Mailbag: Buying UA in a bear-down market

Happy Friday. The mailbag is a bit longer this week because your questions are just so darn compelling. So snuggle up to the fireplace with your laptop, iPad or Kindle, put on a pot of chamomile (that's what the Pac-12 blog readers drink, right?) and settle in.

As always, follow the blog on Twitter.

Kote in Palo Alto writes (and writes, and writes, and writes): Hi Kevin, First off, I'm thrilled about Stanford football over the past four years. I don't think any Stanford fan isn't, and if they are, they're wrong to be. That said, I am concerned about the coaching staff's alleged conservatism, but it's not the general concern that most people have cited. Instead, I'm specifically concerned about conservatism in situations that call for more spontaneity. The Rose Bowl was a great example of what I mean. Stanford jumped out to a 14-0 lead on some terrific play-calling: the pitch to Terrell who tossed it to JRP, Hogan airing it out to Ertz, and the sweep to Young. Those were great plays, but they were ones that Shaw and Hamilton probably drew up and planned out weeks before. After those first two series, the playcalling got much more conservative, and we never saw the end zone again. Then I thought about the rest of this past year, and particularly Stanford's losses. In both cases, we had a lead, and in both cases the other team came from behind to win it. We can blame Josh Nunes and an anemic offense all we want, but it seemed like things got pretty uncreative at the ends of those games (just think about ND's goal line "stand"). For whatever reason, once Stanford gets beyond the initial game plan, things seem to tighten up a bit, and the result is less scoring. The defense also stops worrying about the long ball or the trick play as well, and that makes the vintage pound-it-up-the-middle strategy less effective, too. This was true in some other games as well -- we didn't score in the second half at all against Cal, and only 3 points in the second half against SJSU. That might be selection bias, but it seemed like a lot of the time this year the offense built a lead at the beginning of the game, and we either clung on for dear life or kicked a last minute field goal or two to get the win or pad the margin. Is it possible that Shaw and his staff are good at drawing up creative plays before the game starts, but that they need to work on the confidence/grit/toughness/whatever to call gutsy plays off the cuff?

Kevin Gemmell: Let’s check the scoreboard:

Pac-12 coach of the year honors for David Shaw: 2

Pac-12 coach of the year honors for Kote from Palo Alto: 0

I poke fun in jest. But hopefully the sentiment is well taken. David Shaw is not an exciting play-caller, nor are the Cardinal built to be the greatest show on turf. He’s a very traditional West Coast offense-minded coach who plays to his strength: strong running backs and a strong offense line. Isn't that what good coaches do? Play to strengths?

That doesn’t mean he can’t mix it up with a fun play every so often. But he’s extremely calculating. Don’t think for a second that someone on their staff hasn’t sabremetricized Stanford’s success/failure ratio on certain plays in certain situations. You cite the Notre Dame game. With that offensive line and that running back, I’d go up the middle four times too. Because the odds of Stanford failing to go four yards on four plays have to be extremely long. (And depending who you ask, they did go 4 yards.)

Allow me to offer an example of gutsy play-calling. Down 23-21 with a little more than five minutes left in the game, Stanford was at the Oregon State 13-yard line. The play-calling brain trust dialed up a post route to Zach Ertz – knowing that he was going to draw man-to-man coverage from Jordan Poyer, arguably the best cover-corner in the league last year with a league high six interceptions. Ertz beat Poyer with a head fake to the corner and caught the 13-yard pass, leading to Stanford’s 27-23 victory. This wasn’t a trick or flashy play – but given the circumstances and the defender, it was a gutsy call. It was taking a chance. It just doesn't meet your definition of "gutsy."

And there is a purpose to those vintage “drive it up the middle” plays. It’s demoralizing to a defense when they get dragged up and down the field. Stanford’s approach last year was to get an early lead, and then grind teams down with long drives. It is a proven formula as old as football itself.

Shaw isn’t totally against trickery, either. We’ve seen a couple of flea flickers. The Wildcat reverse of Andrew Luck to Ty Montgomery against USC in 2011 comes to mind, as does Luck’s one-handed catch. But every risk Shaw takes offensively is extremely calculated and measured.

I appreciate where you are coming from. But the sooner you understand that Mike Martz isn't running the offense and start embracing the smashmouth culture your team has adopted, you'll be able to enjoy their success that much more.

