So with the final team profile going up later today, I figured I should go ahead and get started with the conference summaries. Here are the Conference USA and Sun Belt pieces; more to come between now and Thursday (assuming my wife doesn't go into labor).
With USC ineligible for the postseason, we are basically guaranteed to be looking at a David vs Goliath matchup in the inaugural Pac-12 title game. Either Oregon or Stanford will almost certainly win the North division, USC will finish with the best record in the South, and an underdog -- I say Utah because of the schedule -- will face the Ducks/Cardinal in December.
Five Predictions for the Pacific-12 Conference in 2011:
1. UCLA, Arizona State and Washington State will be looking for new coaches in December.
2. Due mostly to gaudy stats in the first two months, Andrew Luck wins the Heisman.
3. Oregon finds themselves in quite a few more close games this year, suffering an upset loss (to Washington maybe?) that hands the division title to Stanford.
4. Arizona State's division title hopes are done in during a four-in-five-weeks road trip in October/November.
5. Oh why the hell not ... Utah pulls a Texas-over-Nebraska-1996 style upset over Stanford in the conference championship.
Cal returns a decent level of experience, they should potentially fix their single biggest weakness from last fall (quarterback), and their recruiting rankings suggest that their level of talent is better than what they showed last year. That's good. But ... this is a team that went 5-7 last year despite getting a bit lucky in terms of both fumbles luck and YPP margin. If those regress a bit, then the odds of a serious bounce back get smaller. I expect them to get back to a bowl game this fall, but a cruel opening month could set the narrative either way. Two "home" games (in San Francsico) versus Fresno State and Presbyterian are complemented by road trips to Colorado, Oregon and Washington in the first five games; this typically isn't the recipe for succeeding with a new quarterback. Cal could conceivably start anywhere between 1-4 and 4-1 before a stretch of four "home" games in five weeks.
Figuring out where this program is headed is just about as difficult as figuring out what the hell happened to them last year. Recruiting is still strong (Cal's recruiting class ranked 17th in Rivals.com's rankings, 18th on ESPN.com), and both the offense and defense have been good recently. But last year's odd struggles show that something isn't right in Berkeley, and since I cannot completely identify what that 'something' is, I cannot really say whether it's fixable or not. How about we just predict Cal to go 6-6 or 7-5 this year and move on with our lives?
You win in college football by repeatedly putting a good team on the field and hoping that the breaks fall your way at some point. And over the last four years, Oregon has been the seventh-best overall team in the country. The 1994 Nebraska team was not better than the 1978 or 1983 Huskers, but the breaks fell their way (odd to say considering Tommie Frazier's blood clots), and they made the right plays at the right time. The 1996 Florida Gators were not Steve Spurrier's best team in Gainesville. The 1997 Michigan Wolverines were potentially worse than any number of 1970s Michigan squads that didn't win the national title. In the end, the banners still hang, and the rings still shine whether you're truly the best team or not. (Though as we see with today's nerd tidbit, the numbers and the wins usually match up at the end of the season.) I have reached my happy place with the 2010 Ducks, accepting that they probably weren't as good as my eyes told me at the time, accepting that my numbers still probably had them too low, and knowing that if not for Michael Dyer's hand, they may have been national champions all the same.
Depending on how well Pac-12 opponents adjust (and how well Chip Kelly adjusts to the adjustments), the 2011 Oregon squad will potentially be a better offensive team than the 2010 squad, but if the defense regresses in the playmaking department, opponents will be able to sustain drives and prevent LaMichael James, Darron Thomas and company from wearing their defenses down quite as much. Oregon will likely find themselves in quite a few more close games this year (last year, only two games were decided by one possession), and they will have to click like Auburn did in those situations to return to the title game. Don't count them out, but don't pencil them in either.
I respect the hell out of the job Mike Riley has done in his second stint at Oregon State -- the Beavers' eight winning seasons in the 2000s easily constituted their best decade since at least the 1960s, and Riley was responsible for either of those seasons -- and I'm going to assume he will once again put a Top 40-quality team on the field. But it's impossible to see them as a serious factor in the Pac-12 North with loaded Stanford and Oregon teams, and a complete lack of defensive depth, standing in their way.
The schedule eases up, if only a tad (it still includes trips to Wisconsin, Oregon, Utah, Arizona State and California), but the team's potential is strong enough that bowl eligibility should certainly be back in the cards. I expect the offense to improve enough to offset defensive regression, but the combination of schedule and depth still probably only places their ceiling around eight wins or so.
It's just not supposed to be as easy as Harbaugh made it look. Stanford improved in every year of his tenure, and while I am not nearly as optimistic about the David Shaw era as a whole (if for no other reason than Harbaugh was a great coach, and even if Shaw's only good, there's a step backwards on the horizon), 2011 should still be a great one for the Cardinal. Whether "great" means another nine or ten wins, or whether it means a shot at the national title, will depend on how much regression we see on the defensive side of the ball. I see the offense rolling at a high level, particularly in October and November (once the offensive line has gotten a change to gel), but the defense is quite a question mark. A unit tends to regress a bit after sudden ascension, anyway, but when you throw in the loss of the defensive coordinator and a good portion of the front seven, that's a problem.
