With college football season over, it’s about that time to start looking into the rear-view mirror, reflecting back on the season that was, in all its craziness.
The Pac-12 took a nice leap forward in 2012 with its out-of-conference wins and resurgent programs, while it also took a huge tumble.
We take a look at the narratives of every Pac-12 team, narratives that range from teams that were pegged for greatness and fell flat (USC) and teams that were damned to obscurity that rose to regional hegemony (Stanford).
We’ll take a look at each team from the Pac-12 South and North. This is the first part of a two-part series in which we examine the two divisions. Teams will be presented and reviewed in order of their placing in the divisions in 2012.
Up first: The Pac-12 South.
1. UCLA (9-5, 6-4 Pac-12)
There’s no doubt that UCLA saw significant progress in 2012 under new head coach Jim Mora. After a historically disastrous 2011, which saw them become the first 6-8 team in the history of college football, the Bruins picked up nine wins and finished the regular season with a 9-3 record with the Pac-12 South title — and a win over the conference’s flagship program, USC — firmly in hand.
With that came the emergence of Johnathan Franklin (who earned an argument for best running back in the nation in 2012 and will almost surely get drafted in the 2013 NFL draft) and Anthony Barr (a running back-turned-linebacker who is has emerged as one of the best — if not, the best — pass-rushers in the country). Where as Rick Neuheisel’s teams produced scant nationally-recognized players, Mora’s first team produced at least two and up to four, if you count senior tight end Joe Fauria and sophomore lineman Xavier Su’a-Filo.
This, of course, doesn’t mean UCLA fans should hail Jim Mora as the antidote to the past ten years of mediocre UCLA football. The Bruins lost their last three games, including a heart-breaker in the Pac-12 championship game to Stanford (which would’ve seen them move on to the Rose Bowl had they won) and a debacle in San Diego to a 7-5 Baylor team.
Even then, UCLA will likely be a force to be reckoned with in this division behind a much-improved offense (which is top-25 in almost every offensive stat) and an aggressive defense led by Barr.
But UCLA has yet to earn enough goodwill from the last ten years (like they did in the 1990s, which led to inflated AP poll rankings in the early 2000s) to warrant them being a dark-horse contender for the Pac-12 title again in 2013. Considering their talent, though, it’s entirely likely to turn some heads on the national scene next season.
2. USC (7-6, 5-4 Pac-12)
The narratives surrounding this USC team have clouded any positives that have emerged for these Trojans. Those narratives are warranted and the label of “worst preseason No. 1 in history of college football” is not without merit. From being the favorite to run the table and end the SEC’s strong-hold on college football to being a 7-6 team with a loss to Georgia Tech is no joke.
But lost in all this schadenfreude were encouraging signs that USC could still be in the right direction. Quarterback Matt Barkley flopped in his final year with the Trojans by the standards set before him preseason, but lost among such disappointment was the fact that he’s still one of the nation’s top passers and still broke all-time Pac-12 records as the season went along. Lost among USC’s disastrous season was, seemingly, Marqise Lee’s emergence as the best wide receiver in the nation. Lost among the narratives is the fact that USC was never blown out and never looked out of it during games (because while they were losing to Arizona and UCLA in tight games, they were also hanging with Pac-12 champion Stanford and Fiesta Bowl champion Oregon for 99 percent of their tilts with the Pac-12 North powerhouses). And lost among this unexpectedly-mediocre season was the cohesion of USC’s 2013 recruiting class, which, despite seeing their new team lose six games, stood by the Men of Troy, and as a result, Southern Cal will still bring in a top-five recruiting class.
But these things are lost when programs are seemingly on the cusp of returning to greatness, only to see reality slap them in the face and stick them with the rest of the middling teams in the Pac-12.
What was the problem with these Trojans? Who knows? This team suffered major set-backs performance-wise both offensively and defensively and everyone’s the fall guy — fans have taken to blaming Matt Barkley for his drop-off in production, Lane Kiffin for his introverted personalty on the sidelines during games, and Monte Kiffin for not figuring out how to stop the nation’s fastest-rising offenses which employ schemes he never saw in the NFL (notably, spread offenses).
