This is the time of the year when almost every team seemingly has a chance, however remote, of winning a conference football championship.
Take the Pacific 10, for example.
Coaches are saying that Arizona State is a mystery team with talent, that Arizona has a favorable schedule, that Washington State has the most explosive offense in the country, that Oregon is definitely a sleeper.
All well and good, but when the dust of the season settles, the three giants of the Pac-10, USC, Washington and UCLA, most likely will be squabbling over the title.
There’s historical precedence for the Big Three to once again be dominant. In the past 13 seasons, either USC, Washington, or UCLA has represented the conference in the Rose Bowl.
Stanford was the last intruder with its conference championship in 1971.
The Huskies grade out even better than the Trojans and Bruins in recent years. Consider: Washington’s lowest finish in the past eight seasons has been a tie for second.
Washington is supposedly rebuilding this season after an 11-1 record in 1984 including an Orange Bowl victory over Oklahoma.
The Huskies, under Don James, don’t rebuild. They simply plug some gaps with redshirted players and go about their business of winning.
USC has been picked by touring Pac-10 writers to repeat as conference champion by a narrow margin over Washington.
The Trojans should be more formidable on offense this season, relying on an experienced, pro-sized offensive line, a stockpile of tailbacks and a veteran quarterback in Sean Salisbury, who forfeited the 1984 season because of knee surgery. There are some question marks on defense, but not many.
Look for UCLA to be in the bowl picture, Rose or otherwise, by November. The Bruins, under Terry Donahue, sometimes falter early due to a difficult schedule, but they’re usually a factor at the end of the season as evidenced by their four straight bowl appearances, including Rose Bowl wins in 1983 and 1984.
If David Norrie or Matt Stevens are just capable quarterbacks, UCLA should be an explosive offensive team again and may have the best running back in the Pac-10 in Gaston Green.
The season is just barely under way but a previous so-called contender for the championship, Washington State, may have been eliminated by Labor Day.
The Cougars, with their RPM backfield of quarterback Mark Rypien and running backs Kerry Porter and Rueben Mayes, were upset at home last Saturday by Oregon, 42-39, replaying their track meet of 1984, only with a different result.
Washington State had to beat a team of Oregon’s caliber, especially at home, to justify its claim as a challenger to the Big Three.
Jim Walden’s team didn’t dodge that bullet, nor can it rearrange its schedule to avoid confrontations with Arizona, UCLA, Arizona State, USC and Washington.
Oregon, on the other hand, is not so much of a sleeper anymore. The Ducks, with talented quarterback Chris Miller, could tiptoe through a schedule that provides home games with Stanford, Washington, California and Oregon State while not meeting Arizona State and UCLA.
Rich Brooks’ team even got a break by rescheduling. Oregon doesn’t have to meet USC at the Coliseum now, the game relocated to the Mirage Bowl at Tokyo on Nov. 30.
It has been said that it’s not who you beat, but who you don’t meet that counts. By that reckoning, Arizona is in good shape.
USC and Washington aren’t on Arizona’s schedule, and the Wildcats get Washington State, UCLA and Oregon at home. Not a bad arrangement.
Arizona State can’t avoid the stronger teams in the conference, but the Sun Devils have seven home games, getting USC, Washington and Arizona on their own turf.
So what’s new in the Pac-10? Two coaches, John Cooper at Arizona State and Dave Kragthorpe at Oregon State.
Cooper had a 57-31 record for eight years at Tulsa and said he didn’t move just to be moving. “I told Dick Tamburo (then the athletic director) that you’re getting the best damn coach in college football.” Cooper says. “That’s the way I feel. The pressure in coaching is only what you put on yourself.”
Cooper, who succeeds Darryl Rogers, inherits some talent. Kragthorpe inherits, perhaps, a headache considering the Beavers’ 10-year drought--no more than two conference wins in any season 1974.
So if you can’t win, at least, be entertaining and Kragthorpe, who succeeds Joe Avezzano, says: “We’ll throw the ball from any place on the field. We’ll throw from our own one-yard line and we’ll throw from the other guy’s one-yard line.”
The former is more predictable than the latter.
A closer look at the Pac-10 teams, excluding USC and UCLA:
1984 RECORDS:11-1 overall, 6-1 in Pac-10
1984 CONFERENCE FINISH: Second
The Huskies have only nine returning starters and a punishing early season nonconference schedule with Oklahoma State, Brigham Young and Houston--all coming off bowl games. So Sports Illustrated and The Times’ Randy Harvey picked Washington as the nation’s No. 1 team. Such an assessment is a tribute to Don James and his consistently winning program. James’ key returnees are quarterback Hugh Millen, who led the Huskies to an 8-0 record last year before losing his starting job to Paul Sicoro; strong running fullback Rick Feeney (6-3, 243); inside linebacker Joe Kelly, who had 151 tackles last season, cornerback Vestee Jackson, who accounted for nine turnovers in 1984 and Reggie Rogers, who has been moved from outside linebacker to defensive tackle.
Last year, defense carried the Huskies, who led the nation in forcing 51 turnovers (pass interceptions and fumbles lost). James says that his offense should be more productive this season, with more emphasis on passing, while not expecting the defense to measure up to 1984 standards. James is the dean of Pac-10 coaches and has guided the Huskies to six straight bowl appearances. But in the past three seasons he hasn’t won the big game that would put his team in the Rose Bowl, two losses to Washington State and last year’s setback to USC.
