Monday Rewind: the Pac-12's big problem, Dan Lanning's defense, the next great CB, and Herbert's ascension
New year, new content. Welcome to the Monday Rewind. This space each week will be dedicated to running through the week that was in Pac-12 athletics, with the occasional national story thrown in if warranted. Enjoy.
The league’s rough postseason, and where it goes now
In 2014, Oregon made the College Football Playoff. Two years later, Washington made it. Results were what they were, but the league wasn’t left out. That was viewed as an important moment.
In the five years since the Huskies’ appearance, the Pac-12 has made zero appearances.
OK. The CFP has largely become an invitational and from 2017-2020 only seven teams made the four-team field. This year’s inclusion of Michigan and Cincinnati was championed as a win for parity and yet we have… an all-SEC title game.
The Pac-12 can’t be an afterthought in the CFP conversation, but crushing the conference for missing it over the last half-decade is a little too narrow a view.
Zoom out: the conference is 8-20 in bowl games over the last five seasons. That includes the 0-for-5 showing this postseason and the 0-for-2 showing in 2020. Only once during the last five years has the league had a winning postseason record during its CFP drought.
While there’s a whole heaping of context that should appropriately go with the last two years—COVID-19 concerns played a significant part in the calculus of just about every Pac-12 bowl game this winter—conferences are largely judged by head-to-head performances against their peers and the Pac-12 is coming up short.
Including bowl games, league teams lost 11 of their 14 out-of-conference games against Power Five competition this season. Over the last five years, the Pac-12 is 26-42 against the rest of the power conferences; that includes only one season in which league teams had a winning record against the rest of the power conferences, 2019 when it was 9-8.
Is it possible a 3-11 mark this year and an 0-2 showing in bowl games during 2020 is just a bump in the road and with the league’s top teams changing coaches things start to trend in the right direction again? Sure.
But there’s one glaring weakness when Pac-12 teams go up against others from the Power Five, and league commissioner George Kliavkoff nailed it squarely on the head when he spoke to The San Jose Mercury News’ Jon Wilner.
“I saw a lot of Pac-12 football in person, and I would put our skill-position players up against any in the country,’’ Kliavkoff told Wilner. “But we have a size disadvantage with our offensive and defensive lines. We need to recruit bigger, stronger, faster kids on the line of scrimmage …
“It’s not going to be an immediate turnaround. We’re in the valley, and there’s work to do to climb the hill.”
In 2017, Pac-12 programs signed 18 of the top 100 offensive tackles and guards coming out of high school (as rated by the 247 Composite, which will be the standard referenced here).
In 2018, Pac-12 programs signed 13.
In 2019, they signed 12.
In 2020 and 2021, they signed 11 each.
That’s 65 total out of 500 possible players ranging from a 5-star to, in some instances, players ranked in the 700s and 800s of their class. By comparison, the SEC signed 139 such recruits over that five-year period, or 28%.
Why is the SEC consistently dominant? Because it consistently dominates recruiting of the most important position groups on the field. The unfortunate reality for, really, three of the power conferences is the complexion of SEC offensive and defensive lines is noticeably different from everyone else.
Of course, being where all the top talent is helps, and there are plenty of studies out there that a majority of recruits stay in-state or attend a neighboring state, but the Pac-12 can’t just throw its proverbial hands in the air and say, “What are ya gonna do?” It has to make inroads.
To that end, the Pac-12’s overall health in the coming years might be pretty closely tied to how successful new-age, recruiting-focused coaches at USC and Oregon can be at building up their respective programs.
In terms of skill talent and quarterbacks, there’s plenty of talent to go around on the West Coast. If Lincoln Riley and Dan Lanning can recruit nationally, build dominant lines, and earn Playoff berths, the rest of the league’s members will have to either invest in their own programs or publicly acknowledge they aren’t interested in playing.
If Riley is successful at USC and if Lanning is able to course-correct from the Mario Cristobal era, the Pac-12 should have two nationally significant programs on either side of the conference. Utah proved on New Year’s Day it has staying power, and its brand is likely on the rise after that Rose Bowl performance. Washington is interesting in where it decides to go.