As a whole, however, when the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 is released (coming soon!), you're going to see lofty projections for Stanford, in part because the role of coaching changes on projections is so dicey. But coaching change or no, the early schedule will give them a chance to work out whatever kinks have settled in this offseason. Perhaps the biggest game on the schedule is the September 17 trip to Arizona. The Wildcats are facing their own demons at the moment (no offensive line and Juron Criner's up-in-the-air position on the team, to name two), but if Stanford gets past that one, a 7-0 start is likely. The schedule is backloaded (at USC, at Oregon State, Oregon, California, Notre Dame in the last five), but this is a team built to improve as time progresses. We'll worry about Stanford's prospects for 2012 and beyond in 2012 ... for now, they should have one more really nice run in them. Whether they can match 2011's "decadent little slice of heaven" remains to be seen, but they should at the very least contend for a "highly addictive" division crown.
t's time for another game of Are You An Optimist Or A Pessimist?
What pessimists see: a team that has risen a bit too quickly in two years and had very little margin for error in terms of reaching a bowl last season. The Huskies were outscored by almost 100 points last year, and they lose both the face of their offense and perhaps their three best defensive play-makers in Aiyewa, Foster and safety Nate Williams. Plus, there are a ton of freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep.
What optimists see: a team whose YPP margin suggests the blowouts were somewhat fluky, a team whose turnover margin was dinged significantly by an unlucky number of fumble recoveries, and a team with downright solid recruiting rankings (those freshmen and sophomores are on the depth chart for a reason -- they're good).
People will be paying a lot of attention to the travails of Nick Price in replacing Jake Locker, but Washington's 2011 fate will likely be decided by the Huskies' overall youth. If Seferian-Jenkins, Price, and a host of young offensive linemen, receivers and outside linebackers can be trusted enough to run what Washington coaches want to run, then the ceiling is pretty high. But the best odds are on Washington hovering around .500 in 2011 while putting together serious potential for 2012 and beyond.
A five-year recruiting average much higher than their recent level of play ... a healthy number of starters returning on both sides of the ball ... a YPP margin that suggests they were quite unlucky last year ... it certainly seems as if Wazzu could be ready for another autumn of improvement. The question is, of course ... what exactly does 'improvement' mean? A 3-9 record? Multiple conference wins? If 'improvement' consists of something less than six wins and a bowl bid, will that be enough to save Wulff? And if his seat is that hot, will that affect players' level of performance if they begin to press to save his job?
You've got to start somewhere, and Washington State did that in 2010. But their four-year performance average still ranks 39 spots lower than anybody else's in the Pac-12 (Colorado ranks 75th), and they still rank lower in that category than any of the 11 FBS opponents on their 2011 schedule.
Taking a look at Wazzu's schedule, it is somewhat clear that a three-game road trip through San Diego State, Colorado and UCLA will all but determine Wulff's fate. All three of those opponents will be beatable in 2011, but all three are away from home. By the time Stanford comes to Pullman in mid-October, WSU could be 3-2 and fighting for bowl eligibility ... or 1-4 and playing for an interim coach.
If Arizona had a cupcake-soft early schedule, I could talk myself into the Wildcats as a serious sleeper in a division where a sleeper could go a long way. Give the line some time to develop, and things could come together nicely. Instead, they play three potential Top 10-15 teams right out of the gates. They visit Stillwater on Thursday evening, September 8, then they play host to Stanford and Oregon in back-to-back weeks, then they have to travel to USC and Oregon State. Good lord! They could be playing at their typical level -- low- to mid-30s in terms of F/+ rankings -- and stand at 1-5 heading into the back half of their schedule.
Because of the schedule and the strange turnover, this will be a very unique coaching experience for Mike Stoops. With a friendlier schedule and time for development, Arizona could thrive. Instead, it's all about survival. Making a bowl game should be considered a success. If fans are grumbling about Arizona plateauing 12 months from now, instead of the fact that they regressed in 2011, then that's a win for Stoops.
With USC banned from the postseason, it does look like we're facing an interesting battle for the inaugural Pac-12 South title between three interesting-but-flawed teams: Arizona, Arizona State and Utah. The Sun Devils have the most experience, the most upside and the most volatility of the three. Their peripherals above are not particularly encouraging -- their recruiting rank is not what one (specifically, Andy Staples) would expect it to be, they kept a lot of games close with fumble luck, and their YPP margin suggests they were possibly more competitive than they should have been.
By the end of September, we'll have found out whether ASU has begun to fix the issues that held them back last year, namely rushing offense and pass defense. Missouri comes to town the evening of September 9 -- they will severely test ASU's vulnerability to standard downs passing. Then, the Sun Devils head to Champaign to face an Illinois defense that ranked ninth in Rushing S&P+ last year (granted, they've lost some key personnel in their front seven). Finally, they return home to take on a USC offense that was quite efficient, both on the ground and in the air, on standard downs. If they enter October at 4-0, they are the real deal. But they are just as likely to be looking at 2-2 and an identity crisis. Predicting what such a volatile team is capable of doing (and sustaining) from week to week is damn near impossible, but whatever happens to Arizona State in 2011 should be entertaining.