1984 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 4-3 in Pac-10
1984 CONFERENCE FINISH: Fifth
Martin Stadium, WSU’s home field, was decorated with Rose Bowl banners last Saturday for the Oregon game. But, after the 42-39 upset loss to the Ducks, the closest the Cougars may come to the Rose Bowl is a bowling alley by the same name in nearby Rosalia. Jim Walden does have a high-octane offense with quarterback Mark Rypien (he was 21 of 38 for 403 yards and four TDs against Oregon) and running backs Rueben Mayes and Kerry Porter, who was injured last season. No other Pac-10 team has ever started a season with two running backs who have already recorded 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Mayes also set an NCAA single-game rushing record of 357 yards last season. The receivers are first rate, too, but defense has betrayed WSU in the past and could detract from the offense this season.
ARIZONA 1984 RECORDS: 7-4 overall, 5-2 in Pac-10
1984 CONFERENCE FINISH: Third
The Wildcats are off NCAA probation for the first time in three years and eligible for a bowl game. Coach Larry Smith says that’s the biggest reason for his team’s upbeat attitude and, although USC and Washington are off the schedule, he says it’s a negative factor because his team can’t control its destiny. Smith returns scrambling quarterback Alfred Jenkins and home run receiver Jon Horton.
But he must rebuild both his offensive and defensive lines. Smith says you win championships with defense. Arizona was 11th nationally in total defense in 1984. Although the Wildcats are apparently more talented on offense, Smith expects to have a quick, big-play defense led by free safety Allen Durden, who led the conference with six interceptions last year. He also has a weapon to decide close games, a proven field goal kicker in Max Zendejas.
ARIZONA STATE 1984 RECORDS: 5-6 overall, 3-4 in Pac-10
1984 CONFERENCE FINISH: Sixth
The Sun Devils have always been regarded as abundantly talented but haven’t been able to perform with any consistency in recent years. Perhaps, a coaching change is what ASU needed. John Cooper has 17 returning starters, the most in the Pac-10. Quarterback Jeff Van Raaphorst threw 17 touchdown passes in the final six games in 1984 and there are proven runners in tailback Darryl Clack and fullback Mike Crawford. David Fulcher, an All-American safety as a junior, is now playing roverback. But Cooper is pessimistic, saying the team has only six seniors, not much depth and a lack of size and strength in both lines. Placekicker Luis Zendejas, who set an all-time NCAA scoring record with 368 points last year, must be replaced and Cooper said that the kicking game is awful now. His calculated pessimism aside, ASU could be the surprise team of the conference.
OREGON 1984 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 3-5 in Pac-10
1984 CONFERENCE FINISH: Seventh
It probably didn’t surprise Coach Rich Brooks that his team outscored Washington State. He knew he had a proficient offense, led by quarterback Chris Miller, who excels on the rollout and threw for 259 yards and three touchdowns against WSU. Brooks also has the most versatile player in the conference in flashy wide receiver Lew Barnes, who is likely to line up at at almost any position in the backfield. Tony Cherry, a stumpy (5-8, 184) tailback, gained 153 yards against the Cougars. Cherry is supported by other talented running backs--Alex Mack, Todd Bland and Kevin Willhite, one of the nation’s most highly recruited players three years ago, who is apparently sound now after struggling to get back in shape after a severe knee injury. Brooks apparently has a potent offense, but his defense is suspect with inexperience in the defensive line and a lack of depth in the secondary. As for Miller, Brooks said: “He is as good as anybody in the league and may be better than anybody in the league.”
OREGON STATE 1984 RECORDS: 2-9 overall, 1-7 in Pac-10
1984 CONFERENCE FINISH: Ninth
Dave Kragthorpe was BYU’s offensive coordinator for seven years, so he should know something about the passing game. He says that OSU will never match UCLA or USC in manpower, adding, “But with the passing game that doesn’t matter.” Kragthorpe says that his team will pass eight of 10 times on first down and as many as five receivers (including all-Pac-10 flanker Reggie Bynum) will be out on patterns. “When you have five out there, I guarantee you that one will be open,” he said. But who throws to them? Steve Steenwyk, last year’s starter, is academically ineligible, so two redshirt freshmen, Erik Wilhelm and Shaun Shahan, are battling for the starting job. Shahan has the unusual ability to pass with either arm. It’s doubtful that Kragthorpe can do any worse than his predecessor, Joe Avezzano, who was 6-47-2 in his five coaching seasons. So why not pass and have some fun?
1984 RECORDS: 5-6 overall, 3-5 in Pac-10
1984 CONFERENCE FINISH: Eighth
Jack Elway is probably another year away from assembling a team that will make a run for the conference championship. The second-year coach, who brought a measure of respectability to the program last year, must rebuild the offensive and defensive lines and can rely on only nine seniors. Moreover, he has already lost one of his line prospects, guard Kevin Payne, who had knee surgery recently and is out for the season. But, in Stanford tradition, he does have a capable passing quarterback in John Paye, who was hampered by an injury to his throwing hand last season. He also has a talented fullback in Brad Muster, who rushed for 823 yards and caught 31 passes last season. “We’re going to be a young, young team. That’s our theme this year,” Elway said.
CALIFORNIA 1984 RECORDS: 2-9 overall, 1-8 in Pac-10
1984 CONFERENCE FINISH: Tenth
Coach Joe Kapp says: “The strength of our football team is its character.” That’s nice, but character alone doesn’t win football games. Talent helps. Still, the Bears looked surprisingly strong offensively while running over San Jose State, 48-21, in last Saturday’s opening game. Cal accumulated 303 yards rushing, the highest total since 1978, even though San Jose is a long way from being a defensive power. But it was a good omen for Kapp’s program, which has steadily declined--7-4 in 1982, 5-5-1 in 1983 and 2-9 in 1984. Ed Barbero, Dwight Garner and highly touted freshman Marc Hicks provide a lift to the running game, while Kapp will alternate two quarterbacks with contrasting styles, Kevin Brown and Brian Bedford.