Monson: Utah football will dominate the Pac-12 or not in 2013
One thing Friday's Pac-12 media day did was fire up a whole lot of people for college football, regardless of where their team finished a season ago or where their team is predicted to finish this time around. By the last week of July, yesterday's losses had faded and tomorrow's wins were vibrant.
Part of this optimism was provided by the league's coaches, so eager to move forward, the big winners toward continued success, the middle-of-the-packers toward increased success, the losers toward any success.
Utah's Kyle Whittingham was one of the more efficient presenters, doling out information to reporters as though they were players in his team room. Concise. Direct. Honest. He said last year's 5-7 season, 3-6 in league, "ticks you off. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It's motivation."
He added that the Utes being picked by the media to finish fifth in the Pac-12 South was of little significance to him and his team. "It means nothing," he said. "It's something we don't pay any attention to. The players glance at it and put it aside."
More from Whittingham in a minute. First, a few observations from and about other Pac-12 coaches:
Stanford's David Shaw was articulate and smooth, half answering questions, half selling the merits of his program. When asked, off subject a bit, whether athletes should be given additional money for playing college football, he showed empathy for the needs of student-athletes, but reminded everybody that, at Stanford, those student-athletes already were getting a $58,000-a-year education.
Mike Leach reacted to questions about his old statements regarding last year's Wazzu team being a bunch of zombies and corpses. He said those zombies and corpses had a great offseason. He also talked about his upcoming book and said that everybody should buy it.
Sonny Dykes, the new coach at Cal, said the pomp and circumstance surrounding the Pac-12 was a lot different than what he experienced at La. Tech in the WAC. He said the Bears would take their offense up-tempo, that doing so was not unsafe for players, and that Cal, coming off a woeful 3-9 season, 2-7 in league, was going to "surprise some people."
Washington's Steve Sarkisian, also known as Seven-Win Steve, said his team is looking forward to better performances, better fortune and, at last, more wins. He's gone 7-6 the past three seasons, which is an improvement over his first year (5-7).
Mark Helfrich sounded and looked like a man comfortable enough to have been stretching out on his Barcalounger. Despite being a new head coach at Oregon, he knows he's got the fastest car on the track, a car he helped build and tune as the Ducks' offensive crew chief the past four seasons. "It's an honor to follow in Chip Kelly's footsteps," he said. It's even more of an honor when you've got De'Anthony Thomas, who rolled for 1,757 all-purpose yards in 2012 and Marcus Mariota, an All-Pac-12 quarterback who broke the league's freshman record for touchdown passes with 32.
Lane Kiffin's Q-and-A session lasted longer than anyone else's. No big surprise. USC underachieved badly last season with a 7-6 record, 5-4 in the South, and, despite Trojan AD Pat Haden saying Kiffin's job is safe, nobody believes that. The coach has to come up with a new starting quarterback and overall consistency that last year's team lacked. Kiffin talked about the bevy of four-star recruits SC is bringing in this season and he admitted his team needs them.
Of all the coaches, though, Whttingham burned from Point A to Point Z with the most candor and clarity. He said Utah's top three biggest failings from a year ago were "the throw game, red-zone defense and lack of takeaways." He talked about Travis Wilson and how desperate the Utes are for continuity at quarterback, something they haven't had over the past four seasons. He also addressed how much quality recruiting has picked up since Utah joined the Pac-12, saying that many up to three-fourths of the athletes the program has recently attracted wouldn't have come otherwise.
Utah's in deep need, having lost so many players from last year's team.
"[We] can't wait to get back at it after the obvious disappointment of last season, not getting to a bowl game," Whittingham said. "It gave us a lot of time to reflect in the offseason. â¦ Offensively, we didn't throw the ball near well enough. That's the primary reason we brought Dennis [Erickson] in to jump-start the offense, the throw game in particular.
"Defensively, we've got some things to correct. Red-zone defense was awful compared to what we're used to. Didn't take the ball away nearly enough. Those are the two biggest areas that led to a very average year on defense. â¦ We've got some things to work on, without a doubt."
Two bits of buoyancy for the Utes, Whittingham said, are found where the rough stuff happens: "We feel we are much improved on the offensive line, and we will once again be one of the best defensive lines in the conference."
Take, then, what you will from Pac-12 media day optimism, pessimism or realism. In the final week of July, winning or even losing sounds better than no football at all.
Gordon Monson hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.