When you look at the standings early in the college football season there are a few teams that stand out as real surprises. Near the top of that list are two squads from the Pac-12.
UCLA and Arizona have a lot in common. For years both programs have underachieved and failed to deliver on promise and expectations. Both teams have made coaching changes, and both of those changes signify a dramatic change in direction for the program. Both teams were expected to go through some growing pains this year because of those changes. So far, though, both teams have run out of the gate and are looking more effective and competent than they have in years.
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Most strikingly, both have big wins against ranked teams at home. UCLA hosted and beat Nebraska in a game that wasn’t as close as the 36-30 score suggests. Arizona, which should have been in the worse shape of the two teams, was even more impressive as they dismantled Oklahoma State, 59-38.
Both teams have unquestionably been impressive. Whenever a team gets off to an unexpectedly strong start, though, my head starts to ache a little. As a bettor the challenge becomes to figure out how they are doing it, whether they can keep doing it, how the public is responding to the start, and what it all means for your search for value.
It’s all a big complication, though a complication that is worth the time to consider because it has the chance to be profitable.
Let’s take a look at these two programs to see how we should be dealing with them going forward:
As a big Michigan fan I have all sorts of emotions about the success Rich Rodriguez has enjoyed so far. His first year with the Wolverines was a humiliating disaster — he lost to freaking Toledo at home! He wasn’t left with a lot of talent when he took over at Michigan, but it seemed like he had even less talent in Tucson. He shouldn’t be doing this well.
The difference here is that while he doesn’t have a lot of talent he has some of the right talent. Most significantly, he has a quarterback who is able to handle the complex system he favors. In that sense the start to that season reminds me of the second season at Michigan. In that year, 2009, freshman Tate Forcier stepped up as an ideal Rodriguez disciple, and the team leaped out to a 4-0 start, including a win over then 18th-ranked Notre Dame.
The problem that year, though, was that eventually opponents caught up to what he was doing and deficiencies on both sides of the ball. After winning their first four the team finished at 5-7. I’m not saying that Arizona will fade that badly this year, but they certainly could. A 3-0 record is all but guaranteed thanks to South Carolina State next week.
After that, though, things get brutal.
They get Oregon, Stanford and UCLA on the road, and have to host surprising Oregon State, Washington, UCLA and Arizona State. It’s very difficult to imagine this team maintaining its hot start — regardless of how good the Wildcats looked against Oklahoma State.
Frankly, I’m not entirely convinced that they can become bowl eligible.
Unfortunately, their fourth game comes against Oregon. Unless the Ducks shock the world by losing to Tennessee Tech this week they will go into their game against Arizona viewed as one of the truly elite teams in the country. Public bettors won’t really care about Arizona’s big start because they will be blinded by Oregon’s greatness. A weaker initial Pac-12 opponent would have made it much more likely that there would have been value in betting against Arizona because of excess public excitement.
There is one reason to be optimistic through all that, though.
The biggest issue Rodriguez had at Michigan was endless incompetence on defense. When his teams didn’t have the ball they were relentlessly lousy. His biggest mistake was made before he had coached a game — he didn’t convince defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel to come with him from West Virginia. Casteel is the master of the quirky 3-3-5 scheme. When Casteel runs he scheme it can be devastating. Rodriguez tried to run it with defensive coordinators who didn’t understand it, though, and it was a disaster.
Rodriguez made sure that Casteel would come to Tucson before he took the job, so the team won’t be let down defensively as much as Rodriguez was in the past. It’s probably not enough to get them over the top, but it gives them a much better chance.
The Bruins’ success is coming on the backs of two players. Senior running back Johnathan Franklin was no slouch coming into the season — he had run for more than 2,100 yards over the last two years. Under new coach Jim Mora, though, his game is on a whole new level. He rushed for 214 yards against Rice in the opener, and topped that with 217 yards against Nebraska. He’s a beast, and he’s getting Heisman buzz with his start.
Even more impressive, though, has been freshman QB Brett Hundley. UCLA’s QBs have regularly been long on potential and short on performance recently. Hundley has played extremely well so far, though. Against Nebraska he threw for 305 yards and four touchdowns without an interception. His passing success has made Franklin’s job easier, and so on.
Hundley’s performance has been even more impressive than the numbers, really. He has thrown a whole lot of swing passes this year that have gone slightly backwards. Franklin has been the biggest target, and he has been deadly with those passes. Because the initial pass is backwards, though, they count as rushing yards and not passing yards.
What is most shocking about the offensive success of this team — and make no mistake that it is the offense that is making this thing work — is who is behind it.
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone came from Arizona State. There, and in five other stops as a college OC, Mazzone earned a reputation as a spread specialist. What he is running here is something quite different from that. Instead, it’s a system designed to complement the players in the system. That’s a relatively unique situation this early in a new regime — typically coaches try to make the players fit their system early on.
The biggest knock against Jim Mora when he was hired was his total lack of college experience. Up to this point that hasn’t been an issue. Conference play is a totally different animal, though, and it remains to be seen if his lack of knowledge could be an issue later on.
The big advantage he has, though, is a softer schedule. He avoids Oregon, puts off USC to the second last week of the season, and the schedule is set up so that the team could be bowl-eligible well before Halloween.
That schedule, plus the better depth the team has, makes it much easier to believe in this team than Arizona this year.
I still don’t think they are a threat to the top teams in the conference, but eight or nine wins could certainly happen. Heck, if things go right for them then 10 wins isn’t out of the question. Even better, those 10 wins could come in their first 10 games. In the somewhat unlikely event that that happens the L.A. showdown with USC would be truly fascinating from a betting perspective.
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