Pac 12 football isn’t poised to win many achievement awards in 2018, yet five new coaches give the league a certain breath-mint freshness: curiously strong.
While I can’t see any of the new faces leading their respective schools to anything above the Las Vegas Bowl, the infusion of new thoughts and ideas should continue to make the Pac 12 much more interesting than the Sun Belt.
Here’s my look at the Fab Five in order of O and X appeal:
5: Jonathan Smith (Oregon State)
I love watching kids grow up and I still remember wanting to pat Smith on the head when he played quarterback for Dennis Erickson. He was so cute.
Smith still looks more like a claims adjuster than a D-1 coach, but also hear this: No player in the history of Corvallis State better embodied the eager-Beaver ethic of hard work and over-achievement. I bet most people forget that it was Smith, not later prototype QB Derek Anderson, who led Oregon State through the glorious 2000-season campaign.
Smith brilliantly spaghetti-armed his team to an 11-1 finish, final ranking of No 4 capped by a 41-9 win over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.
Smith wasn’t just along for the ride: in the win over the Irish, he completed 16 of 24 passes for 305 yards and three touchdowns and then sat out the fourth quarter.
What Oregon State needed most after its last two coaches (Mike Riley and Gary Andersen) walked off, was a former walk-on who understand the school, and the conference, to the core.
Smith, who comes to Oregon State after mentoring as OC under Chris Petersen at Washington, may be this season’s most harmonious hire.
That said, Oregon State isn’t leaving the basement anytime soon.
“Building is tough,” Smith said at Pac 12 Media Day. “…But it’s been down before. We can do it again.”[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
4: Mario Cristobal (Oregon)
I am not normally a huge fan of letting the players pick the head coach, but the Ducks who rallied around Cristobal got it right.
Cristobal wasn’t just a prop-up, appeasement pick after Willie Taggart so rudely departed for Florida State.
Cristobal, already on staff, has the chops to lead Oregon on a secret, sneak-attack raid in the Pac North. He bombed out (surprisingly) as head coach at Florida International but I like his chances in Eugene.
Cristobal has Miami pedigree and also mentored at Alabama under Nick Saban.
“I think when you have an opportunity to be part of that culture and organization, you learn the ins and outs of everything,” Cristobal said.
The combination of Cristobal, quarterback Justin Herbert, defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, a pitiful nonconference schedule (Bowling Green, Portland State, San Jose State) and home games against Stanford, Washington and UCLA could get Oregon to nine or 10 wins.
3: Kevin Sumlin (Arizona)
Arizona should get an environmental award for cleaning up in the aftermath of toxic spill “Exxon Rodriguez.”
It’s hard to imagine getting a better plug-in after the fiasco firing of Rich Rod, but Arizona got extremely lucky in being able to take advantage of Texas A&M’s knee-jerk firing of Sumlin.
The Wildcats picked up a coach and master recruiter who owns one of this decade’s few wins over Alabama. Arizona gets to pair the guy who coached quarterback Johnny Manziel to the Heisman with quarterback Khalil Tate, one of this year’s front-runners.
2: Herm Edwards (Arizona State)
Hands down the strangest hire of the bunch.
Edwards hasn’t coached in nine years but has breathed an almost evangelical fanaticism into a program that has “Devil” in its nickname.
Put a fork in them?
Hearing Edwards at Pac 12 Media Day was like listening to Elmer Gantry or Tammy Faye Baker.
“We are all keepers of this great game called football,” Edwards preached.
“What is your purpose in life?” he said at another point.
You PLAY to win the press conference!
Ray Anderson, ASU’s athletic director, is a former NFL agent who represented Edwards and obviously believes in his client.
Gee, what could go wrong?
Anderson and Edwards are bringing an NFL model of organization to the college game and will be lauded as geniuses if they pull this off.
There’s a better chance this will be a colossal flop along the lines of Lovie Smith at Illinois. Watching Edwards go through this, though, will be must-see TV.
And maybe that’s worth the risk?
1: Chip Kelly (UCLA)
The (media) honeymoon in is over. Kelly, who wooed the press with his wit and charm at Pac 12 media day, left the event and immediately shut down fall practice, reduced his own interview access and made the Los Angeles Times grovel for warmed-over quotes for a mostly-positive three-part series on his life and career.
Kelly has never suffered fools gladly, is not about to suffer them now and actually took the UCLA job to help keep his private life private.
None of that matters if he, the most important football hire in school history, delivers with the goods.
Kelly can’t win big this year, not with this team and a tough schedule, but he’ll be expected to show glimpses of what’s to come.
Is he the genius who put Oregon’s offense on the cutting edge, or just another washed-out NFL coach whose best ideas have since been stolen by others?
We can’t wait to find out.
“When I first came into this league there weren’t many spread offenses and we were the only team that had shiny helmets,” Kelly, hired as Oregon’s offensive coordinator in 2007, said. “And now everybody runs the spread offense and everybody has shiny helmets. I think the game itself has changed. So I think you have to change with it.”[/membership]