Popping the tab on another 12-pack of stories from the Pac-12 (and beyond!), starting with a deeper look at the Pac-12’s five first-year head coaches ...
1. Scanning the Pac-12 standings, there’s a clear divide between the schools that have established head coaches and those that do not.
The coach on top of the South Division, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, is the longest-tenured in the league at 14 seasons. Mike Leach, in his seventh season at Washington State, has the Cougars atop the North. Coaches with five full seasons at their current school are 17-10 in league play, while those with fewer than five are 15-22.
That should be a reminder for any school thinking about a coaching change. Even if you hire the biggest name on the coaching market, a la UCLA and Chip Kelly, you’re probably looking at 2-3 seasons of rebuilding before you even know if your guy can get the job done.
Here’s a look at the Pac-12’s five first-year coaches, starting with Kelly, who will coach his first game on the visiting sideline at Autzen Stadium on Saturday.
2. Our guest on this week’s Duck Pod was Ben Bolch, who covers UCLA for The L.A. Times. He wrote a terrific series on Chip Kelly before the season, despite little cooperation from Chip himself.
Bolch pointed out that UCLA’s over/under win total in Las Vegas was 5.5, so expectations for Kelly’s first season were modest. Even so, you’d have to say the Bruins have been a disappointment at 2-6.
Unlike the 49ers, who fired Kelly after one bad season, UCLA is going to give him time. I think his ultimate success or failure will come down to whether he recruits at a high enough level to contend with the likes of USC and Washington.
3. Aaron Fentress of NBC Sports Northwest wrote about Kelly chasing his own legend at UCLA. Chip took issue with the perception that he didn’t enjoy recruiting at Oregon by pointing to some of the draft picks he recruited. Whether highly rated or not, guys like Dion Jordan, Marcus Mariota, Arik Armstead and Kiko Alonso went on to become NFL prospects. (EDIT: Jordan and Alonso played for Kelly but were recruited by Mike Bellotti and his staff.)
Maybe Kelly will find a few of those players at UCLA. He’ll need to, because UCLA’s 2019 recruiting class currently ranks 79th nationally and 11th in the Pac-12 with nine three-star players committed.
Grade so far: D-plus
4. Of the five first-year coaches, Oregon’s Mario Cristobal might be the toughest to assess. He’s done some good things with the Ducks. He’s also had games where his team looked totally unprepared.
The Oregonian’s John Canzano wrote this week about the stakes for athletic director Rob Mullens as Oregon finds its way under Cristobal. Mullens’ two previous football hires, Mark Helfrich and Willie Taggart, both went awry in different ways. I think most people are realistic about Cristobal’s situation, but the Ducks’ brass will want to see Oregon competing for division titles sooner or later.
The thing helping Cristobal right now is his recruiting. Having the No. 1 class in the Pac-12 and the No. 3 class in the nation is going to ease the sting of Oregon slipping out of the division race.
Grade so far: B-minus
5. I’ve written that the Cristobal hire should be judged against the success of Kevin Sumlin at Arizona, considering Oregon theoretically had a choice to hire either one.
Until last week, the results were solidly in Cristobal’s favor. Oregon’s blowout loss to the Wildcats puts the situation in a slightly different light, though it’s way too early to make a call either way.
Sumlin has had trouble getting the best out of quarterback Khalil Tate, but with a week to rest his injured ankle, Tate looked more like his old self against the Ducks. This week he’ll face Colorado, the team he torched for 327 rushing yards in their last meeting.
At 4-5, the Wildcats could become bowl eligible by beating Colorado and Arizona State at home. (Their other game is at Washington State.) Accomplishing that would bump Sumlin’s grade up a notch.
Grade so far: C
6. If you’d said before the season that Arizona State would beat Michigan State and USC, I think most Sun Devils fans would have declared Herm Edwards’ debut a success.
It’s notable — and frankly, a bit weird — that all four of ASU’s losses have come by exactly seven points, including two 28-21 defeats, a 27-20 loss and a 20-13 loss. I guess that tells you Edwards knows how to keep his team in the game.
The Sun Devils need to go 2-2 in November to qualify for a bowl game, and as Kurt Kragthorpe of the Salt Lake Tribune writes here, they have an outside chance to shake up the South race if they can beat Utah on Saturday. I don’t see that happening, but relative to preseason expectations, I’d say Edwards has done a solid job.
Grade so far: C-plus
7. The Pac-12’s other first-year coach is Jonathan Smith of Oregon State. The Beavers are tied with UCLA for the worst record in the league, but you can make a case that Smith has done the best coaching job of any Pac-12 newcomer this season.
Oregon State’s win at Colorado last week was one of the most impressive comebacks I’ve seen in a long time. I don’t think you can say enough about what Smith has done with the Beavers’ offense, which was abysmal last season.
Ken Goe of The Oregonian was in Corvallis this week and wrote about the reverberations of OSU’s streak-snapping victory on the road. The Beavers have a brutal November schedule, but that could turn into a confidence-builder if they find a way to hang with USC, Stanford, Washington or Oregon.
I have to remind myself that the Beavers are just two weeks removed from losing 49-7 to Cal at home in a game that many of us thought they could win. They’re clearly a long way from being competitive in the Pac-12 North. But I like that Smith is loading up on Power 5 transfers, and I think this is the classic case of a coach who deserves time — as in, 4-5 years — to see if he can make things work.
Grade so far: B
8. I’ll be fascinated to see what happens when USC comes to Reser Stadium on Saturday night. The Trojans are reeling after suffering their first home loss under Clay Helton, followed by a midweek staff shakeup that included the firing of offensive line coach Neil Callaway and the demotion of offensive coordinator Tee Martin.
Brady McCollough of The L.A. Times wrote this excellent story about how Martin is dealing with the change. It’s never a good sign when the head coach is shuffling his staff midseason, and it makes you wonder how much patience the Trojans will have with Helton.
9. Joey Kaufman of the Orange County Register reports freshman quarterback JT Daniels will return for USC after missing last week in concussion protocol.
No two head injuries are exactly the same, but that’s one example to consider as Oregon figures out whether Justin Herbert will be available Saturday against UCLA.
10. Even if Herbert plays, there’s a good chance he’ll be without his top target in wide receiver Dillon Mitchell, who also was being evaluated for a concussion.
Mitchell was laid out by Arizona DB Tristan Cooper, who said the following: “I didn’t want the pick, I didn’t want the touchdown, I just wanted the hit because this is the best receiver that everybody was talking about.”
I’m always uncomfortable when I see players celebrating hits that result in concussions. Cooper led with his shoulder, not his helmet, and hit Mitchell in the midsection instead of the head. It was a legal hit. But I’d love to see football evolve to the point where there’s no glory in injuring an opponent.
11. We made it this far without one word about Washington-Stanford, which at one point looked like the game of the year in the Pac-12. Chalk that up to the unexpected struggles of both teams, chronicled here by Tim Booth of the AP.
I’m not counting the Huskies out of the Pac-12 North race. They’ll likely need to win out, but they get Stanford at home and have had Washington State’s number in recent years.
12. And finally, in your weekly reminder that there’s more to life than sports, read this amazing column by Greg Hansen of the Arizona Daily Star about the miracle that saved his son’s life.