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Pac-12 mailbag: Explaining media, McCaffrey and Oregon QBs

Welcome to the mailbag, which comes early this week.

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To the notes!

Jason writes: I read your blog response to the question about why Stanford has never been picked to win the Pac-12, despite winning it three out of the last four years. Your response was humorous. I enjoyed the read. I also think it’s a nice touch for you to remind fans that this stuff is not that big a deal. But unfortunately, I was disappointed to see you deflect the question. The poster asked a question that you should make a good faith attempt to answer, if not for the fan, but for yourself. Perhaps it would do you and the rest of the sports media well to consider why you so consistently can’t predict team success beyond the obvious e.g. anyone (except Colorado) vs. Oregon State.

I think Stanford probably benefits from having to earn respect every year, so I don’t think you’re actually doing them a disservice. I think the underdog usually has a psychological advantage. But I would be very interested to read a serious article that explores why you guys are so consistently bad at this.

Ted Miller: This is actually a fair and important question, but not why Jason thinks. So I will -- yikes -- take it seriously. For a moment.

The problem isn't the media. It's the public. The public's perception of the media is wrong.

Jason, your note suggests intelligence, yet here's the problem: Your premise is false. The media isn't consistently bad at this. The media has correctly predicted the Pac-8/10/12 winner in 29 of 55 media polls, including 12 of the past 16.

So, yeah, I was being self-deprecating for the media when we actually do our jobs pretty well.

As for being wrong about Stanford, two of the three times the Cardinal weren't picked, they shouldn't have been, including this year.

In 2012, Stanford was replacing Andrew Luck, the top pick in the NFL draft, as well as two All-Americans on its offensive line. There were some legitimate questions as to whether the Cardinal would be a long-term power, and Stanford was coming off consecutive blowout losses to Oregon.

Further, Oregon did finish ranked second in the nation in 2012, despite its shocking home loss to Stanford and a redshirt freshman quartebrack who'd only recently been elevated to starter, one who became known as Kevin Hogan.

Heading into this season, Stanford was rebuilding its defense after a disappointing 8-5 finish and its offense had been lackluster in 2014. Still, it was a strong second in the media poll with eight first-place votes in the North, so it wasn't as if reporters relegated the Cardinal to also-ran status.

In 2013, the North felt more like a tossup in the preseason, and Stanford was projected as a strong second in the division with 11 of 26 first-place votes (Oregon got 15). The predominant reason for picking the Ducks, who had 15 position-player starters back from the team that impressively won the Fiesta Bowl, was the perception that perhaps the home loss to Stanford had been a fluke -- not an unreasonable view but one which proved false, particularly when Marcus Mariota ended up playing with an injured knee and couldn't run.

As for Stanford prevailing three times when it wasn't picked to win the conference, good for the Cardinal. That they exceeded reasonable expectations is a tribute to the program's culture under coach David Shaw.

Keith from Teutopolis, Ill., writes: The "Oregon can't develop quarterbacks" narrative that is developing is really irritating me and I need you to set me straight one way or the other. Every article I read about the subject implies that a coach is capable of creating a good or great QB. Sure, Mark Helfrich had Mariota, but really he was Chip Kelly's recruit. So is Helfrich a failure as a QB talent evaluator/recruiter/developer? I remember people talking about Jeff Tedford, the QB guru. He had Akili Smith and Joey Harrington as Oregon's OC, then he had Aaron Rodgers at Cal. Then he didn't have any more elite QBs and all of a sudden he had lost his ability. Did Tedford really stop being a great QB coach or did he just happen to get a string of teenage kids who had natural talent that developed into great QBs, but never actually had the ability to create them merely through his own coaching ability? I'm not saying that the coach has no effect on the process. My point is that if a coach doesn't have a 100 percent success rate at identifying talent that will develop in the right way (and no coach does) then there will be times when a mediocre coach has a great talent and a great coach has a string of misses.

Ted Miller: First of all, Mariota was Helfrich's guy. He pretty much discovered him when Mariota was a junior backup QB at Saint Louis School in Honolulu. No one involved in Mariota's recruitment or on the Oregon staff says otherwise.

