We're just a couple of weeks from the Pac-12's all-conference teams being announced. And with those comes the recognition of the league's offensive player of the year, the Pat Tillman defensive player of the year and the league's coach of the year. All awards are voted on by the league's coaches.
David Lombardi: Sure, the wounds of this past weekend’s loss to Oregon are still fresh, but let’s maintain perspective here: Stanford still leads the Pac-12 North, so they remain in line for a conference championship even despite the Northwestern trainwreck that started their 2015 season.
Considering how badly things started, that’s an impressive feat, and much credit should go to David Shaw for the turnaround. In the past — particularly last year — Shaw’s biggest detractors have harped on his perceived inflexibility. They criticized Stanford for not using a changing yet still talented offensive arsenal to its maximum effectiveness. Since Shaw is so involved in the Cardinal’s attack, he took most of the blame when that unit struggled for much of 2014.
When Stanford managed only six points against the Wildcats to begin 2015, familiar criticism returned. But Shaw faced the adversity and made a statement: He orchestrated tweaks that transformed the Cardinal from an offense that couldn’t reach the end zone in its first game to the top unit in the Pac-12. Stanford now leads the league averaging 41.2 points per conference game.
Since Shaw absorbed blame for the Cardinal’s struggles, he should get credit for their success.
Stanford has struck an efficient balance between a powerful offense line, large tight ends and elite speed weapons. The Cardinal feature a stockpile of talent — which, by the way, Shaw helped recruit — and their staff has found the optimal way to put it all together. The head man deserves credit for that.
Stanford had an excellent game plan even in the loss to the Ducks. They won the yardage war and held the ball for more than 42 minutes — both carefully calculated goals. But two fumbled snaps and a deflected interception certainly aren’t Shaw’s fault. His overall performance has the Cardinal in position to grab the league title anyway, and that’s why he deserves to be the Pac-12 coach of the year.
Kyle Bonagura: As things sit, there is really only one choice: Mike Leach.
Washington State is the most improved team in the conference, both compared to last season (when it went 3-9) and early this season (when it lost to FCS Portland State). At 7-3, the Cougars jumped to No. 24 in the AP poll – their first time in the poll since 2006 – and have been the hottest team in the Pac-12 over the last six weeks.
There shouldn’t be much debate here. At least not now, but with two weeks left in the regular season things could obviously change.
The other two candidates worth mentioning are Utah’s Kyle Whittingham and USC’s Clay Helton. Whittingham has done an outstanding job making the Utes nationally relevant, and they could still play for the conference title. Should Utah win the South, then take down Stanford (or Oregon) in the Pac-12 title game, he has a case.
Same thing with Helton, who still hasn’t lost a Pac-12 game as the Trojans’ interim head coach (4-0). The job he’s done to save USC’s season after it could have imploded deserves heavy praise. Wins in their last two games (at Oregon, vs. UCLA) would give the Trojans the South title and the opportunity to play in their first Pac-12 title game.
Kevin Gemmell: I’m with Kyle on this one. Leach is my choice. And as of right now, I don’t see there being much debate, regardless of what happens for the rest of the season. To already have a seven-win season from where they were on Sept. 5 is outstanding. And to get a team to bounce back after a loss that was -- and let’s call it what it was – embarrassing, takes coaching.
And let’s look at those three losses – all by a possession. Not to play the "what if" game, but we're not far off from talking about a 9-1 or – gasp! – 10-0 Washington State team right now save a couple interceptions and a missed field-goal kick. You never want to rule anything out in the Pac-12, but I like their chances to reach an eighth win against a Colorado team that’s close, but not there yet. As for that ninth win? Well, it’s a rivalry game. And the 2012 Apple Cup should serve as a reminder of what can happen in a rivalry game.
Kyle mentioned the turnaround in their record. But here are a few numbers to consider. From 2014 to 2015, Washington State has increased its scoring average from 31.8 points per game to 35.2 and decreased points allowed from 38.6 to 29.8. And perhaps the most important stat driving the transformation – turnover margin – has gone from minus-17 to plus-2.
You can probably assign a lot of that defensive turnaround to new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. But shouldn’t Leach get credit for hiring the guy, also? Heck, even the offense's rushing numbers are up. The Cougars are still last in the league in yards per game because, well, it’s Mike Leach. But they’ve upped their yards per game from 39.8 to 77.9.
I’ve never loved the idea that the coach from the conference champion is defaulted as coach of the year. Washington State is not going to win the Pac-12, or even the North. But a tip of the cap to The Pirate is deserved for the complete transformation this team has undergone in the last year.