Couple this with the ultra-powerful microscope USC has been put under this year — with Lane Kiffin earning the ire of SEC teams and the nation in general for his apparently smug demeanor and language — and it’s a recipe for the most salient storyline in college football.
No one knows what these Trojans will be like in 2012, much like no one will know how the rest of the Pac-12 South will shape up, with UCLA losing three straight to close out the season and with Arizona losing to rival Arizona State.
But no matter what happens, it’s likely the Trojans that’ll dominate the headlines, for stories of epic failure can be as salient as stories filled with unbridled success.
3. Arizona State (8-5, 5-4 Pac-12)
Arizona State was supposed to stick with their modus operandi in 2012. Although new head coach Todd Graham was brought aboard to make fans forget about the Dennis Erickson-Lisa Love era, no one expected Arizona State to improve upon their perennial-esque 6-6 regular season record from 2011 and most pundits figured that these Sun Devils would do far worse.
And for much of the year, it looked like ASU would do just that. After looking like a sexy pick to win the Pac-12 South behind a 5-1 record and a 3-0 start in Pac-12 play, the Sun Devils played the tougher part of their schedule, beginning with their home contest against Oregon.
A loss there was followed up with losses to Pac-12 champion UCLA, Oregon State and USC, which left them with a 5-5 record, lending credence to the notion that ASU is Implosion U, and that they would finish at or below .500 much like years past. Arizona State isn’t supposed to finish strong, and because history repeats itself — recent though it may be — it was fairly assumed that the Devils would limp to a 6-6 record with its lone second-half-of-the-season win coming against a lowly Washington State squad.
But Todd Graham didn’t allow these Sun Devils to fall into their own tendencies; sure, they wouldn’t become Pac-12 South champs as they were seemingly poised to be early on, but ASU did rattle off three straight wins to end their season. And while that stat isn’t so shocking, this one is: ASU managed to win its final three games of the season for the first time since 1978.
Yes, it’s been 34 years since ASU finished a season strong, and though every Pac-12 team’s goal is to play in a Rose Bowl game, Arizona State is absolutely content with having a coach that doesn’t allow its team to stray off and get discouraged by losing streaks. It would have been easy for sophomore QB Taylor Kelly to throw in the towel after failing to throw for 200 yards in three games in ASU’s disastrous four-game losing streak; it would’ve been easy for all-conference defensive tackle Will Sutton to stop caring about a team that he fought like hell for as it began its routine trek to a .500 season. It would have been easy for these Sun Devils to stop playing like madmen in first-year offensive coordinator Mike Norvell’s blazing-fast spread.
None of this happened, though. Instead, ASU strapped up the boots and wound up with an easy win over Washington State and rallied back against Arizona the week after, which was followed up a few weeks later with a total demolishing of Navy, which had earned eight wins in 2012 albeit against weak competition.
Arizona State is headed in the right direction, and Todd Graham is apparently the right guy for the job, tendencies be damned.
4. Arizona (8-5, 4-5 Pac-12)
During the offseason, it was widely believed that the Arizona Wildcats had the best hire of all Pac-12 teams that were filling coaching vacancies when the ‘Cats signed Rich Rodriguez to be their head man. Although Rich Rod’s tenure at Michigan was tumultuous and his exit messy, he was still one of the innovators of the zone-read spread offense and he was still widely regarded as an offensive genius. Even with all this though, it was tough to figure that
Arizona would be capable of hanging with nearly every team in the nation and just as difficult to imagine the Wildcats winning more than six games, with six being what many were calling Arizona’s ceiling for 2012.
You and Rich Rod can stop laughing at that notion now.
In fact, Rich Rodriguez stood true to the trend of Pac-12 coaches doing absolutely everything right in their first year, with their teams performing well above expectations. The Wildcats had several poor outings in 2011 and ended with a 4-8 season and given the situation Rodriguez was inheriting, it was fair to assume that a 4-8 record was to be expected. In 2012, Arizona had two poor outings to teams ranked right before the 2012-13 bowl season, and only in one of those blowouts were they not competitive (Arizona kept the score somewhat close for the majority of their tilt with Oregon, but lost 49-0; the Wildcats, however, were nowhere near competitive against UCLA, losing 66-10 at the Rose Bowl).
