By Jon Wilner
Reaction to Pac-12 developments on the field …
(Nothing specific about Oregon in this column. We addressed the Ducks earlier in the day.)
1. Sizing up Showdown Saturday
It started on the highest of notes at approximately 12:30 p.m. … and proceeded to get worse, worse, and ultimately miserable.
The conference lost excruciatingly (Cal and Colorado), in a predictable fashion (Washington), in unexpected fashion (Utah), in embarrassing fashion (Arizona), and damn-near-fireable fashion (USC).
It went 1-3 against the SEC, Big Ten, and Big 12 and had just three undefeated teams standing after two weeks.
(The ACC has five, the Big 12 has six, the Big Ten has seven, and the SEC has 10. But who’s counting?)
The top programs (allegedly), USC and Washington, were beaten soundly today — the Huskies with another no-show offensive performance in the Big House and the Trojans as 17-point favorites against Stanford.
The Pac-12 has lost twice to Brigham Young and three times to the Mountain West.
It’s 2-5 against the Power Five.
It’s oh-so-close to feeding the narrative that it’s lagging, that it’s not worthy of the playoff, that it’s stuck in a middle ground between the Power Five and the Group of Five.
2. Grading the Weeks
However, the case we made in this space last week when UCLA’s victory over LSU stood out among the gloom elsewhere, holds once again:
The conference won the game. It absolutely, positively had to win.
Oregon’s victory at No. 3 Ohio State counts double, perhaps even triple.
It offsets Cal blowing another big lead and Washington struggling to score and Colorado’s near-miss, and Utah losing the Holy War for the first time in a decade.
Because success in the sport is increasingly defined by the top of your conference, not by the middle.
By your best, not your depth.
The Pac-12 has taken down the 2019 national champs (LSU) and the 2020 national runners-up (OSU) in back-to-back weeks and will have at least one team in the top-10, the Ducks, when the AP poll is released Sunday.
So if we’re weighing the collective performance through two weeks, one scale has absolute mush (all the group of Five losses), and the other has two marquee wins.
And you know what: It tips to the side with the big wins.
Not by much, and perhaps not for much longer, but by enough.
For that reason, we give the conference a B- through the first fortnight.
Without the Ducks and Bruins, we would be handing out an F.
3. Source of success
The same type of rocket fuel has powered the Pac-12’s most significant wins and the biggest near-miss: Dominance at the line of scrimmage.
Trench success has eluded the conference for so many years but was clear as could be:
The Pac-12 went head-to-head with three recruiting powerhouses and NFL Draft pipelines and more than held its own.
— UCLA handled LSU in the trenches, and everything flowed from there in the 38-27 victory last week.
(The Bruins might have the best offensive line and running game in the conference.)
— Oregon controlled both lines in Columbus in the 35-28 win.
(The Ducks defensive front was the story of the game. OSU never got its running game into high gear despite Kayvon Thibodeaux’s absence.)
— And although it didn’t result in victory, Colorado outplayed Texas A&M at the scrimmage.
(CU might not have the playmakers to contend in the South, but the defense is stout.)
We’ll end this section with a statistic: Rushing yards.
UCLA 210, LSU 49
Oregon 269, Ohio State 128
Colorado 171, Texas A&M 97
Pac-12 total 650, opponent total 274
4. Trouble brewing
Sure it’s early, except when it comes to the bowl math.
Every Pac-12 team began the year needing six wins to qualify for the postseason.
Three teams still need six wins but only have 10 games to hit the mark: Washington, Cal, and Arizona are winless, and a few more losses from being hopeless.
Cal’s defense has deteriorated almost as rapidly as Washington’s offense.
Not for nothing, but both programs have relatively new coordinators for those units: Peter Sirmon for Cal and John Donovan for Washington.
The Donovan hire was met with skepticism by Huskies fans and the top football minds in the Hotline’s world. So far, that skepticism appears justified.
Meanwhile, Cal promoted Sirmon to defensive play-caller last year — a role Tim DeRuyter had held for several seasons (with success). In January, DeRuyter was hired by Mario Cristobal to run Oregon’s defense. Based on today’s events, he fits in quite well.
The third winless team is just bad—bad, bad, bad.
Jedd Fisch won the offseason in Tucson with his steps to raise energy and change the culture. But he’s getting clobbered in the actual season.
The BYU defeat last week was a quality effort with poor execution.
The 38-14 poleaxing by San Diego State served as a twin reminder of how far behind the program has fallen and that there are no guarantees Fisch is the right coach to lead the Wildcats out of the cellar.
5. The Helton Watch
In our opinion, USC’s abysmal performance against Stanford is the beginning of the end for Clay Helton.
We don’t expect the Trojans to win enough games the rest of the way for Helton to salvage his job. (This shouldn’t come as a surprise to regular readers. The Hotline picked them to finish third in the South.)
The Trojans have too many good teams remaining and not enough discipline, toughness, or accountability to navigate the gauntlet.
And because Helton has spent so many years in limbo — he’s Groundhog Clay — the clouds of negativity have gathered at the gates. Whatever remaining support for his tenure exists could disappear quickly.
Credit Stanford for a sound game-plan and quality execution; it was tougher, smarter, and better.
But USC was run off its home turf by a team that was itself run off the field last week by Kansas State.
The Trojans’ performance was simply inexcusable.
And with so much at stake in these next few years — with the Pac-12 media rights negotiations and the alliance with the Big Ten and the Trojans attempting to help lead the conference into the next era — the administration cannot afford to wade into turbulent waters with a floundering football coach.
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