heisman for him would probably be the next step," Lucien said -- half joking, half serious. "Everything about him, you can just see he's so much more comfortable. Him being better makes all of us better."
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Kote in Palo Alto writes (and writes, and writes, and writes): Hi Kevin, First off, I'm thrilled about Stanford football over the past four years. I don't think any Stanford fan isn't, and if they are, they're wrong to be. That said, I am concerned about the coaching staff's alleged conservatism, but it's not the general concern that most people have cited. Instead, I'm specifically concerned about conservatism in situations that call for more spontaneity. The Rose Bowl was a great example of what I mean. Stanford jumped out to a 14-0 lead on some terrific play-calling: the pitch to Terrell who tossed it to JRP, Hogan airing it out to Ertz, and the sweep to Young. Those were great plays, but they were ones that Shaw and Hamilton probably drew up and planned out weeks before. After those first two series, the playcalling got much more conservative, and we never saw the end zone again. Then I thought about the rest of this past year, and particularly Stanford's losses. In both cases, we had a lead, and in both cases the other team came from behind to win it. We can blame Josh Nunes and an anemic offense all we want, but it seemed like things got pretty uncreative at the ends of those games (just think about ND's goal line "stand"). For whatever reason, once Stanford gets beyond the initial game plan, things seem to tighten up a bit, and the result is less scoring. The defense also stops worrying about the long ball or the trick play as well, and that makes the vintage pound-it-up-the-middle strategy less effective, too. This was true in some other games as well -- we didn't score in the second half at all against Cal, and only 3 points in the second half against SJSU. That might be selection bias, but it seemed like a lot of the time this year the offense built a lead at the beginning of the game, and we either clung on for dear life or kicked a last minute field goal or two to get the win or pad the margin. Is it possible that Shaw and his staff are good at drawing up creative plays before the game starts, but that they need to work on the confidence/grit/toughness/whatever to call gutsy plays off the cuff?
Kevin Gemmell: Let’s check the scoreboard:
Pac-12 coach of the year honors for David Shaw: 2
Pac-12 coach of the year honors for Kote from Palo Alto: 0
I poke fun in jest. But hopefully the sentiment is well taken. David Shaw is not an exciting play-caller, nor are the Cardinal built to be the greatest show on turf. He’s a very traditional West Coast offense-minded coach who plays to his strength: strong running backs and a strong offense line. Isn't that what good coaches do? Play to strengths?
That doesn’t mean he can’t mix it up with a fun play every so often. But he’s extremely calculating. Don’t think for a second that someone on their staff hasn’t sabremetricized Stanford’s success/failure ratio on certain plays in certain situations. You cite the Notre Dame game. With that offensive line and that running back, I’d go up the middle four times too. Because the odds of Stanford failing to go four yards on four plays have to be extremely long. (And depending who you ask, they did go 4 yards.)
Allow me to offer an example of gutsy play-calling. Down 23-21 with a little more than five minutes left in the game, Stanford was at the Oregon State 13-yard line. The play-calling brain trust dialed up a post route to Zach Ertz – knowing that he was going to draw man-to-man coverage from Jordan Poyer, arguably the best cover-corner in the league last year with a league high six interceptions. Ertz beat Poyer with a head fake to the corner and caught the 13-yard pass, leading to Stanford’s 27-23 victory. This wasn’t a trick or flashy play – but given the circumstances and the defender, it was a gutsy call. It was taking a chance. It just doesn't meet your definition of "gutsy."
And there is a purpose to those vintage “drive it up the middle” plays. It’s demoralizing to a defense when they get dragged up and down the field. Stanford’s approach last year was to get an early lead, and then grind teams down with long drives. It is a proven formula as old as football itself.
Shaw isn’t totally against trickery, either. We’ve seen a couple of flea flickers. The Wildcat reverse of Andrew Luck to Ty Montgomery against USC in 2011 comes to mind, as does Luck’s one-handed catch. But every risk Shaw takes offensively is extremely calculated and measured.
I appreciate where you are coming from. But the sooner you understand that Mike Martz isn't running the offense and start embracing the smashmouth culture your team has adopted, you'll be able to enjoy their success that much more.