Arizona not only stood toe to toe with some of the best teams on their schedule, they also managed to become an elite offensive unit, with Matt Scott leading the Wildcats with his all-conference-worthy performance as Arizona’s quarterback, and behind team MVP and All-American running back Ka’Deem Carey, who led the nation in rushing in 2012.
But there’s a reason Arizona lost five games, and if we’re being truthful, there really was only one reason: its listless defense, which gave up a ridiculous 35 points per game, with only four teams unable to score more than 30 points on Arizona (Utah, Toledo, Washington and South Carolina State) while five teams managed to score more than 40 on the new-look ‘Cats (winning just one of those contests, their bowl game against Nevada).
For a program like Arizona, under a first-year head coach, with seemingly little talent, whining about the defense coming off an eight-win season is something to be proud of; sure, these ‘Cats ended their season on a sour note with a loss to in-state rivals Arizona State, but progress is blatant in this case.
5. Utah (5-7, 3-6 Pac-12)
While USC ran away with the title of most disappointing team in the Pac-12, Utah is certainly a front-runner for the second-most disappointing team in the Pac-12.
Heading into 2012 with loft expectations, with a year of BCS football experience under their belt, Utah was largely considered to be a dark-horse for Pac-12 title contenders this past season. In fact, its tilt with USC was highly-anticipated among fans and their language regarding the game included phrases such as “most important game in the history of Utah football” (of course, that was back when USC were themselves considered national championship-worthy). With quarterback Jordan Wynn at the helm, finally healthy for what seemed like the first time in his career, and with John White III in the discussion for one of the top running backs in the nation, coupled with the fact that Utah missed Stanford and Oregon on their schedule — all while their defense was hyped up as possibly the best in the conference — things looked like they were lining up for Utah to get into a BCS bowl.
You laugh now, because that sounds preposterous these days, but that was the thought. Instead, Utah flamed out early with a loss to Utah State, while also slacking in Pac-12 play, losing its first four in-conference games. Jordan Wynn retired from football early on in the season after suffering from yet another shoulder injury; Utah’s offensive line couldn’t protect the backfield consistently; and the defense was at the mercy of some of the best offenses in the nation (although that unit, led by Star Lotulelei, did hold its own).
These Utah Utes regressed quite a bit, which was contrary to what most pundits believed they would do, which was improve upon a halfway decent Pac-12 debut in 2011 which saw them go 8-5.
Instead, the Utes are in an odd spot. After their first losing season since 2002 that led to the exit of Ron McBride, Utah is without much depth on the offensive line, don’t have a true quarterback to take over their spot and grumblings that head coach Kyle Wittingham — the same Kyle Wittingham that out-classed Nick Saban in the Sugar Bowl in 2008 — is now on the hot seat leave Utah with an uncertain future and unlikely to compete with the big dogs of the Pac-12 for at least another year.
6. Colorado (1-11, 1-8 Pac-12)
There’s no Pac-12 team with a situation worse than Colorado’s and there’s also no Pac-12 team with an athletic director as clueless as Mike Bohn. Indeed, his firing of Jon Embree after two years was seen as sleazy at best and downright despicable at worst. While no one’s sure Embree was the right guy for the job, it’s clear that Colorado is one of the least-talented teams in any BCS conference.
In fact, 0-12 looked like a real possibility before the season even started for these Buffs, something that nearly became a reality until Washington State, well, Coug’d it and allowed the Buffs to rally for their only game of the season. It was that apparent just how talentless this squad was and not allowing Embree the typical four years given to a head coach trying to rebuild a program was terrible.
Of course, it almost comes with merit. Colorado was considered a bit of a bye week for most Pac-12 teams not named Washington State and thus, the average score for a Colorado game was 46-18 in favor of the opposition. Colorado allowed 50 or more points in five of their 12 contests in a run that will likely go unrivaled by any Pac-12 team in the future (and is rivaled only by Washington’s 0-12, even though the 2008 Huskies were actually competitive with more than one Pac-12 squad).
There’s no term for just how bad Colorado is and it’s incredibly difficult to imagine the expectations Bohn has for 2013 with new head coach Mike McIntyre. We’ve seen programs that were buried in obscurity in the Pac-12 emerge in 2012 under new head coaches, but as the 2012 season displayed for these Buffs, this is not the same case.