Wilner Hotline: Pac-12 Weekly Mailbag

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The Hotline mailbag is published each Friday. I was hoping you could send questions to pac12hotline@bayareanewsgroup.com or hit me on Twitter: @WilnerHotline. Due to volume — and in some cases, the need for research — not all questions will be answered the week of submission. Thanks for your understanding.

Some questions have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Is the Pac-12 going to get rid of divisions and take the two best teams once they go down to an eight-game conference schedule? — @CharlieVidal

Yes, an eight-game conference schedule is inevitable if the Pac-12 creates a series with the Big Ten (and possibly ACC) via the alliance partnership.

The process would be simple: Jettison a conference game, add one game against the Big Ten, and remove the divisions. That’s all there is to it.

(The alliance games would be spread across the season, perhaps in a way that ensures one game each week.)

But keep this in mind: The Pac-12 could eliminate divisions whether it schedules alliance games or not. The preferred strategy depends on the outcome of College Football Playoff expansion.

If the result is a 12-team event that does not include an automatic berth for the Power Five champions, the Pac-12 should scrap the divisions no matter what.

The last thing it wants is a 7-5 division winner with no chance of reaching the CFP, upsetting a 10-2 division winner, and kneecapping the Conference’s best candidate.

If you eliminate divisions and match the two best teams, an upset doesn’t derail your CFP prospects — in theory; either winner would be good enough to qualify.

The issue matters less if the CFP settles on an eight-team model that includes automatic bids for conference champions. In that scenario, even the Pac-12’s five-loss team would receive a request.

Toss the various playoff formats into a cauldron with options for the alliance and models for the Pac-12’s schedule, and the stew can get confusing.

So here’s the easiest way to understand the various calculations: The Pac-12 will settle on the structure that gives it the best chance to reach the playoff every year.

That wasn’t the case in the past.

It is the case moving forward.

What do you think is the best thing commissioner George Kliavkoff could do for the Conference in the next three months? — @dun1870gc

Allow me to offer three responses, each covering a different spectrum:

1. Kliavkoff’s best move thus far has been to protect the Pac-12’s home field — to keep the Conference from getting raided by the Big Ten or ACC.

In our view, Kliavkoff saw the alliance as a defensive mechanism first and foremost. By drawing the Big Ten and ACC presidents into a partnership, he significantly reduced the likelihood of poaching schools from the Pac-12 (i.e., USC).

There are plenty of potential benefits to the alliance, but those are secondary to the stability it provides.

2. While it won’t generate headlines, Kliavkoff’s priority over the next three months is to maintain and strengthen internal alignment.

The Pac-12 was a fractured entity for many years under Larry Scott. The leadership change created a means of rebuilding trust between the conference office and the campuses.

To maximize its strategic position across numerous fronts (CFP expansion, NIL, NCAA governance, media rights, etc.), the Pac-12 needs everyone moving together, committed to the collective, and trusting of Kliavkoff’s leadership.

Alignment has improved substantially, but it must continue.

3. In terms of tangible policies or outcomes, Kliavkoff’s No. 1 short-term goal is to ensure playoff expansion serves the Pac-12’s best interests.

That means either a 12-team format similar to what has been proposed or an eight-team model that includes automatic bids for Power Five champions.

The one scenario the Pac-12 doesn’t want is in direct opposition to the SEC’s preference: An eight-team event with no automatic bids.

My hunch is the CFP situation will be resolved in early 2022.

Can you think of a plausible sequence of events that would result in Lane Kiffin getting the USC job? (Full disclosure: I’m not a USC fan.) — @keithdennis

I was highly skeptical about Kiffin’s candidacy before Ole Miss got run off the field by Alabama. Now, I cannot envision a plausible scenario.

Both Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian are instructive cases for USC: They might be viable candidates today if they hadn’t already served as (failed) USC head coaches. (And if Sarkisian didn’t already have a high-profile job.)

The school cannot make the same mistake again. It can’t hire a coach who, professionally and personally, needs time to grow. It must pick someone ready to win at a high level on Day One.

If I had told you are going into September that Oregon State would be halfway through the season and controlling its destiny for a Pac-12 title, would you have slapped me? Also, if Oregon struggles against Cal, do you see Mario Cristobal being forced to make a change at Q.B.? — @PMLovesSports

The second question first: It might depend on the availability of Oregon offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.

Anthony Brown was out of sync at Stanford, and Moorhead’s absence (for an illness not related to COVID) is the most likely explanation.

If Moorhead returns and Brown struggles, a change might be in order. However, the Ducks head to Pasadena next week. Would they want freshman Ty Thompson’s first start to come against UCLA’s aggressive, complicated defense?

As for the first question: Yes, I would have slapped you silly, then finished you off with a WWE move off the top ropes.

Regardless of the specifics (one loss, two losses; first place; second place; etc.), the Beavers have exceeded our expectations. I’d argue they would be 5-1, not 4-2, had they started Chance Nolan in the opener at Purdue.

But here’s the most remarkable aspect of their play thus far (aside from winning in the L.A. Coliseum for the first time in 61 years):

The Beavers (4-2/2-1) are off this week, then play Utah, Cal, and Colorado in succession, meaning they very well could have a bowl berth locked up by the first weekend in November.

In that case, I might need to slap myself silly.

As a Colorado fan, why should I have any hope this 15-year nightmare will ever end? — @henryhuidekoper

I’m not sure that you should, although it depends on your definition of a nightmare.

Colorado is a difficult place to win consistently, far closer to Arizona, Oregon State, and Washington State in that regard than to the likes of ASU, UCLA, and Utah.

The lack of in-state talent, especially at the skill positions (i.e., speed), is a massive hurdle. The Buffaloes must rely on multi-hour flights to reach their primary recruiting pools in Dallas and Los Angeles.

And clearly, they whiffed on back-to-back hires with Dan Hawkins and Jon Embree, which set the program back years.

It’s challenging to quibble with the Mike MacIntyre era because much of it was spent cleaning up the Hawkins/Embree mess. Also, he won a division title.

And the Mel Tucker situation was regrettable — a shrewd hire that ended in a manner nobody could have foreseen.

Is Karl Dorrell the long-haul answer? It’s too early to know. Last season produced an upside surprise; this season appears to be a downside disappointment.

But of this, we’re sure:

— C.U. doesn’t have much margin for error with the roster. Regression comes quickly, and progress can be slow.

— It’s unlikely that the Buffaloes will reach the point of being a consistent contender in the South, where the upside is ten wins, and the downside is six or seven victories.

— The most realistic outlook — that is, with the right head coach in place — would produce cycles in which the Buffaloes win four or five games one year, then six or seven, then eight or nine.

The Hotline plans to take entire stock of the program at the end of 2022, which feels like a fair timeline for Dorrell.

Is the Washington State defense for real? Secondary looks excellent so far, unless defending Drake London. — @SirCharles_OG

Nobody looks good defending Drake London. He’s one of the best receivers in the country and a matchup nightmare for any secondary.

But you’re spot on: WSU’s defense is for real. While not a dominant unit, it’s clearly in the top half of the Conference and perhaps even the top third.

The Cougars have speed and playmakers on every level.

If either side of scrimmage has underachieved in Pullman, it’s the offense.

(What of the USC game? We’d argue the root cause of the collapse was WSU’s inability to possess the ball once Jayden de Laura was injured. The defense had poor field position, no margin for error, and little rest.)

Defensive coordinator Jake Dickert has done tremendous work. He’s on our shortlist of the top coordinators in the Conference through the first half of the season.

That list, by the way, is dominated by defensive coordinators. With a few exceptions, the offensive side has been a wasteland.

This is from the future: With Washington’s most recent disappointing loss to UCLA, where the run defense was gashed and the unimaginative offense sputtered, what is (athletic director Jen) Cohen seeing that is preventing her from giving Jimmy Lake an ultimatum? — @LiveInHothAK

It is astonishing to me that Washington fans believe a head coaching change might be necessary, or realistic, at this point in Lake’s tenure.

He has been on the job for one-and-a-half seasons and won the division title in his first. If not for COVID, the Huskies would have played USC for the conference championship.

Yes, they are struggling with recruiting. Yes, the offense has underachieved. But the school is a long, long way from the point of no return with Lake. I mean, years away (barring an off-the-field transgression on his part).

That doesn’t mean staff changes won’t be necessary this offseason. Unless the offense improves dramatically, for instance, Lake must consider hiring a new playcaller.

But the problems are solvable without a change at the top, which would be disruptive, counter-productive and extremely premature.

Who wins the men’s basketball games this year between Oregon and Oregon State? — @erecasner

The Hotline is far from convinced the Beavers can maintain their NCAA momentum.

That wasn’t lightning in a bottle; it was lightning in a straw.

The roster supports a middle-tier finish in what should be a fairly stout conference.

Meanwhile, Oregon’s returning players and incoming talent look formidable, as usual, although it could take time for the pieces to mesh.

Because both rivalry games are in January, the Beavers might catch Oregon at less than its best — before the February runs that we’re used to seeing from Dana Altman’s teams.

A split seems like the most likely outcome.

After that, we’d argue there’s a better chance of Oregon sweeping than of the Beavers winning both.

Top-five worst offensive and defensive coordinators in the Pac-12 over the last 10 years? —  @JonBlueFC

Interesting question and one that we would need time to research. (There are few currently employed that probably could be included.)

The topic is complicated by the internal command structure. When the head coach is heavily involved with game-planning and play-calling on one side of the ball, it can be difficult to make a full and fair evaluation of that coordinator.

But we’ll ponder.

Thanks for the idea.

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