Jeff in Portland writes: Love these Buy/Sell pieces, but I'm really wondering where all the love for Arizona is coming from. I get that they have a lot of pieces coming back (better defense, solid receivers and of course, Ka'Deem Carey) but replacing the starting quarterback is a huge concern, especially in a Rich Rod offense, where everything starts at that position. Carey is going to get ALL of the attention to start the season and if whomever starts at QB isn't playing at a high level early on, I see the offense struggling. I know first-year QB's had success this past season, but thinking that B.J. Denker or Jesse Scroggins can even come close to replicating what Hundley or Mariota did is a little much in my opinion. By the end of the year, the 'Cats could be rolling, but I see their chances in South as slim to none.

Kevin Gemmell: So you’re saying there’s a chance?

Thanks, Jeff. The series has been a lot of fun to do and I’m glad we came up with yet another way to keep you all arguing during the offseason. But keep in mind the spirit of the series. It’s not who will win, but who is capable of winning.

I think the Wildcats are fourth in the pecking order of teams that could win the South. ASU and UCLA are neck-and-neck and USC isn’t too far behind them (see my South stock portfolio below). What gives me reason to think that Arizona could win the South is (1) Ka’Deem Carey. With the nation’s reigning leading rusher in your backfield, you have a chance to move the ball and put up points. And (2) a lot of wide receivers are back – including a Biletnikoff semifinalist in Austin Hill. He was a bit overshadowed last year by the likes of Marqise Lee, Robert Woods and Markus Wheaton. But make no mistake – he’s a very dangerous target. As are some of his supporting receivers like Tyler Slavin, Terrence Miller and Johnny Jackson. And let's not forget Carey also caught 36 balls last year. I’m not going to say it really doesn’t matter who is in at quarterback – because that’s just silly – but the offense lends itself quarterback success, and outstanding receivers help. And because of the offense they run, I don't see Carey facing a lot of eight-man fronts.

And then there’s the defense. I talked with Rich Rodriguez about this earlier in the week and that the entire starting lineup returns. Don’t underestimate how huge that is – especially in Year 2 of a scheme like the 3-3-5. There will be a better overall understanding of the defense. Less thinking equals quicker reaction. But as Rodriguez told me, it doesn’t matter how many guys are coming back. If they play the way they did last year, it won’t matter. But I think they’ll be much improved from last season.

All of that was enough for me to warrant a buy rating on the chance that Arizona could win the South.

Uh oh Chongo in Danger Island writes: What are your thoughts on A) Pac-12 injury reporting standards B) Pac-12 disciplinary standards. Sefarin-Jenkins recent DUI arrest comes to mind - UW's student-athlete policy is that with a misdemeanor charge, he can return to the team at Sarkisian's request. Seems each school handles it differently. What are your thoughts about the conference weighing in with some uniformity?

Kevin Gemmell: When it comes to injury reports, I’m a fan of uniformity. I think an NFL-style injury report would actually be beneficial to the coaches and the fans. Coaches can get it out of the way on Monday and don’t have to address it again until Friday. That would cut down on the daily questions and updates from reporters.

It would also eliminate pesky situations like the one Lane Kiffin ran into last year when he jogged away from a post-practice news conference after getting an injury question. If an injury report were in place, he could just say “please refer to the injury report.” He wouldn't have to answer another mid-week injury question for the rest of his career. And more importantly, fans would get answers to the questions about the upcoming game -- which they don't get when a coach walks away from reporters. Coaches don’t like getting the injury questions and reporters typically take no joy in asking them. It’s win-win.

Discipline is a different story. I don’t think a coach should be told how to discipline his team. Every coach is different. Every team is different. Every situation is different. So long as common sense prevails – and all of the coaches in this league seem to be blessed with common sense – I don’t think the league should have the right to step in and order a mandate for how a player should be reprimanded. However, if the school asks the league for assistance, or to run an independent investigation, that's another story.

Part of being a college coach is teaching boys to become men. The coaches in this league seem to be very good at that. Don’t take that away from them.

Warren Buffet at the New York Stock Exchange writes: Kevin, after my great success as an investor, I couldn't help but notice you and Ted making recommendations on the Pac-12 South Division market. What sort of portfolio do you recommend for a typical investor like me? 90% on one favorite and the rest split between the other 5? 20% split between the 5 contenders (I am aware there are 6 teams)? What does your portfolio look like, and how much risk are you taking on?

