Popping the tab on another 12-pack of stories from the Pac-12 (and beyond!), starting with an inauspicious beginning to the Chip Kelly era at UCLA ...
1. It’s only been a week, but I’m feeling OK about one of my luke-warmest preseason takes. In ranking the Pac-12 South, I thought Arizona State would be a little better and UCLA a little worse than was generally expected. The jury’s still out on the Sun Devils — more on them in a minute — but they looked impressive in beating UTSA 49-7. UCLA lost at home to Cincinnati and now travels to Oklahoma as a 30-point underdog.
I’ve seen a lot of people pointing out that Chip’s first game at Oregon was a loss to Boise State, and that turned out OK. It’s a fair point, though I would add that losing to Boise State was the easy part. The hard part was going 46-6 over his next 52 games.
The Bruins could have six losses by October if their offense, which produced only 306 yards against the Bearcats, doesn’t come around. After Oklahoma they face a Fresno State team that won 10 games last year, followed by games at Colorado, at home vs. Washington, at Cal, home for Arizona and Utah, at Oregon and ASU, home for USC and Stanford. I see a few toss-up games in there, but none in which the Bruins are a definitive favorite.
Bill Plaschke of the LA Times wrote of Chip’s debut: “It looked like the Jim Mora era, only worse.” I’m of the opinion that Kelly’s time at UCLA will fall somewhere between his wild success at Oregon and his mediocre results in the NFL. But initially, at least, it could be tough sledding.
2. Kelly’s hiring was celebrated throughout college football as a major coup for the Bruins. In contrast, Arizona State was widely mocked for plucking Herm Edwards out of the ESPN studio and putting him in a psuedo “general manager” role. I’m not saying people were wrong on either count, but if you had to predict which coach wins more games in 2018, I’d be tempted to go with Herm.
We’ll learn a lot about the Sun Devils when they play host to Michigan State on Saturday. The Spartans weren’t impressive in surviving Utah State in their opener, and they’ll be a long way from home. A win for Arizona State would silence a lot of derision, at least temporarily.
Can ASU pull it off? Greg Moore of the Arizona Republic debates that question here.
3. Continuing the discussion of new coaches in the Pac-12 South, there’s an intriguing game shaping up between Houston and Arizona, which lost to BYU in Kevin Sumlin’s debut. The only thing separating Sumlin from an 0-2 start is a road game against his former team and the unstoppable Ed Oliver, who might be the most dominant player in the country.
BYU was dreadful last year, so losing that game at home wasn’t a great sign for Arizona. Neither was the fact that Khalil Tate, heralded as a preseason Heisman Trophy contender, ran only eight times for 14 yards.
Sumlin seems determined to find a game plan that accentuates Tate’s strengths. At some point, it’s fair to wonder how much of Tate’s success last season was the product of Rich Rodriguez’s offense.
4. The sun came up on the West Coast despite Washington’s loss to Auburn, which many (including myself) saw as a killer for the league’s playoff chances.
That loss, coupled with the news that left tackle Trey Adams is out indefinitely with a back injury, puts the Huskies in a precarious spot. They’ll probably need to run the table in the Pac-12 in order to make the playoff. While I generally despise coachspeak, I think Pac-12 teams would be well advised to tune out the noise and focus on the task in front of them.
5. That’s why I was amused by the reaction to a tweet from ESPN play-by-play man Mark Jones. Jones and Washington have some history; he was part of the crew that mocked Washington’s nonconference schedule during a broadcast last season, prompting some public fence-mending between ESPN and the Pac-12.
“Washington Huskies took one on the chin,” Jones tweeted after Washington’s loss to Auburn. “Where’s Montana?”
Along with teeing up an easy comeback (“It’s right above Wyoming”), Jones’ jab apparently got under the Pac-12’s skin. Jon Wilner reported that the Pac-12 addressed the tweet with ESPN, and ESPN assured Washington that Jones won’t be working a Husky game this season.
I see all of this as being a little silly. ESPN got its feelings hurt because Chris Petersen didn’t make time for a meeting with the broadcast crew before a game last season. Washington got its feelings hurt because the crew responded by taking potshots on the air. As a result, ESPN and the Pac-12 had to publicly make up and promise to play nice together, which lasted, oh, about five minutes.
Here’s my opinion: The media has no responsibility to promote anyone. Coverage depends on access, and schools that deny access shouldn’t get upset if they don’t receive favorable coverage. That being said, we’ve all been denied interviews. You can grumble about it all you want in private, but it’s unprofessional to respond with public insults and potshots, especially if you have a platform like ESPN’s. Grow up, everyone.
6. Speaking of cupcakes, Tyson Alger of The Athletic embedded with Portland State this week to get a sense for how a heavy underdog prepares to face the powerhouse down the road.
7. Our guest this week on the Duck Pod was Portland State coach Bruce Barnum. Not so long ago, Barney Ball was the toast of FCS football in the state of Oregon. Now the Vikings have lost 14 games in a row, and I can’t imagine Barnum’s job is terribly secure. That’s too bad, because he’s an entertaining guy.
8. I wasn’t the only person who glanced at this week’s Pac-12 slate and wondered, “Why is Utah playing at Northern Illinois?"
Kurt Kragthorpe of The Salt Lake Tribune tackled that question here. The simple answer seems to be that Utah stopped scheduling Utah State, needed another Group of Five opponent and didn’t want to spend $1 million-plus to get a game at home.
“Sometimes you get in a situation where the choices are very few,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “So I’m not complaining about it. We’ll just go play. But it’s curious.”
9. As an old Big Eight guy, I love, love, love Saturday’s Colorado-Nebraska reunion. Factor in Scott Frost making his Nebraska debut, and it has the makings of a real spectacle.
These teams played some epic games in the 1990s when Bill McCartney and Tom Osborne roamed the sidelines. Even when the stakes weren’t as high, Nebraska-Colorado was a terrific Black Friday tradition until the teams split for separate conferences.
If you want the background, read this from Eric Olson of The Associated Press.
10. Chuck Culpepper of The Washington Post, one of the best college football writers in the business, visited Frost’s hometown of Wood River for this profile. After weather forced the cancellation of Frost’s first game, I imagine the anticipation in Lincoln has reached titanic proportions.
11. I’d argue Colorado is a better fit in the Pac-12 than Nebraska is in the Big Ten, but I don’t disagree with this column from Mark Kiszla of the Denver Post. Neither team has a natural rival in its current league or a game that lives up to the gravitas that their annual meetings used to have.
This year’s game is the first in a four-game series between the schools. Nebraska visits Boulder next season and again in 2023, with CU going back to Lincoln in 2024. Good on them both for making this happen.
12. And finally, in your weekly reminder that there’s more to life than sports, please read this touching piece by ESPN’s Ivan Maisel about the awful bond he shares with the family of former Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski.