If Mediocrity had a football team, its mascot would most likely wear a giant foam Mike Stoops head
Ahhh, mediocre college football. Three words that go together like turkey, gravy, and stuffing.
While the majority of space here at FanHouse and on every other college football publication will be focused on the Top 25, season after season a huge slice of the college football fan pie (mmmm...fan pie) find themselves supporting a team who would most aptly be described as thoroughly mediocre, at best. I'd venture to guess that for every legit contender, there are probably three teams with a couple of flaws so glaring that only those blinded by the partisanship of homerdom can pretend their team's downsides won't inevitably sabotage any hopes of playing in a bowl of even moderate respectability.
And therein lies one of the most cruel realities of the college football landscape: winning 6 or 7 games is no small feat, and yet every year coaches and players around the country will be abused for achieving that very milestone. Of course, when you play in a conference like the Pac 10 -- who rewards its third place finisher with a December 31 game in El Paso's Sun Bowl -- can you really be that surprised when fans and pundits are critical of barely topping out above .500?
Who from the Pac 10 will slide to the middle of the pack in 2008? Here's a quick rundown of the leading candidates for Pacific time zone mediocrity this season.
|CAL GOLDEN BEARS|
Sorry Cal fans, but it would appear that your wave of college football contenderdom is crashing on the shore, and the end of the swell may very well be upon you. Yes, you've still got a pair of relatively experienced quarterbacks, a talented running back, and a deep linebacking corps. But if Jeff Tedford couldn't take advantage of the situation he enjoyed the past few years, and last season in particular, what chance do you really think he has of guiding this team -- with the gaping hole DeSean Jackson leaves in the offense and the questions about the defensive backfield -- to anything better than an outside shot at spending New Year's Eve in El Paso?
To be fair, out of any of the teams listed here, Cal certainly has the one of best chances of breaking the shackles of mediocrity. If Jahvid Best stays healthy he could be the best Pac back this side of Joe McKnight. The offensive line has been one of the best in the country under Tedford. And barring injuries at d-line and d-back, the Bears could sport one of the better defenses in the conference.
But Cal hasn't typically been much on exceeding expectations, especially when it comes on the heels of having bigger opportunities slip through their grasp. Expect to see Tedford & Co. spend most of the year looking up at USC, Oregon, and Arizona State, and with a few bad breaks, a couple of the teams listed below as well.
|OREGON STATE BEAVERS|
Believe it or not, after USC, the Beavers have the best conference and overall record in the Pac 10 for 2006-2007. But don't rush off to Vegas or A.C. to put big money on them finishing #2 in 2008 just yet.
Oregon State does return a legit tailback in Ryan McCants, and the offense got a big assist from the NCAA with another season of eligibility for wide receiver-punt returner Sammie Stroughter (pictured, right). Add to that a solid offensive line and what -- despite the attention focused on USC -- could prove to be the best defense in the conference, and the Beav has to command some respect from opponents. And if they get a few lucky bounces here and there, they could build upon those 23 votes in the preseason coaches poll and spend a majority of the season in the Top 25.
But head coach Mike Riley has one major achilles heel to deal with, and it unfortunately happens to be the guy(s) who will be taking the snaps. Juniors Lyle Moevao (5'11"/226 lbs.) and Sean Canfield (6'4"/229 lbs.) both saw time at QB for OSU last season, and both were as close to impressive as Corvallis is to Baton Rouge. Beaver faithful are certainly hoping that another season will yield improvement from whoever winds up seeing the majority of time under center, but with an unforgiving nonconference schedule that includes road games at Penn State and Utah, there won't be a ton of time for the signal caller to get into rhythm.
If the defense can give the QB some breathing room to get in sync with the offense, then the Beavers could be a legit dark horse in the conference. If not, fans at Reser Stadium will be left hoping for a rise to the pinnacle of mediocrity -- hoping to drink a true contender's milkshake with a big spoiler win against USC, ASU or Oregon.
UCLA's situation was pretty well summed up in that Pac 10 New Faces round-up. With the arrival of Rick Neuheisel and Norm Chow, and the retention of DeWayne Walker, the Bruins' sideline is looking good. Sadly for the residents of Westwood, the same can't be said of the on-field personnel.
Patrick Cowan and Ben Olson both went down on successive plays in spring practice -- Cowan with an ACL tear that will force him to apply for a sixth year of eligibility if he ever wants to suit up as a Bruin again, and Olson with a broken foot that healed, but was just re-injured this past weekend. So it would appear that the keys to Norm Chow's high-powered offense will be handed to JUCO transfer Kevin Craft or redshirt freshmen Chris Forcier. At running back there is talent, in the form of Khalil Bell and Raymond Carter. But both are coming back from major knee injuries, so how much can the boys in baby blue really count on big contributions there?
The good news in Bruinland is definitely on the defensive side of the football. The D-line features an Outland contender returning from an injury-plagued 2007 (Brigham Harwell) and an explosive sophomore poised for a big season (Brian Price). The linebackers include tough leader Reggie Carter, a Boz scion (Kyle Bosworth), and three stud freshmen (Donovan Carter, Patrick Larimore and Sean Westgate). The DBs aren't quite as formidable as the front seven, but definitely have some potential.
All that being said, with that many holes, how can you peg the Bruins for anything other than fierce mediocrity? The Neuheisel/Chow/Walker era may hold tremendous promise for UCLA, but it would appear that it'll be at least a year before those new hires start paying any meaningful dividends. But look on the bright side, Bruin fans -- the ending can't be as painful as last year's (above at right), can it?
While their team is pretty much universally thought to be near the bottom of the Pac 10's mediocre, Arizona fans can at least find one comfort that none of the above possess -- if this isn't the year that their team finally finds some consistency and starts emerging as a legitimate contender, there's a pretty good chance they'll get some fresh coaching blood by 2009.
Mike Stoops is on year five of his mission to get the 'Cats program on track, and while there have been a few bright spots (namely victories over Top 10 ranked UCLA, Cal and Oregon in '05, '06 and '07 respectively), there hasn't been anything you'd call significant momentum for the football program in Tucson since the 1990's "Desert Swarm" era. Technically Stoops is under contract until 2010, so there is no guarantee that he'll be out if the Wildcats don't get into bowl territory. But after settling for years of subpar football and a 17-29 record during the Stoops Era, the alums are getting restless, and that coaching seat has to be getting hot.
Fortunately for Bob's younger and less-decorated brother, he starts the 2009 season with one of the most talented teams at UofA since the Tomey years and that vaunted Desert Swarm. Except, in this case, the strength of the team is on the other side of the ball. QB Willie Tuitama (pictured, above right) returns to lead a Wildcats' offense that features a surplus of strong receivers -- including All-Pac 10 1st Team candidate Mike Thomas and talented sophomore tight end Rob Gronkowski -- and the thoroughly-capable Nic Grigsby in the backfield.
But, the reality is that the Arizona defense is going to force that offense to be prolific every time out, with only three starters returning and red flags like a 265 lb. fullback trying to make the switch to defensive end. Add in the loss of elite corner Antoine Cason to the Chargers in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft, and there will be points -- many of them -- scored on Mike Stoops' team this season. When the dust settles, it's safe to expect you'll see Arizona in that all-too-familiar spot somewhere into the middle-to-bottom of the Pac 10.