College Football Roundup: LA Teams Come to Town
To put it mildly, this is a huge weekend for college football in the Bay Area. Undefeated Cal, the biggest surprise team in the nation this year, hosts No. 5 ranked USC at Memorial Stadium. Across the Bay, a so-far-disappointing Stanford team (1-2) hosts another so-far-disappointing team, UCLA.
Why these two games—the two most important home games of the season for Stanford and Cal (other than perhaps the Big Game)—would take place on the same day is somewhat mystifying. One might think the Pac-12 schedulers would want to spread things around a bit. Why concentrate all the attention, all the media coverage, and all the local fan fanaticism in one weekend? If you’re trying to build support and exposure in the Bay Area, perhaps the most competitive sports market in the country, why not slot one big game in September, one in October and one (the Big Game) in November?
The good news is that the Cal game is at 12:30 p.m. and the Stanford game is at 7:30, so intrepid souls like your fearless blogger will be able to attend both games. The bad news is that three of the Pac-12’s four Saturday games are night games, and tonight's Arizona-Utah matchup also kicks at 7:30, meaning that the conference’s longstanding problems with national exposure will continue. Unfortunately, the reality is that few fans on the East Coast will stay up til 2:00 a.m. to watch Washington-Colorado or to get acquainted with the resurgent Oregon Ducks, which is a real shame.
So how are things likely to go?
USC at Cal: This has been a topsy-turvy year so far, with nationally ranked Stanford losing badly to USC and then getting upset by San Diego State, a team from the Group of Five Mountain West Conference, while Cal, a team that most pundits expected to win three games this year, has (drumroll, please) won its first three games. All against legit opponents—North Carolina, Weber State and Ole Miss. But this weekend, things may return to form.
Cal will have its hands full, and more, against a loaded USC team. The Trojans have one of the best, if not the best, quarterback in the country, in Sam Darnold, two elite running backs, and a defense that combines size, speed and strength, led by linebackers Cameron Smith and Uchenna Nwosu. Smith is a tackling machine, while Nwosu could spend a lot of time in the Cal backfield. I love what new head coach Justin Wilcox is doing, but I don’t see the Bears quite ready to pull off the upset on Saturday. If I’m wrong, I will be delighted.
UCLA at Stanford: Across the Bay, in one of the many "Pac-12 After Dark" games, Stanford hosts UCLA. To say Stanford “owns” UCLA would be an understatement. The Cardinal has won nine straight against the Bruins, and most of them haven’t been close. This matchup comes at a great time for Coach David Shaw and his team, which has been struggling offensively but could get healthy against UCLA's matador defense. Stanford should be able to move the ball, and phenom Bryce Love should break a few long runs (hopefully, he'll get more than 13 carries). But Stanford will have trouble containing UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, who wanted to go to school in Palo Alto but wasn’t offered a scholarship after a poorly-received recruiting visit. I think it's going to be close. The game will be decided by turnovers, and the winner may be the team that has the ball last.
Washington at Colorado: Washington embarrassed Colorado, 41-10, in last year's Pac-12 Championship game, but I think it'll be different this time. Despite the loss of renowned coordinator Jim Leavitt to Nike U, the Buffaloes have continued to play hard-nosed defense this year, allowing just 27 points in three games. Admittedly, the opposition hasn't been world-class (Colorado State, Texas State and Northern Colorado), but head coach Mike MacIntyre's program has turned the corner and figured out how to win. They just might win again this Saturday.
Talking Heads: Once upon a time, back when I was the sports information director and associate athletic director at Stanford, only one game a week was nationally televised; occasionally ABC would split the country and air two games. Nowadays, it’s not unusual to have more than 60 games televised each weekend, including virtually every Power Five Conference game. Between ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ABC, Fox, FS1, NBC, CBS, CBSSN, and several conference networks, about 200 announcers and analysts are employed calling games each weekend. Who stands out?
For my money, the three best analysts in college football are Kirk Herbstreit, Joel Klatt and Rod Gilmore. Herbstreit, the No. 1 pundit on ABC/ESPN, combines knowledge, perspective, and enthusiasm. Contrary to the mis-directed whining of some media critics, he’s also able to remain objective when calling games involving his alma mater, The Ohio State University. Klatt, Fox’s top guy, may be the best of all. He’s positive, sharp, analytical, and enthusiastic. He has the rare ability to clearly explain offensive strategies and also predict what’s coming next. His analysis of the Stanford-USC game was the best work I’ve seen in a long time. Gilmore (full disclosure: a good friend of mine), has a direct, “no BS” style that is refreshing and hard to find these days. He also really knows his stuff. Rodney will be on the announce team for Stanford-UCLA this weekend for those watching at home.