Kevin Gemmell: I'll be straight with you, Dub-B. You might be better off taking investment tips from these guys. "Looking good, Billy Ray! Feeling good, Lewis!"

But I would have a diversified portfolio when looking at the South. Someone like you has enough cheddar to buy a few shares in Colorado or Utah with the hope of a long return. We bloggers, however, have to be more frugal. Times are tight. Poor Ted had to buy a new martini shaker and could only afford one that was diamond studded -- not diamond encrusted. Sad.

My South portfolio looks like this. 32 percent in ASU, 30 percent in UCLA, 25 percent in USC and 13 in Arizona. But, like a true day trader, I'm closely monitoring all aspects and the numbers change in my mind frequently.

Ryan in New York writes: Kevin, Mora too low? He's had exactly one season as a head coach. Rich Rod has actually won a BCS game as a head coach and from a BCS conference. Whittingham beat Saban in a BCS game too. Graham has had success at multiple levels too. Now Mazzone -- who like Franklin at Cal was a failure as a pro-style OC, but has found success with the gimmicky no-huddle spread -- is a good coach, but Spanos as one of the best DCs in the conference? Come on. Any coach that had 9 juniors or seniors starting would look pretty good too. Given last year's epic failure, Kiffin has to earn his way back up the ladder. Your love affair with Mora and ucla is interesting to me. How are they going to be with a far more challenging schedule? How are they going to cope with the loss of six or seven 22-and-23 year-olds like Jones, Franklin, Fauria, Hester, Sheldon, Holmes and Baca? These are men, not boys. How's field position going to be without the nation's best punter? And finally, how about virtually no injuries last fall, and playing ASU sans Sutton, and catching Zona the week after SC and Matt Scott with a concussion? Inquiring minds want to know. Peace out.

Kevin Gemmell: Ryan is a mailbag regular and he usually sends me a mixed bag of questions and comments. They always seem complimentary when I write about USC and negative when I write about UCLA. Hmmmm.

I like Ryan. And I also understand that nothing breeds debate and homerism like a list. I still get mad when I look at VH1's Top 100 songs of the '90s and don't see "Mr. Jones" in the top 10. Grrrr. Can't argue with their No. 1 -- but Nos. 2-10 are garbage.

Let's be clear. Mora has had more than one season as a head coach. Remind me, which other Pac-12 coach gotten a team to the NFC championship game? Mora has been a coach since 1984 -- so for the first point in your argument to be a lack of experience is ridiculous. He's been a college coach for exactly one year. And in that one year he beat all three of those coaches you mentioned and won a division. I'm not ready to crown him the best coach in the league. But he belongs in the top third.

Seems like he's a pretty darn good recruiter, too.

NFL experience doesn't always equal college success. I was covering the Mike Riley-led Chargers back in the day and as much as I like Riley as a person and coach, there were some long Sundays at the Q.

As for his coordinators. I'm just guessing here, but I'd say probably half of college football runs a spread -- so it's time to stop calling it gimmicky. Mazzone has improved teams pretty much everywhere he's gone. Guy can flat out coach.

And Spanos? The guy spends the bulk of his career coaching linebackers and learning the 3-4 under Dick LeBeau -- the grandfather of the zone blitz -- and you want to take shots at that guy's resume? They were a top 10 team in sacks last year after being subpar the year before with the same players. That's coaching and scheme.

It's not a love affair with UCLA. It's understanding that the Bruins have an outstanding coaching staff. And the players have bought into it.

Now, the issues you raise in the second half of the question are very legit. No doubt, UCLA has to find some new leaders -- something Mora and I talked about extensively during my trip there this week -- and they have to handle the pressures of a tougher schedule. At Stanford, at Oregon, at Nebraska, at USC. Those are all brutal games.

Brett Hundley and Anthony Barr are obviously the playmakers on either side of the ball. But other guys will have to step up. The question is whether this team is mature enough to take the next step. And as you can see from my portfolio prediction above, it's going to be close between them, ASU and USC.

So, coming full circle, yes, Jim Mora is a very good football coach, and based on his only body of work as a college coach, ranking him eighth among the coaches seems too low.