According to the calendar, the 2003 Pac-10 football season begins August 23, when cal meets Kansas State at the BCA Football Classic in Kansas City. But those of us who follow the Pac-10 know better. This season is actually well underway, even though the first kickoff isn't for another 73 days. Not that I'm counting or anything…
The season began when the final gun sounded on U$C's demolition of the Iowa Hawkeyes at the Orange Bowl on January 2. For the teams that stayed home during the bowl season, it started even before that. For Stanford, the 2003 season began the exact moment that Weenie fans decided they couldn't wait eleven more seconds to celebrate cal's first Big Game win since the Truman administration.
As the clocks ran out on seasons up and down the conference, players and coaches throughout the Pac-10 immediately began setting their sights on getting ready for the next set of autumn Saturdays. More often than not, what teams do to improve during the winter, spring, and summer is a huge determining factor in their fortunes during the fall.
Stanford has spent the bulk of its offseason working on the offense. Arizona State has spent most of its time trying to shore up their offensive line. With virtually his entire defense gone, Jeff Tedford has been trying to find some capable defenders. John Mackovic has been busy cleaning up the mess that was the 2002 season, working five new coaches into his staff, and trying to find ways to somehow convince recruits to come to Tucson despite the horrible stories of what went on in that program last year.
But the position with the biggest room for improvement throughout the Pac-10 just happens to be the conference's most important position: quarterback. Bill Doba, Mike Riley, Dirk Koetter, and Rick "Who, Me?" Neuheisel shouldn't lose too much sleep over their respective quarterback situations, but every other Pac-10 head coach has probably spent more than a few nights tossing and turning while trying to get their signalcaller straightened out. Meanwhile, Matt Kegel, Derek Anderson, Andrew Walter, and Cody Pickett figure to put their teams ahead of the race, possible forcing everyone else to play catch-up out of the gate.
One of those teams will be the U$C Trojans. They're coming off their most magical season since the cool kids wore Jordache, but Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Norm Chow will need to pull a few tricks out of their sleeves to make a four-headed quarterback monster disappear. All spring long, Matt Leinart, Brandon Hance, Matt Cassel, and Billy Hart were bunched in a horse race down in South Central. No one separated himself from the rest of the pack. Leinart appears to have the slightest of edges over the others, but right now trying to pick U$C's best quarterback is like trying to pick the best Police Academy movie.
Defensively, the Trojans could be one of the best, even without Troy Polamalu. The defense could keep U$C in the race by themselves. But how long can they hold on if it becomes a merry-go-round situation at quarterback? If I'm Pete Carroll, I just take note of who gets the ball to Mike Williams the most and I make my decision from there.
In Tucson, there's only one way to go for the Wildcats, who have fallen on hard times since entering the 1999 season as a national title contender. But there are some things to like here. They have one of the Pac-10's most electrifying players in WR Andrae Thurman. Brandon Phillips and Chris Johnson could develop into one of the better offensive tackle tandems in the conference. The secondary, led by cornerbacks Michael Jolivette and Gary Love, can do some damage. Even though Nic Costa will probably be the opening-day starter, QB Ryan O'Hara put up arena football-like numbers in the spring game (10 of 11 for 187 yards and four TDs).
But for every step forward, the Wildcats may have also taken one step back. Explosive playmaker Bobby Wade is gone. If RB Clarence Farmer's disregard for team rules ends up costing him his Wildcat career, he will be sorely missed, and that could be a devastating blow to an offense in desperate need of some continuity. Last year's front seven couldn't stop the run if it had air brakes; this year's group is even younger and more inexperienced. And it obviously may take years for the program to recover from the attempted coup on John Mackovic. So while the Wildcats may be improved in some positions, their failure to upgrade the areas that probably needed it most might mean another brutal fall in Tucson.
As for the team that made the biggest strides since last fall, my vote goes to Oregon State. With QB Derek Anderson, RB Steven Jackson, and WR James Newson all returning, and MLB Richard Siegler poised to become the Pac-10's premiere defender, the Beavers will benefit greatly from addition by retention.
But perhaps most importantly, the Beavers will also benefit from addition by, well, addition. Mike Riley, the original architect of the Beavers' resurrection, is back in Corvallis. While Dennis Erickson gets the credit for building OSU football, it was Riley who drew up the blueprint and did the foundation work. Riley still needs to find a couple of cornerbacks, but his team's laundry list of potential pitfalls isn't as long as everyone else in the Pac-10's is. His return, coupled with the improved morale inside and outside the program, means the Beavers figure to be an integral part of the Pac-10 race this fall.
In 1980, Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan asked voters, "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" At the end of every summer, football coaches have to look at all their attempts to try to improve their teams and ask themselves, "Is my program better off today than it was eight months ago?" Although all coaches hope the answer is yes, the real answers for all Pac-10 teams will reveal themselves during the fall.
RANDOM PAC-10 THOUGHTS
He's a great recruiter, and he's one of the profession's genuine good guys. He took the conference's most remote school to the Rose Bowl twice. He has dedicated his entire professional life to coaching football. Yet Mike Price won't be remembered for any of those things. I can't believe that one night of complete indiscretion totally undid his career…
How far can schools, programs, and fans go in trying to legislate the behavior of the coach? I'm probably taking this to its illogical conclusion, but is it going to reach a point where a coach has to think twice about, say, ordering a glass of wine with dinner?
I'd like someone to convince me that what Mike Price did was somehow worse than what John Mackovic did…
I'm telling you right now: Derek Anderson is the next Ryan Leaf. And I mean that as a compliment. Remember what a great college quarterback Leaf was?
Turf at Memorial Stadium? While cal is making unnecessary adjustments to the place, why not just slap a dome on it, too?
Given the Pac-10's quarterback shortage and what it could mean for the conference's product on the field this fall, I'm bracing myself for all the college football pundits to gleefully go out of their way to crack the conference every chance they get…
Not a Pac-10 thought, but I can't wait to see what kind of ways Bill Callahan comes up to get Teyo Johnson the ball…
Can September 6 get here soon? Please?
Troy Clardy hosts Stanford football postgame call-in shows, as well as Stanford football road pregame shows, Stanford basketball pregame shows, the Buddy Teevens Show, the Mike Montgomery Show, and the Stanford Profile on Stanford radio network flagship station KNBR 1050 in San Francisco.
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