Three Challenges for Three Coaches: Sarkisian, Petersen, Helfrich

Mike Merrell FishWrap, FishWrap Archive Leave a Comment

Every football program and every coach wants to win. Unfortunately, the way the game is structured, there are always going to be as many losers as winners. So, we fans should be happy if our team wins more than half the time, right? Well… no! This might work for some: Colorado, California and Wazzu would see it as at least a step in the right direction.

But there are those fan bases that not only want the full Monty, but expect to get it. Anything short of a national championship is a bit of a disappointment. Not winning at least a conference championship is cause for alarm, and finishing the regular season with only seven or eight wins is a disaster, especially when combined with a loss to an arch rival. This week’s Three-and-Out is about three coaches who have to live with these expectations — and their prospects for the 2015 season.

1. Steve Sarkisian. Seven-win Sark had trouble making it over the seven-win hump at Washington, so given the opportunity he jumped to USC, where in his first year he coached his team to eight regular season wins — and with a bowl win, he came only one game short of double-digit wins. So his challenge now is to not become known as the “Eight-win Armenian.”

Sarkisian coached the Huskies to seven wins as often as Baylor scored in the 2011 Alamo Bowl.

from video

Sarkisian coached the Huskies to seven win seasons as regularly as Baylor scored touchdowns in the 2011 Alamo Bowl.

Things may be looking up for the Trojans in 2015. They return seven starters each on offense and defense, and this includes the entire starting offensive line and possibly the Pac-12’s best returning quarterback in Cody Kessler. With NCAA sanctions behind them, the Trojans are beginning to rebuild depth and figure to have a dozen or so more scholarship players than recent years — and the Trojans have what shapes up to be the number two ranked recruiting class in the nation for 2015.

But what’s new? The Trojan’s average recruiting class ranking over the past five years is seventh — about ten places higher than Oregon, which has never had a single recruiting class ranked as high as seventh.

Sarkisian has proven that he can recruit, and he has proven that he can win more games than he loses. But can he return Troy to its former glory? Can he beat UCLA? If he can’t, he’ll be gone in three or four years, because USC doesn’t like coming in second, even if it would be a step up.

2. Chris Petersen. Husky fans thought they had swallowed the golden canary when they inadvertently traded in Seven-Win Sark for standout Boise State coach Chris Petersen, who most importantly, had NEVER lost to the Ducks. Well, it was a cat — not a dog — that swallowed the canary, and the Golden Canary was a topless bar in Eugene in the late 60’s. (It might still be there for all I know.) Not the highest class of places, it was affectionately known as “The Dirty Bird.” So that’s a bit of a clue as to how year one under Chris Petersen worked out for the Dogs.

Actually, Boise State has a history of cranking out highly successful coaches who probably wished they’d just stayed in Potatoland. Dirk Koetter was 26-10 at Boise before moving on to Arizona State, where he went 40-34 before being shown the door. His successor, Dan Hawkins, was 53-11 at Boise before going to Colorado, where he went 21-40 in five seasons. His departure from Boulder was less than graceful, so let’s just say that, no, it did not involve taking a head coaching job in the NFL.

Two of the younger Husky fans who remember when the Huskies beat the Ducks.

Kevin Cline

Two of the younger Husky fans who remember when the Huskies beat the Ducks.

Husky fans dream of the days when they will return to the glory of the Don James years, only without the cheating — or at least without getting caught. 2015 does not shape up to be the year. The Huskies return only six starters on offense and four starters from their stalwart defense that held the Ducks to 45 points. Currently, their recruiting class is ranked 25th, which is about their average over the past five years.

Still, Chris Petersen is highly regarded as a coach and in time he may significantly out-perform Koetter and Hawkins. The Huskies certainly hope so.

3. Mark Helfrich. Helfrich faces an even stiffer challenge than Sarkisian or Petersen. The only way he can improve on his second year as a head coach is to win THE national championship, and to make it interesting, he has to try to do it without Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota and with only five returning starters on defense and only two returning starters on the offensive line.

But replacing starters may not turn out all that badly. The Ducks rotate a lot of players on defense, and though not by design, they did the same in 2014 on the offensive line. Because of injuries, at least eight Ducks returning on the offensive line picked up significant playing time, and they will be joined by all-conference candidate Tyler Johnstone, who returns from injury after missing the entire 2014 season. On a few other positive notes, the Ducks have an embarrassment of riches returning in offensive skill positions, and it would be highly unlikely for the Ducks to have to battle the injury bug of 2014 two years in a row.

Jeff Lockie leads the list of possible replacements for Mariota.

Kevin Cline

Jeff Lockie leads the list of possible replacements for Mariota.

Still, with no clear replacement for Mariota, most Duck fans are braced for a little slippage in 2015. But even though Helfrich achieved as well as any coach in Duck history in 2014, anything more than a little slippage would bring out the boo-birds, who, right or wrong, would claim that Helfrich owes it all to what he inherited from Chip Kelly. For better or worse, living up to the highest of expectations come with the territory.

Oregon’s 2015 recruiting class is currently ranked seventeenth, which over the past five years is about average for the Ducks. The more important issue for any current football season, however, is not the current recruiting class, but how good of a job has the coaching staff done in preparing prior years’ recruiting classes to step into the two-deep and perform well. And it is here that Helfrich and the Ducks seem to have a leg up on the Trojans, the Huskies, and their merry-go-round of coaches. Though the Ducks have had only one recruiting class in the top ten during the past five years, over the same period the Ducks have the best win-loss record in major college ball — and the most former players in this year’s Super Bowl. Helfrich’s ultimate challenge is to just keep the ball rolling.

Top photo by Kevin Cline

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