The Pac-12's Best Coach?

In 2005 a rookie coach came to the Emerald Bowl with a 6-5 overall record and a 4-4 mark in the Mountain West Conference, good enough for a fourth place tie with New Mexico and San Diego State in the league standings.

We’d been hoping for BYU, which promised a bigger crowd, but the Las Vegas Bowl, picking before us, grabbed the Cougars. So we went with Utah and first-year head coach Kyle Whittingham.

It turned out to be a very wise decision.

There had been a lot of pressure on Whittingham that first year. He’d moved up from defensive coordinator to replace soon-to-be-legend Urban Meyer, who’d led the 2004 team to a 12-0 record and a Fiesta Bowl win over Pittsburgh. That team averaged 45 points per game behind quarterback Alex Smith.

But Meyer had moved on to Florida, and Smith would be chosen by the 49ers as the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft.

After the regular season Whittingham was offered both the Utah job and the head coaching position at his alma mater, BYU. He went back and forth for four days before deciding on Utah. He told me it was the toughest decision of his life.

At our Emerald Bowl, the Utes were prohibitive underdogs to Georgia Tech, coached by former Dallas Cowboys head coach Chan Gailey, whose team owned upset wins over No. 3 Miami and No. 16 Auburn.

But Whittingham’s crew destroyed Tech, 38-10, in a game that really kick-started his career. Throughout bowl week, he was a class act and a pleasure to work with. In votes of our volunteers, Coach Whit always ranks among our favorite head coaches, along with Mike Riley and Frank Beamer.

I bring all this up because Utah—yes, Utah—was selected by Pac-12 football writers and broadcasters as the pre-season favorite to win the Conference title. It’s a fitting indication of how far the program has come.

When the Utes joined the Pac-10 back in 2011, few pundits gave them a chance to be competitive in the same division as powerhouses USC and UCLA, much less win the league title.

But Whittingham and Co. tied for the Southern Division title in 2015 and won it outright last year. They’ve essentially left the Trojans and Bruins in the dust, as neither team is ranked in the pre-season top 25 this year (USC received one vote). Both LA schools have undergone numerous coaching changes and are still unsettled as we enter the 2019 season.

Meanwhile, in 14 years under Whittingham, Utah has flourished, posting a 120-61 record and earning a reputation for stout defenses, great special teams, and explosive yet inconsistent offenses. With veteran coordinator Andy Ludwig (Utah, Oregon, Cal, Wisconsin, Vanderbilt) returning to take over the offense, and star quarterback Tyler Huntley having recovered from a broken collarbone that prematurely ended his 2018 season, this could be the year that everything jells.

Pre-Season Rankings: No Pac-12 team can be found in the top 10 in AP's pre-season college football rankings released today. Oregon is No. 11, Washington 13, Utah 14, Washington State 23 and Stanford 25.

If the pundits are correct, this will mark four times in six years that the conference will not have a participant in the College Football Playoff.

Defending national champion Clemson was ranked No. 1 and Alabama No. 2 (so what else is new?), with Georgia 3, Oklahoma 4, and Ohio State 5.

I can’t disagree with No. 1 and 2. Clemson and Alabama have met in three of the last four national championship games, and really distanced themselves from the rest of the field.

Our pre-season picks for the playoff: Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma (with Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts at quarterback) and Michigan. We think this will be the year Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines finally get over the hump and beat Ohio State (without Urban Meyer).

Local Outlook: Stanford, ranked No. 25 in the AP poll, has the toughest schedule in the country, with five opponents ranked ahead of it—the aforementioned Oregon and Washington, plus Notre Dame at 9, Central Florida at 17 and Washington State at 23.

It doesn’t end there. The Cardinal opens at home on Aug. 31 against defending Big Ten West Division champion Northwestern (among those receiving votes in the AP poll), and must also take on USC in Los Angeles, UCLA on a Thursday night, and host Cal in the Big Game. That’s nine difficult games.

The only “sure” wins appear to be Oregon State, Arizona and Colorado, but Stanford has had trouble in Corvallis in the past, Arizona QB Khalil Tate appears to be healthy again, and Colorado is no picnic in Boulder.

On the plus side, the Cardinal has an excellent quarterback (K.J. Costello), several top tight ends, and perhaps the best defensive back in college football in Paulson Adebo. If the offensive line stays healthy and regains form, and someone steps up at running back (perhaps freshmen Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat), eight or nine wins are possible, but a 6-6 season seems more likely.

Cal’s schedule is a little more manageable, as the Bears face UC Davis, Mississippi and North Texas in non-league play.

As usual, Coach Justin Wilcox will have a fierce defense and a lot of question marks on offense. If quarterback Chase Garbers continues to improve, we think 7-5 is realistic.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//gacavalli49@gmail.com

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