As noted last week, this is a false narrative. How many teams have a better track record of recruiting and developing QBs than Oregon? USC perhaps? As for needing talent, Oregon turned Jeremiah Masoli and Darron Thomas into good college quarterbacks, and neither ended up in the NFL.

Helfrich and Oregon have nothing to apologize for. If Vernon Adams had been healthy all year, the Ducks might have been national title contenders. If Oregon continues to be a top-10 team in the next decade, and every year it uses a graduate transfer QB, so what?

The Ducks would rather have a Mariota situation, of course, because it's typically better to have a multi-year starter. But what ultimately matters is getting efficient productive play behind center. If that's a high school recruit, great. If it's a transfer, that's fine too.

Corey from the Netherlands writes: I'm a little confused about the Heisman love for Christian McCaffrey. He is no doubt a great player and would be likely to start for just about every team but breaking the all-purpose yards record does not impress me much. Breaking that record has far more to do with the fact that Stanford did not have other capable return men, Stanford played more two more games, had a dominant offensive line, and a lack of diversity on offense. McCaffrey was consistently productive when he touched the ball but he was not noticeably better than the other top running backs. In fact, only one player in the top 10 for yards as a running back had a worse yards per carry average. Not only that, McCaffrey noticeably lacked production in terms of TDs this year. He touched the ball more than anyone this year and was not even in the top 20 for touchdowns. Great player, but being a Swiss Army knife does not make you the best player.

Ted Miller: I am not confused about the Heisman love for McCaffrey, who this week was named the Associated Press college football player of the year, becoming the first non-Heisman Trophy winner to earn the honor in six years.

What major fact did you leave out? McCaffrey's return yardage is incidental, but him leading his team in receiving as well as rushing is not.

Look, I know breaking a 27-year-old record is something that happens all the time (not really), but I'm going to just go ahead and be impressed, particularly when you consider the brutal schedule McCaffrey played against.

Lucas writes: Washington State fans are pretty used to hearing the age-old mantra that Pullman is harder than most other big markets to succeed in, specifically to recruit to. It seems as though the Cougars have been relegated to the "win in far-apart cycles with diamond-in-the-rough players other schools pass on who we work hard to develop" philosophy. I've always felt that this was a bit of a misnomer and that with the right system/coach the small-town charm and tight-knit community would overcome any historical recruiting challenges. It seems lately that Mike Leach and company are putting together some really impressive recruiting classes and, as this season seems to demonstrate, coaching those players to a high level. Are we about to bust the "Pullman is harder to succeed in consistently" myth?

Ted Miller: Lucas, I like your positive attitude, but geography works against Washington State in recruiting. It's the most difficult school in the Pac-12 to access, and you could argue it's among the most remote Power 5 programs.

As far as selling the "small-town charm and tight-knit community," that certainly works for some recruits -- just not a lot of the four- and five-star guys who are seeking the spotlight as they imagine their three years and then on to the NFL transition.

That said, Washington State has won before and there's no reason it can't win again, as it showed everyone this year. There are a lot of Pac-12 programs that can't say, "We've been to two Rose Bowls since 1997 and finished ranked in the nation's top 10 three consecutive seasons within the past 15 years.:

I would also caution about wishing for Washington State to aspire to be a recruiting power. (How many Cougars fans know where I am going with this?)

The Cougs' one foray into highly-ranked recruiting classes was 2004, when they were ranked third in the Pac-10 and 21st in the nation.

Randy Estes! Michael Bumpus! J.T. Diederichs!

Other than Jerome Harrison and Tyron Brackenridge, that class was a monumental bust, one that presaged the program's tumble into long-term struggles.

Nat from Portland writes: Should Oregon State fans, like myself, be concerned if Kalani Sitake heads to BYU? Seems like a fair amount of positive recruiting momentum is due to him.

Ted Miller: Well, first you should congratulate Sitake, who has a great opportunity to lead his alma mater through an uncertain time in Provo.

Sitake is a highly respected coach and recruiter, so no question this is a big loss for Gary Andersen and Oregon State. But it shows you that Andersen made a good initial hire on defense.

Thers's no reason Andersen can't find another good guy to lead his defense.

Also, keep in mind that Andersen's coaching roots are on defense -- he was a coordinator under Utah coach Kyle Whittingham -- so ultimately the Beavers' defense likely will reflect his schematic preferences.