What we know for sure: 1) Colorado has drastically underachieved compared to their recruiting rankings, which suggests, at least in theory, that their upside is still reasonably high, at least "minor bowl bid" high, this year. 2) Colorado returns quite a few seniors, especially in the offensive backfield, and quite a few starters overall. 3) Colorado's offensive line wasn't very good last year with a first-round pick, so it's unclear how much of a positive "four returning starters" really is. 4) The defensive line is potentially outstanding; the back seven returns plenty of players with experience and no proven play-making ability. [...]
So basically, we don't know much. With trips to Hawaii, Ohio State, Stanford, Arizona State, UCLA and Utah and home games against Oregon, USC and Arizona, it is unlikely that Embree will be able to manufacture a bowl season this first time around. But if they can start 4-1 with wins over Hawaii, Cal, Colorado State and Washington State, the game changes.
This is bad timing, as the offense appears to still be potentially a year away from clicking, and the early schedule is absolutely brutal. But October 2, UCLA will have faced Houston, Oregon State and Stanford on the road, and Texas at home. Even if the passing game takes some steps forward, it might not be enough to prevent a slow start. If the wheels haven't come off after five games, however, a rally is possible. The Bruins could win each of their final four home games -- Washington State, California, Arizona State and Colorado -- and at the very least, bowl eligibility could be in the works.
Because of the potential momentum involved, anything between a 3-9 (if the wheels completely fall off) and 9-3 record is theoretically possible. The experience level is much higher than it was a year ago, recruiting has certainly been decent, and the Bruins' YPP margin suggests potential improvement, but the turnover margin is not guaranteed to improve, and ... there's just been so much turnover and uncertainty, especially on offense. It's hard to be too confident in Neuheisel going forward, and if I were a betting man, I'd say the Bruins are looking at five or six wins and a new coaching search this December.
USC was handed a significant, slow-death punishment -- a two-year postseason ban and a reduction of 30 scholarships -- for benefits allegedly given to Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo. Entering Year Two, they are ineligible for the first Pac-12 South crown; the marquee program of the 2000s has been rendered invisible, or at least, as invisible as you can be while situated that close to TMZ headquarters. Sure, they are probably the best team in the Pac-12 South, but they aren't even in the race. Sure, they have a more experienced defense and interesting skill position talent, but in an era where bowl bids are handed out like they're jobs at Dave Kovic's employment agency, USC won't be playing after November 26. Sure, the Trojans are still pretty decent now, but what happens in three years when the scholarship limits have taken their toll? It is an odd, empty place to be. But the games go on in the L.A. Coliseum, anonymity or no anonymity. [...]
It is odd previewing a season that means very little. USC should be a solid team that, if eligible for the postseason, would be a strong favorite for the first Pac-12 South crown. The Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 gives the Trojans a 20% chance of finishing 8-1 or better in conference (Utah: 8%, Arizona State: 7%) and a 59% chance of finishing 9-3 or better overall; but really, USC will just be trying to remain "USC," living life in the shadows, positioning themselves to recover as quickly as possible when sanctions end, and thanking the heavens that Nevin Shapiro lived in Miami and not Los Angeles.
Utah was a bit lucky when it comes to Yards Per Point last season, and they were quite unlucky when it comes to recovering fumbles. Their five-year performance averages are higher than those of anybody else eligible for the Pac-12 South title, but their recruiting has admittedly lagged a bit. Great run defense, bad run offense. Great pass offense, potentially bad pass defense. In 2011, Utah brings as much to the table as it takes off, and with USC out of the picture, the Utes probably have as much of a chance as anybody to represent the South in the first Pac-12 title game.
In looking at Utah's schedule, the key becomes obvious: survive September. Mid-September trips to USC and BYU will not clinch or doom the Utes' South title bid, but it will establish the narrative they will take into the meat of conference play. Meanwhile, two home games will actually probably determine Utah's fate in the South. Washington and Arizona State come to town on October 1 and October 8; U-Dub is absolutely a team the Utes should take down at home, and Arizona State is almost certainly Utah's biggest threat in the South race. If they win these two games, then they are officially the favorite in the South. In all, the schedule is meaty (few major conference teams have a road slate tougher than USC-BYU-Pittsburgh-Cal-Arizona-Wazzu) but semi-manageable as long as Jordan Wynn stays healthy. Which is, of course, a huge 'if.' With an injured Wynn, the expectations plummet.
Predicted Order Of Finish
NOTE: These predictions have nothing to do with the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 projections released recently (now on Amazon!) -- these are just based on my own impressions of each team as I was writing up the previews. It is intended to be more of a power poll than a set of predictions based on a lengthy look at the schedules. And it will change 17 times between now and when the season starts.
3. Oregon State
6. Washington State
3. Arizona State