November 28, 2011
How bad was the Pac-12 South behind its official non-champion, USC? Last Friday, both Arizona State and UCLA were in a neck-and-neck sprint for the division title and a ticket to this Friday's Pac-12 Championship Game. Today, they're both in the market for new head coaches after Dennis Erickson and Rick Neuheisel were more or less simultaneously fired with two winning seasons between them. This was not one of them.
In both cases, the axes were visible from miles away. Arizona State's loss to Cal on Friday night capped a four-game slide from 6-2 to 6-6, sealing the Sun Devils' fourth consecutive non-winning season since a surprising 10-3 run in 2007, Erickson's first year. A day later, after backing into the Pac-12 Championship Game courtesy of Colorado's win at Utah, UCLA went out waving the white flag in a 50-0 debacle at USC that made a mockery of the Bruins' claim on the Pac-12 South title. In arguably the single biggest game of Neuheisel's tenure, his team was dealt its biggest humiliation — and over four years, there have been plenty of humiliations to choose from.
The Bruins have been so uninspiring, even the prospect of returning to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 13 years isn't enough to inspire patience: When Neuheisel leads his alma mater into Autzen Stadium on Friday night, he will be in the unprecedented position of playing for a conference championship as a lame duck, whether UCLA pulls the upset or not. With a loss, the Bruins will be 6-7, ineligible for a bowl, and Neuheisel will be finished.
With a win, they'll be on to the Rose Bowl as Pac-12 champs, in which case their coach's status is undetermined. Then again, as 31-point underdogs whose last trip to Eugene ended in a 47-point massacre that could have been worse, it's entirely possible his bosses haven't considered the possibility.
For Neuheisel, the sense of stagnation follows a series of solid recruiting classes that seemed to chip away at USC's dominance in SoCal hotbeds but never came close to rivaling the Trojans on the field. In early February, when the letters of intent rolled in and the recruiting rankings rolled out, rhetoric about ending the monopoly and closing the gap on the Trojans seemed to make sense. By late November, it never did: After the most lopsided rout in the rivalry since the beginning of the Great Depression, Neuheisel finishes 0-4 against USC by a combined score of 134 to 28.
For Erickson, it stems from blown opportunity. Coming into season, the Devils returned virtually the entire starting lineup from 2010 and were tabbed as the chic pick to win the Pac-12 South — a path they seemed to be on through the first two-thirds of the season, before descending into their annual collapse: The Devils have now endured at least one four-game skid in three of the last four seasons, and haven't produced a winning record in any of them.
Erickson's last chance to change that is an as-yet determined bowl game, which — at 64 years old — may be the last in 25-year head-coaching career that includes two national championships at Miami and easily the best season in Oregon State history. With a 31-30 mark in Tempe, the least he deserves is one more win to stay above .500 at Arizona State.
Next up at the Pac-12 guillotine: Washington State's Paul Wulff.