With cities like Pullman in the footprint and universities with the admissions standards of UCLA, maybe the Pac-12 is hard-pressed to become as top-to-bottom talented as others, but it has to be better than 3-11 against their likes.
And building up has to start with building from the front.
A performance that inspires lots and lots of excitement
Speaking of Lanning… If the new Ducks head coach can get his Oregon defense playing with even half the ferocity he gets his Georgia Bulldogs defense to play with, look out.
Xs and Os only get you so far, it’s the Jimmys and Joes that make plays that win you games and championships. Lanning has done a tremendous job cultivating the talent level on Georgia’s defense, and he has some players who are truly cerebral in how they see the game.
But let’s give the Dawg’s DC-pulling-double-duty some credit. Georgia led 27-3 at halftime of Friday’s Capital One Orange Bowl.
Those first 30 minutes featured just 4 yards per play by the Michigan offense (national average this season, for context: 5.8), only 29 rushing yards allowed, and two sacks.
Georgia was absolutely dominant on first down. Michigan averaged 3.1 yards per first-down play. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken drew plenty of praise for his offensive gameplan, but Lanning’s Bulldogs limited Michigan to a 19% success rate. Come on.
Michigan entered that game with an award-winning offensive line that had one of the lowest sack rates in the country and one of the lowest stuff rates in the country. And Georgia was in the backfield or re-establishing the line of scrimmage far more often than what the Wolverines had usually allowed.
Oregon has proven it can recruit. The Ducks’ brand is national. Regardless of what’s happening at quarterback, the Ducks are one of the “cool kids” and they’ll be able to attract talent from anywhere. With Lanning’s relationships in the southeast sector of the country and the ace-level cast of recruiters he’s brought on board as assistant coaches, there’s so much reason for optimism in Eugene.
The next Ute stud
Per PFF’s data, Clark Phillips III had the eighth-best coverage grade among Pac-12 corners this season. Among guys who saw at least 100 coverage snaps, he had the eighth-highest forced incompletion percentage.
Not elite numbers, but for a corner in just his second season, it’s a starting point that could signal a pretty elite ceiling.
Phillips has 87 tackles, 15 pass breakups, and three interceptions through his first 19 games with the Utes.
Maybe even more impressive, is that for such a young player, he shows just a tremendously high level of attention to detail. The Rose Bowl performance he just put on is a DB teach tape that’ll get shown to high school players around the country.
He already was a star but now the nation is having their eyes opened to Clark Phillips III pic.twitter.com/O39z2gKF4Y
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) January 2, 2022
The coverage here, on its own, is worth highlighting.
But he had this play before it.
This is a Clark Phillips III highlight pic.twitter.com/wSKKLdNLv2
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) January 1, 2022
The wherewithal to grab at the receiver’s off hand to keep him from being able to cover up the ball, and then punch the ball loose with his other hand… Phillips flashed the kind of effort every coach loves, the kind of athleticism everyone wants, and the level of football IQ scouts adore.
The young man is going to be a star.
Herbert continues to amaze
A brief list of Justin Herbert’s accomplishments so far in two seasons with the Chargers:
… He’s the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 30 touchdowns or more in his first two seasons.
… He has thrown for more passing yards through his first two seasons than any other quarterback in NFL history.
… And he has now set the Chargers’ franchise record for touchdown passes in a season.
The throw that did it:
— SportsGrid (@SportsGrid) January 2, 2022
I’ll keep this brief. Herbert is already a top-five quarterback in the National Football League. Change my mind.
Helmet sticker: Cam Rising
Just wanted to give a quick shoutout to the season Utah quarterback Cam Rising put together.
QBR leaders — Pac-12 QBs
1. Rising, Utah 84.2
2. DTR, UCLA 79.1
3. Nolan, ORST 70.9
4. Daniels, ASU 67.2
5. Brown, Oregon 66.7
6. McKee, Stanford 65.1
7. Garbers, Cal 64.6
8. de Laura, WSU 60.8
9. Slovis, USC 56.2
10. Morris, UW 51.8
11. Lewis, CU 43.0
12. Plummer, Arizona 39.5
— Saturday Out West (@satoutwest) January 3, 2022